Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.35

Philip Walsh (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Reception of Aristophanes. Brill's companions to classical reception, 8.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 533.  ISBN 9789004270688.  $168.00.  


Reviewed by A. C. Duncan, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; The University of the Free State, Bloemfontein (acduncan@email.unc.edu)

Preview
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Consistently thoughtful and frequently quite useful, Philip Walsh’s edited volume on the reception of Aristophanes, part of Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception series, is a model of the form. A short preface, two thematically arranged sections each comprising eight chapters, and concluding remarks are followed by a thorough index nominum et rerum. Certain chapters are appropriate for a first-year seminar, others advance Aristophanic scholarship in crucial areas, but as a whole the volume’s ideal readership is advanced undergraduate and graduate students, for whom this book should be assigned with confidence as a point of departure for further study. Though it offers no bold or explicit manifesto for the study of Aristophanic reception, through its methodologically diverse and exemplary studies of the Old Comedian’s influence, this book should be a touchstone for future work on Aristophanes in the longue durée.

According to Walsh’s preface, “The goal of this volume is to provide a substantive account of the reception of Aristophanes from antiquity to the present to point interested readers to the many monographs, edited collections, journal articles, dissertations, essays, and blogs that treat other aspects of his reception. Gaps inevitably remain,” Walsh continues (ix). As well they should; restraint is a cardinal virtue in an editor. Half the length of Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Euripides, this book has a levity and vim proper to its subject. Though lean, it offers more than a richly annotated bibliography. The quality of the studies is uniformly, impressively, high. Some contributions (such as the opening chapters by Niall Slater and Charles Platter) are most valuable as up-to-date roadmaps for research, others (such as Mark Payne’s study of “Teknomajikality and the Humanimal…”) press the limits of scholarship, but the majority offer novel case studies, perspectives, or arguments on crucial topics.

Walsh’s preface, though elegant, might have benefited from further theoretical discussion and precision. Despite routinely naming the playwright, Walsh’s real subject is often not the reception of Aristophanes, but reception itself. For example, he calls attention to the “topsy-turvy” (vii) popularity of Aristophanes’ comedies, as past eras’ fondness for Clouds and Wealth has given way to our modern obsession with Lysistrata. Might not the same be said about Euripides’ Orestes and Medea? Nor was this an isolated conceptual metonymy: programmatically addressing the riddling question, “When does Aristophanes become modern?”, Walsh hazards the following: “Aristophanes becomes modern when he matters again—when his plays become more than inert records of the past… when translations, adaptations, and performance become joyous experiments in the vernacular… when poets, critics, playwrights, historians, artists, and teachers actively reinterpret the comic plays for the here and now” (viii, original emphasis). Again, much the same could be printed replacing “comic” with “tragic” and “Aristophanes” with “Euripides”—even “Aeschylus”. As the chapters demonstrate concretely, much is peculiar about the reception of Aristophanes. A more robust account of Aristophanic exceptionalism would have further justified this volume in the crowded field of reception studies, distinguishing it more sharply from similar works focused on performance.

Imposed superstructures rarely add heuristic value to edited volumes, but Walsh’s division was, for me, an exception. Equally divided into two parts, “Aristophanes, Ancient and Modern: Debates, Education, and Juxtapositions,” and “Outreach: Adaptations, Translations, Scholarship, and Performances,” the volume begins by grappling with the nature of the reception of Aristophanic drama before turning to a series of intelligent readings anchored in context. One might cavil over Walsh’s post-colon keywords: separating “education” and “scholarship”, particularly when discussing the Cambridge Greek Play or the influence of Gilbert Murray, seems a distinction without a difference. Nevertheless, there is intellectual benefit in reading, as I did, the book in linear order. If this is a compilation of hits, it has the feel of an album.

This review makes no attempt to address every worthy study, as Walsh himself provides two-sentence summaries of each contribution near the end of his preface. Instead, in the space available I call attention to six chapters, three of which work closely together, as a representative sample of what is innovative, traditional, and useful about this book.

First is Donna Zuckerberg’s innovative contribution, “Branding Irony: Comedy and Crafting the Public Persona” which explores how Aristophanes shaped his own reception. Zuckerberg stays true to her own brand as managing editor of Eidolon, citing modern comedians to talk fruitfully about the dynamics of an ancient genre. Noting that comedy, wherever it is found, is “part of a discursive process of cultural negotiation,” Zuckerberg nevertheless detects “surprising similarities” between Attic Old Comedy and its 21st century equivalents (150). Casting the poetics of comic competition in terms of modern marketing, she examines Aristophanes’ “brand strategy,” detectable across several of his (and others’) plays. If shaped by and for our present perspective, such ancient-modern comparison is both valid and productive, exemplifying the unique power of reception studies to further illuminate even (or especially) the most canonical of authors.

More traditional is a set of case studies on Aristophanes’ twentieth-century reception in the British Isles. C.W. Marshall, Mike Lippman, and Gregory Baker’s contributions survey, respectively, J.T. Sheppard’s influential tenure with the Cambridge Greek Play, Gilbert Murray’s prim and popularizing studies of Aristophanes, and Douglas Young’s attempts at a Scots vernacular translation. Individually and collectively, these chapters show how education, performance, and scholarship entwined as the Classics curriculum descended from the towers of Oxbridge. More generally, they also highlight the biographical interest attending reception, sketching compelling portraits of the scholars and translators involved. Baker’s chapter is almost cinematic, presenting ten pages of taut exposition before turning to Young’s work on Aristophanes. Baker’s narrative tributaries rapidly convene into a flood, forcefully illustrating that context is always crucial for reception. It is salutary for full-time Classicists, too, to conceive of reception not as texts in search of an audience, but as societies groping for the right artistic-historical work for their moment.

Turning last to the useful, I highlight Alexandre Mitchell’s visual survey of recent posters of Lysistrata and David Konstan’s afterword. Mitchell’s study, based upon of a personal collation of publicity images from anglophone and French productions, draws much-needed attention to a highly visible moment of reception, where Aristophanic comedy is distilled, symbolized, and packaged for mass appeal. It is difficult to find a more salient or constant moment of theatrical reception; one wishes that such visual databases could be made public, prominent, and (as far as practicable) exhaustive. Last, Konstan’s afterword functions as a second introduction, tying together the volume’s many strands with his typical theoretical and humane acumen. Observing that “Aristophanes has the virtue of having called attention to his own part in redefining the sense of his comedies, and reception criticism is simply following in his footsteps” (373), he brings the volume to a convivial close. Despite much praise, some aspects of this volume deserve critique. Classical reception has had greatest traction in English-speaking circles, but it is regrettable that only four or five chapters (depending on how one counts Lallans) focused on receptions outside of anglophone contexts, and not one outside of Europe or North America. Receptions in Spanish, German, Italian, and other tongues would have been welcome; more welcome, still, receptions and perspectives from (post-)colonial contexts. Though some might (myopically) argue such studies have niche audiences, a volume aiming at “substantive account” of an author’s reception cannot unapologetically ignore the Global South. Lastly, the book’s publication schedule presumably precluded serious engagement with the late-2015 Spike Lee joint Chi-Raq, an adaptation of Lysistrata that garnered significant media attention. An early and authoritative study of this film might have substantially expanded the audience and circulation of this book.

What is above all at the editor’s discretion is the choice of contributors. In evaluating a volume, then, it is legitimate to consider demographics. This is not done to police arbitrary identity quotas but to promote a representative diversity of perspectives on issues of significant cultural complexity. As Aristophanes’ plays themselves show, those who are devalued or discriminated against by a dominant culture often have trenchant observations in, and about, comedy. Of the companion’s sixteen chapters, eleven were authored (in one instance, co-authored) by men, five by women. Though this disparity reflects the gender imbalance of the subfield, it also suggests that substantial intellectual progress might be made were Aristophanic scholarship to feature more female voices. The companion’s complete omission of non-white scholars is glaring, though I hasten to add that this fault lies chiefly with the discipline, not the editor. Walsh should be congratulated, however, for effectively scouting a number of talented younger scholars. Though the companion is predictably top-heavy with eight full professors and one senior lecturer, it has a greater balance in terms of contributors’ career progress than similar volumes, including (at the time of publication) four assistant professors, one lecturer, one graduate student, and one non-tenure-track (if highly visible) younger scholar. Dialogue is central to the dramatic, and John Given and Ralph Rosen’s co-authored piece should also be celebrated. Aristophanes’ many-splendored works extend far beyond the faculties of any single spectator, critic, society or era.

This is a handsomely produced volume, enhanced by the colorful inclusion of nearly forty recent Lysistrata posters compiled by Mitchell, one of which also graces the cover. Typological errors are few, if noticeable. I detected only two of factual consequence: on p. 55, the colonial name for Harare, Zimbabwe (mentioned in passing) should read “Salisbury” not “Sailsbury,” and on p. 299, “Bdelycleon” should read “Philocleon,” as it is the father, not son, who shares fellow-feeling with the chorus of Wasps.

Debate may continue about their role and status within the discipline, but there should be few doubts today that reception studies have come of age in Classics. Walsh’s useful and engaging volume on the reception of Aristophanes is a testament to the maturity of the approach. Walsh’s self-effacing editorial hand is hard to detect, but the effort to present a unified volume that cuts across disciplinary lines is evident. Such harmony in diversity is a large part of why this companion succeeds, despite its anglophone and “Western” biases. As author-centered panels are on the decline at major conferences, author-centered reception studies are having their day, exploiting productive, under-explored tensions between individual and plural, archetype and variation. If indeed, as Walsh suggests, Aristophanes becomes “modern [when] critics… historians… and teachers actively reinterpret the comic plays for the here and now,” then the Old Comedian owes the editor and contributors a debt of gratitude for his continued relevance and rejuvenation.

Authors and Titles

Preface and Acknowledgements (Philip Walsh)
Part 1. Aristophanes, Ancient and Modern: Debates, Education, and Juxtapositions
1. Aristophanes in Antiquity: Reputation and Reception (Niall W. Slater)
2. Modern Theory and Aristophanes (Charles Platter)
3. Aristophanes, Gender, and Sexuality (James Robson)
4. Aristophanes, Education, and Performance in Modern Greece (Stavroula Kiritsi)
5. Teaching Aristophanes in the American College Classroom (John Given and Ralph M. Rosen)
6. The "English Aristophanes": Fielding, Foote, and Debates over Literary Satire (Matthew J. Kinservik)
7. Teknomajikality and the Humanimal in Aristophanes' Wasps (Mark Payne)
8. Branding Irony: Comedy and Crafting the Public Persona (Donna Zuckerberg)

Part 2. Outreach: Adaptations, Translations, Scholarship, and Performances
9. Aristophanes in Early-Modern Fragments: Le Lover's La Néphélococugie (1579) and Racine's Les Plaideurs (1668) (Cécile Dudouyt)
10. Aristophanes and the French Translations of Anne Dacier (Rosie Wyles)
11. The Verbal and the Visual: Aristophanes' Nineteenth-Century English Translators (Philip Walsh)
12. Comedy and Tragedy in Agon(y): The 1902 Comedy Panathenaia of Andreas Nikolaras (Gonda Van Steen)
13. J.T. Sheppard and the Cambridge Birds of 1903 and 1924 (C.W. Marshall) (p. 263)
14. Murray's Aristophanes (Mike Lippman)
15. "Attic Salt into an Undiluted Scots": Aristophanes and the Modernism of Douglas Young (Gregory Baker)
16. Classical Reception in Posters of Lysistrata: The Visual Debate Between Traditional and Feminist Imagery (Alexandre G. Mitchell)
17. Afterword (David Konstan)
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