Saturday, May 14, 2005

Aristophanes’ Clouds - Whirlywindy Hairblowings

Listen to this: on the one hand is the country bumpkin farmer frustrated by his debt, which he blames on his wife’s purchases of new fashions and his son’s compulsive gambling. He can’t adapt to modern scientific explanations for world events. On the other hand i the son, who espouses the new logic and science—as well as gambling on horse races. This 2500 year-old father-son conflict is surprisingly familiar. In the end, Dad urges son to maintain his regard for the traditional cultural and religious values. Son tells dad that no educated person would espouse anything less than the logical point of view.

Greek comedies don’t, frankly, sound like a big barrel of laughs, and I wasn’t looking forward to reading them. While they were not necessarily written with idea of generating guffaws, they’re a whole lot more fun to read (especially in good translation) than one would think. But it has been surprising for me to learn that they’re a little bit racy (or a lot racy, in the case of, for example, Lysistrata) and that they’re oft-copied in present-day plays and films.

To understand Clouds, it helps to know a little about Aristophanes:
  • Aristophanes’ early plays (like Clouds) are Old Comedies; they’re identifiable because they deal with the problems government may cause with the individual. Later ones are Middle Comedies and are less political and more philosophical.
  • Aristophanes wrote comedies between 425 and 392 B.C. Other than vase paintings, the remaining comedies are the first depictions we have at all of ancient Greek domestic life.
  • Reading Aristophanes is compared with reading an Athenian funny paper (Edith Hamilton qtd. in Walton viii) because as in comics, the plays satirized or made light of:

+ Politics
+ Anti-war party
+ Pacifism
+ Women’s vote
+ Free trade
+ Fiscal reform
+ Current religions
+ Educational theories, etc.

Not mentioned in the list Corrigan makes here, though, is Aristophanes’ obvious target: Socrates, who is the butt of the main satire of the play. Aristophanes is sending up Socrates' sophistry.

Nonetheless, Aristophanes doesn't allow himself to become fully enmired in high-minded humor. As Walton reminds us, “Many of the laughs in Aristophanes are belly-laughs created through all manner of jokes about sex and bodily functions” (xiv).

According to Corrigan, Aristophanes’ plays were “written for an audience whose principal form of entertainment, outside of the theater, was the court of law” (7). I found this an interesting detail—particularly in view of the contemporary fascination with lawsuits and all things regarding the court. It doesn't seem as though much has changed in two and a half millennia.

Corrigan also compares Aristophanes to North American Southerners, saying he “was determined, like so many of our Southerners today—although for different reasons—to do all he could do to resist the erosion of the time-honored Greek traditions” (72). In essence, Corrigan says, the humor in Aristophanes’ plays is conservative, a social corrective.

Aristophanes makes fun of Strepsiades, the farmer father, for trying to modernize himself. He demonstrates his ignorance at the many new inventions. Strepsiades visits the Logic Factory and is allowed to look through a telescope and binoculars and his response is to say “How horribly close! Now apply your mind / To moving it farther away – much farther!” (117).

We see in other ways how Strepsiades is undone by his single quest for something new: he makes a request to the clouds (a chorus of goddesses in this play) for the ability to flout logic so that he can evade his many creditors. Socrates introduces us to the clouds in the play, explaining that they replace the old, better known gods like Zeus. This quest, which in effect is a trend toward modernization and change, is a big mistake, and the clouds will teach him a lesson for making the request.

Poor Strepsiades is utterly taken by Socrates and the clouds. He’s suspicious for a moment, asking, “If they’re really and truly clouds, / Please will you tell me why / They’re shaped like mortal women?” (122). Looking like women, of course, is a mark of something evil. Socrates assures him that the clouds just elected to take that form just the same way that they look like a “centaur” or “leopard, or a wolf, or a bull” (123) on some other days. So he is convinced when Socrates tells him that in fact the clouds are the central goddesses responsible for important life events: they cause the rain—has he ever seen a drop without them? How about thunder? Even though he knows it’s “a daring thought,” he goes along with Socrates’ belief that it’s “Vortex” who causes all these events (124).

Next, the clouds begin to advise him They tell him what he has to do to flout logic, saying “You’ll be the luckiest of Athenians, of all Greeks. / Never grow slack, or weary, or flinch from the weight of your burden, / Never slaver for supper; cut out the wine, and the gymnasium” (125). In other words, they give him bad advice—admittedly! Socrates once says of Strepsiades, “The fellow’s / A barbarian lout!” (128). The farther Strepsiades moves from old way of doing things, the farther he moves from being a decent human being.

Aristophanes’ characteristic slapstick exists in small doses, such as when he addresses the Holy Goddesses thus:
I worship you Holy Ones,
But I can’t help but compete
Against your thunder with a fart. (120)

Similarly, when Socrates explains the origins to Strepsiades, he retorts, “I always believed before it was Zeus pissing through a sieve” (124).

Another form of slapstick could better be described as incongruity; the scene occurs at the end of the play when we see Pheidippides beating his father, Strepsiades for his behavior. Strepsiades, in protest, shouts that he was the one who changed Pheidippides’ diaper and fed him his first food. Pheidippides points out that Strepiades had had to beat his own son for his own good at one time—and now Pheidippides is just returning the favor (159).

Nonetheless, Clouds is a more refined play than Aristophanes’ other works—the playwright himself believed it to be his best. Aristophanes himself speaks to the relative dearth of slapstick in the parabasis, when the chorus explains:.
Now comes my comedy [...]
She doesn’t come on
Waving a property phallus to get a laugh
From the coarse children; she doesn’t poke fun at bald-heads;
Or flaunt her sex in an indecent dance;
There’s no old man literally doing slap-stick
To bolster his rotten jokes. Nobody wildly rushes
On brandishing torches, there’s no comical wailing—
This play relies on nothing but its own merit. (129)

Because Aristophanes saw Clouds as his best work, he was upset that it didn’t win at the festival of its original production. We know the version in existence now to be one he revised angrily after the festival, so the statements the chorus makes here are directed at an audience that didn’t understand—or vote for his play to win. According to critic Patric Dickinson, in the original draft, it is likely that Dickinson assumed that his audience comprised more people like Pheidippides than like Srepsiades, but he was wrong (103).

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