It could be maintained that comedy is the most notable invention of the human species. Every other achievement of our civilization might be trivial to an alien megamind. Comedy? Not likely. How could anyone conceive of comedy without prior examples? That is one thought suggested by the Getty Villa’s “The Art of Ancient Greek Theater,” on view through Jan 3, 2011. As an art exhibition, it’s estimable, enhanced with many prize loans from the Republic of Italy. But it casts its net wider than visual art. The show is about everybody’s art-slash-literature, called “theater” and typically packaged as “movies” and “TV” nowadays. The Getty exhibition traces the invention of tragedy and its upstart rival, comedy. In so doing, it parallels one of the talking points of conventional art history, that the retrospectively “obvious” genres of image-making (Madonna and Child, landscape, portraiture, abstraction, conceptualism) were not obvious at the time and had to be invented by somebody, somewhere. Guess what? Today’s polymorphous and mixed-media story-telling has all been done, and it was done in the first millennium BC.
The latest innovation on view in Malibu is the sitcom—or as they call it, “New Comedy.” Earlier Greek comedies burlesqued myths or took stabs at political satire. The New Comedy, associated with squint-eyed Greek playwright Menander (c. 342-291 BC), was more down-to-earth and youth-oriented, focusing on the family dynamics of ordinary and miserable mortals. An insult comic of sorts, Menander is credited with coining the epithet “shit-eater.” How many other inventions have survived so many centuries without an update? Menander’s cast of stock characters includes the naif, the scheming domestic, the lothario, the harlot, and the sponging relation. Unpack that, and you’ll have all you need to know about Molière, Two and a Half Men, and the California governor’s race. The Getty Museum has a special relation to Menander. It owns the tiny bronze bust (above), inscribed with the playwright’s name, that allowed the identification of fifty or so surviving portraits in various media.