From the same Ancient Greek comic playwright who gave us the bawdy Lysistrata, this play is every bit as funny. And not only is it also bawdy, but
it is almost slapstick. The notes at the beginning of the book compare it to burlesque and vaudeville.
Except for one other earlier play, the works of Aristophanes "are the only surviving examples of Athenian Old Comedy form:"
"The origins of comedy may be traced to the Festivals of Dionysus in ancient Athens, the showcase for such plays as Aristophanes' The Birds. Here Priapus was worshipped side by side with Bacchus, and exuberant fertility rites carried the sanction of religion. In the same spirit of celebration, ribald and licentious material was part of the very texture of these performances, and not surprisingly, women and children were barred from entrance to these entertainments."
Many consider this play to be Aristophanes' masterpiece. In it, he creates a utopian
society, engineered by two citizens of Athens who are fed up with the peoples' addiction to lawsuits. So Euelpides and Pisthetærus (whose names may be
translated as Optimism or Goodhope, and Persuasive or Trustyfriend) decide to seek the help of Epops The Hoopoe, who was formerly human. Their idea is to
build a city in the sky where they can make their own rules. They also plan to worship the Birds as their gods, while bumping the ones on Olympus. The Birds
claim to be the older ones "offspring of Eros and Chaos." The new city is to be called Nephelococcygia, or Cloud-cuckoo-town. And so they build the city, and
at first are pestered by unwanted citizens and gods and goddesses, but they eventually have their way.
It is a real simple plot, but visually it must have been a hoot (pardon the pun). Of course, there were no women on stage in Ancient Greece, so here we have these guys all dressed up as birds, tweeting and twittering their lines, Remember, I said slapstick.
So Euelpides and Pisthetærus gain the audience of Epops, and he summons all the Birds to a great meeting:
Epopoi, poi, popoi, epopoi, popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick my comrades of the air. . . .
Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkobau, kikkobau, torotorotorotorolililix.
That had to have been funny, especially since they were singing it. Wearing beaks.
When the Birds arrive, they do not trust the humans, so they want to attack them. Euelpides and Pisthetærus are forced to defend themselves with kitchen utensils. But then the Birds calm down, and listen to Pisthetærus, who does most of the talking. Euelpides doesn't say much and what he does say is mostly nonsense. (They are kind of like Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. Or the Smothers Brothers.) They then follow Epops to his dwelling, where they eat a root that makes them grow wings.
As the construction of the city progresses and the priest prepares to sacrifice to the new gods, the annoying people begin to arrive. First comes a poet, but they get rid of him easily by giving him some much-needed clothing. Then comes a prophet with and oracle, but Pisthetærus is not impressed. He says:
This oracle in no sort of way resembles the one Apollo dictated to me: "If an impostor comes without invitation to annoy you during the sacrifice and to demand a share of the victim, apply a stout stick to his ribs."
Then a surveyor arrives, wanting to parcel off lots in the air, and after that, the
Inspector. Pisthetærus asks, "Will you just pocket your salary, do nothing, and be off?" When he agrees, Pisthetærus tells him this is his salary, and beats
him up. He is followed by a Dealer in Decrees, who wants to post laws. They finally go inside to avoid the interruptions.
At last, the gods begins to notice. Iris, messenger of Zeus arrives, and she is indignant when asked if she had a permit. Finally, exasperated, Pisthetærus says to her:
As for you, his messenger, if you annoy me, I shall begin by stretching your legs asunder and so conduct myself, Iris though you be, that despite my age, you will be astonished. I will show you something that will make you three times over.
That sends her off in a hurry.
Then Heracles, Posidon, and Triballus arrive. Heracles just wants to eat, and he's not too bright, and no one can understand a word spoken by Triballus, so they make up answers. And in the end, the gods give up their sovereignty and strike a deal with Pisthetærus. All ends in good fun.
This is a play that should be read and researched over and over, because there is so much humor that one undoubtedly misses first time around. And better yet, see it live.
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