BMCR 1994.10.10

1994.10.10, Bowie, Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (I)

, Aristophanes : myth, ritual, and comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. xvi, 328 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521440127. $64.95.

A. M. Bowie’s Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy is the first book in English since Francis Cornford’s The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914) that is devoted to the relationship between Old Comedy and Greek myths and rituals. Bowie, like Cornford, argues for the provocative position that comedy is essentially engaged with myth and ritual. But while Cornford looked to mythical and ritual paradigms to reconstruct the remote origins of comedy—its narrative structure and its character typology—without probing the reception of Aristophanes’ plays, Bowie turns to myth and ritual to explain the meaning and influence of Aristophanes’ individual comedies in the context of late fifth-century Athens. Bowie looks for the receptive “filters,” by means of which comedy’s fifth-century encountered and understood it. In this project, Bowie employs the strategies of structural anthropologists; in his words, he is looking for the “‘grammar’ of Greek culture” (4), which he reconstructs—true to his structuralist methodology—not primarily out of the events and persons that made up the Athenians’ daily social and political experiences, but from the Athenians’ memories and participation in myth and ritual, those aspects of Greek culture that are most foreign to modern readers of Aristophanes. Bowie also follows structuralism in deemphasizing the personal beliefs and authorial intentions of Aristophanes himself. He is interested more in comedy’s audience than its author, and in perceived, rather than intended, meanings. Comedy, for Bowie, belongs in a context defined by public and religious festivals; it was not an instrument of personal persuasion: the “function [of Aristophanes’ comedies] in the city was not principally for one man to lecture the audience,” rather “they were part of [the] displaying of the city to itself” (10).

After a chapter on method and perspective, Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy devotes a chapter to each of Aristophanes’ eleven extant plays. (It should be noted that Bowie says little about Aristophanes’ fragmentary plays and almost nothing about those of his contemporaries.) Bowie’s organization is chronological. He reads each play in a complex relation with a distinct set of myths and rituals which he uses to reconstruct its distinctive meaning for its Athenian audience. 1 But he sees commonalities among the plays of given periods. He reads the Knights, Clouds and Wasps against Athenian rites of passage (Bowie believes the ephebeia existed in some form in the fifth century), which are variously imitated, manipulated or reversed in the course of the three plays. Bowie reads the Lysistrata and the Thesmophoriazusae, which he takes as examples of (male) Athenian views of women, 2 in close connection with the Athenian festivals the Thesmophoria and the Adonia, and with related myths ( Lysistrata with the Lemnian women). And he finds similar connections between the Ecclesiazusae and Frogs, which he sees as part of an extended critique of tragedy and its social lapses.

Bowie aims to put Aristophanes in the thick of everyday Athenian life. He exhibits a genuine interest in reconstructing the religious and cultural elements that Aristophanes’ audience brought with it to the theater; every chapter is full of insightful readings and pervaded by an impressive knowledge of Athenian ritual and myth. Yet for all its intelligence and perspicacity, I found this book often frustrating. Its insightful interpretations seemed to me to be interspersed with misleading mythical analogies, and Bowie’s reconstruction of the audience’s perspective on the social and political implications of Aristophanes’ comedy sometimes seems limited and reductive. Rather than list points of agreement and disagreement in his separate receptive interpretations of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving plays, I intend to use this review to explore the methodological dimensions and substantive characteristics of Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy, from which both its insights and problems arise: how Bowie reconstructs the receptive meaning of Aristophanic comedy, and how, in reading comedy, he also reconstructs meaning in comedy and the audience that discovered it.

I will begin with Bowie’s methods. While Bowie draws on structural methodology, he shows little interest in the structure of comedy itself. Bowie is right that only by “special pleading” (4) was Cornford able to make Aristophanes’ extant works fit the ritual paradigms of cosmic struggle and renewal that he posited at comedy’s origins. But in discounting the receptive significance of comic structure, he leaves critical questions about the generic relation of myth and the comedy untouched. He does not discuss how comedy’s generic engagement with myth and ritual distinguished it from other genres of choral lyric or whether the filters that shaped comedy’s reception also came into play when the same citizen body sat as the audience of tragedies, political rhetoric and other forms of public discourse—or, again, how the comic performance activated the expectations of its audience and how, in turn, it reshaped them. At the same time, explicit and veiled references to Greek myths and rituals are given a remarkable authority as keys to the minds of comedy’s fifth-century audience. 3 In fact, what justification Bowie gives for his use of myth and ritual needs to be much stronger than it is: “the analyses of Aristophanes’ plays will make most use of ritual and mythological material, partly because there is so much explicit use made of Greek myth and ritual in the comedies, and partly because we can reconstruct a good deal of the significances of these myths and rituals in Greek culture generally and so assess their meaning in the narrower area of Aristophanic drama” (3).

Bowie’s views comedy as a conservative genre. He reads many of Aristophanes’ heroes as anti-heroes, who transgress the social order without much effort to restore it. “A particularly common technique in Aristophanes is to juxtapose reference to these city festivals to the actions of his heroes, so that the ideology of the city is contrasted with the deeds of the main characters, often to the discredit of the latter” (8). “The plays offer a vision of a release from constraints, but also show where it can lead if unchecked” (16-17). Comedy, in Bowie’s book, comments on (or invites its audience to comment on) its heroes’ fantastic quests and visions by referencing (or allowing its audience to discover references to) pre-existing images and patterns. There is a duality inherent in comedy; for Bowie, Aristophanes’ plays typically imagine brave new worlds, but simultaneously undercut their own fantasies. In this sense, Aristophanes’ fantastic constructions seem cathartic in their social function: they cancel themselves, as self-parodies, leaving his audience with an appreciation of the complexity of the real world but no sense of alternatives to it: “fantasy in Aristophanes,” Bowie remarks in concluding his discussion of the Frogs, “is always put at the service of a greater understanding of the nature and indeed unavoidability of reality” (252). Bowie makes no mistake in being wary of attributing too much to comic constructions: comedy did not compete with the pnyx. Yet surely it was not limited to buttressing questionable social and political structures by reducing all hopes of alternatives to dystopic fantasy. 4

The second point concerns Bowie’s presentation of Aristophanes’ poetic persona. Bowie wants to see Aristophanes “freed from debates about his personal views, political, social, and sexual orientation, attitude towards intellectual matters, changing attitudes to Athenian life with the passage of time, and so on,” and he believes Aristophanes should be “allowed to see his name become synonymous with his texts” (293), or, in fact, with the performative context of his plays. It is refreshing to see nothing in Bowie’s Aristophanes of the poet’s poet, whose primary engagement was to a literary tradition (the Aristophanes of Cedric Whitman’s Aristophanes and the Comic Hero [1964]). Bowie’s discussion of the relation of poetry and politics in the Frogs (238-53) is particularly valuable in this respect. Yet, if Bowie is right to beware overly-aestheticizing Aristophanic comedy, it can hardly be doubted that comedy was a vehicle of authorial as well as civic identity. And while it is certainly correct to distinguish the persona of the comic poet as literary fabrication, it is wrong to treat that persona, because it may have diverged from the persona the same author fabricated in other public and private media, as unimportant for comedy. Bowie’s dislike of discussions of the authorial persona and intentions is often intense. But he sometimes seems to be fighting anonymous ghosts: “not infrequently too one can see that the ‘Aristophanes’ constructed by those who would know his views bears no small likeness to the author of the study in question” (10).

Bowie’s lack of interest in Aristophanes’ self-image and his disinclination to see much political agency in comedy are perhaps linked to his view of Aristophanes’ audience, who seem more religious than the Athenians of other scholars, and certainly more conservative. He seems to read Aristophanes’ plays from the perspective of those who not only gave myth and ritual a principal place in their interpretive frameworks, but who were also nervous, sensitive, even somewhat humorless about religion as well as comedy, and far more impressed by innuendos touching upon religious and ritual procedures and than by comedy’s abundant social and political arguments. 5 Bowie’s audience took Aristophanes very literally. Its members were likely to agree with Aristophanes’ heroes that Athens was “a place full of disagreeable, even intolerable, aspects,” yet they would soon decide that those same heroes, when they were allowed to have their way, built worlds with “features which, especially from a democratic viewpoint, are even more worrying” (171). Comedy did not apparently do much to ease their worries or lift their spirits, and it certainly did little, even temporarily, to make them adjust their opinions on what was good or bad for the city. That there were such Athenians can hardly be doubted (I think of Plato’s Euthyphro as an example of the type). But few scholars would see them as typical of Athens at any point of Aristophanes’ career, and fewer still would construct them as Aristophanes’ “ideal audience.” It is better to attribute too much, than too little, complexity and sophistication to Aristophanes’ contemporary audience.

We must appreciate Bowie’s familiarity with Greek rituals and myths and his subtle use of these in reading Aristophanes’ plays. He moves the modern reader closer to the very different receptive world of late fifth-century Athens. Yet he fails to support his insightful readings of the mythical and ritual parallels in comedy with a examination of the generic characteristics of comedy, or, more importantly still, with a satisfactory discussion of the place of myth and ritual in the minds of Aristophanes’ contemporary audience. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy leaves many important questions unanswered.

  • [1] Bowie believes that the intensity of the links between plays and their mythical and ritual referent varies. Peace, for example, is a play that evokes the Athenian Anthesteria, but in less immediate ways than other plays recall other rituals (149). [2] Bowie dismisses the view of unnamed scholars’ view of Lysistrata as “simply a ‘feminist’ drama” (204). [3] Bowie’s argument that the Acharnians is not only about war and peace provides an example: “a reconsideration of the function of mythology and ritual reference in the play will show that it is in fact dealing with a much greater range of questions of central importance to the city” (18). [4] On the Wasps, for example, Bowie remarks “once again, there is no overt protreptic from Aristophanes: the vices of democratic and tyrannical justice at opposite ends of the judicial spectrum are set before the audience, who may do with them what they will” (100). Sometimes, Bowie attributes more to Aristophanes: “the plays … may not have been propagandistic for a particular political position, but may have worked to raise the audience’s consciousness of the problems facing them” (11). And he appreciates more complex readings when he finds them in secondary sources (so Bowie’s discussion at 149-50 of Albio Cassio’s treatment of Peace in Commedia e partecipazione [Naples, 1985]). [5] It certainly reduced Aristophanes’ rich mixture of utopic and dystopic in the Birds‘ Nephelcoccygia, for example, to the level of moral banalities. Bowie offers a detailed reading of the establishment of the Bird city against the myth of Tereus, which ingenuously paints the foundation of Nephelcoccygia as an aberrant exercise in city foundation; nonetheless, Aristophanes’ audience, Bowie believes, understood the play “as giving a clear demonstration of the dangers of wishful thinking of a better world in the sky and exaggerating the problems of the democracy” (171).