In almost any facet of Western cultural life, we tend to idolize and consecrate the Ancient Greek civilization: as founders of democracy, philosophy, mathematics, and, of course, theatre. And I’m certainly not one to discount the achievements of the bygone era, but it is refreshing to be reminded occasionally that the greats were just as strange, heterogeneous, and backwards as we are today.
More succinctly, scenographer and armchair historian Lee Simonson wrote a provocative section in 1932’s The Stage Is Set entitled “The Myth of Lost Purity”:
We continue to think of its leaders, whether poets, philosophers, or statesmen, as pallid replicas of the plaster casts in our museums, and envisage the rest of the population with the complexion of schoolgirls or Boy Scouts, feasting decorously or parading with garlands…
In reality, Simonson points out, their greatest comedians would make a 21st-century maiden blush, their theatre was quite sexual and irreverent, with performers prancing about wearing “huge phallic bladders,” and many ideal Greek philosophers would be jailed for homosexuality. Homophobia and misogyny aside (historical context, Tweed, historical context!), Simonson is simply tempering an over-idealization of what was clearly a pluralized, complex society. And as I’ve learned from my friend, a Classics scholar, man oh man did the Greeks love their porn.
So bless our archaeologists, for they have found a 1600 year-old Greek joke book. I am not kidding. It’s full of offensive bawdy humor, and, as the BBC billed it, an ancient precursor to Monty Python. Get ready to have your funny bones tickled!:
Philogelos: The Laugh Addict, which has been translated from Greek manuscripts, contains a joke where a man complains that a slave he was sold had died.
"When he was with me, he never did any such thing!" is the reply.
Ho-ho! Zing! It is naturally related to Python’s “Dead Parrot Sketch,” but there’s a distinct difference: the Pythons were the height of a pop absurd movement, whereas Philogelos can be construed as outright topical and, read against the grain, political in nature. Yes of course, the slavery theme is incredibly troubling and disturbingly facile, but it was just as ingrained in the culture as the comparatively problematic "Take my wife, please!" of today (which are also included in Philogelos' musings. Good to know some oppressions don't change). Perhaps even more remarkable is that the great Roman comedian a few generations later, Terrence, was a liberated slave and innovator of dual plots, the stock setting, and other conventions that remain in various ways to this day.
However these may be interpreted, they’re a fantastic reminder that along with nobility and innovation comes the profane, the pushing of boundaries. Obscenity is needed to balance out the sobriety; and both of them contain seeds of greatness and vitality. Or, as Simonson brilliantly concludes:
When we fail to impose false standards of art or morals on the life around us, it is far more comforting, rather than admit that they are false, to transfer them to a past where we can pretend that they existed.