By Gwendolyn Compton-Eagle
CUP (2015) h/b 198 pp £65.00 (ISBN 0781107083790)
Aristophanes’ first productions made great use of visual effect. Slapstick performances, seriously inventive staging and occasionally fantastical costumes enhanced their comedic impact. Drawing on the evidence of texts, vase paintings and terracottas, C-E demonstrates how Aristophanes drew on earlier tradition to exploit to the utmost the dramatic possibilities of costume, ‘an underappreciated weapon in the comic poet’s arsenal’.
At the heart of her thesis is an exploration of the power dynamics of costume, which has a long literary pedigree. The control of costume in comedy, she argues, demonstrates a superiority just as potent as the control of armour in the Iliad. Thus, for example, Homeric stripping and humiliation of the bodies of fallen enemies parallels Aristophanic stripping and humiliation of unsympathetic characters (such as the informer in Wealth). No less powerful is the use of inappropriately feminine costume to emasculate other male characters, such as Blepyrus (Assemblywomen), the Relative (Women at the Thesmophoria) and the Proboulos (Lysistrata). Sometimes, however, cunning heroes such as Dicaeopolis in Acharnians and Euelpides in Birds, true heirs of Odysseus, can brilliantly exploit inappropriate costumes as disguise, while the less wily or courageous such as Dionysus in Frogs and the Relative in Women at the Thesmophoria try and fail (with comic consequences).
Many of Aristophanes’ most creative costumings have a lengthy pedigree, too—men in bird-costumes (perhaps performers in a dithyramb) appear on vases as early as 500-480 BC—but C-E shows how the conventions of Old Comedy, with its exuberant use of non-naturalistic flights of fancy, enabled Aristophanes brilliantly to manipulate expectations to create stunningly imaginative scenarios (especially in Birds), which exploit costume’s potential to the full.
Compellingly argued, well illustrated and drawing on fragmentary as well as complete plays, the book covers stage nudity (padded bodysuits), the use of everyday clothing, disguise, and spectacle, including choruses dressed as animals, islands or cities. One of its many strengths is its inclusion of case studies. Seven plays are examined in some detail: Knights, Lysistrata, Wasps, Assemblywomen, Acharnians, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Birds.
C-E states in her introduction that her intended readership is not only classicists but those ‘who may be more familiar with later periods of drama and more modern performance media’. To cater for both, passages are quoted in both Greek and English with the occasional individual word appearing in the text in Greek mostly—but curiously not always—translated and transliterated.