April 29, 2017

The Fourth Master

Greek theatre (I only ever ready about it in British books, for some reason) seems always to be about the tragedians:  Aeschylus, stern, formal, noble; Sophocles, wise, clear-eyed, yet soulful; and Euripides, the controversial upstart, the realist, the man who, upon examining prior Greek tragedy found it somehow too trite and full of easy answers.

Aristophanes, the clown, is generally glossed over or gets a few lines at the end of the syllabus, although he does get five pages in Richard Jenkyns' very good Classical Literature:  A Pelican Introduction.  But, having re-read Frogs this week again for the first time since college, I am convinced Aristophanes is the one who would be right at home in modern society.  The Jon Stewart of ancient Athens, his comedies were packed with political messages and fart jokes, denunciations of demagogues and fart jokes, deep philosophizing, and also fart jokes.  And, although his work was technically the Old Comedy, even Wodehouse (a New Comedy man) might admire his plotting.

Translation is a serious problem with Aristophanes.  Some of the jokes are so sexual or scatalogical that older translations gloss over them, giving us a text that is less literal AND less funny.  Here is an example:  in Frogs Dionysus dresses up as Heracles and heads for the underworld to retrieve a proper tragedian for Athens, as both Euripides and Sophocles had died the year before.  Dionysus can barely carry Heracles' club, and despite a bit of coaching from coaching quickly proves he not ready to wear the big man's sandals.  It plays like this in Paul Roche's enjoyable 2005 translation:
AEACUS: [peering from the threshold] So it’s you, 
you insolent piece of shit! Yes, shit, shittiest shit! 
You beat up our dog, Cerberus, 
and after nearly throttling him dragged him away with you. 
That hound was in my care. 
Now you’re well and truly in the soup. 
The black-hearted rock of Styx confronts you. 
The bleeding peaks of Acheron beetle above you.
The greyhounds of Cocytus and the dreaded Echidna § 
are ready to rip up your insides, 
and the giant eel of Tartesia will squeeze out your lungs. 
Besides, the Theirasian Gorgons will chew your bleeding 
balls and your 
guts as well. 
I’m off split arse to bring them here 
and give you hell.

Roche continues...
[AEACUS hurries away as DIONYSUS faints.]XANTHIAS (his servant): My, my, what d’you think you’re doing?
DIONYSUS: My butt runneth over. Let us pray.
XANTHIAS: Get to your feet, you damn fool, before anyone sees you.
DIONYSUS: But I feel faint. Do get me a sponge for my . . . my heart.  
XANTHIAS: [leaves and returns with a sponge]
Here, use it.
[He watches DIONYSUS wiping his bottom.]
Golden gods of Olympus! Is that where you keep your heart?  
DIONYSUS: Can’t help it— it got a fright and skedaddled down to my behind.
XANTHIAS: You’re the most abject coward, human or divine.
DIONYSUS: Me, a coward, just because I asked for a sponge? I’m the bravest man alive, bar none.
XANTHIAS: What would someone else have done?
DIONYSUS: A coward would have lain sprawled in his stinking mess, but I not only raised myself but sponged myself clean.

Here, via Project Gutenberg, is the same exchange as translated by  Benjamin Bickley Rogers (1828-1919):
  XAN. Hallo! what now?
  DIO. I've done it: call the god.
  XAN. Get up, you laughing-stock; get up directly, Before you're seen.
  DIO. What, _I_ get up? I'm fainting. Please dab a sponge of water on my
  XAN. Here!
  DIO. Dab it, you.
  XAN. Where? O, ye golden gods, Lies your heart THERE?
  DIO. It got so terrified
  It fluttered down into my stomach's pit.
  XAN. Cowardliest of gods and men!
  DIO. The cowardliest? I? What I, who asked you for a sponge, a thing
  A coward never would have done!
  XAN. What then?
  DIO. A coward would have lain there wallowing;
  But I stood up, and wiped myself withal.

Roche's translation has been reviewed critically by various pedants, but it has this going for it:  as well as being reasonably accurate, it is pretty funny.  And Roche, who did this translation in his late eighties, was clearly out of fucks to give. This is exactly the right attitude.

Here is a performance of the play (with good subtitles) from Cambridge in 2013:

Other highlights, keyed to the above performance:
  • The Frog Chorus, which was the first bit of classical literature that ever made me laugh (starts around 13:00).
  • The Debate of the Tragedians (starts around 37:00), in which Aeschylus ultimately defeats Euripides by pointing out that all of his best verses can be completed with the phrase "a cruet of oil" (e.g., 44:07).
  • The Dilemma of Dionysus (48:37), which Roche translates as: "they’re friends of mine, these men, and I certainly don’t want to decide between them or make an enemy of either. One amuses me. The other is a master."  
That last one is worthy of Wilde, and perfectly in-character for Dionysus.  But it's also a serious moment for an audience sitting in a ruined country, reflecting on where it all went wrong.  The failure to make peace on favorable terms?  The catastrophic expedition to Sicily?  Aristophanes makes the audience face it:  the giants are gone, and the greatest ones have been gone the longest.  And yet, even at this late stage of corruption they remain more focused on amusement than mastery.

As the Laird said the other day, thank goodness that's all behind us.
  • For your further listening pleasure:  Mr. Bragg et al on Greek comedy (link)


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