Aristophanes’s The Birds: A New City in the Sky

Aristophanes The Birds (“Ornithets”) is the only comedy written by Aristophanes whose entire action takes place far from the city of Athens. Consequently, the play makes little mention of the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War, or of contemporary Athenian politics. It won second prize at the Dionysia in 414 BC.

It is a play about the Arcadian ideal, the pastoral romance that every man has felt at one point or another in his life -to escape the drabness of the city and live out a dream in a quiet, rural town. In The Birds, we follow two men: Eulpides (meaning “Hopeful” or “son of Hopeful”) and Peisthetairos (a hybrid of “persuader of his comrade” and “trustworthy comrade”). They have literally turned their backs on Athens, tired of the endless lawsuits, and they are guided by two birds who are leading them to the fabled king, Tereus. Tereus once morphed himself into a bird, so perhaps he can help them find a better place to live, since he knows the politics of mankind but also has a better perspective, i.e. he can fly and see all things from above.

When they meet Tereus, Peisthetairos persuades the birds that they should build a great human-inspired city in the clouds like those of men, one that will rival the gods. They decide to name this new city “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In the end, the birds begin making new laws, but nevertheless gods and men start sneaking into the new city, from Iris to Prometheus. Peisthetairos’s cleverly politically outmaneuvers the new presence in the city to be crowned king. The play closes with a joyful scene of marriage between Peisthetairos and Zeus’s lovely maiden, Sovereignty (note: not every Aristophanes play concludes on a positive note, recall the ending to The Clouds). Why does Aristophanes present the ruin of Socrates in The Clouds but the triumph of Peisthetairos in The Birds? Aristophanes claims not simply to entertain his audiences, but to teach of the just things. In The Clouds he presents Socrates, the gatekeeper of the new-fangled intellectualism of Athens, a particular kind of sophistry that allows for the possibility of the non-existence of the gods, a radically a-political skepticism. He welcomes new sciences from across the Mediterranean into his “Thinkery” while turning young men against their fathers. Peisthetairos, on the other hand, maintains the validity of the gods, though he proposes to replace to the traditional pantheon at one point, convincing the birds they are the new gods. He is, no doubt, shocking in that he upends the gods and their power, even replacing himself as king of a new city in the sky. However, he expels the astronomer and is rigidly opposed to father-beating. In this way, Peisthetairos is more in line with the necessities of the city, than Socrates. Hence why Peisthetairos meets his triumph and Socrates meets his downfall in Aristophanes. To what extent does this presentation of political necessity agree with Socrates’s exposition as found in Plato’s Republic? The one obvious distinction is the musical character of Peisthetairos’s new city -his Chorus sings praises of his new Orphic theogony, whereas Socrates comes across as aloof and unmusical, intellectual and silly.

We cannot understand the play without disentangling the relationship of the two chief characters: Peisthetairos is the dreamer, the visionary builder of a new city, while on the other hand, Eulpides is the devotee to the retired, quiet, and rustic life. He is closer to Aristophanes, in a word. Thus, since Euplides disappears midway through the play, the poet expresses his disagreement with Peisthetairos’s vision -a vision sometimes echoed today by people who wish to found a new city, amongst only friends and people they agree with, a mythical dream. However, Aristophanes suggests this vision is nevertheless feasible in concept (to found a new city) but of course it is absurd and manifestly impossible to construct a city in the clouds.

However, Euplides’s rejection of the city (Athens) as well as the new city in the clouds, points us to the tension between the poet and the city, and his role as a citizen. For if ‘no man is an island entire of itself’ (to quote John Donne), even the rustic must rely upon the city for at least defense and resources. In this way, Arcadia is a dreamland, yet still within the defensible bounds of the Peloponnesus.


For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Courts Ridiculed in the Wasps

At the outset of the Wasps, we are presented with two slaves who are awakening after drinking. They have been tasked with keeping guard over the entrances and exits of their house. A huge net has been cast over the house. Their instructions come from their master, Bdelykleon (“Kleon despiser” -in the play, Aristophanes continues his ridicule of Kleon), who tells them not to let his father escape from the house.

We learn that Bdelykleon’s father, Philokleon (“lover of Kleon”) suffers from a rare disease. The two slaves invite guesses as to his malady from the audience – gambling? drinking? No. Philokleon suffers from an obsession, a love for the law courts -he is a “trialophile.” We also learn that Philokleon is paid for this work, per Kleon’s new ruling in Athens at the time, and as such the income for the house of Philokleon is dependent upon his participation in the law courts. Philokleon loves exacting punishment, or vengeance, as he lives for the high drama of the courts. He is something of a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker, and he yearns to bring ever more convictions (rather than acquittals) in the courts.

Just then the Chorus of old men from the law courts comes walking up to the house, guided by young men through morning darkness. They arrive to pick up Philokleon for another day’s work at the law courts. Upon discovering the imprisonment of Philokleon they spring into action, making several attempts to physically free Philokleon. The chorus of men headed to the law courts are the stinging “wasps.”

Unable to escape, Philokleon and Bdelykleon decide to settle their disagreement in a mock court scene. Philokleon claims he gains a great deal from the law courts -flattery, prestige, and money. Bdelykleon responds with arguments claiming the law court juries are actually the tools of politicians who profit the most from the Athenian empire, while the juries are actually underpaid for their work. The real money of the city is taken by men like Kleon. In flattering the jury, and the universal belief of each man that he is underpaid, the Chorus of wasps sides with Bdelykleon. Philokleon is distraught but not wholly cured of his disease.

The second part of the play focuses inward -on the home- as the household of Philokleon is turned into a mock court-room and he judges a disagreement between the household dogs, one who appears like Kleon and the other who appears like Laches. Bdelykleon is happy to indulge and oblige his father’s obsession for a trial, so long as it remains within the home. Bdelykleon plays a trick on Philokleon and the trial ends in acquittal, leaving Philokleon disappointed. He prefers convictions, rather than a just and fair trial. There is a late parabasis in which Aristophanes addresses the audience about the dangers of men like Kleon, and he defends his previous play, The Clouds.

At the conclusion, Bdelykleon attempts to convert his obsessive father into an upstanding gentleman. In a strange turn of events, Philokleon ruins the party and storms out attempting to fight anyone, he also steals a woman from the party. A line of people follow him down the street to his house threatening lawsuits. Philokleon attempts to talk his way out of the legal disputes until his son drags him in the house. A vague moral lesson is instructed at the end -old men like Philokleon cannot be changed.

The play exposes the tensions between justice in the home, which is to say families and households, and justice in the city, or the polis. The city relies heavily upon participation in the jury courts, while harmony at home demands attention, time, and order (recall the slaves were drinking and sleeping at the outset). But a just city relies on harmonious homes, and the two are closely related to one another. Recall from Plato’s Republic that in order for justice to be found, harmony also must also be found, with each person doing his part, not unduly concerning himself with his neighbor’s business. In Aristophanes’s Wasps Bdelykleon is neglecting his role in watching over his slaves who have grown lazy, Philokleon is neglecting his household for an obsession with the power and prestige offered him through the courts system (also his main source of income). He is concerned mainly with the affairs of others, rather than looking after his own (an indication of injustice also found in Plato’s Republic). However, Bdelykleon is also worthy of further criticism -he is impatient and compassionless toward his father. He makes little effort to reorient his ailing father, and he when he does it fails miserably. The play was released during a one-year armistice in the Peloponnesian War, performed at the Lenaia in 422 BC, however peace and justice have not come for the families of Athens. As with most Aristophean comedy, he points us to lowly things, or things worthy of ridicule, in order to direct our attention at high things, like justice.

The key point of the play is Bdelykleon’s attempt to cure his father of an ill. He wishes to transform his father, through punishment and restraint, a punishment which cannot overcome the nature of Philokleon, who is naturally drawn to mischief. Kleon’s courts, in contrast, provide a better outlet for Philokleon’s base desires. How can Bdelykleon overcome his father’s malady? Surely not by forcibly restraining, nor by exposing him to the new sophistications of Athenian youth (his party at the end). Perhaps the crux of the problem lies not with Bdelykleon, but rather with Kleon who has created this new court system which offers payment to juries, thus incentivizing mischief.

In many ways, Aristophanean comedy mirrors the nastiness and “waspishness” of Philokleon, as the comedies are filled with accusations and condemnations (such as of Kleon). Audiences come to a comedy yearning for a public trial, and there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it (to paraphrase Nietzsche). Aristophanes’s comedies are a kind of trial, wherein something, or more likely someone, is brought before the eyes of the people and ridiculed, under the guise of innocent comedy. Humor is likely never innocent, especially when the comedy is political, as in the case of Aristophanes. Aristophanes’s comedies point to the broader problem of Athenian social degradation -as old men have become obsessed with law courts so they can behave like stinging “wasps,” while young men also neglect their duties by partying and imitating the new foreign sophist’s teachings. It is not the same city as the Athens of the old Marathon fighters. By laughing, Athenian citizens acknowledge this fact, and expose an underlying truth of their city -for laughter can be considered a kind of release from political and social mores. To rephrase Aristotle in the Poetics, laughter exposes the noble things by forcing us to recognize the lowly things. To “get the joke” is to be made aware of this discrepancy. The distinction between laughter and pity is the issue of suffering -we laugh at lowly things that strive to be noble but miss the mark, while we weep with noble characters who suffer and are thus brought below their station through tragic circumstances.


For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Circus (1928) Review

The Circus (1928) Director: Sir Charles Chaplin

“Time brought many changes to the Circus; New Hopes and New Ambitions.”

★★★★★

In truth, The Circus was one of the most difficult movies Charlie Chaplin ever made. During filming, his mentally ill mother died, there were numerous scheduling delays, a studio fire broke out, and he faced a bitter divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey (his teenaged bride whom he first met when she was a 12 year-old flirtatious angel in the dream sequence of The Kid). Also Chaplin suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his her public accusations of sexual perversion and infidelity, and additionally the IRS publicly announced Chaplin owed significant back taxes. It seemed everything was going wrong in Chaplin’s life. All of these scandals and troubles stalled the production of The Circus for eight months, and the stress of suddenly becoming tabloid fodder caused Chaplin’s hair to go white, so much so that it had to be dyed black for shooting. In addition, an early negative of the film was found to be scratched. Per Chaplin, it contained some of the best footage of him walking a tightrope 40 feet off the ground. Once it was finally completed, The Circus was hailed as a classic, it became the seventh highest-grossing of any silent film.

At the outset of The Circus, the Tramp stumbles upon a traveling circus while avoiding the police in an amusing robbery mix-up. The circus ringleader (Al Ernest Garcia), who is headstrong and abusive, gives the Tramp an audition after the Tramp accidentally wanders into the circus ring while fleeing the police, and he unexpectedly steals the show. However his audition ends in disaster when he pies the ringleader in the face and the ringleader promptly kicks him out. Again, he steals the show when trying to be a stage hand, but he befriends the ringleader’s step-daughter, an unnamed circus rider (Merna Kennedy) and he sneaks food to her behind the back of the ringleader. He quickly brought back into the circus to perform when they are desperate for clowns; he runs into the ring spilling pies, falling into the audience, accidentally releasing the magician’s birds. The ringleader decides to keep the Tramp, but tries to keep quiet the fact that the Tramp is the hit of the show. Meanwhile, backstage the Tramp causes all kinds of mischief, including accidentally getting himself locked inside the lion’s cage in a classic scene (Chaplin later admitted to truly being afraid during these shoots).

Finally, the Tramp begins getting paid what he deserves for his performances, and a theme that is common in Chaplin’s films, with newfound riches the Tramp’s life significantly improves. One day, the Tramp overhears the girl’s fortune being told, that she will meet a handsome man, and the Tramp assumes she has fallen for Rex (Harry Crocker), the disgruntled tightrope walker. With the belief that she loves someone else, the Tramp’s next few performances are dismal (there is a delightful technical scene in which the Tramp imagines himself beating up Rex, I love these little glimpses into the Tramp’s mind) until the Tramp is sent out in the tightrope walker’s place when Rex is a no-show. At the end, he finds Rex the tightrope walker and brings him back to the circus to marry his beloved circus rider, preventing her from being abused by the ringleader. As the circus travels away, the Tramp is left alone in the remnants of the circus ring (in a simply gorgeous shot) with a small remnant of the circus. He crinkles it up and throws it away as he walks off into the distance.

Much like the Tramp being left alone while the great pageant carries on without him, the film industry in 1928 was embarking on its own great leap into the talkies leaving behind many of its talented creators from the silent era. In The Circus, we see the self-sacrificial Tramp teaching the circus clowns how to be funnier, he helps the girl he loves, he is a paragon of altruism only to be left alone in the end. The artist is abandoned by his art medium.

All throughout the twenties, Chaplin had been discussing making a film about a circus. Inspiration for The Circus came from his earlier silent short “The Vagabond” as well as from French comedian Max Linder’s movies. Although he won a special Academy Award at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony and the film received positive reviews and fanfare, Chaplin never remembered the film fondly, even omitting it from his autobiography and struggling to record an official score in his later years. He later sang the opening title sequence in the 1969 re-release (Chaplin was 79 years-old at the time). The song is entitled “Swing High Little Girl.”

The Navigator (1924) Review

9/5/2016

The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

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★★★★☆

Whereas Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” was an impoverished, downtrodden yet dreamy sort of fellow, Buster Keaton often portrayed the opposite kind of clown –a despoiled and soft milquetoast who is perpetually the disappointment of his father. In The Navigator Buster Keaton offers another delightful parody of adventure films that is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which because it foreshadows the work of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat surrounded by confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery.

The Navigator contains some of Keaton’s best stunts, it is based on a screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer of other great comedies, whose other works include the likes of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a co-writer for other famous Buster Keaton films, such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The Cameraman, and The General. Later, in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Buster Keaton claiming he needed it for a hunting trip, and instead, he drove himself to a restaurant in Santa Monica and shot himself in the bathroom. Some have speculated this was because of his declining career with the rise of talkies as well as his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles. When I learned this fact, it simply added to the mounting tragedies Buster Keaton faced in later life, however The Navigator was completed in his golden age, at the pinnacle of Old Stone Face’s success.

At any rate, the film tells the story of Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), disappointing son of means and privilege. One day, he spots an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to prematurely purchase tickets for his honeymoon and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house where he proposes to Betsey O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire). However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads for the ship that evening, but he mistakenly boards from the wrong dock. He actually hops aboard The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a smaller nation which is currently at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and now she boards The Navigator, as well. Both Rollo and Betsey eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, and after a series of gags they are very nearly rescued by another ship but it turns away when Rolo raises the wrong flag. Then Rollo and Betsey develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground at a remote island filled with cannibals. While Rollo is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the cannibals until they catch sight of Rollo’s underwater suit which scares them away. The couple tries to escape in a small dinghy but it becomes filled with water as the cannibals close in. At the last moment, a submarine surfaces and saves Betsey and Rollo (an amusing gag which is later used in the James Bond film You Only live Twice).

The idea for The Navigator came to Buster Keaton as he envisioned two wealthy spoiled children who are cast adrift and must learn to survive together. The USAT Buford, named after the prominent Union Civil War hero, was the actual boat used in the film and it was re-purposed after being used in the Spanish American War and World War I. It was also used to deport radicals during the first so-called Palmer Raids of the “Red Scare”, where socialists and anarchists were deported from the United States to Russia, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. It was also later dubbed the “Red Ark.” Buster Keaton’s producer Joseph Schenck nearly nixed the whole project when he discovered that Keaton purchased the boat for $25,000. Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shots for the underwater scenes were originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool but the pool unfortunately broke under the weight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay out of pocket, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only stand being underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. These little anecdotes help to round out Buster Keaton’s brilliance and dedication as a film-maker.

I picked up on the fact that film titles like The Navigator or The General have a certain double meaning. The Navigator references obviously the boat in the film, but it also points to Buster Keaton’s character, Rollo Treadway, who is navigating his way through life only to accidentally succeed in the end. The same can be said of The General which obviously references the train, but also it points to Buster Keaton’s character, Johnnie Grey, who transforms himself into a courageous, albeit under-appreciated, general of sorts in the Civil War.