For thousands of years, satire has helped us turn our weaknesses into strengths by allowing us to laugh at our own miseries and poke fun at those who claim to be above us.
To some, satire is about much more than having a harmless chuckle. It brings about social change and helps us fight oppression.
Others are less optimistic. In their view, children and half-wits may well point out that the emperor has no clothes, but, in the end, a half-wit usually remains a half-wit and the emperor remains an emperor.
Contesting power through satire
In this timeline we have gathered a few examples of satire used as a form of protest throughout history, from Classical Greece to Gangnam style.
We can only assume that humans have always had a well developed ability to mock and ridicule each other. However, satire as a theatrical form probably began in Ancient Greece, during a literary phase known as ‘Old Comedy' (between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE).
Ancient Greek comedies did not hold back the punches. Almost anything was fair game – from political corruption to gender relations. Even gods were not safe from the playwrights’ mordancy. For example, in the play The Frogs (405 BCE), Dionysos is portrayed soiling his gown when he is scared. To make things more interesting, the public figures who were the target of the jokes and criticisms (the komedoumenoi) often sat in the audience, grinning and bearing it as the play unfolded.
Death of Aristophanes
Aristophanes is one of the most prominent playwrights of Ancient Greece. He lived between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE in Athens. The audience couldn’t get enough of his sharp wit. However, in his play Babylonians, the jokes were so close to the bone that Aristophanes became the target of legal persecution by Cleon, a powerful Athenian statesman (who obviously wasn’t impressed by the humour).
Our modern word for satire comes from the Latin ‘satura’, which translates roughly as ‘medley’, or ‘pot-pourri’. In Ancient Rome, satura was a type of abusive, raunchy poetry acted out in plays. The Romans thought that Lucilius, who lived in Suessa Aurunca (Campania) in the 2nd century BCE, was one of the earliest satura writers. However, we now know that the tradition began well before him. In fact, saturae probably evolved from an earlier form of Roman poetry called Fescennine verse. These were bawdy poems sung in religious festivals and, in particular, wedding ceremonies (whether or not they were performed by an inebriated father of the bride, we do not know).
Death of Quintilian
Romans were proud of their tradition of satire. The rhetorician Quintilian (who lived in the 1st century CE) bragged that nobody – not even the Greeks – could hold a light to Roman satire. However, not everyone was as keen as Quintilian to embrace the spirit of satire in Ancient Rome. We know from writers like Cicero (a philosopher and statesman) and Horace (a poet) that, when Fescennine verse got out of hand, the law had to intervene and some performers were even banned.
Death of Juvenal
Of all the satura writers in Ancient Rome, Juvenal is recognised today as one of the most influential authors. Between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, he wrote 16 poems, divided into five books. In them, Juvenal tackled a few predictable staples of satire (e.g. wealth, power and religion). However, he also satirised some of the more domestic aspects of Roman everyday life, including the eternal bête noire: the mother-in-law.
In the Arabic speaking world, satire did not become associated with theatre until the 19th century CE. However, Hija, satirical poems loaded with a healthy dose of abuse, were used to taunt rival tribes before combat throughout the Middle Ages. There was also narrative satire. In the 9th century CE, Al Jahiz (a writer born into a modest family in Basrah, Irak) parodied human greed in his Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers) with characters like Al Kindi the landlord, who insisted to all his lodgers that any animal dung left uneaten in the house belonged to him.
Earliest known fabliau
In Europe, Medieval satire was performed mostly by bards, through a combination of dramatisation, narrative, poetry and music. French jongleurs, for example, composed fabliaux (uncompromising, and often raunchy, parodies of society). The earliest known fabliau dates back to 1159 CE. Although some European bards worked in court for monarchs and noblemen, most earned a living by constantly travelling from village to village (which offered a distinct advantage whenever the local lord took offence to the latest satirical composition).
Start of the Muromachi period
Professional actors and fix venues became more common during the Renaissance. Corrales, small semi-permanent theatres, spread rapidly through Spain during the late 16th century CE. The earliest known corral was built in Madrid, in 1579 CE. The plays performed in these venues usually addressed, tongue in cheek, prickly subjects such as upward mobility, peasants-nobility relationships, purity of blood, and gender relations. The earliest set of rules governing public behaviour in corrales was drafted by the Council of Castile. The document stipulated, among other things, that no one other than the actors should be allowed to use the toilets in the building.
Meanwhile, the Yiddish tradition of Purim Shpiels was becoming consolidated in eastern and central Europe. These satirical plays were originally based on the Book of Esther (with a sprinkling of innuendo and toilet humour). During the Renaissance, they started to incorporate folk tales and aspects of contemporary Jewish life, which boosted their potential for satire. Purim Shpiels are associated with the Purim festival – a time of the year when people have a moral duty to be happy and drink themselves senseless. A special Purim festival (the Vincenz Purim) was organised in Frankfurt in 1614 to commemorate the governor’s decision to quell an outbreak of anti-Jewish riots.
Prominent playwrights and the use of permanent venues made satire increasingly popular and accessible during the Renaissance. However, the downside to all this consolidation was that the genre started to resemble a sitting duck. By the end of the 18th century CE, leaders of the Hamburg community had banned the performance of all Purim Shpiels, the Theatrical Licensing Act of Britain (1737) led to stringent censorship, and Voltaire, the outspoken French polemicist, had been given a one-year holiday in the Bastille prison.
Theatre thrived in Europe during the 19th century. Comedies and satirical plays, in particular, became fashionable forms of entertainment. The Savoy Operas, comic plays performed in London’s West End, became great money spinners. The undisputed kings of the genre were the playwright Gilbert and the composer Sullivan. The play Thespis (which premièred in 1871 CE) was their first collaboration. Written in a burlesque style that had been adapted to middle class tastes, it poked fun at the ineptitude of those who usually wind up in positions of power. Despite a rocky start (the actors had barely had a chance to rehearse), the play attracted a great audience.
A Doll’s House
But not all 19th century satire was considered apt for an entertaining family day out. In Norway, the playwright Ibsen shattered the romantic notion of ‘Home Sweet Home’ in A Doll’s House (first performed in 1879 CE), a play that debunked traditional gender roles, societal norms and morality. Although A Doll’s House is now regarded as a classic, it would be fair to say that it did not go down too well with all 19th century critics. The press of the time described it as ‘scandalous’, ‘morbid’ and ‘unwholesome’.
The Importance of Being Earnest
In a very different style from Ibsen, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (first performed in 1895 CE) mocked the values held most sacred by the stuffy upper classes of Victorian Britain. According to Wilde himself, the play’s theme is ‘that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality’. The play achieved great acclaim, although many left the theatre baffled as to what to make of such a trivial story line.
With the turn of the new millennium, the performance of satire has taken on new forms, increasingly crossing boundaries between media, disciplines and genres. Movements like artivism (art + activism) are stretching and redefining the very concept of satire.
First flash mob
The first flash mobs took place in New York, in 2003. These unexpected public gatherings involve elements of choreography and theatre, often combined with humorous protest and non-conformism. In 2009, tired of groups of eccentrics taking over their central square, the German city of Brunswick issued a blanket ban on flash mobs.
Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style
Individual performance artists have also used their work as a means of channelling their discontent towards current events or society in general. In 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon took us to bed in the name of peace. More recently, the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei was seen strutting his stuff against oppression to the rhythm of Gangnam Style.
But modern artivism has not displaced the more traditional forms of theatrical satire. In India, playwrights like Habib Tanvir have given rise to a new wave of political theatre, critical with capitalism and religious hypocrisy. The Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka has written numerous satirical plays criticising tyranny.
Have your say
Is satire a powerful tool against oppression, or pointless antics? Share your thoughts using the Comments section below.