Response by

Poor Aristophanes. For some reason he has recently been singled out for experimental surgery by the Theorists, and Niall Slater’s Spectator Politics. Metatheater and Performance in Aristophanes appears to be among this group. These knife-wielding diagnosticians first remove humor wholesale, and once that obstruction is out of the way they feel free to interpret not only the intentions of the poet but the reactions of his audience without the constraints of evidence, history, sense or perspective. Once one removes the element of humor, one is left with having to invent other reasons for the poet’s inclusion of ingredients previously understood as humorous. In a genre that delights in unsupported and far-reaching speculation, such invention recognizes no obstacles.

Two areas of the review are worthy of brief refutation, and two of criticism on other grounds.

1) “Metatheater … connotes a self-reflexive inclination whereby the text of a drama enunciates its status as a dramatic enactment by means which include the play-within-a-play, references to costuming, props and other dramatic appurtenances, acknowledgment of the presence of the audience and any device which breaks the dramatic illusion. Slater describes this as renegotiating the contract with the audience. … By working through the selected plays, Slater makes a strong case for the development of the comic poet’s … strategy of using metatheatre as a device to uncloak the deceptive performances of demagogues and politicians. The theatre of Dionysus thus becomes paradigmatic for the law courts, the ekklesia and the demos at large.

“Such a hypothesis, decides Slater, requires a thorough investigation of the concept of the actor, for an audience must have a pretty sophisticated conception of role playing in the theatre if they are to understand it as a symbol for role playing in the assembly.”

The author underestimates the Athenian audience. Perhaps the student or scholar of the 21st century needs “a thorough investigation of the concept of the actor”, but the 5th century Athenian surely did not. There will have been many in the audience who would understand that concept from first-hand experience, having appeared on stage themselves by way of the tragic, comic and dithyrambic choruses. The dramatic disguise of political behavior and allusions to contemporary figures and events, however opaque to us, were so thinly veiled any Athenian would have to have been a cretin to miss them. By the 5th century BC there was already a long history of drama in performance, and audiences did not need any seminars on the “conception of role playing in the theater” to appreciate fully the nuances of the poet’s work. Aristophanes did not have to “renegotiate” anything. If Slater thinks all this earnest preparation for the experience and such condescension on the part of the poet in leading his horses to water were required, he fails to take into account the fact that the audience lived at the same time and in the same place as the playwright, who understood full well and respected its ability to appreciate his performances.

2) “The main project … is to examine Aristophanic comedies with respect to how their performance would create and manipulate a theatrical space which could be equated with other Athenian public spaces, and how the comic characters within that space reflect on their ontological status as actors in a way that provokes the fifth-century audience to recognize the manipulative performances in the democratic institution at large. The conflation of theatre and civic institutions thus has a didactic function in that it serves to instruct the audience in their reception of demagoguery and political chicanery”.

This is nonsense. The Athenian audiences were quite capable of detecting political chicanery without any instruction from the stage or anything else. Many of that body were themselves expert practitioners. The Greeks for centuries had been prime movers in developing and refining the art, and their acquaintance with it reached back into the mists of time, as their rich and ancient mythology amply reflects. The reason the audiences found its Aristophanic transmutations FUNNY is that they witnessed it daily and were well versed in its forms.

3) In the penultimate paragraph of the review we find the following mind-boggling comment: ” … at no time does Slater address the relationship of the text as we have it to the performance witnessed by the Athenians”.

This implies that the relationship may be anything from tenuous to slight to non-existent, otherwise why raise the question. If true, it renders the entire effort null and void, a total waste of time and paper and in fact it is a wonder he could write the book at all. Has the reviewer no notion of how absurd this is? On what does Slater base his purported knowledge of the “performance witnessed by the Athenians” if not on “the text as we have it”? If Slater cannot relate “the text as we have it”, i.e. our only source, to what the Athenian audience saw, by what arrogant assumption of divination, what right, what exemption from the laws of genuine, painstaking and learned research does he dare to presume to understand what went on in the minds of Aristophanes and his audience? To what standards, if any, does he hold himself in the pursuit of his conclusions?

4) Finally, a word about style. One of the hallmarks of the Theorists is their penchant for dressing their prose in gaudy robes of impenetrable jargon, a sin of which both author and reviewer here are guilty. (See e.g. the first sentence of the review quoted above.) This arbitrary re-structuring of the English language into polysyllabic tangles may dimly suggest insight to some, but many others of us recognize that the emperor is nude. Deliberate obfuscation denotes an inability to think clearly married to a love affair with the flashy but meaningless, both of which defeat the very purpose of scholarship.

Were Aristophanes among us today his first target for ruthless parody would be the self-deluding Theorists. Socrates in his basket was earthbound compared to these.