Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.39

Ian Christopher Storey, Aristophanes: Peace. Bloomsbury ancient comedy companions.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.  Pp. x, 177.  ISBN 9781350020214.  $17.99 (pb).  


Reviewed by Dimitrios Kanellakis, University of Oxford (dimitrios.kanellakis@queens.ox.ac.uk)

Preview

On 11 Nov. 2018, at the centennial commemoration of World War One Armistice Day in Paris, which brought together all Western leaders, the Greek Prime Minister gifted his hosts a copy of Aristophanes’ Peace, and said: ‘This work is today more timely than ever, as it describes why we must struggle on a daily basis against war, and not consider peace as a given’.1 Storey, who concludes his book precisely by highlighting the significance of this comedy in the modern word (pp. 149–150), offers a rich introduction to this play.

This volume, as well as one on Plautus’ Casina by David Christenson and one on Terence’s Andria by Sander M. Goldberg, all published in 2019, ‘launch a much-needed new series discussing each comedy that survives from the ancient world’.2 While this project succeeds in presenting ‘accessible introductions’3 and is an expected choice for Bloomsbury Academic—they also publish the (formerly Duckworth) Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy—it is rather a hyperbole to call it a ‘much-needed’ series, at least as far as Aristophanes’ comedies are concerned, given the fine existing introductions by Dover, MacDowell, and those in the respective OUP commentaries. What is certainly fresh in Storey’s introduction is the emphasis on the performative aspect and the inclusion of a short section on the post-classical reception of the play.

The book, which assumes no knowledge of Greek, is an introduction to Peace, but its contents also make it suitable as an introduction to Greek comedy in general since it explains the conventions of ancient drama and brings examples from all eleven plays by Aristophanes, on every matter discussed. Quite often, such information becomes an end in itself; for example, the description of the Choregos Vase (p. 117) has no relevance to the discussion of Peace. While this will be very helpful to those engaging with Greek drama for the first time, and indeed for non-classicists—some terms in the glossary are too obvious even for a first-year classicist—it will be rather tiring and time-consuming for someone who strictly needs an introduction to Peace and has studied any other comedy before. This also raises a question about the forthcoming volumes in the series: will each of them repeat information such as the characteristics of Old Comedy, the life of Aristophanes, or the dramatic conventions? Is this ‘much-needed’?

The first chapter offers an overview of Old Comedy and Aristophanes’ work, and a summary of Peace. The second chapter describes Peace as an Old Comedy, as far as its ‘comic hero’, its structure, and its chorus are concerned. The third chapter focusses on the historical background of the play, i.e. the political figures of the 420s and the negotiations that led to the Peace of Nicias. The fourth chapter picks up some themes and motifs in Peace, namely monsters, fairy-tales, life in the countryside, the statue of Peace, imagery revolving around smells and odours, food and sex, the presentation of non-Athenians, and metatheatre. The fifth chapter is devoted to the staging of Peace, starting with an introduction to the theatrical conventions of the era, and then discussing the doors, stage-levels, and scenic effects used in the ancient performance. The final chapter concerns the intertextuality of the play (its influences from other works and its references to other poets and public figures) and its reception in Late Antiquity and the modern era.

Some readers might miss a chapter on language and style, which some of the sister-series’ Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy have.

Despite the statement by the series editors that the series is ‘offering new interpretations of ancient comedy’,4 there is hardly anything new in terms of content—which is reasonable for an introduction. On the few matters that still pose a challenge, such as the absence of a formal agōn in the play (pp. 28–29, 53–54), whether the chorus are Panhellenes or just Athenians (pp. 33–34), and how foreseeable a peace treaty was in early 421 BC (pp. 57–58), one would have wished for a deeper analysis and for the author to have taken a clearer stance on the respective debates. One argument that seems to stand out in the book is that there is no serious opponent of Peace/no monstrous antagonist for Trygaeus, unlike in other comedies, and that War vanishes without disturbing the progress of the plot (pp. 59, 63, 65, 67, 91).

This supports Storey’s overall positive reading of the play: Peace is a nostalgic and fairy-tale-like celebration (pp. 59, 92–93). While this is undoubtedly the common interpretation among scholars, the book lacks a fair presentation and a critical treatment of the ironic readings.5 For example, Storey views the scene with the handing over of Theoria to the boulē (discussed at pp. 81-2, 88-9) as a blessing: ‘The presiding counsellors […] are being given custody of a divine handmaiden, symbolic of the freedom to travel [theōrein] without the dangers of wartime’ (p. 89). The alternative and rather more straightforward implication, i.e. that some of the counsellors are abusing/might abuse their power and ‘fuck up’ the negotiations, is not even mentioned. The alternative meanings of Theoria’s name (translated as ‘Holiday’ throughout the book and linked to the peace negotiations at p. 47), such as ‘Spectacle’ and ‘Theory’, and their implications for the episode with the counsellors, are not mentioned either.

Some comments on particular points:

• The statement that ‘critics and producers tend to highlight three of Aristophanes’ extant plays: Clouds […], Frogs [… and…] Lysistrata’ (p. 1) is not supported. The statement seems to be true as far as critics are concerned,6 but not as far as producers are concerned; the plays staged more often are Lysistrata, Birds, and Frogs.7
• That Trygaeus is ‘the most straightforward and appealing of Aristophanes’ leading characters’ (p. 2) is a debatable claim. It is true that he lacks ‘the rough edges or the self-centredness or the exasperating behaviour of some of the others’, but does this make him a ‘straightforward and appealing’ character, or a flat and non-realistic one? And why assume that ‘a simple son of the countryside’ is (equally) appealing to an audience comprising different demographic classes?
• In the section ‘Peace and the Politicians’ (pp. 47–53), we read about Aristophanes’ targets, especially Cleon (see also pp. 130–131). It would be useful if we could also read about his sympathies, such as Nicias and Demosthenes. The surprisingly infrequent references to Alcibiades in Aristophanes could also receive a comment.
• In the section ‘The monsters in Peace’ (pp. 61–63), Storey identifies two monsters: Cleon and War. But while the former is an obvious case/a true monster (vv. 752–9), the latter hardly fits this category; War’s fierce eyes, the noise in the background, and the sound of his mortar (p.63) are only implicit markers of monstrosity. At the same time, the dung-beetle which is a monster in the narrowest sense possible (i.e. an apotropaic animal-hybrid) is not mentioned. This suggests that Story understands dramatic monsters in ethical terms (i.e. who the antagonists of the protagonist are) rather than in morphological terms.
• ‘It is fair to say that for Aristophanes the country means a life of pleasure and co-operation and the city war and contentious behaviour’ (p. 72). This is not ‘fair to say’ for all plays. In Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, for example, the idyllic society is a re-organised urban society, the reformation starting from the Acropolis and Pnyx—not a rural one. And Wealth shows how little pleasure exists in the lives of peasants, who can only hope for a miracle.
• Following Slater,8 Storey argues that ‘it was Aristophanes’ purpose not to make Peace a figure of fun and exploitation like the female personifications elsewhere in his comedies, but a solemn and august character’ and for that reason he used a statue instead of a mute actor (pp. 76–77). I find it hard to accept this explanation (instead of the simpler explanation that Aristophanes employed a statue for its impressive size), because statues of gods are made fun of occasionally (cf. Eccl. 782–3: ‘They stand holding out the hollow of their hand, so as not to give anything, but to receive something’).
• In the section ‘Breaking the dramatic illusion in Peace’ (pp. 87–89), it is not clear why the author avoids the well-established term ‘metatheatre’. Moreover, that ‘Peace breaks the dramatic illusion more often than any of the extant comedies’ (p. 88) is an assertion which would require a comparative analysis, not simply a listing of the metatheatrical instances in Peace.
• Some notes on copy-editing: a parenthesis is misplaced after ‘Aristotle’ at p. 8. In the index for City Dionysia and for Holiday (Theōria), p. 94 should be p. 95 (94 is a blank page). The ‘Structure of Peace’ summary (p. 37) should more naturally follow the respective section (pp. 25–32), rather than the ‘The Chorus in Peace’ section (pp. 32–37).

This book is welcome, as is the entire series, and it will be especially useful to fresher-classicists and non-classicists. However, it is neither ‘a vital companion’ to the play nor ‘will [it] be the first port of call for anyone studying or researching Aristophanes’ Peace’. 9 The first port cannot be anything but reading the plays themselves—which a book addressed to students should advise at the earliest opportunity.


Notes:


1.   naftemporiki.gr.
2.   From the back cover.
3.   From the series title page.
4.   From the series title page.
5.   Of those, only Sulprizio 2013 is mentioned (p. 74). C. Sulprizio, ‘You Can't Go Home Again: War, Women and Domesticity in Aristophanes' Peace’, Ramus 42 (2013), 44–63. In a forthcoming paper (in A. Serafim et al. (eds.), Sex and the Ancient City), I endorse the ironic interpretation of the play, arguing that it employs metaphors traditionally linked to political dystopia.
6.   Indicatively, a quick search in L’Année Philologique gives 230 hits for ‘Aristophanes Lysistrata’, 195 hits for ‘Aristophanes Frogs’, and 173 hits for ‘Aristophanes Clouds’. Fourth comes Thesmophoriazusae with 159 hits (as of August 2019)
7.   With 362, 256, and 212 performances respectively, according to APGRD. Clouds comes fourth, with 125 performances (as of August 2019).
8.   Spectator Politics, 2002: 123.
9.   From the back cover.

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