BMCR 2022.07.04

Mirth and laughter. Aristophanes: seven comic scripts

, Mirth and laughter. Aristophanes: seven comic scripts. : Helaine L. Smith, 2021. Pp. 170. ISBN 9780578702919 $16.95.

I spend half my life as an academic working on Aristophanes, and half as a school-teacher. So, the prospect of a really good set of texts to introduce Old Comedy to students is very exciting. With Mirth and Laughter, Smith’s stated ambition is to “make ancient Athens and Aristophanes’ comic genius come alive” for middle-school (KS3) students (vii). She also promises that “these scripts require no glosses and neither politicize nor contemporize the text” (vii). As it happens, there are footnotes throughout, though they are very light-touch, and there are also contemporary references. In Wealth, for example, Cario tells the god that everyone worships him; “Olympian gods, Twitter CEOs, university presidents, everyone!” (137). But by and large, Smith succeeds in her goal to make Aristophanes more accessible to younger audiences while remaining recognisably Aristophanes. At various points throughout the book, she acknowledges her indebtedness to Jeffrey Henderson’s translations, but the final products are very much original and designed specifically for performance. The volume includes Wasps, Peace, Clouds, Birds, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs and Wealth. (Lysistrata is notable for its absence.)

The Introduction is succinct and helpful. One may quibble with the reading of Aristophanes offered, though it does well to reflect the broadest possible academic consensus on Old Comedy as a book of this sort probably should. Its comparison of Aristophanes with “the Marx Brothers and Monty Python” (ix) is more helpful to teachers than teenagers. And some of the points Smith makes are out-dated – few would now argue that the orchestra of Aristophanes’ day was “circular”, for example (x). Bizarrely, the Introduction ends with an extended quote from the Symposium, but Smith doesn’t tell us who translated it, explaining that she has lost the reference in her notes! Even so, and reflecting that this is not an academic book, it was a useful summary.

But it is the play scripts themselves which really stand out. They are adaptations rather than word-for-word translations, all the better for making Old Comedy come across to new audiences. They successfully capture much of Aristophanes’ humour, boiling it down into reduced and manageable mini plays and making it age-appropriate but still sufficiently irreverent for middle-schoolers (plenty of fart jokes). There were a few rewrites I could quibble with. Smith cuts both the opening and whipping scenes from Frogs, which seems a shame to me. And Thesmophoriazusae is the most changed, I am not sure successfully. The Scythian policewoman (as she is here presented) is far too sober, while the final tragedy-inspired rescue becomes successful; “the scene in which Euripides is disguised as an old bawd leading a prostitute onstage to distract the Scythian guard could thus be eliminated” (93). To my mind, rewriting one of the tragic ploys to be successful undermines the message of the play, that comedy is superior to tragedy. But other tweaks add value. I liked that Peace, Harvest and Festival all got lines in Peace, and reimagining Iris as an “oblivious Valley girl” (66) in the Birds really works, especially as it avoids the need to reproduce a scene the punchline of which is sexual violence. Keeping Xanthias onstage in the second half of Frogs to provide helpful exposition was another smart decision designed to increase understanding. Overall, I can see how each script would work well as a realised play, either thrown together over the course of a lesson or as an actual performance. To capture so much of Aristophanes’ “mirth” is no mean feat.

Unfortunately, the paratext does not meet the high standards set by the scripts themselves. Each play is prefaced with a brief introduction, but the context given for the original performances would be inscrutable to anyone less than a subject specialist. Putting aside middle-schoolers, many teachers would not understand the complexities of the Delian League, the Persian Wars and the Peace of Nicias, to take the introduction to the Birds as an example (65). There are simpler ways to explain the plays. Some of Smith’s language is a bit complicated for middle-schoolers too: “insouciant” (ix) and “a place of assignation” (x) stood out from the volume Introduction, and Smith also uses “Koryphaios” throughout where surely “Chorus-Leader” would carry more meaning. In Peace, she twice uses “Hellas” where Greece would have worked just as well (25, 30). I could go on.

Smith is also very squeamish when talking about sex. She promises in the Introduction that “each script… modifies sexual explicitness” (x) and a degree of delicacy is obviously called for when writing for young teenagers, but to avoid any mention of leather phalluses when discussing the comic costume was, I felt, to take caution too far. In Wasps, Smith straight-washes a joke about fancying Demos, instead substituting “Myrrhine” and “Cassandra” (7). There is a long and damaging legacy of translators straight-washing Classical texts; it is disappointing to see it still going on. Thankfully, Smith does not do this consistently throughout the book. More care could have gone into discussing the queerness of Women at the Thesmophoriazusae. In her introduction, Smith notes offhandedly that “in many ways, [the play] feels extremely modern” (92) and later has Agathon declare that they “pass” (99) – language borrowed from the trans community. But Aristophanic comedy is actually very un-modern in its tendency to laugh at queerness and make those assigned male at birth dressing in women’s clothing the butt of its jokes. The middle-schoolers I teach would relish the chance to unpick that tension a little and discuss why our response to transphobic humour has changed over time. Smith’s text does not invite such discussion.

It isn’t the job of a reviewer to pick up typographical mistakes, but many errors do appear throughout the book and more careful editing would have improved the overall result.

By way of conclusion, I should say that I am now fervently trying to work out how to use these scripts in my own middle-school teaching. Imperfections aside, that should clearly demonstrate the value of what Smith has produced: an engaging, age-appropriate revivification of Aristophanes’ comic genius.