The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama

By Gregory W. Dobrov | Go to book overview

NIALL W. SLATER


Performing the City in Birds

November 18, 1967: Artaud is alive at the walls of the Pentagon. . . . The Pentagon vibrates and begins to rise in the air.-- Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It

One of the most entertaining moments of political theatre during the days of the Vietnam protests occurred when Abbie Hoffman and Co. rallied round to levitate the Pentagon. Though no evidence exists, Hoffman swore that around four in the morning they did succeed in lifting it three or four feet off the ground. The city of Nephelokokkugia in Birds, which soars so high in poetic imagination, hovered in actuality about the same distance above the ground, for it was a theatrical city, built to a surprisingly explicit degree on the stage of the Theatre of Dionysos. Though Aristophanes' Birds is less obviously metatheatrical than some of his earlier works, the play nonetheless exploits its own performance situation both to increase its comic effects and to literalize the metaphor of the "city in the air." Nephelokokkugia comes into being through a series of enactments, which are sometimes mimetic, sometimes self-consciously nonillusory stage performance. If the critique of spectator politics which Aristophanes launched in the Acharnians is more muted in this play, it is nonetheless present. A performance analysis may not resolve the debate between fantastic and allegorical interpretations of the play but should clarify some of the issues.

Birds begins precisely nowhere, a place characterized by its placelessness, an outopia as David Konstan points out. 1 Peisetaerus and Euelpides presumably arrive from one of the parodoi into the orchestra but, once there, have no idea how to proceed. The opening lines indicate they are wandering back and forth (and indeed the original production could easily have extended this into a long silent sequence of physical comedy):

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