BMCR 1996.08.09

1996.8.9, Dobrov, Beyond Aristophanes

, , Beyond Aristophanes : transition and diversity in Greek comedy. American classical studies ; no. 38. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. xiv, 209 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780788501395.

The title is doubly misleading. Only on the inside cover does one learn that Dobrov is the editor of 7 papers presented at the 1992 APA meeting, and then revised for publication. Further, the title implies that comedy after Aristophanes will be the focus, whereas there is a great deal on Old Comedy here, and almost nothing on Menander let alone the aftermath. There is a list of bibliography cited at the end of the book.

The first paper is by H.-G. Nesselrath [N.], known if not for his massive Mittlere Komödie, then for his indispensable index to Supplementum Hellenisticum. The blame for the repellently chatty English one must lay at the feet of the translator. N. deals with the Birth of God(s) as a comic theme: Aphrodite (Philiscus, Polyzelus, Nicophon, Antiphanes), Dionysus (Polyzelus, Demetrius 1, Amaxandrides), Pan (Philiscus, Araros), Zeus (Philiscus), Hermes (Philiscus), Muses (Polyzelus) and Athena (Hermippus); all of this has echoes in authors from the Homeric Hymns to Lucian. N. notes that this was a comic theme older than the comedians, that this theme showed gods more frequently present on the stage, and argues less persuasively that the way was paved for the illegitimate births of New Comedy and everything connected with them. N. speculates that the theme began with Hermippus ca. 420 and may have been a response to political censorship; Philiscus and Polyzelus developed several variants at the end of the century, and three Middle Comedy poets (Araros Anaxandrides and Antiphanes) take us down to New Comedy. N. deals finally with the monologue by Rhea? preserved in CGFP 215 and argues, like the ed. pr., for a Birth of Zeus.

N. knows as well as anyone how very lacunose our evidence is, but he has not always resisted the temptation to go beyond the evidence. The suggestion (p.15) that even a part of the iambic line in Polyzelus fr.9 KA is the work of Polyzelus is specifically denied by KA themselves: why speculate further? That it is Aphrodite who is learning kottabos in the longer fragment of Antiphanes’Birth of Aphrodite is equally without proof. It is odd then to find no discussion of Plautus’Amphitryo, and, at the opposite end of neo-natal depiction, only a footnote on the Birth of Helen in vase painting. Surely the theme was worth pursuing a bit further.

Niall Slater’s short and uneven essay on “The Fabrication of Comic Illusion” argues for a rise in the level of consistent stage illusion from Old Comedy to New. But what is the evidence that Aeschylus “restaged a play in Sicily in his lifetime”? and surely it is desperate to use any biographical information from Chamaeleon (p.31). He points to the internationalisation of comedy, esp. re-performance in S. Italy, which brought with it changes in humour; there is no allegation of plagiarism e.g. precisely because plagiarism was normal. Playwrights, concludes S., even Menander, are writing more than the home market could consume. This is fair, but dangerous, for if the urban Dionysia in Kollytus are referred to as “rural” Dionysia, (Aesch. in Tim. 157; and noted by S.) the home market had also expanded considerably. The speculation (p.34) that touring companies (presumably not to Athenian suburbs?) would remove local references, is in general justified; but that we have their texts, needs more careful argument. Habicht has recently added to the evidence that New Comedy could be political when it so chose: those are the texts that reached Alexandria.

S. notes two surprising examples of illusion-breaking in Alexis, and the constant evolution of types. He argues (p.40) for choral songs removable by touring actors and written to be removable; attractive, but as often evidence is lacking. Likewise, S. is weak on the epigraphic material. The Delphic inscription ( SIG 424A) has four, not three, troupes supported by a chorus of seven, and it is practically certain as Sifakis maintained that they were professionals and not locals in that century and place. That is not to say that amateurs could not sometimes contribute to a chorus, and I should agree with S. that varied degrees of interaction between professionals and amateurs must be postulated, and can be proved for Boeotian festivals. It may be true that “Lesser companies simply did without choruses …” but this ought to prevent us repeating the simple view that “the chorus declined”. Here S. fails to exploit the material collected by Stefanis’ in his Dionysiakoi technitai. The comic chorus was longer-lived than we should have believed, and where we have epigraphic evidence, as in Attica and Boeotia, it survives . As yet we have no clear picture of its development in Hellenistic times, and maybe none is possible. S. finally notes the “metatheatrical” and undatable fragment TrGF II 217, which may be satyrplay, comedy or tragedy. Illusion triumphed, concludes S., on the comic stage because of the needs of internationalism not because tragedy was a compelling model. But S.’s central thesis that it was internationalism that brought about a “consistent illusion” is not proven.

Dobrov’s 50 page essay on “The Poet’s Voice in the Evolution of Dramatic Dialogism” begins with a citation from Bakhtin in the original Russian. The theme is summarized (p.50): “it is in the comedy of Aristophanes, however, that the fictional poet makes his boldest appearance, an entrance in which a long tradition of self-representation reaches a climax.” I think I can see easily enough what D. is saying,—and it is a useful starting point to compare e.g. Rollengedichte with drama—but the formulation here lacks the precision necessary to keep the reader on side and convinced. The reader digs his or her heels in. What exactly does he mean by “fictional poet” or “self-representation”? Neither formulation can be expanded to include Pindar, Archilochus, Sophocles and Aristophanes without modification. But we read on. “The unstable partial identity between protagonist and playwright in comedies such as Acharnians and Wasps, for example, as well as direct self-presentation in the parabases are hallmarks of Old Comedy.” Again, we must demur: “partial identity” stable or unstable is not a useful idea, unless proven and clarified in some way; and unless Aristophanes appeared in person on the stage “direct self presentation” is a metaphor. But the reader picks up his lantern and stumbles on in the search for truth. “In the fifth century scripts that survive we have evidence of a remarkable moment, a supernova, as it were, of creative energy in which the amalgamated material of a long tradition explodes in a dazzling flash leaving behind the dimmer shapes of the fourth century.” The last thing the poor pedestrian reader needed at this point was a cosmic explosion to illuminate his path.

D. is clever and well read, and if I have written out these three sentences, it is to try to illustrate how the reviewer reacts to his writing. One cannot be persuaded by the argument if it is not disciplined. Literary theory can be valuable as a heuristic device, and is especially useful as an antidote to subjective “sensitive reading”. But, in what follows, D. battles with his theme, but never wins over the reader to the view that his application of Bakhtin’s dialogism is something that furthers the understanding of fourth century comedy rather than Bakhtin.

The conclusion (p.95)—”we find in Middle comedy then a dramatic discourse from which the ‘poet’ (as intrusive/controlling fiction) has withdrawn, leaving open new avenues of characterization”—is neither well expressed nor novel. Can we even be sure it is true, given the thousands of comedies we have lost? Where we have lost so much, there is a strong temptation to fill the black hole with generalization: it should be resisted. Those wishing to keep up with the bibliography on dialogism must read this essay; those wishing to answer the problems of the later developments of Attic comedy will find little of value.

Rothwell’s article is a brief but sensible reworking of an earlier piece in GRBS 1992. The chorus did not die out; the choregia continued till 317. The public did not lose heart, or faith, or whatever. Decline in chorus does not equal decline in civic commitment. The change in the role of the chorus was due to the playwrights and not external circumstances. Choruses disappear from texts not the stage. Some texts do suggest that interaction with a chorus was possible in New Comedy (p.112), and the Rudens is invoked—rightly I think, as well as archaeological evidence (though in this context Taplin’s interpretation of the Choregoi vase is to be rejected). Rothwell even questions the belief that the chorus was so important as an original element of Old Comedy (p.116). “The gulf separating the fifth from the fourth centuries was certainly not a vast and precipitous one” is the conclusion. This is a firmly argued case for skepticism, even if it needs nuance and qualification.

Rosen’s “Plato Comicus” discusses whether Plato is “middle” comedy, and uses this as a means to query the utility of the divisions Old, Middle, New (which Nesselrath without a shred of evidence attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium). He argues that specific features of middle comedy, such as kottabos-playing and aphrodisiac bulbs can be found in Plato, and sees him as a transitional poet. The argument is thin, but the point is valid.

The 35 page paper by Eduardo Urios-Aparisi, coauthored by Dobrov, “The maculate music; Gender Genre and the Chiron of Pherekrates” is rambling. The article surveys with several digressions fr.155,—where Mousike complains of her treatment by modern poets,—its musical interpretation, and the use of sexual imagery. The authors are certain it is by Pherekrates, earlier contemporary of Aristophanes; but the Alexandrians denied it; that means that they had no didaskalic evidence, and it will not do to ignore them. The peculiar reference to Cinesias as Attic is taken by the authors as an insulting “not a citizen” but he was, and the appellation is not funny; the play was either set on Pelion (Kaibel) or the version was performed out of Attica. They suggest with some very poor argumentation that Mousike was portrayed as a hetaira, somewhat pointlessly, since she claims to have been raped when walking by herself, and the joke and the double entendres work far better if she is a distinguished lady in reduced circumstances. But prostitution enables the authors by a lateral arabesque to move to “the body” and the “male gaze of the polis.” They conclude that Pherekrates embeds “a discussion of music in a matrix of hetaira-client relations.” The final ten pages are devoted to a potentially interesting discussion of the dithyramb in comedy. But the conclusion that the beginning middle comedy sees the “gradual appropriation of dithyrambic discourse” (p.173), on the basis of a cook’s farrago in Alexis, is not helpful. The “dramatic” dithyramb has a long history, and its primary overlap with tragedy would need to be clarified before treating the much more tricky secondary overlap with comedy.

There is a final, well-written, and judicious summary by J. Henderson on the importance of Middle Comedy, despite its fragmentation, and he surveys the preceding essays. I was left wishing that he had written an essay on middle comedy, or even this review, for this is notably a collection of essays without focus. Perhaps it was a jolly gathering at the APA meeting, and provided a good discussion; but it makes for wretched reading. There is no real understanding of the importance of epigraphy or vases or terracottas to give us some control for the fragments, which have been so brilliantly edited and commented by Kassel and Austin. The world of comedy seems to stop at the end of the fourth century, when it should be considered as a continuum. But that is because, despite some protestations, the authors are primarily interested in texts and literary criticism, not theatre history. I confess that I learned very little from this publication, and I wonder why the APA felt it necessary to print it.