ARISTOPHANES AND THE POETICS OF SURPRISE

Dimitrios Kanellakis

De Gruyter (2020) h/b 247pp £91 (ISBN 9783110677034)

Comedy relies heavily on surprise, both verbal and visual, and the comedies of Aristophanes (‘soaked in metatheatricality’) were no exception. However, while it is possible to identify many instances of humour resulting from para prosdokian (the unexpected), to understand them, as K. rightly observes, ‘we first need to know what the prosdokia was for the audience of classical Athens’. At the same time, we must be aware that comedy is a will-o’-the-wisp, an insubstantial creature that is difficult to pin down, and even where an audience appears to laugh as one, different individuals may be laughing at different things—or simply because laughter is contagious. A scholarly analysis of Aristophanes’ technique, therefore, must involve not only the examination of texts to find linguistic jokes, but the use of textual evidence to try to work out the known unknowns of how Aristophanes used surprise in stagecraft. One way of doing this is to consider (videos of) modern productions, since (although ‘there is a cultural tradition about what is considered funny or not’) the practicalities of performance can sometimes cast light on areas that purely academic study might leave obscure.

Having provided working definitions of both ‘surprise’ and ‘poetics’, K. divides his discussion into three areas: ‘verbal surprise’, where he explores a wide range of para prosdokian jokes (including some instances that, in his opinion, are generally categorised wrongly), observing how the effectiveness of punch-lines can be heightened through use of alliteration, rhyme and metre, how most of such jokes appear in the first half of plays and are given to protagonists, and how Aristophanes’ use of these jokes changes over time; ‘thematic surprise: appropriating myths’, in which he analyses how Aristophanes manipulates his audiences’ knowledge of mythology in each of his extant comedies (here as elsewhere in the book, needing to examine passages ‘within their narrow and wider, textual and theatrical context’, K. makes no use of fragments); and ‘theatrical surprise’, an intriguing discussion of humour implied by—or, indeed, invisible within—the texts as we have them (ranging from uses of the crane and ekkuklêma to satirical masks of ‘celebrities’) which culminates in a fascinating discussion of how modern (Greek) practitioners have used the ‘script’ as a launch-pad for visual or physical humour. This in turn leads to the final chapter, a running commentary on surprise in Frogs, focussing on how directorial decisions in two productions (one Greek, one British) enhanced (or occasionally failed to enhance) the comedy, and concluding that by the time Dionysus makes his decision between Aeschylus and Euripides the outcome is largely irrelevant: ‘through the accumulation of surprises … the audience has surrendered to surrealism’.

While some may think that K. occasionally stretches the odd point, this is an absorbing and provocative monograph, enhanced by 20 full colour photographs, 12 tables, an extensive bibliography and two indices (locorum and nominum et rerum). There would be much to recommend it to drama practitioners as well as to dedicated classicists, were it not for the fact that, while the chapter on para prosdokian jokes draws on a wide range of examples, it does so only in Greek and, although in other chapters quoted passages are also translated into English, numerous individual terms or words are not. In addition, there are a number of typos— ‘hems’ for ‘herms’, ‘Hennione’ for ‘Hermione’ etc. —which, in a book of this nature, are themselves a surprise.

David Stuttard

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room