BMCR 2006.01.05

Aristophanes. Thesmophoriazusae

, , , Thesmophoriazusae. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. cvi, 363 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199265275 $150.00.

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We have been waiting for this edition for some time. Colin Austin submitted the first half of a commentary on the play for his Oxford D.Phil. in 1965, and for years thereafter it was rumoured (perhaps wishfully) that the full version would appear “soon”. But the fragments of Euripides, the many volumes of Poetae Comici Graeci, and Poseidippos intervened to complicate Austin’s literary life, and in 2001 he joined forces with Douglas Olson, who had already produced two fine volumes for the Oxford Clarendon series on Aristophanes ( Peace – 1997, Acharnians – 2000). The result, appearing with admirable celerity, is this very fine edition of a comedy by Aristophanes that should be at the centre of his works, but which has always lacked for critical and popular attention. In part this is due to its literary subject — political persons and themes tend to carry more appeal than literary allusions, whose original targets are often lost and difficult for the modern reader to appreciate — and in part to its sexual theme. Lysistrata, produced in the same year, may also be dominated by a sexual context, but there the sex is “straight” — the principal recurring image is the erect male phallus. In Thesmophoriazusae just about every male dresses up as a woman (except Kleisthenes, but then …). Gender here is not open or direct, but confused, and this has had something of a negative effect on the comedy.

As one might expect from the track record of both authors, including a series of textual notes by Austin, the textual and critical side of this edition is one of its major strengths. Thesmophoriazusae is “unique in being a one-manuscript play” (xci), depending for its text on R (the 10th-c. Ravennas MS a few papyri, and some corrections and suggestions in the Suda and the scholia. That said, the actual text does not contain many cruces where the interpretation and ultimate meaning of what one reads is in any great doubt. A-O also provide a useful and informative summary of the sort of “idiosyncrasies and aberrations” (xcii) that one finds in a Byzantine MS of this period (xcii-xcviii).

Their text differs in a number of places from Sommerstein’s less conservative text and that of Henderson in volume III of the Loeb. In line 80 they retain ἐπεὶ τρίτη ’στὶ (R) as against ἐπειπὲρ ἐστὶ (in some of the scholia, read by Sommerstein), accepting the scholiast’s explanation of how the “third” day of a three-day festival can be “the middle”. In line 87, where R gives ἐκ ταύτης, A-O prefer Bergler’s ἐκ τούτων, but Sandbach’s εἰς ταύτας (printed by Henderson) seems better given the mention of “the women” in the previous lines. In the notorious crux at lines 365-6, which sounds suspiciously like line 360, they suspect deeper corruption and print the received text in obeli, despite Austin’s two earlier attempts to replace the meaningless τῆς χώρας with τῶν κερδῶν or τῆς ἀρχῆς. At line 373 for the name of the president, they prefer Satyros’ “Archikleia” as an instance of lectio difficilior, to the more commonly accepted “Timokleia”. At line 557, reading Kuster’s οἶνον instead of σῖτον in the received text, A-O mount a reasonably convincing reply to Sommerstein’s query (191) about how one uses a strigil to siphon off wine. In line 809 Maas’s Ἄνυτος for αὐτὸς (“clever but a shot in the dark” [269]) deserves more serious consideration, since the passage does seem to be narrowing down to the mention of a specific person. Anytos ( PAA 139460), general in 409/8 and target of other comic poets (Archippos fr. 31, Theopompos fr. 58), could well have been a prominent bouleutes in 412. In the recognition of Menelaos at line 910, R has the unmetrical ἐκ τῶν ἀφύων (“from the sardines”), where most would print ἐκ τῶν ἰφύων (in the scholia and the Suda, “from the lavender”), an allusion apparently to Euripides’ mother’s occupation as a lachanopolis. What we want is an allusion to Euripides’ dressing of his characters in rags; hence Grégoire’s ἐκ τῶν ἀμφίων (“from the garments”) or Austin’s earlier ἐκ τῶν ἱστίων (“from the sail-cloth”) should be more seriously considered — intriguingly Austin’s emendation (1990) appears in neither the apparatus nor in the notes. But these are minor quibbles when set against what is an excellent and scientific text. It will be interesting to see how much Nigel Wilson’s forthcoming new OCT will differ from what A-O present here.

A mammoth introduction (107 pages) presents discussion of a number of essential points for considering this play in its historical and literary context: “Aristophanes and his play” (xxxi-xxxiii) is not a general introduction to Aristophanes, but presents the essential contradiction of the play’s excellence (“arguably the jewel in the crown”) and its general critical neglect; “Date and political background” (xxxiii-xliv), where they argue convincingly for the traditionally accepted date of 411-Dionysia (here one may add that the three other attested uses of the mechane in Aristophanes, in Clouds and Peace and Birds, all belong in comedies produced at the Dionysia), provide a concise but full account of the political manoeuvrings that led up to the oligarchic coup of 411 and of the extent to which the parody of the ekklesia in this comedy represents an attempt by Aristophanes to stand up for democracy in dangerous times.

A full and well-documented section on “The Festival” (xlv-li) presents as much as we know about the Thesmophoria, a matter complicated by the secrecy that has been well maintained since antiquity. Of particular value is the very full scholion to Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans 2.1, not identified specifically on page xlviii, of which they present a useful translation for the Greekless reader. One thing that I did miss, however, in their discussion was an interpretation of the comedy through the lens of gender of feminist studies. They know and cite the articles by Muecke and Zeitlin, as well as the issue of AJPh (123.3 [2002]) devoted entirely to this comedy and a modern version known as “The Julie Thesmo Show”, but the student would have benefitted greatly from a discussion of how a student of gender theory would read this play.

In the section “Euripides and the city’s women” (li-lxviii) they sometimes take the comedy too seriously, as happens elsewhere in the notes, and their treatment of the comic Euripides is too harsh (“a fast-talking intellectual quack, whose bland self-assurance does little to disguise the fact that most of what he says is nonsense”, lv). One gets the impression (especially on pages lix and 53) that for A-O Euripides is not the object of an admiring obsession by Aristophanes, but a satirical target. But see Silk for the extent to which Aristophanes defines his comedy with reference to tragedy, and Kratinos’ assessment in fr. 342 “euripidaristophanizon” for the ancient association of the two dramatists. Modern critical discussion ranges from Aristophanes as hostile opponent (Norwood, Cartledge) to outright idolatry (Wycherley); some treatment of the issue would have been welcome. Bowie argued that the parodies of Telephos, Palamedes, and Helen form a Trojan War ‘trilogy’, with Andromeda as a sort of satyr-play; A-O adopt an intriguing variant: that the ‘trilogy’ consists of the “three explicit tragic parodies” ( Palamedes, Helen, Andromeda), with the final scene acting as the satyr-play. Their note (177) on Euripides’ mother could have gone further into the possible explanations of the comic caricature — Ruck and now Roselli are useful here.

In their discussion on “Staging” (lxviii-lxxiv), they assume four speaking actors, the fourth one taking only the part of the prytanis at 923-44. But Marshall has argued for three actors as the norm and would employ a lightning change by the Euripides-actor into the role of the prytanis, announced as approaching at 923, but not actually appearing until 929. They refer (lxix) to the “seemingly inferior status” of the tritagonist, but this seems to be a development of the fourth century, fuelled in part by Demosthenes’ denigration of Aischines (19.199, 247). To take two examples from tragedy, in Agamemnon the third actor has the brilliantly dramatic role of Kassandra, and in Euripides’ Suppliant Women he has to play the substantial roles of Aithra, the Herald, Euadne, and Athena (more lines, in fact, than the Adrastos-actor) . These are not signs of an inferior status. On another matter, is the “permanent altar” (lxxi) the actual altar to Dionysos or a thymele which could be variously an altar, a statue, or a tomb? See the discussions of Ashby and Wiles here. Finally they would have the Skythian sleep “at the very edge of the stage” (310), but suppose there was no stage? The parallel with Adrastos in Suppliant Women would suggest that he sleeps by the skene -door. This would tell against their unlikely suggestion that Euripides “emerges abruptly from Wing A … and dashes through the central door” (311).

There follows (lxxvii-lxxxix) the controversial matter of the “other” or “second” Thesmophoriazusae, attested as such in a number of places (ad frr. 331, 349, 350, 358) and assigned 28 fragments in PCG III.2. They provide a very useful English translation of a 9th-c. Arabic version of Galen’s account of a meta-theatrical statement by Aristophanes (fr. 346), but one has to read through to the end to see why this is assigned to the lost Thesmophoriazusae. A-O take dead aim at Butrica’s controversial article, which dates the lost comedy to 423-Lenaia, i.e. well before rather than after the extant comedy and regards the plot as the story told by Satyros how the women bearded Euripides in his den (the cave on Salamis). They do raise some cogent objections to Butrica’s theory, none fatal in my opinion, but unfortunately the edition seems to have gone to press without reference to a recent exchange between A-O and Butrica in Leeds International Classical Studies, where Butrica responds to their detailed criticisms of his thesis. A revised (or paperback) edition would do well to provide the reader with the essentials of Butrica’s reply. One thing is clear, that the career of Agathon (note on page 61), on which much of the discussion of the lost comedy turns, needs a thorough overhaul to resolve some of the inconsistencies handed down in the sources.

I have a few critical observations, but these should not detract from the appreciation of what is a fine addition to the Clarendon Aristophanes. First, they often confidently describe a word or phrase as “late 5th-c. vocabulary” (e.g. page 260, on line 777), but in view of how little Attic literature we have from the early fifth century, is it safe to make such a sweeping judgement? Second, they affirm (267) that “abuse of individual citizens in Aristophanic parabases is normally confined to the epirrhematic syzygy”, but Kleon is attacked in the parabasis proper of Acharnians, Wasps and Peace; the parabasis proper of Knights contains attacks on three comic poets plus the musician Konnos, that of Clouds assails Eupolis, Phrynichos, and Hyperbolos. This statement needs to be qualified. Third, at times they take the comic situation and flow too seriously: the story of the Acharnian woman at 561-3 (217 — “oddly circumstantial”), or their conclusion from the state of the second woman (443-58), a widow with five children, that “being widowed and never remarrying seems to have been the norm for Athenian women” (191). Süss’s important articles on inconsistency and realism in Aristophanes (cited on page 281) show that comedy did not operate under the strict rules of realistic logic. The illogical flow of an Aristophanic comedy reminds one very much of an episode of The Simpsons. Finally, on quite a number of occasions the reader is inconveniently referred to fuller discussion and bibliography in other commentaries (Olson’s Peace and Acharnians, Dover’s Frogs). At times I wished that I could have the whole picture in front of me, rather than a growing pile of commentaries.

On the positive side of the ledger is an impressive accumulation of credits: an excellent text, the comedy well placed in its historical setting, the significance of a demos of women, a wealth of useful information and instructive parallels in the commentary (e.g., the nature of a synoikia [142], how a wife addresses her husband [200], a Sophoclean interjection in the Helen parody [283], the Greek spoken by the Skythian [308-9]), and above all an immensely impressive understanding of tragic language and parody (e.g., paratragedy in the first woman’s speech [181-2], and the notes on Palamedes [259] and Helen [278]). This most unfairly neglected of Aristophanes’ plays has at last a major scholarly commentary that students at all levels may use with confidence and profit.

Works cited:

C. Ashby, Classical Greek Theatre (Iowa City 1999)

C. Austin, “Textual Problems in Ar. Thesm.“, Dodone 16.2 (1987) 61-92

C. Austin, “Observations critiques sur les Thesmophories d’ Aristophane”, Dodone 19.2 (1990) 9-29

C. Austin & S.D. Olson, “On the date and plot of Aristophanes’ lost Thesmophoriazusae“, Leeds International Classical Studies 3.5 (2003/04) 1-11

A.M. Bowie, Aristophanes: myth, ritual and culture (Cambridge 1993)

J. Butrica, “The Lost Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophanes”, Phoenix 55 (2001) 44-76

J. Butrica, “The date of Aristophanes’ lost Thesmophoriazusae : a response to Austin and Olson”, Leeds International Classical Studies 3.07 (2004) 1-5

P. Cartledge, Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd (Bristol 1990)

K.J. Dover, Aristophanes’ Frogs (Oxford 1993)

M.-K. Gamel (ed.), “Performing/transforming Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai“, AJPh 123.3 (2002)

J. Henderson, Aristophanes III (Cambridge MA 2000)

C.W. Marshall, “Comic Technique and the Fourth Actor”, CQ 47 (1997) 72-9

F. Muecke, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman”, CQ 32 (1982) 41-55

G. Norwood, Greek Comedy (London 1931)

S.D. Olson, Aristophanes’ Peace (Oxford 1998)

S.D. Olson, Aristophanes’ Acharnians (Oxford 2002)

D.K. Roselli, “Vegetable-Hawking Mom and Fortunate Son: Euripides, Tragic Style, and Reception”, Phoenix 59 (2005) 1-49

C. Ruck, “Euripides’ mother: Vegetables and the Phallos in Aristophanes”, Arion 2 (1975) 13-57

M. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (Oxford 2002)

A.H. Sommerstein, The Commentaries of Aristophanes, vol. 8, Thesmophoriazusae (Warminster 1994)

D. Wiles, Greek Theatre Production: an introduction (Cambridge 2000)

R.E. Wycherley, “Aristophanes and Euripides”, G & R 15 (1946) 98-107

F. Zeitlin, “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae“, in Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago 1996) 375-416.

[For a response to this review by S. Douglas Olson, please see BMCR 2006.03.33.]