Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.14

Shawn O'Bryhim (ed.), Greek and Roman Comedy: Translations and Interpretations of Four Representative Plays.   Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2001.  Pp. 320.  ISBN 0-292-76055-8.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lisa Rengo George, Arizona State University (
Word count: 2769 words

In the Preface to Greek and Roman Comedy, Shawn O'Bryhim (O'B.) states that the objective of this collection of four translated plays by Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus and Terence with accompanying introductory and analytical essays is to serve "primarily as a textbook for university students in basic courses on classical civilization, classical literature in translation, Great Books, English and theater" (p. vii). While this modest aspiration might be taken as a license to aim low by another editor and collection of authors, O'B. and the other contributors to the volume -- S. Douglas Olson, Timothy J. Moore and George Frederic Franko -- offer consistently fine translations of and introductions to the plays they each have chosen to represent one of the ancient comic authors. Those of us who teach ancient comedy in translation are well aware that it is frustratingly difficult to find readable translations and affordable editions of the ancient texts; this collection ably fills this gap. Although I think that the volume is lacking in some respects (as I will note below) and that the essays are not always consistent with each other, I recognize that one volume cannot be all things to all readers. Besides, it would not be difficult for an instructor to remedy some of what is missing here if he or she were so inclined.

S. Douglas Olson (O.) opens the collection with his introduction to Greek comedy, an essay entitled "The Politics of Comedy and the Problem of the Reception of Aristophanes' Acharnians," and his translation of that play. His 11-page introduction to the origin and development of Greek comedy, from its possible inception in drunken komoi to the sophistication of the Athenian theatrical industry and of Aristophanes himself, is admirably thorough and yet still concise. O. does not condescend to his intended audience of non-classicists, nor does he overload them with needless erudition and extensive footnotes. While I understand O.'s choice of Acharnians to represent Aristophanic comedy as a whole, I wish he had said more about two Aristophanic plays that are often well-known to students and just as often foster misconceptions about the ancient Greek world: Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae. These two plays are certainly mentioned and are set into the context of Aristophanic fantasy and satire, but the peculiar nature of the relationships between men and women in these two plays in particular deserves more attention. In his analytical essay, O. provides much plot summary (not without reason, since many students have problems grasping the complicated plot on their own) and establishes the historical context, which elucidates Aristophanes' political agenda. O. does not stretch far in his insights: he notes the limited association between the protagonist Dikaiopolis and the playwright himself and concludes that Aristophanes presented Acharnians in part as an answer to his previous play Babylonians, which rashly portrayed the administrators of Athens as corrupt and which subsequently compelled Kleon to bring Aristophanes up on charges (the Council ultimately declined to prosecute). O. points out that Acharnians may well have provoked a similar reaction from Athenian democrats, but Aristophanes knew his audience well and was not afraid to pander to the public taste for political satire and mockery.

O.'s translation of the play is wonderful. Aristophanes is notoriously difficult to translate, and most of the translations available for classroom use were produced in the UK and employ Britishims totally foreign and meaningless to American students. O. copes with the problem of dialects by using a rural Southern dialect for the Megarian, a New Jersey/Bronx dialect for the Boiotian, and a "vaguely Elizabethan dialect" for Euripides and the chorus to indicate their often absurd and melodramatic language. He does not shy away from Aristophanes' crude sexual language nor does he dilute the rich but vulgar expressions by attempting to render them PG-rated. Consequently he produces one of the funniest and most readable translations of Aristophanes I have ever encountered. As an example, below are B.B. Roger's translation from the 1962 Bantam edition of the complete plays and O.'s version of Acharnians 97-110:

Roger's version (pp. 17-18):

Ambassador: Now tell the Athenians, Pseudo-Artabas,
What the Great King commissioned you to say.

Pseudo-Artabas: Ijisti boutti furbiss upde rotti.

Ambassador: Do you understand?

Dicaeopolis: By Apollo, no not I.

Amabassador: He says the King is going to send you gold.
(To Pseudo-Artabas) Be more distinct and clear about the gold.

Pseudo-Artabas: No getti goldi, nincompoop Iawny.

Dicaeopolis: Wow, but that's clear enough!

Ambassador: What does he say?

Dicaeopolis: He says the Ionians must be nincompoops
If they are expecting any gold from Persia.

Ambassador: No, no: he spoke of golden income coupons.

Dicaeopolis: What income coupons? You're a great big liar!
Olson's version (pp. 40-41):

Ambassador: All right, Bushel-of-Lies, give the Athenians the message from the King!

Bushel-of-Lies: Iartamanexarxanapissonasatra.1

Ambassador: Does everybody understand what he's saying?

Dikaiopolis: By Apollo, I certainly don't.

Ambassador: He says the King's going to send you gold.
Hey you! Say the word "gold" louder and clearer.

Bushel-of-Lies: You no will be getting any gold, Ionian butt-fucks.

Dikaiopolis: Unfortunately that's pretty clear!

Ambassador: Wait, wait -- what's he saying?

Dikaiopolis: What's he saying? He says us Ionians are a bunch of butt-fucks, if we're expecting any gold from barbarians!

Ambassador: No, no, no! He's saying "buckets"! "Fucking BUCKETS of gold!"

Dikaiopolis: What do you mean "buckets"? You're full of shit.

Aristophanes' χαυνοπρωκτ' (delicately translated by Liddell and Scott as "wide-breeched"!) is cleverly reflected in O.'s choice of "butt-fucks," a translation that allows him to carry out the metaphor with "fucking buckets." This is just a sample of the way in which O. has brought Aristophanes' text alive and made it accessible for today's readers (though perhaps not for the excessively prudish, who would be offended by most of ancient comedy anyway).

O'B. has the unenviable task of following Olson's delightful translation with a section devoted to Menander and Greek New Comedy. As O'B. rightfully points out throughout his introductory essay, the unfortunate paucity of extant texts makes an accurate assessment of Middle and New Comedy nearly impossible (though that has not stopped countless scholars from attempting to characterize and explicate them anyway). Nevertheless, O'B. soldiers on admirably in the face of this obstacle and presents his audience with the received view of the progression of Greek comedy from Aristophanes to Menander (as the sole surviving representative of New Comedy), and bolsters the generalizations he is often compelled to make with material about Menander's reputation in the ancient world and the discoveries of Menandrian papyri in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (pp. 87-88). O'B. wisely includes a fairly brief plot summary of Dyskolos, the only complete Menandrian play and therefore the necessary choice as representative text, in his introductory section, allowing him to focus solely on literary analysis in his essay "Dance, Old Man, Dance! The Torture of Knemon in Menander's Dyskolos."

In this essay, O'B. unpacks the often misunderstood ending of the play in order to rehabilitate Menander's modern reputation as a "second-rate hack" (in P. Green's words). The final moments of the play, in which Knemon stubbornly clings to his desire to be left alone and is forced to participate in a women's wedding dance before rejoining his social group, have puzzled many scholars, and many have offered implausible pat answers to the thorny issue of the meaning of the play's resolution: Menander gave in to his audience's basest instincts by ending his play with crude humor; or, it is a trope of New Comedy that the blocking character must be humiliated at the end of the play (p. 97). O'B. suggests convincingly that Menander in fact is playing with the stereotypes of the stock figures by having three of his characters, Knemon, Getas and Sikon, "try on" unsuitable roles before being compelled to assume their natural and appropriate functions in the society presented by the play. Thus Knemon, who has been "playing" the stock role of the poor farmer for which he is ill-equipped, is compelled by Getas and Sikon to shed his misanthropic world view and be reintegrated into his family and into his society (pp. 108-9). O'B. includes quotations in Greek, translated for the Greekless reader, and a brief but useful bibliography on the Dyskolos (although some important items are left out here, as elsewhere in the volume).

O'B.'s translation of Menander's Dyskolos is more successful than most other translations at making the rather dull play (in my opinion) reasonably lively and readable. In his preface, he states that the contributors followed a few important guidelines in rendering their translations: "avoid anachronisms; remain true to the original; translate all songs and significant changes of meter into verse; and include the bare minimum of stage directions" (p. viii), and he is loyal to those tenets in his translation as well. The fact that O'B.'s translation is not nearly as much fun as O.'s Aristophanes must be blamed on Menander's style, not O'B.'s. When I have taught this play in the past, many of my students have actually preferred Menander to Aristophanes, and certainly his play is more universal, less vulgar and more easily applicable to a variety of human situations. O'B.'s essay and translation bring out the best qualities of the text and are a welcome addition to the study of Menander.

George Frederic Franko (F.) offers a much lengthier (20 pages vs. 11 pages for the first two contributors) introduction to Plautus and Roman New Comedy. F. begins with a brief excursus on the beginning of Roman literature and then proceeds to discuss the nuts and bolts of the Roman theater (festivals, staging, actors, and audience). I commend F. for being erudite and thorough without swerving into pedantry or intellectual ostentation: like the other contributors, F. keeps his intended audience clearly in mind. In his treatment of Plautus and his Greek models, F. adopts an effective (though of course not original) approach by comparing the scraps of Menander's Dis Exapaton, the fragments of Caecilius Statius' adaptation (found in Aulus Gellius) and Plautus' own version of the story, Bacchides. This comparison makes it clear to the newcomer to Roman comedy that even though Plautus borrowed his plots and other dramatic elements from his Greek predecessors, he nevertheless made the material his and was wildly popular in his own time and for centuries to follow because of his unique genius. F. also includes a substantial section on Plautus' use of meter (pp. 162-165), which is informative and useful but at the same time feels out of place since the other contributors do not comment on their playwrights' use of meter for poetic and dramatic effects. This could give the neophyte the false impression that only Plautus cared about and employed metrical effects in his plays, and that only Plautine comedies were enhanced by music and dance.

Although F. discusses the characters of Casina, the play he chose to represent Plautus, and includes a synopsis of the play in his introduction, nevertheless much of his essay "Cleostrata in Charge: Tradition and Variation in Casina" is taken up by plot summary. That, however, may be a welcome thing for many readers who will be unfamiliar with the chaotic machinations of Plautine plots. F. states that he will "examine how Plautus' Casina meets or diverges from some general expectations of New Comedy" by doing a scene-by-scene analysis of the play, and this he proceeds to do. This is not a terribly venturesome approach (to be fair, none of the analytical essays in this volume aims to be audacious), but F. does present his arguments clearly and convincingly, and his methodical analysis allows the reader new to Plautus to see how the plot unfolds and how Plautus plays with dramatic conventions in his works. F. implies that he chose Casina to represent Plautus because it is very likely the playwright's final play and therefore in some ways presents the playwright at his peak, a successful master of the genre with dozens of comedies under his belt (p. 169). I think this was a smart choice, especially because it does not seem to be a "typical" Plautine play -- in other words, not a play along the lines of Pseudolus, with a scheming slave as the star. In his introduction F. lays out what he calls "a baker's dozen of Plautine traits" (pp. 160-62), the last of which is the "predominance of the clever slave." Since Casina lacks this "central" figure, F. posits that in the play "several characters are vying for the role of the clever slave." I suggest, however, that it is a fallacy to insist that Plautus intended the role of the clever schemer to be confined to slaves: it is clear that in many plays, including Casina, women (particularly prostitutes) take over this central role. This is a minor objection to F.'s analysis, however, and does not overturn his conclusion, namely that the play "is a celebration of Cleostrata's cleverness and refusal to accept the passive role of a nagging matron" (p. 186).

F.'s translation of the play scrupulously observes the general guidelines for the contributors to this volume, though he does take a liberty by translating Olympio in a country-bumpkinish dialect to emphasize his rustic ways and dress. Despite the fact that at times the dialogue can be a bit clunky, F. is especially good at rendering the bawdy scenes of the play (Olympio's account of his "wedding night" with the fake Casina is a scream). He is also the most careful to distinguish the changes in meter by creating more lyrical passages when the meter suggests a song (which is in keeping with his obviously greater interest in meter than the other contributors).

Timothy J. Moore's (M.'s) contribution on Terence and Roman New Comedy concludes the volume. Just as O'B. had a hard act to follow when he had to present the somewhat lackluster Menander after the riotous Aristophanes, M. must also follow the brilliance of Plautus with the far less glamorous Terence, and like O'B., M. acquits himself honorably. M.'s introduction is elegantly written. He explains the marked differences between Plautine and Terentian style by noting that although Terence's contributions to Roman theater may not have been as flashy as Plautus', Terence nevertheless succeeded in leaving his mark on theatrical history with four important changes in dramatic emphasis: "the double plot, an increase of suspense and surprise at the expense of dramatic irony, greater verisimilitude, and the universal humility of his characters" (p. 246). M. notes that the literary influence of Terence extended through the classical period into the Middle Ages and beyond, even though he is less appreciated these days since we now "live in a largely Plautine age" (p. 249), an original and spot-on insight.

M. chose Phormio to characterize Terence's dramatic corpus, an unexpected but felicitous selection since it allows M. to focus on an important stock comic figure, the parasite, who had not been treated by the other contributors. This play very nicely rounds out the volume, then, by highlighting Terence's unique style while at the same time adding a significant contribution to the presentation of Greek and Roman comedy as a whole. In his analytical essay, "Who is the Parasite? Giving and Taking in Phormio," M. demonstrates how Terence develops delicious comic irony by making his parasite Phormio an altruistic philanthropist and so by definition the opposite of the stock comic parasite (who, as his title implies, is usually a smarmy and unappealing moocher). The end result, M. argues convincingly, is that Terence "produced a most effective discourse on the uncertainties surrounding Rome's important ethic of reciprocity" (p. 264).

M.'s translation, like O'B.'s and F.'s, is not entirely consistent: sometimes his characters use slightly stilted expressions while other times they slide into modern idiom. Still, again like O'B. and F., M. is ultimately successful in making Phormio readable, interesting and compelling for his intended audience, though none of the contributors succeeds in capturing the language and mood of comedy as well as O. does with Aristophanes.

As a whole and in its individual parts, this volume accomplishes the goals laid out by its editor admirably. The authors have created a sound, practical and much-needed text for classroom use. My criticisms that the scholarship is not particularly adventurous may well be unfair, since the authors seem to have specifically set out to reach as broad an audience as possible and therefore may have concluded that controversial or non-traditional points of view would be inappropriate. Still, I would have liked to see a broader range of bibliography and a broader perspective at times.2


1.   O. preserves the nonsense syllables of the Greek and explains in his essay (p. 17) that this meaningless expression could then be interpreted as the Ambassador saw fit.
2.   Some glaring bibliographical omissions include Elaine Fantham, Comparative Studies in Republican Latin Imagery (Toronto, 1972) and "Sex, Status and Survival in Hellenistic Athens: A Study of Women in New Comedy," Phoenix 29 (1975), 44-74; Madeleine M. Henry, "Ethos, Mythos, Praxis: Women in Menander's Comedy," Helios 13 (1987), 141-150; David Wiles, "Marriage and Prostitution in Classical New Comedy," Themes in Drama 11 (1989), 31-48; P.G. McG. Brown, "Plots and Prostitutes in Greek New Comedy," PLILS 6 (1990), 241-266; Ruth Scodel, ed., Theater and Society in the Classical World (Michigan, 1993); Karen F. Pierce, "The Portrayal of Rape in New Comedy" in Rape in Antiquity (eds. S. Deacy and K.F. Pierce) (Duckworth, 1997); Sharon L. James, "Constructions of Gender and Genre in Roman Comedy and Elegy," Helios 25 (1998) 3-16; Vincent J. Rosivach, When a Young Man Falls in Love (Routledge, 1998); and Kathleen McCarthy, Slaves, Masters and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton, 2000 -- though perhaps McCarthy's book came out after this volume went to press).

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:02, Friday, 03 April 2009