Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Acharnians by Aristophanes

"Oh, I know we always say hard things about the Spartans; but are they really responsible for everything?"
Years ago I purchased a 1973 Penguin Classics paperback of three plays by Aristophanes from one of the carts outside Alabaster Books in beautiful Lower Manhattan.  (You'll remember Aristophanes from that much-beloved episode of The Odd Couple.)  Work-related errands often found me in the area, and, since I was working for the government, I had plenty of time to hang out at Alabaster and leisurely pore over the bargain book carts on the sidewalk there on 4th Avenue by 12th Street, flip through the art books, stroll inside to scrutinize the small SF section in the back of the cramped little store.

I didn't purchase the little black paperback because I had a burning desire to read Aristophanes--I bought it because on its cover is a photo of my favorite Greek vase painting, the Achilles Painter's depiction of a woman bidding farewell to a warrior on a white-ground lekythos.  I haven't actually seen this vase in real life (it resides in Athens) but it is quite famous and often reproduced in books and online.  I love the spare and elegant lines, the perfectly proportioned faces and hands of the figures, and the colors.  The scenario is touching (is this the last time they will see each other alive?) and the military history buff in me adores the warrior's helmet and his shield, which has an eye painted on it.

This weekend I became curious about Aristophanes and so read one of the three plays included in the book, The Acharnians, translated by Alan Sommerstein.  I didn't even know who or what an Acharnian was before I started the play, so it was about as spoiler-free an experience as could be imagined.

The Acharnians, it turns out, are the inhabitants of the town of Acharnae, seven miles from Athens.  The play was produced and takes place in 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, when the people of Acharnae were forced to hide behind the walls of Athens because the Spartans were periodically destroying everything in the area.

The Acharnians in the play are represented by the chorus, a bunch of angry old men who lust for revenge over the Spartans:
Zeus and all ye gods in heaven,
   Never shall we rest from war
Till the pillage of our vineyards
   Is revenged in Spartan gore.
The point of Aristophanes's play is to advocate coming to terms with the Spartans, and so initially the Acharnian chorus plays the role of the heavy, rabidly assaulting any Athenian who advocates for peace talks:
Listen?--never while we've breath!Villain, now you meet your death!Die beneath a hail of stones:They will serve to hide your bones. 
The hero of the play is Dikaiopolis, an old farmer who wants peace, and earns the animosity of the Acharnians.  This is a comedy, and Dikaiopolis cracks a lot of jokes, and acts in a ridiculous manner.  He drinks some Spartan wine and declares that he has made a separate, personal, peace treaty with Sparta, waving around the wine skins and declaring them to be peace treaties (this is one of the play's numerous untranslatable puns--in Greek the words for "treaty" and "libation of wine" are the same.)  The Acharnians get after him, and he begs them to give him an opportunity to make his case:  he will lay his head on a chopping block, give his peace oration, and, if they don't like it, they are free to decapitate him!

Dikaiopolis's speech, which lays much blame for the war on Athens' own leaders, sways the crowd, and he escapes with his head.  He sets up a market to conduct forbidden trade with the Megarians and Boeotians, allies of the Spartans.  One Megarian, made destitute by the war, tries to sell Dikaiopolis his daughters, comically disguising them as swine.  Demonstrating the benefits of peace, Dikaiopolis makes a tidy profit at his market, despite the efforts of informers who try to interfere.  The final pages, the funniest in the play, contrast the pleasure of Dikaiopolis as he goes off to a party with gorgeous girls and the pain of the general Lamachus who marches off to fight in the bitter cold, only to be wounded while crossing a ditch.
Lamachus:     Friends, take me up and mind my leg:
                          Attend a soldier sick.
Dikaiopolis:   Girls, take me up and get a grip
                           On my rejoicing prick. 
The Acharnians is a pretty funny play, even though many of the jokes will be hard for a modern Anglophone audience to get at first glance.  Besides the untranslatable puns, there are tons of jokes about current events and celebrities of the day; in fact, much of the play is a spoof of a tragedy by Euripides (one which is no longer extant) and a lampoon of Euripides himself.  These jokes are explained in the endnotes (there are 85 such notes, and I broke the spine of this old desiccated book flipping back and forth while reading this play) and Sommerstein endeavors to use language a 1970s audience will laugh at (the first bit of dialogue has Dikaiopolis declaring "I'll heckle him like fury until he shuts his cakehole tight.")  Sommerstein has Euripides speak in Elizabethan English ("I'll give it thee; for subtle are thy schemes, and intricate the courses of thy mind") so he sounds pretentious, the poor Megarian in a working class (Scottish?) dialect.  And some of the jokes work in any context:
Megarian: Och, so-so.  When I left tae come here, the government was doing its best tae see we achieved a speedy and complete catastrophe.   
The Acharnians is entertaining, and provides insight into life and ways of thinking in the long ago world of 5th century Greece.  Perhaps most surprising to modern readers will be Aristophanes' criticism of democracy; perhaps also remarkable is the fact that this play, which is so critical of Athens' leaders and government, was well-received by Athenian theatre-goers.  Definitely a worthwhile read.      

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