Aristophanes: Lysistrata, the Women's Festival and Frogs

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In this new translation of three comedies by Aristophanes, with Introduction and Theatrical Commentaries, Michael Ewans does us the enormous service of reminding us just how funny, wacky and creative Aristophanes really was. In the Preface and Introduction, Ewans highlights that these translations are 'new, accurate, and actable' (1, 43), and that they have been through either a workshop, in the case of Frogs, or full productions, Lysistrata and The Women's Festival - and in replicas of 'the original Greek stage shape' (1). They have been 'road tested for actability', drawing on his 'twenty-two years of experience in directing ancient Athenian tragedy and comedy, both in full productions and workshops of individual scenes' (32-3). This experience has facilitated the edition's 'unique' feature, the theatrical commentary, 'which deals with issues of staging both from the point of view of Aristophanes ... and from the perspective of those striving to reclaim these dramas by realizing their comic power in modern performance' (10). The aim of the edition is 'to try to place students, readers, and theatre practitioners inside Aristophanes' own comic world' (9).

Ewans has largely achieved this aim. The translations are certainly vivid, down to earth and, for the most part, they read very well off the page - in the sense that I can imagine them being spoken with gusto by actors. Ewans declares himself to 'oppose "modernized" scripts' (29); that is, he is against updating, adapting or modifying the text (22), partly on the grounds that 'to graft a modern theme onto the socio-political fabric of the last few years of the fifth century BCE is almost impossible' (28). A fair comment, but I am not sure how it sits with his use of phrases like 'French kiss' (114), 'two dollars' (168), 'twenty bucks' (170), 'Cooeel' (174), and especially 'sushibar' (205). Ewans also insists on the use of 'modem' verse throughout (41-2), verse which is constantly shifting and freely conversational for much of the time, and in which the number of stresses might vary from three to six, as required by the English translation. While for much of the translation the verse is so free, varied and prose-like that it is difficult to perceive the presence of any rhythm, there are also more lyrical passages-where the Greek demands it-which show that Ewans is more than capable of finely tuned verse in English.

Ewans is also against translators adding 'touches of their own humor ... there is no excuse for interposing our own inventions between our contemporaries and what the playwright actually wrote' (47). The theatrical commentaries are an attempt to elucidate what he calls the 'unwritten rules' of the Greek space (33), and it is these 'rules' that he champions in the commentaries. He claims that the practices he has discovered through his own practice-based research, using a replica of the ancient space - in 'an experimental studio and a natural outdoor amphitheatre in Newcastle, and in the ancient Odeion at Paphos' (32-3) - are 'Aristophanes' own practice' (48). Aristophanes certainly did not use an 'amphitheatre', since that term denotes a space in which the audience encircles the playing space all the way round Camphi' carrying the meaning 'on both sides'), like the Flavian Amphitheatre (or Coliseum) in Rome. But the main issue with Ewans' theatrical commentaries is that they are very often presented as 'correct', as if they were the only choices that any reasonable director - including the ancient one - could possibly make. The pervasive use of words like 'must', 'should', 'are best achieved by' and so on - as well as the overuse of the device of 'circling' the (square) orchestra floor as the solution to diverse staging issues - detracts from the many otherwise sensible and plausible suggestions. …


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