Sunday, November 30, 2008


Edith Hall and Amanda Wrigley, eds, Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC-AD 2007: Peace, Birds, and Frogs. London: Legenda, 2007. Pp. xx, 390. ISBN 9781904350613. $69.00.
Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy and Bryn Mawr College (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is full of wonders: an eighteenth-century musical comedy based on Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris (p. 72), a best-selling nineteenth-century translation of Plutus into Gujarati (pp. 116-134), and the news that with just a little tweaking, the frogs' chorus from Ranae can be sung to the tune of Cavanaugh and Barris' 1928 hit, "Mississippi Mud" (pp. 295-296). The conference at Oxford in 2004 that led to this publication of papers must have been great fun. The book retains much of the flavor of that original venue. Most of the papers are short, illustrations pepper the text, and the book is organized into sessions--sorry, sections: "Precedents," treating the reception of Aristophanes in the second and third centuries A.D. and in England before 1914; "Excursus: Publication as Performance," which examines influential translations made in England under the Commonwealth, in revolutionary France, and in India during the Raj; "Revival to Repertoire," which looks at academic and professional performances; and finally "Close Encounters," an exploration of individual productions and their impact.

As Edith Hall says in her "Introduction: Aristophanic Laughter Across the Centuries," these papers "represent the first attempt . . . to document phases in the relationship between performance history and a selection of Aristophanic dramas, from antiquity until the third millennium" (p. 4). She later observes (p. 66) that for crucial periods of this history, so little is known that "excavation of evidence and narrative" must constitute much of a scholar's work on the reception of classical drama. Hall's insights underscore the importance of studies of dramatic performance and the need for continued work on reception and performance. Readers encountering epic or lyric texts in solitude seldom leave any trace of their experience. Dramatic texts, in contrast, are scripts for performance, and in the modern era performances leave a record behind: eyewitness descriptions, costume sketches, playbills, photographs, musical scores, and all the archival detritus that sometimes makes it possible to talk of "remounting" or "reviving" a production. Dramatic production, also, is a collaborative endeavor. Producer, director, actors, audience, designers of set, lighting, and costumes, all join in a complex, public act of interpretation. If the script is Aristophanes or another ancient author, translators also contribute to the mix. Every production, indeed every performance, constitutes an interpretation. Every interpretation bears the marks not only of its multiple interpreters, but also of its age. Studying dramatic productions of Aristophanes or any other ancient playwright affords unique opportunities to recover the process of reception, not merely its final product. In that opportunity lies the importance of this book and of the growing field of performance study.

Because Hall has provided, as is now usual in collections of this kind, an introduction describing and commenting on each essay, I will not do so here. Instead let me comment on four papers that seem especially important or interesting to me and then touch briefly on one theme that runs through several of the contributions. If I do not mention an essay, that does not mean that it is negligible. Every one of the nineteen essays in this book will repay careful attention and suggest avenues for further research.

Ewen Bowie's "The Ups and Downs of Aristophanic Travel" opens the volume, rather surprisingly, in the Second Sophistic--not, one would think at first, the most promising period for Aristophanic reception. Bowie shows, however, that Lucian and Antonius Diogenes (an author new to me, at least) both drew on Peace, Birds, and Frogs, as well as other plays by Aristophanes, to create their new literature of fantastic journeys and social comment. The paper closes with a valuable table "intended to give a skeletal account of the distribution of quotations between different Aristophanic comedies in Dio, Plutarch, Aelius Aristides, Lucian, Maximus of Tyre, Pausanias, and Athenaeus" (p. 43). Other researchers will use this skeleton to build a fuller picture of the "productive intertextuality" (p. 38) that joins Old Comedy to the products of the Second Sophistic.

Edith Hall's second contribution, "The English-Speaking Aristophanes 1650-1914," traces the reputation of Aristophanes from the Commonwealth and Restoration through the eighteenth century and Victorian era up to the First World War. Her "excavation of evidence" (p. 66) reveals that Caroline readers and audiences encountered a different dramatist than their counterparts in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Caroline Aristophanes appeared as a character in masques and as an influence on Restoration comedy; English Augustan and Victorian Aristophanes seldom appeared on stage at all. He lent his authority to political conservatives even as he made moral crusaders nervous; as Doctor Arnold said in the preface to his abridgement of Clouds (Eclogae Aristophanicae, Part I, London: F. and J. Rivington, 1852), "By those who wish to form a moral estimate of his writings . . . the whole works must undoubtedly be studied; but surely it is undoubtedly true, that no youthful mind (to say no more) ought to be filled with impure thoughts, expressed in the very mode of all others that is likely to make them haunt the memory in after years." Hall's survey suggests that an interpreter's political stance and circumstances may guide his willingness to see Aristophanes performed, and that in the modern era, conservative Aristophanes is likely to be found in the study, while his liberal counterpart takes the stage.

Historians of drama often neglect academic productions--those put on in schools, colleges, and universities for edification as much as entertainment-- in favor of their more glamorous sisters of the professional stage. In "Aristophanes Revitalized! Music and Spectacle on the Academic Stage," Amanda Wrigley gives these dowdy academics a makeover and reveals that, as in the movies, unsuspected charms can be revealed when the librarian takes off her glasses. Wrigley examines the performance context of the 1892 Frogs at Oxford and finds connections with Oscar Wilde and "Aesthetic Hellenism." She discusses the music and libretto, which (like that of the 1886 Philadelphia Acharnians) had a facing translation based on that by John Hookham Frere, and suggests that the traffic of influence between academic and professional productions ran both ways: English traditions of comedy and burlesque influenced the music and stage business of academic productions in Greek, and academic productions in turn pointed the way to political interpretations of Aristophanes on the commercial stage in the twentieth century.

Sean O'Brien begins "A Version of The Birds in Two Productions" by setting forth his qualifications to write about Aristophanes: he has no Greek, although he did "A" level Latin in school, and he claims no particular expertise in Greek comedy, or indeed in comedy of any sort. He is, however, a poet who knows how verse drama works, and in 2002 London's Royal National Theatre invited him to produce the script for their staging of The Birds. With the aid of a literal translation made by David Gribble and Claudia Wagner, and perhaps the ghost of that long-ago Latin reminding him of the distance between a literal translation and the feel of the original, he did so. Nine-tenths of O'Brien's intelligent essay explores his experience as one member of the team behind the National's full-bore, Cirque du Soleil-inspired production, which ran a little over three hours in its opening performance. It was not, apparently, an entirely happy collaboration. O'Brien knew what he had found in Aristophanes and what he hoped to see when his version got up on its legs and talked; in the end, though, he discovered that the script-writer is never the star of a theater's team. For a writer, as he says, working as part of a production team "may mean an enlightening interaction with artists from other areas of expertise; or it may mean that people monkey around with the text; or it may mean both." O'Brien is charitable enough to claim that the last of these was his experience (p. 283). It is clear that he prefers the production to which he gives the two closing pages of his essay, put on by threeoverden, a small company of five actors and a musician based in the north of England. Their production was physical, with lots of dance and movement, but according to O'Brien the words drove the action, as they should in Aristophanes, and performance took less than two hours.

Most people who know anything at all about Aristophanes know two things: he is obscene, and he is political. Most translators and producers struggle to cope with these aspects of Old Comedy. Politics in particular forms a leitmotif running through many of the essays in this collection. Two papers, Gonda van Steen's "From Scandal to Success Story: Aristophanes' Birds as Staged by Karolos Koun" and Angeliki Varakis' "The Use of Masks in Koun's Stage Interpretations of Birds, Frogs, and Peace," deal with Karolos Koun's ground-breaking, occasionally banned 1959 production of Birds, and that production figures in several other contributions to the volume. Van Steen and Varakis both explore how aesthetic decisions about producing Aristophanes cannot avoid being political decisions as well--simple staging or "the opulence of bourgeois theatre," naturalistic or stylized masks, and in Greece especially the tug of Roumeli against Hellas, folklore and fakelore against classicism and neoclassicism. In "'Aristophanes is Back!' Peter Hacks's Adaptation of Peace," Bernd Seidensticker reminds us that classical theater behind the Berlin Wall displayed "astounding breadth, variety, and quality" because the reception of antiquity provided one of the few possibilities for evading the constraints of socialist realism and official art. Unlike Koun's controversial but clear political statements, whatever political content East German Aristophanes had was veiled, muted, and ambiguous. Martina Treu's "Poetry and Politics, Advice and Abuse: The Aristophanic Chorus on the Italian Stage" and Francesca Schironi's "A Poet without 'Gravity': Aristophanes on the Italian Stage" might almost be talking about different poets in different countries. In Treu's Italy, Aristophanes was rarely performed in the twentieth century (p. 256); in Schironi's, he "enjoyed a certain public profile," with at least 74 official productions since 1911 (p. 267). Treu's Aristophanes uses the chorus to provide an "alternative version" (p.258) of Athenian reality that grounds the plays in political life, and Marco Martinelli's politically engaged All'inferno! provides the best illustration of contemporary Aristophanic reception in Italy (pp. 262-265). Schironi's Aristophanes is "mainly reduced to the level of farce" (p. 272) and avoids Italian politics whenever possible.

From eighteenth-century France to twenty-first-century America, it seems to have been hard to make Aristophanes speak to contemporary political issues. The political content of productions seems often to have been problematic, ambiguous, or simply a distraction imposed on an otherwise coherent production, and the subtitle of one essay, "From Political Statement to Artistic Failure," makes explicit what can be read between the lines of many others. The exact quality of Aristophanes' ritual obscenity may well be beyond recovery, and whatever meaning a giant phallus had in fifth century Athens, it almost has to mean something else now. As this valuable collection of essays inadvertently demonstrates, the same may be true of Aristophanes' satire and its oversized political figures.


Edith Hall, "Introduction: Aristophanic Laughter across the Centuries"
Ewen Bowie, "The Ups and Downs of Aristophanic Travel"
Matthew Steggle, "Aristophanes in Early Modern England"
Edith Hall, "The English-Speaking Aristophanes, 1650-1914"
Rosie Wyles, "Publication as Intervention: Aristophanes in 1659"
Charalampos Orfanos, "Revolutionary Aristophanes?"
Phiroze Vasunia, "Aristophanes' Wealth and Dalpatram's Lakshmi"
Amanda Wrigley, "Aristophanes Revitalized! Music and Spectacle on the Academic Stage"
Gonda van Steen, "From Scandal to Success Story: Aristophanes' Birds as Staged by Karolos Koun"
Angeliki Varakis' "The Use of Masks in Koun's Stage Interpretations of Birds, Frogs, and Peace"
Bernd Seidensticker, "'Aristophanes is Back!' Peter Hacks's Adaptation of Peace"
Mary-Kay Gamel, "Sondheim Floats Frogs"
Betine van Zyl Smit, "Freeing Aristophanes in South Africa: From High Culture to Contemporary Satire"
Malika Bastin-Hammou, "Aristophanes' Peace on the Twentieth-Century French Stage: From Political Statement to Artistic Failure"
Martina Treu, "Poetry and Politics, Advice and Abuse: The Aristophanic Chorus on the Italian Stage"
Francesca Schironi, "A Poet without 'Gravity': Aristophanes on the Italian Stage"
Sean O'Brien, "A Version of The Birds in Two Productions"
Michael Silk, "Translating/Transposing Aristophanes"
Vasiliki Giannopoulou, "Aristophanes in Translation before 1920"

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