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Comedy and Aristophanes

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Pheidippides and the horses he loved to wager on Pheidippides and the horses he loved to wager on

In 1788, Hugh Blair wrote that “Vivacity, satire, and buffoonery, are the characteristics of Aristophanes.” His plays, said Blair, appear “to have been composed for the mob.”


While Mario Telò does not quote this in his book on Aristophanes, it certainly appears on a superficial reading that the plays were geared to the lower classes. However, the Athenian audience Telò posits as enjoying the plays of Aristophanes (what we now call the 'Old Comedy' period) was a lot more sophisticated than a mob. Telò, associate professor of classics at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles, specifically designates upper-class composure and healing energy "as the physical and psychological condition offered by [his play] Clouds to its audience."


Aristophanes debuted his first play in 427 BCE and was active in debuting new works for 30 years. These plays were not seen in isolation, as most theatre-goers today perceive a performance. One does not attend a comedy play now with the expectation it recycles the action of a Shakespearean tragedy. Greek citizens of 2400 years ago were, by contrast, very attuned to all the nuances of tragedy and comedy and were very much engaged with interactions between them. They were, in fact, participants of the performance, even though they were not in the performance.


The play Clouds has three main characters: the philosopher Socrates (based on the real-life person), an old fool Strepsiades who dreads his wife, and his son Pheidippides who loves to gamble money on horses and stick his father with the losses. It was the audience reaction to the first staged version of Clouds that prompted Aristophanes to rewrite it. In the new version (the text of the original is lost), Aristophanes reproves the audience for their poor judgment in placing his original production third instead of first place at the Great Dionysia competition of 423 BCE. Cratinus won first place that year.


Offstage but very much on the mind of Aristophanes were his rivals Eupolis and Cratinus. Telò's book examines the interaction between all these elements, and in the process makes a major advance in our understanding of Old Comedy in general and Aristophanes in particular. He makes this clear at the outset of his book, which also looks closely at another play by Aristophanes, entitled Wasps. “The interconnected actions of Wasps and Clouds suggestively plot the relationship between Aristophanes, his audience, and his two major rivals by offering an ongoing commentary on the setback of 423 through a complex and coherent process of reimagining, reinvention, and restaging, which sets the terms of the critical evaluation and survival of Old Comedy.”


If you like complicated plots, this book is for you! Not only do we have the Greek theatrical stage where the audience sits, but a meta-theatre where Aristophanes is the stage director of contemporary Greek Comedy. Like the Phantom of the Opera, he was willing to upstage any rival to achieve his own ends. "In comically diagnosing the reasons for his defeat" in the earlier version of of Clouds, Telo says "Aristophanes does not just defensively establish what is good comedy and what is not but indeed what is comedy tout court, condemning his vanquisher to a permanent secondary position."


Aristophanes' tactics worked better than he could ever have imagined. By attaining undisputed status as the master of comedy with the restaging of Clouds, his plays were copied and recopied for centuries. Thus their texts have survived for us to enjoy today. The plays of his two rivals exist only in fragments, their works nearly lost to posterity.


Telò is one of the first to consider the sensory dimensions of performance (touch) and what he terms “the vibrant materiality of objects.” One thing he makes a particular study of is the cloak (hence the title of this book) and sandals of Strepsiades, which Socrates orders him to take off before he enters the 'Thinkery'. This is a place where Strepsiades enters as a student of Socrates in order to gain the knowledge needed to fend off his creditors (remember this is a comedy!). The old man equates parting with his clothes as presaging a tragic fate. “Alas, wretched me,” he wails, “I will soon be half-dead.”


It is here Telò sees a resonance with the famous tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus, where the great hero returns home, removes his sandals, and is killed by his wife. “As a frightening interior space figuratively inhabited by serpentine creatures, the house of Agamemnon thus resembles the Thinkery, which terrifies Strepsiades on the verge of his humiliating regression from father to student and child. This concatenation of symbols, centered around a prop (Strepsiades' sandals), generates an intense inter-theatrical echo, causing Agamemnon's tragic shoe-shedding to haunt the comic father's initiation.”


Telò uses this and other elements as a springboard to ask questions at the end of the book that need to be addressed by further scholarly study. Among these questions are “What kind of dramatic work do tactile exchanges - with bodies as well as props - perform? Does tragedy feel different from comedy - and are there tactile differences among tragedians, as there are among comedians?”


You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand this intriguing book, but if you enjoy hunting for clues and seeing where they lead, it will make the challenges posed by Telò a lot more fun. And as the master of Comedy, Aristophanes would probably approve of fun.


There is a typo on pg. 17: 'terms' should be 'term'


Aristophanes & the Cloak of Comedy (237 pages) is $55 from Univ. of Chicago Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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