The characters in these comedies were typically drawn from the masses of everyday people, as opposed to earlier plays that featured caricatures of the rich, the famous, or the ruling elite. Many hundreds or perhaps even thousands of comedies were produced during this period, but only a few survive today.
All Greek theatrical performances originated in religious rites honoring Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, the god who roamed the world followed by throngs of crazed women. These women, called Maenads (from whom we get the term mania), participated in wild orgiastic rites.
The god’s symbol was the thyrsus, a phallic staff topped with a large pinecone and wound with an ivy or grape vine. Originally, festivals honoring Dionysus took the form of choreographed dances performed by a chorus. This evolved into cathartic performances of tragedy, a word that literally means "goat ode", the goat being the symbol of Dionysus.
Tragedies gradually evolved into plays with actors and stylized formats, but the chorus remained. The chorus was held by some to represent the will and opinions of the society, while others believed the chorus represented supernatural forces.
According to some, the oldest known comedies emerged as a break between tragedies or between parts of a single tragedy, in which exaggerated characters lampooned the tragedy in a spoof that closely followed the form, costumes, and masks of the tragedy itself.
Others claim that comedy arose from the rough jests of Dionysian revelers in procession before the performance of the tragedies. From either origin, or both, soon entire comic plays arose.
These are referred to as Old Comedy, referring to comedies performed in the period beginning with Pericles’ establishment of democracy, about 450 b.c.e. Notable authors such as Aristophanes (whose Clouds lampooned Socrates) ridiculed, and made satires (a word coming from the satyrs sacred to Dionysus) of all aspects of Greek society, particularly the famous and most upstanding citizens.
This was in contrast to tragedy, in which the main characters were held up for emulation and found to be very nearly perfect, other than having a tragic flaw. In Old Comedy, the main characters were exaggerated buffoons, who spoke and performed every manner of nonsense. No aspect of society was sacred in these comedies, and often even the very gods were lampooned.
The next major evolution in comedy was Middle Comedy, which reduced or eliminated the chorus, ridiculed private personages rather than public ones, and often featured plots that revolved around an intrigue created by the characters. This style was prevalent from the end of the Peloponnesian War to the conquest of Greece by Macedonia.
From about 388 to 322 b.c.e. New Comedy evolved from Middle Comedy when Athens’s revolt against Macedonian rule failed, and free speech was lost to the Athenians and their plays. New Comedies tended to focus on the role of chance in the average citizen’s daily fight for survival.
The play would open to find the characters’ lives had become quite tempestuous, but by the final act, chance would have resolved the difficulties in the characters’ favor. Mistaken identities, disguises, and comical errors abound in these plays.
In format New Comedies were typically divided into three or, more often, five acts. Frequently there was an interlude between acts of a comedy, such as our modern half-time shows. If a chorus appeared anywhere in a New Comedy, the chorus would be strictly limited to such an interlude.
Menander (342–292 b.c.e.), Philemon (c. 368–267 b.c.e.), and Diphilus (c. 360–290 b.c.e.) were the three most renowned authors of comical plays in this era. Of these authors’ works, only a handful of the Athenian Menander’s 99 plays survive. His work Dysklos (The Grouch) was discovered on an Egyptian papyrus found in 1959.
Among the many of Menander’s plays that exist in only fragmentary form are such titles as The Farmer, Aspis, Phasma, The Shorn Woman (Perikeiromene), and The Hero. Philemon was Menander’s primary rival and was regarded as superior by many contemporary critics. Philemon lived to be 99 years old and wrote 97 plays.
Much of what we know about these three poets comes from Roman scholars who quoted from and commented upon their works, and from Roman playwrights, such as Terence and Plautus, who adapted these Greek comedies to their own culture.
New Comedy greatly influenced not only the plays of Rome, but also the romantic comedies of the Middle Ages, and also the plays of Shakespeare, which bear a formal resemblance to the plots of the New Comedies.