Friday, June 24, 2022

Peace by Aristophanes - What’s this all about? What’s the beetle mean?

The plays of Aristophanes are more context-dependent than anything else we’ve been reading, the comprehension, set aside the humor, of many passages requiring some help with the history and social details.  Late in his career, he will begin to work on the problem, and Menander will finish the job.  A little preview there of were we are going in the fall.  Comedy will become more universal, and stupider.

Still, some plays need more context and some less.  Peace (421 BCE), the last of an amazing surviving five-play run, is on the “more” side.  Its effect depends on knowing that the leading pro-war figures on both the Spartan and Athenian sides (the latter is Aristophanes’s recurring punching bag Cleon) were recently killed in battle, and that genuine peace negotiations were in progress for the first time in a decade.  Peace would be declared within a few weeks.  It wouldn’t last long, but I’ll take that as a separate issue.

The stake in Peace are high, is what I am trying to say.  “Don’t screw this up.”

Having said that, the long opening scene is pretty pure, as two slaves make big dung balls, right there on stage, and feed them to a giant dung beetle, which then flies the protagonist to heaven where he wants to beg the gods for peace, which all works out after a few hitches.  That’s Peace over on the right, and the dung beetle in the lower center.

FIRST SLAVE:  I expect by now someone out there is asking – some young fellow who always knows the answers, but not this time – asking ‘What’s this all about? What’s the beetle mean?’ and the Ionian visitor next to him is telling him ‘Ah think it’s all an allego-ry about Cleon, ‘cahz, you see, he’s eatin’ shit these days down amerng the dead men, you know!’ (99, tr. Alan H. Sommerstein)

My impression is that Peace has more jokey fourth-wall-breaking than any Aristophanes play yet, and they’ve all had plenty.  The hero, wildly flying on his beetle, asks the crane operator to be more careful.  The ritual sacrifice of a lamb is moved offstage because “That way our sponsor won’t lose his lamb” (133).  Just for examples.  Maybe it’s the translator who likes those gags and emphasizes them.

The chorus leader gets his now expected address to the audience, asking for the prize.  This time Aristophanes argues for his place as an innovator, his place in literary history:

He stopped his rivals poking fun at rags

And waging war on paltry fleas and lice;

He put an end to scenes where Heracles

Kneads dough, or waits and waits and waits for dinner…

Our poet’s booted all that rubbish out

And given us works of art, great towering structures

Of words and thoughts, and jokes that are not vulgar.  (123)

That last bit is so blatantly false – trough full of manure, etc. –  that it must have gotten a big laugh.  The other parts, though, are why I wanted tot read the plays chronologically.

I again borrowed images from the archives of The Cambridge Greek Play, this time from a 1927 performance of Peace double-billed with our play for next week, the Elektra of Sophocles, which I remember as an extraordinary masterpiece, ho hum, the usual Sophocles business.  I’ll be reading the Anne Carson translation.

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Wasps by Aristophanes - in fact there never was a better comedy

The Wasps (422 BCE) by Aristophanes is a satire of juries, not really of the functioning of the Athenian judicial system but of the old men who spend their time pursuing spots on juries.  They want the thirty bucks a day, they like the sense of power, but mostly they remind me of the retirees who spend their day getting worked up by cable news, except in Athens they got to vote at the end of each story. As Procleon, the central old fellow and jury addict, complains:

PROCLEON:  [My son] won’t allow me to go to court; he won’t let me do any harm to anybody.  He wants to give me a good time, he says.  I’ve never heard such nonsense.  I don’t want to be given a good time.  (50, tr. David Barrett)

A recognizable figure, walking, or sitting, among us today.  Anticleon, the son, is right but also wrong, as he learns by the end.  Maybe he was better off when dad was in front of the television, rather than appearing in front of juries himself for the crime of enjoying life with too much gusto.

The social and political detail in this play, by the way, is phenomenal.  How much of our knowledge of ancient Greek life is owed to Aristophanes?

The wasps of the title are the chorus, the other old men and hangers on who, as jurors in a democracy, have a sting in their tail that they would not have in other political arrangements.  Athens is described allegorically as a wasp hive by the head wasp:

Observe our social structure and you’ll see it conforms

To that of wasps exactly – we are organized in swarms…  (78)

An unusually explicit explication of the conceit.

I have included a couple of photos from an 1897 Cambridge performance of the play, archived here, just to get a look at one of the wasps.

We have had four Aristophanes plays in a row, one per year, which has let us see a separate ongoing story, the fight between Aristophanes and the audience, as voiced here by the head wasp, complaining about the third place finish of The Clouds the previous year:

O once again your Champion fought for you

And sought to purge the land of grievous ills.

And what did you do then?  You let him down.

For when he tried last year to sow a crop

Of new ideas, you failed to see the point,

And all was wasted; yet, with hand on heart,

He swears by Dionysus that in fact

There never was a better comedy.

The shame is yours for being so obtuse.  (76)


And here we have, in the old Cambridge performance, two dogs on trial for eating a cheese:

FIRST DOG:  Don’t you acquit him, do you hear?  He’s a monophagist, that’s what he is, an eat-it-all-your-self-ist.  He’s the most confirmed monophagist in the whole history of dogkind.  (71)

The Wasps is less ragged and wacky than The Acharnians or The Knights, but there is still plenty of room for the goofy stuff.

Next week we end this amazing run of thirteen plays in eleven years with Peace (421 BCE) by Aristophanes.  Can there be peace?  Yes, it turns out, briefly.  I do not remember this as one of the best of Aristophanes, but it does feature a guy riding a dung beetle to heaven; do you want to miss that?

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Women of Trachis by Sophocles - the death of Herakles - And I thought that then I would be happy.

Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis is usually dated to the early 420s, so in the same period as the string of Aristophanes and Euripides plays we have been reading.  I put it at this point in the schedule because I thought we might want a break from those two high-energy, high-concept playwrights.  A good idea!  Compared to frenetic Aristophanes and hysterical – or “turbulent,” to use William Arrowsmith’s term – Euripides, The Women of Trachis is so calm, so logical, even though the events of the play are horrible enough.

The extremely busy Greek vase, owned by the Met, shows the apotheosis of Herakles, the moment when he is transformed by death from human to god.  He is already in the chariot, above his funeral pyre.  Curiously, Sophocles ignores the apotheosis.  He is writing about the death of a human, not the birth of a god.  As the son of Herakles says, at the end of the play:

No one can foresee what is to come.

What is here now is pitiful for us

and shameful for the Gods;

but of all men it is hardest for him

who is the victim of this disaster.  (119, tr. Michael Jameson)

I suppose I am dwelling on this, rather than, for example, the jealousy of Deianira, because the aspect of the play that most impresses me is the depiction of the suffering of the hero, practically the only element that qualifies as “action” on the stage, and even it is static, as his flesh and life are slowly burned away by the poison of an old enemy.  Entering late in the play, we only see the hero in the act of dying.  I wonder if there is a risk of his long death scene becoming ridiculous.

Come then, O my tough soul,

before this sickness is stirred again,

set a steel bit in my mouth

hold back the shriek, and make an end

of this unwanted, welcome task.  (118)

I find his pain believable enough.  And of course his death is also, by definition, the final labor of Hercules.  He was promised rest after finishing them, and he will get it:

And I thought that then I would be happy.

But it only meant that I would die then.  (114)

Was it odd to return, after those action-packed Aristophanes plays, to one where everything happens offstage, and many of the characters are messengers describing some earlier action?  I had to make a mental adjustment.

In four weeks, we will look at the Herakles of Euripides, a quite different creature.  Thank goodness the action is offstage in that one.  We will see Herakles again in Sophocles, too, in Philoctetes, but as a god.

Next week we are back to Aristophanes, The Wasps (422 BCE), a satire of courts and juries and that demagogic bastard Cleon, how we hate him.

Friday, June 3, 2022

The Clouds by Aristophanes - Open up! I'm mad for education!

The Clouds by Aristophanes, 423 BCE, performed the same year as The Suppliants, perhaps, although it is a later, revised, version of The Clouds that survived.  In the last three Euripides plays we have seen hints, or intrusions, of the idea that the tragic events of the play could be changed by persuasion.  As Hecuba says:

                                                    There are men, I know,

sophists who make a science of persuasion,

glozing evil with a slick of loveliness…  (tr. Arrowsmith)

The Sophists were an innovation in contemporary Athens, entrepreneurial philosophers offering a new form of education along with new ideas.  The specific individuals ranged from blatant con artists up to, you know, Socrates, the embodiment of Western philosophy.  So it’s famous Socrates who has to take the beating Aristophanes gives the Sophists, even if the portrayal is slanderous.

Throw open the Thinkery!  Unbolt the door

and let me see this wizard Sokrates in person.

Open up!  I’m MAD for education!  (29, tr. Arrowsmith)

Then Socrates floats onstage in a giant basket, and we’re off.  The education begins.

The Clouds

is a more audacious, idea-packed, and outrageous than the last two Aristophanes plays, although it is at least as filthy, sexually and scatologically.

STREPSIADES: He breaks wind.

Sacrilege or not, I”VE GOT TO CRAP!

SOKRATES: No more of your smut.  Leave that kind of thing to the comic stage.  (38)

From the Thinkery and the Cosmical Oven to the Chorus of Clouds to the cataclysmic ending, Aristophanes pulls in his biggest conceptions (I have included a photograph of the Cloud chorus from the 2012 production by the National Theatre of Greece).  The central duel between Philosophy and Sophistry, or old-fashioned Right and new-fangled Wrong, as I saw in another translation, could now be turned into a rap battle.  A later scholiast insists that Philosophy and Sophistry were costumed as giant fighting-cocks, and William Arrowsmith makes the most of the idea (see his note on p. 145).  Giant rapping roosters playing the dozens, that’s what I want to see.

The first two Aristophanes plays often felt like a series of skits slapped together.  The Clouds is tight Aristophanes, one long action with constant comic variation.  My memory is that his best plays are the focused ones.  We’ll see.

I can’t praise William Arrowsmith’s adaptations of Aristophanes enough.  He has a strong vision of how the plays were performed but he is a rigorous classicist who justifies his liberties.  When we get to The Birds later this summer, try Arrowsmith if you can.

Perhaps in the fall we should read Plato's Banquet and take another look at the relationship between Socrates and Aristophanes.

In two weeks we move a year forward to the next Aristophanes play, another good one, The Wasps (422 BCE), which mocks courts and juries and gives the arch-enemy Cleon a good kicking.  Will Aristophanes directly criticize the audience for giving The Clouds third prize?  It’s a good bet.

I intend to confront you with my personal complaints frankly and freely,

as a poet should. (53)

Next week is The Women of Trachis by Sophocles, dated some time in the 420s, which I think I put in this spot to give us a break from Aristophanes.