Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Matthew C. Farmer, Tragedy on the Comic Stage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 267. ISBN 9780190492076. $74.00.

Reviewed by Kenneth S. Rothwell, Jr., University of Massachusetts Boston (

Version at BMCR home site


Farmer's study is a welcome addition to our understanding of the way Aristophanes and other comic playwrights engaged with Greek tragedy. Farmer collects and synthesizes evidence from the fragments of Old and Middle Comedy; he gives extensive readings of Wasps and Thesmophoriazusae; and offers more selective discussions of Gerytades, Wealth and Frogs. This is really a book about trugoidia, comedy that emphasizes "the agonistic relationship between comedy and tragedy" (p. 153). We might call it "comedy with an attitude."

Farmer's first two chapters are devoted to comic fragments that illustrate the culture of tragedy and the parody of tragedy. By "culture of tragedy" Farmer means the knowledge and interest that characters in comedy show about tragedy. They argue like fans of this or that tragic playwright, read scripts, and quote famous passages; they also critique the playwrights' diction, plot construction, use of mechanai, and compositional techniques. In Clouds, to take an example from an intact comedy, Strepsiades and Pheidippides argue about the relative merits of Aeschylus and Euripides (1364–78). Actors playing the parts of living or dead tragedians appear on stage as characters in comedy, as in Acharnians when Euripides is visited by Dikaiopolis, who comes to fetch Telephus' costume (407–479).

In Chapter 1 Farmer shows that all of these motifs can be found in the fragments of lost comedies and are present to a degree not formerly appreciated. Dead poets, for example, were brought back to life in Pherecrates' Krapataloi. I knew that the actor Hegelochus had been mocked in Frogs (301–05) for mispronouncing galen', "calm," as galen, "weasel," but I didn't realize that he was also skewered for the same mistake by other poets of Old Comedy, including Sannyrion's Danae, fr. 8, and Strattis, frr. 1 and 63. That comic poets were piling on clearly points to a repertoire of jokes about tragedy that audiences appreciated.

Paratragedy (the subject of Chapter 2), by contrast, is when a character in a comedy momentarily "becomes" a character from a tragedy, speaks in distinctively tragic diction, or wears a tragic costume. In Acharnians, Dicaeopolis dons the Telephus costume he got from Euripides and parrots Telephus' lines. The fragments of lost comedies examined by Farmer (including works by Eupolis, Cratinus, Antiphanes, Alexis, Sannyrion, Strattis and Eubulus) confirm that the technique was not limited to Aristophanes. For example, Farmer traces the way that Haemon's argument with Creon in Sophocles' Antigone—that trees that can bend won't break in a flood (710–18)—was picked up by a character in Eupolis' Prospaltioi (fr. 260); it reappeared a number of years later in Antiphanes fr. 228, where the speaker adds that the additional flood water makes trees grow. This is from a speaker for whom the liquid that really counts is wine. This parody is not criticism of Sophocles' original but a repurposing for comic effect. Clearly the allusion would have greatest impact if members of the audience recognized the original context. Farmer also reviews three Phoenician Women plays: the tragedy by Euripides and fragments of two comedies of the same title by Aristophanes and Strattis. Strattis' version evidently went beyond repurposing and created a hilarious send-up of Euripides' original, mocking Euripides for contaminating the grandeur of tragedy with base, everyday elements. Parodying a passage in Euripides' Phoenician Women in which Jocasta gives sage, solemn advice, Strattis' Jocasta gives comic advice about cooking lentil soup. In this and other ways Jocasta's and Euripides' authority are undermined.

Because there are no fully extant examples of Middle Comedy, unless one counts Plutus, we have only the fragments to give us an idea of what mid-fourth-century playwrights were up to. (Paratragedy is rare in New Comedy and Farmer does not discuss it.) The fifth-century playwrights were by now long dead, and these fragments give us a glimpse into the consolidation of the canon of classical tragedians. By the middle of the fourth century the authority of the playwrights was taken for granted; Euripides, for example, was no longer being deflated.

By the end of Chapter 2, Farmer has identified a broad repertoire of patterns: fandom, critiques of tragedies, use of tragic diction, introduction of poets as characters, and so forth. Armed with this, he can turn with a sharper eye in Chapters 3 and 4 to Wasps and Thesmophoriazusae. The paratragic turns of Wasps have been discussed by others, but Farmer contributes a coherent account of both the culture of tragedy and the parody of tragedy as enacted by Philocleon. The paratragic outbursts are not spur-of-the-moment insertions but part of a design that can be traced from beginning to end. Philocleon may be phileliastes (88), but Farmer points out that Philocleon's love of jury duty virtually disappears after the parabasis and that the more enduring characterization of him is as philoidos (270), someone in love with song and, in particular, in love with the songs of tragedy. Philocleon is not only a fan who enjoys, for example, listening to old songs of Phrynichus and a speech from Niobe, but he also acts like a character in a tragedy, being Aristophanes' version of a tragic hero (on this point Farmer benefits from the study of S. Jedrkiewicz), frequently expressing himself with tragic diction, living a life bound by oracles, and acting suicidal.

If tragedy is the nosos, comedy is the cure. Bdelycleon's therapy is to stage the Dog Trial that, as many have recognized, is a play within the play. Bdelycleon acts as the director by setting the stage, arranging props, contriving a plot, and casting actors. I would be curious to know more about how this scene is, by genre, specifically a comic performance: it is certainly funny, but looks like a Euripidean escape-romance for Labes and a tragedy for Philocleon. (The mini-drama with the Scythian archer in Thesmo. is more recognizable as something from the comic genre.) At least the audience is entertained.

The "Imaginary Symposium," in which Bdelycleon dresses and instructs Philocleon on how to behave among polite company, also has a metatheatrical side to it; what we see is essentially a rehearsal. Farmer also agrees (with, for example, Zachary Biles) that the Wasps is a response to Cratinus' Pytine and sees Aristophanes as embracing the wine-soaked poetics that one finds in Pytine. The training for the symposium helps draw Philocleon out of his tragic obsession. Indeed, there is no paratragedy in the last several hundred lines, after Xanthias' report on the symposium—there is only what seems to be mockery of Euripides' Ino at 1412. I worry that the lack of paratragedy is evidence from silence, and that Philocleon is so volatile that he could reverse course, but by the time of the finale Philocleon is certainly performing a trugic dance, not a tragic one. Farmer points out on several occasions in this book that comedy can consume tragedy, and come out on top, which is what happens in the finale of Wasps.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Thesmo., long the subject of scholarship on the intersection of comedy and tragedy. The tragic playwrights Euripides and Agathon are both brought on stage as characters. Thesmo. parodies four Euripidean tragedies: Telephus, Palamedes, Helen, and Andromeda. For Farmer what is significant is that Mnesilochus, who plays parts in these parodic episodes, meets with failure: unlike Dikaiopolis, whose Telephus disguise persuaded the chorus of Acharnians, in Thesmo. Mnesilochus is unable to win over the chorus or to succeed at escaping. His play-acting does not deceive Critylla into thinking that he is a Helen or Andromeda who needs rescuing; Critylla won't enter into the suspension of disbelief. It is only at the end of the play, when Euripides himself dons a woman's costume, that success arrives.

In essence Euripides has become a comic playwright, which bears on a related problem that Farmer addresses. In the opening scene Agathon had said that he had dressed like a woman because he thought it would help him write a woman's part in a tragedy. Yet a little later, flipping the argument on its head, he says that Phrynichus wrote beautiful tragedies because he was already beautiful. Which is it? Both: Farmer agrees with G. Paduano that the two theories can be reciprocal. In the case of Euripides, however, nature evidently evolves. By the end of the play, when he dons a costume, he may be "accepting the truth that he was a better comedian than tragedian" (p. 192).

A small but attractive insight is the recognition of the anomalous position of Echo, the character from Andromeda who appears at Thesmo. 1056–96. She is not simply a character in Thesmo.; she claims to be the Echo of Andromeda, as if the actor assigned that part in Euripides' play of a year earlier had been waiting backstage in the green room and emerged to participate. We are treated here to a curiously literal inter-generic visitation. Farmer compares the appearance in Birds of a Tereus who claims to be identical with the one in Sophocles' Tereus.

After the generous treatment given to Wasps and Thesmo., Chapter 5 and the Conclusion comprise relatively short studies of the fragmentary Gerytades and specific passages in Wealth and Frogs. Aristophanes' Gerytades entailed a trip to the underworld by three poets: a "trugic" poet (Sannyrion), a tragic poet (Meletus), and a dithyrambist (Cinesias). All three are thin and hungry and were regarded by Aristophanes as failures. Fragments point to an underworld discussion about the qualities and advantages of the different genres. Farmer suggests that Aristophanes, by using the mediocre Sannyrion to represent comedy, positions himself in a sublimely superior position outside the boundaries of the genres.

In two scenes of Aristophanes' Wealth comedy confronts dithyramb and tragedy. The Parodos (290–322) parodies the Cyclops of Philoxenus, a dithyramb that had evidently borrowed elements of drama, including entrances, exits, and the use of an actor. Carion briefly takes the part of Polyphemus, and tries to get the chorus to play the parts of sheep, but the members of the chorus refuse to follow the script and decide to play Odysseus and his comrades. Farmer sees this as comedy's rebuttal of dithyramb, which has strayed too far into drama. In the Agon (415–609) Poverty argues that she is better for mankind than Wealth, which can make men fat. Farmer believes this is a contest between the genres: Poverty is identified as a tragic Fury (423–24) and invoking fat men would recall the padding on the costumes of comic actors. In the end Chremylus wins with comic techniques: mockery and onstage violence. The clues are few, but this is an intriguing way of reading the scene.

Farmer concludes with a discussion of Frogs 1467–79, in which Dionysus quotes Euripides three times, including the famous "My tongue swore but my heart did not" from Hippolytus. The line is used as an example of Euripidean logic-chopping, though Farmer reminds us that in the original context Hippolytus does in fact keep his oath. This parody may be unfair to Euripides but is hugely effective as comedy. Although at the beginning of the comedy Dionysus had been a fan of Euripides, by the end he has become a more critical connoisseur of tragedy.

There are, to my mind, no missteps in Tragedy on the Comic Stage. Farmer is respectful of the evidence, especially of the fragments, yet imaginative in teasing out ideas. Speculation is labeled as such. He agrees with Don Fowler that recognition of parody could depend on something as subtle as a particle (p. 5); in fact Farmer's assertions almost always have much more to support them. I found book to be clearly written and free of jargon, with appropriate sign-posting; the arguments flow smoothly. On pp. 92–94 the technical discussion of poorly attested plays—delicious fare for specialists—was appropriately relegated to footnotes. Farmer gives scrupulous credit to recent scholarship on comedy, making good use in particular of recent commentaries on the fragments. It is worth remarking that Farmer nicely complements Stephanie Nelson's interesting Aristophanes and His Tragic Muse (Brill, 2016). Nelson is looking at larger differences and similarities between the genres; for example, in the case of Wasps she compares Philocleon with Ajax and Medea; Farmer's study is somewhat more fine-grained, with more verbal-level analysis. Many of the issues have been discussed for decades, but Tragedy on the Comic Stage is more than a synthesis; it offers a systematic new perspective on how the two genres interacted.

1 comment:

  1. There are serious reasons to question the entrenched assumption that the parodos of Aristophanes’ Wealth (lines 290-322) includes a parody of Philoxenus’ Cyclops. While the echoes of the Odyssey are more than evident, there are no clues in Aristophanes’ text that unequivocally target (what we know of) Philoxenus’ dithyramb. Contrary to common belief, the shepherd’s bag and damp wild herbs mentioned in line 298 have nothing to do with a hypothetical vegetarian Cyclops in the alleged hypotext, but are to be interpreted as sexual metaphors referring to the scrotum and the pubic hair of the ogre. The intertextual relationship of the two texts is likely to have been dreamed up by Aristophanes' scholiasts. See J. Méndez Dosuna, “El zurrón y las hierbas salvajes del Cíclope y un presunto hipotexto de Aristófanes, Pluto 290–301”, Dionysus ex Machina 6, 2015, 30‒52.