Of all the writers
Comedy", only one remains. Lost forever are the works
and Eupolis. All the extant comedies of the fifth century B.C.
belong to one man--Aristophanes. On his shoulders alone rests
the reputation of an entire age of comedy. Fortunately, by most
accounts Aristophanes was the greatest comic writer of his day.
By the time Aristophanes began to write his comedies, democracy
had already begun to sour for the Athenians. The people were
increasingly demoralized by the ongoing conflicts of the Peloponnesian
War and the loss of their greatest hero, Pericles,
had been taken from them and replaced by unscrupulous politicians
such as Cleon and Hyperbolus. It is little wonder, therefore,
that Aristophanes laughter is tinged, even from the beginning,
with tones of apprehension and grief.
Aristophanes' first two comedies, The Banqueters and
The Babylonians have been lost. His first surviving play,
Acharnians, was written in the sixth year of the War
and, coincidentally, happens to be the world's first anti-war
comedy. Inspired by the suffering of the rural population of
Attica, the area surrounding Athens which was exposed to continual
invasions, the poet built his plot around a hard headed farmer
who, tired of the hostilities, determines to make a private peace
with the Spartans. Denounced as a traitor by his fellow citizens
and forced to plead for his life, Dicaeopolis turns to the tragic
poet Euripides who lends him a whole
assortment of tragic stage effects. His collection depleted,
Euripides complains, "You miserable man! You are robbing
me of an entire tragedy!"
In his next play Aristophanes turned his satirical powers
on Cleon, the demagogue who had succeeded Pericles. However,
the dictator's power was so great that no actor dared impersonate
him, and legend has it that the poet played the role himself,
his face smeared with wine dregs in mockery of Cleon's bloated
and alcoholic countenance. The people of Athens were quick to
recognize their tyrannical leader as the Paphlagonian tanner
Knights, and although the play had no real political
effect, it took first prize at the festival.
Aristophanes barbs, however, were not reserved exclusively
for political figures. In fact, he often saved his sharpest attacks
for other cultural figures. In The
Clouds, he turns his attentions to the great thinker
of the day--Socrates. The story revolves around an old man named
Strepsiades. Deeply in debt because of his son's gambling and
desperate to preserve his fortune, he enrolls in Socrates' Thinking
Shop in order to learn how to confute his creditors with logic.
What he finds on the first day of training, however, is the great
thinker suspended in a basket and contemplating the sun. Only
confused by this first lesson, Strepsiades determines to have
his son educated instead. The young man responds quickly to Socrates'
teachings and is soon able to prove, after beating his father,
that he was morally justified in doing so.
Wasps, Aristophanes returned to his favorite theme--the
deterioration of Athens. In this satire of an overzealous legal
system, Philocleon ("Lover of Cleon") becomes so addicted
to the courtroom drama that he has to be confined to his house
by his son. Desperate to return to the Tribunal where cases are
being tried, the old man becomes more and more extravagant in
his attempts to escape. At one point, he tries to squeeze through
the chimney pretending to be "only smoke". In the end,
he is rescued by his fellow jurors who appear, appropriately
enough, as a swarm of wasps.
Aristophanes favorite target, however, was another literary
figure--the tragic poet Euripides. Already satirized in The
Acharnians, Euripides was later to became the subject of
two more plays: Thesmophoriazusae
(Women at the Festival of Demeter) and The
Frogs. In the second of these--set sometime after Euripides'
death--Dionysus has become annoyed at the absence of a major
dramatist on the stage and resolves to bring Euripides back from
the dead. Dressed as Hercules, he braves the underworld, pleading
with Pluto to allow Euripides to return with him to Athens. However,
there are three tragic poets stuck in Hades, and the great
warrior-poet Aeschylus is not convinced
that the upstart Euripides is the best choice to return to the
world of the living. The literary duel that follows is perhaps
one of the most remarkable parodies in dramatic literature.
Aristophanes would return to his political theme of pacifism
in Lysistrata. Written twenty-one years into the Peloponnesian
War, the play revolves around the women of Athens who finally
tire of losing their sons on the battlefield and conspire to
deny their husbands sexual intercourse until they make peace
with the Spartans. Lysistrata, who leads the revolt, is one of
Aristophanes' most completely realized characters. Although the
play is light-hearted, it was written out of the poet's grief
over the thousands of Athenians who had recently lost their lives
in the terrible defeat at Syracuse.
After Lysistrata, Aristophanes seems to have given
up on politics. It would be nineteen years before he would again
devote an entire play to a political issue, and by that time
it had become far too dangerous to launch a direct attack on
state policies. Athens had long since been crushed by the Spartans
and its liberties had decreased significantly. It was during
this turbulent period that Socrates was put to death. Thus Ecclesiazusae
(Women in Parliament) and Plutus are far less pointed
than the poet's earlier works in their call for a new utopian
society. Mercifully, however, Aristophanes would not have to
hold his tongue for long. Three years after the production of
Plutus, the comic poet passed away, leaving behind approximately
forty plays--eleven of which have survived to this day.