Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Classics

Page duBois on the Chaotic Glory of Greek Comedy

In her new book, Democratic Swarms, Page duBois explores the lively, chaotic, and anti-authoritarian glory of ancient Greek comedy. Often overshadowed by the study of Greek tragedy, comedy, as duBois shows, is brimming with joy, free speech, and the irrepressible energy of the swarm that can provide a model for the political resistance movements of today. Traveling deep into the world of the ancient Greeks, she looks back on her fascination with these plays and discusses some of her favorites.

Greek tragedy seemed somber, labored, painful, . . . tragic. I first encountered it in performance as badly-filmed, blurry, black and white cinema. A play of Sophocles, perhaps Oedipus Rex, performed in the courtyard of the Sorbonne in Paris. Actors stepping carefully, ponderously, in their stage boots, with huge masks that prevented any expression, lines spoken in Greek through inadequate voice tubes. Worthy, but depressing. I kept on studying Greek but was made to understand that tragedy was an elite, difficult and challenging genre, bearing the terrible weight of suffering of the Hellenic tradition. Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Barthes, others to follow, brooding on the grief, mourning, wretchedness of the family of Oedipus.

Then, on a long-ago trip to Greece, which I had avoided for some years, not wanting to spoil my sense of the pure, austere Attic civilization communicated in classics courses by contact with modernity, I found myself on a hydrofoil, zooming across the sea from Piraeus to the harbor near the ancient site of Epidaurus, dedicated to healing, to the god Asklepios. The theater connected to the sanctuary, which had once performed miraculous acts of purification and repair, is one of the wonders of the ancient world. Tour guides reveal its extraordinary acoustics, directing their tourists to the highest levels of the amphitheater, then dropping a pin in the orchestra section of the open-air site, a pin drop heard with crystalline clarity.

The performance I saw there of one of Aristophanes’ comedies was glorious. Music, much of it based on popular culture and folk music, dancing, a chorus dressed in brilliantly colored costumes, and a pattern of relentless allusion to current events, to politicians and other notables, raked by scatological, sexual, hilarious comic threats to those in power in the Greece of the day. The performance was exhilaratingly chaotic, anarchic, riotous, and utterly captivating, and I began to think, how does this fit in with the sober, often dour, Anglo-Saxon presentation of the ancient Greeks that I had signed up for as a budding classicist.

Comedy has been the poor step-child of ancient drama. A long genealogy of philosophers and philologists has privileged tragedy, seeing it as the deep and meaningful heart of ancient Athenian life—its democracy, its philosophy, its legal system, and its politics. What remains of Aristotle’s Poetics guided them to this emphasis on the tragic. The section on comedy of this most influential work did not survive antiquity, and in what remains he seems to find comedy relatively trivial and low. My training in classics sustained a sense that comedy was less significant than tragedy, more topical, even embarrassingly vulgar, trapped in its moment of creation and unworthy of rescue.

But in fact, comedy was as important in ancient Athenian dramatic festivals as tragedy. The democratic city fostered both genres, at some point even providing payment to those who attended the performances. And ancient drama put on stage not only the agonies of a mythic past, the sufferings of royal families and defeated warriors and slaves, but also the contemporary, vital, lustful, even ecstatic everyday life of the collective, the multitude, the swarm, with all its desires and hatreds. Our legacy from ancient Greece includes not just people from all over the Mediterranean Sea, people of many colors, but also comedy as a force for imagining, unseating the powerful, living with, or as animals, abolishing slavery, refreshing democracy, imagining change. Perhaps more difficult, in fact, than tragedy, to put on stage, since comic poets wrote less, and the preparation of those comic plays chosen by the city to be performed required large sums, for training the chorus, providing costumes, perhaps individualized. Some scholars believe the members of the chorus of Aristophanes’s Birds, for example, were flamboyantly garbed in costumes that reflected their various bird identities; the playwright mentions, in a cloud, a swarm of birds, the partridge, a widgeon, a halcyon, a clipper, an owl, a jay and turtle, a lark, and sedge-bird, thyme-finch, ring-dove, rock-dove, stock-dove, cuckoo, falcon, fiery-crest, willow-wren, lammergeyer, porphyrion, kestrel, wax-wing, nuthatch, water-hen, blackbirds, hoopoe, nightingale. Costumed, bird by bird. Jeremy Mynott has written a wonderful book, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, that brings them to life, and reminds me of their vulnerability in our world of cataclysmic warming. Aristophanes’s Birds has wild ambitions: to remember the wilderness landscape of birdlife, to invent a utopia and then see it fall, to imagine a city that welcomed runaway slaves, to use Athenian freedom of speech, parrhesia, to call out and ridicule and insult the powerful in the city.

In comedies now lost, there were choruses of cities, helots (the enslaved of the Spartans), draft-dodgers, centaurs, satyrs, and many many more. Surviving choruses, other swarms, other sometimes wild, anarchic, dancing and singing choruses, include frogs, clouds, women on sex-strike, women celebrating their rituals, women inventing a new politics for their city, a utopia of communalism, communism, communal luxury. These swarming choruses of ancient comedy prefigure present-day demonstrations, demands for the impossible, the international crowds of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise movement, Extinction Rebellion, the Umbrella Movement, and more to come, of our own time.

 In Aristophanes’s comedy The Assemblywomen, the chorus and their leader use their domestic skills and economic power to govern benignly and to gratify their sexual desires, notoriously excessive and unsatisfied in the gender ideology of the Athenians. A very strong woman, Praxagora, lists the benefits that will flow from the women’s rule, among them “no more poor people”. Praxagora declares that her first act will be to “communize,” that is make “common,” koinon, the land, the silver or money, and everything else that belongs to each of them. The women will administer this commonality, and those who own movable property such as coins will contribute it to a common fund. The chorus supports her plans, asking her to have a “philosophical mind,” in language that reminds me of the very different utopianism of Plato, beloved of conservatives:

For it’s to the prosperity of all alike

that from your lips comes a bright idea

to gladden the lives of the city’s people

with countless benefits.

The play ends with joyous dancing, singing, and a voluptuous feast. I can’t wait to see it.

–Page duBois

Photo by Maria Prendergast

Page duBois is Distinguished Professor of classics, comparative literature, and cultural studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of several books, including Sappho is BurningSlaves and Other ObjectsOut of Athens: The New Ancient Greeks, and most recently, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism.

Democratic Swarms is available on our website or from your favorite bookseller.