Aristophanes’ Comic Technique In : Essay, Research Paper
Aristophanes’ play “Qesmoforiazogsai” (”The Poet and the Women”) is an excellent comedy. Standing the test of time and the often diminishing process of translation into English it remains amusing today just as it doubtlessly was to its original Athenian audience. It is a well-controlled comedy with a fluent plot, striking dialogue and intelligent characterisation. But above all it passes the fundamental test of its genre in that it is funny. Aristophanes employs a rich and diverse array of comic techniques and devices to prevent the play from ever going stale; some are satirical; some are obscene; some are visual, for it is important to remember that “The Poet and the Women” is a play and hence meant for performance to a live audience. “The Poet and the Women”, to use a modern term, is essentially a situation comedy. Much of the humour comes from the incredible and bizarre situations into which the protagonists are delivered. Creating an amusing situation, out of which comes the other humour, provides the backbone for the comedy. It is essential that the most amusing events occur to the most humorous character and the Old Man’s (1) response and reaction to the predicament in which he finds himself is the mainstay of the comedy. The comedy of Aristophanes is on several levels. Of the higher, more intellectual techniques that he employs is the parody of Euripides. The playwright attempts to imagine how the great contrived devices of Euripides’ tragic heroes would work in another context. Of course the situations Aristophanes creates for his ‘heroes’ are equally contrived but for comic effect. The particular scenes which Aristophanes parodies add to the humour content. That Helen, the most beautiful mortal of the ancient world, should be mimicked by the Old Man, loosely disguised as an old woman, is ridiculous and therefore funny. That Euripides is not recognised when he appears as Meneleus by the very people who have been conspiring against him adds further to the amusement. The hopelessness of their futile attempts to use this dramatic device to free the Old Man is revealed in the dialogue. It is clear from the outset that they are not fooling anyone. THIRD WOMAN: You mustn’t believe a word he says: I tell you he’s talking nonsense. This is the Thesmophorion- you are in Athens EURIPIDES: Is Proteus now at home or is he out ? THIRD WOMAN : You must be suffering from seasickness. I keep telling you, Proteus is dead. (page131) (2) Of course it is just as funny when they do fool someone, the Scythian, with the parody of the Echo scene in the now lost Euripides play Andromeda. Again the Old Man is cast as a maiden, totally incongruous with his own character or the presented himself as at the assembly. Still the plan ends in failure because the Scythian uses brute force as his defence against Euripides’ trickeries. The parodies of Euripides plays are essentially the raison d’etre of the play. We should remember that they would be more funny to the original Athenian audience than to the modern day reader since the comedy was only performed after the trilogy of tragedies so the audience would be immediately familiar with the situations upon which the burlesques are based. Two of the plays Aristophanes parodies, Andromeda and Helen, were only produced at the Dionysia the previous year, 412 BC, so the storylines would be relatively fresh in the audience’s minds. The first parody of a play,”Telephus” , in The Poet and the Women is one of the funniest scenes in the play when the Old Man snatches the ‘baby’ which turns out to be a skin of wine. This is funny because although it is the Old Man who creates the parody by seizing the bundle it is the women who maintain the ridiculousness by claiming that it is a baby. Even when the sack is stabbed they continue the pretence: FIRST WOMAN: My child, my child! Quick Manya , the bowl- at least I’ll catch my baby’s blood. (page125) The parodies are without doubt one of the most effective comic techniques used in the play by Aristophanes. But there are others also which contribute to the overall comic effect of the play. Another aspect which relates closely to the situation comedy theme is the notion of humour being derived from another person’s misfortune. The scenes in which the Old Man and Euripides appear are equivalent to ones which were tragic for characters in other plays. But by making the situation ridiculous, placing a comic character in the predicament and by writing into the plot some idea that the characters have brought this misfortune upon themselves creates a funny situation.(”Well this is a fine mess I’ve got myself into”. : Old Man page122). For the Old Man the catalogue of misfortune gets worse, starting with a singeing, being caught out and tied up and guarded over by a Scythian thug. Given that comedy relies upon the bizarre and the unusual, the reversal of traditional roles gives wide scope for comic effects. The most obvious example of this is the Old Man who dresses up as a woman in order to disguise himself at the Thesmophoria. However there are other examples such as Agathon who cross dresses in order to “merge his whole personality into what he is describing”. (page105) The effeminate Cleisthenes is also a comic character because he is accepted into the women’s assembly where men are strictly forbidden and has, therefore, in a sense, taken on the role of an honorary woman. Further to this is the stance of the women themselves adopting a position of superiority which belies their real status in Athenian society. Aristophanes mocks them for thinking they can organise an assembly as efficient as the men. As the audience would have consisted mostly of men this would no doubt have been a popular subject matter for a comedy. There are also role reversals in the opening scenes as the Old Man and Euripides meet Agathon’s servant. The servant refers to the Old Man as an “ill bred provincial” and says that he must have been “a very rude little boy”.(page102) There is irony in the fact that one in servitude should comment on the breeding of a citizen and it is probably for comic effect that the servant addresses Euripides’ companion in such a derogatory way. The role reversals are therefore one of the comic techniques which Aristophanes uses most effectively in the play. The use of traditional stereotypes is a common comic technique in order to help the audience to relate to the comedy and Aristophanes also uses it to great effect. Euripides, the famous playwright, is portrayed as aloof, superior and intellectual: EURIPIDES: You can’t talk about hearing things that you are going to see………. …….Oh, I can teach you any number of things like that. (page100) The Old Man is the archetypal ‘dirty old man’: vulgar, impolite and always with something to say: SERVANT: …….he casteth it – OLD MAN: And stuffeth it up his fanny. (page102) The Scythian Guard is also a stereotype. The Scythians, who came from the region North of the Black Sea, were traditionally known for being wild, uncultured and tough. In the Penguin Classics English translation by David Barrett the Scythian is portrayed as Italianesque, speaking broken English. Barrett does not explain why he uses this characterisation and I am not convinced that it conveys the stereotype as well as the original may have done. But clearly the most significant stereotype is that of the women. Aristophanes portrays women as tricksters, adulterers and drunkards. The Old Man is used as the vehicle to attack them for this in his address to the assembly : “Why pick on Euripides” he asks, “he’s done nothing worse than we have”. (page116) Women’s love of drink is referred a number of times, once with the ‘baby’ snatching parody and again when the Old Man is quizzed about assembly procedure: FIRST WOMAN: Now tell me: what holy ceremony came first? OLD MAN: Why, we drank. FIRST WOMAN: Right and what did we do after that? OLD MAN: We drank some more. FIRST WOMAN: Someone’s been telling you! (page120) Aristophanes portrayal of women, to an audience of mostly Athenian men would no doubt be highly amusing. The chorus speaks up in defence of the women and claims that they are better than men in that all the criminals and such are men, and makes the point that men still crave after women, and still marry in spite of the faults which they are claimed to have. However even this is probably meant to be ironic or comic in some way, and even if it is not it would probably be viewed that way nonetheless by the contemporary audience. Apart from merely the plot and the characters there was a great deal of scope for comic technique in visual effects. Although stage directions would not have appeared in the original manuscript and would have been left for the team of performers to devise, there is a great deal written into the text which would have prompted comic stage directions. I have already discussed the cross dressing but this would not have had the maximum visual comic effect as it might have today since there were no women actors and so even the female parts were played by men. However the use of obscene devices such as the phallus was common in Greek comedy and would almost certainly been used for the singeing scene and the “shuttle across the Ithsmus” (page121) scene. This is a very low, grotesque form of comedy which has always been effective in this genre. Further scope for visual humour comes in the scene which parodies Andromeda; Euripides is portraying Perseus who has winged sandals. Hence there is a need for him to fly. Here the actors would use a crane like device to swing them onto the stage. Given that this is a parody and a comic scene, the speed could be adjusted, as Barrett’s stage directions suggest for maximum comic effect. Hence we can see that although Aristophanes did not devise the stage directions himself, he did always bear in mind the visual effect of the play and wrote into the text considerable provision for visual comedy. There is very little topical or political satire in the play due to the constraints of the subject matter although there is a small amount in the Chorus’ defence of the female gender: “Have you heard of a woman who’d steal from the State to the tune of a million or so, / And drive it away in a whacking great dray, like one politician I know?” (page128).There is also use of considerable innuendo such as when the servant says to the Old Man “You must have been a very rude little boy- when you were a little boy” (page102).There are satirical references to mythical characters such as when Agathon talks about his total commitment to character writing and the Old Man replies “what an exhausting time you must have when you are writing about Phaedra” (page105). There are also, of course, the low, obscene dialogues, mostly from the Old Man: OLD MAN: Oh, what a lover! -up against the bay tree, with my other arm around the statue of Apollo…….. [of the baby] ……the image of his Dad, even down to his precious little wiggle waggle- the very same kink about half way along. (page116) These are some of the less extreme examples which show that Aristophanes is not for the easily offended. All of the aspects mentioned above are used intermittently adding to the parody, the caricatures, the fantasy, the role reversals and the situation comedy to provide the play with a diverse range of comic techniques. Right at the end of the play comes the comic twist as Euripides is forced to use simple capitulation when all his plans have failed. Surprisingly the women then help him by throwing the Scythian off their trail. This amusing twist ends the play as it started, with a joke. Humour is a subjective concept and it is difficult to say which aspects of Aristophanes’ comic technique are most effective in this play beyond saying that, owing to the wide diversity of humour, there is something for everybody to laugh at. In conclusion, however, whilst we can admire Aristophanes for his literary ability, for the characters he has created, for the comic situations he has portrayed, and for the acerbic parodies he has effected, the aspects of comedy which usually get the biggest laughs, and which in The Poet and the Women have best stood the test of time, are the lowest aspects, the grotesque, the obscene and the slapstick. These are the aspects which leave the strongest impression having read the play, and I imagine, with all the visual effects which I have mentioned, the impression would be equally strong after watching a performance of the play. That the main character, the Old Man, who is constantly in the action, is so dependant on these forms of comedy, underlines their importance as a comic technique. END NOTES 1. Due to some academic dispute as to whether Euripides’ elderly relative should be called “Mnesilochus” I have referred to this character as “Old Man” throughout. 2. All page references are from the following translation of “The Poet and the Women”. Aristophanes; THE WASPS; THE POET AND THE WOMEN; THE FROGS; translated by David Barrett; (Penguin Classics 1964).