Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.35

Martin Holtermann, Der deutsche Aristophanes. Die Rezeption eines politischen Dichters im 19. Jahrhundert. Hypomnemata, 155.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 3-525-25254-4.  €66.00.  



Reviewed by Edith Hall, University of Durham (mfdt17@dsl.pipex.com)
Word count: 2054 words

The recent upsurge in interest in the reception of ancient authors, both in and since the Renaissance, has not extended very far in the direction of Greek comedy. In comparison with the Greek tragedians, Homer, or Sappho, the available literature on the uses to which Aristophanes has been put is both slight and desperately out-of-date; this becomes even clearer after studying Holtermann's long and exceptionally useful bibliography. The publication of any substantial new study in this field is therefore an occasion to be celebrated. The last attempt to write a general overview of Aristophanic reception was Louis E. Lord's Aristophanes: His Plays and His Influence, published in 1925 as part of the then pathbreaking series Our Debt to Greece and Rome; a very few more specialist studies, which for some reason have always been dominated by German scholars, have concentrated, rather, on particular aspects of the reception of Aristophanes in Germany, England, and France. Holtermann's book originated as a Heidelberg dissertation, written under the aegis of a project entitled Nachleben der Antike, which was established by Glenn Most. And the study does not disappoint; it is a careful, methodical and insightful study of the cultural presence of Aristophanes in Germany. Its chronological focus is on the 19th century, and its thematic emphasis on the reception of the political dimension of the plays, but the discussion ranges much wider than these categories imply.

The Introduction offers some rather old-fashioned and unadventurous reflections on the theory and practice of Reception studies within Classics; the cautious tone unexpectedly implies that in Germany, at any rate, this branch of classical scholarship still feels the need to defend its intellectual legitimacy and claim to rigour. There follows an explanation of the thinking behind the diachronic structure and thematic emphases of the ensuing chapters. Holtermann makes it laudably clear from the outset that he is interested in drawing connections between spheres of reception all too often assessed in isolation from one another: the history of scholarship, the history of translation, and the wider patterns of political and cultural impact made by ancient authors.

In Chapter I, Holtermann offers a summary account of the reception of the political material to be found in Aristophanes from antiquity until the end of the 18th century. The first eight sections provide a serviceable overview of the reactions to Aristophanes -- and indeed to Old Comedy as a genre -- to be found in Plato, Aristotle, the fragments of Theophrastus, what we understand of Hellenistic literary theory, Cicero, Horace, and Platonios' unique treatise on the differences between types of comedy. This exercise in ancient reception is necessarily brief (only 25 pages), and most Aristophanic scholars would complain about one omission or another (I particularly yearned for some Lucian and other Second Sophistic authors). Yet it serves a crucial purpose in pointing to the standard handful of texts through which post-Renaissance perceptions of Aristophanes were routinely filtered, above all the beginning of Horace's Satire 1.4, which has been, as Holtermann rightly insists, by far the most important ancient text on the subject of Old Comedy, and the one which has (at least until the twentieth century) dominated its reception. The remainder of this chapter takes the reader at a brisk trot through the reception in Germany and Switzerland of Aristophanes from the time of the publication at Venice of the Aldine editio princeps of Markos Mousouros (1498) until the 1770s, via an all-too-brief excursion into the literary theorists of 17th-century France, who almost unanimously condemned Aristophanes, at least as a theatrical writer. During most of this period Aristophanes' main function in German-speaking lands was to provide texts for pedagogical purposes, especially tuition in Attic Greek; the more obscene plays and the political dimension of the remainder of his oeuvre were both largely neglected.

Chapter II is devoted to Johann Georg Schlosser and Christoph Martin Wieland, thus setting the stage for the recuperation of Aristophanes by German Romanticism. Schlosser (Goethe's brother-in-law) tried to rescue Aristophanes from the savage criticisms of French classicism and published a translation of Frogs in 1783 in which he said that he was not going to be defensive about Aristophanes, because a 'A great man needs no apology'. Schlosser wanted to foster a new, topical form of satire and regarded Aristophanes as offering an excellent literary model: his interests in Old Comedy were, however, more aesthetic than political. Wieland, on the other hand, saw the recent experience of the French revolution as the ultimate key to understanding Aristophanes; he felt that his own critique of the demagogic excesses on the Parisian political scene had been almost miraculously foreshadowed by Aristophanes' Knights and Acharnians, of which he was the earliest German translator.

It is not until chapter III, therefore, that Holtermann reaches the century in which he is primarily interested. It was in the first half of the 19th century that Aristophanes played a crucial role in the German attempt to subject Comedy and The Comic to philosophical analysis and give them a theoretical basis. This process was foreshadowed by the drama theorist A.W. Schlegel's less famous brother Friedrich, whose highly original essay on the aesthetic value of Greek comedy, published in 1794, proposed that the conspicuously Romantic virtues of Freedom and Joy (Freiheit, Freude) are integral to all art. For Schlegel, comedy is elevated to the status of the most essentially democratic of all art forms, especially Aristophanic comedy, written in the freedom of the Athenian democracy; it therefore makes a fundamental contribution to his theory of an ideal, popular, democratic genre with emancipatory potential. Schlegel's admiration for Aristophanes lies at the basis of the whole series of German metaphysical theories of Aristophanes emanating from the pens of now almost forgotten Idealist aestheticians, who however culminated in the far from forgotten Hegel. Hegel's own views, disseminated in the lecture hall, are difficult to pinpoint exactly, but his pupil Heinrich Theodor Roetscher produced his own seminal Hegelian study Aristophanes und sein Zeitalter in 1827, and it conditioned the entire German 19th-century reception of Greek comedy. Hegel, unsurprisingly, appears to have stressed the portrayal of subjectivity and of ideological conflict in Aristophanes, and a favourite example seems to have been Ecclesiazusae. But Hegel's Aristophanes was essentially a conservative, who reaffirmed old values by demonstrating the erroneous subjectivity of individual interest groups within the strife-ridden state.

In Chapter IV the argument moves beyond philosophical circles into German drama, with a fascinating account of the intermittent presence of ideas about Aristophanes in topical Lustspiele, and the uses made of Aristophanes by German poets longing for a political comedy, for example the extraordinary trilogy Napoleon by Friedrich Rückert (1815-18), an accomplished classicist. The focus of the literary intelligentsia was kept firmly upon Aristophanes by the scandalous feud between August von Platen, the author of self-styled 'Aristophanic' comedies in the 1820s, which were most notable for the adoption of the parabasis as a medium, and Heinrich Heine, who also became known as 'the German Aristophanes', but who preferred to see the Greek comic poet as fundamentally a writer of ad hominem invective and personal satire. The undignified and all too Aristophanic squabble between these two entailed Platen insulting Heine as a Jew and Heine responding with an assault on Platen's homosexuality. Yet this unedifying story lies behind the centrality of Aristophanes to the 'Aristophanids', a group largely consisting of Young Hegelians, who conducted an energetic discussion of the proper relationship between art and society leading up to the German revolution of 1848.

Chapter V sets against this politicised background the later 19th-century discussion of Aristophanes' politics within the rather different culture of German classical philology and shows how the Hegelian conception of a conservative Aristophanes revealing the 'false' subjectivities in the conflict-ridden state fundamentally determines the nature all subsequent debate. Holtermann brings to ideological life many names familiar from the history of textual criticism -- Theodor Bergk, Johann Droysen, Theodor Kock -- and shows how scholarship reacted against the more radical pre-revolutionary appropriations of Aristophanes, either by reinstating a conservative poet who was fundamentally supportive of atavistic and aristocratic values or by proposing that Aristophanes was a lighthearted fun-loving entertainer, somehow disengaged from the life-and-death civic struggles in the ancient state, and not serious about politics at all.

Chapter VI demonstrates that Aristophanes was ever more appropriated to nationalist and reactionary agendas, especially at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, leading up to the German victory and the foundation of the German Empire in 1871. Aristophanes was adopted as a model by authors opposing dissident and revolutionary groups, in particular those critics of the establishment who feared the dominance of the state over religious institutions and spiritual values and, above all, social democrats and communists. Julius Richter even took to writing comedies in ancient Greek, including Chelidones (1873), which invoked the ancient authority of Aristophanes in order to attack the materialist theories propounded by communist analysts of society. By the last decade of the century, the play most obviously dealing with 'communist' ideas of social revolution, Ecclesiazusae, had become the most discussed of all Aristophanes' plays in Germany, where it was performed by 1895. It was used to discredit any political arguments about the devolution of power or the redistribution of wealth; it was read in schools in an organised propaganda campaign against social democratic ideas; a school edition was even produced of Robert von Pöhlmann's Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus, which relied heavily on Ecclesiazusae to demonstrate that the absurdity of such egalitarian ideas had already been exposed in antiquity. On the other hand, prominent socialists were by 1902 already using Ecclesiazusae to further their own, quite antithetical, agenda, and Aristophanes' 'women' plays as a group had begun, at least, to attract the attention of supporters of women's emancipation.

In Chapter VII Holtermann offers a thesis-like but useful summary of his argument in the foregoing chapters, and Chapter VIII constitutes a substantial appendix chronicling the German editions, commentaries, translations and theatrical productions of Aristophanic plays, both in and before the 19th century. This is clearly the result of painstaking research into German bibliographical resources and will prove invaluable.

There are, naturally, some directions in which the scope of the book could have been usefully extended. Its engagement with Aristophanic reception outside German-speaking countries is intermittent; a more global intellectual perspective would have helped to define the special qualities of the relatively late German experience of Aristophanes, especially in vernacular translation: it would have been advantageous to compare Holtermann's convincing narrative with the information that all eleven plays had appeared in Italian as early as 1545, and literary French versions, as well as political English ones, had already appeared in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The book also reveals the absolutely urgent current need for a study of the Dutch reception of ancient drama (see pp. 280-1): this is a largely unmined seam of scholarly gold waiting for the appropriate Dutch-speaking scholar to investigate. To those interested in performance reception, Holtermann adopts a somewhat narrow definition of 'influence' when it comes to the role played by ancient archetypes in the evolution of theatrical aesthetics and does not add much to the discussions of early performances of Aristophanes in H. Flashar's Inszenierung der Antike: das Griechische Drama auf der Bühne der Neuzeit 1586-1990 (1991). He surprisingly elects to bypass almost altogether Goethe's notorious adaptation of part of Birds, performed in elaborate costumes at Weimar in 1780. The contribution of Aristophanes to the evolution of musical theatre, including Schubert's Singspiel adaptation of Lysistrata as Die Verschworenen, is summarised in disappointingly few sentences, on the understandable ground that it lies beyond the scope of the study.

But it is no mean achievement to make the reader wish that the study had been even more extensive, and this volume undoubtedly puts the study of the reception of Aristophanes in Germany on to a new, scholarly, modernised and comprehensive basis, and it is to be warmly welcomed. It has made efforts to consult original, primary sources wherever they are available, and has constructed a clear argument which contextualises and outlines the major vicissitudes and developments in the political appropriations of Aristophanes in German-speaking circles. It is particularly heartening to find the history of translation into a modern language being taken just as seriously as the history of scholarly editions and commentaries.

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