Playwright, Composer. He lived from approximately 446 BC to 386 BC. The greatest creator of Ancient Greek Old Comedy, he is the only representative of that genre whose plays have come down to us complete. Aristophanes ridiculed public figures and institutions with an impunity unrivaled in any age, and his humor, brimming with sex and scatology, can still raise eyebrows today. His naughtiness is balanced by an extraordinary imagination for comic fantasy and the lyrical charm of his poetry for the chorus. Of his estimated 40 plays 11 survive, including "The Birds" (414 BC), a utopian fantasy, the anti-war comedy "Lysistrata" (411 BC), and the literary satire "The Frogs" (405 BC). Few facts are known of Aristophanes' life. He was the son of Philippus of the Cydathenaus district in Athens, Greece, and apparently never left his hometown. His first comedy, the now lost "The Banqueters" (427 BC), took second place at the City Dionysia festival. Most of his career was spent amidst the turmoil of the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC), which he opposed in several plays, and the ruinous aftermath that brought an end to Athens as a dominant military empire. He won at least 10 prizes for comedy (six of them firsts), primarily at the Lenaia festival. Apart from a single term as a City Councillor (399 BC) he held no public office. One of his three sons, Araros, acted as producer for his last two or three plays, ending with "Aiolosikon" (lost, 386 BC). Plato provided a humorous portrait of him in "Symposium" (c. 385 BC), and reputedly wrote the epitaph for his long-since vanished tomb along a road outside Athens. For the rest of his biography we rely on references in his plays and their concurrent history. When the teenaged Aristophanes arrived on the scene Old Comedy had flourished in Athens for 60 years. Its irreverent obscenity originated in the phallic religious celebrations of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine and, according to tradition, a big fan of dirty jokes. Cratinus made it a vehicle for political satire and personal abuse with the support of the Athenian democracy. Official patronage was not always a given. From 440 to 437 BC comedy was prohibited under the pretext of wartime censorship and in 415 BC a law was passed restricting slander against politicians. And it was with a political controversy that Aristophanes first made his name. His lost second play "The Babylonians" scored top honors at the 426 BC City Dionysia by showing the powerful demagogue Cleon as a war profiteer and Athens' allies as slaves. Cleon accused Aristophanes of treason in the Senate, charging he had defamed the polis in the presence of foreigners in the audience. The outcome of this legal action is unknown but Aristophanes continued attacking him at the Lenaia festival (for Athenian citizens only), vowing revenge in "The Acharnians" (425 BC) and delivering it with "The Knights" (424 BC). In the latter a corrupt ruler representing Cleon is overthrown by the public in favor of a crass sausage vendor, an improvement according to the playwright. No actor would risk Cleon's wrath so Aristophanes had to play the role himself. "In my opinion, the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all", he lamented through the chorus. Typically, he was too busy firing derisive broadsides to waste much time feeling sorry for himself. The same play inspired public feuds with rival playwrights Cratinus and Eupolis and is full of potshots at others, including the audience itself. Nothing was sacred to his pen. "The Acharnians", Aristophanes' earliest surviving play, is also the world's first anti-war comedy, motivated by the devastation the Peloponnesian conflict wrought on the Attic countryside. It presents a stubborn farmer who arranges a private peace treaty with Sparta; he pacifies his outraged neighbors with a theatrical speech, complete with costume and props borrowed from a notorious tragic poet. Here Aristophanes introduced his favorite target, the playwright Euripides, as his personal symbol for all "decadent" developments in Athenian art. He appears as a character in three of the comedies and is the butt of snide references and misquotes in the rest. Cratinus coined an enduring term for Aristophanes' fixation, "Euripidaristophanizing", and given his intimate knowledge of Euripides' work he probably admired the old tragedian more than he dared to admit. There is a similar instance of cultural scapegoating in "The Clouds" (423 BC). Stepping back from politics and war, Aristophanes satirized sophism, a philosophical movement that in practice deteriorated into the manipulation of logic and rhetoric for personal gain. The plot has Socrates running a school called The Thinkery where young men are taught to cheat others through specious arguments. Although it has its quota of bawdiness - the lead character offers Socrates the middle finger, history's oldest recorded use of that gesture - "The Clouds" is often cited as the original "comedy of ideas", personified in its debate between True and False Logic. (Since this is Aristophanes, False Logic wins). Socrates, a man who devoted his life to ethical questioning, was no sophist. But he was the most famous philosopher in Athens and name recognition alone made it convenient for comic poets to lay all sorts of educational heresies at his door. In his "Apology" Plato cited "The Clouds" as a factor in Socrates' 399 BC trial and execution, but this accusation seems as unlikely as the theatrical caricature. Aristophanes considered it his best play and was furious with its last place finish at the Lenaia; he later revised it for circulation in manuscript, and this is the version that survives. Cleon-bashing returned in "The Wasps" (422 BC), a skewering of the Athenian jury system Aristophanes believed was compromised by political influence. The standout scene is a hilarious mock trial of a family dog for stealing a cheese - the mutt's puppies are brought in to howl for mercy, just as families of the accused were in Athens' courts to sway juror opinion. A note of cautious optimism is sounded in "Peace" (421 BC), in which a man flies to heaven on the back of a giant dung beetle to rescue Peace from the clutches of War. It was written in anticipation of the Peace of Nicias (421 to 415 BC), a truce made possible by Cleon's death in battle. Notable are its lyrics about the joys of peacetime living, along with sober implications that war-mongers still pose a threat to the future. Many consider "The Birds" Aristophanes' masterpiece. His longest play, it has the strongest elements of fantasy and lyricism and fewest political allusions. Two malcontent Athenians nudge the world's birds into establishing their own kingdom in the sky, Cloudcukooland, to starve the gods into submission by preventing the smoke of mortals' sacrifices from reaching them. The plan succeeds and the birds live happily ever after as mankind's new masters. This seemingly escapist premise has inspired centuries of debate over its interpretation; given the period when it was produced, critics have argued that Aristophanes intended it as a cunning allegory for Athens' revived colonial ambitions. In "Thesmophoriazusae" ("Women of the Thesmophoria", 411 BC) he served an elaborate dishing of Euripides and his reputation as a misogynist. Believing the ladies of Athens are using the all-female Thesmophoria festival to plot his death, Euripides disguises his reluctant father-in-law as a woman to infiltrate the proceedings. In the course of the action several of his tragedies are parodied. Aristophanes' forebodings in "Peace" were tragically realized by 411 BC. Athens' uneasy truce with Sparta was marred by sabre-rattling and a flare-up between their allies in 418 BC. After brutally subjugating the island of Melos (416 BC) they had reactivated the Peloponnesian War with the Sicilian Expedition (415 to 413 BC), a military disaster that cost Athens 40,000 lives and most of its navy. The city was demoralized and on the verge of revolt, culminating in a short-lived oligarchical coup. Against this background Aristophanes made his greatest plea for peace in "Lysistrata". The heroine of the title (her name means "disbander of armies") is unique in ancient literature, a female citizen with prodigious leadership skills and common sense. Sick of the endless hostilities, she seizes the Acropolis, where the Athenian treasury is kept, and organizes the women of Greece into depriving their men of sex until they agree to stop fighting. The play's boisterous ribaldry is interrupted by Lysistrata's pointed debate with a magistrate. When told that war is "a man's business" in which women have no stake, Lysistrata counters that it robs them of their sons and husbands, while unmarried girls are left to become old maids; since men are incapable of anything but needlessly killing each other it was high time war became "a woman's business". Merriment resumes with the classic "tease scene" between Myrrhine and her husband Kinesias, while Lysistrata flaunts Peace (a nubile naked woman) to further torment her male opponents. Undone by their raging concupiscence, the men finally surrender to Lysistrata's terms. The themes of "Lysistrata" lend themselves well to modern feminist/pacifist readings, and along with the raunchy jokes have made it the most popular Ancient Greek play in our times. "The Frogs" is in many ways a valedictory. Dionysus, the patron of drama, is annoyed at the state of tragedy in Athens. Euripides and Sophocles have recently died, Agathon is in self-exile, and no living author is inspired enough to take their place. The god goes down to Hades to bring Euripides back, only to discover he must judge a bitter contest of supremacy between his favorite playwright and the long-dead Aeschylus. Following wicked spoofs of each other's work their verses are placed on a scale, and Dionysus chooses to return to Earth with Aeschylus instead because he is the "weightier" poet. "The Frogs" proved to be Aristophanes' greatest triumph. Besides winning first prize at the Lenaia it was given the unprecedented honor of a second performance, and the author was awarded a special civic crown. The extra laurels may have reflected the similar woeful state of Athenian comedy - Aristophanes' last worthy rival, Eupolis, had disappeared (we don't know his fate) some years earlier. In historical terms this event brought down the final curtain on Old Comedy. When we hear from Aristophanes again, in 392 BC, he was living in a different world: Sparta had crushed Athens and he was no longer able to criticize the state freely. His last surviving plays, "Ecclesiazusae" ("The Assemblywomen", 392 BC) and "Plutus" ("Wealth", 388 BC), represent the only complete examples of Middle Comedy, marked by a broader satire aimed at types instead of individuals. The chorus - the wellspring of beauty and bile in his previous work - is virtually absent, so it's no surprise these comedies lack vitality. The lost "Kokalos" (387 BC) was his first victory at the City Dionysia in 39 years; he died around this time and the prize might have been awarded posthumously. Aristophanes has traditionally been labeled a nostalgic conservative, even a reactionary, because he assailed radical developments in politics, philosophy, and art in his plays. A later view characterizes him as a professional theatre man whose job was to win laughs and prizes, and who knew he'd be more likely to get them poking fun at strange new trends than challenging the status quo. His life and work are elusive enough to support both theories and more - there is even a 21st Century study called "Aristophanes the Democrat". One thing is certain, he was free from illusions about human behavior without being cynical about it. Like most Classical Athenian dramatists, Aristophanes wrote the music for his plays. Song and dance were essential elements of Greek theatre, especially in comedy, which best embodied the festive spirit of the Dionysian rituals. The scores are lost but he likely composed in an accepted popular vein, as he was never counted among the purveyors of the freer style of 5th Century Greek "New Music". Lyrics and references in some of the plays make it certain he resorted to pastiche of that style whenever it suited his purposes. In "The Birds" he disdainfully put these words into the mouth of Cinesias, a contemporary "New Music" songwriter: "Our brilliant dithyrambs are made of air, of mist and gleaming murk and wispy wings". His parodies of the songs of Cinesias and of Agathon (in "Thesmophoriazusae") are verbally brilliant but he outdid himself in "The Frogs", spoofing a Euripides ode to the clattering of castanets, an instrument used by Greek prostitutes to attract customers. It's also intriguing to imagine how he scored the frogs' croaking chorus in that play ("Brekekekex-koax-koax") or the majestic entry of the clouds in the Socrates comedy. Throughout antiquity Aristophanes was ranked with Cratinus and Eupolis as a master of Athenian comedy. He was studied through the Middle Ages and was the first Ancient Greek playwright whose works appeared in a printed edition (1498). He had a particular influence on English comedy, from Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton to Henry Fielding. The 17th Century French classicists had no use for him; Goethe produced a German adaptation of "The Birds" (1780) and Franz Schubert wrote a comic opera based on "Lysistrata" ("The Conspirators", 1823). Censorship long prevented the acceptance of Aristophanes' work in all its profane glory. An unexpurgated 1896 English translation of "Lysistrata", with Aubrey Beardsley's celebrated illustrations, originally appeared in a private edition of only 100 copies. 20th Century permissiveness brought him back to the stage with a vengeance. He poses problems for today's reader or spectator: his obscure topical satire, weaknesses in plot and character development, the puns and literary allusions that are difficult or impossible to render in modern languages. But his robust genius is so universal that much of the humor still shines through. Aristophanes' finest comedies are entertaining people 2500 years after they were written. (bio by: Bobb Edwards)
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"The Graces, seeking a shrine that could not fall, discovered the soul of Aristophanes"
Specifically: Tomb of Aristophanes (defunct), Athens, Greece
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Originally Created by: Bobb Edwards
Record added: Mar 04, 2012
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