After months of feeling outrightly overwhelmed by how much information I want to share on this subject, I figured I’d better just get started and let the posts flow naturally. I could be organizing my thoughts on this topic from now until December 21st of next year (rimshot) and still not have an overall idea of the most efficient way of laying it all out.
If readers of my blog think I have a ton of books covering obscure global mythology brace yourselves for the sheer dorkgasmic level of material I have on Ancient Greek Comedy. (Henceforth AGC) I’ve been into this topic since I was 17 years old and not only do I have multiple translations of each of Aristophanes’ surviving comedies but I also have multiple books covering those comedies of his that have survived only in fragmentary form.
And, since I immerse myself in this topic with the same semi-psychotic attention to detail that I bring to mythology I also have multiple books (in addition to copies of much-sought-after academic papers delivered at AGC seminars) that cover the fragmentary remains of THE OTHER ANCIENT GREEK COMIC PLAYWRIGHTS! Yes, you read that right, and my fellow AGC geeks know how hard that info is to come by, so even hard-core fans of Aristophanic comedy will be treated to what I hope is a fresh perspective on the topic. Thank whoever for the internet, where virtually ANYTHING can be tracked down if you try hard enough.
BY DEFAULT, IT ALWAYS COMES DOWN TO ARISTOPHANES
Aristophanes is considered the greatest political satirist of ancient Athens, the cultural center of a large part of the world at the time. During the low 400’s BCE and high 300’s BCE he wrote approximately 40 comedies, of which only 11 have survived in “complete” form. His contemporaries, and there were dozens, were not so lucky. None of their works have survived in their entirety. Period. Today we have only fragments of the work of the other ancient Greek comedians, including the other 2 members of AGC’s Big 3 – the 2 joining Aristophanes in that trio being Cratinus and Eupolis. Of Susarion, credited with pioneering comedy in the 6th Century BCE, only his name has come down to us. Not even fragments of his plays survive.
The reason for the odd survival rate of Aristophanes’ works compared to the ancient Greek comedians who came before and during his period of activity is easy to explain. Aristophanes was considered by contemporary critics to be “the greatest of the comic poets” (yes, all the comedies were written in verse, just like the tragedies and Satyr Plays were) and there is a (probably apocryphal) story stating that when a foreign leader once asked Plato to try explaining the complex political scene in Athens Plato supposedly sent him copies of the complete works of Aristophanes with which to educate himself.
That opinion of Aristophanes towering over all other ancient Greek comic playwrights carried over into the other dominant cultures of the time. At the great library in Alexandria, Egypt, the works of Aristophanes were kept nearest the exits in case of fire in honor of his position of prestige. When the Muslim armies burned the great library around 1,000 CE countless works from antiquity perished in the flames (insert my 9,000th remark about how much contempt I feel for religious zealots).
Owing to their priority position, some works of Aristophanes were saved, (along with some artifacts from other departments of the enormous museum), but most of his plays and all of the plays written by other comic poets were destroyed. Fragments of those works, by Aristophanes and the others, have been uncovered in archaeological digs and via other methods over the centuries, but the world will forever lack a complete enough picture to let us decide if WE would consider Aristophanes the greatest of the ancient political satirists.
WHY CARE ABOUT ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY?
The reason I spread the word about AGC every chance I get is because of how uncannily relevant so much of it continues to be. America’s founding fathers were great students of ancient Greek democracy and they based a great deal of our own political system on the Greek model. The governmental faults and foibles that the ancient Greek satirists criticized with their plays are very familiar to any modern reader who has a working knowledge of contemporary politics.
Similarly the doubts and concerns that the ancient Athenians felt toward elements of this new concept of popular rule find their echo today whenever Party Zealots pompously pretend THEY are intelligent enough to understand the issues but OTHER voters are simpletons, easily led astray by the loudest voice. (Yes, even back then that sentiment was being expressed) The issues dealt with in AGC are issues the United States and every other emerging democracy that followed have had to deal with. Another example would be the way Athens was often accused of “imperialism” because of the power and influence it held over the other Greek city-states and other parts of the world by nature of its naval, military and cultural might. The Athenians themselves struggled with the question of where does political influence end and oppression begin. Sound familiar?
Not that it’s all dry politics. There are sex scandals of all kinds and featuring a variety of sexual orientations, and the comic poets weren’t afraid (at first) to name names as they savaged politicians of all stripes. Along with the sex went greed, of course. The Athenian Democracy had thrown off the old Monarchy and elected officials now managed the running of the city-state, including auctioning off government contracts to mine precious metals, build ships, etc, Various political figures would be accused of awarding contracts to friends in return for kickbacks. Other office- holders would be accused of outrightly plundering the public treasury for their own benefit. Once again, does this sound familiar?
Many other questions addressed by AGC will seem plucked straight out of any late night comedian’s monologue. I’ll deal with each in great detail when I begin examining the comedies themselves in my next post.
And by the way, my favorite part of AGC is that there is plenty to offend BOTH left-wing zealots and right-wing zealots. If you have a sense of humor and aren’t the kind of partisan zombie who froths at the mouth with hatred whenever you hear the name of either Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton you’ll be able to follow the comedies like a political football game, cheering when your side’s viewpoint scores a good zinger and hopefully rolling your eyes good-naturedly when the opposition gets their licks in.
More on all that next time!
FOR MY REVIEW OF THE COMEDY LYSISTRATA BY ARISTOPHANES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2011/09/30/ancient-greek-comedy-lysistrata-c-411-bce/
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.