In the polemics about the theatre and its effects on audiences that survive from late antiquity, the role of laughter was a key issue. Naturally, we hear a great deal more from the anti-theatrical side of the debate since the onus was on those who wanted to boycott or suppress such an important part of life in late antique cities. But, where we do have echoes of the defences of the theatre, laughter is a vital issue. Chorikios of Gaza, in his speech in defence of the mimes1 – who were always associated with laughter, as is suggested by their alternative title of gelōtopoioi or ‘laughter makers’ – claims that the smiles (meidiaō) raised by the mimes can have therapeutic qualities for audiences (113), and even that a gelōtopoios brought into a house can cure the sick more effectively than doctors (102).2 More surprisingly, laughter also features in one of the arguments quoted or imagined by a near contemporary of Chorikios, the Syriac writer Jacob of Sarugh, writing in the later fifth century. The first part of the sermon is missing, and it opens just as Jacob is presenting one of the justifications that might be made for attending the theatre: ‘It is an amusement,’ says the imaginary objector,
not paganism. Why is it a problem for you if I laugh? And, since I deny the [sc. pagan] gods, I shall not lose through the stories concerning them. The dancing of that place [sc. the theatre] gladdens me, and, while I confess God, I also take pleasure in the play … I do not go in order to believe, but in order to laugh.
It is striking that Jacob, through the voice of the objector, should place such an emphasis on laughter, all the more so in the context of a speech that appears to be directly aimed against the pantomime dancers’ staged representations of mythological subjects, the ‘stories of the gods’ that Jacob rails against elsewhere in the speech. Unlike the comic performances of the mimes, the pantomime is not usually associated with laughter, or even humour. This emphasis on laughter suggests that its permissibility was a particular point of contention between preacher and audience, as indeed it was, for reasons that I will explore in this chapter.