In late March of the year 414 B.C. (Elaphebolion 11, archonship of Charias), a representative subset of the Athenian body politic--upward of sixteen thousand--gathered on the south slope of the Acropolis for the second official day of the City Dionysia. The next portion of the festival would be devoted to the dramatic competitions played before this polis-in-microcosm arranged, perhaps, by tribe in the sections of the Theater of Dionysus. Among the announcements made several days earlier in the Odeon were the comic titles Revelers by Ameipsias, The Solitary by Phrynichus, and Birds by Callistratus, Aristophanes' "assistant" under whose name the playwright had launched his career in the early 420s. Comedy and tragedy were important, if not dominant, components of this national festival, which involved much else besides: first a day of preliminary ceremonies in honor of Dionysus, followed by the official inauguration on Elaphebolion 10 by a great procession and other solemn business, culminating in the dithyramb, the premier event in which the Athenian tribes competed for prestigious prizes. Significantly, this first day was honored by a law that prohibited the holding of assemblies and the initiation of any legal business (even prisoners were released on bail in order to attend). On the morning of the second day, the demos would see an impressive sequence of public displays in which Athens dramatized itself as a community and imperial power: the ritual purification of the theater, the pouring of libations by civic leaders, the solemn naming of eminent citizens and state benefactors, the display of allied tribute, and the presentation of honors to (male) war orphans. Finally, toward noon, the herald would cry out "Bring on your chorus!" signaling that the show had begun. We cannot know which day of the festival saw the performance of Aristophanes' Birds, but we can be certain that, with over twenty speaking parts, unusually beautiful and varied costumes, and a heady mixture of poetry, music, and fantasy, it was a memorable performance. No one could have guessed, however, that this second-prize winner would survive for millennia as one of the masterpieces of Greek comedy, famous for sustaining an outlandish city hovering aloft in brazen defiance of Heaven itself.
Even from our cultural and temporal distance, we can appreciate how profoundly Cloudcuckooland must have been determined by the contexts of its production, and it is telling that the name lingers in English usage as a rare trace of ancient utopianism. Current work on tragedy, satyr play, and dithyramb reveals how much the literary critic, philologist, and historian have to gain from an awareness of these contexts. Drama's "mental venture of politics,"