Aristophanes, The Birds
The Birds, first performed in 414 bce and winning s prize at the Great Dionysia, seems to be satirizing Athenian polupragmosune, “that quality of spectacular restless energy that made the Athenians both the glory and the bane of the Hellenic world. On the positive side, it connotes energy, enterprise, daring, ingenuity, originality, and curiosity; negatively it means restless instability, discontent with one’s lot, persistent and pointless busyness, meddling interference, and mischievous love of novelty” (175-176). Other features perhaps relevant to modern America include “the love of litigation, the susceptibility to informers and demagogues, the violent changes in national policy, and … imperialism” (176).
Two Athenians, Euelpides with a magpie and Pisthetairos with a crow, have been seeking the Hoopoe (the bird-form that the rapist Tereus was metamorphosed into). They have grown dissatisfied with Athenian life, “where men are free — to pay their taxes” (188) and “Because of legal locusts” (189). They seek instead “some land of soft and lovely leisure where a man may loaf and settle down for good” (189). The two birds signal that a cliffside door is what they want, and indeed the door opens and a Sandpiper emerges first, then the bedraggled Hoopoe on a pile of brush. “Holy Herakles! That’s no Bird, it’s a freak” (194). The Hoopoe responds, “I am dressed as the poet Sophokles disfigures me in that atrocious tragedy of his entitled Tereus” (194). (Sophocles’ play is lost.)
Euelpides and Pisthetairos ask if the Hoopoe knows of “some land, some country like a blanket, soft and snug, between whose folds two tired men might flop” (196), “the sort of country where the worst trouble I could have would be friends trooping to my door bright and early in the morning to pester me with invitations to dinner” (197). But they learn a little about “Life among the Birds” (199) and begin to think that the Birds should found their own city. Since the air is their realm, they could demand tribute when humans sacrifice to the heavens (201), for example. The Hoopoe is excited by the idea and wakes his wife, the Nightingale; they both sing a song whose bottom line is “Itys, Itys!” (202-203) (the name of the son whom Procne and Philomela killed and cooked as revenge against Tereus). Many and various birds are called out, and proceedings become political and even military.
Aristophanes inserts a self-advertisement when a character seeks a “guarantee that this comedy of ours will win First Prize by completely unanimous vote of the Judges” (220).
Soon “the Birds’ ancient power and supremacy” is declared, or established, above that of the gods, against whom they may need to “proclaim a Holy War, a Great Crusade against the gods” (229). Hoopoe’s wife, the Nightingale, is called out again and has lewd remarks leveled at her. Then the Chorus puts on quite a production. Next, Euelpides and Pisthetairos devise the name for the new city: Cloudcuckooland. It meets with resounding approval. Types of birds are honored ceremonially.
A Poet emerges, but “before we die of doggerel” (253) he is driven off. A Prophet enters; he too is mocked and beaten. Next, Meton, a geometrician and surveyor, arrives (259). He too is considered a fraud and driven off. A self-important Inspector is next to be beaten (265). This one returns with a Legislator, but there is no place for any of these in Cloudcuckooland.
Another self-advertisement for the play itself follows, comparing the promised bribes to the Judges favorably over those offered for the Judgement of Paris (268). “Are you perhaps a politician faced with the vexing problem of insufficient plunder? Friends, your problems are over” (268).
A Messenger announces to Pisthetairos the successful building of a wall (!). The Birds are now militarized against the gods, Iris is insulted, and threats are leveled against Zeus (278). A Herald reports that humans have adopted the Birds as a hot new fad. A cheesy Delinquent praises the Birds, especially because they support the idea of violence against one’s father (284). Other visitors are encountered, such as an Informer who is whipped off the stage. Prometheus, hiding from Zeus’ wrath under an umbrella, reports that since the establishment of Cloudcuckooland, the gods are starving for lack of sacrifices. He also advises that Pisthetairos disregard any peace proposals unless they involve him being allowed to marry the divinely supreme “Miss Universe,” at which point he will rule over all. Prometheus is thanked: “we worship you as the inventor of the barbecue” (298).
An Olympian peace delegation arrives: the haughty Poseidon, a doofy Herakles, and, tangled in his robes, Triballos. Zeus can keep Hera; we don’t want her. But Miss Universe must be Pisthetairos’. Poseidon objects, but Herakles is okay with this, especially when Pisthetairos tells him he is a bastard and can never inherit from is father Zeus (306-307). Triballos speaks only gibberish. Poseidon backs down.
Singing and dancing accompany the joining of Pisthetairos and Miss Universe. They are carried away in the “machine” (sans deus) while gods and Attendants bow down in homage. “Man becomes supreme, escapes his mortal condition, and achieves divinity. It would be blasphemous if it were not so terribly ironic a wishfulfillment of the god-intoxicated Athenian Dream” (333).
Aristophanes. The Birds. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Four Plays by Aristophanes. NY: Meridian, 1994. 167-333.