Fowl play

January 15, 2008

The Birds (414 BC)
Aristophanes (Meridian, 1994; trans. W. Arrowsmith)
168 p. First reading.

I’ve been surprised, and pleasantly so. Coming to this play my ignorance of Greek drama was near total — a shameful state of affairs, to be sure. For some reason I was expecting something formal, spacious, and sombre. I was way off.

Aristophanes is a comic playwright, and the play is a comic delight. It’s ironic, ribald and impious, and just plain goofy. There’s a splendid bright-eyed freshness to the whimsy, yet it doesn’t lose its satiric edge. It must have been wonderful for the original audience. Certain aspects of the play, however, pose hard challenges for the translator. In this version, Arrowsmith copes manfully with the frequent wordplay, translating for effect rather than literal meaning, but the many references to specific Athenians and (then) current events are harder to dance around. There are plenty of notes to help the reader with this, but even so it does inevitably blunt the spontaneity of the humour.

We have two Athenians, Pisthetairos (Plausible) and Euelpides (Hopeful), who are fed up with the merciless politics and cut-throat business practices of their fellow citizens. They decide to leave and live with the birds. In fact, they befriend the birds and hatch a plan together: they will build an enormous city in the sky, especially for birds, and because all the prayers and sacrifices from earth will have to pass through the city to reach the gods, and because the blessings of the gods will have to do the same to reach the earth, they’ll become masters of both men and gods. By inserting themselves in the middle and controllng traffic, they’ll be able to extort demands from everyone! This city, which they imagine will be a kind of utopia, they call “Cloudcuckooland”.

The irony, of course, is that as they build the city and begin to carry out the plan, they slowly become the powerful figures they fled Athens to escape: arbitrary, cruel, and haughty. Even when the gods come begging, Pisthetairos treats them with contempt. And it works! He gets the sceptre of Zeus and marries Miss Universe. Tricky old bird.

[An impious prayer]
Again we raise
the hymn of praise
and pour the sacred wine.

With solemn rite
we now invite
the blessed gods to dine.

But don’t all come —
perhaps just one,
and maybe then again

there’s not enough
(besides, it’s tough)
so stay away. Amen.

2 Responses to “Fowl play”

  1. Matthew Says:

    Is it just me or does this remind you slightly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Perhaps it’s true that there are no new stories, just retellings of old ones.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I hadn’t made that connection before, but I think you’re onto something. The tone of Animal Farm is quite different, and it is a strict animal fable, which The Birds is not, but those variations don’t entirely obscure the theme. Insofar as they both illustrate utopian politics bearing fruit in tyranny, they are remarkably similar. Good insight!

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