Edith Hall Meets... Aristophanes

If I could bring one figure from the ancient world back from the dead it would be Aristophanes.  I would hold an all-night drinking party, in imitation of the famous carousal of 416 BC described in Plato’s Symposium, and let Aristophanes be Master of Ceremonies.  ‘Plato’s’ symposium took place at the house of a tragedian called Agathon, and along with Socrates and Agathon, Aristophanes is the only man still awake, talking about theatre, when the cock crows to herald the dawn. His own speech, on the reason why humans are all searching for the love of their life, shows a humane and modern, gay-friendly approach to a timeless question.

Aristophanes would be the perfect conversationalist for other reasons.  His eleven surviving plays are the only surviving examples of democratic comedy,first introduced at the Athenian festivals of Dionysus exactly 2,500 years ago, in 486 BC.  They show that the Athenian citizens expected their comic playwrights to help them form opinions about individual leaders and celebrities (the demagogue Cleon is brutally attacked in Knights and Wasps and yet survived the caricatures to be re-elected; the philosopher Socrates did have his reputation damaged by his portrayal as a charlatan and crazy scientist in Clouds).   They wanted to hear and see parodies of contemporary speakers, poets, and tragic playwrights. But the audience also seems to have appreciated wildly imaginative plotlines. Some involved scientifically impossible journeys, like Trygaeus’ flight on a dung-beetle to the heavens in Peace, or the mission to Hades undertaken by Dionysus and Xanthias in Frogs.  Others featured talking animals, like sharp-stinging Wasp chorus of Wasps or the 24-strong feathered chorus of Birds.

I would have some serious questions for him, too. Aristophanes must have been born in the mid-5th century BC, and he was a native of the most central deme in Attica—Cydathenaeum, right by the Acropolis, and incorporating part of the agora. So he was an inner-city lad who had witnessed, on his own doorstep, some of the most exciting events in ancient history: in 431 BC, for example, he will have been a spectator when  Euripides’ Medea came last in the tragedy competition (perhaps he could tell me the real reason). He will almost certainly have been in the crowd when Pericles delivered that most famous of funeral speeches;  Aristophanes did not die of the plague, and I would ask him whether he had actually contracted it himself, and survived, or managed to avoid it altogether.

But it would be a waste of his wit to spend too much time on serious questions. The variety of humour in Aristophanic comedy suggests that its author was hilarious company.  He excelled, of course, at scatological and sexual jokes, but I would be more interested in asking him if he could mimic politicians or parody Aeschylean lyrics at my party. Some of his effects are pure Theatre of the Absurd, for example having Cleon appear in the form of a barking dog on trial in the lawcourt sequence of Wasps.  Much hilarity derives from gender confusion—male actors played women, and they played women dressing up as men in Assemblywomen , but they also played male characters temporarily dressing up as women, like Euripides’ kinsman in Women at the Thesmophoria. I would like to ask Aristophanes if he ever cross-dressed and whether he could impersonate a woman, as Barry Humphries acts the role of Dame Edna Everage.  I certainly wouldn’t let him back down to the Underworld until he had performed at least one of Lysistrata’s speeches! 

Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King's College London.