115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Greece Effect and the Rebirth of Romantic Comedy

Lisa B. Hughes, Colorado College

This paper examines how Greece exists in the romantic comedy imaginary from antiquity until now, by reading films of what I identify as The Blue World Cycle.  These romcoms respond to the perceived death of the genre after the sexual revolution and the women’s movements of the 70s, by a return to the magic and ritual of the past, and include Mazursky’s Tempest (1982), Kleiser’s Summer Lovers (1982), Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008) and Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).  

Proposal: 

Why do the seascape and ancient ruins of Greece make us believe in Love again? Maybe it’s because romantic comedy was born here in the festive “komos” for Dionysos, or maybe it’s because Aphrodite, the laughter-loving goddess of love and sexual desire, was born from the foaming Aegean Sea.  This paper examines how Greece exists in the romantic comedy imaginary from antiquity until now, by reading films of what I identify as The Blue World Cycle.  These romcoms respond to the perceived death of the genre after the sexual revolution and the women’s movements of the 70s, by a return to the magic and ritual of the past, and include Mazursky’s Tempest (1982), Kleiser’s Summer Lovers (1982), Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008) and Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013). 

            All are set in Greece in the contemporary world, yet ask to be read in dialogue with Greek myth and literature, joining in a conversation about Eros that started over 2500 years ago, and features Homer, Plato, and Theokritos as well as Euripides, Menander, Plautus, Terence and Shakespeare. Like ancient Greek New Comedy, the films explore the problems and the impossibilities inherent in the interconnectedness of sex, love, romance, marriage, and freedom. In blue world cycle films, dazzling waves of blue flood the screen with the sea and sky meeting so that often even the land appears blue. The blue world cycle’s stock imagery is first and foremost the sea and sky—the blueness that gives it its name.  In addition, goats, donkeys, wine, and the theater appear on screen, along with characters who often seem to be avatars of mythological figures. In blue world cycle films, archaeological sites figure prominently and before our eyes we see them danced back into life, as if to reanimate the genre.

            This paper is intended as a contribution to scholarship on romantic comedy in the wake of its crisis in the seventies. The blue world cycle is one artistic response that arose alongside Krutnik’s “Nervous Romance”, and Neale’s “New Romance”, two widely recognized cycles that explore the reanimation of the failing genre. The project is also a part of the newer field of classical film philology, whose value is that, according to Wyke (in Winkler 2009), “It readily reveals connections and differences between antiquity and modern societies, and exposes the mechanisms whereby modern cultures use the classical past to interrogate the present.”             

            In these films Greece functions in the same way as the shrines and temples, even the sacred theater of Dionysos, do for ancient comedy. The hallowed setting of Menander’s Dyskolos at the shrine of Pan and the Nymphs, and the beneficent presence these deities bring are the very elements invoked by these films. We rediscover a place where love can grow because we can imagine a better world, freer of inhibitions and governed by optimistic expressions of love and desire, looked upon kindly perhaps, by the same enduring beneficent spirits. Here I will focus on Tempest and Mamma Mia! to show how blue world cycle films appeal to Pan, Dionysos, and Aphrodite to renew a life, a love, and even a genre.