Friday, July 29, 2022

The Birds by Aristophanes - Birds, Birds, billions of birds!

Here it is, The Birds by Aristophanes (414 BCE), one of the greatest of the greats, in my opinion his peak.  The play still has the usual problems that make a translator work: jokes about individual Athenians, puns piled on puns, parodies of lost plays, all of which may well have been hilarious to the Athenian audience but becomes mostly an aggravation to us.  Yet The Birds is spectacular, coherent, and thought through, building layers of irony that put it among the greats of its kind of satire.  Rabelais, Swift, that level.

I borrowed an image of the bird chorus from the Cambridge Greek Plays, an 1883 production in this case.  The star is M. R. James, yes, the (eventual) ghost story writer.  That must be him in the middle with the mustache.  The entrance of the chorus of birds must have been one of the greatest moments in Athenian comedy.  I typically think of the chorus as an undistinguished mass, but this time somebody really put some money into the costumes, to the extent that the members of the chorus are introduced individually, to allow the audience to admire each gorgeous bird, until finally:

HOOPOE: And Jay and Pigeon.  Lark, Wren, Wheater, and Turtledove.  Ringdove, Stockdove, Cuckoo, and Hawk.  Firecrest and Wren, Rail and Kestrel and Gull, Waxwing, Woodpecker, and Vulture…

PISTHETAIROS:  Birds, Birds, billions of birds!  (p. 39, Mentor edition, tr. Arrowsmith)

Still, it is the development of the satirical conceit that elevates The Birds.  Two Athenians, sick of the corruption and war and restlessness of the city, “Athens, land of lovely -  warships” (26), seek a country idyll, a peaceful escape, among the birds.  But one of them especially, Pisthetairos, M. R. James, brings the energetic restlessness with him.  He turns the idyll into a Utopia, and then turns Cloudcuckooland, the Utopia, into an empire.  He conquers the gods, becoming a god himself.  I do not know what an Athenian might have thought blasphemous, but this sounds like blasphemy.

Aristophanes has consistently been in the Athenian peace party, and anti-imperialist.  Yet in The Birds he recognizes – perhaps in spite of himself celebrates – the energy, the creative force that turned democratic Athens into Imperial Athens.  I can see Alexander the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Harry Truman understanding the conceit – where else was all of this energy supposed to go?  Satire, real satire, is unpleasant stuff.  The Birds is Aristophanes at his most outrageous.  Comedy at its most outrageous, unsurpassed for 2,500 years.

Next week is the beginning of another great run of Euripides plays, beginning with Ion.  I urge you, if possible, to take a look at the 1937 translation by H. D., a fine work of art in its own right.


  1. Aristophanes has become a new favourite for me. I like the analogy with Swift and Rabelais, so appropriate.

  2. Right? It is hardly comforting humor, but it's deep.

  3. Blasphemous is right. I kept wondering, as I read this, what Aristophanes' social life was like, if people would be seen in public with him outside of the theater.

    I'm about a week behind on the plays, but I hope other people are reading along with you. "Birds" is fantastic, a real high point for Aristophanes. He's sorted out how to stay focused on his main idea for the length of the play, and how to develop the idea into even bigger laughs. The late scene where the gods come down to negotiate with the birds is hysterical.

    "Democracy! What will it bring us to?" (Poseidon)

    "Whither away, Poseidon, my good man? Are we to fight a war for one lone girl?" (Herakles, getting metafictional)

    I read it in the 1962 Robert Webb translation, which is mostly in rhyming verse, and pretty well done.

  4. We'll have to read Plato's Symposium this fall, and take a look at the social life of Aristophanes.

    Yes, there are other people reading along, even people I know in so-called real life. I hope there are even more I don't know. This has been a productive little project for me, certainly.

  5. Symposium is a good idea. I even know where our copy is, a rare sort of event in our house.

    In re Birds, I forgot to say how much fun the avian alternative version of Hesiod's Thoegony is. More blasphemy.

    Lysistrata is pretty dark in comparison. Real war, real death, real stakes.

  6. I will organize Poetics and Symposium in the fall and pretend like we are having a jolly readalong. And we may well be.

    The avian theogony, yes, me too, love that.

    I'm eager to revisit Lysistrata. Perhaps I can guilt people on twitter to read it. That one is pretty close to a "must read," acknowledging that there is no such thing.