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.
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?