Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.19
Michael Ewans (trans.), Aristophanes: Lysistrata; The Women's Festival; and Frogs. Translated with theatrical commentaries. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 42. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 324. ISBN 9780806141510. $34.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Emma Bridges, The Open University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As the first in a series of new translations of the comedies of Aristophanes, this volume seeks to present versions of the plays which can be acted on stage whilst also maintaining a closeness to the sense and meaning of the original Greek text. Ewans has chosen to group the plays by date of performance (in this case, plays from the last years of the Peloponnesian War) “so that theatre practitioners, readers, and students may find in one volume Aristophanes’ comic response to a particular phase in the fortunes of his native city” (p. ix). In aiming his text at those who are not necessarily specialists in the study of the classical world, the translator has produced an edition which is wholly accessible to a modern audience; he draws on his own extensive experience as a director and has, accordingly, tested out his versions on a replica of the original Greek stage. By combining an understanding of Athenian performance conventions with a consideration of the expectations of a twenty-first century audience Ewans presents his reader with a detailed insight into the continuing appeal of ancient comedy.
The translations themselves strike a balance between fidelity to the Greek and clarity of expression in English; although the translator favours unrhymed verse the language used has a contemporary flavour and straightforward style which will be easily intelligible to modern spectators. The resulting versions of the three plays are more closely akin to those of Sommerstein 1 than, for example, to the freer style of McLeish’s translations,2 which are, similarly, intended to be actable, but which stray further from the Greek in order to appeal to the target audience (Ewans himself feels that these omit too much from the sense of the original text – p. ix). The volume’s introduction outlines some of the principles of translation to which Ewans adheres (pp. 41-7): for example, he translates directly into English the vulgar or scatological vocabulary used by Aristophanes and favours, on the whole, the preservation of ancient names and concepts in his versions. He also makes clear his opposition to ‘modernized’ scripts (p. 29), believing that the thrust of the plays is still intelligible without replacing names unfamiliar to a modern audience with other, more recognisable ones (for example, substituting the names of contemporary politicians for those of the public figures originally held up for derision by Aristophanes). There are, nonetheless, some substitutions that render the text more easily intelligible (as suggested by his decision to refer to Thesmophoriazusae as The Women’s Festival). For example, the Proboulos of Lysistrata becomes a ‘Bureaucrat’ and Scythian archers in Lysistrata and The Women’s Festival are renamed simply ‘Policemen’. Most notably, the figure of Kleisthenes appears in The Women’s Festival as ‘The Queen’, with an explanatory note in the dramatis personae describing him as “Athens’s most notorious passive homosexual” (p. 107), and further details in the theatrical commentary describing his appearance and demeanour and advising “an extravagant, high- camp transvestite performance” for this character (p. 257). As such instructions might suggest, despite Ewans’s opposition to the use of modernized scripts, his views on staging reflect a desire to make the actual performance of his texts accessible to a modern audience for whom the masks, padded costumes (to represent the female form) and all-male cast of the original productions may seem to be mere “historical curiosities” (p. 38). His preference is therefore for contemporary costumes, suggesting that the visual impression created can be used to convey messages to the audience about, for example, a character’s status or role. Ewans asserts (p. 39) that “Aristophanes wrote these plays for immediate contemporary impact, and we should attempt to re-create this effect as far as possible.” Whilst for some there may be an apparent contradiction between Ewans’s reluctance to ‘modernize’ the scripts of the plays and his wish to bring up to date the appearance of the actors, it seems that both are compatible with the translator’s desire to make the ancient texts actable and appealing to today’s audiences. If we see the translator as the vehicle through which a new audience can access the material he translates, then it makes sense that this also applies to his interpretation of the staging as well as of the text. Whilst his use of English language remains faithful to the original Greek, he steers clear of archaizing vocabulary or diction; dressing the characters in modern garb would appear to be consistent with this policy of domesticating the texts themselves.
In keeping with the translator’s aims to make these plays accessible in a contemporary context, this volume also boasts several features which allow the actor, director or interested reader to delve further into the background of the texts. Little previous knowledge of Greek history or culture is assumed, and accordingly the introduction (pp. 3- 49) gives a summary of the religious, political, social and dramatic context of the original performance of the plays, with brief overviews of the following: the festivals of Dionysus; the conventions of comedy and its relationship with tragedy; the Peloponnesian War; women in Aristophanes; and Aristophanes and Euripides. There is also a short individual introduction to each play outlining the historical context and providing plot summaries which draw attention to key elements of each comedy as well as offering reflections on their contemporary relevance or appeal to a modern audience (although these sections are, inexplicably, more detailed on Lysistrata and Frogs than on The Women’s Festival).
Where this volume is unique among translations of Aristophanes is in its inclusion of in-depth ‘theatrical commentaries’ to accompany each play. These provide detailed notes on issues relating to the staging of the comedies, with individual sections on each scene and choral ode. Advice is given on the acting style needed to play key characters, as well as on props, set and the precise movement and positioning of actors on the stage. An accompanying schematic drawing of the Theatre of Dionysus is provided in order to assist with staging; the translator notes (p. 48) that his stage directions in the texts would suit a Greek theatre shape, and that directors may need to modify these depending on the performance space they are using but that it is nonetheless important to be aware of Aristophanes’ practice. The commentaries are mindful throughout of the original context of the comedies and of relevant theatrical conventions and highlight accordingly elements on which a director or actor unfamiliar with the classical world may need clarification; for example, in The Women’s Festival Ewans outlines the key elements of the parodies of Euripidean plays which feature in the plot of the comedy. Further appendices provide advice on cuts which directors are advised to make on the basis that certain references are too obscure or untranslatable for an audience of non-classicists, and on Aristophanes’ original use of actors to ‘double’ by playing more than one character. There are also glossaries of proper names and Greek words used in the translations.
By presenting these valuable interpretative tools alongside English translations that are faithful to the original Greek, Ewans gives his readers an insight into the ways in which Aristophanes’ comedies can be appreciated, understood and enjoyed by a modern audience. Rather than viewing the differences between the cultural and political climate of ancient Athens and that of the modern world as a barrier to this understanding, these readings of the plays act as a series of case studies that highlight the enduring popularity of classical drama. This series promises to be of value not only to theatre practitioners and students of ancient drama but also to those with an interest in the reception of classical texts.
1. Sommerstein, A. H., Lysistrata. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1990; Thesmophoriazusae. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1994; Frogs. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1999.
2. McLeish, K. Aristophanes: Plays One. London: Methuen, 1993; Aristophanes: Plays Two . London: Methuen, 1993.