Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece

Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece

Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece

Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece


Aristophanes has enjoyed a conspicuous revival in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Greece. Here, Gonda Van Steen provides the first critical analysis of the role of the classical Athenian playwright in modern Greek culture, explaining how the sociopolitical "venom" of Aristophanes' verses remains relevant and appealing to modern Greek audiences. Deriding or challenging well-known figures and conservative values, Aristophanes' comedies transgress authority and continue to speak to many social groups in Greece who have found in him a witty, pointed, and accessible champion from their "native" tradition.The book addresses the broader issues reflected in the poet's revival: political and linguistic nationalism, literary and cultural authenticity versus creativity, censorship, and social strife. Van Steen's discussion ranges from attitudes toward Aristophanes before and during Greece's War of Independence in the 1820s to those during the Cold War, from feminist debates to the significance of the popular music integrated into comic revival productions, from the havoc transvestite adaptations wreaked on gender roles to the political protest symbolized by Karolos Koun's directorial choices.Crossing boundaries of classical philology, critical theory, and performance studies, the book encourages us to reassess Aristophanes' comedies as both play-acts and modern methods of communication. Van Steen uses material never before accessible in English as she proves that Aristophanes remains Greece's immortal comic genius and political voice.


Aristophanes tumbles out of an ore cart and onto the stage. His white robe is dirty and disheveled. He is bald, really bald, the classicist in me notices before I even realize what is happening. And then Aristophanes starts venting: the workers drilling the new Athenian metro lines have hit his grave and disturbed his centuries-long rest. What do the Greeks want from him? What more can they take!? They've abused his plays so much and they continue to do so every summer, without ever paying him a single obol in copyright money. He'd be rich otherwise, as rich as some big shots out there. But now, no, now he is as broke and as disillusioned with Greek government as the average Giannes in the audience.

June 1997: Greeks gathered in the Athenian Delphinario applaud the opening scene with their favorite, Thanases Vengos, as Aristophanes. Grouchy though the ancient poet may be at first, he is ready to take on the cause of the long-suffering fellow Athenian again, in this musical comedy called The Enfeebled Greek (Ho Hellen Exasthenes). The revue freely reuses themes from five of Aristophanes' works to complain about the austerity measures of Konstantinos Semites' socialist government. The Greek audience instantly plays along with the reincarnated, warm‐ blooded Aristophanes of the producers' lively imagination: the poet becomes the cumulative personality of his corpus, quite literally. While I am recalling other theatrical ways in which Aristophanes has been brought back from the dead, the Greeks go for the meat in the message.

Leave it to a playwright who has been dead for more than two millennia to jolt Greece out of its political doldrums in the blink of a blackout. Koun's 1959 Birds, which galvanized the local public and spawned years of controversy, and other revival productions tell the same unusual story of how intensely alive Aristophanes is in modern Greece. Old Comedy is no comedy of small talk; to the Greeks, it strikes home again and again with direct, unprocessed power.


Aristophanes provides a way to understand modern Greek society. Because his humor is so obviously vulgar and accessible, he brings ancient and contemporary Greece together instead of prying them apart: the “noble” but also “elitist” ancient civilization and the “popular” and down‐ . . .

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