Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.33

Ferrucio Conti Bizzarro, Poetica e Critica Letteraria nei Frammenti dei Poeti Comici Graeci (Speculum 21).   Naples:  M. D'Auria Editore, 1999.  Pp. 209.  ISBN 88-7092-169-7.  

Reviewed by Jeffrey Henderson, Boston University (
Word count: 1568 words

In this handsomely produced book Conti Bizzarro (hereafter CB) discusses 27 fragments of six Old Comic poets other than Aristophanes that reveal the poets' own conceptions of the art of playwrighting both comic and tragic; situates these conceptions against the backdrop of fifth-century notions of, and debates about, poetics and literary criticism generally; and traces them in later writers, especially Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch. These fragments shed important light on the complexity and sophistication of the fifth-century literary scene and certainly deserve to be better known to critics, theorists, and historians of literature. To that extent this book performs a worthwhile service. But much remains to be done, for CB is more concerned with documenting the fragments and the wider attestation of their key terms than in evaluating the issues of theory and practice that the fragments raise, and he does not refer us to current scholarly discussions of these issues. And so this book will be useful to literary historians mainly in supplementing and fleshing out the primary sources cited in Kassel-Austin and thus providing raw material for fuller explorations of their literary and cultural significance.

The format of the book is a Bibliography of the principal scholarship cited (a complete listing would be more convenient); a brief Introduction; six chapters discussing the fragments by author; and indexes of testimonial sources, key names and terms, ancient passages cited, and modern scholars cited. The 27 fragments discussed are Epicharmus (88, 91, 132, 214 Kaibel; these are now 77, 80, 131, 221 in PCG I [2001]); Ecphantides (3); Cratinus (2, 6, 26, 92, 152, 168, 198, 203, 270, 276, 323, 342, 346, 430); Crates (21, 28); Pherecrates (100, 102, 155); and Telecleides (15, 41-42).

The bibliography is exiguous and often antiquated (for example, the "repressive" decree of Morychides in the early 430s, which along with a few other such decrees (not mentioned) has been the topic of much recent debate, we are referred only to V. Ehrenberg, The People of Aristophanes [1951]), and it gives little idea of the current state of scholarship beyond narrowly text-critical and exegetical issues. Readers needing to get up to speed can now consult Ian Storey's comprehensive bibliography of work on the fragments since 1971 in David Harvey and John Wilkins (edd.), The Rivals of Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy (Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales: London 2000), pp. 527-44; also recommended are the important overview by A. H. Sommerstein, "Old Comedians on Old Comedy," Drama 1 (1992) 14-33, and Dover's valuable survey of the literary-critical antecedents of Frogs in his Oxford edition (1993), pp. 24-37.

The Introduction (pp. 13-26) summarizes some key topics of poetic comment to be found in the fragments: the comic poet's pride in the sophistication of his art as opposed to triteness or "Megarian" vulgarity, (already in Ecphantides, fr. 3); the proper uses of theatrical spectacle, a topic reflected in Aristotle's comments on opsis; the polarity of praise and blame (e.g. Archilochean vs. Homeric poetics in Cratinus' Archilochoi), and the distinction between "iambic" comedy and the more domestic, Sicilian-inspired comedies associated especially with Crates and Pherecrates; criticism of tragedy (already in Epicharmus, fr. 214 Kaibel = 221 K-A); polemic against "intellectuals" and their influence on poets, notably Euripides (and the young Aristophanes too, according to Cratinus, fr. 342); complaints about musical innovation, and the perception that the great age of poetry was ending at the close of the fifth century; the "dionysiac" poetics of Cratinus; both criticism of and engagement with the formal investigations of language and poetry being undertaken by sophistic thinkers; and the idea (already in Cratinus fr. 52) that dramatic poets should play an educational and improving role in the polis.

In the six chapters each fragment, equipped with an apparatus criticus and a translation, gets a general discussion, with citation of scholarly (but almost exclusively text-critical or exegetic) treatments, and then a commentary on key terms and problems; it would be helpful to readers if the texts cited in the discussions were translated as well. CB often gives us observations, information, and parallels not found in Kassel-Austin, pays close attention to the testimonial sources (a specialty of his), and notes a broad range of synchronic and diachronic patterns of themes and ideas, but generally steers clear of the fragments' broader implications, showing little interest in characterization, plot, or chronology (where these can be inferred).

In the texts CB bases himself on Kassel-Austin, but keeps an open mind; some interesting conjectures are Epicharmus 91 = 80 K-A ἠχή: εἷκε; Cratin. 92.1 Ακέστορα γὰρ· Ακέστορ' ἀλλ' (dubit.); Cratin. 342 [οὑτος,] τίς δὲ σύ; κομψός (coll. Ve. 144); Cratin. 346: if this is not a fragment but originally a comment by the scholiast (Ar. Pax 741), as Kaibel suggested, it may have run Κρατῖνος ὑποκριτὰς ἡΡακλέας πεινῶντας εἰσάγει καὶ σκώπτοντας εἰς ταῦτα· "οὐ βιωτόν ἐστι or οὐ βιωτός ἐστι; Ar. fr. 953 (p. 137) χοροὺς [κρουματικὰ] or [κρούματά τε καὶ]. But sometimes CB's presentation of the text is questionable, e.g. in Epicharmus fr. 88 = 77 K-A (p. 29), the text in the first line is printed and its key word discussed as transmitted, without any indication that the line is unmetrical (K-A obelize it).

CB is for the most part disinclined to draw inferences about a fragment's dramatic character and possible contexts, even when some speculation is required before we can make full sense of the poetics to which it appeals. In Cratinus 276, for example, the poet Gnesippus is equipped with a "chorus of plucker girls"--surely not what we would expect in a reference to a tragic poet, as CB assumes without comment. Is this some sort of criticism of Gnesippus' handling of choruses? Or should we connect these pluckers not with tragedy at all but with the erotic mime, as recently suggested by J. Davidson in Wilkins and Harvey, pp. 41-64? In Pherecr. 155 (Music's complaint of her mistreatment at the hands of modern composers, from Chiron), CB surveys the negative comic reaction to the musical innovations being pioneered in the late fifth and early fourth centuries in tragedy and especially in the dithyramb, discusses the musical features singled out in the fragment, and cites relevant later texts especially Plato and Aristotle, but does not address the problems of chronology and hence of attribution raised by this fragment's list of musical culprits, and, though he well documents the tragic parody in Music's complaint, he does not discuss (or cite discussions of) what category of human woman her situation might fit: a respectable lady down on her luck? an hetaera (CB seems to accept this: p. 163)? a slave? In Cratinus fr. 128, from the wonderfully metatheatrical Pytine of 423 (victorious over Clouds), we get a thorough accounting of its metaphors but no exploration of their rich intertextuality, much discussed recently in terms of the rivalry between the young Aristophanes and his distinguished older rival: Cratinus' proclamation of a "dionysiac" poetics (perhaps ultimately aligning himself with Archilochus) responds in kind to Aristophanes' attack the previous year in Knights (526 ff.), but could also be a reformulation of a self-characterization made in an earlier play, to which the attack in Knights may itself have been a response. In this case a poetic formulation was generated at least to some extent by the particular conditions of poetic rivalry, so that it is not enough simply to register it as attested at a given time.

When CB does speculate about a fragment's context, the results are not always happy. In appealing to later testimonial traditions as external controls he is not always alert to the possibility (often likelihood) that these traditions were themselves based on comedy; for example, the charge made by Telecleides 41-42 that Euripides' father-in-law Mnesilochus helped him write a new play did not entitle ancient scholars, and does not entitle us (pp. 180, 182-83), to identify the unnamed Kinsman of Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria with Mnesilochus; this was probably an inference from just such comic references to Mnesilochus. In Epicharmus fr. 91 = 80 K-A CB's analysis assumes that the female subject is a Megarian woman, but there is no reason to think so other than the play's title, Megaris; and in Cratinus 2 (from Archilochoi) the suggestion that this play featured a recovery of poets from the underworld rests on a tendentious translation of σμῆνος σοφιστῶν...ἀναδιφήσατε as "grope in the dark for," but here this verb (hapax) could also mean "poke into," or even "stir up" (cf. West on Hes. WD 173-74).

Nevertheless CB does collect much interesting material, e.g. Cratin. 26 (on coherence of plot); Cratin. 198 (line 1 a reminiscence of S. Ant. 127 ff.?); Cratin. 203 (on the tradition linking wine and creativity); Cratin. 270, from Seasons of 428-26 (on tragic monody and its effects, perhaps responding to Gorgias' performances in Athens in 427); Cratin. 342 (on the affinities of Aristophanes and Euripides); Crates 28 (on the expressive limits proper to tragic and comic logos, and possibly to be connected programmatically with Crates' eschewal of the "particularism" of iambic comedy in favor of the more "universal" type first developed in Sicily, cf. Arist. Poetics 1449b7-9; Pherecrates test. 2a K-A); Pherecr. 100, from Krapataloi (anticipating Aristophanes' characterization of Aeschylus' style in Frogs); Pherecr. 102 (a programmatic declaration of intent to eschew Archilochean/Cratinean blame poetry); Telecl. 41-42 (on Euripides' "collaboration" with Socrates and other intellectuals in the composition of his plays).

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:32, Friday, 03 April 2009