Tom: So we begin with the man himself. What do we know about Aristophanes’ life? In his new translation of four plays which you've reviewed for the LRB Aaron Poochigian includes a whimsical biographical note about the author, which says only that Aristophanes was the most celebrated comic playwright of fifth century Athens, and that he lost his hair young. And is that the limit of what we know?
Emily: It's a good joke! And of course it's appropriate to have good jokes because he made a lot of good jokes. We know quite a lot about his poetic dramatic output. We know the titles of most of the forty plays he produced in his lifetime. We know roughly when he lived, he was significantly younger than Euripides, the last dramatist we talked about. So he was born in the 440s and lived into the fourth century, into the 380s. Beyond that we really know very little about his biography. We're not told that he took up city offices in the way that we're told about Sophocles. In contrast to Sophocles, who was clearly friends with Pericles, friends with important political people in the city, that's not the narrative that we get about Aristophanes. But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean that he was somehow an outsider? I don't know that we can necessarily say that, it just means that we don't know very much about his life beyond the theatre.
Tom: Where were Aristophanes’ comedies performed? Would it have been at the same festival as, say, Euripides’ tragedies, that you'd have three days of tragedy and then a day of comedy at the end?
Emily: Both. So many of Aristophanes’ comedies were performed at the city Dionysia, so at the same context as tragedy, and the city Dionysia did include, we think, a day of comedy as well as three days of tragedies and satyr plays. So for instance, the Lysistrata was put on at the Dionysia. But then there was also a separate festival which happened earlier in the year, the Lenaia, at which comedy was the central dramatic form. And the comic festival was the primary thing at the Lenaia. The Lenaia was a smaller festival, and it was earlier in the year and therefore during the winter months when sailing wasn't good. So it was primarily first of all focused on an audience of Athenians, in contrast to the great Dionysia where there would have been lots of foreign dignitaries from other Greek-speaking states coming to the festival. So I think it also helps make sense of the focus of comedy, which is very much on the city of Athens. And a lot of the jokes are in jokes that are funny if you're Athenian. You have to know the people, you have to know exactly what's been happening in city politics over the last couple of months for it to be funny. Whereas tragedy has this much more universal – at least if you're an elite Greek man – relevant-to-you kind of theme to it.
Tom: And is that also one of the differences with the satyr plays, because there are superficial similar similarities, low characters with phalluses gambolling about and lots of drinking! How does a comedy of Aristophanes differ from a satyr play?
Emily: Yes. I think for a modern audience this can be puzzling, that ancient people had no sense that satyr play and comedy were at all the same genre. They seemed to the ancient Athenians completely different genres. Satyr plays are different because their whole setting is different. They feature centrally mythological characters, just like tragedy features mythological characters, whereas old comedy features characters that the playwright has made up along with some local celebrities like Socrates or Euripides coming on. So it has much more of the Saturday Night Live sketch comedy vibe than the mythical sense which satyr plays have. They're about wild spaces and about the jolly japes with the horny satyrs getting drunk and being idiots on the mountain side, whereas old comedy is about the jolly japes and people getting drunk and being idiots in the city.
So it's imagined as a different genre, because even though of course there were jokes in fact in all three of the dramatic genres of Athens including tragedy, jokes don't define the genre, the setting does.
Tom: Right. And although we’ll maybe come on to this a bit later, but in Aristophanes's Birds, for example, that is outside the city, isn't it? The characters leave the city and go off to cloud cuckoo land to live in that sort of Utopia...
Emily: ...to found a new city. So yes, you're absolutely right. There are ways that Birds is an outlier in the way that it's outside the city, but then it also in a way fits because it's about what is a city and how do we found one? One can read The Birds as these Athenians replicating a version of imperial Athens, even in the sky, so I think it's not exactly un-Athenian. It's very much engaged with the themes of contemporary Athens, even though it's got this zany animal chorus setting as well.
Tom: And on the question of zany animal choruses, of which there are a lot, in Frogs, named for its chorus of frogs, which won first prize at the Lenaia in 405, the year after Euripides died, and involves the god Dionysus travelling to the underworld to bring Euripides back to life, presumably this is one of things you're talking about, with the local celebrities and the currency. And Euripides is dead. Tragedy is dead. What are we going to do? Let's bring Euripides back to life. We talked a bit about this when we were talking about Sophocles and Euripides, but the reception of the tragedians and the ideas about them comes from the way they're represented by Aristophanes.
Emily: A whole lot comes through Aristophanes and specifically from The Frogs, as well as from the Thesmophoriazusae which also has Euripides in it. Aristophanes of course fits Euripedes and Aeschylus into the model that he very often centres his plot around, which is a contrast between old culture and new culture or between tradition and new ways. So Euripides is made to represent the innovative new ways that might be corrupting the city, and Aeschylus is made to represent back in the days of Marathon, back in the days before women were corrupted by watching or by hearing about the characters in Euripides. Were the old days better or are the new days better? And that theme or that question of a clash between generations and a clash between the old ways and the new ways occurs in almost every Aristophanes play we have, it seems to be a sort of feature of his work and maybe of the genre. Is that actually a nuanced account of the relationship between Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides? Of course it isn't, it's not supposed to be a nuanced account, it's supposed to be funny, and it is funny. And it's funny also in the various ways that Aristophanes manages to literalise metaphor and to literalise the ridiculousness of the Athenian assumption that the job of dramatists is to teach you something. So if their job is to teach you something, then maybe we can weigh out exactly how valuable are these words versus those words. And so there's a wonderful sort of stage business of let's weigh the words and see which ones have the most weight, as if words were just like gold and we can figure out which ones are going to save us.
Tom: And they do. And Aeschylus wins and Dionysus ends up bringing Aeschylus back instead of Euripides.
Emily: He does, yes. So in a way the plot seems to tell you Aeschylus is better than Euripides and the old ways are better than the new ways, but it's also very clear that Aristophanes is mocking Aeschylus as well. Both in The Clouds, which we're going to talk about in a minute and in The Frogs, there's definitely mockery of the traditionalist as well as of the newfangled character. There's a presentation of Aeschylus as totally pompous and full of himself and also obsessed with boys’ bottoms, and all of those things are funny, but they're not necessarily presented as if only we could get back to those days when these guys were so pompous and so much obsessed with going to the gym.
Tom: And in Lysistrata as well the chorus of old men talk about how they fought in all these battles that actually took place a hundred years ago and they can't possibly have done, which is a bit like boomers talking about the Second World War and we won the war, and that sort of thing!
Emily: The glory days, which is complete fantasy, yes. The greatest generation is always some earlier generation. Aristophanes is very much aware of the fantasy of tradition.
Tom: Even to go back to the Iliad there's that bit where Nestor tells all the heroes you're no good compared to Theseus, the really great heroes are all in the past. Even in the Iliad people are talking about the good old days! So if we move on to Clouds now, which again stages this argument between old ways and new ways, doesn't it, not in the theatre but in the context of education, if that's not an anachronistic term for it.
Emily: Yes. I think both plays, in fact all of the plays are about education. The Frogs is also about how does the theatre teach and what would a corrupting form of paideia be from the theatre. Paideia is related to the term for boy or childhood, but it connotes education. The Clouds focuses on the new forms of education that have come into the city with the sophists or wisdom makers. I think we talked about them a little bit when we talked about Medea and the idea of sophia or new kinds of cleverness, new kinds of skill, which could potentially be taught and could be associated with foreigners. In The Clouds, Socrates, who in fact wasn't a foreigner but was an Athenian is presented as the primary sophist who has this wonderful setup of a ‘thinkery’. I think that's how Aaron Poochigian translates the school of Socrates in this play. And in this school, he teaches all kinds of baloney such as logic chopping that has to do with measuring how far a flea can jump, new kinds of language analysis which various sophists were interested in. He teaches the students that they should always say ‘chicken’ and ‘chickeness’ and drill down into the irrationalities of language and gender. And he also teaches that there are new gods in the sky instead of the old ones. And the chorus in this play is not frogs or wasps or birds, but clouds. So it's the most abstract and immaterial chorus you could have of these you might think wishy-washy new deities up in the sky, but in fact they're not exactly gods. And they help him to introduce some kind of new metaphysics that has to do with something other than the old school Olympian gods.
Tom: And obviously when Clouds was performed, Socrates as it were might have been in the audience. And some years later he was then prosecuted for corrupting the youth, sent to prison and committed suicide and so on. So how damaging to Socrates was Clouds? Is it possible to say?
Emily: It's possible to say that Plato in his version of Socrates' defence speech from his trial in 399 on charges, as you say, of impiety and corrupting the youth Plato makes Socrates say, before I was prosecuted in this particular trial, I had earlier accusers in the city who accused me of things like impiety and corruption, and included among these was that terrible dramatist Aristophanes who in his play The Clouds was presenting me as a corrupter of the youth by putting forward wrong argument as better than right argument and as not respecting traditional religion by worshipping the clouds and these stupid newfangled ideas of the gods like the ether. So The Clouds is presented in that text by Plato as responsible for the equation of Socrates with all these other sophists or wisdom teachers who taught all kinds of other things. As far as we can tell Socrates didn't actually show an interest in newfangled teachings, either about logic or metaphysics or anything really much beyond the ethical evaluative linguistic questions like what is justice. So I think a lot of it depends on whether we think Plato as evoking the character of Socrates many decades after this play is good evidence for the effect of this play in its time and over the course of that 12 years between the play and the trial.
Tom: And presumably it also would have a rhetorical effect. You say your accusations of me now are as ridiculous as that play by Aristophanes. You know what you sound like. You sound like Aristophanes!
Emily: You sound like a comedian, and you're making it up just as we know Aristophanes was making it up and everyone knows that about Aristophanes. So I don't think it's good evidence for thinking this play really caused the death of Socrates. I think it's good evidence for thinking Plato knew that everyone would know that play. It's good evidence for the enduring influence and cultural prominence of Aristophanes into the fourth century. Exactly what kind of historical causation, that's a little bit shakier.
Tom: And also as a representation of one popular perception of Socrates, this was one way. The way in which he's represented in Clouds is obviously a travesty, but presumably Aristophanes wasn't out on a limb. So let's look at Socrates. We all love him of old!
Emily: Yes. Love him or hate him, here he is! And very few of the jokes really in The Clouds really depend on the audience being able to say...but actually Socrates doesn't say that, he says something different because of course it's a tiny minority of the audience and the population who actually have been involved with Socrates and studied with him. So just lumping all of these quite different wisdom teachers together, who cares as long as it's funny and as long as it showcases some trends in the ridiculousnesses of newfangled education.
Tom: And Socrates is as it were – I'm using all these anachronistic terms – the headmaster of the school, the phrontisterion, the thinking shop or the Thinkery. But he's not actually the protagonist of the play, is he, because there’s this guy Strepsiades who wants to send his son Pheidippides to the school so that he can learn these new sophistic techniques. And then when all Strepsiades’ creditors turn up to collect their debts his son can argue them away and then say he won't have to pay his debts. And he's a typical Aristophanic protagonist, this guy, isn’t he, he's a citizen and he's at least up to a point an elite citizen.
Do you want to maybe talk a bit about these guys who tend to be the protagonists of Aristophanes’ plays?
Emily: So in contrast to tragedy, where as we've said tragedy focuses on mythological characters like Antigone or Oedipus who are kings or tyrants or princesses, in contrast comedy focuses on people you haven't heard of because Aristophanes made them up. And they're just your average Athenian citizen who's in some kind of a pickle and then comes up with a fantasy solution to the pickle. And that's the general plot outline for Aristophanic comedy. So in The Clouds, as you say, Strepsiades is in a pickle because his son is running up huge debts because he's addicted to buying horses, and of course it's an expensive hobby. So he wants a way out of having to pay his debts. So he turns to moral philosophy for this completely immoral purpose of welching out on his creditors. And he turns to Socrates who's going to be able to help him do that. And in fact in the course of the play the education Strepsiades receives comes partly from Socrates himself, but then when he sends his son to be educated, it's not actually Socrates himself who teaches him to make the worse argument appear the stronger. The arguments appear in their own guises, so the personified argument of wrong dukes it out with the personified rightness. So this is in a way a replay of what we just talked about with Euripides and Aeschylus, that the comic premise of traditional is going to duke it out with the newfangled ways, and the scene hinges on how ridiculous they both are. Both old and new are pompous in their own ways.
Tom: And this is something that happens in tragedy as well, isn't it, the contest or agon.
Emily: Yes, agon. The idea of competing speeches, and it's one of the ways that drama was modelled on the law courts and also on the democratic assembly, there’s a trope of two characters giving opposing speeches. And then the audience or other characters have to decide who made the more persuasive speech.
Tom: And shall we listen now to a bit of one of so-called right arguments, speeches, in the translation by Aaron Poochigian.
[Read by Hazel Holder] And yet you will be sleek and hale because you will be spending your days at the gymnasium, not making bawdy jokes while chattering in the marketplace, the way the young do now. You won't be dragged into a small claims court because of some hair-splitting, pettyfogging, barefaced roguish lawsuit. No, you will go down to the academy and with some modest companion sprint for exercise beneath the sacred olives. You will be garlanded with white reeds. You will smell like yew trees and leisure time and poplar shedding leaves. You will enjoy the springtime, and adore the plane tree whispering to the elm.
Tom: And so this is clearly satirising that traditionalist view, the idea that it's right. And even the word dikaios, the dikaioslogos, the right argument, that can mean ‘according to custom’, ‘according to the law’. It can mean ‘traditional’ as well as ‘correct’, can’t it.
Emily: It can. It could connote ‘traditional’, it could also connote ‘legalistic’, and a dika is a law court. So it's not necessarily the case that the right argument is the ethical argument.
Tom: And also presumably up to a point it's fantasising about a time... because Clouds was written during the Peloponnesian war, right, there was a war going on! So all this stuff about going for a sprint beneath the sacred olives, which may not be there because they've probably been burned in the latest Spartan raid. There's a kind of failure to confront reality here.
Emily: There's a failure to confront reality, and there's also a sense that while there's a war on look at these idiots wasting their money on race-horses! And none of them are actually focused on anything that might save the city. As in The Frogs so in The Clouds, there's an idea that both the teachers and the regular people are completely off the wall about where should their attention be. And if democracy is in the hands of people like this, then what hope is there for the city?
Tom: Aristophanes also targeted the people who were running the war, in particular Cleon, the general who was an opponent of Pericles and succeeded him. He's one of the main targets.
Emily: He is. So Cleon fits into the category that we've been talking about, of Aristophanes being interested in celebrity figures who represent the new ways of the city. So Cleon is the most prominent political target in Aristophanes, and he was pushing for war and was also very much associated with drumming up popular support among tradespeople and mercantile class or bourgeois class citizens. So he was associated with the new ways in politics, just as one could say Socrates was associated with the new ways in thinking about language and religion and ethics and Euripides was associated with the new ways in poetry and drama and tragedy. So Cleon is the new ways in politics, which means warmongering, pro-Peloponnesian war and not aristocratic, or getting political support from people who aren't aristocrats.
Tom: And also paying people to do jury service...
Emily: And corruption and bribery, all of that too!
Tom: So Aristophanes consistently attacks or satirises his fellow Athenians who appear to present the new ways in tragedy and politics and philosophy, but he also presents himself as being a new kind of comedian.
Emily: Yes. One of the ways that comedy is different from tragedy in an Athenian context is that comic playwrights put into the mouths of their choruses speeches which are in the mouth of the playwright himself. So the playwright is stepping forward as himself and saying, why didn't you give me the prize last year? And that's a common theme in the paraboses, as they are called of Aristophanes, where he steps forward and says, this is what I was trying to do in this play, and none of you got it because I was way too original, I'm going over your heads. And also don't you notice that I'm being far better than all the other comedians who just put in poop jokes and sex jokes. And look at me, I'm so cultured and I'm putting in all the culture jokes as well as all the poop jokes, so why on earth did you give that guy the prize instead? And you're right that he very much presents himself as doing something different from his fellow comedians. And of course we don't have his fellow comedians, many of whom did defeat him in the competitions. We have fragments of people like Eupolis and Cratinus, but we don't have complete plays by any of them. So of course it's actually quite hard to judge in real life, was Aristophanes really so original.
We can't actually tell for ourselves. What we can tell is that he fashions himself as both interested in the good old ways and also extremely original and doing something completely different that's better than the bad old ways of comedy when it was just the poop jokes.
Tom: But as well as doing all that he was also capable of writing very accomplished and even quite beautiful lyric verse, even if it's often a kind of pastiche. He was a poet as much as Euripides or Sophocles or Aeschylus was a poet. And presumably the choruses would have been sung?
Emily: The choruses would have been sung, yes, absolutely. And even the bit that we heard just before, the evocation in right arguments discourse of leisure under the plane trees, it's supposed to be ridiculous, but it's also so beautiful and it's evoked in a way that manages to do both. And Aristophanes is very often managing to have it both ways, he's both mocking something and also doing a wonderful version of it. And the choral passages in particular often have this wonderfully lyrical and beautiful quality. And the dialogue passages also have a sort of vividness, which is in many ways comparable to the dialogic vividness of Euripides, from whom he clearly learned a lot. So this is the Aaron Poochigian translation, and this is part of the Clouds singing as clouds and telling about their metaphysical identity.
[Read by Hazel Holder] Let us, the deathless clouds, arise to human vision out of the roaring fathoms of our father ocean and fly above the forest-laden mountain tops, so that we may behold the towers on the peaks, the sacred soil-fermented crops, the holy river’s roaring flux, and the loud sounding sea. The ether’s never-sleeping eye glints with glittering rays. Come, let us shake the water drops off our immortal beauty and survey the earth with telescopic gaze.
Tom: And again, presumably part of the appeal of that song is the fantasy of escaping the city, of going up into the sky, instead of being down here with all the poop and the war and the bribery and everything else, it's that telescopic gaze...he presents this idea, imagine being able to do all this, but then we're straight back down with...
Emily: ...with the craziness, yes! And in a way it's very similar. We talked last time, I think, about the choruses in Euripides which are escape fantasy choruses, and that chorus of the Clouds is quite comparable to some of the ‘I wish I could fly away and be a bird’ choruses you find repeatedly in the Euripides plays of the Peloponnesian war years specifically.
Tom: But the question of the urge to escape, is it a conservative one? The idea to go back to a golden age as with the right arguments fantasy of running beneath the olives? Or could it be seen as having a more radical impulse too, even a revolutionary one in the plays, whatever Aristophanes himself may or may not have thought.
Emily: It's so hard to tell. Aristophanes like many comedians is very hard to pin down politically. His plays are very much engaged with political questions in most cases. And yet it's very hard to say definitively this is what he’s saying should be the political takeaway, or this is how you should vote, beyond that war doesn't seem to be a great thing, and there seems to be a sort of cynicism about people in general. But that doesn't necessarily tell us how to get out of the mess we're in, given that all the solutions are clearly completely fantastical and unrealistic. I think there's a sort of evolutionary impulse towards ‘if only we could either get back to the past or come up with some totally radical implausible solution’, but in a way there's something conservative about the implausibility, right? There's something conservative about saying the only possible way out of this mess would be if we could go and live in the sky or if we could do something equally ridiculous like letting women have a voice in the assembly, which obviously was never going to happen. And it's a way of saying the mess is so deep and so entrenched that there isn't really a solution. And the ridiculousness of every possible solution is a way of saying there is no solution, you could say. People argue a lot about the degree to which there even is a serious engagement with politics in Aristophanes, and I think you can take it multiple different ways.
Tom: You've already mentioned the ridiculous idea of women taking over the assembly – well, there are two plays where that sort of happens, that the women of the assembly all get up early in the morning and put on their beards and go down and pretend to be men and say we should hand the city over to the women, and they all vote for it, which also involves that they then abolish private property and also any idea of monogamy.
Emily: It anticipates the ideas in Plato's Republic. It's an idea of communism, that there's something better than the form of democracy we have right now.
Tom: But turning to Lysistrata, which is a much more famous story about women taking charge. Certainly part of its appeal still, or its appeal now in modern versions or adaptations of it, the idea of women bringing an end to war by means of a sex strike tends to be presented as an inherently radical idea. Modern Lysistratas rarely say, isn't this absurd and let’s put women back in their place at the end.
Emily: Yes. I think you have to do some violence to the play to read it as actually either feminist or radical. It does present this heroic protagonist who in many ways is much more heroic than Strepsiades is in The Clouds. Lysistrata, who seems to have an actual moral political purpose to bring an end to the war, manages to organise and get together both the Spartan and Athenian wives – of course, the enslaved people aren't involved – to go on a sex strike. And the concept is that the husbands will be so desperate to have sex with their wives and won't be able to think of any other alternative and will therefore be forced to end the Peloponnesian war. And that will be a wonderful thing which women's collective political action can achieve. But then in the final scene, Lysistrata brings on a naked woman, the figure of reconciliation, and the guys all divide up the parts of the objectified woman. And that means that they can each have part of their empire through claiming a woman's body. And there seems to be no sense at the end of the play that that means that maybe women should take over permanently. It's not like that's ever something which is at all on the table in the play. And I think the premise is ridiculous in so many ways. Ridiculous not just because supposedly women shouldn't have a voice, but also the sex strike itself is of course a silly premise. So I'm just not sure exactly how successful it is to claim this play as a sort of prototype for ‘women are not men' political action. There's a Spike Lee movie called Chi-Raq, which tries to meld an idea about the problems of gun violence in Chicago onto the Lysistrata plot, and I think it's in some ways a really fun movie. I love how they do the chorus and show groups of people working together in a sort of sing-song way, and I love how Lee does the poeticness of the lyrics through rhyme. But I also feel uncomfortable with the movie because it seems to suggest that individual action is going to be the solution in a way that...I'm not sure that it’s actually radical to say that.
Tom: And actually on that question of individual action, one of the many things that's slightly unusual – it depends how these plays got their names, but it's named for the protagonist, for its ordinary human protagonist. A lot of his plays are named for their choruses or they’re named for a personified abstract idea like peace or wealth. Would Aristophanes have called the play Lysistrata, or was that to do with its reception? But I suppose even that fact that it is received as being named after its protagonist implies something different.
Emily: It implies something different. I think this play is quite distinctive in the separateness of the protagonist from the chorus. She's in charge of organising the chorus of women, but the play is also unusual in having multiple choruses. Whereas with the later play, which you mentioned, which is the Women at the Assembly, the title is Women at the Assembly. And it's about the women collectively organising to get political power for no particular purpose. Whereas Lysistrata is about this particular character and her distinctness from other women, as well as from other men. She's presented as not being guided primarily by her own desire to have sex and get drunk, which is the motivation for pretty much every other human character in Aristophanes, both male and female. That's what people want to do as well as cheat each other and get out of paying their debts.
Tom: Shall we listen to a bit of one of her speeches now, where she's laying out her plan for the sex strike, her plan for achieving peace.
[Read by Hazel Holder] If we lounged about the house with make-up on, and sauntered past our husbands wearing no clothes except a see-through gown, and trimmed our pubes into a perfect triangle, and if the men then got all hard and burned to screw us, but we backed off and refused to touch them, they would cut a peace damn quick. You can be sure of that.
Tom: And you've already said this, but the reasons that this wouldn't really work are all part of the joke, because it depends on this hilarious premise that all men only have sex with their wives, so they're all plagued with priapism, and the only possible solution which would be to have sex with their wives has been denied them. But that’s not the only one, there are plenty of other ideas about sex, especially as held by men, which are held up to ridicule as well. There's this character, the Proboulos, which is some kind of city official, Poochigian calls him the Commissioner, has a speech where he said it's all the men's fault because they've taught the women their wicked ways.
Emily: Yes, he's suggesting that the only reason women want sex is because they've been taught to do it. And of course, the speech also depends on some funny double entendres, which presumably were acted out.
[Read by Hazel Holder]: By Poseidon, we've been asking for it. We ourselves incite our wives’ transgressions, we positively teach them to be wanton. And so it's no surprise these sorts of plots are growing up among them. We ourselves go to the shops and say such things as, goldsmith, you know that necklace I had you make. Last evening while my wife was dancing in it, the post that's on the fastener slipped out of the hole. Now I'm off to Salamis, gone till tomorrow. If you have the time, stop by my house this evening, please, and fit a post into her hole.
Tom: And so on.
Emily: And so on, yes. I think that maybe it’s worth just pausing over how that's a complicated kind of joke. It's a joke which depends not just on it's funny that there's poles and holes, which in itself is funny potentially, but it's also about....
Tom: ...the elaborateness of setting it up. How elaborately can I set up this slightly crummy joke about posts and holes?
Emily: Yes, it's funny on the level of posts and holes, so you can laugh on that level, but you can also laugh on the level of – this may be going back to the theme that we emphasised before –Aristophanes’ interest in what does drama teach and what do words teach. But he's laughing also at the idea that you actually have to be taught to enjoy sex or be interested in it, and that it wouldn't have ever occurred to any person unless they'd been taught to do this. And then it's also laughing at the idiocy of this guy. So I feel like there's at least three different jokes going on at the same time, which is often the case with Aristophanes, that he's very often both giving you the stepping on the banana peel kind of joke and then also various other kinds of joke, which depend on language and interpersonal relationships as well.
Tom: And a lot of that comedy comes through in...it's physical comedy, not only in terms of the slipping on the banana peel kind, but dramatic as well, because there's this quite long scene in the middle of the play where Lysistrata tells one of the other women to tease her husband, and then when she does and it goes on and on and on, she has to keep going to get this, and so I need a blanket and a pillow and I need to feed the baby. And then she eventually goes off stage and leaves him standing. And as a drama it works very well. There is a sophisticated dramatic thing going on there as well as the comedy.
Emily: Absolutely, yes. And like any drama, it depends on plots and it depends on timing. We talked about tragedy, about reversal of recognition and the sort of buildup in which the guy is failing to recognise something, which is that she isn't actually intending ever to get to the point of having sex with him, she's just going to keep on bringing more props. And so there's this comic denouement when he does finally have that comic recognition that she's just snuck off and left him with all the ridiculous pillows and bottles of perfume, which were just to lead him on.
Tom: And then there's this very sad and plaintive speech by the chorus.
Emily: So this is after the character who in Aaron Poochigian’s translation is rendered as Hardon has suffered his terrible comic recognition of realising that he's going to be left with his erection and no wife there. And then the old men's chorus leader responds sympathetically to this poor character's plight.
[Read by Hazel Holder] Terrible horrible pain must now be torturing your soul. I pity you, poor man. You have been played the fool. What kidney could endure this much? What soul, what balls, what loins, what crutch strained like a victim on the rack?And in the morning hours? No fuck.
Tom: And again, there's a war going on, and presumably people are being killed. And yet the idea that here's the greatest torment.
Emily: And at the same time we're doing that. The audience is also being invited not to think about the war, but to laugh about this guy with his hard-on. It's not that the play is actually inviting us to think about international diplomacy.
Tom: And that question of international diplomacy... of course Lysistrata’s plot depends on the Spartan wives doing the same thing to get both groups of men to the negotiating table. So how are the Spartans represented in Lysistrata?
Emily: Well, they speak in the Spartan dialect, so there's also comedy generated from ‘listen to these characters speaking funny’, and of course one of the big challenges for any translator is what to do about the comedy generated from a funny accent and how offensive can that potentially be. And of course there are many offensive possibilities! They’re also presented as, I guess, what in America you'd call rednecks or the sort of farming mountain-dwelling people who don't have the sophistication that the Athenian characters have. There's a sort of ethnic stereotyping, anti-Spartan sentiment that's being aroused in the play even while the play is also supposedly saying if only we could be friends with the Spartans, at least to the degree of stopping this war. So I think again Aristophanes is trying to have it both ways.
Tom: Obviously it's impossible to say, but there are moments in which it seems that maybe there could be a serious point behind it or more serious even than Aristophanes lets on, not only that dichotomy between war and love or war and sex, the ‘make love not war’ aspect of it, Mars and Venus, but also the idea that women might be better at managing things than men. Does the play take that idea seriously? Because there's that very famous speech of Lysistrata’s where she compares the city to a filthy sheep's fleece, and then talks in a lot of detail about everything you have to do in order to have wool that you can then weave into garments and the processes of cleaning and preparing it, which presumably would have been women's work.
Emily: It would have been women's work. When we talked about Antigone, about lamentation and the care for the dead as women's work, and this play certainly focuses on how household management and the economy within managing finances as well as managing cloth and the creation of clothes is women's work within fifth century Athens. So as you say, Lysistrata comes up with this idea that what's needed in international diplomacy is the same set of skills that are needed in the domestic set-up, which is to do with patience, and women's tasks traditionally involve slow patient work rather than just lunging in there and hacking everything up, which is the work of the assembly or the workforce. And it it's possible to read that as making a very serious point and a very valid point. It's certainly not the only direction the play goes in, it's a direction that it goes in for a while and then it moves away from it. And what happens in the final scene with the dividing up of reconciliation is certainly not teasing out the fleece. It's hacking up the woman's body, just as always. But Aristophanes as always seems to manage to have it multiple different ways at once. He manages to make this serious and one could say quite persuasive point. But then he makes that point for a few minutes and then he's going to make a different point. So this is the passage with Lysistrata presenting a different, woman-centric model of how international relations and politics should work.
[read by Hazel Holder]: Imagine Athens is a fresh-shorn fleece. First, what you do is dunk it in a bath and wash away the sheep poop. Then you lay it on the bed and take a stick and beat out all the nasties. Then you pick the thistles out. Next, you take those that have stuck together and become as thick as felt, to snug up all the civic offices, and comb them out and pluck their heads off. Then you go and card the raw cleaned wool into the basket of reciprocal agreeableness, mixing everyone in there together, resident aliens and other foreigners you like, and those who owe the state back taxes. Mix them in there good. Next you should think of all the cities that are colonies of Athens as if they are scattered bits of wool. You take these bits and bring them all together and combine them into one big ball from which you weave apparel for the people.
Emily: And presumably – we don't know exactly about the staging – but presumably she could actually have wool on stage and be acting out how to do it. And presumably also she could be pointing out, you guys are going to get lopped off. Once we do the detangling work, get rid of the mats.
Tom: But it’s also a question perhaps of taking the metaphor too far, isn't it.
Emily: It becomes ridiculous, yes. As with the metaphor of ‘abstract thought is like clouds, and then let's put The Clouds on stage’. It's potentially a serious point, but it's made to sound at least borderline really silly because she just goes on and on and on.
Tom: And there are also the dangers of, obviously, ways in which the oikos, the household and the polis, the household and the city are similar, but in our own times the way that the argument for austerity, the state has maxed out its credit card, that idea...
Emily: ...it’s not necessarily a helpful metaphor!
Tom: You were talking earlier about referring to the work of Aristophanes as ‘old’ comedy, which obviously implies that there was new comedy as well. So how did comedy change after Aristophanes? He’s not old comedy just because he was ancient Greek?
Emily: So you don't say old tragedy because we don't have new tragedy, but we do have new comedy. So after Athens lost the war to the Spartans at the end of the fifth century and became a much less prominent power in the Mediterranean than it had been before, there were various cultural impacts. And one of the cultural effects seems to have been a real shift in what people found funny dramatically and what comedy was. So all comedy is characterised by the crazy choruses that we talked about and by the references to real life living people like Socrates, Cleon, Euripides, and also this engagement with the recent political and cultural events of the city of Athens. The last two plays of Aristophanes that we have seem to be moving in a direction towards what people called ‘middle’ comedy without really knowing much about it because we don't actually have middle comedy, in which the chorus has less of a role. And there's less direct engagement with current political affairs. The primary extant example of new comedy, the genre which came after in the fourth century is Menander. And we have a significant amount of Menander because Menander was extremely popular in antiquity. Menander is much more like stereotypical soap opera. It features stereotype characters and it’s in any town in Greece. It's not set specifically in Athens and it doesn't have the zany animal choruses, it doesn't have the specific references to particular people, so it's a much more universalisable genre. It's supposed to be funny if you think pompous old guys are funny and if you think it's funny when women get raped, but then through a series of fortunate or unfortunate events, they ended up marrying their rapist, and it's funny. The genres of later Roman comedy and then Shakespearian comedy all come through the line of new comedy, which is focused on misunderstandings, luck and stereotypes and family relations where there's some misunderstanding among a family, and then everyone gets back together and there's usually a marriage and it's all fine. So it's a very different type of plot from the protagonist tries to change something in their city and there's a conflict between old and new, which happens in old comedy, it doesn't happen in the same way in new comedy.
Tom: Presumably the reasons that Aristophanes fell out of popularity compared to Menander, the fact that you needed to know the specifics and the history of the Peloponnesian war and know who Socrates was, know who Euripides was, those reasons which made him difficult to stage are among the reasons why he's now studied more, read more, thought more about than Menander is. Because once the big question of being studied by classes, once ancient Greek comedy becomes an elite pursuit of study rather than entertainment for the masses, Aristophanes becomes more interesting because actually the whole question of who was Cleon, look at the way Euripides is represented, becomes more interesting again.
Emily: Right. As a source for social history, obviously all comedy is much better because it's actually going to tell you something about the details of what was happening in 411 versus 412, whereas new comedy isn't that kind of genre, it's not going to be able to tell you that. It might be able to tell you something about broad cultural tropes, but it isn't going to have any evidence for what are the various different slang words for genitalia in this particular year, whereas Aristophanes can tell you that!
Tom: When the theatres were open, Lysistrata would get put on fairly regularly in the London theatres, Menander’s comedies not so much.
Emily: It's partly because more Menander has been lost. Menander was extremely popular throughout late antiquity and then fell out of favour and got lost. We have 11 Aristophanes plays, so we actually have quite a lot more of Aristophanes than Menander so maybe it's not a fair comparison, but I think it's also an idea of Aristophanes, even though as we've been saying I think in the course of this conversation, there were some very clear traditionalist, conservative elements in Aristophanes, I think to modern sensibilities the fact that there's so much obscenity in Aristophanes makes him seem cool and sort of radical, because look, there are all these sex jokes in Aristophanes, whereas in Menander there were some rape jokes, but there's much less actual reference to the specifics of sex then you get in Aristophanes, so that's less cool. Even though if you watch television, I think a lot of middlebrow TV comedy is much more Menanderish than Aristophanic. I don't think it's completely the case that all of our culture is in line with Aristophanes rather than Menander, but I think the idea of antiquity that’s presented by putting on an Aristophanes play is look how cool and exciting it was. They had sex back in the day and that makes them radical. Even though of course you might think that we wouldn't exist if they hadn't!
Tom: Emily Wilson, thank you very much.
Emily: Thank you.