Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.10

Gregory Dobrov (ed.), The City as Comedy. Society and Representation in Athenian Drama.   Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1998.  Pp. xix, 355.  ISBN 0-8078-2337-6.  $65.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-8078-4645-7.  $22.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Paul Cartledge, Clare College
Word count: 3893 words

The neo-naughty 'nineties will be remembered for many other things, no doubt, but for some of us working in broadly Classical studies they will be the decade of the metatheatrical academic symposium devoted to the problematic interface of drama and the polis and/or politics in Ancient Greece, meaning, for the most part, democratic and immediately pre- and post-democratic Athens. First came Nothing to Do with Dionysos? (Winkler & Zeitlin 1990), then Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis (Sommerstein et al. 1993), History, Tragedy, Theory (Goff 1995), Tragedy and the Tragic (Silk 1996), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Pelling 1997), and The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Easterling 1997), and now The City as Comedy, itself a sequel and sort of companion collection to Dobrov's Beyond Aristophanes (Dobrov 1995; rev. W. Slater, BMCR 7.6, 1996, 490-3). Somewhat like Aristophanes (maybe), our vigorous editor smarts under the perceived inferiority, or at any rate juniority, of Comedy as a genre: "Athenian comedy has long struggled to escape the overpowering gravity [pun intended?] of its more prestigious and (deceptively) accessible sister genre" (p. xi). Dobrov aims to give Athenian comedy interpretative balls, or at least wings.

The wingèd metaphor was not undeliberately chosen. Almost half the thirteen essays in our collection are concerned wholly or predominantly with Birds, and more than a quarter originated in a 1990 conference on the Birds organized by Dobrov in the guise of an APA seminar in San Francisco (where else?), the papers from which were privately circulated as Nephelokokkugia: Charting the Comic Polis. In 1990, the emphasis on B. was timely: two commentaries had recently (1987) appeared, a third (Dunbar's blockbuster) was still some way off (1995). Today, given also the recent appearance of a Greek collection on this play (Tsakmakis & Khristopoulos 1997), it makes the collection look distinctly lopsided. Instead of a balanced accounting of all extant Greek comedy, or even of all extant Aristophanic plays, in relation to the volume's stated theme, we find perhaps too much on Birds and virtually nothing of substance on Ach., Cl., Peace, and Plutus, not to mention the fragments of Aristophanes, let alone those of his rivals (though Dobrov 1995 partly explains that omission). On the other hand, Comedy for Dobrov & Co. is not just Old Comedy: the third and final part of this collection contains two essays on respectively, and inevitably, "Middle" and New, though this part cannot perhaps avoid looking a bit like a mere coda, a tailing-off.

Is Dobrov right in supposing that in modern scholarship Comedy has been, relatively, slighted, by comparison, that is, to Tragedy? Yes, and No. Canon and culture wars have come and gone, but Aristophanes' and (perhaps) Menander's respective places within the (or any) canon seem indisputable, and likely to remain so for as long as ancient Greece-based culture remains of importance -- or interest -- to scholars and the general public. So far as sheer bulk of scholarly output or specific gravity of scholarly input are concerned, Aristophanes at least and, thanks to an acronym which in my undergraduate days stood for a certain Oxford hostelry but now stands unambibulously for Rudolf Kassel and Colin Austin, the comic fragments have surely been receiving their proportionate due. The invaluable surveys by Ian Storey (1987, 1992, put to good use in Storey 1998) certainly contrive to give that impression, anyhow. And since his second we have had -- besides Dunbar's already mentioned Birds -- Dover's Frogs, Sommerstein's Thesmo. and Frogs, Konstan's Greek Comedy and Ideology collection (rev. Storey, BMCR 6.8, 1995, 700-706), MacDowell's Aristophanes and Athens (rev. by both Tony Keen and Storey, BMCR 7.3, 1996, 217-20, 221-26), and the start of a new Loeb Aristophanes (by Jeffrey Henderson), not to mention the more "fringe" lucubrations of Vickers (1997, rev. Storey, BMCR 8.9, 881-7) and Keith Sidwell (see recently his generously self-referential review of Dunbar and MacDowell in Hermathena 161, Winter 1996, 77-86).

All the same, the subject of comic laughter does seem to provoke a spasm of anxious self-justification that does not quite so spontaneously or so liberally accompany tragedic pity and tears. Moreover, even if at least Aristophanic comedy seems proof against the canon-and-culture warriors, Aristophanians themselves have proven the very model of modern (not always very) civil warriors. Pious gestures towards the intentional authorial fallacy aside, critics just can't agree, or even agree to disagree, on the nature and function(s), let alone the generic or specific identification, of Aristophanes' -- or Old Comedy's -- humour or laughter. Part of the problem is that we have to deal only with texts, the relationship of which to original performance is itself problematic (see recently, Rosen 1997, concerned especially with the rewrite, or remix, of Cl.). But a probably larger part is to do with parti pris. There's an old anthropological joke that there are two kinds of anthropologists: those who believe in binary structural oppositions, and those who don't. Likewise, there are two kinds of Aristophanian critics: those who believe, invincibly, that laughter-evocation with a view to winning the Dionysia for best play was in and of itself a sufficient or at any rate overriding and overpowering goal of the author, and those (like this author) who don't.

At the beginning of this century, as Erich Segal recently observed (1996), Aristophanic criticism revolved chiefly around two poles, what we might call the ritualistic and the political. The ritualistic, as he also observed, is now generally at a discount, with some notable exceptions. But the political, despite, or because of, Gomme's much-reprinted 1938 attempt at depoliticization, simply refuses to go away, and is if anything still (G.E.M. de Ste. Croix's appendix XXIX to his 1972 The Origins of the Peloponnesian War being one notable landmark) on an upswing. But how should the political be understood, how should we historicize Aristophanes - and, if necessary, all Old Comedy, or all Athenian Comedy tout court? This is where very recent work, the sort of work that Dobrov hoped to enfold and enhance by his collection of relevant examples of several possible approaches, has indeed made a difference. Thanks to it, we are -- or should be -- clear about the crucial existence for interpretative purposes of certain heuristic distinctions: most crucially of all, that between the real Athenian polis and its political actors, both individual and collective, on the one hand, and the representational comic polis and its imagist (to borrow the vocabulary of Silk 1990) characters, on the other. To make, and to work with, that distinction, however, is only the beginning of discussion and dissection: how, precisely -- that is, to what extent and in what ways and to what ends -- were the plays of Aristophanes and his rivals and successors "political"? That is the question.

Or that seems to me to be the question that explicitly or implicitly runs through and in some cases structures all the thirteen essays printed here. The available spectrum of interpretative possibility runs from the "nothing to do with (altering real-life) politics" stance of J.M. Redfield (in Winkler & Zeitlin 1990) to the "politics by other (comic) means" approach of Henderson. Dobrov's team, each for her or his different or differently emphasized reasons, mainly stay well within these two poles, though Dobrov's own explicit endorsement (p. 115) of Hubbard's formulation that Attic Old Comedy was "the most immanently 'political' of all literary genres" (p. 23) indicates the generally greater attraction here of Hendersonianism, as we shall see in more detail shortly.

First, a couple of technical comments. The book is beautifully laid out, attractively printed, and handsomely as well as functionally bound, a standing reproof to the virtual log-on, and eminently good value for money. The editing, however, is regrettably not as sharp as it might have been. Misspelling of names, ancient and modern, wrong dates (both of ancient events and of modern publications), inadequate sourcing of some major contributions, and insufficient internal cross-referencing are among the formal defects that do less than justice to an impressive, often distinguished, group of specialists (ten American, two British, one German; twelve men and one -- surely not -- token woman).

The editor's Introduction (pp. ix-xix) is typically forthright. It explains that the collection is "situated at the crossroads of several discourses" (for once, the Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data are helpful -- note especially category 6 "Mimesis in literature"), seeks to justify the book's tripartite division (utopianism, other Old Comic transformations of social realities, post-Old/Aristophanic comedy), and summarizes all the following contributions, including his own (the second longest).

Part 1 ("The Theory and Practice of Utopia") and the volume proper are kickstarted by David Konstan's "The Greek Polis and its Negations: Versions of Utopia in Aristophanes' Birds" (pp. 3-22), which appears here in its third published incarnation -- what I tell you three times is true (to quote another fabled inventor of reversed worlds)? Its theme, deftly handled as ever by this distinguished author, is the (re)negotiation of relationships between Athenian society and Nephelokokkugia by way of four variations on nomos/nomoi: a-nomia, eu-nomia, anti-nomia (a post-Classical borrowing), and megalo-nomia (a Konstanian neologism). Konstan's Nephelokkokugia is a "fabulous territory" (p. 8), but not an "arbitrary fantasy", rather "a complex image of Athens' own contradictions" (pp. 16-17). Nicely put.

Thomas K. Hubbard in "Utopianism and the Sophistic City in Aristophanes" (pp. 23-50) selects a more restricted focus, aiming only to compare Nephelokokkugia with serious philosophical treatments of the ideal state. It is amusing, if chastening, to compare also Hubbard's Peisetairos with that of Dunbar ("Editing Birds: Problems and Perspectives", in Tsakmakis & Khristopoulos, p. 85). Dunbar feels sure that the original audience would have viewed P. sympathetically and enjoyed his fantastic success; Hubbard is equally sure -- and presumably imagines that the original audience would have been likewise -- that P. was an elitist, oligarchic figure presiding over "a hypercivilized, overstructured totalitarian state". That would truly have been a "dystopian nightmare vision of grandiose proportions" (p. 25), a "classical precursor of Orwell's Animal Farm" (p. 36) -- but how can we tell who is right? And suppose Hubbard were right, what would that tell us about Aristophanes' intentions, if anything? Hubbard thinks, quite a lot, and he marks down Birds as "primarily ... an expression of popular outrage" (p. 27) against those elite figures held responsible by the demos for the recent notorious sacrileges of 415. A plausible, if partial, view.

F.E. Romer, too, sees, and underscores, a darker side of Birds in "Good intentions and the ὁδὸς κόρακας" (pp. 51-74), while being careful to stress the unusually problematical nature here of "the very act of interpretation" (p. 54). Like Hubbard, Romer finds Birds "generally disturbing and broadly dystopic in implication" (p. 66), going further even than he in emphasizing that Peisetairos eventually turns himself into a tyrant (in the nasty sense, line 1708). The theme of sacrifice and its manipulation is duly explored, and there is also some excellent intertextual comparison with Hesiod's Theogony as well as Sophocles' lost Tereus. In short, multum in parvo -- a well-rounded and provocative essay. For me, though, its main strength lies not in its particular interpretation(s), so much as in its interpretation of interpretation as such. "Comedy based on social and political issues depends on moral ambiguities in the stage action and on deep-seated feelings of moral ambivalence in the audience" (pp. 52-3): that is surely correct, in all its aspects. "It is in the active and engaged discussion of the political issues raised by the play that Birds' meaning resides", and, for the original target audience (and so a fortiori for us), "it is only on reflection, and largely outside the theater, that the moral ambiguities and particularities of a play like Birds can come home to roost" (p. 53, my emphasis). That also I find persuasive, as too the distinction, so far as the impact of the play's violence of language and action is concerned, between reading a text and experiencing the violence directly in performance (p. 71 n. 30).

Niall W. Slater, acknowledged master of performance criticism, does not disappoint in his "Performing the City in Birds" (pp. 75-94). The paper is brilliantly written (note, e.g., the neat series of avian puns -- "twitting", "gullibility", "unfolds his great idea"), and properly stresses that this is importantly a play about as well as of and on words. Slater concludes with a subtly political interpretation: that Aristophanes was intentionally making serious points, about the costs of war and especially the costs to democracy, but in and through a comedy of laughter and -- suggestive image -- consolation (pp. 88-9). The force of that conclusion is underlined by the informed observation that metatheatricality is less obvious in Birds than in some other plays -- not the impression one might receive from some other contributions here.

Of G. Dobrov's "Language, Fiction, and Utopia" (pp. 95-132) I am inclined to echo and adapt (W.J.) Slater's judgment on his contribution to Beyond Aristophanes (BMCR cit., 491-2): clever and well read, but imprecise and undisciplined, D. battles with his theme but never wins over the reader to the view that his application of literary theory, which can be valuable as a heuristic device and is especially useful as an antidote to subjective "sensitive reading", furthers the understanding of Birds. D.'s overall conclusions -- that Nepehlokokkugia is a text (p. 107, cf. 112) and that the play is "a comic series of pointed deferrals and repressions that suspend us for a moment between sense and nonsense" (p. 96) -- seem merely fashionable, insofar as they are not self-inculpating, although his emphases on the aporetic quality of Nephelokokkugia and on Aristophanes' intertextual, or rather intergeneric, agonia with tragedy are points well enough taken.

Part 2 ("Playing Along the Fault Lines") is inaugurated by Jeffrey Henderson's "Mass versus Elite and the Comic Heroism of Peisetairos" (pp. 135-148), which is both a reprise and a development of his papers in Winkler & Zeitlin 1990 ("The Demos and the Comic Competition") and Sommerstein et al. 1993 ("Comic Hero versus Political Elite"). Like Konstan and Romer, he sees Birds as "exploit(ing) fissures in the social fabric to generate its meaning" (p. 135); like Dobrov, he emphasizes the suggestive indeterminacy of Nephelokokkugia; and like Hubbard, only less so, he notes that the vision and vocabulary of Peisetairos, a sort of composite intellectual, are "distinctively elitist, even oligarchic" (p. 146 n. 15). So far, so good. But is it really hard to avoid the conclusion that Nephelokokkugia was a successful fantasy realization of an Alcibiadean project (p. 141), were the Athenians really notoriously sceptical about the gods (p. 143), and was the Birds really hopeful as well as critical, and more the former than the latter (p. 145)? Room for at least counter-argument remains.

In "The Gendered Polis in Eupolis' Cities" (pp. 149-76) Ralph M. Rosen alone tackles a serious rival of Aristophanes, and points up the comic playwright's freedom in his choice of chorus by looking at an example of a chorus type (allegorized abstractions or institutions) that does not happen to be represented by extant Aristophanes. The constant "interplay between sexual and political discourse" (p. 154) in Cities is of course nothing new, or unexpected, nor is the corroboration the Cities fragments seem to afford of the "inherent otherness about the female in the Athenian male imagination" (p. 170). Where Rosen's paper is particularly effective -- and this is a line that could perhaps have been developed even further -- is in drawing out the ambivalence necessarily entailed by the construction of the polis of Athens, no less than the eponymous (allied) Cities of the aptly-named Eupolis, as female and feminine.

Elizabeth Bobrick's "The Tyranny of Roles: Playacting and Privilege in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae" (pp. 177-97) further develops the theme of male-ordered reading. She sees Thesmo. as "a deeply political play concerned with the definition of social roles in the context of the theater as a public space" (p. 178), which, despite its "constant prodding at the boundary of gender categories" (p. 179), ultimately leaves social boundaries largely intact. Yet she wishes to resist the "simplistic" inference that mere reinforcement of established social conventions was one of Aristophanes' major purposes (p. 191). Instead, she singles out his "penchant for chaos" (p. 193), deployed in the cause of destructiveness as a necessary preliminary to didactic restoration, and claims that the (re)construction attempted here was not a total success: "Euripides" and so Aristophanes himself win the struggle for power and freedom of expression, but the costs and constraints of that victory remain palpable.

Gregory Crane (good, multiple Aristophanic name!) stays with the male:female, public:private problematic in his "Oikos and Agora: Mapping the Polis in Aristophanes' Wasps" (pp. 198-230). His theme is the tension between the oikos and the polis which threatened to subsume it, mediated by the material space of the Agora (representing material culture and peculiar economic/political aspects of the Athenian polis, especially monetization) and, differently, by the "transgressive space" of the theatre of Dionysos. The keynotes are parochialism and transgression: for Crane, Attic comedy "belongs to the small face-to-face society of the Attic country villages" (p. 201) and is in every way, especially but not only in its scatology, transgressive of both Hellenic and above all Panhellenic norms. The particular strength of this "new historicist" reading of Wasps is that it makes sense of the two halves of the play as complementarily opposite parts (public lawcourt seguing into private symposium) of a thematically linked whole revolving around issues of money, kinship, emotion, and raw power.

It would in this reviewer's opinion have been organizationally preferable to follow Crane with Wilkins on food and allow Malcolm Heath's essay to round off Part II. As it is, next comes Heath's "Aristophanes and the Discourse of Politics" (pp. 230-49), perhaps the most important, certainly the most finely nuanced methodological contribution to explicating and exploring what I have taken to be the volume's principal theme. H. is absolutely right to insist upon the "contingency" of any reading of Aristophanes (pp. 242, 243), and upon the renegotiability of the limits of comic license (p. 245). As a working hypothesis "the denial of a precise line of demarcation" (p. 242) between the comic polis and its real archetype in the primary world seems suitably efficient. The explicit grappling with Henderson's position (pp. 237-9), too, is especially valuable. However, there does appear to be more than a touch of paradox, not to mention arrière-pensée, in the suggestion that, the more closely Aristophanes's comic political discourse imitates real-life Athenian political discourse (as attested, perhaps representatively, by extant oratory), the more self-subvertingly ironic it is meant by Aristophanes, and should be taken by us, to be. Moreover, Heath's acceptance that the parabasis of Frogs was indeed seriously didactic seems to me virtually to concede the main agon.

John Wilkins' "Comic Cuisine: Food and Eating in the Comic Polis" (pp. 250-68) is an offcut from a larger project by a recognized gastronaut among classicists. With particular reference to Knights, but also some fragments, W. well illustrates the "complex ways in which Aristophanes has adapted associations of foods" (p. 262) into the plays, especially by way of metaphor. His health warning concerning "our Athenocentric perception of the ancient world, and the dependence of that perception on the comic polis" (p. 263) should be usefully prophylactic, especially against social historians too greedy for raw facts. (In which connection, Kenneth Dover's 1952 review of Victor Ehrenberg's The People of Aristophanes, reprinted in his Greece and the Greeks, Oxford 1987, 279-82, is still eminently worth reading.)

The concluding Part 3 ("The New Comic Polis") contains two papers. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath's "The Polis of Athens in Middle Comedy" (pp. 271-88) is mostly a bare-bones summary, from the political point of view, of his highly regarded monograph Die attische Mittlere Komödie (1990), minus the reception/tradition dimension. To Old Comedy's preoccupation with food (see Wilkins, above) Middle Comedy seems to have added a new focus on notorious trenchermen and topers. But easily the most fascinating evidence discussed, a "real gem" as N. rightly calls it (p. 274), is an eighteen-line fragment of one Heniochos that allegorizes the antagonism of Demokratia and Aristokratia (female characters, of course) within the Panhellenic context of Olympia. N.'s suggested dating of the play to the post-Social War period of the mid-350s is possible, but I prefer H. Breitenbach's (1908) assignation to 338, when stasis and its prevention or prohibition were indeed on the -- or more especially Philip of Macedon's -- panhellenic agenda.

In a footnote (p. 287 n. 54) Nesselrath anticipates as if by praeoccupatio Timothy P. Hofmeister's "αἱ πᾶσαι πόλεις. Polis and Oikoumene in Menander" (pp. 289-342), the longest piece in the collection. Whereas N. finds no "expression of overtly political significance extant" in Menander (or Diphilos and Philemon either), H. struggles valiantly to show, taking Samia, Sicyonios and Epitrepontes as his examples, how the polis or its parts are "realized within the 'imaginative space' of the play" (p. 291). The results, unfortunately, are not really commensurate with the effort, and confidence is not increased by the curiously blithe assumption -- precisely the one that the authors on Aristophanes are typically quickest to deny or deride -- that the playwright's own views are easily and unambiguously inferable: e.g., Menander "remained loyal to an ideal of the autonomous city-state" (p. 293). Not entirely the happiest of endings, therefore.

If I may end this review on a personal note, with an exodic rather than parabatic plea, it is that in all future scholarship on Aristophanes and other Greek comedy in the century and a half between c. 430 and 280 BCE full measure be taken of the user-friendly Hellenic compound adjective σπουδαιογέλοιον, of which our "seriocomic" is but a wan metaphrase. I am fully prepared to agree with many modern as well as ancient critics and audiences that at any rate Aristophanes was (and is) seriously funny. All I am asking in return is that moderns should first, with all due gravity, contemplate and then ideally endorse and exploit the proposition that Aristophanes was also, and maybe more importantly, funny seriously.


Dobrov, G. 1995. ed. Beyond Aristophanes. Tradition and diversity in Greek Comedy, Atlanta

Dunbar, N. 1995. The Birds, Oxford

Easterling, P.E. 1997. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge

Goff, B.E. 1995. ed. History, Tragedy, Theory, Ann Arbor

Pelling, C. 1997. ed. Tragedy and the Historian, Oxford

Rosen, R. 1997. "Performance and Textuality in Aristophanes' Clouds" The Yale Journal of Criticism 10.2: 397-421

Segal, E. 1996. ed. Readings in Aristophanes, Oxford

Silk, M. 1990. "The People of Aristophanes". In C. Pelling (ed.) Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature (Oxford) [abridged in Segal 1996: 229-51]

Silk, M. 1996. ed. Tragedy and the Tragic, Oxford

Sommerstein, A., S. Halliwell, J. Henderson & B. Zimmermann 1993. eds. Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, Bari

Storey, I.C. 1987. "Old Comedy 1975-1984". EMC/CV 6.1: 1-46

Storey, I.C. 1992. "δέκατον μὲν ἔτος τόδ': Old Comedy 1982-1991". Antichthon 26: 1-29

Storey, I.C. 1998. "Poets, politicians and perverts: personal humour in Aristophanes". Classics Ireland 5: 85-134

Tsakmakis, A. & Khristopoulos, M. 1997. eds. Ὄρνιθες. Ὄψεις καὶ Ἀναγνώσεις μίας Ἀριστοφανικῆς Κωμωδίας, Athens

Vickers, M. 1997. Pericles on Stage. Political Comedy in Aristophanes' Early Plays, Austin

Winkler, J.J. & Zeitlin, F.I. 1990. eds. Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian drama in its social context, Princeton

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