BMCR 2000.02.18

Aristophanes’ Novel Forms. The Political Role of Drama

, Aristophanes' novel forms : the political role of drama. London: Minerva Press, 1998. x, 258 pages ; 20 cm. ISBN 1861062885. $7.99 (pb).

1 Responses

Peter Nichols (N.) has an attractive premise in this new, compact volume on Aristophanes: political science can offer a perspective on ancient Greek theater which also illuminates the ongoing controversy about the identity of drama and theater in America. Sadly, N. does not articulate and deliver the vision he promises.

N. divides his study into five chapters: an introduction, a chapter each on the Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae, and Frogs, followed by a conclusion. In the introductory chapter, he lays out what are to be the foci of his analysis. First, N. looks briefly at the persistence of mimetic drama (not restricted to live theater) in contemporary American culture and controversy about what political and moral message, if any, such drama should convey. He next enlists several philosophers (Plato, Nietzsche, Rousseau) who grapple with what theater’s role in society should be.

N. spends most of the book, however, on readings of three comedies. While N. ranges widely over the plays, scenes involving Euripides receive the most attention. According to N., in Acharnians, the protagonist Dicaeopolis draws meaningfully on Euripides as an artistic and rhetorical wellspring to achieve his own civic and political goals. In Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes uses the figures of Agathon and Euripides to present gender and theological issues to the citizen body. Frogs makes the need for civic education via the dramatic poets the central message of the play. Little of N.’s conceptual groundwork serves as the foundation for his analyses, however. He sporadically quotes one of his philosopher sponsors but never integrates either the philosophical or sociological theory he invokes into his reading. Unsophisticated, and for most part unoriginal, literary analysis consumes most of the central chapters. Regrettably, even this analysis suffers from a lack of developed argumentation and from insufficient knowledge of relevant scholarship.

One example suffices to demonstrate N.’s method and weaknesses. In his chapter on Frogs, N. discusses the scant attention paid to Sophocles in the play, surmising that Sophocles was not suitable for comic treatment. N. may be correct (although he is hardly the first to suggest this reason), but his discussion suffers for at least two other reasons. N. seems unaware of a more pragmatic possible cause for the slight notice of Sophocles, namely that Sophocles died after Euripides but before the production of Frogs, so Aristophanes may have had little opportunity to incorporate Sophocles into the play. More seriously, N. never indicates how the treatment of Sophocles affects his thesis. Indeed a coherent thesis is difficult to discern at all.

N. spends far too much time on topics and ideas which have been argued thoroughly by previous scholars. N. shows an especial weakness on historical background (lethal for any political reading of the plays) and for fretting over possibilities Aristophanes would have had no particular reason to consider (e.g., N. raises the possibility that Euripides in Thesmophoriazusae knew Agathon would deny his request and is using the scene to convince his kinsman to help). And while it is admirable for a non-classicist to tackle a difficult author like Aristophanes and more than forgiveable not to have mastered all the arcana of classical scholarship, N. can still be held responsible for more than he musters here. Aside from oversights like the example about Sophocles (background for which is readily available in the commentaries of Dover and Sommerstein, for example), if N. is going to discuss the political role of Greek drama, the essays in J.J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin’s Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context (Princeton, 1990) are quite accessible and have been the starting point for debate for nearly a decade now.1

Still, N. does deserve some praise. He is one of few who comfortably sees the Thesmophoriazusae as a satire of both substance and merit, qualities often denied the play. N. writes clearly and succinctly, making the book a quick, easy read. In fact, its clarity would recommend it for undergraduate students of Aristophanes except for the weak argumentation and the unreliability in many details. And finally, N. does have a conclusion worth pursuing. “Aristophanes provides a poetic account of the rhetorical and cognitive efficacy of drama,” writes N. (212), and it is to be hoped that someone will yet document this efficacy in Aristophanic comedy and illustrate its significance for mimetic drama in America today.


1. These include especially Jefferey Henderson’s “The Demos and Comic Competition” (271-313, and reprinted in other places subsequently) and Josiah Ober and Barry Strauss’ “Drama, Political Rhetoric, and the Discourse of Athenian Democracy” (237-70). Malcolm Heath, “Aristophanes and the Discourse of Politics” (in Gregory W. Dobrov, ed., The City As Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama [Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997] 230-49, a devastating rejoinder to political readings of Greek comedy, probably appeared too late for N.’s consideration.