Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.17

Jeffrey Henderson (ed.), Aristophanes: Acharnians, Knights. Loeb Classical Library.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998.  Pp. viii, 408.  ISBN 0-674-99567-8.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Martin Revermann, Merton College, Oxford
Word count: 958 words

The new Loeb-Aristophanes is part of the current overhaul of the Greek dramatic texts in that series. With Jeffrey Henderson, the author of The Maculate Muse, the important Lysistrata edition/commentary and the forthcoming edition and commentary on the Knights, one of the scholars best-qualified for such a project is laying his hands on it. The target-audience and the resulting demands on Loeb-editions are well-known: without emphasis on the nitty-gritty of textual criticism and scholarly minutiae the series is to serve a wider audience with a good introduction, a translation that is both smooth and reliable as well as a small number of notes to get at least the biggest obstacles out of the way. This is not an easy task with an author as difficult and topical as Aristophanes, and H. has handled the job very well.

A forty-six page introduction presents Aristophanes' life and career, discusses the competitive as well as the political context ("Audience and Festival", "Aristophanes and Athenian Politics"), formal and performative aspects of Aristophanic comedy ("The Form and Style of Arstophanic Comedy") and, finally, the history of transmission. Its core section (pp. 12-23) is devoted to the central problem of interpreting Old Comedy: how serious and how political is comedy? In H.'s discussion, which is very much (too much, I believe) influenced by questions raised by the Knights in particular, Aristophanes emerges as an upper-class conservative writing plays which are serious in the sense of serving "as a kind of experimental politics, freely revisiting or previewing matters of public interest that had no other public outlet" (p. 17). "Private writers" (Thucydides, the Old Oligarch, Plato) "are decidedly less constructive in advancing solutions" than comedy is. What, then, is the constructive "solution" offered by, say, the Birds? Significantly, the words "utopia" and "fantasy" feature only once (p. 22), very much in passing. In view of the importance of the issue, there should be at least a hint that different views can be, and have been, taken. As things stand, the non-specialist reader of the Loeb-edition would have to bump into another recent introduction, that by Stephen Halliwell to the first volume of his fine annotated Aristophanes-translation (Oxford 1997, pp. xxi-xxx and xxxix-xlvii), to find a powerful and sophisticated expression of the counter-view, which interprets the didactic rhetoric of comic choruses and protagonists as mock-seriousness and denies the possibility of distilling a serious essence from the transformations of competitive comic discourse. A strength of H.'s introduction, on the other hand, is the attention paid to Aristophanes' audience, esp. the question of its social stratification. In part triggered off by the remarkable phenomenon that the anti-Cleon play Knights is awarded the first prize while Cleon continues to be a political high-flyer, there are good and careful remarks on the costs of attending dramatic festivals in Athens (p. 11) and on the likely social composition of the theatre-audience by comparison with the citizen-body as a whole (p. 19f.).

No review without pedantry, so here we are:

-- the number of securely attested victories is not six (p. 6) but four, as the preceding table correctly indicates;

-- "no ancient evidence supports the modern notion that women must have been excluded" (p. 9 n.19) is very strongly phrased. The reader should be told that all audience-addresses we know of refer exclusively to men in the audience. The parabasis of the Thesmophoriazuae is even based on the opposition "you men in the audience vs. we women in the chorus". This is the stronghold of people favouring an all-male audience, but it also makes sense the other way round: if women were present, the refusal to acknowledge them as a theatrically relevant audience is telling enough.

I feel that, despite forceful recent challenges (S. Scullion: Three Studies in Athenian Dramaturgy. Stuttgart/Leipzig 1994, chapter 1, esp. 38-41 and D. Wiles: Tragedy in Athens. Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning. Cambridge 1997, chapter 2), the case in favour of a rectangular orchestra is still strong enough to necessitate a more qualified and cautious phrasing than the apodictic "the chorus performed on a large circular orchestra" (p. 29).

H. is to be congratulated on a smooth, lively and enjoyable translation. Witty highlights include "Goat d'Azur" (Ach. 852f.), "polamical" (Ach. 1080), "the Quid Pro Quorian" (Knights 996), "I'm firster with that" (Knights 1165) as well as the rendering of Knights 1378ff.: "He is intimidative, penetrative, aphoristically originative, clear and aggressive, and superlatively terminative of the obstreperative". Stage directions and explanatory notes facilitate the reading (NB: Knights 1372 and 1374 should be accompanied by notes referring back to Ach. 88n. and 118n.). Of particular interest are H.'s scenarios for the opening scene of the Acharnians, during which the audience are integrated into the assembly-scene, as well as the ending of the Knights, where the facade of the skene is to represent Athens of Old.

On the Greek side, readability of the text was, of course, the guiding principle. Even in tricky passages such as Ach. 709 and 1182 cruces have, reasonably enough, been avoided. Notes on textual problems are few and far between but well-chosen. Ingenious conjectures by Reiske (Ach. 612) and Jackson (Knights 364) have been taken on board, but not Blaydes' attractive emendation of Ach. 641.

These are good times for students of Old Comedy at all levels. H.'s Loeb is well under way (the second volume is already out), Sommerstein's admirable series of commentaries is verging on completion (Ecclesiazusae was published some months ago), there are fresh publications in the Oxford commentary series (Olson's Peace and H.'s forthcoming Knights), while Kassel and Austin are preparing the final two volumes (Menander and Aristophanes' complete plays) of what is already one of the outstanding critical editions of the 20th century. Let's be thankful -- and enjoy!

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