Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Douglass Parker, Timothy J. Moore, Aristophanes and Menander. Three Comedies: Peace; Money, the God; Samia. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2014. Pp. xiv, 230. ISBN 9781624661853. $16.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Karen Rosenbecker, Loyola University, New Orleans (

Version at BMCR home site


Douglass Parker (1927–2011) did so much to transform how Greek and Latin may be translated and adapted for modern audiences that it is hard to overstate his influence. Many of us who fell in love with Aristophanes, in particular, first became smitten with the poet thanks to Parker's translations, and his Lysistratahas become something of a modern classic in its own right. In his introduction to Aristophanes and Menander. Three Comedies: Peace; Money, the God; Samia, Timothy Moore wisely does not attempt to explain Parker's importance beyond a brief summation: Parker "created a new style of translation, lively and modern while remaining true to the ancient texts, which opened the door to ancient literature to countless students, readers, and audiences" (xii). Moore chooses instead to let the comic bite and verve of the three plays that follow speak to the eloquence and skill of their translator. The book presents a set of three comedies, each drawn from one of the three ancient periods of the genre (i.e. Peace from Old Comedy; Money, the God from Middle; Samia from New) and each translated and revised by Parker, with introductions and supporting materials from Moore. Those familiar with Parker and Berg's Plautus and Terence: Five Comedies BMCR 2000.01.11 will find this to be something of a companion volume in that it also aims to make these plays accessible to anyone who wants to read comedy and enjoy it.

In putting together the introductory materials for the volume and the individual plays, Moore is an ideal editor in that he provides context for the newcomer who may need some support in understanding the complexities and playfulness of ancient comedy, as well as providing more detailed information for those who may already know Parker's work and would like specifics about the history of these translations. In addition to the general introduction to the volume, each of the three plays is given a brief foreword that provides background on the author, the historical moment of the play, a drawing of the stage, and a bit about how the plays connect with each other stylistically. The introduction to Samia, for example, contains a brief discussion of the continuing marginalization of the chorus that began in Money, the God (157). Also included in the introduction to each play is a structural outline of the piece, drawn from Parker's scene headings for the scripts. For teachers and practitioners of drama, these summaries are a welcome addition in that they offer students a convenient flow chart for action and provide an illustration of how often-opaque terms, like syzygy, really do describe an important facet of the construction of a piece. All three plays contained in the volume were performed several times during Parker's life and were subsequently revised by him before his death. Moore is careful to note that Parker planned on polishing them still further, but he also states that, as an editor, he felt each was more than ready to be published. And indeed, anyone with an appreciation of the bounce and zest of Greek and Roman comedy will be hard-pressed to intuit what either translator or editor might have done to make the plays, and the volume that contains them, any better. Moore is scrupulous in enumerating where he has made changes (vii) and discusses his work in collating Parker's various manuscripts for the plays, even down to considerations of font and layout, so that each is as close to a definitive version of Parker's work as is posthumously possible.

As for the translations themselves, each is singular yet all bear witness to Parker's talent. It is a particular boon to have a lively and stage-tested translation/adaptation of Ploutos (Money, the God), given the renewed interest in the play in the wake of the global economic downturn. Part of the fun of reading each play is that Parker's vision for the production fairly leaps off the page. In this, again, much credit is due to Moore who has done a great job in keeping Parker's style for noting copious stage directions and for indicating shifting tones and volumes for characters. A wonderful example of how this attention to layout can matter in a scene is the entrance of the goddess Poverty in Money, the God (111–12). In this scene, Aristophanes' paratragic language and mock solemnity are actually visible on the page.

Poverty: [majestically in measured tones] I…AM…SHE…WHO
Blepsidemos: That's one of those foreign gods.
[a slight pause] MENT…ON…YOU…WHO…DO
Blepsidemos: Another foreign god.
Blepsidemos: I'm wrong. It's the barmaid from down the block,
the one who does the vanishing trick with my cash
with false-bottomed mugs.
[Tableau of terror. Then, Blepsidemos' nerves break.]

Here, far from being intrusive, the details in Parker's script invite the reader to fully construct a vision of Poverty's ridiculous and self-appointed gravitas as it is set against the initial insouciance of the men.

Parker's talent for eliciting modern laugher from ancient jokes is admirable, but occasionally the comic timing isn't quite right. For example, at the very opening of Peace, Parker has Xanthias and Sosias conduct their back-and-forth about feeding the dung beetle in canned French accents (6).

Sosias: Azzonair! Ze special!
Xanthias: Ze special? Ze donkey shit al burro? VoilĂ  encore. What 'appen to ze patty you take 'eem jus' now? 'Ee should 'ave gobble eet down.

This may work marvelously on stage, but for the reader the Anglicized faux-French may become a bit much. Thankfully, the bits featuring phonetically-represented accents in all the plays are usually of short duration, but for a reader they can feel a bit wooden, especially if one cannot "hear" the accent in one's head. For students who are newcomers to ancient comedy in particular, Parker's representation of accents may even be off-putting, but reading such passages aloud can sometimes help bring across the tenor of the scene and the reason for the thick accent.

At the end of the volume, Moore has chosen to append Parker's 1988 James Constantine Lecture at the University of Virginia, entitled "A Desolation Called Peace: Trials of an Aristophanic Translator" (217–230), in which Parker discusses his tenets as a translator/adaptor specifically in the context of his struggles with Peace. And to be sure, the text of Peace itself, with its extensive re-christening of characters for descriptive and comic effect (e.g. Trygaios is "Jack the Reaper" [5]) and copious inter-script annotations, also suggests that it may be the most revised of the three plays; it is illuminating to read this final version of the script in light of the difficulties and triumphs Parker shares about its construction. In fact, Parker cites the play's first scene as emblematic of the problem that the characteristic "cold open" of Aristophanic comedy provides for a translator. How is one to engage the audience for those hundred some lines before the nature of the problem besetting the on stage world is revealed? Despite advice from readers that a joke-accent scene between Xanthias and Sosias would alienate his audience (226–228), Parker determined that such a choice would have created a tension that would hold the audience until the revelation of Jack's plan. Such insights into the why's and how's of the translator's art may be the hidden gem of the volume. Parker's overview of the process of translation, with its insightful and humorous discussion of what a translator must be willing to endure to get just one line as well-turned in English as it is in Greek, would be engaging and important even if it were only reflective of his ideas on the role of the translator. But as it stands, this lecture is also a reflection of the ethos behind the style of translating that Parker, Richmond Lattimore, and William Arrowsmith gave birth to in the middle of the last century and that has revolutionized how we read and translate Classics today.

It is reported that Douglass Parker requested that his epitaph read, "but I digress", CAMWS Necrologies. Those of us who have benefitted so much from his works might be tempted to suggest that, given his love of spontaneous and inclusive performance, if Parker did digress, he was the sort who wanted you to digress with him, and if you did, you were surely the better and the smarter for it. More importantly for all who translate and adapt the classical past, Parker leaves us with this: "The classical translator is favored, I hold, by…the fact that there are, and will very likely continue to be other versions in the field. […] Were his to be the only Aristophanes ever, this would not be the case. His audience and his responsibilities would be quite different. As it is, he can choose one of a number of possible aims" (219). Aristophanes and Menander. Three Comedies: Peace; Money, the God; Samia continues Parker's aim of presenting plays that are accessible, performable, and scholarly; and thanks to Moore's decisions as an editor, we are also presented with a discussion of the craft of translation and adaptation from one of the greats. Those who study comedy, whether teachers, students, scholars, or performers, will not be disappointed in taking the time to experience how Parker "absorb[s] the true colors of an ancient choral song, transpose[s] a lost pun, or channel[s] a venerable, giant, dung-eating cockroach for the benefit of those who couldn't be there the first time" (back cover).

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