Monday, July 22, 2013


Matthew Wright, The Comedian as Critic: Greek Old Comedy and Poetics. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012. Pp. x, 244. ISBN 9781780930299. $120.00.

Reviewed by Judith Fletcher, Wilfrid Laurier University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Theater audiences are strange life forms. For the duration of a performance we become unified entities whose collective responses contribute to theatrical experiences; reception is thus something more than the sum of an audience's individual minds. Both a product of and contributor to Athenian democracy, Aristophanes and his rivals had a complex relationship with their audiences, as recent scholarship acknowledges. Ian Ruffell for example writes that Old Comedy simultaneously constructs and manipulates its audience "specifically as a collective." On the other hand audiences are made up of individuals from diverse social classes with widely ranging political views, varied levels of education, different (and perhaps even mutable) genders and sexualities, and various ethnicities. Laurie O'Higgins has argued that Aristophanes was engaging in an iambic dialogue with his female audiences, an unprovable but not entirely improbable argument. David Roselli has explored the differentiation of dramatic audiences of Greek theater, arguing for a less Athenocentric view of their composition.1

In this new book Matthew Wright considers the relationship between comic poets and their audiences from a different perspective. Taking issue with influential theories that imagine fifth and fourth century Athens as a performance culture, in which every aspect of democratic society was entwined, he posits a reception that has less to do with the massive, anonymous theater audiences and more with an elite group of literati, often rivals with Aristophanes, to whom the comic poets pitched a coded intertextual form of literary criticism. The idea that Aristophanic drama was a conversation with other comic playwrights is not entirely new. Keith Sidwell has situated this exchange within a political context in which Aristophanes espoused democratic ideals in response to the oligarchic views of his rivals. Zachary Biles offers a reconstruction of an agonistic dialogue between rival comic poets that existed simultaneously as a dynamic relationship between Aristophanes and his audience.2 It is Wright's contention, however, that Aristophanes and his rivals cared less for the theater audience's reception than they did for engaging with each other and their educated readers. In other words, Wright perceives a critical subtext within the genre that is discernible to an elite audience, but at times imperceptible to hoi polloi.

The emphasis throughout this book is on readership rather than spectatorship. But, we might ask, what about the agonistic context of comedy and the competition for prizes? Wright's thesis is that, despite the occasional outburst of indignation at not winning, the comic playwrights cared very little for prizes. The support for this interpretation is to be found in postclassical literary criticism complemented by more recent studies of "prize" mentalities. Comparisons with modern attitudes towards literary prizes are illuminating, although they may not entirely justify Wright's contention that winning or losing the dramatic competition was irrelevant. Presumably it would all depend on one's own successes: judges were slack-jawed yokels if a disgruntled comic poet lost, but paragons of discernment if he won.

But how can we perceive exactly what poets thought about anything? Working on the premise that the comic poet's voice is "radically unstable" (10) and that even the parabatic "I" is one of many constructed personae in the comic polyphony, Wright contests the idea that the purpose of comedy was to give political, moral or social advice – even though Aristophanes was apparently rewarded for guiding the city by means of the parabasis of his Frogs. If the poets were striving to be the best counselors, asks Wright, why didn't comic playwrights criticize each other for giving bad advice? Instead he sees this didactic posture as ironic; the constant claims that the poets give political advice are meant to be taken as a joke.

Similarly, declarations of "novelty" (to be found, for example, in the parabases of Wasps or Clouds) cannot be taken at face value either, especially since Aristophanes himself uses the types of jokes (e.g. inserting the kordax dance) that he sneers at. Besides, what's funny about telling an audience that they should find you funny because you are novel, unless in fact you aren't? Wright devotes his third chapter to a dissection of these claims of novelty and concludes that the term is "a problematic negotiable category." The chapter ends with a list of recycled jokes from Frogs that demonstrates how, despite his ironic claim to novelty, Aristophanes in actuality expected his educated audience to recognize allusions and conventional topoi.

Whether one accepts Wright's thesis in toto or not, there are valuable aspects to this book. Among them is the discussion of the metaphorical language of criticism in Chapter 4, a perceptive analysis of the imagery used by the comic poets to represent evaluative and critical ideas about poetry. Wright's thoughtful argument sharpens our awareness of the slippery quality of comic discourse, and its pronounced literariness. Nonetheless the book is not always entirely convincing. There is certainly support for an ancient construct of the educated reader who might be able to appreciate comedy as a "complex, ludic mixture of irony, fiction, and intertextual 'running gags'" (31), but evidence is often from later sources such as Longinus for whom the performance context no longer existed.

This is not to say that Wright ignores potential problems in his project. He is well aware of the difficulties of understanding why an intertextual joke might have been funny, or of identifying a passage as a joke. As he realizes, he is swimming against the tide by de-emphasizing the performance of comedy in favor of its status as a text to be read; his final chapter is a vigorous defense of this position. Old Comedy's parodic allusions to other texts are not in themselves evidence that the plays were created exclusively for a reading audience. Nonetheless, Wright has offered an answer to the question of what kind of audience might have grasped the unmarked quotations of tragedy and comedy that abound in Old Comedy: as he sees it, a small group of close readers are targeted in these allusions.

This book will be of interest to all scholars of ancient Greek drama, but it is also accessible to a broader scholarly audience. This may be why, with the exception of short phrases, Wright does not provide the Greek text of most of the passages that he translates. There may be editorial reasons for this decision, but there are certainly moments when it would have been suitable. In a generally insightful discussion of Dicaeopolis' claim that trugoidia (comedy) knows about ta dikaia (Acharnians 500 ff., for which he provides eleven alternative meanings) he translatesta dikaia as "right." In the spirit of linguistic instability we might expect some acknowledgement that the term has a broader range of meanings. And there are times when some interpretations seem a bit tendentious. For example, Wright surmises that when Aristophanes entered his Proagon (although it was under another producer's name) and the less intellectual Wasps in the same contest, (422 BCE) he competed with himself in order to test his audience's tastes in comedy. Wright eschews the probable explanation that Aristophanes wanted to increase his chances of winning, but suggests that he was conducting an experiment. Why he did this is not entirely clear. Despite my reservations and doubts, however, I recommend this intelligent and thought-provoking book to any scholar interested in the possibility of a bookish culture of readers and literary critics in classical Athens.

Table of Contents

1. Reading comic criticism
2. Literary contests
3. Novelty
4. The metaphorical language of criticism
5. The comedian as reader


1.   Ian Ruffell Politics and Anti-Realism in Athenian Old Comedy: The Art of the Impossible. Oxford: OUP, 2011; Laurie O'Higgins Women and Humor in Classical Greece. Cambridge: CUP, 2003; David K. Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
2.   Keith Sidwell Aristophanes the Democrat Cambridge: CUP, 2009; Zachary P. Biles Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition Cambridge: CUP, 2011.

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