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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Phlyax play

A Phlyax play, also known as a hilarotragedy, was a burlesque dramatic form that developed in the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia (southern Italy) in the 4th century BCE. Its name derives from the Phlyakes, “Gossip Players,” in Doric Greek. From the surviving titles of the plays they appear to have been a form of mythological burlesque, which mixed figures from the Greek pantheon with the stock characters and situations of Attic New Comedy. The absence of any surviving script has led to conjecture that they were largely improvised. 

Although only a few script fragments have been found, fortunately, such plays were a popular subject of vase paintings from the region. The vases first appeared at the end of the 5th century BCE, but most are 4th century BCE. They depict grotesque characters, the masks of comedy, and the props of comic performance such as ladders, baskets, and open windows. These vase paintings indicate that they were performed on a raised wooden stage with an upper gallery, and that the actors wore grotesque costumes and masks similar to those of Attic Old Comedy. The term phlyax, which is used for both the play and the costumed actors, probably derives from the Greek verb "to swell" and finds its meaning in the actors' costumes. They wore a mask, tights, a padded tunic, and a large artificial phallus.  Any other garments necessary for the role were worn over this. They parodied heroes and themes of mythology or the comic elements of everyday life and incorporated acrobatics into the performances.

The Greek version of phlyakes seems to have died out by the late 3rd century BCE, but the Oscan inhabitants of Campania subsequently developed a tradition of farces, parodies, and satires influenced by late Greek models, which became popular in Rome during the 3rd century BCE. This genre was known as Atellan farce, Atella being the name of a Campanian town. Atellan farce introduced a set of stock characters such as Maccus and Bucco to Latin comedy. Even in antiquity, these were thought to be the ancestors of the characters found in Plautus, and perhaps distantly of those of commedia dell'arte, an improvised kind of popular comedy in Italian theaters in the 16th–18th centuries. Although an older view held that Attic comedy was the only source of Roman comedy, it has been argued that the phlyax playwright Rhinthon, in particular, influenced Plautus’s Amphitruo.


Image: Phlyax scene: three men (Gynmilos, Kosios and Karion) robbing a miser (Kharinos) inside his house. Side A of red-figure calyx-krater made in Paestum, 350–340 BCE, now in the Altes Museum in Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.


 

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