Histories of ancient theatre tend to leave the impression that comedy began with Aristophanes, but Greece already had a rich tradition of commedia-style performance — the Dorian mimes (image, above). As I wrote in chapter two of Clowns...
These Dorian clowns— as well as the short plays they performed —came to be known asmimes (mimos). Today mime is usually equated with pantomime, the art of silent acting, but originally the word meant “to imitate” and referred to the performer’s talent for caricature; the ancient mimes were in fact quite talkative. Much of the dialogue apparently was improvised, and since the actors saw little need to preserve in writing what was said on stage, these comic dramas never became dramatic literature.
There is, however, one manuscript unearthed in 1890 that gives us some sense of these ancient skits: the mimes of Herodas. Obviously this text is not improvised, but rather the work of a poet adapting a popular form. This is what the Encyclopædia Britannica says:
Herodas, also called Herondas (flourished 3rd century bc), Greek poet, probably of the Aegean island of Cos, author of mimes—short dramatic scenes in verse of a world of low life similar to that portrayed in the New Comedy. His work was discovered in a papyrus in 1890 and is the largest collection of the genre. It is written in rough iambic metre and in the vigorous, rather earthy language of the common people. His characters use vehement exclamations, emphatic turns of speech, and proverbs. In pieces of about 100 lines Herodas portrays vivid and entertaining scenes with the characters clearly drawn. The themes cover a range of city life: a procuress attempts to arrange a tryst for a respectable matron while her husband is away; a jealous woman accuses her favourite slave of infidelity and has him bound and sent to receive 2,000 lashes; a desperate mother drags a truant urchin to the schoolmaster. It is thought that these mimes were recited with considerable improvisation by an actor who took the various roles.
Wikipedia offers the following summary of the pieces:
In Mime I the old nurse, now the professional go-between or bawd, calls on Metriche, whose husband has been long away in Egypt, and endeavours to excite her interest in a most desirable young man, fallen deeply in love with her at first sight. After hearing all the arguments Metriche declines with dignity, but consoles the old woman with an ample glass of wine, this kind being always represented with the taste of Mrs Gamp.
This is a monologue by the "whoremonger" prosecuting a merchant-trader for breaking into his establishment at night and attempting to carry off one of the inmates, who is produced in court. The vulgar blackguard, who is a stranger to any sort of shame, remarking that he has no evidence to call, proceeds to a peroration in the regular oratorical style, appealing to the Coan judges not to be unworthy of their traditional glories. In fact, the whole oration is also a burlesque in every detail of an Attic speech at law; and in this case we have the material from which to estimate the excellence of the parody.
Metrotimé, a desperate mother, brings to the schoolmaster Lampriscos her truant son, Cottalos, with whom neither she nor his incapable old father can do anything. In a voluble stream of interminable sentences she narrates his misdeeds and implores the schoolmaster to flog him. The boy accordingly is hoisted on another's back and flogged; but his spirit does not appear to be subdued, and the mother resorts to the old man after all.
This is a visit of two poor women with an offering to the temple of Asclepius at Cos. While the humble cock is being sacrificed, they turn, like the women in the Ion of Euripides, to admire the works of art; among them a small boy strangling a vulpanser – doubtless the work of Boethus that we knowand a sacrificial procession by Apelles, "the Ephesian," of whom we have an interesting piece of contemporary eulogy. The oily sacristan is admirably painted in a few slight strokes.
This brings us very close to some unpleasant facts of ancient life. The jealous woman accuses one of her slaves, whom she has made her favourite, of infidelity; has him bound and sent degraded through the town to receive 2000 lashes; no sooner is he out of sight than she recalls him to be branded "at one job." The only pleasing person in the piece is the little maidservant permitted liberties as a verna brought up in the house whose ready tact suggests to her mistress an excuse for postponing execution of a threat made in ungovernable fury.
A friendly chat or a private conversation. The subject is an ugly one, Metro has arrived at Koritto's house to ask her where she acquired a dildo, but the dialogue is as clever and amusing as the rest, with some delightful touches. Our interest is engaged here in a certain Kerdon, the maker of the dildo and who hides this trade by the front of being a cobbler. On acquiring the information she desired, Metro leaves to seek him out.
The same Kerdon and Metro whom we see in VI appear, Metro bringing some friends to Kerdon's shoe shop, (his name, which means "profiteer", had already become generic for the shoemaker as the typical representative of retail trade) he is a little bald man with a fluent tongue, complaining of hard times, who bluffs and wheedles by turns. The sexual undertones which we have come to expect from his involvement in VI are only realized at the end when Metro's friends have left the shop.
Opens with the poet waking up his servants to listen to his dream; but we have only the beginning, and the other fragments are very short. Within the limits of 100 lines or less Herodas presents us with a highly entertaining scene and with characters definitely drawn.
Spoiler Alert: This is not necessarily a laugh riot, but if you bring some theatrical imagination to it, the anthropologist in you will get some idea of this early form of comedy.
You're actually getting two translations for the price of one. The first is a 1906 verse translation by Hugo Sharpley, the second a 1921 prose version by M. S. Buck.
A Realist of the Aegean