New York.- By Vicki J. Yiannias
Thousands of Athenians experienced the power of Aristophanes’ political criticism, and it was, in some ways, because of his comic, philosophical plays that the Athenian democracy was able to survive, to actually change and make progress, said Josiah Ober, Professor of Classics and Professor of Human Values at Princeton University, at a timely Panel Discussion titled Aristophanes’ Comedies: Then and Now at the Onassis Cultural Center on Tuesday, October 4.
The discussion examined the performance of Aristophanes’ theater and politics in the 5th century B.C., his continuing relevance to modern Greece and the special role that his play Lysistrata has played in the renewed popularity of Aristophanes in the contemporary world. It is the most popular play in Greece today, and is also big on the American cultural scene, as evidenced by the 2003, worldwide, “Lysistrata Project”, Stephen Sondheim’s Frogs, and Adamo’s Lysistrata coming up in spring 2006 at the New York City Opera.
The enlightening evening at the Onassis Center, which didn’t deny the audience a moment’s fun, consisted of three lively presentations by Professor Ober, Helene Foley, and Gonda Van Steen, a scene from Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Lysistrata performed by her and Rinde Eckert. And, not to be downplayed, a few hilarious moments on a big screen of Jenny Karezi’s portrayal of Lysistrata, the leader of the pack of women who force peace between the Athenians and the Spartans by refusing sexual relations with their husbands and getting possession of the Acropolis and the state’s reserve of money in the Parthenon, without which the Athenian war effort would collapse.
In his talk Comedy, Democracy, and Political Criticism As A Vocation, Professor Ober said that with political and social criticism, such as that of Aristophanes, “the citizens are being constantly reminded that they’re not living up to our best ideals . . . in between all of this laughing, Aristophanes, the professional critic, is giving you, the Athenians in the audience, a real sharp sting, saying that our justice system may be wrong, that we may, in fact, be convicting Athenians unjustly in part because our whole community is arrogant, is using its power wrongly. If you’re paying any attention, you’re going to have to say wow, that’s me, on some level . . . that love of power of being able to dominate other people, that willingness to accept corruption from the politicians because they are actually giving me my little piece, and so on.”
Professor Gonda Van Steen, Associate Professor of Classics and Modern Greek at the University of Arizona, discussed the history of Aristophanes in modern Greece in her presentation Aristophanes in 20th century Greece Among many interesting points, the 19th century break between the philological, academic, approach to Aristophanes and the idea of the free adaptation of Aristophanes in demotic Greek, the ‘Aristophanic spirit’, which emphasizes Aristophanes’ strongest aspect — political and social critique.
In her research in the Athens Theater Museum, Professor Van Steen made the unexpected discovery of two strange 1940’s albums related to Aristophanes, with many photographs and programs, press clippngs, and even personal items. “They are artefacts of two rather unknown people — calling themselves Imitateurs, or Metamorphotes — who have been kept in obscurity by the theatrical establishment of Greece because they were staging, professionally, an all-male transvestite Lysistrata, for male audiences only, taking on the roles of Lysistrata in seedy productions in the Theatre of the Third Sex, or the Theatro Tis Idoneis — or Sensual Pleasure, that had every influence of the French cabaret . . . daring productions, daring translations . . . tossing Aristophanes overboard if he didn’t suit their purposes . . . We see men making fun of women, also a critique on the beginning of the feminist movement that was going on in Athens — all projected onto Aristophanes.”
This was the breaking of the sexual taboo, said Professor Van Steen, and in the 1950’s Aristophanes broke the political taboo in the Aug 29,1959 (the anniversary date of the defeat of the Greek Left in the Cold war) production of Aristophanes’ The Birds, in the avante-gardist, Karolos Koun’s, Art Theater (Theatro Technes) when the actor playing the role of the priest came on the scene in front of thousands of spectators at the Herod Atticus Theater dressed like a Greek Orthodox priest and started Aristophanes’ original mock prayer to the Olympian gods in Byzantine ecclesiastical chant without altering the content. The next performances of The Birds were forbidden by official decree. Although it was said that the production offended the religious sensibilities of the Greek people, what Konstantinos Tsatsos, who acted on behalf of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanles, didn’t state, said Van Steen, that it was fear of the militant Leftist, anti-western and anti-American translation. It was clear that by now Aristophanes was not only the breaker of sexual taboos, he was the breaker of the taboo on the Greek Left.”
Helene Foley, Professor of Classics, Barnard College, Columbia University
In her presentation Visualizing Greek comedy on the Attic Stage spoke about the difference between the costumes in the 5th century in an ancient comedy given by Aristophanes, and a modern performance. In Classical Athens, the actors wore huge oddly smiling masks, heavy body padding with visible ties, were deliberately wrinkled, and exposed the actors’ private parts. She illustrated her lecture with slides of terra cotta figurines and vase paintings of comic actors.
There are various theories as to why the costumes were so deliberately grotesque and artificial-looking, not representative of anything ordinary, said Professor Foley. One is that there was a long tradition of figures with padding dancing at fertility festivals, a symbolic representation of fertility for the forthcoming crops.
Another vase showed the cast of a “satyr play”, a play performed in sequence after three tragedies. The tragic costumes were elaborate, said Foley, and also artificial, with no strong association with gender or age, and were very dignified in that they covered the whole body. The masks were not distorted, as were comic masks.