Ancient laughter: Aristophanes

Because it seeks to challenge ideas, satire uses methods designed to make its audience think, and so effect their change of attitude themselves. It uses oblique methods. Parody, which exaggerates characteristics to ridiculous extremes. Shock, by breeching accepted etiquettes of language or subjects. Anger, by breaking the relationship between performer and audience. Irony, by seeming to take the opposite stance to what is intended and inviting decoding. Often it will ridicule specific persons: effective satire ridicules behaviour, but opportunistic satire ridicules individuals. Satirists need to work hard by finding humour in their performance, as their audience always has resistance to what they have to say. Of all the art forms, satire is the one that needs the most finesse.

Cynics like Bertrand Russell had little hope for most people: “People would rather die than think” he said during the course of WWI (he was a conscientious objector). Yet satire is also paradoxical, in that it criticises social behaviour in a society where that criticism is acceptable (at least by many members of that society). Ultimately, despite abuse, profanity and defamation which might characterise the satire, the satirist and the audience must agree that change is possible. Satire provides a catharsis which can release pent up frustration and dissatisfaction in its audience.

Satire, parody and mockery of all kinds hasn’t fared well in the survival stakes. We have some plays by Aristophanes, largely because he is a great lyric poet. But most of his work (over 40 plays we are told) hasn’t survived, nor anything by his many competitors such as Cratinus, Eupolis or Phrynichus, nor has the scurrilous poetry of Archilochus or Hipponax. We are lucky to have the skits of Lucian, but other similar works haven’t survived. In associated art forms we have a novel by Apuleius, and tantalising parts of one by Petronius, but nothing by Menippus. We have graffiti on Ramses’ feet, but not enough remains of Greek statuary to know how common it was. We have marble statues from temples, but have lost the bright coloured paint and jewellery they were decorated with.

Lost also has been stuff we can do without. Most of the sentimental love stories that passed for novels in the ancient world; turgid conceit poems and pastoral from Alexandria; theological disputations from Byzantine church leaders.

Old Comedy
The most extensive body of satire surviving from ancient times is within the eleven plays of Aristophanes we possess. These have some unexpected aspects, which have to be taken into account to fully appreciate what is happening in each play.

Almost all of Aristophanes’ plays that have survived were produced during the greatest war in ancient Greece, the Peloponnesian war, 431-404, during which Athens, then the greatest power in the Greek world and inspiring fanatical loyalty among its citizens, tore itself apart in wasteful campaigns that left it forever weakened in political affairs. The war was conceived by the political leader Perikles, together with a strategy that would likely have seen Athens successful; but Perikles died early in the war and his policies were fatally abandoned by a series of rabble rousing politicians who stirred the people to vote for ever more ruinous campaigns. There were many in Athens who saw the folly of this, and watched in horror as Athens went on a course of self destruction. Aristophanes was one of them. As a poet he had a license to speak out, and he did. Attitudes on the conduct of the war were hotly debated, and, though it seems odd to us, that debate also was expressed in comedy performances.

Comedy itself was a recent invention, the first plays we hear about dating from 485 BC, only sixty years before Aristophanes’ first surviving play, and, in the form in which he practised it, fading away about 400 BC. Aristophanes’ surviving plays, in other words, were staged in the last 20 years of a short 80 year period in which the Old Comedy flourished in Athens. That comedy was a product of the Athenian Empire, destroyed with much else by the Peloponnesian war. There is much to compare in this development with the exuberant and short lived period of the Tudor and Jacobean comedy dominated for us by the figure of Shakespeare, which flourished with the expansion of England in political and trading power in the 17th century. Shakespeare as poet and dramatist is one of the few writers with whom Aristophanes can be compared.

Incongruous aspects
Comedy performances in ancient Athens, and probably in other poleis, took place during the festivals dedicated to Dionysios, and were part of a celebration of fertility important to a still largely agricultural society. We know of two such festivals in Athens, the Lenaia in January, which had a less elaborate theatre and a citizen audience, and the Greater Donysia in March, in a great theatre which also presented tragedy and was panhellenic in audience. The hardest thing for modern audiences to recapture is this religious dimension of performance. The theatre was in the round, with audiences, up to 10,000 in number, seated in tiers of stone benches making up three quarters of a circle, the remaining section forming a scenic backdrop with entrances and exits on either side for the players. Right in the centre of the circular stage was the altar of Dionysios, before which his priests offered sacrifice and prayers as part of the ceremony. Prominent seating was reserved for city officials (archons), priests and those involved with the play’s production, on the performance of which the audience would vote.

The stage was known as the orchestra, and the performers included the actors, the chorus and dancers, and musicians. The second hardest thing to recapture for modern audiences is the musical nature of the performances. Music was as popular then as now, and we know the names of famous composers, but no ancient music has survived. Integral to the work of ancient dramatists was the ability to write music or compose to the work of a musical composer. As popular then as now were famous instrumentalists, who often had huge followings. The Chorus sang, danced during part of the performance, and had an important part in the dramatic action, often as commentators. Ancient performances of comedy, in terms of later forms we are more familiar with, were an unlikely blend of music hall revue, operetta, ballet and oratorio. This is almost impossible to reproduce in modern performance. Yet the ancient plays are such supreme examples of stagecraft the effort is worthwhile. Adaptation in the form of farce seems to work best.

Slightly more comprehensible to modern audiences is the ritual obscenity usual during comedy, understandable in a festival celebrating fertility among people without guilt feelings concerning sexuality. Actors wore padded costumes that included a prominently displayed phallus, the point of much of the humour. The plays also served a ritual purpose of exorcising dissent and dissatisfaction, a way of letting off steam, criticising prominent men, and this was associated with the powerful and sometimes destructive powers of Dionysios.

One thing that should not be lost sight of was costume. It is probable that the chorus at least was extravagantly and expensively dressed, often in some fantastical disguise suggested by the plot and referenced in the titles of many of the plays. This rich fantasy of costume made a splendid show for citizens who in their everyday life wore a plain tunic. It is a tradition that has survived today in performances of opera.

So Aristophanes’ plays were produced in honour of the harvest, but at a time when the Spartan army invaded every spring and destroyed that harvest. They lampooned reckless political leaders while those same leaders persuaded citizens to vote for ever more ruinous policies. They were played in honour of the god Dionysios at a time when the polis seemed cursed, and suffered from increasing starvation and disease. And they contain exquisitely lyrical songs, hilarious dialogue and much vulgar buffoonery along with much that has vanished: music, topical references and slang we don’t understand, religious connotations that go over our head. A constant in most of the plays is a plea for peace and an end to a war that was destroying all that was dearest to every citizen. The plays were very popular, and Aristophanes won first prize many times. This was one of the highest honours awarded to citizens.

The more formal components of Aristophanes’ plays have to be abandoned if they are to be performed for entertainment rather than read and annotated. You can’t annotate a joke, nor present ‘historic’ comedy, the most contemporary of the arts. The formal structure of the plays, like the metres appropriate to each section, work only if the play is performed in ancient Greek, for which there is not a huge audience. Music and song can only misrepresent the plays if composed specifically for a modern performance, and work best in a modern adaptation rather than in a translation. What does survive well is the fantasy, some of which is very beautiful, and the wordplay, for which English puns can be devised, and dirty language, which can be made incongruous and funny. And the lyrical and heartfelt longing for peace, expressed in a time of war, is of universal relevance.
Not a chorus from a lost play called the Giant Babies, it’s Monty Python

The closest analogy I can think of is Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different revue. Had this been performed during WWII in a London church with patriotic songs and a final prayer we would get a closer idea of Aristophanic comedy.

Classical Comedy
I’m reading a book called Classical Comedy, edited by Robert W Corrigan (Applause New York 1987). It contains a translation of Lysistrata by Donald Sutherland. This was a play presented by Aristophanes in 411 BC probably at the Dionysia festival.

In 411 BC Athens had already experienced over 10 years of annual invasions by Sparta which had destroyed each season’s crops, crowded the city with rural refugees, and introduced a virulent plague which destroyed over half the population. Two years earlier in 413 BC a great naval force sent to conquer Sicily had been completely destroyed. At home a conservative government had seized power and ruled harshly. The war was to continue a further seven years until Athens was forced to surrender.

Under these circumstances it is no surprise to find that the main concern of Lysistrata is to advocate peace, an end to hostilities that were destroying most of the Greek poleis. It seems little concern of comedy. Yet comedy was part of a religious festival celebrating fertility and new life and the power of Dionysios, and was, at least in origin, a form of prayer. Given the festival was celebrating fertility, it must have seemed timely to focus on human fertility. In fact, many families were infertile for the obvious reason that young men were at the front and dying, and the women had their usual job of lamenting the casualties. Aristophanes opens the play with a woman called Lysistrata who has conceived a plan to stop this outrage to city and to nature. She calls together women representing all the poleis fighting in the war.

What she has to propose is ironical in the circumstance, for it reflected reality only too well: a sex strike. The women are to unite, and refuse sex to all the men, until they agree to end the war. It is significant that the play is named after this catalytic character: most plays were named after the spectacularly costumed chorus. Aristophanes brings to the audiences’ attention the fact that many of them are getting no sex, and for very little political gain.

The action then focuses on the chorus, who are divided into one group, of elderly men, and another group, of women.

Among the women is Lampito, a Spartan. Sutherland says in his preface that the Laconian dialect spoken by Spartans is remarkably close to Texan English. I’m not sure it’s a good choice, but Americans may differ. It leads to dialogue like this:
“Lamp: ..Ah take mah exacise. Ah jump and thump mah butt.
Kal: And really, what a handsome set of tits you have!
Lamp: You feel me ovah lahk a cow fo sacrafahce!”
Imagine the business of a group of male actors dressed as women, one of whom is examining the false breasts of another and probably doing impossible things with them.

Remember, this is fertility rite, obscenity, baudy humour – mixed with lyrical poetry and politics, and accompanied with song and dance.

But Lysistrata has a problem: the women don’t want to refrain from sex. Yes, they see the point, if they make themselves seductive, wear transparent gowns and apply their perfume the men will be eager for sex. But so will the women.
“Lys: Well, you have heard the good old saying: Know Thyself.
Kal: It isn’t worth the candle. I hate cheap substitutes.”

Then comes a diversion: the women have seized the Parthenon and treasury, and a group of old men come to set it free. Here I found the comedy flag, as Sutherland tries to represent the metres of the original in English verse. I thought that here is where we miss the music most. If you can imagine Gilbert and Sullivan without Sullivan you’ll have an idea how limited the plays can be today in anything but a loose adaptation such as Lysistrata Jones. Here is a review of that show:

The banter between the semi chorus of men and the semi chorus of women continues for some time, and daringly includes a tribute to two famous tyrannicides and a call for a democratic government. Daringly, because recently an oligarchic faction had seized power and introduced proscription of those they disapproved of. This reference is perhaps a sign of the privileged status comedy still enjoyed in Athens.

But Lysistrata finds her plan hard to implement: her women start to desert as their need for sex overcomes their resolution to deny their men until peace is declared. There follows a scene between Myrrhina and her husband Cinesias. He pleads, with phallus protruding, for her to come home. She, at Lysistrata’s urging, invents excuse after excuse to put off complying until he is reduced to tears. Agreement is finally reached between the men and the women, and the play ends with a hymn to peace and prosperity.

Many of the plays abound with topical references (as do the plays of Shakespeare) but Sutherland omits most of these in his translation. One he retains is a reference to Alkibiades, Athens’ most gifted strategist among the generals, who polarised opinion for and against him. At a time when Athens had started to lose the war much of her efforts had been devoted to in fighting between Alkibiades’ supporters and their opponents: one ploy involved desecrating holy statues of Hermes, with, as it happened, prominent phalluses. These were broken off, outrage stirred up and the blame laid on Alkibiades, and he was recalled from his leadership of the expedition to Sicily to face charges. He chose to desert instead. The prominent phalluses of the male chorus are at a similar risk during one section of the play.

Overall I found the play only intermittently interesting. I saw the point, appreciated the humour, but found the lyric section uninvolving. We haven’t a tradition of intense lyrical poetry juxtaposed with ritual obscenity, but, more than that, are not familiar with dialogue in verse. In performance, with sufficient brio, it might pass, but I think it needs music. Jesus Christ Superstar worked, though perhaps dated now. What Aristophanes needs is to be produced by a musical composer of opera or operetta.

The Birds
Another play included in Classical Comedy is The Birds, produced three years before Lysistrata in 414 BC. Athens was at that stage holding its own in the war with Sparta and its allies, and had just sent off the great expedition to Sicily which was to be one of the main causes of its eventual ruin. But the mood was hopeful still in the city.

To understand just what the atmosphere was in these ancient festivals one has to look at the process of how plays were produced. Firstly, a playwright would choose actors he thought he could work with, ones whose work he was familiar with. Once an agreement had been worked out, Aristophanes outlining the concept of the play he had in mind, he would then apply to the senior city official for a chorus. If accepted, and here he would need to be known or vouched for, the archon would draw the play’s producer, who paid for the chorus, by lot. These producers were wealthy men, sometimes politicians seeking popularity. They could probably avoid the choice of the lot if they didn’t want to produce a particular play. Then the playwright appointed a director, if he was not to direct himself. We know Aristophanes didn’t direct at least several of his plays, as we know the name of his director in some cases. This probably meant that Aristophanes acted in the play. Like Molière, he was probably a gifted actor.

To appreciate the spectacle of the play in production you need to move forward in time to Rio de Janeiro today, where groups of dancers and musicians spend most of the year planning, designing and making their costumes and dance routines, to explode in a riot of colour , music and movement during Festival time. Similar care was taken with the ancient comic chorus, whose costumes were the chief expense in the play’s production. When the fantastical and splendid chorus came out into the orchestra accompanied by loud exuberant music from the musical group in support, the crowd would have oo’d and ahh’d and cheered in appreciation. Many prizes would have been awarded for the best spectacle, despite modern scholars’ belief it was the sophisticated poetry of the script that won their admiration.

I mention these details here because this translation of The Birds, by Walter Kerr, is an acting edition. This means, unlike all other translations of Aristophanes’ plays I have seen, this version comes with directions to actors on how to manage their movements, business and lines. Although this happens in every production, the reason why actors and directors end up as co-author of each particular production, each one having different contributions to make for each staging, the script rarely includes this essential component of a play. A play is of course not a text for reading, but is usually presented as though it was. We only get half a play if we only read the script. With Walter Kerr’s version we get to read the play as a visual experience, and can imaginatively see it as it plays.

Pithetauros and Euelpides, preposterous names meaning trusty friend, and good hope, but translated by Kerr as Footloose and Footsore, are seeking peace, like Lysistrata was to, peace from debt collectors, state officials and orators with nothing to say, and have set off looking for the King of the Birds. Any similarity to Godot is purely coincidental. Pithetauros gets his big idea: if the birds will unite and stop the smoke of sacrifice from reaching the gods, then men’s prayers will remain unanswered and they will be forced to obey the dictates of the birds, who of course will be much more reasonable than, for instance, the citizens of Athens. As well, the gods will be denied sacrifice and get hungry, and so they too will obey the birds. A recipe for disaster posing as a bright idea. Note the basic idea is the same as that of Lysistrata: if only people will unite and work together they can solve their problems. Far from the political satire of some of his other plays, Aristophanes is making a, for him, muted appeal for Athens to unite and become the greatest power in the Greek world, as once before.

The scene is carried out with what were to become comic staple devices. Pithetauros is the crazy one, Euelpides is his straight man, both are cowardly and get frightened at the drop of a hat, they speak directly to the audience, revealing them to be part of the performance (the audience always have been part of the performance, but usually they’re allowed to keep quiet and pretend to be invisible). But then comes one of the shifts in tone peculiar to Aristophanes’ plays. Epops, the king of the birds, calls to his wife Prokne, and does so in a beautiful lyric that reminds me of Shelly’s Ode to a Skylark. One moment, pratfalls: the next, an exquisite song. Kerr’s version uses prose for the comic bits and verse for the songs, and it works better than an all verse rendition for me. The passage between Epops and Prokne is like nothing so much as Papageno’s song at the end of Mozart’s Magic Flute. It too calls for lilting flute music from the musicians. I wonder what the music could have been like. The costumes, representing plumage of all the varied species of the birds, must have been spectacular.

As the two Athenians progress in their life as birds, they first learn to fly, involving a skilled dance with the two actors clumsily imitating a skilled dancer playing Epops. They persuade the birds to build a wall cutting off earth from heaven, and to found a city, Cloudcuckooland. Then fend off various priests, poets, prophets, realtors and lawyers from Athens wanting to impose a bureaucratic structure, for their own benefit of course. Kerr’s version has lots of physical comedy involving asides to the audience on the part of self important messengers and stage frightened heralds. The two finally receive an embassy from the gods, accept their capitulation, repel the pests from earth (Athens) and then follows the final celebration, dance and hymn.
From a Willamette University Theatre production of The Birds by Aristophanes in November 1986. Director: William Z. Iron; Scene Designer: Luz Salazar; Costume Designer: Chris Harris; Actors: Eric Fishman, Kate Myre. (Photo: Chris Harris, Flickr)

This version of the play omits the topical references of Aristophanes’ original as pointless for a modern audience, and generalises the satire onto objects intelligible to them; the religious aspects are ignored, and the ritual obscenity is also omitted, slapstick comedy being introduced instead, probably a part of the original production if we only had the original stage directions. Prose is used for comedy, verse effectively reserved for songs. There is no indication of the music used, but presumably incidental. And, as the book is not illustrated, I have no idea of the costumes used. As a reading experience, this is by far the most entertaining version of Aristophanes I have encountered. It effectively gets across his unique mix of fantasy, satire, poetry and humour.

Translators have two choices with Aristophanes. Either they make an annotated version that attempts to reproduce the ancient text metres, play construction, topical references, explain the ritual aspects, and language play. Or they produce a modern version than can be acted, with certain aspects adapted or omitted for clarity of perception, as theatre audiences can’t be expected to ‘get’ each original reference as the play unfolds. Classical Comedy seems to contain examples of each approach, in the versions by Sutherland and Kerr. Online versions of the plays are also available through Gutenberg or University of Adelaide, but this is a 1912 translation with minimal directions. Best explore through modern translations such as those of Dudley Fitts or William Arrowsmith.

If there is one quality that characterises Aristophanes’ writing above all, I think it is elation. His characters are full of joyous illusions, his wordplay is full of wonder that words can be made to do that, and his conservatism is very positive, that we should enjoy the good things we have before reaching for novelties. Scholars tell us the construction of ancient plays was formally constrained, and that comedy had strict rules of composition, but Aristophanes was able to use these constructions to achieve superb, and frantic, comic pacing, and this must be why he won the prize so often. Of his skill as a director, or whether he was a musical composer, we have no idea. We have lost a quarter of his works, and what survives is only half of each play, with no music, stage direction or director’s notes. But Aristophanes is surely unique for harmoniously combining obscenity with beautiful lyric poetry, personal abuse with passionate patriotism. There is a gusto about his conceits that is very attractive and a delicacy about his grossness that has never been matched. One of ancient Greece’s greatest artists, the philosopher Plato, admired Aristophanes both as man and playwright. As he knew him personally, and was familiar with his work, his esteem carries some weight. We esteem him today because, after 2,400 years, his work is still so magically funny.

Comedy is the hardest of the arts to perform, the most fragile to preserve, and so the most precious when it survives, still effective, for such a long period. The comedies of Aristophanes give us an unique opportunity to laugh with the people who created democracy, founded science, developed philosophy and invented all the art forms we are familiar with today.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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