Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.56

Emmanuela Bakola, Cratinus and the Art of Comedy.   Oxford/ New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 380.  ISBN 9780199569359.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Eric Csapo, University of Sydney (


Table of Contents

No fragmentary author matches Cratinus' potential to unsettle complacency in the belief that antiquity selected and transmitted its best and most innovative authors. The discovery of a complete papyrus of Pytine or Dionysalexandros would turn standard ideas about Old Comedy upside down. The still-reverberating cries of indignation at the vulgarity of Athenian audiences might then fall silent; Aristophanes' complaint that Cratinus' Pytine thrashed his 'wisest comedy' in competition might be recognised for the empty rhetoric it most certainly was. Until then, the next best thing is Bakola's study of Cratinus. It not only vindicates the judges of 423 BC, but shows that many features of dramatic and poetic composition, long received as hallmarks of Aristophanic genius, appeared first in Cratinus and that, frequently, he did it bolder and better. (F 360 even anticipates Aristophanes' complaint that the Athenians were poor judges of comic 'wisdom'). It was not vulgarity that induced Athenian audiences to award Cratinus first prize 43 per cent of the time and Aristophanes only 10.

A surge in interest in Aristophanes' Old and Middle comic rivals has generated more commentaries in the last decade than appeared in the entire 20th century, including the only other book-length works devoted to Cratinus, by Pieters in 1946 (in Dutch), and Luppe in 1963.1 Bakola's is not a commentary but a thematic study of poetic and dramatic questions that concern Old Comedy generally. This makes it far more effective. A commentary or play-by-play analysis would only perpetuate the Aristophanocentricity that this project aspires to overcome: it would inevitably 'operate by lifting issues from Aristophanic scholarship and adapting them to Cratinus' (8). Bakola is interested not just in her author but in the light his fragments throw on a genre that until recently has mainly been explored through the extant plays of a single author.

The first chapter examines what is now often perceived as Old Comedy's most distinctive feature, its self-reflexivity, and in particular its most self-reflexive feature, the competitive metapoetics that inspired comic dramatists to permit their own viewpoints and frequently their own voice to surface in the choral songs or in the actors' dialogue. Cratinus not only anticipated Aristophanes (and Eupolis) in constructing detailed and consistent images of himself, his poetic mission, and his rivals, but he went further in asserting a poetic persona -- indeed took this form of poetic self-presentation to a logical extreme by making himself the main character of what was perhaps his final drama.2 Zachary Biles' 'Intertextual Biography' showed that the self-portrait in Pytine, where Cratinus abandoned his wife, Comedy, to pursue an affair with Drunkenness, was not an isolated response to Aristophanes' image of Cratinus as a drunk (found in Knights and elsewhere).3 Cratinus himself earlier cultivated the drunkard image that his rivals seized upon. Extending Biles' discussion, Bakola demonstrates that this was part of a general attempt to project a Dionysian persona: Cratinus as 'force of nature', as inspired poet of the Aeschylean ilk, and as the first (not Aristophanes!) to use sexual prowess as a metaphor for poetic creativity. Moreover, Cratinus was the dominant partner in the creation of the opposition between the grand old 'inspired poets' and the 'new technicians' that shapes the conflict between 'Aeschylus' and 'Euripides' in Frogs (though the moulds were originally created to structure a contrast between Cratinus and Aristophanes himself). Despite its prominence in histories of literary criticism, Frogs once stood in the shadow of the sustained and sophisticated literary discourse of plays like Archilochoi, and Pytine.

In presenting his own persona in Pytine Cratinus adapted a feature of lyric, and particularly iambic, poetry to the comic stage. Bakola identifies as 'remarkably recurrent' Cratinus' 'interest in exploring genre, his readiness for generic cross-fertilization, and his capability of doing this in imaginative ways' (64). It is, therefore, Cratinus' distinctive experimentation with genre that form the subject of the book's three central chapters: tracking Cratinus' encroachments upon satyrplay, tragedy, and myth.

Cratinus incorporated core elements of satyrplay into at least two of his comedies. This was in keeping with his 'Dionysiac' self-presentation and 'avant-garde' experimentation with genre. Dionysalexandros definitely had a satyr chorus; so presumably did Satyrs, a play Cratinus produced in 424. Though not unique, nor the earliest use of satyr choruses in comedy, the phenomenon is certainly intriguing. Bakola is able to show that Cratinus' intrusions into this territory extended well beyond the poaching of a choral persona. The plot adapts several common satyrplay motifs and 'is the most overt and sustained example of interplay between the two genres' (116).

Chapter 3 corrects the widespread impression that paratragedy (generic use of tragedy) and tragic parody (distortion of a specific model) are both somehow distinctively Aristophanic. (Storey on Eupolis found mere 'traces' of interaction with tragedy, all 'paratragic'.)4 Bakola convincingly demonstrates that Cratinus (and other poets of his generation) not only anticipated Aristophanes in his use of tragedy but, if anything, used it more often and more variously. Plot, language, metrics and dramatic technique indicate a deliberate modelling of the opening of Plutoi upon the Promethean trilogy and in particular Prometheus Liberated. A tragic tonality is sustained by thematic and functional links between the Plutoi chorus of daimones ploutodotai and the Erinyes chorus of Aeschylus' Eumenides. Drapetides is, as the name implies, a parodic pastiche of suppliant tragedy, including generic and specific allusions to both Aeschylus' and Euripides' Suppliants, in a send-up of the subgenre’s role as an instrument of Athenian imperial propaganda. As a sustained 'deconstructive' parody of suppliant tragedy and the ideological images and institutions it supported, Drapetides 'demonstrates a mode of interaction with tragedy which, both in terms of technique and in terms of comic boldness, is not attested in extant Aristophanes' (178). Seriphioi, on Bakola’s reconstruction, is an extraordinary piece of paratragic metatheatre, in which the hero visits 'Aeschylus' to borrow masks, much the same way that Dikaiopolis visits 'Euripides' for costumes, but with sustained parody of Aeschylus' Phorkides, Polydektes and Dictyoulkoi, and a comic flight on the mekhane that probably anticipates Peace. Nemesis is paratragedy with no specific tragic model. By contrast, Eumenides is a targeted travesty of Aeschylus' homonymous play. Cratinus got the best of paratragedy, eliciting humour through incongruity while also milking tragic grandeur to appropriate its tone of 'authority'. In doing so he seems to have aimed to present his art, as he presented himself, as classic and Dionysiac (both qualities already richly associated with Aeschylus, or Aeschylean style). If there is a contrast to be drawn with Aristophanes, it is only that Cratinus worked from a fuller literary palette, including lyric and epic, and a richer one.

Chapter 4 corrects the common notion that Cratinus wrote political allegory disguised as myth-travesty. The culprit is the last sentence of the hypothesis to Dionysalexandros which informs us that 'Pericles is satirised μάλα πιθανῶς δι’ ἐμφάσεως as having brought the war on the Athenians', a phrase generally taken to mean 'very convincingly by allegory'. The translation 'allegory' evokes the kind of heavily veiled and systematic references to external characters and events that one finds in the cloister and salon literature of history’s more repressive regimes--references that, if they are to be noticed at all, require the kind of hermeneutic keys that scholars like Vickers, partly inspired by the hypothesis to Dionysalexandros, map even onto the plays of Aristophanes. Allegory does appear in Old Comedy, but when it does, in plays like Knights, it is anything but veiled. Emphasis, in fact, means something quite different. Parallel usage shows that the hypothesis really intends something like 'felicitously through indirect hints'. Allegory requires a continuous and consistent relationship between vehicle and tenor. Emphasis, on the contrary, implies a discontinuity in the relationship. Bakola demonstrates that Dionysalexandros has a self-standing and entirely coherent mythic plot into which political figures and events can only occasionally and inconsistently be slotted. We need to think in terms of multiple plot strands (mythical, dramatic, political) that each emerge, submerge and re-emerge intermittently as the humour requires. Dionysus is therefore frequently just Dionysus, or just a particular version of Dionysus, or 'Paris', and only occasionally also Pericles, when the language of the text and dramatic circumstances made it obvious. Plutoi and Nemesis have the same fluid relationship between mythical and political reference. Both combine 'imaginative engagement with drama and creative use of myth' with indirect and discontinuous commentary on current politics: the political trials of Pericles and his associates or the Aspasia scandal respectively. I am not however convinced that all these layers are equal. Myths (or tragic myths) seem to give Cratinus' plots their essential continuity, even if joined by other clearly distinct voices to produce frequent if intermittent harmonies. Aristophanes, by contrast, more readily subordinated his mythical or tragic material to the needs of his political and topical narratives, so that one can hardly think of them as 'independent layers' in the same way. Cratinus did not require of his audiences that they see through his myths to a parallel world of contemporary politics, but he did require a good deal of interpretative suppleness and quick adaptability to new hermeneutic protocols, much more than did Aristophanes--perhaps another reason why later antiquity preferred Cratinus' younger colleague.

Chapter 5 turns to questions of performance and production. I did not find an answer to the question that most interests me, namely whether Cratinus was his own lead actor, playing himself, in Pytine (just as some think Aristophanes played Dicaeopolis in Acharnians), but this is consistent with Bakola's programmatic avoidance of unprofitable speculation, 'a danger that often befalls the study of fragments' (9). Instead I found skilfully mustered and cogently argued evidence that Cratinus prized big effects (as reputedly did Aeschylus): a giant stage egg (containing Helen) in Nemesis; a ship that brought in the chorus of Odysseuses; Perseus and Zeus flying about on the mekhane; or a chorus in centaur costume. The chapter includes judicious and well-informed general discussions of comic space; scene setting; scene shifting; metatheatrical, metaritual, and paratragic costuming and action; and the appearance as stage-characters of personified abstract nouns (another hallmark of Aristophanic style anticipated by Cratinus).

Altogether the five chapters offer a remarkably coherent and comprehensive treatment of both author and genre. In addition there are five appendices, three glossy plates of the main papyri, and three text illustrations. I noticed thirty-two mostly minor errors and omissions, more than half of them the same error in accentuation (grave with breathing rather than acute) that must be the fault of the typesetting (outsourced to Pondicherry). Apart from these tiny foibles, I have difficulty imagining a better book on a fragmentary dramatist. Despite its focus on a single author, I learned far more about Old Comedy from this book than from the many books that pretend that Old Comedy can adequately be presented, or must inevitably be presented, largely or exclusively, through Aristophanes. Cratinus and the Art of Comedy is consistently intelligent, illuminating, articulate, and well argued. Like Cratinus, it outperforms its competitors παμψηφεί.


1.   I. Storey, Eupolis, Oxford 2003; S. Olson, Broken Laughter, Oxford 2007; M. Telò, Eupolidis Demi, Florence 2007; A. Papachrysostomou, Six Comic Poets, Tübingen 2008; C. Orth, Strattis, Berlin 2009; S. Pirrotta, Plato Comicus, Berlin 2009. I know of two dissertations on Strattis (Leonardo Fiorentini, Ferrara 2008; Sarah Miles, Nottingham 2009). Non-Menandrian New Comedy has, oddly, been neglected.
2.   This bold self-inclusion was possibly imitated soon afterwards by Eupolis: see Storey (note 1) 87-9.
3.   Z. Biles, 'Intertextual Biography in the Rivalry of Cratinus and Aristophanes', AJP 123 (2002) 169-204. The topic is taken up again in Biles’ Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition imminent with CUP.
4.   Storey (note 1) 327, n. 35; Telò (note 1) 106-21 is readier to find both modes of engagement with tragedy.

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