BMCR 1997.02.02

1997.2.2, Dobrov, Beyond Aristophanes

, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. Pp. xv, 209.

[Ed. Note: For an earlier review of this book, see BMCR 96.8.9]

It is probably safe to assume that many classicists who teach a course on ancient comedy follow a “canonical” approach, which, in addition perhaps to readings in history, the physical theater, and comic theory, focusses upon Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus and Terence. Such a scheme is natural enough, but produces casualties, and Greek Middle Comedy is a particularly easy and undeserving victim.

Slighting this phase of Greek drama, however, has recently become less defensible, if it ever was. In the last few years a number of books have appeared which are helpful in many ways, but especially in bridging the gap between 388 and 321 B.C. J. R. Green’s Theatre in Ancient Greek Society and E. Csapo and W. J. Slater’s The Context of Ancient Drama, for example, provide good surveys both by period and subject of a full range of dramatic production in antiquity, not just of the best known playwrights. Collections like R. Scodel’s Theater and Society in the Classical World or N. Slater and B. Zimmerman’s Intertextualität in der griechisch-römischen Komödie put a variety of interpretive approaches on display. Obviously, it is not the case that nothing on the period of Middle Comedy existed before; but certain stalwarts, of somewhat limited use to a course for undergraduates anyway, are also like all things aging quickly.

One therefore welcomes a volume like Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and Diversity in Greek Comedy. This collection reflects the opportunity, made possible by new work in the field, to revise certain traditional conceptions of ancient comedy. In the preface, Dobrov highlights the publication, now well advanced, of Kassel-Austin’s Poetae Comici Graeci, and also of H.-G. Nesselrath’s Die attische Mittlere Komödie (1990). All who study comedy, whether primarily as teacher or scholar, owe a debt to these two projects. Improved access to the comic texts may help many to fill in the gaps around and between Aristophanes and Menander. So the essays in Beyond Aristophanes aim toward a history of the comic genre which is, as Dobrov states in the preface, “more complex, less linear,” and which moves “toward an integrated approach that embraces both mainstream and periphery.” If Aristophanes and Menander remain a significant presence in these essays, that is understandable, since these poets provide a base from which to move into the less well attested territory of the other comic poets. Besides, as many of the contributors point out, Old Comedy itself cannot be defined only by what survives of Aristophanes; in other words, a better understanding of the whole comic tradition helps one to place Aristophanes himself within something closer to his full context.

For the most part, the essays are compact, and clearly written. They treat important themes or historical issues, i.e., how comedy used myth, how it did or did not sustain dramatic illusion, what became of the comic chorus. Several of the contributors put forward some possible links between “Old” and “Middle” comic drama on the basis of new readings of the fragments. The volume is valuable for these close readings alone. Scholars who have more experience with the material will welcome fresh discussions of these fragments. And undergraduates will find in some of the essays a model of the methodology which the fragments require for their study and understanding.

Nesselrath’s essay is valuable simply insofar as it puts into the hands of those same undergraduates his mittlere Komödie (albeit in greatly abbreviated form). His survey of the θεῶν γοναί plays illustrates how one may partly reconstruct a “Middle Comedy” based on titles and testimonia, fragments, and analogies to other genres which treat similar material, e.g., births of divinities. Naturally, one does not have to agree with everything suggested here—for instance, that the θεῶν γοναί plays which frequently feature illegitimate births might have led to the prevalent “family themes” of New Comedy. The attention paid to the θεῶν γοναί plays itself emphasizes the existence of sub-genres within Old Comedy; and the essay also requires us to consider the interplay between Old Comedy and other major genres, such as that of the Hymns.

Slater’s essay deals with an important subject, the apparent shift from the non-illusory and metatheatrical practice of Old Comedy to “the highly developed and apolitical mannerism” supposedly typical of Menander and New Comedy. Slater attributes this change not to the influence of tragedy, as others have argued, but to a “diverse and internationalized audience that created a demand for a standardized and portable product.” A number of subjects enter the discussion—repetition of plays, introduction of stock character types, the transformation of the chorus by the time of New Comedy and its implications for performance. It may strike others as well as this reviewer that Slater states his conclusions too positively: the evidence is difficult, and it is also usually of a relatively late date—the Delphic inscription which indicates the reduced chorus of seven members, for example, belongs to the third century. The possible role of deme theaters as an outlet for “extra” plays, moreover, seems to be dispensed with summarily. Even so, whether Menander wrote in two styles, one for domestic consumption, another for a different, international audience, is an intriguing idea, to say the least, and yet very far from proven. Slater presents one side of the case resolutely; this ought to incite someone interested in these issues to argue another side.

Dobrov’s own essay contrasts Old and New comic practice by comparing their respective uses of the harangue. He argues that Old Comedy’s usage is richer, dialogically speaking, since it operates in “the three dimensions of poet-players-spectators,” while New Comedy is reduced to two planes. New Comedy’s striving toward “identity of character and voice” keeps the playwright from intruding himself directly within the drama through one of his characters, as Aristophanes so often did. The price later comedy pays for a more rigid dramatic illusion, Dobrov seems to say, is a reduction of the dialogic potential inherent in Old Comedy’s carnival art (basically an archaic, performative art), hence a loss of complexity. Complexity can be achieved in ways other than simply fracturing the persona or presentation of a single character, however, and the dialogical approach seems to overemphasize one manner of introducing complexity into comic drama. Menander helped create the conventions of later comedy, and is justly admired for ringing subtle changes on these same conventions of character and plot. It seems Dobrov’s case serves Aristophanes better than it does Menander. If Aristophanes’ antics within the mask of any given, dialogically enriched character constitute an artistic ruse, should we not be equally wary lest Menander’s “withdrawal … from the world and language of his play” be a strategic retreat, one freeing him to strike with a great deal of dramatic complexity that he derives from ironies of situation and characterization, “new” qualities of his comic art? Inside a Bakhtinian perspective, one can almost accept that “strict mimesis of real conversation” might rid a comic world of “instability,” but outside of the framework of Bakhtin, the statement that “the voice of the playwright has fallen silent” seems less appealing.

Rothwell’s essay (a revised and enlarged version of his article in GRBS 33 [1992] 209-25) argues in a balanced and thorough manner against the belief that a decline in the fortunes of Athens led to a decline in the comic chorus. Instead, Rothwell suggests that there are many indications that the choregia in fact remained healthy in the fourth-century. Besides, he points out that the fading of the chorus—if one even wants to say that the chorus “faded”—need not be related to a supposed loss of vigor in the Athenian democracy; and adds that, if the chorus changed, it may not have changed abruptly. Much of the evidence is here, and the reader must judge: Demosthenes’ testimony for the attitudes of fourth-century choregoi, for example, being less than completely straightforward. Rothwell reinforces the volume’s theme of the continuity within ancient Greek comedy: there may have been stingy choregoi in the fifth-century, as there were in the fourth; and perhaps plays without an extensive choral role represented “a tradition of long-standing,” what may then have been obscured by Aristophanes’ political plays. It remains for the reader, finally, to ponder what the role of the chorus might have been in those later plays where its presence is attested in the papyri merely by the insertion of ‘χοροῦ’.

Rosen’s essay demonstrates the same interest in continuity within the evolution of comedy, arguing that in fact critical notions based on periodization and classification by genre perhaps focus the scholar on differences between works and divert attention from similarities. The question for Rosen is whether Plato Comicus belongs to Old or Middle Comedy—additionally whether ancient critics had any good reason for assigning him to the latter. The essay ends with an insightful discussion of two fragments of Plato’s Phaon, 188 and 189 K.-A., whose connection to “Middle” comic style is suggested by, inter alia, interest in religious esoterica, play with dithyrambic language in the “more integrated” manner (as Nesselrath has argued) of Middle Comedy, and the presence of motifs like the “aphrodisiac bulb.”

The essay of Dobrov and Urios-Aparisi treats another fragment, 155 K.-A., from Pherecrates’Chiron. Their discussion of the Chiron fragment in the context of comedy’s relation to dithyramb is an interesting one. In the end, one reader may differ with another, and with the authors, over where to place Pherecrates’ passage within the authors’ categories of comic-dithyrambic interaction (see pp. 165-73). Indeed, as Henderson comments at the end of the volume, the relation between comedy and dithyramb bears further investigation. An objection, on an unrelated point: one would not have missed the section on the “thematics of the body.” The notion of the “male gaze,” though useful for discussing various fictions of various times and places, does not seem an organic part of the main argument here, and produces no important conclusions on its own.

At the end there is the written version of Jeffrey Henderson’s response to the various papers of the 1992 APA panel out of which this volume grew. Henderson’s succinct and stimulating essay is well worth reading; it is, frankly, all the review this book needed. Henderson touches on many issues which are profitably raised in the essays, offers important qualifications, and at the same time indicates some of the paths open to future researchers.

There is much in Beyond Aristophanes that is worthwhile, and so I recommend to colleagues to examine this useful book.