BMCR 2019.03.19

Parody, Politics and the Populace in Greek Old Comedy

, Parody, Politics and the Populace in Greek Old Comedy. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. ix, 291. ISBN 9781350060517. ebook.


The aim of this monograph (most parts of which arise from Sells’ doctoral thesis, ‘Old Comedy and its Performative Rivals of the Fifth Century’, University of Toronto, 2011) is to show that, for individual comic poets and for Old Comedy as a whole, parody was ‘an offensive strategy of survival in the world of fifth-century Athenian performance culture’ (15). Its methodology is the consideration of both verbal and visual evidence (as opposed to the strictly textual and linguistic focus of P. Rau and M. S. Silk), from an aesthetic (‘mechanical’) and a social/ political/ cultural (‘contextual’) perspective. This, for Sells, is a ‘holistic approach’ (6). He draws inspiration from a wide range of theoretical models, from Darwin and reader-response theory to theatre semiotics and marketing theory. In terms of scope, the categories of parody concerned are paratragedy, parasatyrism, and paralyric; the main corpus concerned, inevitably, is Aristophanes (14); and politics is understood ‘in the broadest possible sense, i.e. life in the polis’ (10). The latter might disappoint some readers and seems to follow the annoyingly popular tendency of putting ‘politics’ in a book’s title as a mere catchword. Indeed, in the Introduction, the discourse on Aristophanes’ politics is summarised into a single paragraph (9–10), and the bibliography ignores some very important scholarship on the matter (e.g. M. Vickers’ work). Later on, some brief discussion about Pericles is marked as ‘subordinate to [the author’s] concern with intergeneric engagement’ (100). ‘Populace’, which also features in the title, is not adequately discussed either.

Two particular points of the Introduction require comment. First, that ‘while early plays like Cratinus’s Dionysalexandros and Aristophanes’s Acharnians use parody to satirize Athenian governance and vice versa, Aristophanes uses social and cultural topics in increasingly intimate and personal settings to parody Euripidean tragedy’ (10) is highly questionable. Acharnians parodies Euripides no less than it satirises politics; as for the later plays, only Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae prioritise the parody of Euripides. Second, that comic poets also parody and attack each other but such ‘comic intertextuality is not typically […] woven into the deeper structure of a play in the same way that Aristophanes tends to use tragedy’ and the comparison with lions who rarely attack each other and usually collaborate in attacking other species (14–15) remains in the sphere of speculation. We simply do not have enough evidence for such a comparison and the author does not consider K. Sidwell (1995) ‘Poetic Rivalry and the Caricature of Comic Poets’ in A. Griffiths (ed.) Stage Directions (London, 1995), 56–80.

Chapter 1 argues that the para-Euripidean Telephus in Acharnians is programmatic for all Aristophanic paratragedy, in the sense that this symbolises and preludes Aristophanes’ trygôidia. For Sells, Aristophanes builds on the mythical hybridity of Telephus (a Greek and a barbarian, a king and a beggar) to promote his own aesthetic hybridity (writing comedy to speak of serious things). The idea is stimulating, but its lengthy and repetitive description leaves no space for literary analysis. For example, the author announces that he will examine the ‘codes’ or ‘mechanisms’ of parody (24), but apart from ‘collision’, few other techniques are mentioned, and metatheatre appears only once, in passing (42). More important, the development of the episode, with the charcoal basket as its visual core, is totally ignored. Again, there is some important bibliography missing, e.g. S. Tsitsiridis (2010) ‘On Aristophanic Parody: The Parodic Techniques’ in idem. (ed.) Παραχορήγημα (Heraklion, 2013), 359-82. Overall, this chapter offers a nice hypothesis on why Aristophanes chose to deal with Telephus, but no elaboration on how he uses this material.

Chapter 2 argues that the iconography from South Italy not only affirms but also supplements our knowledge of the parodic techniques (55). Starting with ‘signatures scenes’, i.e. vases that portray recognisable scenes from Old Comedy, and then moving to (probably non- theatrical) vases that entail comic reversals of popular myths, the author outlines a variety of visual strategies of parody, with failed disguises and exchanges of roles receiving most of the attention. The last and most important section examines some vases that portray the interplay of comedy with other genres. Most of the discussion repeats Taplin and Csapo, quite naturally, but there are also some original ideas: the ‘Tragoidos’ figure in the left top corner of the ‘New York Goose Play’ is portrayed as an erômenos and thus symbolises that comedy has intergeneric relationships with tragedy, in which comedy has the dominant role (82). If so, one could object, why does the erômenos /tragedy (and not the erastês/comedy) appear ‘on top’?

Chapter 3, the most original and thought-provoking of the book, explores parasatyrism. Cratinus’ Dionysalexandros includes satyrs for a comic chorus, but the adultery narrative is comic par excellence and clashes with the ‘romantic’ outlook and ‘heroic ethics’ of satyr play (100). In the ‘hauling-scene’ of Peace, scholars have long ago noted that the chorus act and speak like satyrs, and Sells identifies more ‘distinctively satyresque’ elements, starting already with the entrance of the chorus (105). However, in contrast to the childish and incompetent satyrs, the chorus here eventually succeeds in rescuing the goddess. As for the comic protagonists, they also have satyric features but the finale affirms their comic identity. For example, Peisetairos abuses Iris like a satyr, but eventually gets married with Basileia: he is ‘romantically successful’ (112). The latter argument seems to contradict the previous discussion of Dionysalexandros : is romanticism a comic or a satyric mode?

Through the case-study of Peace, Chapter 4 argues that comedy converts failure in other genres into its own success. In contrast to Pegasus in Euripides’ Bellerophon, the dung-beetle succees in reaching Olympus, and ‘the comic crane provides a means to overcome the cosmic limits represented by the same effect in tragedy’ (133). Secondly, the bloodless sacrifice and the restoration of the household in Peace reverse the dominant paradigm, i.e. the corrupted sacrifices and marriages in tragedy. For Sells, the latter paradigm was ‘parodic’ in itself (134, 143, 144) in the sense that it parodied the actual rituals. Tragedy, however, draws from mythological rituals: Iphigenia is sacrificed before and beyond tragedy; Oedipus gets married to his mother before and beyond tragedy. Thus, tragedy’s ‘distorted and perverted sacrifices and marriages’ (134) are not a product of parody. More important, the chapter fails to answer whether this failure-to-success scheme applies to Aristophanic comedy, or to Old Comedy as a whole, and ignores the ironic readings of Peace.

Chapter 5 argues that Old Comedy appropriates traditional lyric poetry in opposition to New Music. Comedy not only cites and alludes to classic lyric (Stesichorus, Pindar, Simonides) with a nostalgic attitude, but also actively parodies New Music. For example, the hymn to Apollo in Thesm. 101–29, after the fashion of New Music, is sung by the androgynous Agathon, thus being classified as a bastard genre; the supposed choral song by Euripides in Frogs 1309–22 involves ‘talking’ animals, thus being classified as a genre out of (cosmic) order. The most interesting, yet not fully articulated, notion is that the comedians attacked the New Musicians because they wanted to reserve the title of innovators for themselves (149).

Finally, Chapter 6 argues that Thesmophoriazusae criticises the didactic and limited character of the realism of Euripidean tragedy. On the one hand, because of Euripides’ shameless heroines, ‘real’ husbands are now oppressing their wives. On the other hand, as Inlaw reveals (476 ff.), ‘real’ women are even worse than those heroines, because the comic stage affords them more freedom (of movements, props etc.) Thus, comedy alone can portray female promiscuity in full. We note the omission of G. Hutchinson (2011) ‘House Politics and City Politics in Aristophanes’ CQ 61 (2011), 48–70.

This review has emphasised the weaknesses of the book, but this is only because the book truly merits a close consideration. It makes some steps – not as bold as necessary – towards what will hopefully become the norm in the study of Greek comedy: considering the performative and visual aspect as a sine qua non.