The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama

By Gregory W. Dobrov | Go to book overview

GREGORY W. DOBROV


Language, Fiction, and Utopia

-- Aristophanes, Birds184


I

Utopia, by definition, is a conundrum expressed vividly in the punning names of those most famous examples, Aristophanes' Cloudcuckooland and Samuel Butler's Erewhon. Popularly used of an idealized place or visionary scheme since its coinage by Thomas More nearly five hundred years ago, "utopia" (οὐ + τόπος) remains a token of hope undercut by futility. 1 The ancient comic polis in the air and More's fantastic island, after all, are "nowhere" and the designation of something as utopia(n) implies a degree of irreality or impossibility. The first two essays in this collection refine the vocabulary of utopian discourse by making important distinctions (e.g. Arcadian vs. utopian) and building on Eco's terms for parameters other than "place"--especially "nomos"--with operators beyond simple negation such as "eu-" and "anti-." 2 Indeed, for the purposes of appreciating the Other dimensions of fantastic literature, Greek comedy in particular, we are better served by considering the ways in which space, time, and society are represented as different: better, worse, or in the process of change. In this essay I focus on the linguistic and theatrical aspects of political invention in Birds--the discovery and foundation of Cloudcuckooland--that is precipitated by the abandonment of the polis in quest for a solution of its real and imagined ills. This metatopia, "transformation of place," is articulated to the spectators in the prologue by being projected into fantastic transformations of language, form, and genre. The prologue's bold enactment of linguistic process, I shall argue, colludes with a large-scale transformation of a model drawn from a "rival" festival genre ( Sophocles' Tereus). Thus salvation from the polis is imagined as an experiment in dramatic (meta)language and (meta)fic-

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