BMCR 2001.08.05

Venom in Verse. Aristophanes in Modern Greece

, Venom in verse : Aristophanes in modern Greece. 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.. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xvii, 284 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 1400813719

Gonda Van Steen’s singular work, Venom in Verse, derives from her Ph.D. thesis submitted at Princeton University in 1995, which was awarded the inaugural Best Dissertation Prize by the MGSA (Modern Greek Studies Association). More recently, Van Steen has been announced joint winner of the 2000 John D. Criticos Prize.1 In addition to these accolades, Venom in Verse has received very positive reviews. I approached this book with high expectations, having read Peter Green’s enthusiastic review in the TLS (NO. 5065, April 28, 2000: pp. 3-4). Green was forthright in prescribing Van Steen’s work as required reading for Hellenists, describing it as “[A] riveting, complex and often surprising exegesis that should be made compulsory reading for all students of the Greek World, ancient and modern alike, …”. While I endorse Green’s praise, I am less convinced about the relevance of this study for students of the ancient Greek world.2 To my mind, Venom in Verse is a work that poses greater relevance for students of modern Greek culture and those interested in reception theory and the history of performance. While Classicists who do not fall into these categories will definitely enjoy this work and learn from it, they may bridle at Van Steen’s conscious decision not to discuss Aristophanes in the context of Ancient Greece.

Van Steen plots a diachronic narrative in which she argues that readings and performances of Aristophanes from the late-eighteenth through to the twentieth century are expressive of important ideological movements. In chapters 1 and 2 Van Steen concentrates on the so-called language question ( to glossiko zitima). In the first chapter (‘Poisoned Gift from Antiquity: Aristophanes as Paravase of Koraes’ Nationalist Ideology’), Van Steen examines the stance of the classical philologist Adamantios Koraes vis-à-vis Aristophanes. As the exponent of a purified form of demotic Greek who thought that the future of Greece lay in its classical, idealized past, Koraes resented the extremely un-ideal insight into Greek (Athenian) life in Aristophanes’ plays. And yet, as a fervent classical philologist, he treasured the linguistic wealth of Aristophanes’ Greek. Van Steen discusses Koraes’ selective appropriation of Aristophanes, and his motives for privileging Plutus, as part of a classicising canon of improving literature.

The second chapter (‘Aristophanes in Modern Greek: A Demotic, Satirical, and Theatrical Paravase‘) describes how Koraes’ attempts to control the reception of Aristophanes gave way, in the nineteenth century, to a struggle to disseminate Aristophanes to large audiences in performance. In order to bring Aristophanes to wider audiences, radical writers and directors began to produce and use Demotic Greek translations of Aristophanes. Through a judicious use of newspaper archives and diaries, Van Steen depicts verbal (and occasionally physical) contests in which theatrical space became an arena for fighting out the language question.

The third chapter (‘The Lysistrata euphoria of 1900 to 1940: Sexual and Antifeminist Paravase‘) explores the predilection for performances of Lysistrata in this period against the backdrop of rapid social change and the perceived threat of feminism to traditional social structures and values. In the fourth chapter (‘Koun’s Birds of 1959: Paravase of Right-Wing Politics’) Van Steen concentrates on the role of Aristophanes in the career of the Director Karolos Koun, whose performances of Aristophanes antagonised Right wing politicians.3 In particular, the chapter focuses on his radical 1959 production of Aristophanes Birds, using a translation by Vasiles Rotas, which was banned after its opening night by the right-wing government of Konstantinos Karamanles. The final chapter (‘Framing, Clowning, and Cloning Aristophanes’) considers the cumulative legacy of reinventing Aristophanes and looks at performances which alluded to and exploited this tradition of reception.

Venom in Verse is a well-crafted and readable study. I was taken by Van Steen’s arresting use of ring composition to frame her study of performances of Aristophanes in Modern Greece. The work begins with a prologue (p.3 ff.), which situates Van Steen, as spectator, at a performance of ‘The Enfeebled Greek’ ( Ho Hellen Exasthenes), a comedy that uses Aristophanic material and features the playwright himself (performed at the Delphinario Theatre in Athens, June 1997). Her study draws to a close with an epilogue (pp. 224 ff.), where we find the author dazzled by the play which she has just witnessed and despairing of how to respond adequately to the performance or to reduce it to a single narrative:

But I realize that there is no sense in reducing revival comedy to a single or completed narrative, because the Aristophanic experience is plural, transient, and above all open-ended (p.224).

This image of the author as spectator is suggestive for Van Steen’s perspective on her subject matter. Later in the work, in the course of a discussion about the use of Aristophanes as an emblem of Greek folk expressionism to be protected from foreign influences and appropriations, as envisaged by Karolos Koun, Van Steen muses on her own stance as enquirer. Like the participant-observer of anthropology, she describes her work into the reception of Aristophanes as ‘fieldwork’ and recalls that her foreignness was an issue in the eyes of many Greeks whom she encountered:

At the time of my fieldwork, the Greeks frequently questioned me about how, I, a Flemish foreigner, could write on “their” Aristophanes and even encouraged me—in a friendly way—to stay away from other people’s history. My greatest claim to their relative acceptance was that I speak Greek fluently. It was rarely my (foreign) training as a classicist, at times perceived as irrelevant or even disadvantageous to my research. The Greek response revealed all the characteristics of the indigenous, male Aristophanes fending off the perceived Western-Hellenic intruder that I seemed to embody at first encounter (p.167).

The anthropological overtones are suggestive because one of the difficulties encountered by such a project is how to speak about audience response(s), without resorting to stereotypes. Given that Van Steen chooses to situate herself as both narrator and spectator in her own narrative and that the reader of Venom in Verse is invited to view her text as a response to the experience of watching a contemporary adaptation of Aristophanes, I would have expected to see more acknowledgement of the capacity for self-reflexivity in individual members of the historical and contemporary audiences that feature in this work. One of the less satisfying aspects of Venom in Verse is the occasional tendency to hypostasize faceless, heterogeneous audiences of modern Greek theatrical performances into ‘the Greek civic mind-set’:

This book tries to read not Aristophanes’ mind but the mentality of modern audiences, regardless of whether they were ever targeted by the playwright. The Greek civic mind-set that has responded to revival comedy of the past decades is far more important to me than the author’s historical intent. …In the modern Greek performance culture of Attic comedy, which often plays to the audience’s rule, viewers do not remain passive, but become spect-actors. They act out the power of the public, in its double meaning of the large majority in society as in theatre (pp. 5-6).

The phrase ‘the power of the public’ evokes Plato’s depiction of the theatrokratia (the power/rule of the theatre audience — Laws 701).4 Yet this is surely to construct audiences too rigidly, or to rely on the constructions of audiences by theatre critics and interested parties. Van Steen is on firmer ground when discussing those members of ‘modern’ audiences who wrote about their experience as spectators and, in this sense, her claim that her study of performance criticism allows us to gauge the cultural activity of given periods in Greek history (p.8) is well founded.5 Van Steen provides an extremely well-researched and articulate commentary on the published politico-cultural debates that have been waged over modern Greek translations and performances of Aristophanes. Chapter 2 is particularly strong in this respect, where Van Steen explores performances of Aristophanes plays against the back-drop of the ‘language question’. For example, pages 50-75 contrast the production of Aristophanes’ Plutus by the Director Sophokles Karydes, based upon a demotic prose translation attributed to Michael Chourmouzes, in January 1868, with the amateur, student production of the Clouds in the katharévousa translation of the philologist, Alexandros Rankaves, which was staged in May of the same year.6 Van Steen offers very strong arguments for the significance of the language in which Aristophanes’ comedies were staged: Karydes’ version of Plutus was an accessible crowd-puller, whereas Rankaves’ Clouds was an alienating literary and national exercise for the benefit of an elite — staged under police protection. Van Steen chronicles this episode very well.

While it is not part of her brief to discuss Aristophanes in the context of ancient Athenian culture and politics, I was left thinking that Van Steen’s discussion of translations or adaptations of Aristophanes in Demotic Greek might have been enriched by a discussion of the slipperiness of popularism in Aristophanes’ plays. The endorsement of what is demotic raises the question of the different levels on which culture operates. For example, in Clouds, when Strepsiades is introduced to geometry and told that one of its uses is to measure land, he proclaims it a ‘ sophisma demotikon kai chrêsimon‘ (l. 205). We can take this to contrast with the majority of the inventions of sophoi which are perceived to be useless and irrelevant for the dêmos, hence the laugh is on intellectuals, but arguably the laugh is also on the common man like Strepsiades, who can only understand abstract concepts when they are brought down to his practical, everyday level. In terms of Modern Greek theatrical culture, the shift to performing and watching Aristophanes in demotic as opposed to ancient Greek or katharévousa did not do away with the ancient Greek text as a key point of reference. It could be argued that the equivocal popularism of Aristophanes enables translators and producers to play for laughs, while simultaneously allowing for laughter to be turned back onto members of the audience who are gagging with laughter to the exclusion of a more sophisticated response to the plays. I take Van Steen’s point (made particularly eloquently on p. 149) that, in a modern Greek context, ancient comedy cannot be understood to the exclusion of a cumulative tradition of (re)performances. But it seems to me that to exclude the backwards glance to the text of Aristophanes and not to allow for complicated readings of the ancient text in its original context, is to simplify this reception history.

This is where, as a reader, I craved a discussion of the different guises of Aristophanes in the context of fifth and fourth century B.C. Athens. On page 185, Van Steen excuses herself from the ancient debate about the historical Aristophanes with a verdict of ‘non liquet’:

The double pre-junta and post-junta reading of the Frogs — as well as the turn around from Metaxas’ anti-left Aristophanes to his precise opposite, the Aritsero-phanes of Koun and Rotas — poses urgent questions concerning the political stance of the playwright himself. I tend to discount the search for sovereign authorial intention, including assumptions about the poet’s politics and morality. My answer of a non liquet accepts both the limits of our knowledge and some limits of interpretive imagination imposed by the text. Aristophanes can support multiple, sometimes diametrically opposed interpretations of his personality as well as of his works.

Yet Van Steen’s verdict of non liquet belies the strong interpretative claim that ‘Aristophanes can support multiple, sometimes diametrically opposed interpretations of his personality as well as of his work’. Van Steen’s refusal to attempt to understand ‘Aristophanes per se’ (p.10) means that many of the perspectives and insights of classicists who have written about Aristophanes remain unacknowledged or unexploited. For example, classicists may find that Van Steen’s discussion of Spyros Euangelatos’ 1976 production of Lysistrata covers familiar ground but will be frustrated that no mention is made of the work that other Classicists have done in this area. Although Van Steen writes of this production that it ‘encapsulated his own reading not only of the classical text but also of its modern Greek receptive tradition’ (216), she does not clearly distinguish what she means by Euangelatos’ reading of the classical text. Van Steen interprets the play’s confusion of gender through dress, costume and role play as a confusion of stable meaning:

Thus his [sc. Euangelatos’] Lysistrata, impersonated by the effeminate cross-dresser who was himself played by a male actor, became the token figure of androgynous gender ambiguity: her double trans-vestism signalled the production’s double plane of trans-textuality. In other words, intertextuality was visualized by way of intersexuality; and their strong combination made it impossible to fix meanings, whether on the verbal or on the physical level. Euangelatos disclosed reversal and inversion as principles that, along with logical progress and causality, have governed the play’s diachroninc evolution through modern Greek history.

I found myself wondering whether Euangelatos attributed the destabilization of meaning through the inversion of gender to the Aristophanic text, or whether it was his additional twist of casting a male actor in a female role as a cross-dressing gender-impostor that led to a break down in signification. I was surprised that Van Steen did not refer to Zeitlin’s work on gender-playing and play on gender in Greek drama at this point, although she does cite Zeitlin’s work in the bibliography.7 Similarly, when Van Steen introduces the notion of paravase and argues that Euangelatos’ troupe ‘transgressed’ the expectation of the classical parabasis, I felt that the classical parabasis was being short-changed. Van Steen herself cites Hubbard’s study of Aristophanes’ parabases on two occasions, in passing, but Hubbard’s work contains many examples of ways in which Aristophanes systematically redefines expectations in the parabases of his plays and a discussion of work on Aristophanic parabases would have helped to contextualize and clarify the claims that Van Steen makes for modern Greek productions.8

While Venom in Verse stresses the continual reinvention of Aristophanes; it seems to me that it is worth asking whether the frequent recourse of modern Greek directors to Aristophanes hints at the untimely intelligence of an author who is still, to this day, craving spectators who are sufficiently sophos to fully realize the potential of his plays.9

Notwithstanding these reservations, Venom in Verse is an exciting and complex work that offers an original contribution to the study of the reception and uses of ancient Greek culture in modern Greece. It is certainly a book that I will read more than once.


1. The 2000 John D. Criticos prize was jointly awarded to Gonda Van Steen for Venom in Verse and Eleni Bastea for The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge University Press).

2. Venom in Verse is published in the ‘Princeton Modern Greek Studies’ series.

3. For a critique of Van Steen’s treatment of Koun, see pp. 454-55 of Marina Kotzamani’s review of Venom in Verse ( Journal of Modern Greek Studies 18.2 (October 2000): pp. 453-455).

4. Cf. p.220, where, commenting on the premiere of the 1993 production of the Lysistrata directed by Thymios Karakatsanes (13 July, 1993 at Epidaurus), Van Steen notes that comparisons were made between the unruly and intrusive contemporary audience and the unruly Athenian audiences attested in ancient sources.

5. The most influential audience for Van Steen’s work is constituted of individuals with the power to print their responses and to influence what gets performed and how it gets performed: “While Greek theatregoing and reading audiences are vast, they have little power next to a small core of critics, stage managers, and government bureaucrats that has disproportionately influenced artistic tastes in revival comedy” (p.197). Cf. also p. 191 on the ‘influential core of Greek critics’ and pp. 191-193 on ‘Critics’.

6. This version of the Clouds was performed at the Herodes Atticus Theatre in Athens on May 12th 1868.

7. For instance, Part 4 of F.I. Zeitlin’s Playing the Other (Chicago University Press, 1996), which explores ‘Gender and Mimesis: Theater and Identity’, contains much that is directly relevant to Van Steen’s interpretation of the play on sexuality in Euangelatos’ Lysistrata.

8. T.K. Hubbard, The Mask of Comedy. Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis (Cornell University Press, 1991).

9. On the desire for spectators who are sophoi, cf. Aristophanes Clouds 518-547. The theme of perpetual reinvention and innovation is claimed as an Aristophanic theme at line 547, where the chorus, speaking for the poet, claims that ‘I always skilfully invent and introduce new ideas’ ( all’ aiei kainas ideas eispherôn sophizomai. The question as to what extent Aristophanes, or any author, envisages the reinterpretation of his work, is impossible to answer. Cf. Wise (1998) 144, with note 54. Jennifer Wise Dionysus Writes. The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece (Cornell University Press, 1998).