Aristophanes Brings the Lulz

Rounding out the volume of Greek drama is Aristophanes: The Complete Plays. Now, the translation of Aristophanes one gets is extremely important. His plays have a lot of swearing and sometimes massive strap-ons. For the bulk of the 20th century, this stuff was considered too racy as is. Unfortunately, this means that virtually every translation available cuts out all these good bits. Paul Roche's translation, linked above, keeps it all intact as much as possible.

Roche's translation does suffer from two problems, however. First, Aristophanes makes extensive use of dialects to show class and place of origin. Roche tries to emulate this with British regional and class dialects or accents. I thought this was a decent half-measure for a virtually intractable problem. Judging from reviews, a lot of people disagree with me here. So if you genuinely don't like Roche's solution or you are some sort of data-driven plebeian whose tastes are enslaved to Amazon reviews, look elsewhere. Except then you'll be stuck with translations which have "docked the cock", so to speak.

But really, this is all just nitpicking. His translations are awesome. His footnotes are extensive without being tedious or patronizing. And they'rea ctual footnotes, not endnotes. With the tragedies, endnotes were acceptable because you really didn't need to know much that wasn't in the Homeric literature and other plays. The comedies, on the other hand, heavily emphasize current events and culture, including making reference to other plays that survive only in fragments or not at all. Having read the tragedies and the Homeric stuff is still enough for a lot of the jokes. And the giant floppy cocks, of course, are eternal wit. That leaves about a third of the jokes that don't really work without explanation.

To speed things up, I just read all eleven of Aristophanes' surviving plays in one go. For the sake of brevity, I'll lump his similar play together. First up are the anti-war plays: Acharnians, Knights, Peace, and Wasps. Aristophanes spent the bulk of his youth and productive years living with the consequences of constant warfare, mostly between his native Athens and Sparta, with the occasional Persian bungling. The war lasted for nearly three decades, off and on. At various points this war cost Athens its men, its economy, its ships, its allies, its democracy, and much more. In Aristophanes' view, war with Sparta was ultimately pointless. Sparta was a land power while Athens was a naval power. Athens had a little empire from the black sea to Sicily which made them one of the foremost hubs of Mediterranean trade. This wealth gave them a city that Sparta's war- and slave-driven economy couldn't rival. But instead of simply enjoying what they had, Athens pursued a land war with a superior land power in that land power's own backyard when, at least in Aristophanes' view, they could have just stayed out of inland Greek politics and been no worse for it. And at several stages the Spartans--the fucking SPARTANS--tried to make peace. When a government wants war more than Sparta, something is seriously wrong. Aristophanes spends most of these plays mocking those who perpetuated the war. The main focus is one fellow: Cleon. He was apparently a rat bastard of a politician who succeeded in being present at one major military success, though he only ordered another Athenian commander to actually get the job done. He then milked that one success for all it was worth. I find it fascinating that taking credit for ordering someone else to do something was considered grounds for ridicule on the public stage. These days, we accept political leaders taking credit for the success of our generals without even thinking about the logic of it. We just take "Mission Accomplished" and "I got Osama bin Laden" at face value. He also takes time to poke fun at the arms dealers. He aptly points out that though the arms dealers are doing brisk business, the war was making it impossible to acquire luxury goods and even many staple goods from the rest of Greece. When Aristophanes was a child, Athens was a city of relative opulence and luxury. As the war dragged on, even the middle class had problems getting enough food. You could allegedly tell a servant from his master because the servant was better dressed. The implication is that there wasn't actually enough to go around but servants had strict customary rights for compensation that were established in a time of opulence. The custom did not change with the economy.

For all that depressing talk, the anti-war plays are quite funny. In Acharnians, a merchant negotiates his own separate peace with Sparta and is able to do business with all of Greece openly in his front yard as his property effectively became its own sovereign state. His business booms and the arms dealers are enraged. The point being that Athens' economy would be booming since it was a natural center of trade and only the war was hindering things. Knights is about an equestrian order that enlists a sausage dealer to confront the aforementioned Cleon for control of Athens. The rationale was that an unqualified low-born sausage dealer would be a better leader than an unqualified low-born warmongering tanner. The sausage-dealer is called "Sausageman". He fights people using a string of sausage. I really wish I could see this staged. In Peace, some enterprising fellows decide to fly a dung beetle to Mount Olympus to rescue Peace, whom Ares (War) had buried with the consent of Zeus, consent given due to Zeus' frustration with Greece's apparent boundless stupidity. Excavating Peace is no easy task but the men are able to enlist more than enough support from average people, the point being that the common people never actually want war unless they are manipulated by politicians. Wasps is not overtly anti-war. It instead looks at the effect the corrupt warmongers had on the domestic courts. Basically, while the war raged on, the courts became a farce. The rule of law was undermined. Basic rights were no longer respected. It is all depressingly familiar. There's a funny bit involving a trial of house pets and some stolen cheese.

Aristophanes also writes a number of plays about women. In two of these feminine plays, Lysistrata and A Parliament of Women, Aristophanes implies that men had let their state deteriorate so greatly that they no longer deserved to be in charge anymore and so women should usurp power. Parliament basically has the women declare a pseudo-communist state and pokes fun at the natural results of that. In Athens' state of war-induced poverty, the ideas of redistribution of wealth and communal property gained some fans. Because obviously capitalism had failed. Their poverty was most definitely not the result of three decades of being warmongering assholes. Once again, this is depressingly familiar. As we'll see later, Plato kind of went to an extreme with this in his Republic. Women at Thesmophoria Festival is mostly Aristophanes giving voice to complaints about Euripides' portrayal of women as seducers, adulterers, general whores, and murderers. There's not much to do with the war, courts, or economy in this last one.

Aristophanes gets more philosophical than political sometimes. In Clouds, he basically parodies the Sophists and insists that they are all vile atheists who give bad reasoning the semblance of good and are otherwise ruining the youth of the day. He lumps Socrates in with these guys though Socrates was not a Sophist. Frogs was written after the deaths of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In it, Dionysus gets sick of the sad state of theater, dresses up as Hercules, and charges into hell determined to bring one of the great playwrights back. Hilarity ensues. Sophocles had only just died so he doesn't really factor much into the play. But Aeschylus and Euripides have a prolonged and amusing duel to prove which one is better. There's also a mostly silent chorus of mimes dressed as frogs in the background the whole time. Plutus is an imagining of the world without the threat of poverty. Basically, no-one has any reason to produce anything of value. Sure, if we all had our basic needs met, some of us would try to create thingsand better ourselves for their own sake. Many would not. And most of us would probably still do something but not nearly as much as we would if it weren't for the threat of poverty. In short, Aristophanes is saying that wealth makes us soft and weak while poverty spurs us on to do great things. It certainly made me take undergrad way more seriously than most of my peers.

Finally, there's Birds. In this play, Aristophanes posits what would happen if birds ruled the world. Hilarity ensues. It's largely apolitical. Basically, Aristophanes got complacent during a brief period of peace, mistakenly believing that peace was the new state of things.

All in all, Aristophanes' comedies have aged better than anything else I've read. Once you know the political figures being mocked, it is non-stop lulz. At the same time, there is biting social commentary in there that applies just as much to us today as it did to Aristophanes' audience. Like I believe I said about one of the tragedies, if you read only some of this stuff, the comedies of Aristophanes should be at the top of your list. But without all the tragedies and the Homeric stuff, you'll be missing half the fun. That was kind of Adler's point in choosing these books. They are all in a long running conversation with one another.