Friday, May 6, 2022

The Acharnians by Aristophanes - what I’m going to say may be unpalatable, but it’s the truth

The Acharnians (425 BCE) by Aristophanes, his third play and our first.  It is a chaotic joke machine, so no wonder I did not remember it at all, but it is a good introduction to Aristophanes, who, along with his lost competitors in the comedy festivals, is literally inventing stage comedy, playing with many of the rhetorical devices comics use today: satire, ridicule, nonsense, obscenity, silly wigs, topical jokes, ethnic humor, goofy costumes, and cheap personal attacks.  Anything for a laugh.

It is curious to remember that the named targets of the personal attacks were likely in the audience, pretending to laugh along with everyone else, while of course thinking about how to get revenge on Aristophanes later.  The feud with Cleon, leader of the radical anti-Spartan faction in Athens, began with the previous, lost play, and will continue through at least three of the next four plays.

Another way, then, that The Acharnians introduces Aristophanes well: will I always need so much annotation, so many notes about people and events and parodies of other plays?  Yes, pretty much.

In The Acharnians a citizen farmer makes an independent peace with Sparta, allowing him to live as he did before the Peloponnesian War, which mostly means eating and drinking, a lot more fun than wartime deprivation.  He has to dodge angry generals and the Acharnian chorus, whose village still suffers form Spartan attacks, but it all works out, for him at least:

I’ve got the skin; there’s time at least

To give ourselves another feast.

Let’s have the toast with three times three –

‘Hail to the champion’ – that’s me.  (104)

We are at the very end of the play here, so the farmer is not just celebrating but asking for victory in the dramatic competition, which The Acharnians in fact won.  Aristophanes plays are almost by definition self-conscious, full of parody and references to his own and other plays, even sending a character meant to be identified as himself onto the stage, if I understand the relevant scene correctly.  The peak of the pastiche postmodernism is the long scene where the farmer begs scraps of costumes and speeches from a pompous Euripides, culminating in a Defense of Comedy:

Don’t hold it against me, gentlemen, if, though a beggar – and a comic poet at that – I make bold to speak to the great Athenian people about matters of state.  Not even a comedian can be completely unconcerned with truth and justice; and what I’m going to say may be unpalatable, but it’s the truth.  (71)

And this is what we’ll get from Aristophanes for the next twenty-five years.  A number of his plays – at least five as I count them – are better than this one.  But this is the idea.

Page numbers and translations are from Alan H. Sommerstein’s Penguin Classics translation.

Sadly I could not find an image of the pig children emerging from the sack – I did not think to look for the eel – so a depiction of pigs by The Pig Painter will have to do.  Visit the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see this masterpiece for yourself.

Next week’s play is Hecuba by Euripides, generally thought to be one of his best.  I remember it as tightly written compared to Andromache.  I also remember it being full of truly horrible events.  I plan to brace myself and read it twice, in William Arrowsmith’s and Anne Carson’s translations.


  1. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pnyx." Yes, what a mess, but I laughed aloud at the references to Cleon, Pericles, and Thucydides. And when Euripides' house gets spun around and there's the playwright sitting in a prop room that Aristophanes plunders, I had no idea where the play could possibly go next. A bit downhill is where, but worth it for the Euripides scene. "You're not taking a costume; you're stealing a whole tragedy!"

    Mostly I felt like I was reading the script of an SNL skit, with the tone switching crazily from political satire to scatological jokes, and references to the audience and having "walked all the way across the orchestra." No fourth wall for Aristophanes. Great stuff, absolutely zany.

  2. What a surprise. I wasn’t expecting anything like this at all from Greek theater. At first, I had trouble trying to latch on to what was happening. Who is this Dikaiopolis? Supposedly a farmer & an untouchable one minute, the next he’s tossing out drachma to his players like Caesar dispensing spoils from war. He wants to make his private peace with the enemy. What difference is that going to make? None, probably. It’s hard not to side with the state. But then again, it’s hard to turn away as this citizen/clown makes a mockery of the entire system. The great warrior Lamachus who fought on many a battlefield comes out to confront this dipshit. Unfortunately, the pride of our state comes across as an incredible embarrassment. Dikaiopolis’s exploits, no consolation for war, perhaps, but ahh the comedy of life!

    To follow up on what Tom & Scott said, I think it’s the SNL/sitcom vibe that makes this drama feel very much present day. The previous two weeks’ Sophocles and Euripides gave me much more to think about, but, for all the social detail packed into the drama (where would we be without the scholarship?) I think I’ll be coming back to this one first.

  3. My first Aristophanes, and I confess I found it a bit exhausting. But parts of it were funny, even if I'm sure I missed a lot of the jokes. I imagine the translator makes a big difference for here. I inherited Patric Dickinson's translations of Aristophanes from my mom - for what it's worth, Wikipedia doesn't see fit to mention him alongside the 11 published translations they list. He gives the Megarian an English North Country accent, the Boeotian a Welsh one, and at least one of the messengers a Cockney one, a decision I can't really evaluate.

  4. It's almost less of an SNL skit than an entire show, where the skits for some reason have a common character.

    The level of social detail is incredible. A lot of life back up this nonsense.

    Sommerstein only does one accent bit. What a shame, there is room for more.

    My memory is that the next Aristophanes play, The Knights, is similar to The Acharnians, but the one after that, The Clouds, is doing something different.