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OLD COMEDY OF the ancient Greeks should not be confused with their Tragedy. I learned this tidbit while reading Emily Wilson’s “Punishment by Radish,” in London Review of Books, to appear in print October 21, 2021. 

Wilson’s article is a review of Aristophanes Four Plays: Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, Women of the Assembly, translated by Aaron Poochigian, Liveright, 2021. Wrote one reviewer, “Aristophanes was a funny, often obscene, social commentator, and he was also a brilliantly fluent, wide-ranging poet, whose lyric rhythms were recited and sung to music, with dancing.”

Emily Wilson likens Aristophanes to modern hip-hop. Indeed, she writes, “When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’ in August 2020, ‘conservative’ commentators such as Tucker Carlson expressed outrage that the song might corrupt ‘your granddaughters’; Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post celebrated it as an ‘ode to female sexual pleasure’.”

Like several other aspects of Wilson’s review, the meaning of “WAP” in the video is not SimanaitisSays-friendly. I’ll also sidestep the point of “Punishment by Radish” though I encourage you to read the entire LRB article once it appears on newsstands. 

Plenty of Wilson’s other comments are fascinating, witty, and website-appropriate tidbits about ancient Athenian comedy of the fifth century B.C.

Aristophanes, c. 446 B.C. – c. 386 B.C., comic playwright of ancient Athens, poet of Old Attic Comedy. Image of bust in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, by Alexander Mayatsky from Wikipedia.

Comedy Versus Tragedy. Wilson observes, “The cultural specificity of Old Comedy often makes the genre seem less readily accessible than Athenian tragedy. Tragedy was performed for audience members from all over the Greek-speaking world; comedy, usually showcased at the Lenaea (a winter festival held when the seas were relatively impassable), speaks to an in-crowd of Athenians.”

Image from  

“Tragedy,” Wilson continues, “draws on the quasi-universal stories of myth; comedy, in Athens, focused on a single community in a very particular place and time. For that reason, comedy is often more useful for social history than tragedy: Aristophanes provides specific information about attitudes towards politicians, policies and current events, of a kind never found in tragedy.”

Old Comedy versus New (Romantic) Comedy. Wilson notes, “New Comedy poets such as Menander—our only surviving exemplar—wrote romantic comedies about the heterosexual love lives of mooning young men, a theme that had no place in Aristophanes but would have a long legacy in Roman and later European and British drama, and remains with us in the Hollywood romcom.”

By contrast, Aristophanes’ four plays translated by Aaron Poochigian have considerably different motives. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll learn about Aristophanes’ four plays, Poochigian’s translations, and Wilson’s tidbits thereon. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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