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Making Fun of Aristophanes?

Much of the difficulty people find with teaching Aristophanes seems to me to result from two central misconceptions, some of them a result of the long shadow cast by Victor Ehrenberg's influential book, The People of Aristophanes2 (Oxford, 1951 ):

(i) That Aristophanic comedy is realistic.

(ii) That its humour, after two and half thousand years, will have the same impact on us today as was originally the intention. What Aristophanic comedy undoubtedly does constitute, however, is a deeply revealing document of the Athenian civic, collective imagination.

(i) Aristophanic "Realism"

The world of Old Comedy is a self-contained imaginary construct, with its own immanent, inherent rules, conventions, and traditional features. In many ways it is thus like the self- contained worlds of strip cartoons in comics, or political cartoons in adult newspapers, or seaside postcards, or sci-fi films, or Schwarzenegger action movies, or Mills and Boon romances, any other fictive universe with its own autonomous rules, expectations, and conventions and its own distinctive interface between empirical reality and fictive unreality .

It can be helpful to get students to try to outline the delimiting boundaries of the possible and unthinkable in anyone of these genres, and then to do the same for the World of Aristophanes. Thus in animated cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, for example, terrible violence can be recovered from immediately, falling through a wall results in perfect silhouettes of the victim left in the wall, death never happens, mice can be swallowed and regurgitated alive, and the conflict between predator and prey is never resolved at the end. In other cartoons animals can speak.

It can also be helpful to compare the list of boundaries and conventions of Old Comedy with those of tragedy. The result of such a comparison is that comedy is discovered to be in many ways infinitely less 'realistic' than tragedy, despite its setting in the 'here' of Athens and the 'now' of the audience and writer's immediate present. It can be helpful to give a label to the unique fictive world of Aristophanic Athens, such as 'Para-Athens' or 'Aristophathens'.

Here are just a few examples of the things which are admissible in 'para-Athens', impossible in 'real' Athens, and only some of which can happen in the arguably more 'realistic' world of tragedy. The audience can watch gods in action (Frogs, Peace, Birds). Characters can make forays into Hades (Frogs), Olympus (Peace), or the upper air (Clouds, Birds). The dead can be talked to (Frogs), as can gods. An Athenian citizen can take a ride on a dung-beetle (Peace ). People in general can traverse huge distances between cities at a moment's notice in a few seconds. Animals can talk and sing (the frogs in Frogs, birds in Birds, wasps in Wasps, dogs (the trial scene in Wasps). Horses can row triremes (Knights, p. 59). Ships can hold meetings (Knights pp. 84-5). Old men can be boiled and magically rejuvenated (Knights pp.85-6). Individuals can see from the stage the whole of the Aegean to the coast of Asia (the sausage-seller in Knights, p. 42). An Athenian citizen can marry a divinity (as Trygaeus marries 'Harvest', Opora, in Peace). In Old Comedy nobody ever actually dies, despite great violence both onstage and off it

Some examples of the basic plot conventions of Aristophanic comedy (this is more familiar): heroes are ordinary citizens. They are neither upper class nor of the lowest order of citizens. They are usually small-holders from one of the rural demes (e.g. Trygaeus) or lower middle- class urban citizens such as Strepsiades, Praxagora. Procleon. They therefore have some distance on the upper class (e.g. the chorus of Knights), intellectuals (Euripides, Socrates), and the lowest-status tradesmen (sausage-sellers etc.). Most plots are broadly structured around this simple plan:

Problem/Quest for Solution/Implementation of Solution/Celebration.

Para-Athens performs a very important social function by permitting the Athenian audience to indulge in collective wish-fulfilment through thus utopian formula.

Once there is some grasp of the inherent rules of the world of Para-Athens, it can be interesting and instructive to get students to plan their own Old Comedy. The problem can be taken from any famous incident in Athenian history or modern history .The kind of problems that Aristophanic heroes set out to solve are big-scale civic or social problems. How to end the war, how to clean up the legal system, how to get rid of corrupt politicians, how to return to traditional values, how to get rid of poverty and political apathy (Ecclesiazusae).

(ii) Aristophanic 'Fun'

To find many of the jokes in Aristophanes funny, we would have to be as xenophobic, status- conscious, homophobic, sexist, and obsessed in an infantile manner with bodily emissions as the ordinary ancient Athenian. Some of the humour does still work well: paratragedy and other passages where there is a clash of tones and registers, and the numerous scenes of competition ( e.g. Aeschylus versus Euripides, sausage-seller versus Paphlagonian when they are competing in shouting or flattery, Trygaeus versus the whole series of people whose living depends on the perpetuation of the war). But all the humour which relies on creating a sense of masculine 'in-group' civic identity through stereotypes of and attacks on women, lower- class accents, upper-class accents (Alcibiades in Wasps, p. 41), lower class politicians, foreigners, and effeminates, these days actually tends to lead to student embarrassment if is attempted to find it actually funny. But students can be asked what kind of values, perspectives, and social needs produced the stereotypes on which so much Aristophanic humour relies: humorous discourse is one the most revealing forms of documentation of any society's ideology , anxieties, and group identities. See e.g. M.L. Apte, Humor and Laughter: an Anthropological Approach (Ithaca/London, 1985).

(iii) Other Fertile Topics

The interface between audience 'and actors: one of the most important distinctions between tragedy and comedy is that comedy addresses the audience directly. Para-Athens is not sealed off from the world of the audience.

'Metatheatre': aspects of the plays which draw attention to the theatrical nature of the whole exercise. Metatheatrical features include (a) internal 'performances' (rhetorical competitions, musical performances, recitations of poetry, dancing girls etc. ); (b) changes of costume to alter identity and/or gender; ( c) parody of tragic poetry ('paratragedy').

Dr Edith Hall - Cambridge