Knights at Epidaurus

A genre of ancient Greek literature that I have most struggled to appreciate is Old Comedy, via Aristophanes. The sheer abundance of scatalogical humor can be a bit much, but I don’t think that is the biggest challenge to appreciating his plays. It’s that Aristophanes’ texts are so saturated with wordplay that can’t be translated and topical references that can make the texts feel obscure for readers who don’t understand the challenges and controversies of 5th century Athens.

Stephen Halliwell is the translator and scholar I most credit for illuminating my understanding as a reader of Aristophanes in English translation. As always, I welcome recommended readings and translations in the comments.

This past weekend, the National Theater of Greece staged at Epidaurus a modern Greek adaptation of Aristophanes’ Ιππείς, usually translated as “Knights,” though Alan Sommerstein suggests “Cavalrymen” would be more fitting. Ιππείς’ chorus is 24 Athenian cavalrymen. At the time of the play’s original staging, there were 1,000 Athenian cavalrymen, typically wealthy, aristocratic young men who were responsible for providing their own horses. The comedy has been described as a relentlessly biting satire of Cleon, a favorite target of Aristophanes apparently, but the play seems also to spoof Athenian society more broadly.

As we entered the theater, the young men of the chorus were exercising, dancing, and chanting on the stage, as pictured.

Director & Choreographer Konstantinos Rigos calls the play an “enigma,” which feels quite fitting indeed, for the play and as a stance toward human experiences and the human condition. The comedy won first prize at the Lenaia festival of 424 BC, during the Athens-Sparta war, and a few months later, Cleon was re-elected as military leader.

I’ve been ruminating these words from the program by Irene M. Moundraki, Head of Drama, Library, Archive, and international Relations, Departments of the National Theater of Greece:

“We can still see leaders competing to see who can be the most accomplished liar, cheat, and scoundrel in their efforts to achieve power or maintain it.” Aristophanes “always holds up the same mirror to bring us face to face with the truth across time and space. Even if the image we see in this mirror is our most repugnant self.”

And I love Rigos’ poignant question at the end of his Director’s note: “And in the end, on a moonlit evening, can we resolve our differences by singing melodiously?”

Have you read Aristophanes?

4 thoughts on “Knights at Epidaurus

  1. As I said to you when I found out about this, I am SO GLAD you were able to see this play! It seems like it was such an amazing experience, and thank you for sharing the gorgeous photo – it totally transports me.

    I love the fact that this play is so old and so specific to a time and place, yet it’s still being performed. That’s incredibly moving.

    I also love that Cleon was re-elected in spite of it – it shows this freedom to think; the play did not crush Cleon and Cleon (I assume) did not crush free speech and artistic expression. In a perfect world, leaders are perfect, too, but a close second, to me, is a world where we can coexist despite our differences of opinion. I love Rigos’ question and want to believe the answer is “Yes”! Although our reality seems to suggest otherwise. But maybe someday….

    As for your question, I’ve never read Aristophanes, but you make me want to read him more than ever.

    1. It is great to hear that you now want to read Aristophanes 🧡 I too found it very moving that the play could be so specific and so transcendent at the same time. I don’t think Cleon was very happy about Aristophanes’ relentless mockery, but yes, the idea that Aristophanes was at liberty to portray Cleon so negatively is itself fascinating. When you pair it with both the play winning first prize and Cleon being reelected, it’s even more so. I’m constantly being blown away by how the ancients could hold complexities and contradictions. Like in this case, feeling that Cleon is what Aristophanes says he is, but maybe he’s still the best man for the job at hand…

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