BMCR 2021.01.13

Paracomedy: appropriations of comedy in Greek tragedy

, Paracomedy: appropriations of comedy in Greek tragedy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. x, 341. ISBN 9780190090937 $74.00.


There has recently been an outpouring of excellent scholarship investigating generic interactions on the Greek stage: Bakola, Prauscello, and Telò’s edited volume Greek Comedy and the Discourse of Genres (2013); Nelson’s Aristophanes and His Tragic Muse (2016); Farmer’s Tragedy on the Comic Stage (2017); and Sells’ Parody, Politics, and the Populace in Greek Old Comedy (2018). These studies all treat comedy as a site of generic discourse. Jendza’s Paracomedy is a much-needed contribution that turns this scholarly trend on its head, arguing that tragedy too can be an agonistic site of generic interaction, and specifically that tragedy can and does appropriate and parody elements from its sister genre of comedy. This recognition allows Jendza to identify previously unnoticed moments of intertextuality, or rather “intertheatricality,” since parody, as Jendza expertly demonstrates, involves the appropriation not just of text, but also of performative elements such as costume, gesture, and sound dynamics.

The book is organized into seven chapters with an introduction and conclusion. The short introduction offers a preview of the methodological concerns of chapter one, and a useful summary of the book’s vast scope and development. The chapters progress mostly chronologically, with chapter two, “Early Paracomedy” addressing Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458 BCE), Euripides’ Alcestis (438 BCE), and Euripides’ Heracles (ca. 416 BCE). Chapters three through six deal with the agonistic relationship between Aristophanes and Euripides from Acharnians to Orestes. Chapter six breaks the chronological flow by analyzing the utility of paracomedy as a mode of establishing the relative chronologies of undated fifth-century dramas. And chapter seven investigates three instances of ancient paracomic reception. The chronological organization of Paracomedy allows Jendza to track a development in paracomic tendencies from sporadic early usage, through its Euripidean heyday, to its continuing association with a distinctly Euripidean form of drama in the fourth century BCE and beyond.

In his introduction, Jendza concisely communicates the aim of Paracomedy as the exploration of “the relationship between the literary and performed genres of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy and, to a lesser extent, satyr drama” (1). His introduction functions as a strong justification of his decision to examine the phenomenon of paracomedy. Many scholars, he argues, are clearly willing to accept that tragedy can implicitly interact with the world beyond its own mythological stage, both in literary and political terms. So why is it so often denied that tragedy could articulate a relationship with its sister genre of comedy? Jendza proposes that one such reason is simply an unfounded intuition to preserve “tragic decorum” and he effectively demonstrates the danger of such an impulse with an example of a textual critic editing a sexual inuendo out of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon 1443 (8).

In chapter one, “Understanding Paracomedy,” Jendza addresses the methodological and theoretical concerns of the study by asking how we can spot paracomedy, why a tragedian might engage in paracomedy, and the frequency of paracomedy in the fifth century. In his discussion of the how, Jendza argues that tragedy and comedy each featured marked prototypical elements, which formed the basis of audience expectation, and that deviation from such features would have appeared marked to an audience (i.e. the appearance of something prototypically comic in a tragedy would appear marked and constitute paracomedy). In order to convincingly propose a tragic passage as paracomic, one must be able to spot distinctive correspondences between the tragic passage and a comic intertext, establish the priority of the comic intertext, and ascertain motivation. Jendza proposes possible motivations for paracomedy both internal to the plot (i.e. paracomedy motivated by desire to produce a sense of horror, disquieting confusion, or comic relief) and external to the plot. The bulk of chapter one is dedicated to literary rivalry as an external motivation, which usefully sets up his later chapters dealing with Aristophanes’ and Euripides’ rivalry.

In chapter two, Jendza tackles what he deems the three earliest instances of surviving paracomedy: the representation of Clytemnestra and the chorus of Furies in Aeschylus’ Oresteia; and of Heracles in Euripides’ Alcestis and Heracles. He argues persuasively that Clytemnestra and the Furies, in the Agamemnon and Eumenides respectively, embody old comic norms like obscene language (Clytemnestra and the Furies) and animal choruses (Furies) and that the dramatic result of this is to portray them both as deeply generically threatening. Regarding Alcestis, however, both the argument for paracomedy and the adduced motivation behind it are less than persuasive. Jendza argues that Euripides’ Alcestis is a response to the decree of Morychides which, so a scholion to Acharnians tells us, banned κωμῳδεῖν. Jendza acknowledges that his argument for such a motivation is highly speculative (60) and defends the disputed historicity of the decree (65) but does not fully take into account the scholiastic nature of our testimony about it.  For example, he writes, “assuming that the scholiasts are reflecting the language of the decrees themselves…” (62), without acknowledging the problems inherent in this assumption. It is difficult to accept that later laws against κωμῳδεῖν would have clarified the restrictions with ὀνομαστί because of a Euripidean protest play that, so far as we know, had no political ramifications. The argument for paracomedy in Alcestis starts the daunting task of disentangling the relationship between satyr play and paracomedy, but here, and elsewhere throughout Paracomedy, their association remains largely uninterrogated despite the promise of the introduction. Instinctively, it seems like the concept of paracomedy could have something useful to contribute to the growing body of scholarship on the elusive genre of satyr play, perhaps as a mediating force. It is notable, for example, that Euripides’ first foray into the realm of paracomedy is in a drama that, at least nominally, is a satyr play. Even though Jendza’s study does not capitalize on paracomedy’s potential for understanding satyr play, it certainly opens the door for further study of this relationship.

Jendza is at his strongest in chapters three through six where he analyzes the series of complex back-and-forths between Aristophanes and Euripides. In chapter three, “From Rags to Drag,” he demonstrates the unfolding of a rivalry between the two poets over costume control: in Acharnians, Aristophanes critiques the Euripidean tendency to portray kings in rags as old-fashioned and hackneyed. Euripides, Jendza argues, responds in Helen by staging Menelaus disguised in Dicaeopolis’ Telephus rags in a novel (καινός) plot, metapoetically countering Aristophanes’ claim that kings in rags are old-fashioned. In Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes responds in his parody of “the new Helen” by representing the failure of Euripidean innovation, escalating the stakes, moreover, by feminizing tragedy, dressing Euripides himself in women’s clothing. Finally, Jendza argues that Bacchae co-opts the entire plot structure of Thesmophoriazusae in a serious attempt to convert the comic into having tragic effects, and consequently producing tragic emotions. Jendza counters the scholarly assumption that the paracomic cross-dressing scenes of Bacchae produce humor, as they did in Thesmophoriazusae, suggesting that the effect is rather one of horror and disquieting confusion, with the comic elements naturalized into tragedy.

In chapter four, “Paracomedy and the Structure of Euripides’ Helen,” Jendza builds on his earlier arguments about costume control in Helen to offer a holistic interpretation of the structure of the play as a metapoetic contest between tragedy (represented by Helen) and comedy (represented by Menelaus). The contest is won by Helen, who then takes on a metatheatrical role as the didaskalos of an escape-plot figured as a play-within-the play, co-opting comic techniques for tragic ends. This chapter is utterly convincing and brings a new framework of analysis to a play that has received a lot of attention in the last decade.

In chapter five, “Euripides’ Orestes: a Paracomic play,” Jendza argues that Euripides’ Orestes responds to Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae by reclaiming the effectiveness of the four Euripidean tragedies mocked therein, additionally escalating the rivalry by beginning and ending with parodies of Aristophanes’ Peace and Clouds respectively. The parodies extend from structural parody of sound dynamics (the parodos of Orestes based on the parodos of Peace) to thematic and verbal parodies (Orestes’ Phrygian slave reacting to Thesmophoriazusae’s Scythian archer). Some of these moments of intertheatricality are more convincing than others. It is a hard argument to make, for example, that an ancient audience would have associated the cheerful, celebratory, automatic dancing of the Peace chorus with Electra’s attempt to keep Orestes’ nervous chorus quiet. But, as with the Helen, Jendza’s overall approach opens up new possibilities of interpretation, and most of his metapoetic arguments are clearly, logically, and convincingly made.

The concept of paracomedy (which presumes a tragedy is reacting to an earlier comedy) necessarily has implications for the relative chronology of parodic plays. Chapter six lays out a useful methodological starting point for narrowing the dates of undated plays, by asking whether the relationship between two or more plays can more plausibly be said to be paratragic (as scholars have, in the past, usually assumed) or paracomic. He makes a convincing case, for example, that Euripides’ Cyclops and Antiope both react to, and therefore postdate, Thesmophoriazusae. Though the more literarily inclined scholar might be tempted to skip a chapter dealing with a historical problem, the reader will be richly rewarded by Jendza’s analysis of the Antiope as a metatheatrical reclamation of the feminized intellectual so mocked by Aristophanes in Thesmophoriazusae. There is, however, a methodological lapse in Jendza’s approach here. He seems to assume that a parody will always be directed at the most recent instantiation of the parodied line (even if that is a parody itself of something else). Jendza does not appear to take account of the possibility that two plays might separately parody the same line from an earlier play.

In his last chapter, Jendza considers three post-fifth-century works that exhibit a continuing interest in tragedy’s transgressive relationship with comedy: the pseudo-Euripidean Rhesus, he argues, uses paracomedy as a means to imitate Euripidean style, but without utilizing it for a particular effect or metapoetic point. He suggests that Rhinthon’s elusive hilarotragedies may be better understood as more methatheatrically explicit versions of Euripidean paracomedy rather than as primarily comic mythological burlesques. And finally, he analyzes Pollux’s contention that Sophocles and Euripides used comic parabases. The conclusion to this chapter suggests that in the ancient reception of Greek drama, paracomedy came to be primarily associated with Euripides.

The conclusion of Paracomedy looks to other theoretical models for understanding parody in the study of early modern drama, including the concepts of intertheatricality and the haunted stage. He ends by calling for a reassessment of tragedy’s place in Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque.

The strengths of Paracomedy lie in Jendza’s clear and logical argumentation, the sheer mass of examples he musters of different forms of tragic appropriation of comedy, both intertextual and intertheatrical, and his close readings of Euripides’ metapoetic relationship with Aristophanes. It is hard to overstate the importance of Paracomedy for the study of Greek drama and especially its intergeneric relationships. Jendza has provided the field with a well-argued and intelligent re-assessment of tragic possibilities, which has filled a gaping hole in contemporary scholarship and which will no doubt inspire further studies of tragedy’s engagement with comedy and satyr play.[1]


[1] On p. 262, there is an error. Jendza refers to “Lysistrata and Praxithea” engaging in the politics of male citizenry. Assuming he intends to refer to the protagonist of Ecclesiazusae, Praxithea should be Praxagora.