Friday, November 25, 2022

The Girl from Samos by Menander - I don’t think any one individual is better at birth than any other

It’s our last plays, the last surviving Greek play, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) by Menander.  How tastes, or circumstances, had changed in the seventy years since Wealth, our last Aristophanes play.  The political and social satire is gone, the sexual and scatological jokes are gone, and the specificity of the Athenian moment is replaced by type characters and domestic conflicts.  Comedy has mixed with melodrama – the influence of the “romantic” strain of Euripides is as strong as that of Aristophanes – and the result would not be out of place on American television.

I mean, the conflict in The Girl from Samos is over a baby.  Imagine the great Greek dramatists worrying about some ordinary man’s baby.  Here we have, depicted in a mosaic, the baby itself, carried by the Girl from Samos.  We are in Act III where they are expelled from their home because of the usual misunderstanding which will be cleared up by Act V.  I know we are in Act III of The Girl from Samos because that is literally written in the mosaic.

This example belongs to a set of seven scenes from Menander that can be found in the House of Menander in Mytilene on Lesbos, not to be confused with the House of Menander at Pompeii.  In fact there are many extant mosaics depicting scenes from Menander’s plays.  He was enormously popular for centuries.  The Mytilene mosaics are like from the fourth century CE, six hundred years after Menander, like someone today decorating a home with scenes from Shakespeare.

I noted that the direct political satire of Aristophanes is long gone, suppressed perhaps by censorship (Athenian democracy is also long gone) as much as changing tastes.  But domestic comedy is also inherently satirical, critiquing familial and social arrangements.  Here Moschion, the father of that (currently illegitimate) baby, critiques the notion of illegitimacy:

MOSCHION:        I don’t think any

One individual is better at

Birth than any other. If you look at it

Rightly, it’s the moral man who is

Legitimate, the immoral who is

Illegitimate, and a slave.  This is

What Diogenes says, bidding us revalue.  (17)

I believe that is my hero Diogenes the Cynic.  It sounds like him.

I read Eric Turner’s 1972 translation of The Girl from Samos, written for radio performance, so meant to function; I don’t know what adaptations he made.  It works.  The (almost) complete text of the play was only discovered a few years earlier.

I have been writing the phrase “Our next play is” every week, but now there is no next play.  Next week I will write up kind of summary, and soon after I hope to write some notes on On the Sublime by Longinus.  And maybe another post after that: “what next”?


Friday, November 18, 2022

Menander's Dyskolos - each man would hold a moderate share and be content

This week it’s Menander’s Dyskolos, or The Grouch, or The Misanthrope (316 BCE), which may or may not have inspired the title of Molière’s great play, and nothing more than the title since the play was, like all of Menander’s plays, long lost.  A fairly complete Dyskolos was the first of a series of extraordinary 20th century discoveries of Menander texts on Egyptian papyrus, some fragments even recovered from mummy casings.  None of the bits we are reading, I don’t think.

Menander’s texts were lost, but his existence was well known.  He was the favorite source of the Roman comic playwrights, who freely plundered the works of Menander and the other writers of New Comedy, adapting the century-old Greek play to the Roman audience and Latin language.  Some are pure adaptation, some are combinations – plots from two Menander plays combined, some merely borrow a comic premise.  Menander was everywhere in Latin comedy, or at least in Plautus and Terence, our surviving representatives.

Plautus and Terence lead fairly directly to Renaissance theater, commedia dell’arte, Elizabethan comedy, French farce, and the 20th century sitcom.  This is what I meant when, last week, I claimed that Menander was more important as a generator of texts than any of the greater Greek playwrights.  Plautus and Terence get us to Shakespeare, and Menander is their source.

If I have overindulged in literary history, it is because reading Dyskolos, which I mentioned I had not read before, felt like an exercise in theater history.  Quite interesting, but as comedies go not so much fun.  Even the miserable title character is not so much fun:

What a confounded wretch he is!

The sort of life he leads! A tried and true

example of an Attic farmer

in battle with the rocks that yield

only thyme and sage.  He brings in pain

and reaps no good from it. (45)

I do like the little botanical detail.  The great interest in Dyskolos is that so many of the changes in comedy and theater are so clear.  For example, the social register has changed completely.  Aristophanes had some choruses of farmers, but this play is really about farmers, and their slaves, with Athens kept at a distance.  The romantic lead even has to go work as a farmer to win the heroine (I have illustrated the post with a pair of farmers and their wonderful pigs on a vase owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum).

The romantic lead – there is another innovation.  We have just read an entire tradition of theater where there was not, in comedy or tragedy, a single romance, as we call it, a plot about a young man and woman in love and the obstacles – the grouchy father, for example – preventing their happiness.  How many thousands will follow.  I am currently reading the last act of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville (1775), much more sophisticated but at its core nothing more than the young couple in love, and the old man in the way, and the schemes of both parties.

The misanthrope is inevitably defeated in a humiliation scene (thousand more will follow), but it was interesting to hear his defend himself:

If all others were like me,

there wouldn’t be any law-courts,

and no one would send anyone to jail.

There’d be no war – each man would hold

a moderate share and be content.  (52)

Utopian misanthropy.

All quotations are from the Sheila d’Atri translation in the 1998 Menander, ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, University of Pennsylvania Press.

I remember the next Menander, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE), as being quite a bit better than Dyskolos, although perhaps the credit belongs to Eric G. Turner and his 1971 BBC Radio adaptation.  More coherent and more zippy.  We will see.  It’s the last play.  Forty more pages and we’re done.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Wealth by Aristophanes - gout here, pot bellies there, ... obesity beyond all bounds

We saw Sophocles and Euripides end their long careers with masterpieces, but we do not have that luck with Aristophanes.  Wealth (388 BCE) is thin, scattershot, perhaps even a bit defeated or exhausted.

The conceit is as usual excellent.  Plutus, the god of wealth, is freed from his customary blindness by an ordinary Athenian citizen.  As a result, Plutus can finally reward the good and deserving rather than the wicked, although the series of skits that make up the last half of the play become more of a satire on satiety.  If everybody has everything, what happens?  The god Hermes comes begging for help, because no one sacrifices to the gods anymore.  All anyone really asked for was wealth and now they have it.

HERMES:  Oh for the ham I once guzzled!

CARION: You’re giving a ham performance right now if I ever saw one!

HERMES: Oh for the hot innards I used to love!

CARION: Got a pain in your own, have you, eh?  (308, tr. Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics)

Hermes succeeds in acquiring a new role as the God of Competitions.  In a satiated world, all that is left is leisure activities.  Wealth would have some real interest to a Marxist critic.

The long scene in which the personification of Poverty makes her case against Wealth, and wealth, is interesting, although it is also perhaps an example of the weakness of the late Aristophanes plays.  Too static, too talky, too purely a debate.  Still, it is curious to see the moral case for poverty:

POVERTY:  You were talking about a pauper, who has absolutely nothing to live on.  Poverty is quite different.  It means living a thrifty life, sticking to your job, not having anything to spare but not having to go short either.  (289)

Wealth produces obesity and gout, while poverty creates “lean, wiry, wasplike men” who make good soldiers.  Unfortunately, none of this develops into anything.  Gout and obesity do sound likely for the newly wealthy main characters, but we will not see it.

All of this is a sad fantasy in that, as I mentioned last week, Athens was poorer than it had been in generations.  At the play's end, the characters “reinstall Wealth in his old dwelling in the rear chamber of Athena's temple” (310).  They can dream.

The illustration is “The Triumph of Riches” by Hans Holbein, a preparatory 16th century drawing for a now lost painting.  I believe that Plutus is the hunched figure in the chariot,  Here he is not obviously blind, but is led by Fortune.  Life, or at least wealth, ain’t fair.  Go to the Department of Graphic Arts at the Louvre to see the drawing in person.

I understand anyone who reads the last Aristophanes plays and says “I’m done” but I still have two Menander plays on my schedule, the last barely surviving classical Greek plays, written seventy years after the final Aristophanes.  If I judge the importance of a text by its generation of further texts, the Menander plays are arguably the most important plays we will read. 

But really I wanted to keep going because I remember the 1972 Eric Turner version of The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) as so good.  I have not read our next play, Dyskolos (216 BCE) or The Grouch or perhaps The Misanthrope, the only play of the entire project I had not previously read, and I think I will try the Sheila D'Atri version.  His Menander book includes four plays, but two of them are fragments, as much Slavitt as Menander.  They all require some textual help, though.  My inclusion of the two most complete plays was a little arbitrary.

Anyway, next week, Menander’s Dsykolos.


Monday, November 7, 2022

Notes on Aristotle's Poetics - What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?

Aristotle did not invent literary criticism with Poetics (late 4th c. BCE, maybe) – we just read The Frogs – but for centuries it was the base of Western literary criticism, not a source of insight but rather a set of rules.  The Unities, the Tragic Flaw, catharsis, the ranking of forms, with the epic poem on top.  The medieval importation of Aristotle from Muslim Spain was a great advance for European civilization, but it was not always so good for literature.

How prescriptive did Aristotle mean to be?  I am not sure.  His initial impulse is the central one of the enterprise: experiencing a powerful work of literature, he wants to know why it affected him so much.  “What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?” (13, 681) So he assembles the evidence, arranging the tragedies by how they affected him, and begins to generalize.  Perhaps he is just describing his own taste, but the patterns he sees are clear enough.  One central action as opposed to many; stories about families; tragic results caused not by “depravity” but “in some great error on [the protagonist’s] part” (13, 682); writing that is a mix of the simple and ornate.  

These, the strange word, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, &c., will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic, while the ordinary words in it will secure the requisite clearness (22, 699).

Aristotle is the originator of “make it strange” (but not too strange).

Oedipus the King is the perfect tragedy for Sophocles, with other plays approaching it in power.  It is the best, so other plays should be like it, and then it is just a small step to must.  But it is clear enough that Aristotle valued other kinds of plays.  He criticizes Euripides in many ways but is fascinated by – finds a kind of catharsis in – Iphigenia in Tauris, a tragedy that is not even tragic.  But he has a strong taste for scenes of “discovery,” where the emotional effect turns on sister’s recognizing long lost brothers and so on.

That is one example of taste as prescript.  Here is another where Aristotle is obviously wrong, when he argues that a story should not be about:

… an extremely bad man [] falling from happiness into misery.  Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity of fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves… (13, 681)

His assumption that the bad man is not like ourselves is kind.  But my point is that many people absolutely love such stories, and also stories about virtue rewarded and for that matter vice rewarded.  Who am I to judge the catharsis of others?  But perhaps those stories are more common in a later, not less but differently fatalistic, Christian culture.

I have been quoting from the Ingram Bywater translation as found in the Modern Library Introduction to Aristotle.  Bywater conceals the key Greek terms.  A different translation might well look like a different argument.  I don’t know Greek, but I can see where they are hidden, where “fear and pity” translates “catharsis” [completely wrong! see comments below, please] – “The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear” (14, 683).  Up above is the “tragic flaw” or “hamartia” concealed by, translated as, “some great error.”

I’m going to round out my look at Classical Greek literary criticism with On the Sublime or On Great Writing by Longinus (1st c. CE), whoever he was.  On the Sublime is not as play-centered as Poetics, so a bit of a tangent, but it is the major alternative to the aesthetics of Aristotle.  It is full of interesting things, and is perhaps sixty pages long.  I will try to write about Longinus at the end of the month, after the last Menander play.

I am also beginning to wonder if it would be a good idea to take a fresh look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which is directly related, or about two-thirds related, to this last year of reading, so maybe that will be the final text in the aesthetics series.  Please join me if interested.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes - Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes – or The Parliament of Women, or several other titles – was performed in 392 BCE, thirteen years after The Frogs.  In the interval many things had changed.  Athens had been conquered; democracy was overthrown but restored; one endless war ended and another began.  So maybe the one thing that changed, and is now detectable in the play in a way I had not perceived before, is that Athens, once rich, is now poor.  No more spectacularly costumed Choruses of the Birds.  Fortunately, comedy is cheap.

The central conceit of The Assemblywomen is outstanding.  The women of Athens, fed up with it all, as they were in Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women, disguise themselves as men (see left) in order to infiltrate the democratic assembly en masse and vote to put the women in charge.  The disguise scene is a quarter of the play. 

The women, once ruling as women, enact communism, a communism so close to that of Plato’s Republic, written over a decade later.  Not only is wealth held in common, but so are children and most importantly for comic purposes so is sex.  The last half of the short but rambling play is a series of comic sketches about life under communism.

It ends with the invitation to a feast.  Here we find the famous Longest Word in Greek, 171 letters long, just a stew but with the ingredients and even the recipe contained in the name of the dish.  The word by itself is a great gag, full of possibilities for performers, full of tension for the audience.  English translators occasionally try to reproduce it but generally break it up:

                          For –

                              there’ll –

                                     be –

Mussels and whelks and slices of anchovy

Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

Savoury chutney and sauce with a zing in it

Lashings of pickle to pile on your plate…

[seven more lines about fowl] – and that’s about that.  (263, tr. David Barrett)

Is The Assemblywomen cruder than the other Aristophanes plays?  Certainly compared to the last few we have read.

The Assemblywomen is performed fairly often – you can see it at the Warwick Ancient Drama Festival in January, for example – but I had trouble finding a performance still I thought was interesting, so I borrowed a promotional image, visible above, from a 2010 production by the No.11 Productions company.

Scholars have found it useful to call The Assemblywomen and next week’s play, Wealth (388 BCE), “Middle Comedy,” distinct from the Old Comedy we have been reading and the New Comedy of Menander.  It is transitional, perhaps, with a reduced role for the chorus, more prose and less verse, and more stereotypical comic characters.  Maybe so, but I thought it was recognizably Aristophanes, not just in the gags but in the moral imperative: Someone clean up this city!

I do not remember Wealth at all.  The title subject is obviously of endless satirical value.  Next week.