Birds of Aristophanes

The Birds holds special memories for me because my fourth grade teacher had us read it aloud in class. Thus, it was not just the first Aristophanes play I read, but my first exposure to any Greek drama. The play has certain characteristics that make it particularly suitable for a class of of 9-year-olds. For one thing, it has 22 speaking parts, plus the chorus, so everyone in the class can participate. More importantly, it is relatively free from the sort of political comedy and inside humor that can make Aristophanes’ other plays hard to follow for those of us not lucky enough to have grown up in Classical Athens. Rather, the play is straight-up fantasy of a sort that even children can understand.

The premise of the play is that two Athenian men, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, become fed up with modern life in Athens and leave to seek a simpler existence. They find their way to the king of the birds, the hoopoe, who tells them what a splendid life the birds live,

EUELPIDES But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.

 

HOOPOE Why, ’tis not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.

 

EUELPIDES That does away with much roguery.

 

HOOPOE For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.

 

EUELPIDES Why, ’tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.

Euelpidies and Pisthetaerus are completely sold and decide to move in with their new avian friends, convincing the birds to let them found a new city in the sky called Nephelococcygia (cloud-cuckoo-town). Nephelococcygia is not just a utopia, but is destined to become fabulously wealthy because it controls the lines of communication between men and the gods. Before the  founding ceremony is even finished the new city attracts a parade of charlatans, bureaucrats, and other parasites who are trying to cash in on the project. No sooner have these been dealt with than a delegation of gods, including the slow-witted Heracles and a foreign god whom no one can understand, show up to discover why their sacrifices are being blocked. Pisthetaerus fast-talks these envoys until they agree to give him not only Zeus’ scepter, but the hand of the goddess Royalty in marriage, effectively promoting him to divinity himself.

A Hoopoe [photo by Flickr user  Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0]

A Hoopoe [photo by Flickr user Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Birds was produced at a time when the citizens of Athens needed an escapist fantasy to take their minds off current events. The Sicilian Expedition, which had been expected to be an easy victory, had become a sucking quagmire that continued to devour men, ships and money. The war with Sparta on the mainland was beginning to heat up again. Alcibiades had defected to Sparta, where he proceeded to dispense strategic advice and point out Athens’ weak spots. It would have been hard to find anything funny in the real world that year to write about.

At he same time, the city’s wealth was not yet expended to the point that it could not fund a big budget play. Everything about The Birds is written to show off the most lavish costumes, music, and effects that Aristophanes could find.

Aristophanes’ instincts were good, even though he only ended up taking second place in the Dyonisia. A spectacular, big-budget fantasy show is often just what the public needs when things are grim. Consider the wild popularity of the movie The Wizard of Oz at the height of the great depression, or the first installments of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, released in the wake of the September 11 bombings.

Title Sheet from an 1883 production of the Birds at Cambridge [public domain via King's College Archive Centre]

Title sheet from an 1883 production of the Birds at Cambridge [public domain via King’s College Archive Centre]

As the Peloponnesian War dragged on the city became poorer; Aristophanes was forced to write plays with smaller casts and scale back the chorus’ song and dance interludes. Athenian culture shifted, particularly after the war, becoming more abstractly intellectual. Aristophanes’ topics shifted with it, away from politics to the literary criticism of The Frogs, and finally to the comedy of manners style of the Middle Comedy. While we must admire his adaptability and ability to evolve as a writer, it is hard not to believe that he must have looked back nostalgically to 414 BCE and The Birds, when all the people wanted was a really big show with lots of music and costumes.

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