Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vive la difference!

So far in the last five days, I've read two of the Aristophanes plays and about half of the third.  It's funny the way we associate books with the places where we read them.  David Copperfield, for instance, always makes me think of Hazelwood Central High School, where I read the book as a substitute teacher during lunch and planning hours.  The Lord of the Rings always reminds me of the "TV room" in our house on Flamingo Dr., where my dad and I read the trilogy one Christmas break.  (We took a little time out one evening to go to dinner and a hockey game, but otherwise, we mostly just read.)  Well, now I'll always associate Lysistrata with a hospital in St. Peters, MO (just a scare -- everyone's fine), and The Ecclesiazusae with the dealer where I went to get the oil changed this morning.

I have the translations of these plays by Benjamin Bickley Rogers in the Britannica Great Books set, but this time I downloaded a translation (by an unnamed translator as far as I can see) to read on the Kindle.  Rogers's translations are metrical and clever, but according to the introduction to the online version, they were not literal.  I've certainly come across some potent words recently that I didn't remember reading in Aristophanes before.  But then Rogers published his translation in 1867, when such words were not considered tasteful.  Well, they still aren't tasteful, but they are found in published literature.  In any case, looking back at Rogers's Lysistrata, I see that he has the main character announce the sex strike by vowing to give up "the ways of love," whereas the online version has something distinctly more bawdy.

I also noticed that Rogers gave one of the characters a dialect with slang words and idiomatic pronunciations.  I can't help thinking that Aristophanes would have done something similar for a character from Sparta: the play may be about foolishness on both sides of the war, but why not have a little extra fun at the enemy's expense?  So the online version claims to have some previously expurgated lines, has more explicit references to body parts and functions, and comes with abundant, helpful notes.  But the Rogers version has rhymes and meters and dialect and wordplay.  I'm glad to have read the two different translations, but given the choice between poetry and four-letter words, I prefer the poetry.

All three plays have something to say about the female half of the human race, at least on the surface.  In Lysistrata, the women would rather have peace than sex, while the men prefer sex to war.  But don't the women declare their own kind of war?  In The Thesmaphoriazusae, the women try to kill Euripides for portraying women as weak and evil, and yet they partly prove Euripides' point by their bloodlust (so much for women uniformly wanting peace).  In The Ecclesiazusae, the women take over the Assembly and declare communism, thinking that crimes such as theft and murder will come to an end when there is nothing to steal and no motive for murder.  But for one thing, they break the law in taking over the assembly, and for another, they don't know what to do with people who refuse to follow their new, friendly laws.  Perhaps Aristophanes is really just making a point about humans: all are flawed, greedy, illogical, and self-centered, so why make a distinction along gender lines?

And yet Aristophanes does portray distinctions.  While they plan to infiltrate the Assembly, we find that the women must do more than put on false beards.  They must dress in men's less exotic clothing and carry sticks and other heavy things.  They must walk less daintily.  They must learn to talk differently and about different things.  They cannot go into the Assembly with their craftwork if they plan to pull off the deception.  It's not that the lines can never be crossed: on top of mentioning several effeminate and homosexual men, Aristophanes shows that Praxagora has plausible reasons to give when she is found wearing her husband's clothes.  But he appears to be saying that these very exceptions -- since they bring to mind lines that seem to be crossed -- prove the rule: that women and men do in fact tend to have different habits and tastes.  And the tendencies seem very familiar 2500 years later.

I wonder if these plays couldn't be translated, not just to English, but to twenty-first century culture.  All the quick topical references to famous statesmen of the time could refer instead to politicians and pop stars of today.  And instead of poking fun at Euripides, the women could be after, say, George Lucas.  The character of George Lucas could come on stage (the right wig and beard and some glasses would make the identification very clear) trying to solve all the problems by quotations from the Star Wars saga.  "George, you have to untie me!" "Use the Force."  "Wait, how did you know I was a woman under these men's clothes?"  "Your skin is soft and smooth, not like sand.  I don't like sand.  It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere."

OK.  Maybe the original playwright has to be as good as Euripides before the parody has a chance to last two-and-a-half millennia.

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