BMCR 2021.02.03

Aristophanes and the poetics of surprise

, Aristophanes and the poetics of surprise. Trends in classics, supplementary volumes, 96. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xv, 247. ISBN 9783110676983 €99,95.

Dimitrios Kanellakis has produced an engaging and thought-provoking study on the nature of surprise in the comedies of Aristophanes that makes a most welcome contribution to the field of Aristophanic scholarship. In the introductory chapter, the author discusses the concept of surprise, which—not surprisingly?—is not easy to define, but the author guides the reader well, though Palm’s mathematical theory of novelty might deserve a bit more space (p. 14); it seemed to this reviewer at least, that the author was pointing at something useful here that called for a more elaborate evaluation (Palm is not even mentioned in the index), while Raskin’s SSTH (script based semantic theory of humor) and Attardo’s GTVH (general theory of verbal humor), which for most scholars on Old Comedy are well known, did not really need two pages of elaboration. The author bases his discussions on theatre semiotics and performance theory, the aforementioned humor theories via the studies of Robson and Revermann[1] and this theoretical background is lightly but thoughtfully employed throughout the chapters, without ever, as the author admits (p. 8), being too theoretical. In fact, one of the author’s purposes is indeed to offer a more practical mode of informing our studies of Aristophanic comedy by analyzing modern productions of the comedies (p.1), at least when it comes to the effect of surprise, for, the author argues, “[i]f modern directors have been tempted to invest a certain scene with visual or aural surprises, this is because the Aristophanic script provides this possibility in the first place (p.132)”. This is a bold statement, but it is the road taken by the author in the final chapters where he wishes to take the Aristophanic scholarship from “axiomatic pessimism” to “experimental optimism (p. 174)”.

The author distills and analyses three modes of surprise: verbal, thematic and theatrical. These chapters offer the theoretical bulk of the book, while in the fourth and final chapter, the author offers a reading, a kind of running commentary, of the Frogs by combining the results of the first chapters. After a short afterword, the author has included tables that support his findings in the first two chapters. There is an extensive bibliography and two indices Locorum and Nominum et Rerum.

Chapter 1 on verbal surprise is a much needed and well-argued study of the term para prosdokian. The author shows the development of the term from Aristotle to Hermogenes and how the term became applied to the style of Aristophanes, apparently as the playwright’s trademark. The author then investigates alleged (by scholars before him) instances of para prosdokian in the Aristophanic corpus. This is a well-researched and informative chapter, in which the author clearly shows the scale of Aristophanes’ use of this technique in smaller passages (often the twist focuses on food, sex or scatology p. 84) and perhaps more interestingly, he shows a clear pattern in the use of para prosdokian on a structural level in the comedies (mainly spoken by the protagonist and mainly in the first half of the play) and a striking development from Acharnians to Plutus: a movement from noun-based para prosdokian to verb-based (pp.84–85).

In chapter 2, the author investigates how surprise is generated from thematic twists but mainly how Aristophanes expropriates myth (in a very broad meaning from Aesopic stories and rites of passage to myths on the tragic stage.). Following Bowie (1993), the author looks for “elaborate reworking of myths with a surprising effect (p.91)”. He then finds such “reworkings” in all eleven extant plays of Aristophanes and offers five categories according to the function of the myth within the plays; although these categories are indeed useful, not all the readings are equally “surprising”. However, the concluding comparison with tragedy’s use of myth offers food for thought: “in tragedy the attempted surprise effect is centered on the plot and the characters, whereas in comedy it is centered on language (vulgarization, parody) and the visual outcome (beetles instead of horses, wine sacks instead of oars, and so on) p.128”.

In chapter 3, the author analyses modern performances (for the list of modern plays, see table 3 p. 153) in order to consult their use of surprise effects. The author is clearly aware of not only how little we know about the ancient theatrical conventions and practicalities,[2] but also of the problems in analyzing performances in general, and the discussion of actions contradictory to words is a most welcome correction of the communis opinio (pp.133–138). There are many useful, funny, and surprising readings of the modern plays (especially the “Cavafian” wordplay on p.181), which may show the scenic potentiality of the Aristophanic script, but some seem to stem rather from the potentiality of the modern production (its translation, its convention etc) than from the ancient script, e.g. the play of gender in Ecclesiazusae. The author acknowledges that conventions differ between then and now (pp. 138–139) and that female roles were played by men (probably with a tenor-voice p. 169), but his conclusion from analyzing a 1996 performance that “Aristophanes—just like Voutsinas—may have deliberately chosen a bass-voiced actor to play Praxagora, contrary to the audience’s expectations, in order to sarcastically acknowledge that the Greek stage is an exclusively male world…Praxagora can be as masculine and bulky as Lampito, even without the text’s ‘permission’ (p. 169)”, seems to be circular: such potential stems from which text, ancient or modern? Both? Luckily, the author is aware of such objections and writes, “while modern performances cannot tell us what happened on stage in the ancient performance, they offer a pointer for discarding the monolithic scenic interpretations found in traditional scholarship (p.174)” in order to discuss new and speculative options in interpreting the stage of Aristophanes. The author’s reading of the Frogs is indeed speculative in the manner just mentioned and runs against most traditional scholarship (Frogs does not have a political point and Dionsysus’ final choice is not a surprise), but some of his points need nonetheless to be taken seriously (e.g. the lekythian frogs were interesting, but again, do we need a modern performance to reach such a solution?).

Despite the few quibbles, this is a fruitful contribution to Aristophanic scholarship, engagingly written (I noted only a few typos: p. 15 hems = herms, p. 40 ship = sheep, p. 47 there seems to be something wrong with Greek quotation from Thesmo. 1022–1038.), and the author manages to keep an experimental optimism throughout the study, which will surely impel further scholarly debate.


[1] Here I personally missed an interaction with Ruffell’s study on some occasions, (Ruffell, I. 2011, Politics and Anti-Realism in Athenian Old Comedy, Oxford).

[2] In a study like this, where the practical aspects are the core, the author could have benefitted from more recent studies on e.g. the choregia and theatrical practicalities (Wilson, P. 2000, The Athenian Khoregia, Cambridge) and Aristophanic costumes (Compton-Engle, G. 2015, Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes. Cambridge).