Welcome to Balladeer’s Blog’s seventh post on ancient Greek comedies. If Pytine was an episode of Friends it would be titled The One Where Cratinus Fires Back At Aristophanes. This play is also known under English language titles like Wine Flask, Flagon, The Bottle, and others along those lines.
Cratinus, seen at left posing for the Attic Old Disco soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever (Travolta stole all his moves from Cratinus, by the way) and galvanized by the tongue-in- cheek caricature that Aristophanes presented of a drunken, washed- up Cratinus in his previous year’s comedy The Knights, turned that caricature into the premise of his final comedy.
From the fragments of Pytine that remain it seems Cratinus had an actor portraying himself (Cratinus) as the booze-soaked Grand Old Man of Attic comedy at the time. I always picture the character as a cross between Dudley Moore in Arthur and Tom Conti in Reuben, Reuben. Anyway, in the play Cratinus is married either to Thalia, the Muse of Comedy or to simply a female personification of Comedy.
Comedy complains to Cratinus’ friends, who make up the chorus, that she wants to take her husband to court for abandonment. She states that he is neglecting their marital bed because he has been spending too much time sleeping around with Methe, in this comedy a personification of Drunkenness. Academic opinion varies on whether or not Methe is supposed to be a hot young woman or a hot young man, and since this is an ancient Greek comedy it definitely could go either way. Not enough of the comedy survives to make it clear so Methe’s gender will remain a controversy.
Cratinus’ friends plot to save their buddy’s marriage by stopping him from drinking. They enact their “intervention” by smashing every last one of his containers of wine, and some of the comedy came from how many different types of vessels Cratinus had been hiding his booze in.
Cratinus counters the destruction of all his drinking vessels by purchasing a pytine, a very durable wine flask reinforced with wicker. The pytine is so strong it will withstand all the friends’ attempts to destroy it, thus foiling their plan to save Cratinus’ marriage to Comedy or the muse Thalia. Cratinus defends his drinking by saying wine is the source of all his poetic inspiration (the comedies were all in verse). This line of reasoning sets up the most famous line from Pytine when Cratinus says “You’ll never write great poetry if all you drink is water.”
The ending of this comedy has not survived, and academic arguments rage on over whether or not Cratinus stopped drinking or if he convinced his wife and friends to indulge his drunken behavior in the cause of great comic poetry.
Pytine is always cited as probably THE most “meta” of all the Attic Old Comedies. Not only is the premise itself a direct response to some comical potshots Aristophanes took at Cratinus the year before in The Knights, but the surviving fragments reveal multiple “in” jokes about the process of writing and staging ancient comedies as well as potshots at other comic poets of the time. The crowning touch of breaking the fourth wall lies in the fact that the play had an actor portraying the author of the play with the audience in on the joke that he knows he’s just an actor playing that author in a comedy.
In this comedy Cratinus presented the world with a comic archetype that has lasted up until this very day: the loveable drunk whose charm and talent spring at least partly from their booze-soaked persona. I already mentioned Arthur and Reuben, Reuben above, but we can certainly add Peter O’Toole’s Allan Swann from My Favorite Year, Jack Lemmon’s drunken priest in Mass Appeal, Patsy and Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, and countless others.
“YOU’LL NEVER WRITE GREAT POETRY IF ALL YOU DRINK IS WATER”
It’s fascinating to me how far back Pytine lets us trace the romantic stereotype of the creative genius with a substance abuse problem. Part of my fondness for Pytine lies in this other way it has continued relevance: in the link, real or imagined, between alcohol and writing. There’s even a terrific non-fiction book from recent years titled The Thirsty Muse about alcohol and American writers. In the time of Cratinus, the belief that intoxication was the state of mind from which creativity flowed was very strongly held.
Remember, the reason the tragedies, comedies and other forms of poetry were performed at festivals dedicated to Dionysus was specifically because of his role as the god of wine, from which it was believed creative talent sprang. That belief went beyond the writers of the plays and applied also to the belief that wine was the source of the talents of the thespians, the singers and dancers of the chorus and the musicians as well.
All over the world and in every time period cultures have noted a supposed link between various intoxicating substances and the creative arts. The Hindu drink Soma, the Aztec pulque, from various parts of Africa palm wine, the list is endless. When other forms of drugs are added in it becomes nearly impossible to count. And always there was the belief that the altered states of consciousness brought on by those substances opened doorways to the beyond, from where artists of all disciplines could snatch their inspiration. Since this belief persists we can once again feel a sense of our shared humanity with the Athenian audiences of 2,400 years ago.
The idea is so pervasive that it seems in the career of nearly every creative figure you could name there is the inevitable period in which they succumb to problems handling whatever substance they abuse. Every celebrity to pass through the doors of the Betty Ford Clinic is a faint but more serious echo of the self- portrait Cratinus presented in Pytine. As for other aspects of the comedy …
By presenting himself as Comedy’s husband, Cratinus was tongue-in-cheekly depicting himself to be the greatest comic poet of his day. Since Comedy was his wife, she clearly preferred him to all his rival comedians.
In this comedy, Cratinus was presented defending his behavior to his friends by telling them that at least he only slept around with one partner, Drunkenness (Methe), while his wife Comedy (or the muse Thalia) had dalliances with all his competing comic poets. The catalogue of Comedy’s lovers provided an excuse for jokes insulting each of the comedians mentioned. (Think Dean Martin or Comedy Central Celebrity Roast type of jokes)
Little could Cratinus have dreamt that the joking insult he threw at Aristophanes in this section of the play would become so firmly attached to his rival comedian that it lives on in academic language to this very day. Riffing on Aristophanes’ propensity for including scenes parodying the tragedies of Euripides in his comedies, he implied that the younger comic might be featuring so much Euripidean material to make up for a lack of originality and to pad his plays out to the proper length. The term he used to sum up this approach he accused Aristophanes of using was “Euripidaristophanizing.”
The word Euripidaristophanizing is still used as a shorthand description for all the scenes from the Aristophanic corpus that feature parodies of Euripidean tragedy. There are academic articles and at least one book that uses Euripidaristophanizing as their title. 2,435 years later, Cratinus’ insult lives on.
It had been at least two years since one of Cratinus’ comedies had won first prize, which contributed to the ribbing Aristophanes and others gave him about being past his prime and having drunk his talent away.
Not only was Pytine Cratinus’ last comedy, but it took First Prize at the Dionysia of 423 BCE. In second place was Ameipsias with his comedy Connus, about the Sophist philosophers and in third place was Aristophanes with The Clouds, which was likewise about the Sophists, with Socrates as the main character.
Disgruntled over his comedy’s third place finish Aristophanes would later revise The Clouds and it is only the second version that has come down to us.
FOR MORE OF MY EXAMINATIONS OF ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: http://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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