in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Aristophanes', The Birds

From Chapter 5, “Aristophanes,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 72-76.


The Birds typifies Aristophanes’s earlier plays. Two Athenians, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, evidently fed up with Athenian conditions, visit Tereus, who has been turned into a hoopoe bird by the gods. The reasons Euelpides and Pisthetaerus have decided on this course of action are as conveniently vague as their frustration with Athens; they are interested in finding directions to a better polis than the one they have left. Equally vague are the means the Athenians have used to arrive at Tereus’s bower.

Once he confronts Tereus, Pisthetaerus suddenly gets an idea: If the birds are not aware of a utopian city on earth, they should build one of their own in the sky. By a series of ingenious arguments based on parodies of Greek myths and sacred rites, Pisthetaerus proves to the birds that they were once masters of the gods and might be again if they were to build a city between earth and heaven, blocking the aroma of sacrifices from reaching the gods. After some original distrust of man, the birds are won over, though Euelpides demurs that the gods will be angered. He quickly disappears and does not return.

The birds immediately set about building the city.  Messengers are dispatched to both men and gods declaring the new order of things. Before the messengers have a chance to return, Pisthetaerus is deluged by corrupt Athenian political hacks come to prey on the newly formed city. He quickly drives them all off.

As elsewhere in Aristophanes, the gods prove strangely impotent to do anything about the blockade of their sacrifices, and they finally send an ambassadorial mission to sue for peace. Heracles, Poseidon, and Triballus quickly break down in abject surrender at the smell of food. The play ends with the gods delivering Zeus’s highest powers to Pisthetaerus, including Royalty as a symbolic bride.

As a plot synopsis, The Birds might seem fairly comedic, employing as it does a hero’s challenges and successes and even his marriage. If we had defined comedy as simply a successful action, such a plot would have to qualify as comedy. Our actual definition, however, is that comedy is a patterning throughout, which asserts a faith in human survival and the conditions or qualifications on that survival.

In The Birds, the patterning throughout is missing. We can see this lack best by changing the ending. A play with a definite pattern develops to an inevitable ending based on the pattern, but the ending of The Birds is arbitrary and could be easily changed. What if, at the end of The Birds, Zeus himself came down with thunderbolts and threw everyone into Tartarus? Such an ending would certainly change the strong implication that the gods are either figments of barbarous imagination or impotent figureheads. But the rest of the play would not be seriously affected. We would look back on Euelpides’s misgiving and say that we have been prepared for just such an ending. The new ending may, in fact, have more patterned justification than the original.

Imagine again that all the swindlers who try to profit from the new city go back to earth and convince men to build engines of war to blow the new polis right out of the sky. Such an ending would only strengthen the strong implication already in the play that the bad destroy the good. Again, there is more patterning to justify the new ending that the original one. Aristophanes provides an upbeat ending, not because it is necessary for the completion of a pattern but only to announce the end of his satire.

There is a similar lack of patterning in politically satiric comic strips like “Pogo” and “Li’l Abner.” The current generation of readers has grown up with Li’l Abner married to Daisy Mae and will therefore not remember that Abner began as a confirmed bachelor, escaping (?) Daisy’s fond embraces every Sadie Hawkins’ Day. But then, after seventeen years, Capp decided that the joke was getting stale and that a new joke, premised on the girl-shy Abner marrying Daisy, was in order. While the world was outraged and it seemed for a while that Sadie Hawkins’ Day events at colleges and church bazaars would have to be canceled, things quickly settled down to the new routine, Sadie Hawkins’ Day still coming each year, with Li’l Abner and Daisy sitting it out.

Capp tells the story of this change in “It’s Hideously True” as if it had something profound to say about comedy.[i] Rather, it has something to say about what is not comedy but goes by the same name. In the modern world, we have two different creatures, both going by the name of comedy. One is closely akin to what Menander did and is what we are considering comedy. The other, having much to do with Aristophanes, should properly be called a form of satire.

Now satire itself contains disparate things, what we might want to call satire proper and the satiric. On the one hand, there are highly patterned, complete works like “The Rape of the Lock” and “A Modest Proposal.” These I would call satire proper. But there are also the efforts of stand-up comedians, who string together loosely associated jokes, anecdotes, and caricatures, leading from one punch line to another with perhaps only an overall sense of point or direction. This is the school that has fostered such long-term successes as “Laugh-In” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and these I would call examples of the satiric. The satiric sometimes invades formats like “Sanford and Son.” Since comedy easily accommodates jokes and satire, the satiric work that lacks form of its own can easily borrow from the comedic, leading to a confusion of the two. But most often, the author of the satiric work has no interest in comedic patterning per se, and what starts as a comedic patterning quickly becomes no more than an empty shell, resembling the original comedic pattern in little more than a happy ending.

Clearly, The Birds is more an example of the satiric than of comedy. This is not to say that The Birds is poor theatre. Rather, to say that The Birds is comedy is to say that it is inadequate and confusing comedy and poor theatre. The Greeks were not disappointed in Aristophanes. He was not trying to be a comedian, and they were not looking to his plays for a patterned comedy. They were looking for a medium to work out political and social ideas in a humorous format, much as a modern audience expects political and social ideas in cartoons. Like the modern cartoonist and the modern stand-up “comedian”—really a satirist—Aristophanes attempted to veil his political, social, and religious message in amusing characters and situations. That made memorable theatre. It doesn’t make comedy.

In The Birds, we find no patterned assertion that utopia is possible or that man can exist without utopia. Rather, behind The Birds lies the cynical assertion that there is no utopia, no place that really measures up to man’s preconscious feeling of what the world should and could be like. Cookoonebulopolis, the city built by the birds, is far from Athens; yet it is still the potential prey of charlatans of every variety, and Aristophanes gives us no reason to believe that they will forever be foiled. They are drawn in quick, bold strokes for presentation on stage and routinely dismissed by Pisthetaerus. But clearly Aristophanes does not think they can be easily dismissed in real life. The easy victory Aristophanes presents is only the easy victory of satiric technique. He proposes no real solution or even any assertion of faith that such charlatans can be purged from human existence.

The lack of such a solution or assertion is the absence of a comedic pattern. Similarly, there is no pattern that asserts that the human race will survive with the help of the gods or despite the gods, no assertion that we can survive with the birds in the air or on the ground with corrupt human beings. All such assertive patterns are irrelevant to Aristophanes because he is not writing comedy; he is writing a satiric condemnation of the evil of Athens.





[i] Life 32(Mar.13, 1952): 100-108, reprinted in Corrigan, Comedy:  Meaning and Form, pp. 343-49.