BMCR 1995.11.11

1995.11.11, Konstan, Greek Comedy and Ideology

, Greek comedy and ideology. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 1 online resource (ix, 244 pages). ISBN 0195357698. $45.00.

On whatever subject David Konstan writes in the field of classical studies (and beyond), the reader has come to expect elegant and humane discussion of the larger points raised by the ancient texts, the society behind the artist and his works. This recent volume assembles a number of Konstan’s previously published papers on comedy (Old, New, and “modern” [i.e. Moliere]). This may disquiet those who would be expecting a brand-new monograph on comedy, and the articles do range over a period of thirteen years. But each paper has been revised—where I was able to check quickly and directly, the revision has been substantial; the opening of the chapter on Wasps and the close of that on Ploutos are newly written to provide an introduction and conclusion to the material on Aristophanes, while the chapter on Dyskolos is almost an entirely new composition. Thus if not an entirely new book on comedy, this work has been recast thoroughly by the author to maintain a consistent overview. The chapter on Frogs (perhaps the most provocative), originally published in French in an out-of-the-way journal, is here translated into English and thus more readily accessible.

Konstan deals with Old and Later Comedy in roughly equal parts, Aristophanes represented by essays on Wasps, Birds, Lysistrate, Frogs, and Ploutos (the last a re-working of his joint paper of 1981 with Matthew Dillon), and Menander by discussions of Dyskolos, Perikeiromene, and Epitrepontes. Papers on Terence’s Eunuchus and Moliere’s The Miser round out this study. I shall content myself with observations on the Aristophanic studies as well as one of the Menandrian where I feel most at home.

Konstan’s introduction (4) explains his studies of the comedies as “ideological readings … [that] look to the ways in which the plays respond to cultural issues”. Literary texts will betray the “tensions and inequalities of class, gender, and status” (5), and Konstan seeks out what he calls “the seams and sutures” in comedy “where the fusion of incompatible elements becomes visible”. These “seams” take various forms in the comedies under discussion. Sometimes they are changes in the plot-line (as in Birds, Frogs, Ploutos), or in attitudes toward characters (as in Wasps, Ploutos), or in the moral level beneath the comedy ( Ploutos), or as in the case of Lysistrate a subtle variation on the well-rehearsed oikos/polis theme. Konstan takes issue with critics such as Heath for whom plot, not ideology, is the comic all in all (5-6); for him the “lapses in unity” are not errors of comic craftsmanship but “the source of the overdetermined structure of the comedies”. If there seems to be a problem (or incongruity or “seam”), there must be some authorial or societal reason here. Konstan rejects either loose composition or conscious irony as alternative explanations of such comic incongruity—especially well put on p. 79.

But it is this emphasis on “seams and sutures” (at times just large-scale incongruities and inconsistencies) that worries me most about Konstan’s various studies. Are they as significant as he maintains, or just part and parcel of the genre or of its particular writers? I suspect that audiences would have been used to this loosely structured and fanciful form of drama, that they did not apply to it the same rigour that we apply to the modern detective novel, that holes in the plot or entirely new lines of action would not have worried an ancient spectator the way they do a modern critic. We do not demand of modern musicals or even of the Marx Brothers’ movies that the words of the songs that effectively freeze or break the action have much to do with the plot or the “meaning” of the larger whole. This is our expectation; did the ancients actually worry about or even notice the incongruities that we find from reading the plays?

Similarly for Aristophanes the “seams and sutures” do not have to reflect an ideological tension beneath the comic surface. Incongruity is a well-documented phenomenon in his comedy—the matter of Philokleon’s teeth and Dionysos’ change of mission being the best examples. In fact Suss filled three articles with such discrepancies and incongruities. Dover summarises well, “that what is dramatically suitable at one moment may be rationally irreconcilable with what is presupposed at other moments in the same play”. These discrepancies are characteristic of our poet. Aristophanes simply did not bother about such matters in creating his comic plots and fantasies any more that Gilbert did about the relative ages of his major characters in Pinafore or in any other of these rather Aristophanean musical fantasies. If his mind races from one idea to another, we should perhaps suspend the critical gaze and enjoy the ride. Thus although I find much of what Konstan says about each play interesting and thought-provoking, reaction must be tempered by the consideration that he may be letting too much ride on what may be not as ideologically significant as he maintains.

Two other studies from the 1990s (both of which I have reviewed elsewhere) deal with the persona of the comic poet himself, but in two widely differing ways, namely Hubbard’s Aristophanes who in the parabatic sections at any rate is an author in firm control of his material and lurking very close to the surface of his comedies, and Bowie’s deconstructed Aristophanes who is less an author of crafted dramas than the almost unconscious purveyor of Athenian attitudes to myths and rituals—early on Bowie (p. 9) disavows any desire “to seek authorial intent”. Thus faced with this pair of antithetical Aristophanes, I was curious to see what sort of comedian would emerge from Konstan’s study.

The historical critic for whom authorial intent is not the lost cause that Bowie and others imagine will be at first dismayed to read Konstan’s denial of a programmatic intent (6) with his declaration “there is no unambiguous ‘Aristophanes’ within the texts” and his careful avoidance (8) of the author in favour of the effects created by the comedies. But in this respect the introduction (3-11) seems somewhat at odds with the various chapters in which Konstan does allow for a creative comedian at work. In particular the last pages of the study of Wasps (26-8) do allow for the poet’s own ideological stance, and for his personal view of the jury-system. And the discussion of Frogs frequently focuses on the author’s intentions (to the tragedians in general, to Aeschylus in particular, to the status of citizens, to the purpose of the poet in a city). Perhaps above all, in Ploutos Konstan sees the conscious comedian at work. However the emphasis still tends to lie with the plays and the effects they create; we do see an Aristophanes at work, but one rather closer to Bowie’s deconstructed comedian than to Hubbard’s visible author.

WASPS—The principal thrust of Konstan’s first discussion hinges on the point that the old men are not wholly in the wrong nor are their characters and attitudes reprehensible. Their orge, their most distinguishing feature as jurors, is praiseworthy in the description of their valour in Persian War times. As I read Konstan’s argument, it is not that orge itself is bad, but only as applied to the occupation as jurors. This brings him to the same conclusion as de Ste Croix, that Aristophanes is out to discredit the whole system, but with a less purely partisan bias. Aristophanes is contrasting youth and age, rich and poor, polypragmosyne and apragmosyne in a fashion that elevates earlier values above modern (i.e. popular) realities. On this reasoning Wasps fits well with the reversed ending of Knights or with the parabasis of Frogs or the ending of Lysistrate. On p. 17 Konstan finds it “odd” that common sense and conservative values are assigned to a young man, but reversal of generational roles is common in comedies of the 420s (cf. Clouds, Eupolis’Goats) and given the virtual identification of Bdelykleon with Aristophanes at 650ff., we can see the young comedian himself behind one of his main characters—note the eloquent send-off for Bdelykleon at 1450ff. I was pleased to see that Konstan treats both characters as principals, as opposed to Whitman, Reckford, and Bowie for whom Philokleon is the only character worthy of consideration. On the whole this is a solid discussion, even if the final comments (27-8) about class and citizen-status are less compelling.

BIRDS—I was less happy with this chapter. Birds has been a difficult comedy to write well on, and often open to excesses of political and metaphysical interpretation. Konstan canvasses a number of the political interpretations (30-2), ranging from Suvern’s pure allegory to Arrowsmith’s “warning to the Athenians”, but stops short of Whitman’s (and Sommerstein’s, although not directly cited) rejection of a political reading. Here he distinguishes between four types of imaginary society ( anomia, antinomia, megalonomia, eunomia) and shows how Nephelokokkygia is composed of features of all four. I am not sure how relevant all this is, since apart from the importance of nomoi to the ancient concept of society, these are essentially modern terms and the “seams” and overlaps may be significant to modern theorists, but do not help with appreciating what Aristophanes was trying to do with his play. He will argue at the end (44) that Cloudcuckooland is a “complex image of Athens’ own contradictions”, but essentially avoids any comment on Aristophanes’ own standpoint. The comedy contains perhaps an irreconcilable blend of ancient utopian vision and modern imperial designs, but whether there is anything beyond excellent comic fantasy is still open to debate.

LYSISTRATE—A subtle discussion of gender roles and of the familiar antithesis of oikos / polis. Konstan’s first “seam” is the shift from the women as motivated by sexual desire to their defence of marriage and the household, but on p. 49 offers a reasonable explanation (“the women’s randiness makes for some good fun at the women’s expense”) that should suffice. Prologues are essentially “warm-ups” for the comedian and audience—this is especially clear in Wasps and Frogs. The sexual theme is just an attention-grabber. What Konstan does show is that the comedy neatly inverts spaces and boundaries—the women turn the city into an extended household and seize control of the actual polis—not as “intruders” but as reconcilers and healers. He demonstrates how the women’s visions and concepts surpass the fractious politics and warfare of the men. He makes an interesting comparison with Birds, although close in time not the obvious piece to set beside Lysistrate, in that Birds shows us a new idea (one with admitted older and utopian overtones) fully realised—a brand-new order is created—while Lysistrate is a total inversion of the great idea, a restoration of a past state of affairs (ironically one that breaks up the unity of the women into domestic units once again). He comments aptly, “the utopian gesture has been recontained” (60). In this sense Lysistrate can be considered Aristophanes’ most conservative comedy.

Some points of comment. On p. 47 he stresses the collective nature of the women, but it needs to be stressed that these are all citizen women; there is no hint of the break-down of the barriers between free and slave. On p. 55 he views the situation at Athens in early 411 as “still desperate”; but see Henderson for a more optimistic view of affairs. On pp. 55/6 he alludes to the historical reality of a truce between Athens and Sparta; Thucydides 8.68-91 makes it clear that the oligarchs were trying for just such an eventuality. Thus Aristophanes’ fantasy coincides with one part of an extreme right-wing campaign. Finally on p. 59 he discusses the body-scenes at the beginning and close of the play—”Lysistrata herself, acting as a kind of pander”—describing the women’s sexual play as “gentle and integrative”. Not all have agreed; see Bella Zweig’s discussion of the same scenes for a very different interpretation.

FROGS—This is probably the most interesting and provocative piece in the collection. He begins from the well-known discrepancy between Dionysos’ original intent to bring back Euripides and his later decision to bring back the winner of the contest. He canvasses explanations of external and internal significance, without allowing for the pure inconsistency of an Aristophanic comedy—at 737ff. the play seems just to start over with a new prologue. His first question is “Why Heracles?” [i.e. why should Dionysos disguise himself as Herakles?]. Quite frankly, the explanation to my mind is likely to be the frequent appearance of both in comedy and satyr-play; by combining the two Aristophanes can get the best of both stereotypes. In his n.6 he cautiously suggests that Dionysos’ mission in search of Euripides is rather analogous to that of Herakles for Kerberos. I think that there is more here than Konstan allows. His own answer is that Herakles was “chosen because he was a mortal and had become a god”.

This leads to his first major interpretative theme, salvation/resurrection. He insists on a tripartite division for the comedy (the scenes on the descent [Herakles], the scenes before the door [the Initiates], the contest between the poets), and argues that each provides a manner of resurrection: Herakles = salvation by individual and active heroism, the Initiates by an almost passive state-of-being, the poets by confrontation and political utility. On p. 64 he amusingly suggests that these correspond to the numbers of Greek verbs (singular, plural, and dual)—it would be interesting to explore whether the latter part of Frogs contains more uses of the dual than one would expect. The weakest argument is his analysis of the middle scene, for it is not quite accurate to say that the Initiates are purely passive, for they do act (the act of Initiation) and do lead a certain life, and the scenes with Dionysos and Xanthias at the door have really little to do with the Initiates who recede into the background. In fact the Initiates frame this scene with their parodos and parabasis—Konstan acknowledges this on p. 69—but don’t do much more than comment.

So far, so good, but I am less keen on his relation of the tripartite structure and the three means of “salvation” to the three phases of the rites of passage (separation, margin, and aggregation). This turns the play into a rite of passage for Dionysos (why?), or at least provides a sub-text of the ritual of the rite of passage, in the same way that Bowie has argued for much of Aristophanes. And here I am no more convinced than I was with Bowie’s book. Konstan does, however, proceed to make some quite good points about the citizen/slave theme in the play (the enfranchisement of the slaves after Arginousai, the atimoi of the parabasis), and detects a nice “seam” in that slaves can become citizens by sharing the city’s perils and the atimoi can become whole citizens again, but creatures like Kleophon are in reality “aliens”; here the citizen/barbarian barrier is firmly raised again.

On the contest between the poets, he sees Aristophanes as showing that Euripides’ art represents reality while Aeschylus’ can shape it (72). Here he stresses the ultimate political responsibility of the poet, and demonstrates how it fits in with Aristophanes’ conservative and utopian creations elsewhere. In his n.41 he cites Heiden who makes the very good point that perhaps neither provided ultimate soteria, for can we not argue that while Euripides possesses sophia and Aeschylus political usefulness, if you want a poet with both, then turn to comedy?

PLOUTOS—A strong chapter in which Konstan sees an active comic poet (not so much one with a particular agenda, but one in conscious control of his material). This play has suffered a variety of modern assessments, ranging from those who see it as just an uninspired or unsuccessful fantasy, to the genuine change of heart on the poet’s part, to the ironists who see the latter half undercutting the first. Konstan really falls into none of these, although on p.84 he comes close to an ironic interpretation (denied, however, on p. 79). He distinguishes three “seams” in the play: (1) the very distinct change in plot-line, from a redistribution based on moral criteria to the remedy for the scarcity of wealth, (2) a switch in the scene with the sycophant from moral issues to a discussion of activity v. apragmosyne, and (3) exactly what is required, the mere presence of Wealth or the regaining of Wealth’s sight. Both (1) and (3) progress from one pole to the other in the course of the play. On his last pages Konstan suggests that Aristophanes is deliberately muddying the waters of the class struggle in the early 4th c. by offering “the ancient dream of limitless bounty” and the inconsistencies in the text are not flaws or evidence of irony, but “the signs of tensions immanent in ideology and social reality that are overcome facetiously in the production of the unified text” (90).

My first observation is the one made earlier that “shifts in strategy” may just be another way of saying “looseness in composition” and need not be as significant as Konstan maintains; there is still much to be said for the first of the views mentioned above (a less than successful fantasy). The third “seam” may not be all that contradictory; we could look at it as a progression—Ploutos when blind must be led physically into one’s house, but with sight regained he becomes active and makes his own way. The metaphor of movement and progress is one of major importance in this comedy. On the infamous agon with Penia, he rightly questions Sommerstein’s critique of Penia, but could (I think) pursue this farther, since the unique defeat of the second speaker (Penia) is one of the major planks in the platform of the ironists. The scene with the sycophant is by no means new with this play—there are instances in Acharnians and a very close prototype in fr. 99 of Eupolis’Demoi where Aristeides the Just (cf. the Just Man in this scene) confounds a sycophant. Konstan does not, I think, allow for the stereotypes of this scene. In this chapter and in the one on Wasps we see the most active Aristophanes, combining in his comic creations a conservative personal ethos with a popular view of utopia lost.

DYSKOLOS—Although with New Comedy we move from politics and utopia to the realm of the family and of philanthropia, the discussion of Dyskolos has much in common with the Aristophanic chapters in that the principal “seam” is the juxtaposition of the two plots, the misanthropy of Knemon and the love plot involving Sostratos the young Athenian. Many critics have seen this as essentially flawed comedy, a youthful effort which ultimately does not work.

Konstan rejects this view (100/1) insisting that the two sides of Knemon’s character reflect the two different plot strands. In effect he redraws the themes of the play: the misanthropy of Knemon which must be remedied—Konstan tends to be a bit hard on Knemon with adjectives such as “ogre-like” and monstrous”—and the clash of values between city and country, where his rustic reserve is perfectly admirable.

A few points of contention. There seems to be very little use of Samia in Konstan’s discussion, a pity since about four-fifths of the play survive and of far superior quality to that of Dyskolos. On p. 93 he describes Menander’s subject as “the vicissitudes of youthful passion”, but what about the passion of the mature Demeas in Samia ? On the same page he finds it odd that Knemon’s daughter is the object of eros, as opposed to gamos, arguing that “it is rarely the case that a maiden girl is known to be a citizen … and is represented as the object of passionate desire”. Again what about Samia where Moschion has loved and will wed Nikeratos’ daughter? We know too little about Menander’s vast comic output, I feel, to make such a wide-ranging judgement. Finally am I the only reader who is bothered by the last act, not just in the lack of much significance to the plot-line, but in the unfair treatment of Knemon by the revellers? At the very end (106) Konstan sees the problem—”the surly misanthrope is ultimately reduced to a figure of fun”—but I wonder if this scene rather undoes the philanthropia which he sees operating elsewhere in the play (104).

To conclude, Konstan’s discussions are always elegant in their phrasing and subtle in their content. He deals more with the general approach, although he does not neglect the text itself. His Aristophanes is a creative comic poet, not merely the deconstructed purveyor of ideas and ideologies. Yet my principal concern lies in the seriousness with which Konstan treats his “seams and sutures”; loose construction or just authorial indifference may just as well account for these inconsistencies. That said, the essays were thought-provoking, and in the case of Wasps, Frogs, and Ploutos deserve to be among the required readings for these comedies.