The inseparable relationship between comedy and tragedy goes back to the origins of drama itself. Our word comedy comes from the Greek komos, the joyful procession that accompanied the rural god Dionysos at the festival of wine on his way to sexual union with the goddess of the earth. According to most scholars now, though not all agree, tragedy too arose from this procession. The word itself is also deeply connected with Dionysos for it means a goat song. It is thought that the leader of the procession, the representative of Dionysos, developed into the tragic protagonist. It is true that more than one actor appeared as tragedy developed, but originally there was only one single male. His processing followers became the chorus and the goddess with whom once he was on his way to make love became the divinity who now decreed his death. This change of course reflected and profoundly expressed the great cultural change which overcame mankind as its central ritual changed from that of initiation to that of sacrifice. But the connection with the earlier comic root remained. The Athenian tragedies were still performed at a festival of Dionysos, the Greater Dionysia which was celebrated in the city, as opposed to the rural Dionysia, which continued to follow the old form in the countryside until a very late date. The connection too was reflected in the custom of always following the three plays into which tragedies became divided by the comic satyr play. The satyrs, with their orgies and strapped-on phalluses, had once been the rejoicingly priapic followers of Dionysos who accompanied him to his sexual transport. It is important to realise that for the Greeks dramas were not pleasing or interesting spectacles which the audience looked at in order to be agreeably entertained. Instead they were seen more as religious rituals which the audience entered into in order to be personally transformed. This is what is at the root of Aristotle’s doctrine of catharsis.
Answering Plato’s criticism that dramas corrupt audiences because they set before them examples of heroes, often divine, behaving extremely badly, Aristotle replied that, on the contrary, the whole point of drama is to enable those who have witnessed them to behave better. By identifying through pity and terror with the events that are being enacted on stage the audience are able to bring the deeply buried emotions in their souls which, as we would say, are repressed in the unconscious into consciousness. The drama then directs the audience in how to deal with this material. By identifying also with the peace of soul, the anagnorisis, that the hero experiences in the closing phases of the Greek plays the audience too reaches emotional resolution. Like him they have been purged of the hidden compulsive emotions over which before they had less control. They are brought by the drama into command of themselves. These ideas cast another light on the satyr plays, which were not just stuck on to the tragedies as a kind of light relief but were an expansion into sexual joy of the emotional resolution that had ended the tragedies.