Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.38

James Robson, Humour, Obscenity and Aristophanes. Drama Neue Serie, 1.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr Verlag, 2006.  Pp. vi, 215.  ISBN 3-8233-6220-8.  €54.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Trent University (istorey@trentu.ca)
Word count: 1918 words

This study is a revised version of Robson's London PhD, supervised by Michael Silk, in which he discusses the comic technique of Aristophanes from a number of (principally technical) viewpoints: "Humour", the perception of humour (chapter 1), Aristophanic humour (chapter 2); "Obscenity" (chapter 3); and "Aristophanes", textual analysis (chapter 4), and an analysis of Peace 819-921 in terms of the theory worked out in the preceding chapters (chapter 5). The first section ("Humour") is devoted to a highly theoretical (and at times impenetrable) presentation of what Robson terms the "modal theory of humour", with graphs, lists, and many technical terms ("disjunctors", "connectors", "frames", the very annoying "lexemes", "unitary discourse"). This theory he applies in chapter 2 to Aristophanes with the general statement: "text is judged humorous by the listener when the playwright is perceived as having his characters fail to maintain unitary discourse" (44). He begins with a slightly revised version of Grice's (1975) model of co-operative discourse, and subjects quite a number of Aristophanic jokes to a variety of analyses, concluding that Aristophanes' "favourite maxim to violate seems to be 4b (Manner: avoid ambiguity)" (69). But I wish that Robson had used terms other than "violate" or "maxims", as at times he seems to make "avoiding ambiguity" seem like a good thing. Without that avoidance or violation, however, there would be no humour and thus no comedy. We tend to get at times the impression that comedy is somehow something deviant and unfortunate, where the opposite is the case.

The second section ("Obscenity") struck me as something of a digression to the development of the larger study. Here Robson does allow (73-4) for the influence of earlier iambic on obscene language in comedy in particular and on the larger propensity of comedy to "get" its target. But I think he could have done more with this as it is almost certainly the influence of iambic poetry with its colloquial and obscene language and the need for the poet to have a victim that made Old Comedy into the genre that we know through Aristophanes. The operative figure here is, in my opinion, Kratinos. Again we descend too quickly into technical jargon and graphs, but he does have some useful things to say about the festival setting and the possibility that the theatre was like an intimate family, where things that might be taboo in a more formal public setting were acceptable here. Indeed I thought of Sokrates' well-known response to his caricature in Clouds, "in the theatre I feel that I am being made fun of in a great party among friends" (Plutarch Ethika 10c-d).

In his first two chapters Robson distinguished four possible modes of discourse: serious, humorous, paradoxical, and nonsensical. In his third section ("Aristophanes") he applies these modes to short passages of the comic text, employing Silk's technical term "collision" for "the juxtaposition of words and phrases of different registers" (96). Before turning to his analysis of the passage from Peace he sorts out thirty-nine criteria that need to taken into account: change in vocabulary, colloquial expressions, quotations, technical vocabulary, dialect and unusual language, word order etc. One wonders if there is a 'normal' passage at all in Aristophanic comedy. Robson selects Peace 819-921 for its lively presentation, significant shifts in tone and register, clashes of diction and metre, and the "obscene expression of the passage's latter half" (132).

On his very first pages (4-5) he discusses Peace 696-9, where the "humour is obscure ... but there is something about the structure of these lines which suggests humorous content". And it is here that I parted company with Robson. Where he would argue that "this is not merely ... because they feature as part of a longer humorous exchange", I would maintain that this is precisely the point. Old Comedy depends in large part on the expectation of the spectators -- they have come to laugh and to hear jokes aimed at familiar targets of the day. In Classics Ireland 1998 I described what I called "variations on a malicious theme", that is a sequence of personal jokes on a common theme, each one depending upon a pun or punch line. At Peace 657-705 we get just such a sequence, two political jokes plus two dramatic jokes. The spectators are expecting each entry to be (a) funny, and (b) aggressive. Just as the late-night audience is prepared to laugh at the punch-lines in Johnny Carson's opening monologue or Dave Letterman's "Top Ten ...", so too were ancient spectators primed and ready to laugh at a sequence of jokes. The actual words of the text do not matter as much the external context.

When Robson comes to discuss the longer passage from Peace, he does perform some exhaustive analysis and does make some revealing discoveries, but at the same time we need to remember that this was comedy, with all the expectations attached thereto, and that Aristophanes was not writing with a handbook of comic expression or unitary discourse open before him. He can be careless, inconsistent, and sometimes his jokes fall flat. Not every line of his comedy is going to be a specially crafted gem. It is said that Vergil composed only a few lines of poetry per day, but the anecdote about Menander and his comedy ("I have the comedy all ready; I just have to write the lines" -- Plutarch Ethika 347f) makes it clear that comedy could be a rapidly composed creation.

Robson does admit (95) that extra-verbal humour must have been part of the experience, but does not go very far with this. In modern comedy, gesture, timing, and inflection can make or break a joke. Anyone who has staged both tragedy and comedy knows how much more work the actors have to do in comedy. Rather too often in this study we are invited to read the jokes, not listen to them. C.S. Lewis maintained over and over again in his Letters to Children that would-be writers should always be reading what they had written out loud, and in fact two of the jokes in English that Robson adduces as examples in chapter 1 depend on timing and inflection to make their point: (1) "Have you heard about the new corduroy pillows? / --They're making headlines" (12), where the jokes works best if the words are pronounced "head ... lines", with a separation and an emphasis, and (2) where the joke about eating the swan, "the meat was really nice, you know. But the bill came as a shock" (32), needs a distinct emphasis on "bill", perhaps with an attendant rolling of the eyes or physical accompaniment. That brings us to gesture. We cannot know how an ancient comic actor delivered a joke, but has there been any study of the evidence on what used to be called the "phlyax vases", which now are accepted as representing scenes from Old Comedy, of the gestures and modes of delivery? The Choregos-vase, for instance, shows a comic character on a raised platform engaged in some sort of comic shtick. Robson's analysis aims more at the reader, or at the most, the listener, rather than the spectator.

My principal problem lies with the theoretical approach and the dense technical sections, especially in chapter 1, and with the over-reliance on critical jargon. To explain a joke is to kill a joke, and I would argue that the same applies to analyses of humour on a larger scale. Norwood, in his most unfairly neglected Greek Comedy, gives an apposite example (305):

So in the story of the man who drew his revolver upon another, explaining that he had determined to shoot anyone whom he found uglier than himself. One version continues: "The other answered, 'Shoot!' "; the alternative version gives: "Well, if I'm really uglier than you, I don't to want to live, so shoot!". The first version is wit; the second has no merciful name.
I was sorry not to see Norwood in Robson's bibliography, since Norwood's summary of the comic essence of Aristophanes (298-312) remains in my opinion one of the most perceptive and approachable discussions of ancient comedy. I have always been impressed with Norwood's tripartite analysis of the comic expression (304): "Wit, fun, and humour are each the amusing self-expression of one who envisages the incongruous. When the intellect is the function employed, wit results; when it is the imagination, fun results; when it is the emotions, humour results." This explains the nature of Aristophanes' comedy so well, and personally why I find him so much more appealing than, say, Terence or Molière.

An essentially trivial, inconsistent, and ephemeral genre such as comedy is not well served by solemn technical analysis. Aristophanes passes quickly from one joke to another, from one register to another, from the serious to the colloquial, from tragic parody to pure street humour. Admire him for his brilliant wit and fantastic imagination, work at explaining the passages whose point eludes us, but spare us the technical jargon and the impenetrable theory. Robson does mention Aristophanes' fondness for such tried-and-true concepts as the pun, the punch-line, and humour para prosdokian, and these strike me as a more reader-friendly manner in which to examine how Aristophanes' comedy operates. Aristophanes begins on a neutral note, tantalises the spectators with a straight line or two, and then springs his trap (or explodes his bomb) with a punch-line or a pun or something unexpected.

I found his analysis of Peace 819-921 intriguing, informative, and constantly thought-provoking. At line 819 (135-8) I like his suggestion that εὐθὺ τῶν θεὼν is a quotation from Euripides' lost Bellerophon, the tragedy parodied in the opening scene. The parody of Telephos in Acharnians goes on for several hundred lines in that comedy. He has also a good discussion of the humour para prosdokian in 821-3, where the humans first look small from Olympos (as we might expect) and then an unexpected switch to "nasty" and then "even nastier". Again I wonder how inflection, pause, and gesture would have influenced delivery of the joke. At 829-30 (144-150) I suspect that he pushes his analysis too far, "within the first few words maxims (4b) 'avoid ambiguity' and (4c) 'be orderly' are violated". There is nothing really unusual about someone saying, "No I didn't see any -- oh wait, except for the souls of some dithyrambic poets", especially as with the right inflection it could suggest that dithyrambic poets are worth mentioning only as an afterthought. Robson's detailed analysis of 856-64 (162-171) was especially good, beginning with the very rare word εὐδαιμονικῶς and building up to the sarcastic personal joke at Karkinos. Finally he calls our attention to the "clash" between form (metre) and content, pointing out the primary obscenities that dominate the second half of his chosen passage "habitually coincides with the tightening of the metre" (179). He lets his final words lie with Aristophanes, stressing "the playful blurring of the line between humorous and serious discourse" (186) and the exuberance and vitality "which are so characteristically Aristophanic".

Those who like their comic criticism heavy on theory will find chapters 1 and 4 to their liking; those who want to get their hands dirty with text and exegesis will find ample material in chapters 2 and 5 to suit their taste. Personally, though, I found the theory too heavy and the readiness to resort to jargon got in the way of what was an useful and revealing analysis of a neglected passage from a neglected comedy.

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