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Masterpieces of ancient Greek comedy - that are unnervingly close to tragedy
on 3 February 2013
This edition is based on an old translation by David Barrett (1964) lightly revised and updated. It works well to give us a sense of the spirit of Aristophanes' originals and, while Barrett doesn't attempt to follow the Greek metrics, does make good use of English rhythmics and metres such as the limerick rhymes for some of the chorus speeches in The Frogs.
The introduction contextualises the plays in terms of theatrical conventions and, lightly, against the historical context - and the notes are good on contemporary political references.
Aristophanes' `old' comedy is closest to our political/social satire such as Private Eye, and Have I Got News For You, and so a sense of recent political events in the Peloponnesian war and key Athenian public figures is essential to `get' the jokes - which remain both scurrilous and very funny.
The Frogs, especially, also sites itself against literary tropes and conventions such as the `katabasis', the heroic descent into the underworld that we witness in the stories of, for example, Odysseus, Theseus, Herakles. Here it is Dionysus who makes the descent, to bring back either Euripides or Aeschylus to provide moral guidance to Athens in one of her darkest periods (this was written in 405 BC). The resultant ethical and literary contest between the two tragedians, presided over by Dionysus (just as the play itself was performed in the Theatre of Dionysus under the aegis of the god) is hysterically funny as the two poets rip apart each others' most famous lines.
But beneath all the laughter and bawdy wit lies a very dark undertow centred on the problems of war, defeat, effective political leadership, and the faults, failures and possible survival of the Athenian democratic experiment. Aristophanes' plays may well be comic masterpieces - but they can also be read, in places, as unnervingly close to tragedy.