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Playing with the Play: Theatrical Self-consciousness in Aristophanes1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

Frances Muecke*
University of Sydney


The breaking of the dramatic illusion in Aristophanes is a well-known phenomenon, that has often been commented upon, and that many have been able to take for granted. It seems to me, however, that there is still some confusion surrounding its function in Aristophanic comedy, and that since it has an important bearing on the nature of this kind of drama, there is warrant for raising the matter again.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1977

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I am much indebted to Dr. A.W. James and Mr. C.W. Macleod for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.


2 Rau, P.Gnomon 42 (1970), 91.Google ScholarStow, H.L. in The Violation of the Dramatic Illusion in the Comedies of Aristophanes (Diss. Chicago, 1936)Google Scholar confined himself to audience address. Schmid, W. (Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, i: Die klassische Priode, 4 [Munich, 1946], p.47 n.2)Google Scholar gives a list of instances under various headings. I have not seen Rechenberg, E.Beobachtungen über das Verhältnis der alten attischen Komödie zu ihrem Publikum (Diss. Berlin, 1966.)Google Scholar There is now an excellent discussion of this question in Bain’s, DavidActors and Audience (Oxford, 1977),Google Scholar which appeared after this article had been written.

3 For recent discussions with bibliography see Sifakis, G.M.Parabasis and Animal Choruses (London, 1971), pp.1522Google Scholar and Giangrande, G.The Origin of Attic Comedy’, Eranos 61 (1963), 124Google Scholar

4 W. Schmid, op.cit. p.47: ‘In diesen naiven Apostrophen an das Publikum hat man wohl ein Element der ältesten Komödie zu sehen.’

5 Crahay, R. and Delcourt, M.Les ruptures d’illusion dans les comediés antiques’, AlPhO 12 (1952), 84–7.Google Scholar On connexions with the parabasis see also Schmid, loc.cit., and Sifakis, op.cit. pp.109–10, nn.9–11. It is to be noticed that breaking of the illusion does survive the dropping of the parabasis in Eccl. and Plut. and is to be found in New Comedy. See Fraenkel, E.Beobachtungen zu Aristophanes (Roma, 1962), p.21;Google ScholarGomme, A.W. and Sandbach, F.H.Menander, A Commentary (Oxford, 1973), pp.14 f.;CrossRefGoogle ScholarBain, D.Audience Address in Greek Tragedy’, CQ 25 (1975), 24 and n.3;CrossRefGoogle Scholar cf. Kraus, W.Ad spectatores in römischen Komödie’, WS 52 (1934), 6683.Google Scholar

6 Crahay and Delcourt, op.cit. 86.

7 Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. vonAristophanes Lysistrate (Berlin, 1927repi. 1958), p.9:Google Scholar ‘Die Komödie hatte sich in dem ältesten uns erreichbaren Zustande von ihren Anfängen sehr viel weiter entfernt als die Tragödie, wie das schon Aristoteles beobachtet hat’ and Sifakis, op.cit. pp. 15–22.

8 On the question of exchange of insults see Merkelbach, R. (Der Wettgesang der Hirten)’, RhM 99 (1956), 127–31.Google Scholar

9 Stow, op.cit. esp. Chap.l. A large part of his treatment is concerned with the connexion between abuse of the audience and the primitive ritual ceremonies from which he thinks comedy arose. In the course of the development of ancient comedy the function of extra-dramatic device changed, however. Originally used to convey ritual abuse, it later became primarily the vehicle of humour. It was due to its comic function that the device survived from the earliest crude performances to the finished comedies of the fifth century. A similar point has been made in regard to the function of obscenity by Henderson, J.The Maculate Muse (New Haven/London, 1975), p.32; cf. p.29.Google Scholar

10 I owe this example to Mr. C.W. Macleod. SeeGraf, F.Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung (Berlin, 1974), pp.42; ff.Google Scholar

11 In Lustrum 2 (1957), 61; Fifty Years (and Twelve) of Classical Scholarship (Oxford, 1968), p.139 and Aristophanic Comedy (London, 1972), p.l. Cf. Sifakis, op.cit. (see note 3 above) p.2.

12 E.g., Crahay and Delcourt (op.cit. [see note 5 above]) seem to regard ancient comedy as a unity. But see Dover, K.J. (Fifty Years, pp.144–51)Google Scholar and Gelzer, T.Tradition und Neuschöpfung in der Dramaturgic des Aristophanes’, A&A 8 (1959), 1531Google Scholar = Newiger, H.- J. (ed.), Aristophanes und die alte Komödie, Wege der Forschung 265 (Darmstadt, 1975), pp.283316.Google ScholarArnott, W.G.From Aristophanes to Menander’, G…R 19 (1972), 6580, stresses the essential continuity.Google Scholar

13 Sifakis, op.cit. p.14.

14 Penguin Shakespeare Library, 1967 (Chatto and Windus, 1962), pp.42–4.

15 Righter, op.cit. p.42.

16 ibid.

17 Cf.Dover, Fifty Years, pp.139–40.Google Scholar

18 Bain, op.cit. 13–14. Cf.Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, p.55.Google Scholar

19 Rau, P.Paratragodia. Untersuchung einer komischen Form des Aristophanes (Munich, 1967), [Zetemata 45], p.3.Google Scholar

20 D. Bain, op.cit. (see note 5 above) 13 and n.l.

21 Sifakis, op.cit. Chap.l. Görler, W.Über die Illusion in dei antiken Komödie’, A&A 18 (1973), 4157,Google Scholar works from the same premises as Sifakis, but concentrates on New Comedy. Cf. Brecht, BertoltThe Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London, 1965), pp.21–3, 51–7.Google Scholar

22 Crahay and Delcourt, op.cit. (see note 5 above) 84.

23 Sifakis, op.cit. (see note 3 above) pp.7–14.

24 ibid., p.ll.

25 ibid.

26 Ingaiden, R.Les fonctions du langage au théâtre’, Poétique 8 (1971), 531–8.Google Scholar

27 Cf.Lucas, D.W.Poetics, (Oxford, 1968), App.2, p.273 andGoogle ScholarNelson, R.J.Play within a Play, (New Haven, 1958),Chap.l.Google Scholar

28 Olson, E.The Theory of Comedy, (Bloomington/London, 1968), pp.1314. Cf.Google ScholarArist, Poetics 1450 a 33–5:Google Scholarπρος ôè τούτοις rà μέγιστα οίς ψυχαγωγεί r¡ τραγωδία τοΰ μύθου μέρη έστίν, atre περιπέτειοι nal αναγνωρίσεις.

29 Coleman, R.The role of the Chorus in Sophocles’, Antigone’, PCPhS 18 (1972), 44ff.Google Scholar

30 Olson, op.cit. pp.36 ff.

31 Dover (Aristophanic Comedy, p.56) defines ‘illusion’ as ‘the uninterrupted concentration of the fictitious personages of the play on their fictitious situation’.

32 According to Rau (Gnomon 42 [1970], 92) it is an ‘absichtliche komische Technik’. But Przychocki, G.La rupture de la convention scénique chez Plaute comme procédé humoristique’ (in Polish), Eos 22 (1971), 5773Google Scholar (which I have not been able to read) denied that it was funny in Aristophanes.

33 Drama, of course, is not the only form of art to have such a double existence which is productive of ironic contradictions. See Muecke, D.C.The Compass of Irony (London, 1969), pp.159–77.Google Scholar

34 Fraenkel, E.Elementi Plautini in Plauto (Florence, 1960repr. 1972), pp.364, 377–8.Google ScholarRusso, C.F.Aristofane autore di teatro (Florence, 1962), p.85,Google Scholar denies breaking of the illusion altogether on the grounds that ‘tutto viene liberamente e artisticamente incluso nella commedia’. Rau, Gnomon 42 (1970), 91, reports that this is also the view of Rechenberg.

35 For the topics and strategies of these eulogies see Sifakis, op.cit. (see note 3 above) pp.39–40.

36 See Dover ad loc.

37 All quotations are from Coulon’s Budé text.

38 Vesp.455 and 1328 ff. are examples of the χωρίον labelled φορτικού at Lys. 1217-20 (cf. Nub.543 and see note 53 below).

39 There are cases of audience address (e.g. Pax 9–10, 13–14, 20–1, 150–1) where a character invites the audience to take part in the fiction. I think that the audience which is drawn into the play is itself a hypothetical audience written into the play, at which the audience present in the theatre is invited to laugh, secure in its own ephemerality.

40 Crahay and Delcourt, op.cit. (see note 5 above) 84: ‘I’action est momentanément décentrée, attirée soit vers les coulisses soit vers la salle.’ Reference to the mechanics of production is far less frequent and for that reason was not taken into account by Stow (p.ii).

41 Sifakis, op.cit. p.25; cf. p.27.

42 Süss, W. (‘Zur Komposition der altattischen Komödie’, RhM 63 [1908], 1238,Google Scholar esp. 19–22 = Wege der Forschung 265, pp.1–29) argued that it was characteristic of the ‘bomolochos’ role. Cf. A.W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy2, rev. Webster, T.B.L. (Oxford, 1962), pp.174–8.Google Scholar

43 Fraenkel, E.Some Notes on the Hoopoe’s Song’, Eranos 48 (1950), 82ff.Google Scholar = Kleine Beiträge (Rome, 1964), 459 ff.

44 Dearden, C.W.The Stage of Aristophanes (London, 1976), pp.1112.Google Scholar

45 Dover, Aristophanic Comedy pp.5965.Google Scholar

46 The interpretation of line 447 is a matter of controversy. I follow Dover (Aristophanic Comedy, p.56) and van Leeuwen (ad loc.) who think ‘winning by one judge’s verdict only’ means winning 3:2, rather than losing 4:1 (Merry, Kock).

47 Cf. Görier, op.cit. (see note 21 above) 51: ‘Der Wille und die Fähigkeit zur Einfühlung sind bei jedem normalen Zuschauer so stark, dass es keiner besonderen Bemühung von seiten des Schauspierleis bedarf, um diesen Vorgang auszulösen.’

48 Dover (‘The skene in Aristophanes’, PCPhS 12 [1966], 2–17, esp.6 n.3 = Wege der Forschung 265, pp.99–123) regards this case of breaking of the illusion as ‘exploitation of the humorous possibilities opened up by theatrical machinery’ rather than ‘humour at the expense of theatrical convention’. I would argue that when set in paratragic contexts (as in Pax) such references are parodie and do invite us to see the tragic use of the μηχανή as funny. I think this is supported by the existence of at least one other scene in which a comic use is made of the μηχανή, without attention being drawn to it explicitly (e.g. Nub. 218–38; cf. Dearden, op.cit. pp. 81–2, 85).

49 Sifakis, op.cit. (see note 3 above) p.110 n.18. Mr. R.L. Hunter has drawn my attention to Eubulus fr.16 Kock (the Bellerophon).

50 Nicely described by Mazon, P. (‘La Farce dans Aristophane et les origines de la Comédie en Grèce’, Revue d’histoire du théâtre 3 [1951], 9)Google Scholar as a ‘parade’ — ‘jeu de scène plaisant destiné à piquer la curiosité du public’.

51 Given the importance of explanatory prologues in Euripides’ own plays (cf. Ran. 1119 ff.), their function being to orientate the audience and ‘relieve their anxiety’ (Cope) — cf. Arist. Rhet. 1415 a 21–3: το μεν ουν αναγκαιοτάτου épyov τοΰ ηροοψίου και 'ι'διον τοϋτο, δηλώσαι τί έστι το τέλος ου evena à λόγος• κτλ. and Ε.Μ. Cope, E.M., An Introduction to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Cambridge, 1867), pp.337–8Google Scholar — it is ironic that Euripides’ first words in Thesm. are (in Euripidean style, cf. Orest. 81): Άλλ' οΰκ άκούεινδεΐ σεπάνθ οσ αύτίκα/ό'ψει παρεστώς (5–6),a remark which seems to me deliberately calculated to frustrate the audience’s expectation that the prologue will provide a verbal explanation of the motives of the action. This explanation is not given until lines 71 ff. Cf. T. Gelzer’s analysis of the exploitation of the expectations of the audience in the prologue of the Birds in ‘Some aspects of Aristophanes’ dramatic art in the Birds’, BICS 23 (1976), 1–14.

52 Platnauer, edition (Oxford, 1964), ad loc. and Horn, W., Gebet und Gebetsparodie in den Komödien des Aristophanes (Nürnberg, 1970), pp.45Google Scholar, 53. Parody is often a vehicle for the extra-dramatic remark. Cf. Eq. 162–3, 1316–8, Ran. 1475, Thesm. 1077, cf. 1019 (Eur. Andromeda fr.118 Nauck).

53 Cf. Vesp. 6–66 (cf. Ach. A96 ff., Eccl. 581 ff.), 650–1, 1536–7, Nub. 296–7,Pax 96272, Plut.196–9, Eupolis fr. 244.

54 Sifakis, op.cit. (see note 3 above) p.13.

55 Rau, Paratragodia, pp.89 ff.; cf. p.57: ‘Solche Gleichsetzung von Ebenen vet-schiedener Realität ist fur die Komödie des Aristophanes überhaupt typisch.’

56 ibid, pp.29 ff.

57 Handley, E.W. and Rea, J., The Telephus of Euripides, BICS Suppl. No.5, 1957.Google Scholar

58 Cf. Deaiden, op.cit. (see note 44 above) Chap.IV. His comment on its use here is: ‘Given the evidence that a machine of this name existed it can hardly be doubted that Aristophanes is also parodying some favourite Euripidean production method’ (p.55).

59 Rau (Paratragodia, p.33 n.38) thinks that ηλιθίους is to be applied to the chorus of Ach. It seems we have a choice between two inconsistencies, either an inconsistency in Ach. itself between this passage on the one hand, and 393 ff. (where Dicaeopolis announces to the chorus his intention of getting a pitiable costume) and 490 ff. (where the threads of the previous scene are picked up), or we can say that the inconsistency arises from the fact that the circumstances of the Telephus are not entirely congruent with those of Ach. In the latter case, if the Telephus is more in the poet’s mind here than Ach., it is possible that he is referring to the problematic role of the Euripidean chorus, as van Leeuwen and Starkie have suggested, following the Scholiast. Lines 440–4 have been interpreted as a reference to dramatic irony. Sedgewick, G.G., Of Irony, Especially in Drama2 (Toronto, 1948), p.61Google Scholar, says: ‘Nothing could be plainer; or more indicative, I feel sure, that the effect of dramatic irony was so commonly felt as sometimes to touch the nerve of ridicule.’ But if dramatic irony is ‘the sense of contradiction felt by the spectators of a drama who see a character acting in ignorance of his own condition’ (p.49), this is not really what Dicaeopolis is talking about here.

60 Cf.Macleod, C.W.Euripides’ RagsZPE 15, (1974), 221–2.Google Scholar

61 On Aristotle see Lucas, op.cit. ad loc.Cf.Hubbard, M. (Ancient Literary Criticism, ed.Google ScholarRussell, D.A. and Winterbottom, M. [Oxford, 1968], p.113 n.5)Google Scholar argues that he is not ‘placidly assenting en passant to Plato’s account of poetic mania’. See also Rudd, NiallLines of Enquiry (Cambridge, 1976), pp.169, 172 andCrossRefGoogle ScholarElse, G.F.Imitation in the Fifth Century’, CPh 53 (1958), 85.Google Scholar For a discussion of the Agathon scenes see Cantarella, R.Agatone e il prologo delle “Tesmoforiazuse”’ in (Amsterdam, 1967), pp.715Google Scholar = Wege der Forschung 265, pp.324–38.1 hope to return to this topic elsewhere.

62 SeeRau, Paratragodia pp.4289.Google Scholar

63 SeeRau, Das Tragodienspiel in den “Thesmophoriazusen”Wege der Forschung 265, pp.339–56, at p.356:Google Scholar ‘Euripides und sein Verwandter ahmen bewusst und in bestimmter dramatischer Absicht Tragodienszenen nach.’

64 Rau, Paratragodia p.57.Google Scholar

65 Rau (Paratragodia, pp.79 ff.) analyses the scene into three levels: ‘in der Illusion des Spiels (1. Stufe der Illusion), als Spiel im Spiel (2. Stufe der Illusion) und als reales Geschehen im Theater’.

66 Cf. Nub.1352.

67 Rau, Paratragodia p.15 5 n.17.Google Scholar

68 So Schol. and van Leeuwen. For a parallel for a literary work as the object of μίμησις seeNub.559. Cf. Thesm.769–70 and 1010–13.

69 W. Mitsdörffer, ‘Das Mnesilochoslied in Aristophanes “Thesmophoriazusen”’, Philologus 98 (1954), 59 n.4 and Anna M. Komornicka, ‘Quelques remarques sur la parodie dans les comédies d’Aristophane’, QUCC 3 (1967), 55 and n.16. Else (op.cit.80) speaks of parody but it is not clear whether he is using it in a nontechnical (= ‘mimicry’) or technical sense.

70 Sörbom, G.Mimesis and Art (Uppsala, 1966), pp.3340.Google Scholar

71 ibid, pp.37 ff., 72 ff.

72 Koller, H.Die Mimesis in der Antike. Nachahmung, Darstellung, Ausdruck (Bern, 1954), pp.1112.Google ScholarLucas, Poetics, p.271.

73 Sörbom, op.cit. p.74.

74 ibid, pp.72–4.

75 But see p.73n.76.

76 Satyrus, >P. Oxy. 1176, pp.152 col.9 line 16.P.+Oxy.+1176,+pp.152+col.9+line+16.>Google Scholar

77 SeeRau, >Paratragodia p.178.Paratragodia+p.178.>Google Scholar

78 Crahay and Delcourt (op.cit. [see note 5 above] 86) state that there are no cases in this play. But see 96, 265, 1060,1077 and possibly 536 (cf.Plut. 406–9).

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