FOR BACKGROUND INFORMATION IF YOU MISSED MY FIRST POST ON ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2011/09/22/at-long-last-my-ancient-greek-comedy-posts-begin/
As promised this time around I’ll depart from the works of Aristophanes to examine the fragmentary remains of a work by another genius of Ancient Greek Comedy, in this case Eupolis. Eupolis was part of the Big Three of Ancient Greek Comedy (henceforth AGC) along with Aristophanes and Cratinus. Some people confuse Eupolis with the later Greek comedian Eubulus but manage to lead fairly normal lives just the same. (rimshot)
Demoi is considered to be Eupolis’ greatest political satire. The premise is simplicity itself. An Athenian named Pyronides, like many of his fellow citizens, is disgusted with the pettiness, corruption and incompetence of the current crop of political and military leaders in the great city-state. Thus motivated, Pyronides retrieves four of the greatest figures of Athens’ storied past from the Netherworld and brings them back with him so they may set things right.
In my introductory post about AGC (see above) I illustrated the similar problems faced by the Athenians’ ancient experiment in popular rule and our own often teetering enterprise. Corruption, partisanship and a tendency to subordinate the general good in the name of personal gain were as rampant then as now.
As all societies are prone to do, the Athenians romanticised the leaders of the past, believing them to be of a heroic stature lacking in the current crop of Athenian politicians and generals. Pyronides sets out to restore the cultural and political capital of the Hellenic world to its glory days by descending into Hades’ realm and returning with Pericles, Miltiades, Aristeides and Solon the Lawgiver (just in case you thought I meant Solon the Bus Driver ).
We do not know how Pyronides obtained permission from Hades to bring the four men back to the world of the living because that portion of the play has not survived.
The four returnees are greeted jubilantly by the Athenians and various topical jokes are exchanged as the citizens anticipate seeing the great men deal with their inadequate successors in the political and military spheres. There is a nostalgic joke about the odd, conical shape of Pericles’ head, a running gag when the statesman was alive.
Another joke centers around Pericles asking about his illegitimate son by his mistress Aspasia. That question is followed by each of the returning figures (Night of the Living Statesmen) comparing Athens as it is and the way it was in the supposedly golden past, providing plenty of opportunities for jokes about changing fashions and social attitudes as well as the failings and scandals of the present leaders.
Members of the chorus, representing the 139 demoi (communities) of the Athenian democracy, each come forward with specific sarcastic complaints about how they are suffering under the current leadership and our four returnees disperse to set things right in each of their areas of expertise.
Miltiades the great general sets straight a current Athenian general, but arguments rage over which general is meant by the fragmentary evidence. Aristeides the Just drives away a member of the Athenian “accuser” class – political hacks who would bring trumped- up charges against the political enemies of their patrons, costing those enemies legal fees and possibly the confiscation of their property (of which these professional accusers would receive a percentage).
Solon takes down either a corrupt judge or a Sophist skilled in distorting the laws to foil the pursuit of justice (interpretations of the scene vary). See my synopsis of The Clouds for an explanation of the link between Sophists and the law. The scene with Pericles dealing with his designated villain is the most fragmentary and translators argue over which corrupt political leader he reprimands. Some say Hyperbolos, others, more scandalously inclined, say he chews out his own political protege and male lover Alcibiades.
The four great men are applauded for their accomplishments in “cleaning up” Athens but the final fragments do not survive, so we do not know if they immediately returned to the Netherworld or stayed to make sure Athens never again fell into such a low state.
** Eupolis was younger than Aristophanes and both were junior to Cratinus but there was a period of a few years when all three competed on the Athenian stage at the same time. Eupolis saw his first comedy (The Prospaltians) performed when he was 17, two years younger than Aristophanes when his first comedy was performed.
** Though Aristophanes was generally considered the greatest Athenian comic poet (the comedies were all in verse and included songs) various ancient commentaries try to make a case for Eupolis and present Demoi as a work equal to, or exceeding, the greatest works of the Big A.
** The inclusion of Pericles as one of the returning statesmen was a controversial choice for its day. This is ironic by our standards because today if you put a gun to a stranger’s head and told them to name one ancient Greek statesman (I’ve tried this but people these days just have no sense of humor) I’d bet Pericles would be the only one they could come up with.
But back when Demoi was first performed Pericles was still regarded with some bitterness for embroiling the Athenian Alliance in the Peloponnesian War and for his disastrous strategy in fighting that war. Eupolis must have had some trepidation about how the figure would be received in his comedy and according to one ancient commentary, when the actor playing Pericles first made his entrance “there was a pregnant pause, followed by general acclaim”.
** Based on some of the fragments, a few scholars argue that Phrynis, a leading figure in the New Music scene in Athens at the time, is also depicted being driven off by Solon.
** Pericles the Younger, the great man’s son by Aspasia, was one of the current crop of Athenian politicians being savaged in this satire.
** There is much academic debate over how some of the fragments may imply other figures were returned from the dead, such as Harmodios the Tyrant Slayer or Peisistratos, who overthrew the Athenian monarchy. Keeping with the theme of America’s founding fathers being considered “inheritors” of ancient Greek Democracy, “The American Harmodios” was one of the early but forgotten nicknames applied to George Washington after our successful revolution.
** One of the “unworthy” current Athenian politicians is jokingly described as “changing his colors like an octopus” the way we would say someone “changes his colors like a chameleon” to describe a political figure who gutlessly blows along with the latest trend, rather than maintaining a principled stance.
** It’s fun to picture how left-wing zealots or right-wing zealots would deal with an adaptation of Demoi. Left-wingers would no doubt include John F Kennedy as one of the returnees and right- wingers would no doubt include Ronald Reagan as one. The left would probably resurrect Franklin Roosevelt given the New Deal’s impact on our nation and the right would likely view Eisenhower as a soldier/ statesman in the mold of Miltiades. But who else? Would they stick to recent decades and return Martin Luther King, Jr (for left-wingers) or William F Buckley, Jr (for right wingers)? And what about Sammy Davis, Jr? And Junior Samples for that matter? (I’m kidding)
Or would they reach back much further to try to find “common ground” by returning the four on Mt Rushmore – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt? More likely it would devolve into a bitter argument over which figures best represent America’s past. That’s how I would adapt it for the stage, by the way.
Since some translators insist that Pyronides had a sidekick I’d picture a Democratic Donkey and a Republican Elephant traveling to the Netherworld, but being incapable of deciding on who to bring back. Amid increasingly bitter exchanges they’d each bring back four of their own choosing and instead of picturing them succeeding in driving off current villains I’d depict each group of four clashing with the other over their competing visions of what’s best for the nation.
** Once again it’s easy to feel the bond of our common humanity with the ancient Athenians through a comedy. In this play’s case modern readers can certainly relate to the way that controversial leaders dead and gone have a mystique that makes their devotees believe the country “needs someone like that nowadays”. In my own view, however, that type of thinking is pointless at best and dangerous at worst.
The human tendency toward embellishment always distorts the historical memory of long- dead figures and I believe political leaders are the least deserving figures of such posthumous regard. They cease to be flawed human beings in the cultural memory and become symbols exploited by left-wing zealots and right- wing zealots for their own shrill partisan purposes.
The only thing more dangerous is to regard living political leaders with such worshipful devotion. During the Reagan years he had a following of mindless worshippers but I never let that affect my contempt for him and I don’t let the way the equally repulsive and clueless Obama has a following of mindless worshippers affect my contempt for him.
FOR MY EXAMINATION OF LYSISTRATA, THE CLOUDS AND OTHER ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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