Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Library: Four Plays by Aristophanes Part II

Once again, I'm not sure why I don't enjoy these very much. I can see the humor in it, but maybe it's like Cheers and Dick Van Dyke, just a little too dated. After all, if a joke is 2500 years old, it certainly can't be very fresh, can it? At the same time, some of this stuff gets used in modern media, and I'm certain I've laughed, so maybe it's just that reading it cold on the page doesn't do much for me. After all, it's a play, and the original didn't have stage directions and the translator felt disinclined to infer too many of his own. Then, perhaps it's just that it's a 50 year old translation! Perhaps a more modern translation with better idioms would have hit my funny bone a bit harder. Finally, there's a ton of pun-based humor in there. I really do enjoy puns, don't get me wrong, but they get a wry smile, perhaps a chuckle if they hit hard, but rarely a full-on guffaw.

Lysistrata
Pronounced Lie-SIS-tre-ta, this is a raunchy sex comedy. It's the origin of the trope, The Lysistrata Gambit and you see it all the time on TV. Alice is mad at Bob, so she withholds sex until Bob mends his wicked ways. And buys her something. Once upon a time, those gender roles were set in stone, but as feminism has infiltrated society, so has our understanding of the fact that women aren't frigid shrews and men prurient hounds. These days, it's possible (if still rare), for Bob to turn the tables on Alice and withhold sex from her, because men and women are all sexual beings.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks believed the opposite of what Victorian Europeans believed. Where we still labor somewhat under the delusion that women don't much care for sex (lie back and think of England, dear), Greeks believed that women were mad for sex. Ancient Christians believed this as well; that's why/because they were the vessel for original sin and are still the vessels of sin today, walking around being all sexed up and whatnot. Whereas today women are told to be modest by prudish religiofanatards because they'll enflame the lusts of men, once women were told to be modest because they were seething cauldrons of lust themselves. This was why the men of the ancient church were told to abjure the company of women, lest they fall prey to the wicked desires of those vessels of iniquity.

Ever hear of Tiresias? He shows up from time to time in Greek literature and things that reference it. He's the blind seer who shows up from time to time and unleashes cryptic (or not so cryptic) prophecy. There are a number of myths stating how he got blinded. One is that he was walking through the woods and saw two snakes having sex, whereupon he was transformed into a woman*. He went to an oracle and was told he'd remain a woman until he saw those same two snakes having sex again. He remained a woman for some years, saw the snakes, and turned back into a man. His story then gets put on the back burner, and we turn, at some random later date, to Hera and Zeus, who are having an argument over who enjoys sex more, men or women, each arguing that the other gender is more lusty. They turn to Tiresias, being the only one with experience in both genders, who informs them that women enjoy sex seven times more than men. Hera, in a snit, blinds him. As the gods cannot undo what has been done, Zeus instead grants him the boon of prophecy.

Anyway, that's where the Greeks were at, idiomatically.

So Aristophanes is a comedian, right? And comedy is all about subverting expectations. He does so with Lysistrata. The women of Greece are upset that the wars are still going on (Aristophanes was very much against Athenian imperialism) and call for peace. They do so by bringing all the women together in the Acropolis (note: religion was one of the few places women had real power in the ancient world) and refusing to have sex. The Greeks would have seen the obvious humor right away: the women have trouble keeping it in their pants. They probably wouldn't have expected the men to also have started going nuts, and walk in with comical erections, desperate for sex. The bst part? This only takes a few hours on either side.

After that, it's all pretty much standard fare, with everyone almost but not quite getting laid and increasing the frustration. Then peace is declared and everyone has an orgy on stage. Seriously.

The Frogs
This is pretty much an excuse for Aristophanes to lay into a couple of poets of differing styles. One he mocks for his deliberate and overwrought style (think the purplest of Victorian prose) and the other for being too prosaic, too vernacular. And he also lays into each of them for being a might too predictable, using the same metaphors, or always writing in a certain meter.

Essentially, Dionysus (always good for comic fare; he's a drunken cross-dresser**) goes to the underworld to collect his favorite poet to write some stuff for a contest. Along the way, he and his slave get into some wacky hijinks (mostly involving the fact that D is disguising himself as Herakles so no one will mess with him).

Apparently "The Frogs" was very popular with Athens. It won first prize and got called back for repeat performances in later years.

Again, I see the humor, and I smiled a bit, but it didn't really kick me in the teeth.



Next up: The Apprentice Adept trilogy by Piers Anthony.

* It's a myth. It doesn't have to make sense.
** If everyone wore robes, how can a man dress like a woman? Easy. Women wore yellow.
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