Inspired by preparing to teach Lower 6th Classical Civilisation (Aristophanes and Athens) in September, and also starting to read Mary Beard’s book ‘Laughter in Ancient Rome’, I have put together the following, simply the first few lines of each surviving Aristophanes comedy, along with my translation. I think the opening of a play can tell you quite a bit about the impact the playwright is trying to make on the audience, and although he may later on in the play take an entirely different tack, it is nonetheless vital as a hook to try to get the audience smiling along with the poet.
I have used the texts from Perseus, and plumped for the first 3 lines, unless ending at the 3rd line would harm the sense, in which case I’ve gone for 4 or 5. I have put them in what I think is chronological order, in case this tells us anything about the development of Aristophanic comedy and its structures and/or expectations…
I have put my own first thoughts, ill-formed and raw as they are, below each opening.
I have been bitten so often on my heart,
and I’ve had few pleasurable moments, very few… four:
but the things that have caused me pain are hundredsofgrainsofsandy.
[I do love the descending tricolon in line 2. Also a great Aristophanic bundlelotsofwordsintooneword at the end of line 3!]
Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh the miseries, aaaaaaaaah!
In misery may the gods destroy the Paphlagonian,
that miserable new slave I bought, and his advice too!
[What a great opening it must have been – a hush goes over the audience, and the silence is pierced with this melodramatic tragedy-like scream! Over-the-top repetition of κακὸν words as well!]
Oh woe, oh woe:
O Zeus, king, such is the misfortune of my nights:
Infinite! Will day-time never come?
[Great first line, really makes you think you’re in a tragedy, which will then, of course, with typical Aristophanic bathos, be punctured. Also the enjambment on line 3.]
S: Oh, it’s you! What’s wrong, wretched Xanthias?
X: I’m teaching myself to cast off my night-shift.
S: So you’re setting yourself up for some sort of great misery for your ribs!
[Rather more low-key, working more on character of these great Aristophanic slaves]
S1: Bring it! Quick as you can, bring the cake for the dung-beetle!
S2: There! Give it to him – I hope he dies in the most horrible way,
and never eats a better cake than that one.
[A genius opening – ‘wtf?’! Why on earth are they feeding cake to a dung beetle?! Really feel like we’re dropped into the middle of a bizarre situation!]
E: What do you think? Straight on, to get to the tree?
P: Oh sod off! This one’s cawing me back!
E: Why are we wandering up and down, you idiot?
[Similarly surreal – why, indeed, are we wandering up and down? What on earth is Aristophanes making us do now, prancing about the stage talking to birds?!]
Well, if you’d called the women for a Bacchic revelry,
or a feast of Pan, or Colias, or Genetyllis,
you wouldn’t be able to move for drums!
[Opening with a woman! And the eponymous hero of course. The sarcasm is laid on thick right from the beginning. Also some suspense – if it’s not one of these festivals, then what exactly is going on?]
O Zeus, the swallow – when will it appear?
He’s going to destroy me, this fellow, driving me round since dawn.
What is it, before my spleen completely explodes?
Will you tell me where you’re taking me, Euripides?
[Fantastic – starts with an invocation to Zeus, but… Zeus the Swallow?! Didn’t know that was one of his incarnations. Oh, hang on, he means something different. He’s tired and has a painful spleen. And it’s… Euripides who is causing the problems! Amazing postponement!]
Frogs, 1-4: Xanthias and Dionysus
Ξανθίας: Εἴπω τι τῶν εἰωθότων ὦ δέσποτα,
ἐφ᾽ οἷς ἀεὶ γελῶσιν οἱ θεώμενοι;
Διόνυσος: νὴ τὸν Δί᾽ ὅ τι Βούλει γε, πλὴν ‘πιέζομαι,’
τοῦτο δὲ φύλαξαι: πάνυ γάρ ἐστ᾽ ἤδη χολή.
X: Shall I tell one of the usual ones, master,
the ones that always make the audience laugh?
D: By Zeus, whatever you want, except “I’m straining”…
Leave off that one: it’s already got annoying.
[I suppose this is what you would call meta-comedy. Ok, so what are you going to laugh at? I bet you’re thinking, don’t do one of your usual lines about pooing, PLEASE! And hang on, is that really Dionysus? :-O]
O shining light of my potter’s-wheel-fashioned lantern,
most wonderfully positioned to help me seek:
I shall reveal both your birth and your fate:
[Great tragic opening, but to a lantern made by swivelling! I may be looking too closely into it, but is line 3 a reference to Tiresias’s words to Oedipus in the OT?!]
Wealth, 1-5: Kariōn
ὡς ἀργαλέον πρᾶγμ᾽ ἐστὶν ὦ Ζεῦ καὶ θεοὶ
δοῦλον γενέσθαι παραφρονοῦντος δεσπότου.
ἢν γὰρ τὰ βέλτισθ᾽ ὁ θεράπων λέξας τύχῃ,
δόξῃ δὲ μὴ δρᾶν ταῦτα τῷ κεκτημένῳ,
μετέχειν ἀνάγκη τὸν θεράποντα τῶν κακῶν.
What a painful thing it is, o Zeus and the other gods,
to be the slave of a stupid master.
For if a servant happens to give excellent advice,
the one who receives it may decide not to act on it,
and then the servant has to share the bad consequences.
[Sacrilege! Slaves being cleverer than their masters, and complaining about it?! But then it’s ok to see them doing this in the theatre. Just as long as your slaves at home are not doing the same!]