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.


  1. I admit that Aristophanes is pretty much wearing out his welcome with me. The writing in his plays gets much better as he goes along in terms of structure and pacing and the comic conceits get better and funnier, but his schtick is not all that funny and my enthusiasm for reading the rest of his plays is waning. I'm in it for "Lysistrata," though, because that's a masterpiece.

    I will say that I laughed at the obligatory Euripides reference: "Don't get hurt, daddy, or Euripides will make you a character in one of his tragedies!" That's good. But a lot of the humor is too juvenile for my taste. It does make me wonder what the satyr plays were like. Bawdy and dumb, like the Three Stooges?

  2. Aristophanes is definitely the most work, and perversely the most difficult sensibility to enter into. Perversely, because so many of the jokes are ones that comics have been rewriting for 2,500 years. Universality can be wearing.

    I would urge you to add The Birds and The Frogs to your list. The former is as great a masterpiece as Lysistrata, the latter something like the invention of literary criticism.

    I should have put Cyclops earlier. Not that we have any idea if it is representative of the satyr plays.

  3. I read "Peace" again after writing my comment (it's short!) and I think my problem is just the last third, which sucked the energy from the play. The first two thirds, right up to the rescue of Peace, is actually pretty fine and I can see how the anti-war, anti-Cleon faction would find it stirring. Hell, I found it stirring in a "power to the people" way.

    I've read "the Birds" and I remember liking it a great deal. I quote it in one of my many unpublished novels! I don't know "the Frogs" yet.

    And to be clear, even though I've missed a couple of the plays, I'm in this project all year, because I want to see what I haven't seen. The flying dung beetle was funny, as was the idea that when the hero gets to heaven, the gods are all away on vacation, leaving Hephaestus behind as a doorman. That was good stuff. But the slapstick is the same from play to play and not my thing.

  4. If Peace were more contemporary I would not hesitate to call the last third "pure filler."

    So glad you've done The Birds already.

    The slapstick has been the same from play to play for millennia. We are, sometimes, such simple critters.