BMCR 1995.05.07

1995.05.07, Taafe, Aristophanes and Women

, Aristophanes and women. Routledge revivals. New York: New York, 1993. xii, 214 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780415095143 $49.95.

Near the end of her book, Lauren Taaffe recalls the scene in Shakespeare’s As You Like It where Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, offers to act as Rosalind for Orlando. “In other words,” she writes, “Rosalind plays the role of a man who imitates Rosalind herself. The audience has x-ray vision, so to speak, at this point in the play (III.ii): they see all three layers of Rosalind’s character and hear four different voices in her remarks: those of Rosalind, Ganymede, Ganymede as Rosalind, and, perhaps, the poet” (142).

This brief example illustrates the potential of Taaffe’s project (broadly speaking, the study of gender and self-referentiality in Aristophanic comedy) and hints at some of the strengths and weaknesses in her execution of it. Few nowadays would deny that such a passage cries out for gender-aware analysis (which, in fact, it has been receiving in good measure and for some time). Also, the self-conscious theatricality of this and other passages of the play is evident and ought to be instructive. The idea that the gender play and the theatrical play are more than casually related is promising and certainly deserves careful consideration. Returning to the example itself, however, observe first that “perhaps” (in “and, perhaps, [the voice of] the poet”) is unnecessarily (and uncharacteristically) diffident . On the one hand, the poet’s “voice” is a formal necessity at all times. On the other, the multiplication of voices here, along with the evidence of many similar examples, is exactly what, in this kind of analysis, points convincingly to the poet. Yet, if this move is to be more than a formal gesture, we want to know what this last voice is saying. The fun is not hard to elaborate in the piling of Rosalind upon Ganymede upon Rosalind. But Taaffe does not have anything to say, at this point, about Shakespeare’s place at the bottom of this heap—hence “perhaps.”

Taaffe also misses an opportunity here: she should have said “five voices.” She has, for once, forgotten the male actor who plays Rosalind. This is surprising, since she constantly reminds her readers of the convention that female roles were played by males, and this reminder sometimes even forms the main thrust of her argument about Aristophanes. She makes good the omission on the next two pages (143-4) with her remarks on the Epilogue of Shakespeare’s play, in which the actor playing Rosalind first teases the audience with a reference to dramatic technique (“it is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue”) and then breaks the illusion to reveal himself as male. In addition to the actor’s voice, in this example we do also get Shakespeare’s voice, for, Taaffe explains, “The poet had at least three reasons for this.” The only one of these that matters for present purposes begins with a point no one would dispute, that the poet “reveals the theatricality of the presentation as part of his comic technique, just as Aristophanes did,” and then continues, “and in particular with female figures.” This addition contains the kernel of Taaffe’s argument about Aristophanes and women.

The argument has three components. First, “the feminine” is an imaginative construct. I quote again from the concluding chapter (139): “Aristophanes’ portrayal of females, whether abstract concepts in female form, real citizen women, young girls, market women, or foreigners, depends on traditional stereotypes for inspiration. In ancient Greek thought and literature, the feminine is a theatrical phenomenon: women are shifty, transient, insubstantial, deceptive, and imitative.” Second, “These qualities also belong to comic figures. Whenever any element of femininity is present in an Aristophanic production, an opportunity arises for humor based on theatricality, costume play, or language play.” And third, “the convention of male actors playing female roles does appear to intrude into the text, just as it may have intruded into the performance. Femininity is represented by Aristophanes as the site of the ultimate comic figure: completely deceptive because ‘she’ is not real at all. ‘She’ must be given shape by a man, and everyone knows that.”

Taaffe does not really argue for the first point; here and there she refers to relevant work by Foucault, Winkler, Zeitlin, and others. But in her individual readings of Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae (chapters 2-4, the bulk of the book), she does make many fine incidental observations, or add evidence to others’ claims, about feminine stereotypes. Indeed, she is often at her best in this dimension of her project, though it does not seem to be the one closest to her heart. In arguing for the second point, Taaffe acknowledges some predecessors in classical studies, e.g. Zeitlin again, Foley, Said, Rosellini, and Loraux. The most frequently cited studies date from the early to mid-1980’s. In addition, she attributes important influence on her work to scholars of Renaissance English drama (works dating mostly from the late 80’s) and feminist performance criticism, including film studies (dates in mid-80’s). The argument for the third point, at least the technical part of it (that the masculinity of actors intruded into text and performance) is largely her own.

Vase paintings that might parallel the last point are studied in a few pages of the Introduction (5-10). Taaffe contends that “No male actor in female dress is pictured without some reminder of his own sexual identity; the illusion of ‘woman’ is often disrupted” (9-10). Never mind the inconsistency between “no male actor” and “often disrupted.” The evidence marshalled to support the argument is in fact vanishingly thin. Of four vase paintings which unambiguously show male actors portraying female characters, two are pre-dramatic and not linked to comic subject matter; the third dates from 520 and also may not be comic. Only the fourth is well suited to Taaffe’s theme. In this Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 390-80, two chorus-men appear dressed as women, one in full costume, the other about half-disguised. Taaffe writes, “That the painter has chosen to portray this moment, rather than one in which both actors are in full costume, is important. While he does commemorate the actors’ performances, he also commemorates a moment when their illusion of gender disguise is displayed. Just so, manipulation of costume and language constantly reveals the illusion of gender disguise in Aristophanes’ plays” (9). The point about Aristophanes must be examined separately. As to the visual material, I have two questions. First, how is a representation of actors to be recognized as such if there is no slippage in the disguise? But even if an answer can be given to this, a second question is, In what proportion do the (presumably more numerous) depictions of men playing men reveal awareness of the actors’ identity (including sex) beneath their disguise? Taaffe presents half an argument, and with the evidence she has she cannot, I think, overcome the multitude of factors that require her to qualify her thesis. For example, the vases portraying actors were commissioned by people connected with the performance, so they have this simple motive for revealing the actors beneath the costumes.

The Introduction continues with sketches and surveys of opinion on “Women in Ancient Greek Comedy” and “Feminist Performance Criticism.” In connection with the latter, Taaffe speaks of such things as constructions of gender, manipulation of the male gaze, and reinforcement of cultural images and assumptions. She then explores an analogy between theater and film, where recent feminist work has analyzed how the positioning of the camera, the ordering of images, editing, and so on, are used along with script and costume to reinforce stereotypes. This is all well and good and might have gone somewhere. The trouble is that it doesn’t: the analogy, as here presented, breaks down exactly when Taaffe acknowledges the sharp limits on the theatrical medium’s ability to manipulate the gaze, especially in a day-time open-air theater. To be sure, theater has set, props, costume, blocking. But in the case of an ancient Greek play, these must nearly always be deduced from the text. More importantly, theater does not control either the angle or the object of the gaze through a camera. So Taaffe falls back on the less flashy (but doubtless true) assertion that Aristophanes’ words aim to please a male audience. 1

Chapter 1 seeks support for the points enumerated earlier by studying the representations of female figures in the plays before 411. There are some successes. For example, it does seem fair to associate Dikaiopolis’ wife and daughter with the use of the play-within-a-play technique in Acharnians. The “femininity” of the Cloud chorus is also fertile for Taaffe’s approach (as it was for Charles Segal in a 1975 article). It must be said, however, that Taaffe engages in some sloppy argument in this chapter and rather often in the rest of the book. In what follows, I present some examples in the hope that they will clarify the lines along which further research ought to proceed. As I said earlier, Taaffe’s thesis deserves serious attention, but although she has made a good start in collecting evidence from the plays, the main case will have to be supported by better argument than she has provided. 2

First, then, Taaffe sometimes presents an argument too narrowly focused to support her conclusions. I have mentioned this already in connection with the vase paintings. Another, characteristic example is the assertion that the ability to parody is “essential to the characterization of the feminine in Aristophanes” (39). But Taaffe herself has just written, “With Aristophanes, although we can always expect some parody, we never know who will deliver it.” In other words, male comic characters also produce parody, nor does she suggest that they are any the less “masculine” for it. The particular passage in question here provides another example, for Taaffe cites Trygaios’ daughter’s exhortation to her father not to “become a tragedy” as, in effect, metatheater characterizing her and through her “the feminine.” But without wanting to detach this remark from the daughter (pointless, since she speaks it), I am inclined to see Trygaios, the male character, as the focus of the metatheatrical play early in Peace. It is he who has a significant theatrical name, he who patterns his adventure on a Euripidean play, he who addresses the crane operator, and so on. Such a view of Trygaios, which hardly seems controversial, does not rule out the possibility that at some deeper level Greek culture associated theatricality and femininity, as Froma Zeitlin has argued in an intriguing article. But it does not help to make the case when Taaffe attaches whatever theatrical features she can find to Trygaios’ daughter, unnamed and present for only 35 lines, while ignoring Trygaios himself. A selection of similar examples of one-sidedness: (1) Taaffe claims that by ridiculing the costume of the actor who plays Iris in Birds, “Peisetairos once again highlights the falseness of the representation of a female figure” (42). This in a play that will soon feature the ludicrous costume of Prometheus! But what Taaffe says of Iris and other female figures can be said of almost any comic character. She never looks at the male figures, and consequently the costume argument wears thin. (2) The “concept of femininity as changeable or unstable seems basic to Greek thought” (159 n. 31). Read “humanity” for “femininity” and the sentence describes something even more basic. Of course, a case can be made that changeability and instability are conceived as more feminine than masculine, but only by adducing examples that contrast the two genders, at least implicitly. (3) It is implied that Lysistrata employs a feminine skill when she “rewrites epic,” that is, adapts her husband’s reported quotation of Hector’s famous line in the Iliad (64). Again, this is a widespread and not gendered feature of comic discourse. The chorus of Birds appropriate cosmogonic poetry, many characters re-write oracles, and still others manipulate the jargon of philosophy, politics, and the law-courts, to name only a few.

Taaffe often overargues as well. For example, the adjective “sophos” is said to be a “female term” (65). If this is at least comprehensible (though debatable) against the background, say, of work by Hellenists of the “Parisian School,” I cannot be as understanding when she asserts the same thing of the adjective “philtatos” (“an extremely feminine attribute,” 56). Similarly, on 92-3 she exaggerates the metatheatrical potential of the verb “skopein.” At 187 n. 33, commenting on Eccl. 536-8, she asserts that “the equation, for men, of female clothes and death seems somewhat pervasive,” with a single reference to Lys. 387-475. I assume she means rather 532-8 and 598-607, where in the corresponding “chokers” of the contest the Proboulos is dressed first as a woman and then as a corpse. A reference to Pentheus in Bacchae, as supplied in her discussion of the Proboulos, would have helped her case, but it is still a stretch.

A related vice is the slide from doubt to certainty in the progression of many of the arguments. For example, Taaffe writes on the Rural Dionysia scene of Acharnians, “The possibilities of exploiting [Dikaiopolis’ wife’s] position on stage in performance are many.” This is followed by “On the roof, as an audience for Dikaiopolis’ parade, she is free to interact with the festival audience in the theater herself.” And then, “There she becomes an intermediary between the play proper and the play-within-the-play for the audience in the theater” (25-6). And yet, having asserted (not argued) all she wants from the scene, Taaffe immediately gives it back: “Our view of the procession is not filtered through hers” (remember film studies). Similarly at 159 n. 31 (the note about the changeability of the feminine in Greek thought), she moves from “Semonides does not conceive of women as simply ‘being women'” to “he cannot say‘Woman is’ or ‘Woman is X’.” Finally, in writing about the representation of stereotypes in Lysistrata, Taaffe glides from “Discussion about the outer image of women helps to create for the audience the illusion of women played by male actors” (where “discussion” refers misleadingly to jokes about costume and physique) to “Because we see the women discuss theatrical illusion…” (55, emphasis added to all quotations in this paragraph)!

The last sentence quoted continues, “for a moment we may recall that male actors play the parts here.” We may, but need not, and it is hard to see how the effect follows from the alleged cause. Recall that it is an original and cherished ambition of Taaffe’s to prove that the masculinity of actors intrudes into Aristophanic text and performance. This idea is far from implausible, yet it often appears as no more than a gratuitous addition. I give two examples of many: “Clouds represents femininity as a protean, deceptive, and ultimately false construct.” So far so good; now the addition, “There are always men underneath” (35). Or on Ecclesiazusae, “We see the women move in and out of their new personae [true] and we are reminded that the actors are men underneath their costumes [gratuitous]” (116).

Despite such weaknesses of presentation, Taaffe does come up with some insights precisely because she is always alert to “the men underneath.” Her careful examination of the re-dressing of the Proboulos (62-6) culminates in the good observation that he “provides a distorted reflection of the actor as Lysistrata: a man dressed in woman’s clothing, playing a woman’s part.” Readers should think hard about this, for the conclusion Taaffe is prepared to draw from it is far-reaching indeed: “This is important for [Lysistrata’s] subsequent speech: she will speak out on public issues, something only a man may do” (65). This is the place to mention that Taaffe is almost entirely uninterested in the possibility that Lysistrata was modelled on Lysimache, priestess of Athena Polias, or that this Lysimache may even have been known to the public as a proponent of peace. Some, finding this possibility exciting, might even say that this is as close as we get to a real woman in Aristophanes, but Taaffe’s interest lies, as we have seen, in showing that “woman” is a construct and that real women, who had no public voice, are not accessible through comedy.

After sketching the situation in the second half of Lysistrata, when all the actors who play men have monstrous erect phalluses, Taaffe sums up pithily (52), “In the final analysis, we might describe Lysistrata’s plan as a play in which women enact the roles of men by playing the parts of ‘women’ and men enact the roles of women by playing the parts of ‘men’. This play is resolved when the middle, role-playing, level of character is eliminated and the super-feminine women reunite with their super-masculine men and recreate ideal marriages.” Again the insight (which I judge a memorable success) is won by attention to all aspects of masculine and feminine stereotypes. Note, however, that it would not have been improved, and might have been spoiled, had Taaffe added a layer of complexity by writing “men playing women” where she first writes “women.” The question is whether Aristophanes’ comic purposes are not sometimes better achieved if the illusion of “men playing women” remains intact. To my mind this example, with its complicated gender play within the fiction, supports the belief that they are. I believe this is also true, on the whole, for Ecclesiazusae. Thus Taaffe seems to me to ruin the joke at Eccl. 165-8 by again insisting on the convention (118), though she is generally good on the jokes in this play that depend on grammatical gender.

Thesmophoriazusae, on the other hand, offers more and better opportunities both for metatheatricality and for “the men underneath.” Many of these have been recognized in work by Zeitlin, Said, and Ferris (all cited by Taaffe).

I briefly mention some missed opportunities. When Taaffe writes (68-9) of the audience’s uncertainty as to how far Myrrhine’s strip-tease may go in Lysistrata, she does not mention the chorus, whose male and female halves removed clothing earlier in two symmetrical stages (615, 637, 663-4, 687-8). In general, references to their bodies are plentiful; thus 149-54, quoted by Taaffe (60), recurs in a grotesque version at 824-8. But as regards Myrrhine, Taaffe takes her point too far, I believe, when she worries about whether to perceive undertones of male homoeroticism. Again, unless I overlooked it, Taaffe missed a chance at Eccl. 888-92 to comment on rupture of the illusion by both actors in a scene featuring two highly artificial women. Finally, at 105 with n. 5 Taaffe assembles the scanty evidence for actors’ use of falsetto but leaves out perhaps the best example, Thesm. 190-2, which she cites twice for other reasons. There Euripides includes gynaikophonos in a list of qualities he attributes to Agathon (cf. 131). After commenting on other items in this list, but not the voice, Taaffe even writes (83), Agathon “is allowed a voice in public affairs by virtue of his natural sex. His femininity is a mask,” etc. But what a voice! Similarly, Taaffe cites Thesm. 267 only to remark on lalein, part of a feminine stereotype that remains within the fiction (86). But what about gynaikizein ? The word could, but does not have to, refer to the sound of the actor’s voice. For this category of humor S. Halliwell (in Owls to Athens: Essays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover, Oxford, 1990, p. 76) adduces, in addition to passages already noted, only Eccl. 149 and Crates fr. 24, both known to Taaffe (see also N. Loraux in Aristophane ( Entretiens 38), Geneva, 1993, 243 n. 99, reacting to S. Said). Taaffe touches on the issue only when considering whether falsetto was used consistently by actors representing women, so that she can wonder how the actor playing Praxagora may have modulated his voice in different scenes. But one might have expected her to be at least as interested in the possibility, often present though apparently seldom realized, that an actor might break character for a voice joke. To me it seems that the extreme scarcity of such jokes (call this an “argument from falsetto”) tells against Taaffe’s central claim, that there was a virtual compulsion to rupture the illusion of gender disguise in Aristophanic comedy.

Taaffe closes with some interesting thoughts on gender and casting in hypothetical modern productions of Aristophanes (144-6). Everyone will agree that such choices are important, as is the fact that only male actors appeared in Greek and Elizabethan plays. Starting from this insight, Taaffe delivers less, and less that is new, than one might have hoped. Still, Aristophanes and Women can be recommended for its careful and often rewarding chapters on Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae.

  • [1] I am speaking here of the way Taaffe herself describes the impulse her work derives from film studies. It may be that even a more sophisticated application of these methods to Greek drama meets with difficulties: see F. Zeitlin’s review in this journal of N. Sorkin Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women ( BMCR 94.11.3). [2] I only mention here two of the book’s other weaknesses. First, some of the author’s historical observations display an unsure hand and the same tendency to overargue that will be discussed in the text. Second, the reader will encounter many errors in the Greek printed; in quotations longer than a line, there is almost always at least one. Not all of them, I am afraid, can be judged typographical. Amidst the mostly unimportant slips of this kind, one is both glaring and used to support a point (the pronoun “us,”hemas, cited as a feminine form, 112).