Aristophanes and Menander. New Comedy. Methuen
Drama/Heinemann, 1994. xxxviii+226 pp.
ISBN: 0-413-67180-1. $15.95
Cornford, Francis Macdonald. The Origin of Attic Comedy,
with a new introduction by Jeffrey Henderson.
Ann Arbor Paperbacks. University of Michigan Press,
1993. lii+289 pp. ISBN: 0-472-08195-0. $12.95
The Methuen World Classics series is filling out its presentation of the Greek dramatists, and the appearance of this volume leaves only Euripides incomplete. The plays are intended as scripts, not as something to be read in the classroom. It is unfortunate that a few minor concessions to the student, which would increase the book's potential audience, and enhance its usefulness even as a script, are not made. The book presents in translation four plays from the fourth century : Aristophanes' Women in Power (Ekklesiazusae; pp. 1-60) and Wealth (pp. 61-123), and Menander's Malcontent (deliberately avoiding the use of Moliere's title, cf. xxiv; pp. 125-174) and Woman of Samos (pp. 175-226). Not all the translations work, but those that do would go admirably on stage.
Two volumes of Kenneth McLeish's Aristophanes translations have already appeared in the series and are for the most part successful. Women in Power is fully in this tradition: this is the only translation of the play that makes this reader laugh. There is an energy to the dialogue that is eminently stageable, and the speeches have an immediate truth, resonating with nuances for an actor to savour. In the main it is the translation of the play that was published by CUP in 1979 with Knights and Clouds; the most striking alteration is perhaps the decreased presence of stage directions which are already evident from the speeches.
Where the translation begins to weaken is when rhyme is introduced, and the vague limits imposed by the uneven line length become manifest. Even when the syllable count does match, the stress can be way off. To choose an example at random: is it possible to deliver, 'From a pool of intelligence deep and vast' (571) so that it scans like its parallel line, 'A brilliant new programme, a dazzle of light,' (575)? 'Your pool of intelligence is deep and vast' would work, perhaps, and still keep the rhyme, if that were the only goal. In Wealth the rhymes work less well, requiring delivery that holds line ends artificially, resulting in doggerel. But by and large McLeish's sense of the poet comes through, though some might not like the predominance of contemporary colloquialism.
McLeish's contribution to the introduction of the book (pp. xxi- xxxviii) stresses the role of alazoneia in these late plays, and the value of seeing them on stage. This is refreshing, but needs to be tempered with (for example) more on what is known of the use of the chorus in the early fourth century, if this is to be a valuable script. As the book lacks any reference bibliography for further reading, the would-be producer is left without resources to find such information.
J. Michael Walton's prose Menander presents the two 'complete' plays (additions to Woman of Samos are indicated by round brackets, though one is lost on p. 186). Both contain speakable dialogue, and give the sense of the Greek. If the translation is a little free, that is offset by the recognition that there are certain dark tones in the plays, a fact also noticed by Walton in his contribution to the introduction (pp. vii-xxx). The translator does not shy away from words like skatophagos as others do, and the language on the whole remains comfortable. Nevertheless, lacking the substantial fragments from other plays or a more rigorous introduction, the reader is left with a needlessly limited impression of the playwright's tendencies. To that extent, the shyer and less stageable Penguin Menander (tr. Miller, 1987) provides a better overall impression of the dramatist.
The translation throughout provides running line numbers corresponding to the Greek text, which is always nice and would suggest a hope for school use, but the absence of any bibliography and the particularly vague introductions deny the possibility. The vagueness is particularly frustrating on the issue of the genre of these plays. In naming the volume New comedy the authors are expressing a belief in homogeneity from Women in Power to The Woman from Samos -- an interpretation that is by no means universally accepted. The term 'Old Comedy' is used without definition, but one can gather that, in the view of the translators and editors, Frogs is the last Old Comedy. The phrase 'Middle Comedy' is used once (on p. xiii Plautus raids it), without definition, to refer to plays before Menander, but also, by virtue of the book's title, before Women in Power. The complex of issues raised in recent years by Nesselrath deserve at least a nod, which they fail to get. The new version, in short, does not manage to supersede the old, though it makes an interesting addition to existing works.
To some extent, an insufficient introduction and the difficulty of genre definition are also the problems in the re-release of Cornford's Origin of Attic Comedy. The book first appeared in 1914, a particularly fine example of the Cambridge Ritualist approach. In 1961 it reappeared edited by Theodor H. Gaster (whose foreword is on pp. xxv-xlix of the present edition) and now returns courtesy of Jeffrey Henderson. The new introduction (pp. xi-xxxiii) is learned and valuable and provides the cues to further evaluation of Cornford's thesis, and this is how Henderson presents the work (p. xii): 'Historical interest aside, The Origin of Attic Comedy is worth reading today because its basic approach is still valid and its results, though wrong in many details, prove essentially right in others, establishing the book as a solid starting point for further research.' Henderson is reluctant to spell out the wrong details, thereby ensuring the reader keeps an open and inquisitive mind to Cornford's thesis. But spelling out some of the Ritualist approach's methodological errors would benefit non-specialists, and (to take as example a reference in one of the footnotes) the undeniable relevance of Bakhtin's thought could warrant a full paragraph in the present context, if not more.
Henderson's introduction posits a dichotomy concerning the issue of genre origins: there are two (mutually exclusive) approaches, that of 'the artist of genius' and that of ritual. The former is shown to be insufficient, but only in the terms of the latter. In fact, the two approaches inform each other, for the latter does not deny particular innovators (let one example be Epicharmus), but merely suggests that what came before was still demonstrably 'Attic comedy'. The artist-of-genius approach need only say that whatever came before was not isolable as such. It remains an issue of terminology, no more, and in the absence of any pre-Aristophanic plays, the question will always remain moot.
Cornford seeks to prove that the Year-Play (in which the Old God/King/Zeus dies and is resurrected into a New God/King/Zeus), which Gilbert Murray saw underlying Greek tragedy, also lay behind comedy. Greek drama therefore has a unitary origin, one which links it with similar mimetic ritual from all over the world (Punch and Judy shows are included on pp. 125- 129, for instance). The plot-formula which Cornford sees as the sub-structure of Attic comedy (including a parabasis, agon, sacrifice and feast) is for the most part credible, and that it existed earlier in non-dramatic choral performances is plausible if not provable. It is necessary to pick and choose: Acharnians, Birds, and, to a lesser extent, Wealth all fit the hypothesized pattern quite well.
With other examples, though, the required imaginative leaps are considerable. The argument particularly breaks down with Frogs, where it is necessary to see Sophocles (!) as the New Zeus (p. 75.) Comedy is reduced to stock masks performing a fixed plot of the King's rebirth (p. 161) which denies any opportunity for dramatic innovation (p. 174). The basis for the humour in comedy becomes lost. Cornford is too keen to see parallels and establish his connections, and significant contradictions develop even within the work itself. In the last few pages he is forced to dismiss Krates' innovations to comedy as irrelevant to the issue at hand, and (more untenable still) claims that they must be seen as not having affected Aristophanes' style (pp. 189-90). In Peace, Trygaeus is equated with the tragic Bellerophon (certainly, p. 72) and comic alazoneia is equated with tragic Hubris (clever, p. 182), but the overview of the play in the appendix presents Trygaeus not as an alazon but a bomolochos (p. 206). This sort of thing is not fatal to Cornford's argument, but does cloud it. In general the sections on alazoneia (pp. 115-146) are quite useful (including the interpretation of Aeschylus' and Euripides' masks in Frogs, pp. 140-142, which could give good clues to a stage production of the play).
Cornford's work is the only attempt of this length to postulate the origins of Attic comedy, and this re-release may provoke the articulation of more refined hypotheses. such work will need to allow for considerable innovation in Aristophanes' own dramaturgy at the very least.
C.W. Marshall is a director and performer as well as a classicist.