Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The King of Old Comedy

[New Straits Times, 19 August 1992]


Aristophanes belongs to the poets of Old Comedy, a rowdy, raunchy genre, full of slapstick, unafraid to be silly, and fiercely political.
Aristophanes was born sometime in the ten years around 450 BC. We don't know much about him except that he must have been funny. Plato has him tell a myth that originally human beings were joined together, with four legs, four arms, and two faces. They moved quickly by tumbling in a ball. For some naughtiness, Zeus punished mankind by snipping everyone in two, and sex (in all forms) is peoples' attempt to glue themselves back together.

Comedy (sez Aristotle, who in 20 volumes tells one joke)began with the "phallic songs." In springtime---when jars of last year's wine were opened and the new vines were budding---city and country held riotous festivals in honour of Dionysus, god of alcohol and ecstasy.

Half-smashed worshippers in procession waved around giant fake penises, sang obscene songs, and exchanged insults with the spectators. To encourage the grapes.

Later, poets rigged the affair to a story and a chorus and moved it to the theatre. Aristophanes' plots were slight, but the action exuberantly fantastic. The chorus was often dressed in strange costumes, as birds or clouds, and had a big part in the action.

All of his plays contain a large amount of political criticism. In the Knights, a sausage-seller routs the wicked Paphlagonian, a thinly disguised version of the unsufferable populist politician Kleon. Lysistrata in the comedy of her name ends the war between Athens and Sparta by getting the women of Greece to go on a sex-strike. The birds of the Birds found a city in the sky and successfully blockade the gods. In the middle of each play the Aristophanes included a section where the chorus steps out of character to give serious political advice.

Aristophanes also touched other social concerns. In the Clouds he ridicules Socrates and the youth of the time who reject traditional wisdom and behaviour for new "sophisticated" manners and skepticism. His characters are common men "who want," says one critic, "to be left alone to enjoy traditional pleasures in traditional ways, but they are also ingenious, violent, and ruthlessly self-seeking in getting what they want."
A radical democracy greatly suspected ambition. Big shots could regularly count on being made fun of for anything from bribery to gross personal habits and outright faggotry.

The male characters as part of their costume wore large dingly phalluses. Sex and other types of excretion got big yucks. To finicky modern taste, Old Comedy is a thoroughly disreputable entertainment.

In order to give you a taste of Aristophanes, let me give you some excerpts from the Frogs, a comedy that revolves around literature. It's a play for all audiences. Political issues change from age to age, but there are always jealous poets, and the literary quarrel depicted here is still acted out in real life today. When I saw it nine years ago in a tiny ancient theatre in the town of Yithio in south Greece, the Greeks brought their children, and everybody laughed.

Just as Euripides' Bacchae was symbolically if not literally the last of the tragedies, Aristophanes' Frogs now seems to us the last old comedy and that genre's farewell to uninhibited fantasy, sexual reference and freewheeling social criticism.
Dionysus and his slave Xanthias enter on the stage like a couple of vaudeville clowns. Xanthias shoulders a large trunk:

XANTHIAS Shall I tell one of the usuals, master,
At which the audience always laughs?
DIONYSUS By Zeus, whatever you like, except "What a strain!"
Stay away from that one. It's completely disgusting.
X: Nothing else refined?
D: Except, "How full I'm loaded!"
X: What then? Shall I say the really funny one?
D:  By Zeus
Go ahead. As long as you don't do that shtick...
X: Which one?
D: ...where you shift baggage and say you've got to shit.
X: Not that: "I'm carrying such a painful burden that if nobody eases me I have to blow it out with a fart?"
D:  Please! I'm going to throw up!

Off they go. The fantasy is this: In the year 405, all three of the great tragic poets are dead. Dionysus (god of drama) misses Euripides dreadfully, and travels to the underworld to resurrect him. They knock up Hercules, who mistakes Dionysus' passion for Euripides as something too physical, then lends Dionysus his disguise in order to get past the grim guardians of Death. Dionysus is no hero. Gods got as little respect in comedy as the politicians.

The god rows through an ghostly swamp populated with musical souls of frogs who chant "brekekekek, koax, koax." This scene gives the play its name. After a long series of crazy obstacles, monsters, an angry doorman, and a song and dance of the blessed spirits, Dionysus and Xanthias finally arrive in Hell proper. Sophocles has decided not to compete and has retired. Euripides and Aeschylus come out and prepare to contest for the prize of returning to earth. The instruments for judging tragedies are scales, levels, rulers, squares, compasses, and wedges.
The poets begin by calling one another names and thoroughly trashing each the other's poetry. Then, after Euripides has picked at Aeschylus' prologues, Aeschylus bids Euripides recite his, and turns every one of them to nonsense:

EURIPIDES "Aigyptos---so the rumour runs i' th' world---
Sailing the broad sea, landing at Argos with
His fifty stalwart sons..."

AESCHYLUS .. .lost his oil-jar.


EURIPIDES  "Oineus, reaping in the fields the season's foison
Sacrificed to the gods but..."
AESCHYLUS   ...lost his oil-jar.


EURIPIDES Let me try once more.
"Zeus, as Truth itself asserts....
DIONYSUS   That's enough!

The tag about the oil-jar obviously possesses some naughty double meaning.  Oil-jars...  these are personal oil-jars, for use at the bath.  They were stout and stubby or long and skinny.  You may get the idea.

Each tries to out-parody the other's poetry. Euripides confects an obscure Aeschylean chorus with lyre accompaniment:

Alas! Can it be that the doublethroned power of Hellas
[strummy-strummy-strum, strummy-strummy-strum]
Has yielded unto the Sphinx, that deathwhiffing bitch?
[strummy-strummy-strum, strummy-strummy-strum]
With hand and lance arm'd, the bombinating squallbird
[strummy-strummy-strum, strummy-strummy-strum]
Cedes to the heav'nengender'd dogs
[strummy-strummy-strum, strummy-strummy-strum]
The adherents of Aias-Aiantos!

Aeschylus counters with a parody of Euripides' New Wave Monody:

and dreaming dreamless O / Son of sightlesss Night from / what dreaming dream'd / into my sightless spirit,
Sable ghost, / There is no / speculation in those eyes: Claws acute! Beaut-
y hurts me. / Virgins:
Siphon the wellsprings off and heat the water!
O friends, friends,
purloin’d hath been my rooster
By Glyke. Let me wash away this dream. / Oreads,
Take her! Seize her, Susan! / Who's an Idler here? Not I! / Worra-worra-working,
Over a hot loom, / Sp-sp-sp-spinning
dreamwoofs, dreamwarplets:
And off he wing'd, winging the wind with his wings,
And left me idle in tears. I know not what they / mean...&c.

Completely snowed under by all this brilliance, Dionysus can't make a choice. And so, like many another literary quarrel, the question is decided on political grounds. The grand patriot Aeschylus is hailed up to the light and Euripides left in the lurch Below.
Translations from the Frogs, except for opening scene, are adapted from Dudley Fitts', in Aristophanes, Four Comedies, Harcourt, Brace, and World.