Wasps, Lysistrata, Frogs, The Sexual Congress
David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, Editors. Translations by Campbell McGrath, X. J. Kennedy, Alfred Corn, and R. H. W. Dillard
1999 | 376 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $21.95
Classics | Literature | Poetry
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Table of Contents
Introduction by Ralph Rosen
—Translated by Campbell McGrath
—Translated by X. J. Kennedy
—Translated by Alfred Corn
The Sexual Congress
—Translated by R. H. W. Dillard
About the Translators
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Ralph M. Rosen
The plays of Aristophanes collected in these volumes, composed and performed in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, are the earliest surviving record of comic drama in Western culture. Like its contemporary and cognate form tragedy, Attic comedy seems to appear suddenly as a fully-formed and remarkably complex poetic genre, paradoxically wedded to its own cultural moment yet profoundly resonant for audiences and readers up to our own time. Indeed, the seeds of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Marx Brothers, or Monty Python's Flying Circus are readily apparent in Aristophanes and can easily lead one to assume that not much has changed in comedy since antiquity. Yet the comic drama of fifth-century Athens, known as Old Comedy, was the product of a long and complex process of literary and cultural interactions and displays as many idiosyncrasies of its own age as it does links to later traditions. Behind the sprightly, colloquial translations featured in this series lie a richly varied Greek verse form and, as the following pages will show, a comic aesthetic by turns alien and familiar to our own sensibilities.
Twice a year during the fifth century the Athenians would gather together to honor Dionysus, god of wine and revelry. The largest and most extravagant occurred in early spring, toward the end of March, and was known as the Great Dionysia, or City Dionysia, to distinguish it from so-called rural Dionysia, which were celebrated on a lesser scale throughout the Attic countryside. The other festival was known as the Lenaean Dionysia (named after the Lenaion sanctuary where it was held), a more limited, domestic affair that took place in January-February. Various activities occurred at these festivals, including processions, sacrifices, and musical competitions, but the central event at each was the performance of tragedy and comedy. Great expense and effort was lavished on these dramatic performances, as poets and actors competed for prizes awarded by a panel of judges drawn from ten tribes of Attica.
Tragedy and comedy were so much a part of a formal state event that the entire Athenian citizenry might, in principle, attend the performances. The Theater of Dionysus itself on the Athenian acropolis was capable evidently of holding about 17,000 spectators. The Lenaean Dionysia was a smaller and less prestigious affair than the City Dionysia, and theatrical performances were formalized there rather late in the century (about 440 BC). Even so, the Lenaea was as public an event as the City Dionysia, and the plots of Lenaean tragedy and comedy likewise reflect the poets' awareness that they were composing before the entire "national" community.
Drawing on a rich store of inherited myths and plots, the most skillful tragic poets crafted plays that could address issues central to Athenian political and social ideology—the relationship between rulers and their subjects, the nature of democracy, the interaction of man and woman, to name a few—and the result was that characteristically "tragic" blend of timeliness and universalizing. Greek comedy evolved alongside tragedy at the festival competitions and became equally implicated in its own historical moment but, unlike tragedy, it was not constrained to work with mythological material, nor did it need to preserve a consistent and unbroken dramatic illusion. The comic poet was relatively free to invent plots out of whole cloth, and his imagination was limited only by his sense of what the audience would find acceptable. Further, although it shared with tragedy basic compositional units, namely the alternation of spoken "episodes" with choral song and dance, comic diction was far less formal and stylized than that of tragedy. Old Comedy, therefore, could reflect the contemporary cultural climate much more directly than tragedy: not only could the poet allude to current events or famous people through allegory or analogy but he could even name names, express indignation, and claim a personal authority (however disingenuously) to a degree wholly unavailable to his colleagues in tragedy.
The license afforded Attic comedy in the composition of plots and choice of language has a history that extends well beyond its institutionalization at the Dionysian festivals of fifth-century Athens. The exact origins of Attic comedy are difficult to trace, but the word komoidia itself, from which "comedy" derives, offers a useful starting point. Komoidia means a komos-song, where the komos refers to a group of men, often costumed, who entertained audiences with song and dance at various festive occasions. Modern analogues to the ancient komos are likely to be found in the activities of Mummers, still common in certain European and American holiday celebrations. Like Mummers, komos-singers (komoidoi) performed interactively with an audience, often humorously cajoling and mocking individuals with attitudes and language that in normal circumstances would be disruptive and transgressive. Little is known about how and when komoi actually became comic drama, formally performed before a passive audience, but the most fundamental vestige of the komoi in Attic comedy can be seen in the humorously antagonistic relationships so common between individual characters and groups of characters, and between poet and audience. Fifth-century comic drama preserves some of the carnivalesque spirit of the komos, which rendered vituperation and satirical commentary innocuous by means of humor, irony, and a basic assumption that comic speech was ultimately fictive, no matter how "real" it pretended to be in performance.
Indeed, perhaps the central dynamic of Aristophanic comedy is precisely the tension that arises between the poet's voice, with its didactic claims and autobiographical pretenses, and the fictional demands of the genre itself. Did Aristophanes write the Clouds, which satirizes Socrates and his followers, because he had a genuine personal animus against him, or because he was an eccentric, funny-looking man who would make a great comic spectacle? Or did the poet exploit the comic potential of Socrates, not because he had anything against him personally, but because he wanted to use him to register his own sincere criticism of current philosophical trends? That seems reasonable until one notes that the play itself offers very little in the way of philosophical consistency: traditional "philosophy,"which the play ostensibly endorses, ends up as comically ridiculous as the newfangled, sophistic ways which it claims to repudiate through its satirizing of Socrates.
We face a similar dilemma in assessing Aristophanes' relationship with his other famous target, the demagogic politician Cleon, who is relentlessly, often violently, mocked in Knights, and mentioned with disdain at least somewhere in nearly all his fifth-century plays. Aristophanes even alludes to an actual personal feud with Cleon, a feud that supposedly began when Cleon attempted to prosecute the poet for publicly ridiculing Athenian politicians in his (now lost) play of 426 BC, Babylonians. Aristophanes was very convincing: ancient commentators spoke of the feud as if it were a documented historical fact, and modern critics have followed suit, even though our only evidence ultimately comes from the comedies themselves, which have a generic obligation to create personal animosities between the poet and a target. We will probably never know for sure whether Aristophanes truly feuded with Cleon, but the question of historicity is ultimately less significant than the ways in which the comic poet persistently exploited the topos throughout his plays. For through the relationship with Cleon as it was developed on the stage over several plays spanning at least five years-Acharnians (425 BC), Knights (424 BC), Clouds (423 BC), Wasps (422 BC), and Peace (421 BC)- Aristophanes could dramatize with brilliant economy the ethos of boisterous confrontation and antagonism that fueled so many plays of Attic comedy.
Any literature in which an author adopts a stance of moral indignation and undeserved beleaguerment, and engages in invective or personal mockery, makes it especially difficult for the audience to separate fiction from reality, if only because the author works hard to enlist their sympathies for his allegedly urgent and topical predicament. Yet despite this implied bond with an audience in opposition to a target, a group or even an issue, we never witness the poet's voice directly in any of Aristophanes' plays (Dicaeopolis in Acharnians, is about as close as we get to this). No character ever explicitly represents the poet himself, and the poet's name is never directly mentioned. Instead, Aristophanes avails himself of a structural device known as the parabasis, which had become the conventional place in Old Comedy, where the poet could interrupt the flow of episodes and make personal claims through the mouthpiece of the chorus. The parabasis, which comes from the verb parabaino, "to step aside," was essentially a digression, a temporary halt in the main action while the chorus came forward to address the audience. Its location in the play was not rigidly fixed but tended to occur toward the middle of the play, often functioning as a kind of entr'acte. In its most elaborate form-as we see, for example, in Wasps-the parabasis consists of a prolonged exchange between the chorus and their leader, alternating spoken and sung verse, in which the chorus-leader actually speaks on behalf of the poet.
Through the chorus-leader, then, Aristophanes could take up any number of topics, including current events, the superiority of his comedy over that of his rivals, indignation at the audience for lack of support, and, of course, abuse against "personal enemies" such as Cleon. The parabasis is our main source for "autobiographical" information about Aristophanes and the primary reason it has always been so tempting to take a biographical approach to the interpretation of Aristophanes. When Clouds makes fun of Socrates, or Knights inveighs against Cleon, when Aeschylus defeats Euripides in the literary contest of Frogs, the relationship with the audience that Aristophanes establishes in successive parabases makes it easy to assume that the plots themselves functioned likewise as a coded, didactic message: Aeschylus defeated Euripides, so Aristophanes must therefore endorse this verdict and be trying to warn us against the evils of Euripides! But if Frogs, to continue with this example, were such a simplistic morality play, Aristophanes would hardly have ridiculed the literary excesses of both tragic poets with as much care as he does, nor would he have left the final decision to the waffling, delightfully buffoonish god Dionysus, who can barely offer a rationale for his final elevation of Aeschylus from the underworld.
Centuries of readers have had the same problem in trying to ascertain Aristophanes' views on politics or such social issues as gender relations. Do his attacks on Cleon indicate that he was "conservative"? Do his so-called peace-plays (Acharnians, Peace, Lysistrata), which clearly articulated a longing for the end of the Peloponnesian War (a conflict between Athens and Sparta that lasted for nearly three decades, from 431-404), indicate the poet's disapproval of current Athenian war policy? Did the cluster of plays that highlighted women (Lysistrata, Celebrating Ladies, Ecclesiazusae) reveal the poet to be anachronistically enlightened about women—a protofeminist? The plays can easily suggest such conclusions, but in fact no really systematic political or social outlook is forthcoming from them. Characters will take apparently clear political stands one moment in a play, only to undermine them elsewhere, usually for the sake of a good laugh. And when it comes to Aristophanes' sexual politics, we must remain agnostic whether the power and status he affords women in some of his plots were received as a prescription for social change—or as an extended joke "among the guys" who made up most of the audience.
Rather than dwelling on Aristophanes' personal beliefs, which we can never hope to recover anyway, let us to focus on the politics and poetics of comic satire as a literary genre. In line with the antagonistic dynamic of such poetry and the poet's need to find in his surroundings something worthy of mockery, something that would strike a chord in an audience that was pitting his comic sensibility against that of his rivals, Aristophanes naturally gravitates to topics that generate controversy in nearly all societies: domestic and international politics, celebrity lives and their scandals, popular entertainment, education, and so forth. These are areas in which the slightest eccentricity can seem amusing, especially when exaggerated by caricature and incongruity. Any deviation from "the way things were" is always fodder for a satirist, and Aristophanes is famous for plots that dramatize the conflict between the "traditional old" and the "unconventional new," whether these dramatize old and new generations (e.g., Clouds, Wasps), political ideologies (e.g., Knights, Ecclesiazusae), or poetic styles (e.g., Celebrating Ladies, Frogs). This explains the general conservative feeling of so many of the plays, an almost wistful yearning for life to remain stable and ordered when the progress of time inevitably insures that it cannot. This also explains why politicians then in office, for example, or philosopher-professors teaching for pay, were natural targets of comic ridicule: they existed in the here-and-now, and they had the potential to influence everyone's lives. Any false step of theirs could cause intense anxiety within the demos, and one way in which the Athenians grappled with this anxiety was to reprocess it as comic performance. Comedy probably did little to change whatever views on political and moral issues audiences brought with them to the theater (it might seem remarkable, for instance, that not long after Aristophanes' unrelieved attack on Cleon in Knights won first prize, the Athenians elected Cleon general), but comic poetry would certainly have encouraged them to refine their perspectives on the complex ideological forces that governed their city and their own interpersonal behavior.
As a form of public art, organized and at least partially funded by the state, Old Comedy necessarily reflected prevailing cultural norms, and its success depended largely on its ability to walk the fine line between questioning—and occasionally subverting—these norms and merely endorsing them. The generally conservative tendencies of satire were no doubt ultimately reassuring to a democracy that institutionalized the comic performances to begin with. One cannot easily imagine, after all, what group would endorse an art form that seriously repudiated its fundamental claims to legitimacy, and few looking back today on the audience of Aristophanes' time would deny that Aristophanic comedy presupposes the desirability of democracy as practiced in the fifth century. Certainly the ancient testimony mentioned earlier, even if fictional, that Cleon sued Aristophanes for slandering the demos and its politicians in his Babylonians of 426 suggests that there were perceived limits to comic ridicule at the time. But as far as we can tell these limits were never systematically articulated or, for that matter, rigorously enforced. It was probably less the fear of any slander laws that restricted the freedom of comic poets than a finely honed sense of what the audience—the demos itself—would find humorous.
Although we possess only eleven complete plays by Aristophanes (representing perhaps a quarter of his total output), we are fortunate that these eleven offer examples of his art from every period of his career. Readers who approach them chronologically will note that the latest plays, both from the fourth-century, Ecclesiazusae (392 BC) and Wealth (388 BC), reflect changes in structure and content from those composed in the fifth century. The most conspicuous difference lies in the diminishing role of the chorus. In its earliest stages comedy, like tragedy, was as much a spectacle of music and dance as of spoken verse, and the chorus was clearly an area in which costume, song, and gesture could be combined to create a theatrical extravaganza. Eight of Aristophanes' surviving plays, in fact, take their titles from the identity of the chorus, and in all of the fifth-century plays his choruses play an integral role in the plot (Frogs is a quirky exception in that it has two choruses—the frogs themselves and a band of religious initiates; the frogs appear only briefly, at the beginning, and the initiates take over the choral duties for the rest of the play). Ecclesiazusaw and Wealth still do have choruses, but their role is, by contrast, highly restricted and at times almost obtrusive. Some of the manuscripts of these plays indicate places in the text where someone (the poet, perhaps, but we cannot be sure) was expected to add a choral song and dance as a kind of interlude. Some scholars have even suggested that these were points in the play where the chorus was expected to improvise ad libitum while the actors prepared for the next scene. The details remain uncertain, but we can say with confidence that song and dance were increasingly relegated to the sidelines, used as ornamentation and framing, but no longer deemed necessary for the advancement of the plot.
Two other changes in Aristophanes' fourth-century plays throw into relief the process by which Old Comedy gradually developed into its later forms, Middle and New Comedy. First, the parabasis all but disappeared by the fourth century, and as a result, the poet's carefully constructed relationship with his audience became necessarily less explicit. Second, even though the non-Aristophanic examples of Middle Comedy are fragmentary, it seems clear that the pointed satire, the personal, often obscene abuse we associate with Old Comedy was significantly softened. Both of these changes are in keeping with a general fourth-century trend away from strictly topical, highly episodic plots, such as we find in Old Comedy, toward plots that display greater narrative coherence and linearity. Earlier concerns with specific events and personalities of the day slowly gave way to "universalizing" topics of human interest, which can be vividly seen in the popularity of stock comic characters—cooks, slaves, philosophers, misers, misanthropes, and so forth.
The shifts in public taste that Middle and New Comedy reflect are not easy to account for, but doubtless the dissolution of the Athenian empire after the Peloponnesian War, and an internationalizing movement of culture in the fourth century, are at least partly responsible. Were our evidence better for the period, we would probably find that the development of Greek comic drama, as well as its public reception, was hardly as uniform as we tend to construe it. Compare in this regard the state of comic drama in our own culture. Aristophanes' rambunctious, topical satire is reincarnated in late-night talk-shows, British series such as Benny Hill or Fawlty Towers, Gilbert and Sullivan revivals, Marx Brothers movies, and Three Stooges shorts. Yet at the same time, contemporary popular taste seems generally to favor the genres that look more like Middle or New Comedy, as is clear from the fact that the situation-comedy has held sway on television for several decades. No doubt the Greeks of both the fifth and fourth centuries also had the capacity to appreciate a variety of comic styles, and poets could be found to cater to all tastes. We have only scattered remnants of such poets, and only a skeletal understanding of how comedy evolved, but the literary eclecticism that Aristophanes alone displays across his entire career testifies to a poetic catholicity that would be remarkable in any age.