Conventions of Political Satire in Western Theatre
Aristophanes to Fo:
Conventions of Political Satire in Western Theatre
Playscript and Exegesis
Bette Margaret Guy. BA (Hons)
Submitted to the Faculty of Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology 2007
Presented for the Master of Arts Degree (Research) 2007
Aristophanes, Comedic Conventions, Dario Fo, Political Satire, War propaganda.
Aristophanes to Fo is a study of the principal comedic conventions of
Aristophanes’ political satire and their relationship to contemporary political satire.
A template of these principal conventions is tabulated. This is then compared to, and contrasted with, conventions used in subsequent plays in the genre of political satire, including one written as the practice component of this exegesis. This process determines the influence of Aristophanic conventions on political satire from 4th century BCE Greece to the modern era. There is an analytical emphasis on three 20th century plays as case studies and on my play, Soft Murder, which is case study number four.
At the core of the research is the hypothesis that Aristophanic comedic conventions are still relevant to the genre of political satire in contemporary theatre.
To retain relevance the genre should be a discourse on a situation or event that has social as well as political meaning to its audience and its presentation should have entertainment value for the culture of the time. Soft Murder is a fundamental part of this process and is written concurrently with the research component.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Table of contents…………………………………………………… iv
List of Tables………………………………………….………….... v
Part One: Defining Political Satire………………………………... 7
Part Two: Outlining Traditional Conventions of Political Satire…. 10
Part Three: The Thread from Ancient Greece to the mid twentieth
Three Case Studies: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui…………… 23
Oh What a Lovely War……………………... 26
Accidental Death of an Anarchist………….. 29
Summary of Three Case Studies………………………………… 32
Playscript and Practice: Soft Murder……………………………. 36
Case Study Four: Soft Murder – An analysis….…………………. 94
List of Tables.
Table 1: Principal conventions of Aristophanes’ political satire…………..……………. 13-15
Table 2: Examples used in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui……………………………. 24
Table 3: Examples used in Oh What a Lovely War…………………………..………….. 27
Table 4: Examples used in Accidental Death of an Anarchist……………………….…….. 30-31
Table 5: Examples used in Soft Murder……………………….…………………………… 97
Table 6: Aristophanic conventions used by all four case study plays………..………….. 99
The work contained in this thesis has not previously been submitted for a degree or a diploma at any other institution. The thesis contains no material previously published or written by another person except where due reference is made.
I thank the Queensland University of Technology for giving me the opportunity to undertake a Masters Degree (Research). I am particularly grateful to Errol Bray, Craig Bolland, Ellen Thompson and to my cohort members Elaine Acworth, Katherine Lyall-Watson and Paul Sherman for their invaluable comments and support.
My interest in politics goes back a long way. So does my belief in the comedic possibilities of satire to expose the sophistry and moral insensibility of powerful figures that represent the establishment. As a playwright I became bored with the writing of both drama and comedy in the style of the two-act, well-made play. One of my earlier plays, Stacked (Guy, 1994), and ventures into writing comedy sketches and stand-up, had hinted at how I might use the ludicrous to satirise authority figures.
The combination of my theatrical experience and interest in both politics and satire led me to the exciting challenge of writing a satiric political play for the theatre.
Political satire is a significant genre because it blatantly and passionately exposes the errors and vices of a particular political state at a specific moment in time. In spite of this specificity it also emphasises the universal danger of unchallenged power.
To begin this task I decided to investigate Ancient Greek theatre models. These comic plays have stood the test of time and it seemed to me that an exploration of their conventions might lead to a better understanding of techniques useful for the writing of political satire. This exercise might also confirm the relevance, or otherwise, of these ancient techniques for contemporary theatre.
In recent years political propaganda has roused my curiosity. I have enjoyed observing the ways in which words are manipulated to promote a particular political point of view. A denunciation of what I perceive as a war of words in politics is the theme of the play I use as part of this practice-led research. I confirmed my own general definition of the terms satire and political by consulting dictionaries. The
1965 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, defines satire as “The use of ridicule, irony, sarcasm to expose folly or vice, to lampoon an individual” (Thompson, (ed).
1995, p.1225). In the same edition, political is defined as “concerning the state or its
government or public affairs generally” (Thompson, (ed). 1995, p.1057). The literature review that follows adds scholarly interpretations of this basic definition.
I began my play with the passion of an idealist, determined to expose the hypocrisy of war propagandists, yet with the pragmatism of a playwright willing to discover the best way to present that intent in a theatrically persuasive form. I wanted the play to be true to the genre in that it must be of specific contemporary significance while at the same time alluding to universal themes of the subject matter. It had to combine the serious with the very funny, a precarious balancing act for which research might divulge a formula.
First, I decided on the title, which after several attempts became Soft Murder, both ironic and pertinent to the subject of the play. I then needed a set of characters; some of whom represented the establishment and some who willingly or unwillingly colluded with the establishment, plus at least one outsider who steps into this world of authority with either a naïve or ignorant perspective on that world. Because, in the real world, authority figures are frequently faceless and nameless I wanted my characters to have descriptive names only, ones that clearly projected who they were and what they represented. I chose Word, as the writer, Time as the organiser,
General and Chief as representatives of authority, Preacher as the ambivalent participant in the propaganda and Tick and Tock, as Mr and Mrs Everyman who, because it is easiest, do whatever they are told to do.
Until my analysis of the plays of Aristophanes and other satiric playwrights began, how the plot of Soft Murder was to unfold was decidedly unclear. I only knew it had to be hard hitting in political terms yet sufficiently funny to be accepted by an audience as satire. The problem of whether I could effectively unify the satiric and the political in a stage work might be more certain at the end of the literature review.
With the basic outline of the characters confirmed the play was underway, along with the research component. For examination purposes the playscript should be assessed as 70 percent of the work and the exegesis assessed as 30 percent.
My admiration for Aristophanes, an exponent of political satire, raised the question of whether his techniques are applicable in a modern context. From my knowledge of theatre a hypothesis occurred suggesting there might be few differences between Aristophanes’ techniques in political satire and those of modern satirists. Practice-led research seemed an effective method to clarify the theory. This approach facilitates the creation of a play collateral with the literature review as the research strategy to establish basic research data. As well as a research stratagem the literature review provides a historical contextual review thus integrating a literary analysis within a study of my own practice component. Data is tabulated to better examine the relationship between Aristophanic comedic conventions and those of the case studies, including my own play.
The case studies are built upon dramatic literary analysis within a performance paradigm. The international reputation of the three case study plays remains intact in contemporary theatre literature. All three are listed in the 2005 publication The
Oxford Dictionary of Plays (Patterson, 2005) which purports to include “the 1,000 most significant plays of world theatre” (Patterson, 2005, p.ix). Eisenhardt (1999, p.1370) in Building Theories From Case Study Research, cites Miles and Huberman
(1984) to advance the use of “devices such as tabular display…to manage and present qualitative data”. Stake in Qualitative Case Studies, comments that, “An observation is interpreted against one issue…then interpreted against others” (2005, p.450). I chose four plays out of the eleven extant plays from which to extrapolate
examples of the principal conventions used by Aristophanes. I chose two of the most famous and two lesser known plays as the testing group to see that the conventions occur across the range of his known works. These are a representative sampling of
Aristophanic political satire. Because the Literature Review forms the basis of data retrieval research it is deliberately placed after the Methodology chapter.
The relationship between the practice component and the written component will assist in discovering whether my theory can be validated. A creative work should be capable of standing alone as a creative output. This study uses the practice- led research method by first deciding to write a political satire which then instigated research into conventions that might assist in its writing. My interpretative paradigm is drawn from classical dramatic conventions. Nigel Krauth in his paper ‘The Preface as Exegesis’ (2002) demonstrates that the task of the exegesis is “…to provide exposition of the relationship between…[the] writing and the culture. Krauth goes on to discuss the foreword and the afterword as an exegetical process by stating that,
“...exegetical activity is a framing device positioned between the world created in the fiction and the world the reader inhabits…It is a part of the main work, but apart from it.” In discussing the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Krauth quotes Joseph Wood
Krutch (Prentice-Hall, 1967) who describes Poe as a “…writer…who seeks a way of making clear the principles underlying the work produced .” Krauth concludes
“…exegetical activity reinvigorates…the territory - a significant territory of information, perspective and debate.” In the present exegesis the Literature Review, added to the “foreword” structure prepares for the practice-led research strategies used parallel to the creation of the playscript. In Krauth’s terms the analysis of, and a commentary upon, the playscript’s place in establishing the premise is the afterword.
An example of application of Krauth’s concept from the present exegesis would be
the use of the table of conventions which pre-empts the playscript as part of the
“foreword” and then is used as part of the analysis of the playscript in the
In Building Theories From Case Study Research Eisenhardt proposes that “it is the intimate connection with empirical reality that permits the development of a testable, relevant and valid theory” (1999, p.135).
The first step in testing the theory is to identify the principal comedic conventions used by Aristophanes in his political satire and to tabulate them. These
“organising themes should serve to deepen understanding of the specific case”
(Stake, 2005, p.448). Second, via the literature review, the historical trail of
Aristophanic conventions would be traced. Stake makes the point that, “Historical context is almost always of interest” (2005, p.449). The limited scope of this exegesis permits that only major playwrights of political satire be discussed at any length with a brief reference made to other individuals or groups of writers. Next, it is essential to test my hypothesis against some modern texts, chosen because of their reputation as successful examples of the genre. As the parameter for this exegesis I am taking as contemporary those plays produced after World War Two. These plays have their credentials as political satire examined and are analysed as case studies.
The strategy is to use three case studies, in what Stake terms “multiple case study…in order to investigate a phenomenon” (2005, p.445). In her chapter What
Case Studies Do, Jennifer Platt suggests,
[it is not] the number of cases used but the nature of
the data on them. If there is a rich and detailed account
of many features of the case(s), it may be a considerable
achievement to devise an interpretation which can deal
with them all (1999, p.176).
The application of this process suits the terms of reference of this exegesis.
Eisenhardt speaks of criss-cross analysis techniques, concluding “Theory developed from case study research is likely to have important strengths like novelty, testability and empirical validity ” (1999, p.157). Studying Eisenhardt’s roadmap for building theories from case study research proved invaluable for the demonstration of my theory (1999, pp.136-137).
I will examine three playscripts of political satire from the 20th century. They are first, The Resistible Rise of ArturoUi, (Brecht, 1941), which continues to be produced internationally and remains in the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble, the east Berlin theatre where Brecht produced his greatest plays. The second, Oh What a
Lovely War, (Chilton, 1965) created by the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop, is recognised as a classic of its genre in Britain and has been produced internationally many times. In 1969 a film version, directed and produced by Richard Attenborough, with an outstanding cast of British theatre and film actors, was released internationally. Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Fo, 1975) is the third case study and has received both critical and public acclaim. In his introduction to the English translation Stuart Hood estimates that a million people saw the play in its first four years of production (1991, p.xii). The aim is to contrast and compare the tropes utilised in these plays against the principal conventions of Aristophanes as listed in
Table 1. This process will identify the extent of Aristophanic influence on them.
Examples of the conventions in each of the plays are noted in separate tables and form part of the analysis of each play. The conventions used in all three plays are
cross-referenced in Table 6. This method of tabulation is an effective form of coding analytical data.
I chose to use works by western playwrights because I was educated in England and therefore heavily influenced by, and interested in, European literature. There may well be some effect of Australian culture on the written component of this exegesis, a certain larrikinism in the humour perhaps but this is as yet uncertain.
The selection of case study plays was made after a comprehensive reading of
20th century plays constructed within the genre of political satire. Each play has achieved both critical acclaim and popular success, which makes their choice important in assessing the relevance of traditional tropes in the modern era.
The practice component of this study is Soft Murder (Guy, 2006). The playscript was written concurrently with the research carried out in this exegesis. Soft
Murder is case study four and is analysed in terms of Aristophanic conventions, using the same template as was applied to the other three case studies. Its theatrical effectiveness for a contemporary audience is reflected upon.
1) Defining Political Satire
While defined simply as the ridiculing of folly and vice, effective political satire must be specific about who and what it ridicules, even though the purpose of the genre is to develop the satiric quality and not to illuminate character. The target of political satire is usually a specific government, for as Hodgart asserts, “Most of the best satirists have been against the established government” (1969, p.33). Matthew
Hodgart’s text, Satire, (1969) is referred to extensively in this exegesis. I found it
complex yet elegant in its treatment of the subject matter. It deals authoritatively with satire in general and with political satire in detail.
Many other scholarly texts provided either general background material or brief yet specific information that directed my research along the path it takes. Theatre of
Chaos – Beyond Absurdism (Demastes, 1998) discusses ways to highlight disorder as an appropriate way to seek out the truth. This gave me some comprehension of the performance possibilities of farce. The Media and Political Violence, (Clutterbuck,
1981) gave an insight into media manipulation of words, something to prove useful in the writing of my script. Reading some of the quotes of contemporary leaders, particularly the military establishment, in Read my Lips, (Paris and Mason, 1996) prepared me for the particular way I could use dialogue in my play. Of all the texts studied those quoted in the exegesis proved the most pertinent to the research component of my hypothesis.
In relation to performance elements Hodgart suggests, “It seem essential for satire that the steady illusion of acting be broken from time to time” (1969, p.190).
The purpose of such breaks are to encourage the audience to collaborate in what is happening on stage. This is achieved in many ways, including direct speech to the audience, persuading the audience to accompany actors in singing or vocalisations, the changing of costume and/or appearance in full view of an audience, the doubling of roles and the intentionally obvious reversal of gender roles.
Hodgart also asserts, “The greatest satire not only fixes a moment in history…but it tells the truth about human nature” (1969, p.248). This is often demonstrated in the rhetorical device of zeugma, speech in which words are used in a grammatically incorrect manner or their definition distorted, for the purpose of what
Hodgart refers to as, “the absurd linking together of the trifling and the serious”
(1969, p.105). The success of this convention relies heavily on witty dialogue delivered with anarchic and joyful gusto.
The Cambridge academic, Kenneth McLeish, is also referred to extensively in this exegesis. His comprehensive work, The Theatre of Aristophanes, (McLeish,
1980) provides much of the basic material I needed on the theatrical conventions of
Aristophanes’ plays to develop the foundation of my hypothesis. McLeish argues that, “the persistence of certain kinds of jokes and routines in the comic tradition after Aristophanes suggests that the essential nature of comedy has changed very little and its techniques hardly at all” (1980, p.14). Hodgart explains these certain kinds of jokes as being those that frequently revolve around the sexual taboos of a particular society but which also appear to transcend the centuries (1969, p.22). It is the exaggerated playing out of these taboos that offers an audience the enjoyment of the bawdy. Similarly, Gilbert Norwood (1964, p.203) speaks of how the art of mime makes people laugh by the gestures of slapstick, frequently the bawdy together with verbal mockery and mimicry of social types. Statues from the Hellenistic period of
Greece show the comic slave with a large belly and grotesque mask indicating that exaggerated appearance and costume, including masks, was an important element of satire at that time (Hodgart, 1969, p.22).
Arthur Pollard in his book, also titled Satire, (1970) points out that the first task of a writer of this genre is “to know what he can convince his audience of as being important” (1970, p.47). The subject matter must therefore be of consequence to a given audience at a given moment in time. Pollard observes that the 3rd century
BCE writer Theophrastus “produced a rogues gallery” of types he could write about and “Chaucer’s Prologue is just such another [gallery]” (1970, p.47). Pollard goes on to explain that satire can be merely implied, quoting as an example the Friar in lines
212-213 of The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer, 1386), “He hadd maad ful many a marriage, of yonge women, at his own coste” (Pollard, 1970, p.47). Today this would be classified as innuendo. Dryden makes a satiric comment about the hypocrisy of the church in his introduction to Ben Jonson’s London-The Vanity of Human Wishes,
“see [Cardinal] Wolsey stand, Law in his voice and fortune (sic) in his hand” (cited in Pollard, 1970, p.50).
Although Northrop Fry calls satire “militant irony”, (cited by Pollard, 1970, p.131) it seems there is more to political satire than flag waving and didactic rhetoric.
Reflecting on the purpose of satire Hodgart adds two important concepts to the discussion: “Both the satirist and his public must understand some of the processes of politics” (1969, p.33), and “the general drift of satire is to reduce everything to simple terms” (1969, p.126). The cultural significance of a play is important.
It appears that political satire can target almost any representative of the state, yet it must be apt for its time as well as universal, and can be implied as well as overt. An insightful description of political satire is that made by Norwood, a scholar of Ancient Greek Theatre. When analysing Aristophanes’ The Archanians (425
BCE), Norwood writes, “Here beneath the surface of laughable and bitter nonsense can be plainly felt a strong opinion and a passionate appeal” (1931, p.205). This comment had a powerful effect on the development of my play for this study, as it reinforced my desire to integrate those two important elements of political satire within a powerful form.
2) Traditional Conventions of Political Satire
Aristophanes (450-380BCE) proclaimed the potency of his own political satire with its combination of serious message and burlesque jocularity. Before the
performance of The Women’s Assembly (392BCE) at that year’s festival, he announced, “Let the wise and philosophic choose me for my wisdom’s sake. Those who joy in mirth and laughter choose me for the jests I make” (cited in McLeish,
1980, p.22). McLeish interprets this as “[Aristophanes] instructs and entertains in a single moment” (1980, p.158). These Ancient Greek theatre festivals were in fact competitions embedded within the rituals of a religious festival celebrating the god
Dionysus. Writers were allowed the ‘festive freedom’ to temporarily turn the social order upside down by ridiculing both the social and political leaders of the day, as represented by authority figures known to the audience. This led to characters such as the buffoon or the fool, or as Cedric Whitman calls it, “The comic hero, who abides by no rules but his own” (1971, p.25). While hesitating to affirm the moralistic tone of Aristophanes’ plays, Whitman concludes that the convention of
Ancient Greek comedy is, “one of bursting generosity … sprays of wit, satire, slapstick, lyrics, whimsy, realism, obscenity and sheer nonsense [that] come tumbling out in Bacchanalian abundance” (1971, p.19).
Confirming this view McLeish argues that “[Aristophanes’] world is like that of a farce…serious themes…serious characters and serious language…combined with hilarity and slapstick” (1980, p.16). He adds that Aristophanes makes fun of various
Greek dialects and town-versus-city characteristics, qualifying this use of language as a satiric trope with “his bad Greek always a fertile source of humour” (McLeish,
1980, p.140). In his introduction to Aristophanes: Three Plays, the scholar Alan
Sommerstein also notes how “Aristophanes makes use of the dialectical peculiarities for comic purposes” (1983, p.29).
The point is made by McLeish (1980, p.4) that the Ancient Greek outdoor theatre was large, with seating for up to fourteen thousand spectators and that the acting
circle was approximately sixty feet in diameter. This made an actor six foot tall look three quarters of an inch high from the back of the amphitheatre. For this reason alone, the exaggeration of all aspects of presentation - speech, gesture, mask, costume, dance, music and any comedy routines, especially the bawdy - was a necessary ingredient of any Ancient Greek theatre production. This production necessity seems to have become an integral part of the satires and was itself a convention satirised by Aristophanes. McLeish explains that Aristophanes’ exaggerated comic routines, especially ones in which phallic symbols were used, were “carefully organised visual and auditory routines - shameless and explicit - exploiting audience reaction” (1980, p.108).
McLeish concludes of Aristophanes, “The components of each play: lyric, slapstick, irony, satire, music, dance are precisely placed together to make a seamless and congruent whole” (1980, p.166).
In order to create a tropes template for testing later case studies, I have extracted
14 principal conventions which the commentators reviewed here indicate are central elements in the plays of Aristophanes. There are numerous examples of each spread throughout the eleven surviving plays, however, for brevity, I have identified in
Table 1 only one example of each. The texts referred to are in Aristophanes
Plays:Two, McLeish, Methuen, London, 1996 and in Aristophanes, Sommerstein,
Penguin Classics, London, 1983. In extrapolating these principal conventions I have cross-referenced the list with the analysis in other studies undertaken by Gilbert
Norwood (1931), Carlo Ferdinand Russo (1994), W.M. Huskin (2002) and Cedric
In Table 1 examples taken from Aristophanes: Plays:Two (McLeish, 1996), are indicated by (1), those taken from Aristophanes (Sommerstein, 1983) are indicated
by (2) and those taken from Aristophanes: Plays: One (McLeish, 1993) are indicated by (3).
Table 1. Principal comedic conventions of Aristophanes’ political satire
Convention Reference Example
Fantastical setting (1) Birds, p. 149 Hoopoe land where men change to birds. (3) Lysistrata A world where women outwit men. (1) Archarnians Athenian Assembly dominated by rogues. (3) Wasps Men become birds. Song/Dance (2) Lysistrata, p.202 Women lampoon manhood. (3) Archarnians, p.32-33 Chorus sing about justice. (1) Wasps, p.66-68 Play culminates in dance and song. (1) Birds, p.184-186 Flute accompanies dance and song. Comic Fool (2) Archarnians, p. 101 Dikaiopolis, a poor old farmer becomes the hero of Athens. (1) Birds Peithetairos, a fool, builds another State. (1) Wasps Philokleon, a poor man, reveals injustice. (3) Lysistarta A ‘weak’ woman puts an end to war.
Comic routines (2) Wasps, p.19-22 Philokleon tries to escape house arrest. (3) Lysistrata, p.205-207 Women swear never to have sex. (3) Archarnians, p.28-30 Lamachos the warrior faces Dikaipolis. (1) Birds, p.190-193 Sacrifices to bird-gods Farce (1) Wasps, p. 36-47 A court case concerning two dogs.
(3) Archarnians, p.36-38 Meganian daughters disguised as pigs.
(1) Birds, p.204-205 Details of building the wall.
(3) Lysistrtata, p.228-229 Women yearning for sex.
Zeugma (2) Archarnians, p.58-68 Choosing the length of a peace treaty by the age and taste of wine. (1) Wasps, p.4 “Cool Cat Kleonymos Sheds Several Shields.” (3) Lysistrata, p.204 Swearing an oath on a leg of lamb.
(1) Birds, p.167 Analogy of bird attacks with human battles.
Exaggeration (2) Lysistrata, p.205 Magistrate dressed as a corpse.
(1) Wasps Philokleon wears a wasp costume.
(1) Birds Parade of 24 bird costumes
(3) Archarnians, p.28 Lamachos with a gorgon painted shield.
Breaking of illusion (1) Wasps, p.5 “It’s time to tell the audience the plot.” (1) Birds, p.202 “It’ll do no harm if you give us first prize.” (3) Archarnians, p.31 “Be Nice to Our Author.” (3) Lysistrata, p. 210 “Any of you gentlemen like to lend a hand?”
Witty dialogue (1) Birds, p.167 “How will we cry, with our eyes pecked out?” (3) Archarnians, p.18 “Have you vinegar for blood?”
(1)Wasps, p.17 “I’m fighting a desertful of Sandmen.”
(3) Lysistrarta, p.203 “Turn the other cheek.”
Topical/Universal (1) Birds, p.184-185 A telling of the creation story.
(3) Archarnians, p.5 “Something about red tape.”
(1) Wasps, p.17 “What earthly use is an empty purse.”
(3) Lysistrata, p.203 “Why should they want peace. They have war funds.”
Doubling/Travesty (1) Birds, p. 183 Male flute player dressed as a female. (2) Archarnians, p.8 Pseudartabas in a dress and a beard. (1) Wasps, p.44 Actor plays a dog. (3) Lysistrarta, p.220 Commissioner dressed as a woman. Parody (2) Archarnians, p. 67-70 Parody of Euripides and his plays. (1) Birds, p.188 “Isn’t that Aeschylus?” (3) Lysistrata, p.227 “Enough, Euripides.” (1) Wasps, p.6 “We could have stuck one on Euripides.” Political (2) Archarnians, p. 83 Pointing out the catastrophes of the provocation government. (1) Birds, p.151 “Athenians… twitter their whole existence… away.” (1) Wasps, p.5 “It stinks of Kle-er, HIM.” (3) Lysistrata, p.197 “Athenians are late. They always are.” Bawdy (2) Lysistrata, p. 216-221 The showing of male sexual frustration. (1) Birds, p.199 “Suppose I slip you…this?”
(3) Archarnians, p.6 “ Big bum? Big dick?” (1) Wasps, p.14 “Don’t use that to prick the wick!”
The Aristophanic conventions in Table 1 are used as a template against which the conventions used in other plays discussed in this study can be compared and contrasted. There is an appraisal against the selected sample of plays since
Aristophanes and a detailed analysis against the case study plays, revealing the importance and longevity of the Aristophanic conventions.
3) The Thread from Aristophanes to the mid twentieth century
McLeish notes that folk comedy, developed during the early centuries CE, had techniques and routines delivered in the style of Aristophanes (1980, p.19-20). The thread of Ancient Greek conventions of political satire was enthusiastically picked up from the 10th century onwards, when the church was expanding its power and wealth and so, as part of the establishment, became vulnerable to satire.
During the next few centuries, the church continued to be a central target for satirists with anti-clerical messages reaching a peak in the 12th century. Hodgart reveals how satirical songs were used to attack the vices of the church with bishops and cardinals being targeted in particular. Though anonymous, the satires have been attributed to scholars who wandered across Europe or took minor administrative posts with a church (1969, p. 44). Travelling troubadours sang ballads that were parodies or travesties of religious texts. One of the most notable was, The Gospel according to Saint Silver Mark, a prod at Rome’s reliance on wealth (Hodgart, 1969,
p.44). Hodgart points out that these satires were political and witty with elaborate word-plays (1969, p.46).
Neville Coghill (in Chaucer, 1960, p.18) in his Introduction to Chaucer’s The
Canterbury Tales (circa 1387) states that the storytellers of the 14th century embellished their stories for the purposes of both entertainment and instruction and they contained many satiric socio-political comments. The anonymously written
Dutch play, Everyman, (circa 14th century), first performed in England during the early 1500s, though basically a morality play, has touches of satire, and as Cooper and Wortham point out, “certain aspects of the satire indicate that the concerns of the
15th century [religious] reforming movement are present” (1980, p.xxxvii).
The Reformation was a period of turbulent political and religious unrest across
Europe. Catholic Spain, France and Italy were seen as a threat to England during this time, while Germany was embracing the beliefs of Martin Luther and spreading them throughout Europe. Overt political satire against authority figures could lead to death, or at least an interview with the Grand Inquisitor. Menippee (1594), a satire on the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant views, was published anonymously but was, according to Hodgart, written by a group of authors: Leroy,
Gillot, Pithou, Nicholas Rapin and others (1969, p56). Hodgart calls the work, “the nearest approach to Aristophanes that had appeared in European literature … at once very funny and very serious” (1969, p.58).
In 1599, the Bishops of the Church of England placed a ban on printed literary satire which had the effect of driving literary satirists into the theatre. The play, The
Alchemist, (Jonson, 1610) follows on the traditions of Aristophanes. In his introduction to the play J.R.McCollum states, “[Jonson] flays pretence, affectation, hypocrisy, greed and lust” (McCollum, 1965, p.ix). By the 17th century alchemy had
become little more than quackery, “credulous rulers as well as ignorant countrymen were prey to the frauds” (McCollum, 1965, p.xi). Aristophanic in its use of zeugma, in Jonson’s case a multi-syllabic mumbo-jumbo jargon of Arabic, Greek and Latin, plus the use on stage of exotic chemistry equipment, fires and bubbling liquids, the play exposed how easily people could be fooled. Jonson satirised hypocrisy, ignorance and the Puritan rigidity of the establishment for their incredulous condoning of the fraudsters. Hodgart notes that Volpone (Jonson, 1601) and The
Alchemist (Jonson, 1610) made “spectators laugh by the exaggerated gestures of slapstick, verbal mockery and mimicry” (Hodgart, p. 202).
Shakespeare comedies such as Twelfth Night, (1601/2), Much Ado About
Nothing (1598/9) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1601/2) are set, at least in part, in a topsy-turvy world where both speech and actions can be anarchic under the guise of buffoonery. Serious comments, in the form of satire, become possible under this stylistic treatment which echoes the festive freedom of Ancient Greek theatre. Many
Shakespeare plays use satire to undermine authority figures. Whether revealing the hypocrisy of Prince Hal, or the folly of King Lear Shakespeare demonstrates his ability to satirise the establishment, even if in a seemingly restrained manner. For example, while allowancing the prejudices of the time against Jews to be shown in
The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare does not shy away from making a politically satiric point by commenting that Shylock’s conversion to Christianity will increase the price of pork. This is both funny and serious in the Aristophanic sense. Wells
(1986, p. 112) discusses how Shakespeare invests a great deal in the ability of actors to interpret his text, giving abundant clues for comic business and improvisation.
Frequently his clowns and fools overtly satirise the mighty and the powerful. As
Robin Wells confirms “Shakespeare used clowns for important roles in almost all his
plays” (1986, p.105). As Parker and Hartman (1985, p193) affirm “The traditional clichés are restated … but the subtler message … subverts and reverses the conventional message.” John Russel Brown points out that Shakespeare “provided running gags ... for the clowns [who were] skilled in mimicry. In this way they could project shrewd social comments” (1969, p.107). Shakespeare also used the
Aristophanic device of parody against his fellow playwrights, including Marlowe.
C.C. Barber claims, “Once Shakespeare finds his own distinctive style he is more
Aristophanes than any other great English comic dramatist” (1972, p.3).
From the 15th to 17th century various forms of Commedia dell ‘Arte were practised in Europe, mostly in Italy and France. England had its jesters, troubadours, jugglers and acrobats to entertain the public outdoors. These burlesque styles of theatre carried on many of the traditional conventions of the Ancient Greek theatre.
In his detailed Commedia dell ‘Arte, An Actors Handbook, John Rudlin describes the various stock types represented in the Commedia dell ’Arte repertoire. He shows that their masks parallel the exaggerated masks in Aristophanes’ plays that serve to introduce a stock character (1994, p.68).
During the 17th century French playwright, Molière, wrote with both a social and a political intent. McLeish states that Molière successfully structured his political comment as a series of slapstick contests between satirist and target (1980, p.127).
Some of Molière’s plays were banned from public performance, because of hostility from those he satirised, but were produced at Court, so compounding his infamy in the eyes of some. In his Prologue to Tartuffe (1669) Molière writes, “It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to public laughter” (cited in Corrigan, 1965, p.444).
Wylie Sypher, in his chapter in Comedy, comments that Molière clearly followed many of the satiric conventions of Aristophanes, including farce and slapstick, as
well as witty dialogue (1965, p.31). While Molière mainly targeted the professions, his satire retained elements of the political, especially against the church.
During the late 18th to the early 20th century many Aristophanic conventions were vital elements in popular entertainment forms such as music hall, vaudeville, song, dance, comic routines, strolling balladeers, cabaret and pantomime. During the latter half of the 19th century the operettas written by William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) made establishment figures the clear targets of their political satire, using Aristophanic tropes of music with stinging lyrics and buffoonery to illustrate the inadequacies of their targets. In their Iolanthe (1882),
Stefan, a simple shepherd, is made a Member of Parliament, running amok and having ridiculous Parliamentary Bills passed, (Ashmore, 1961, Vol. 10. p.252).
Stefan is a perfect example of the Aristophanic comic hero.
By the turn of the 20th century George Bernard Shaw was a playwright determined to satirise the establishment with a mixture of Aristophanic tropes within a conventional dramatic structure. Shaw used farcical scenarios and witty dialogue to undermine his targets, especially in plays dealing with war. His plays still carry a sting. As Pollard comments, “Shaw imbues much of his wit with a sharp social comment, arising from an inversion of the commonplace” (1970, p.54). This style of presentation is related to Aristophanic conventions.
In 1907 the Russian clown, Vladamir Leonidowitch Durov, was performing in cabaret in Berlin. He was charged with treason when, in one of his comic routines, he used a live pig that was clothed to clearly represent the German Kaiser. Durov’s punishment was to be banished from Germany. What is pertinent about this action is that Durov’s political satire was not only played out under the stress of tyrannical times but it was done overtly and without the festive freedom of earlier centuries. He
had no fantastical, topsy-turvy world in which to hide his hard hitting political statements. Therefore, as J. Schechter observes in his book, Durov’s Pig: Clowns,
Politics and Theatre, “Durov’s arrest … initiated an important moment in the history of political satire” (1985, p.3). Using Aristophanic conventions of witty dialogue and buffoonery Durov encouraged the people to judge authority figures so that “Durov’s performance became a dialogue [directly and in the real world] between clown and king” (1985, p.5).
Schechter’s book is significant because it explores the way in which actors/comedians used political satire during the 1920s and 1930s in Germany at a time when propaganda was overt and liberties were being sacrificed in the name of national security. This is important when considering the way propaganda is produced by most nations when involved in war mongering. Schechter continues his discussion on the association between clowns, politics and theatre by saying that,
The clowns in Brecht, Mayakovsky and their successors attain a liberty and power … despite those in power, while the clownish judge (Madman) in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist makes state secrets accessible by exposing [the state’s] hidden abuse of power and the stage clown is transformed from a sidelined jester … into the political clown (1985, p.15).
This is a thread clearly connected to the serious intent of the buffoonery of
Aristophanes. Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Fo, 1991) is to be one of the case study plays.
Much political satire is anti-war and anti-corruption and throughout the centuries satirists have reviled those in power who foster both. When Bertholt Brecht wrote, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, (1941) no one knew exactly what horrors the next few years would bring. The play is a devastatingly insightful vision of how
power corrupts. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is to be one of the case study plays for this exegesis.
By the late 1950s political satire was produced throughout Europe in various art forms, including cabaret, film and comedy sketches. In England, Joan Littlewood’s
Theatre Workshop devised Oh What a Lovely War (Chilton, 1965). While the written text is attributed to Charles Chilton the copyright in its published form belongs to
Joan Littlewood Productions Ltd. This play was a collaborative effort between actors, the military advisor Raymond Fletcher, the researcher and writer Chilton and the director, Joan Littlewood. Because of the impact of Word War I on Europe the follies of leaders before and during that war were still a part of the historical memory of its first audiences and so the play was understood and accepted as political satire.
Oh What a Lovely War is also to be one of the case study plays.
Literature I have reviewed and the special works cited here indicate that
Aristophanes had an ability to target his victims with a serious, sometimes bitter, intensity and yet come up with a very funny play. With this in mind it is sobering to consider Sommerstein’s statement that, “Much as Aristophanes liked being laughed at, and winning prizes for it, he would probably have liked even more to have been listened to” (1983, p.45). This perhaps sums up why throughout the ages the political satirist is compelled by a passionate ideological point of view to speak out, in the faint hope that someone will not only listen and laugh but also work for change. Whether political satire on stage, or indeed elsewhere, has the possibility of encouraging change is an area for research beyond the scope of this exegesis.
From the evidence gathered it seems that the traditional conventions of
Aristophanes have carried through from one generation of writer to another, with some slight modifications in presentation techniques. From time to time the
legitimate theatre has been closed down by authorities or made subject to strict controls by political or ecclesiastical pressure. This led to a broadening of the illegitimate theatre, popular entertainment that garnered many of the traditional conventions while adding different techniques. Each generation adds techniques and styles that suit not only the subject matter but also the cultural symbols of the day.
This includes the racy exhibitions of burlesque, the more discerning presentations of music hall, the screening of factual evidence via film, the latest use of technology as part of the set and flamboyant sound and lighting effects, all to emphasise the satiric quality of the play. These new techniques are neither prescriptive nor normative, they have evolved as minor adjustments to the traditional conventions as writers accentuate the terms of the society in which they write. Political satirists of each generation have relied heavily on the traditional conventions of Aristophanes. No matter how far removed the subject matter may seem from an Aristophanes play there remains an adherence to some, if not all, of the tropes he used. Studying these conventions has assisted me in the creation of my play, encouraging me to expand upon the essential connection between a play’s witty dialogue and its stylistic delivery. A clue to producing effective political satire seems to be this correct balance between comic stage-business and dialogue. Shakespeare grasped this knowledge and used it effectively, allowing his clowns to heighten his textual message in performance, the same as Aristophanes did. In this respect the writing of my play evolved gradually, as my discovery of the efficacy of Aristophanic tropes increased. Traditional conventions serve as an important guide to writing political satire. Although the practice part of this research, my play, will encompass the use of traditional conventions, a presentation of the final draft of the play would be needed to assist in gauging its relevance as a contemporary piece of political satire.
This exegesis is innovative in that it reveals a historical thread of conventions from Aristophanes to modern times. My research did not find a contemporary play that sufficiently exemplified the use of all, or a majority of, the fourteen Aristophanic conventions. This is not to say they do not exist, only that they are not readily accessible for the purpose of this study. There are contemporary plays such as David
Hare’s Stuff Happens and Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues but these plays, though containing elements of both satire and politics, do not fulfil the criteria used in this exegesis. Much political satire in the Aristophanic mode has transferred itself to television, an area ripe for further study. While other scholars have compared
Aristophanes to other writers I could find no other research equating to that undertaken by me. The designation of a template is a mode of artistic execution readily adapted to academic research and could be readily adapted as an effective tool for other research in the field.
Play One: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. (Brecht, 1941. Collaborator: Margerita Steffin)
The translation used is by Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, London, 1976. The play will be referred to as Ui throughout this analysis.
Of the body of work written about Brecht and his plays I found
Eric Bentley’s opinions in “The Stagecraft of Bertolt Brecht” in The Brecht
Commentaries (1987) helpful in interpreting Brecht’s alienation effect, allowing me to understand its capacity to capture an audience at an intellectual level. Bentley also explains that while words are the backbone of Brecht’s plays the non verbal aspects are also essential and considered components. This encouraged in me the sense that I was on the right track in asserting the use by Brecht of traditional
Aristophanic conventions. Demastes (1998, p.105) proposes that an audience looks
for a significant relationship to what has gone on before and what may come after the event exposed in a play. This is a major theme in Ui.
Written by Bertolt Brecht, Ui was first performed in Stuttgart, Germany, in
1958 and the first English translation production was in London in 1967. The play, set in Chicago during the 1930s when criminals reigned supreme, is about the making of, and support for, a fascist leader. Brecht models the plot and characters on the gangster Al Capone and his mafia style rule. Audiences could readily make the connection between Al Capone, Arturo Ui and Adolf Hitler, making the story culturally accessible to a worldwide audience. There is a comparison in Table 2 of the comedic conventions in Ui which match those of Aristophanes as listed in Table
Table 2. Examples of Aristophanic conventions used in Ui.
Convention Page Number Example
Fantastical setting p.10 Gangster ridden Chicago as a catalyst for a ‘war’ over cauliflowers. Song/Dance p.52 Gangster Bodyguard sings a sentimental song. Comic Fool p.43 Ham actor “ruined by Shakespeare”. Comic routine p. 54/55 Dockdaisy implies she ate food in one city and digested it in another. Farce p.43-46 Arturo being taught the art of rhetoric and body language. Zeugma p.79 Arturo’s speech about how people should be free to make choices. Exaggeration p.78 Giri laughs so hard plaster falls from the ceiling. Breaking illusion p.7. Announcer speaks direct to audience. Witty dialogue p.14. “I’ve run from pillar to post…..” Topical/Universal p.44 “My object is the little man’s image of his master.” Doubling/Travesty None in the Aristophanic sense. Parody p. 89 Of Shakespeare: “Out bloody shades.” Political provocation p. 21 “Two months without a murder and a man’s forgotten.” Bawdy p. 84. “A tactful man? ..seven children?”
As can be seen in Table 2, Ui uses all except one of the principal Aristophanic conventions as listed in Table 1. It follows the trope of the comic fool, using the caricature of an actor to teach Arturo Ui how to act in public, thus satirising the inadequacies of the manic figure of power. Brecht parodies Shakespeare by having
Arturo Ui recount, almost word for word, Richard III’s nightmare before the battle.
The bawdy, though present, is subdued when compared to the plays of Aristophanes.
Due to world events at the time it was written and Brecht’s Marxist ideals, the play contains dark elements that sometimes override the joyful flamboyance of
Aristophanic tropes. Physical violence is kept off stage but the inference of quietly spoken threats and the loud, off-stage gunshots add, at times, a terrifying aspect to the play. This juxtaposition of tensions produces satire that leads more towards an intellectual appreciation of the story than to emotional involvement with it. Brecht’s skill is to present a story that encourages comprehension of the political subject matter as well as some understanding of the lives of the characters embroiled within it, all within a satiric format. Brecht’s epilogue reiterates the warning against complacency when a sign appears declaring of Arturo, “The womb he crawled from is still going strong” (p. 96). Brecht not only hopes for change but pleads for it.
Aristophanes might have hoped for change in his time but, held to the temporary terms of festive freedom, his most direct plea to the audience could only be that they award him a prize.
For all its intellectual content Ui has many funny moments which serve to heighten the serious political message. Each traditional convention serves well the forward movement of the story and they are strongest when the sinister is assuaged by farce. The addition of serious didacticism in Ui, reinforcing the alienation effect, coexists comfortably with the Aristophanic conventions.
The production techniques Brecht uses, such as off stage sound effects and signs relating to specific historical events placed upon the set are contemporary ideas that coexist with traditional tropes. This gives the play a stronger informative direction while not affecting the efficacy with which the traditional conventions are used. In fact, the contemporary political points made in Ui are augmented by the contrast with the stylistic use of the Ancient Greek comic routines and witty dialogue. This case study clearly supports my hypothesis that the relevance of
Aristophanic conventions in political satire continued into 20th and 21st century theatre. It is an encouraging revelation.
PLAY TWO: Oh What a Lovely War. (Chilton, 1963)
The published version used is Methuen, London, 1965. The play will be referred to as Lovely War throughout this analysis.
The Theatre Workshop Story (Goorney, 1981) elaborated on the way Joan
Littlewood worked with the theatre group and serves to heighten an understanding of where she stood in political terms, which is what gave her the passion to evolve a production of Lovely War. Littlewood’s autobiography Joan’s Book, (1994) added to this understanding by explaining the political path her career took.
Lovely War was a production of the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop, under the direction of Joan Littlewood, who is credited with much of its actual creation as well as its production devices. The final version of the written text is attributed to
The play was first performed in London in 1963 and is based on events leading up to World War I and the tactics of leaders during the war itself. It
contains many songs made famous during that war and holds considerable cultural significance for a British audience. Below in Table 3 comparisons are made of conventions used in Lovely War with those of Aristophanes as listed in Table 1.
Table 3. Examples of Aristophanic conventions in Lovely War
Convention Reference Example
Fantastical setting Throughout play War games are set within a Pierrot Show. Song/Dance Throughout play There are 29 songs with many lyrics ironic or bawdy. Dances often accompany songs. Comic Fool p. 67-69 Mrs Pankhurst speaks out directly against the stupidity of war. Comic Routines p. 24-26 The training of raw recruits. Farce p. 55 A severed leg, supporting a parapet, is used as a hat stand. Zeugma p. 42 News panel announcing 850, 000 men killed while MC brightly sings Goodbye. Exaggeration Throughout play Bombardment of news items with song lyrics that underscore them. Breaking Illusion p.7-11 MC speaks directly to audience. Witty Dialogue p.13 About pretending not to hear a gun shot. Topical/Universal p. 50 “I’m a patriot but I’m also a businessman.” Doubling/Travesty Throughout play Actors play parts of both soldiers and Pierrots. Parody p. 68 George Bernard Shaw’s views. Political provocation Throughout play Factual news as opposed to the propaganda. Bawdy p. 26 Song, I’ll make a man out of you.
Table 3 reveals that each principal Aristophanic convention in Table 1 is used in Lovely War. There is an emphasis on music and movement which suits the style of
British music hall presentation. The lyrics of some of the popular songs undercut factual evidence projected on a screen. For example, the statistic that thousands of men have been killed in a particular battle are flashed onto a screen while the MC energetically sings Goodbye. Projections reveal the horror of war while
establishment characters are given lines that reveal their callousness or ignorance about those horrors. The addition of bright melodic rhythms also aids the satiric underscoring of horrifying events.
Comic routines and the direct speech of the MC are typical of music hall productions of the era in which the play is set, and they pay homage to the traditional conventions of political satire. The use of slides and panels, revealing facts and figures about the war, undermines the nationalistic propaganda put out by the establishment. This is politically provocative. The comic fool figure of Mrs
Pankhurst, the only person of rank to tirade directly against war, parodies George
Bernard Shaw by using excerpts from one of his speeches. The wit of the soldiers denigrates the self-centred, short sighted stupidity of the generals and businessmen.
The soldiers are, en masse, comic heroes. In this respect Lovely War carries a universal theme of the ‘little man’ against authority, no matter from which of the countries involved in the war the soldiers come. Similarly, the folly of not only the
British establishment but that of their allies is exposed by the trivial conversations they have concerning profit and death. General Haig is shown as being unconcerned about the killings as long as progress, in military terms, is made. This echoes a common message in the plays of Aristophanes that ‘little people’, who appear to have the most wisdom yet are without power, are the ones who suffer the most in troubled times.
The bawdy in Lovely War is neither anarchic nor plentiful, reflecting the social norms of the era in which the play is set, but it satisfies the Aristophanic tradition.
Though vaudevillian in presentation Lovely War uses traditional Aristophanic conventions to good advantage, so producing the serious beneath the comic. The use of technology to project news panels and statistics on a screen and the extensive use
of music and movement are contemporary conventions which contrive with traditional conventions of Aristophanes to appeal to a modern audience.
This play also supports my hypothesis by its successful use of Aristophanic conventions in a modern political satire. It is an interesting phenomenon that the two
20th century case study plays analysed so far are able to satisfy the demands of contemporary theatre practice while employing the conventions of Aristophanes as listed in Table 1. It indicates that the venture into tracing Aristophanic conventions to the present is proving fruitful.
PLAY THREE: Accidental Death of an Anarchist. (Fo, 1974)
Many scholarly texts on Dario Fo emphasise the input that Fo’s wife and theatrical collaborator, Franca Rama, had in almost all of Fo’s productions, yet no text I have read suggests Rama is credited as co-writer of this play.
The translation used is by Alan Cummins and Tim Supple, Methuen, London, 1991. The play is referred to as Anarchist throughout this analysis.
Tony Mitchell (1984) observes that from its inception Fo’s theatre company,
La Commune, set about providing a theatre of counter information and that Fo’s thinly veiled style of meta-theatrical distinction between character and actor was not intended to bluff audiences. Anarchist exemplifies both of these stylistic attributes.
Stefania Taviano points out that Fo defined this play as “a grotesque farce about a tragic farce” (2005, p.35), which clearly expresses Fo’s attitude to both the subject matter and its presentation.
Anarchist had its first Italian production in 1974 and its first London production, in English translation, in 1980. There have been many re-writes by Fo over the years, plus several translations in English, Spanish, German, Scandinavian languages and others. Fo had an input into some of these translations.
The story of Anarchist revolves around an actual event of a communist railway worker, Guiseppe Pinelli, who, in 1969, was alleged to have been involved in the bombing incident at Milan’s Agricultural Bank during which many people were killed. This was at a time when left-wing anarchists were fighting against the government of the day. Right-wing extremists, in the service of the military and secret service, were known to stage bombings that implicated communist anarchists even when they were not involved. Pinelli was caught in this trap. Pinelli subsequently fell to his death from a fourth floor window while under police interrogation. Like the satires of Aristophanes, Fo implants real events into a topsy- turvy world of his own invention to make a political point. Table 4 demonstrates that
Anarchist is a play whose structure and theatrical conventions are extremely close to those of Aristophanes as listed in Table 1.
Table 4. Examples of Aristophanic conventions in Anarchist.
Convention Reference Example
Fantastical Setting A police station becomes an office for psychoanalysis. Song/Dance p. 40 Everyone sings Internationale. Comic fool p.77 A simple madman who tricks the ‘sane’ establishment with his impersonations of them. Comic routine p. 30-32 Encouraging the police to jump from the window. Farce p. 56 Glass eye pops out, into glass of water and is swallowed. Zeugma Throughout play The insane logic of a certified madman using eschewed language to get to the truth. Exaggeration p. 52 Costume of Madman as forensic expert, including false hands. Breaking Illusion p. 51 Madman changes costume onstage. Witty Dialogue p. 49 “If he’d had three legs we’d get away with three shoes.” Topical/Universal Injustice of authority against the defenceless. Doubling/Travesty p.17 Same actor plays different constables.
Parody p. 66 “It’s a Socratic tactic.” Political provocation p.7 How senile judges affect the lives of millions of people. Bawdy p. 8 “I’ll bite your balls off.”
In Anarchist the balance between text and stylistic presentation is near perfect.
There is a non-stop torrent of witty dialogue from the comic fool, the wise Madman, which drives the play along at a mad cap pace. Language itself takes on a farcical manner with words constantly shifting ground and meaning turning full circle. This completely bamboozles the authority figures who, it becomes clear, have lied to the public from the beginning of the investigation. The Aristophanic convention of witty dialogue is interlaced with continuous farcical events that aid and abet the politically provocative statements of the play. Anarchist is a clever balance between farcical behaviour and psycho-analytical language which imbeds the serious message beneath the comedy. This is a typically Aristophanic style of presentation. The final product is sparkling political satire which emphasises the danger of relying on the propaganda disseminated by the establishment.
Anarchist fully explores each of the Aristophanic conventions but filters them through the heightened physicality of Commedia dell’Arte and a stream of clever words. The Aristophanic template of Table 1 fits neatly over a very Italian play which adds Commedia dell’Arte tropes to explore contemporary issues. The blend of the fourth century BCE conventions and the later tropes of the 15th – 17th century works extremely well. Anarchist, as a modern political satire utilising Aristophanic conventions, supports my hypothesis.
SUMMARY OF CASE STUDIES
Each of the three case study plays presents an emphatically political story through the genre of satire and each utilises all of the principal Aristophanic conventions as identified in Table 1, with the one exception that Brecht does not use the convention of doubling in Ui. In view of my hypothesis this is an exciting discovery because it shows that in a modern play, even one of Brecht’s, a playwright whose work is often seen as dark and sinister, the comic conventions of Aristophanes add a farcical, anarchic quality to a serious proposition..
Anarchist exemplifies best the farcical elements of the Aristophanes comic fool, elevated through the Comedia dell’Arte figure of the Zanni. The play celebrates character changes on stage, flamboyantly exposing them as vital to the entrapment of the targets. This breaking of stage illusion encourages the audience to be complicit in the madman’s game of truth-seeking and acts in a similar fashion to the Greek chorus. The comedy, music and song in Lovely War is juxtaposed against the horrific facts projected on the news panels. This serves to counter the official propaganda of governments, the ideology of the generals and the greed of war profiteers. This is political provocation modelled on that of Aristophanes. Zeugma is used to great effect in Lovely War exposing ludicrous events through the lens of a vaudevillian format.
The didactic purpose of Ui is both strong and repetitive, with the comic relief underscoring the relentless terror of a gangster rising to power. This play concentrates farcical tropes in fewer scenes than either Anarchist or Lovely War, yet it is as rigorous in being politically provocative. Brecht proclaims a warning of the necessity to always resist the resistible in a didactic, melodic epilogue. Fo reinforces the political message of his piece in the final song, The Internationale, by calling his
brothers to arms. The final song in Lovely War satirically undermines the effect war propaganda is supposed to have. No war can ever be called lovely.
Each play, whether by the use of panels, screens or newspaper readings, presents factual evidence available during and after the event. This political provocation is carried out with the passion of moral indignation and does not offer anything of an opposing point of view. Each story is told in simple terms and the political implications of each are within the audience’s realm of cultural and political knowledge. The plays each reveal a little of how and why the main characters act as they do without making them fully fleshed three dimensional people. Some of the targets are shown to fear humiliation as much as violence or death. Dogsborough in
Ui and Bertozzo in Anarchist are examples of this. Lovely War, however, shows only contempt for the targets of its satire while manifesting camaraderie with the ordinary people. Each play vividly demonstrates how facts are either suppressed or manipulated for the benefit of the authority figures, in an attempt to retain the status quo. In this way, each play uses the convention of provocation to highlight the vices of the state.
Truth is seen as the first victim in all three plays. Arturo in Ui actively encourages misunderstanding, showing clearly how the public can be left blinded by the clever rhetoric of their masters. Madman in Anarchist uncovers the truth through his own clever manipulation of the facts as he impersonates the much maligned figures of authority. Lovely War uses the force of factual information juxtaposed with the seemingly endless rhetoric of good news and a winning outcome to emphasise the disparity between political propaganda and truth. In Anarchist Madman ruthlessly exposes the difference between the truth and propaganda while Arturo in Ui reveals, through his own actions and rhetoric, that both propaganda and complicity with it,
are essential to his rise to power. The news panels and images used throughout
Lovely War carry the revelations of truth. The human stories in each play are an integral conduit to the audience while not distracting from the political intent of the satire.
The three case study plays increase the integrity of their stories within the cultural context of their audience by joining together modern conventions with those of Aristophanes. The texts remain true to their individual subject matter while being influenced by Aristophanic conventions in their creation. The presentation of each text is a blend of Aristophanic convention and modern tropes which gives the audience a sense of cultural significance within traditional parameters. Modern conventions include music hall song and dance routines, the vaudevillian style of comic innuendo, modern sound and lighting effects and the use of technology to project information onto screens. These modern conventions balance well with the traditional ones giving rise to works that have universal appeal about subjects that might superficially appear to be very specific. Brecht gives sufficient clues for an audience to make the connection between Arturo Ui, Hitler and other dictators who follow, just as it is possible to forge the link between the disaster of World War I and every other war in Littlewood’s Lovely War. The political satirist demonstrates the follies of the establishment, trusting the audience becomes more aware of how the society in which they live works, and, if encouraged, can be changed for the better.
This ideal is the purpose of the plays of Brecht, Littlewood and Fo just as it was for those of Aristophanes.
A consistent theme of the three case study plays is that of choice. At some point in each play the main characters could have decided to put an end to an event or a situation. In Lovely War, politicians or generals, either individually or collectively,
could have tried to prevent World War I, or at least altered the protracted disaster it became. Arturo’s grab for power in Ui could, at some point, have been resisted by the people involved in his rise. Any one of the police in Anarchist could have spoken the truth at any time during or after the initial investigation. Lovely War expresses how the manipulative power of propaganda can redefine individual choice with the use of emotive nationalism. Anarchist probes the balance of choice between personal ethics and those of the state and Ui reminds an audience how dangerously eager are the majority of people to succumb to the dictates of a strong authority figure.
Contemporary playwrights it seems are resolute in their determination to push home the point that apathy is itself a dangerous choice.
All three case studies make political points with the shrewd observations of satirists emboldening the audience to sift through fact and fiction to determine which really is which. Each play uses witty dialogue and a range of comedic stage business to enhance the political message. The disastrous flaws of the targets are revealed by the use of satiric devices from the traditional Aristophanic model. The balance between text, comic business, music, dance, bawdy and counter information, including projected images, differs considerably in each case study play as would be anticipated from different creative minds. As Denise Chuk (1990, p.80) appropriately points out: “The image or the word carries a specific number of messages [for an audience] … image and word can either enhance each other ... or they can contradict each other” (1990, p.80). It is the clever choice of enhancement and contradiction that makes the works of these three playwrights so special in their satiric qualities.
The unique study that I have instigated in this research logically proves the link between traditional comic conventions of Ancient Greek political satire and those of the modern era. This discovery has positive implications for modern playwrights
because it provides a solid and workable matrix from which writers of political satire can take guidance.
“SOFT MURDER” – THE PRACTICE
Case Study Four
A practice-led approach to research allowed me to maintain the original concept of my play while exploring how Aristophanic conventions could enhance it as a contemporary political satire. I needed to observe how best to weave the comic and the serious within a structured narrative, which is the quintessential essence of
In the first draft of Soft Murder (Guy, 2006) there was a liberal use of witty dialogue and the presentation of the comic fool, the Preacher, with his bewildered wisdom, both Aristophanic conventions. I foresaw that a non-realistic set, surreal costumes, props and lighting, as well as a heightened acting style would project the convention of exaggeration. To provide a human story as a conduit between stage and audience the character Anastasia was created. She was a holocaust victim who would comment didactically on the universal theme of war propaganda and also act as a touchstone for other characters. On a further reading of Aristophanes’ plays however, I realised that Anastasia’s presence added a poignancy too intrusive for the satiric mode of Soft Murder. Anastasia was deleted from the second draft. One of her deleted scenes is included in the analysis that follows the text of Soft Murder.
It remained for me to retain some human story with which the audience could empathise. During drafts two, three and four I added a touch of three-dimensional humanity to all of the characters but especially to Preacher and to Word. My intention was to create “a play of ideas whose heart is in the heavens but whose feet are still in the trenches” (Walton, 1996, p.x). The fourth draft was presented as a
moved reading before an invited audience at the Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane on
November 11th, 2006. The script that follows is draft five, which had some re-writes after this November reading.
SOFT MURDER – CASE STUDY FOUR – AN ANALYSIS
Below is an excerpt from draft one that was deleted after draft two.
Anastasis hits the button on the answering machine.
SFX: You have no messages.
Anastasia: There is no flashing light, yet still I press the button, as if I have some expectation. Technology, it breathes only lies and dark secrets. Who should send me a message? There is no one left. Ah, the war. Was all that killing possible without the propaganda? The world should refuse to hear such messages ever again….One time I had a message. It troubled me. It is wise to discover first the source of a message for it is there the true meaning is to be found. Ah, what trouble a false message can bring. It comes at first so gentle, so innocently. This is the way with soft murder. I will not listen to the message again and yet, so much is sacrificed by silence.
As can be seen by this brief excerpt from scene one of draft one, the character of Anastasia introduced a sense of pathos, even the tragic, that would have weakened the satiric quality of the play. While she could have been changed to a more pathetic figure, such as Dogsborough, to which an audience might still relate, I felt this would serve no real purpose in the advancement of either the story or the satiric requirement of the play.
Madman in Accidental Death of an Anarchist reveals sufficient of himself to bond with an audience as the lowly individual battling authority. The humour of the soldiers in Oh What a Lovely War serves a similar purpose. In The Resistible Rise of
Arturo Ui the flaws of ordinary people ensure the audience views them as helpless or stupid, while Arturo Ui is revealed as the embodiment of power; unthinking, uncaring and violent. From these examples and those of Aristophanes’ comic fools I pursued an avenue of contrast by having the confused and unstable Preacher join forces with the tough intellectual prowess of Word to expose the lies told by the establishment. Word’s pregnancy explores the dichotomy between the emblems of
death - war and propaganda in the play - and of life - a baby. The actions emanating from the realisation that something must be done are allowed to become extremely comic so that an audience is at liberty to laugh with them as well as at them, while also absorbing the serious information conveyed by those actions. The song and dance routines slipped easily into the format and were especially useful in undermining the hypocrisy and immorality of the authority figures.
Influenced by Aristophanes’ plays, especially Lysistrata and The Archanians,
I wrote, in draft two, an explicitly phallic-centred scene for Tick and Tock. However,
I decided it was too out of context and after draft two the bawdy was subdued. As the work progressed I adjusted the balance between text and stage-business only marginally as the Aristophanic conventions seemed to be working effectively. The idea of juxtaposing visual displays was inspired by Oh What a Lovely War as this matched my perception of contemporary war propaganda. This use of visuals is one introduced in Brecht productions. It has proved an effective trope where a parallel image is used to contradict or to undermine the spoken, or sung, word.
The decision to allow Preacher to talk directly to the audience came after a reading of the third draft at a cohort gathering in mid 2006. I realised then that the breaking of illusion could enhance the effect of the chaotic nature of a man caught between two belief systems. Parody was a difficult convention for me to follow but the few lines of Shakespeare (Macbeth, Act 4, Sc.1) not only served this purpose but also added to the farcical nature of the satire.
As the play was polished some modifications were made to the balance between the serious and the comic. The satire of the piece resides in the undercutting of the fanatical belief system of those in authority who demand that propaganda not only be produced but be sanctioned as a viable technique to win a war. By draft four
the overall balance between dialogue and stage-business, as well as the clarity of the serious intent beneath the comic, seemed sufficiently realised for it to have a rehearsed moved reading.
The consensus of opinion declared in audience notes and discussion after the moved reading, plus input from the actors, indicated a desire to see a full production, especially so that the relationship between the dialogue and the simultaneous visual screenings could be better appreciated. From additional feedback I wrote in fuller stage instructions for the spy scene and the ‘ baby coming’ scene. A comment that I was too lenient on the authority figures, by letting General and Chief escape, made me strengthen the final speech, to emphasise the point, as Brecht did with his epilogue to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, that in the real world when one authority figure departs there is always another eager to take its place. My final scene is meant as a warning against complacency, in allowing this continuity to happen, an attitude common among political satirists. As the play was received so well by an
Australian audience perhaps it does contain some elements that relate to Australian culture, elements discovered only in performance.
Soft Murder was deliberately constructed with an eye on Table 1 to test the hypothesis. By intentionally using as many Aristophanic conventions as possible while at the same time creating a political satire that is relevant to a contemporary audience the hypothesis would be proven. Table 5 notes the Aristophanic tropes used in Soft Murder.
Table 5: Examples of Aristophanic conventions used in Soft Murder.
Convention Page Number Example
Fantastical setting A government office with a spinning wheel, distortion mirror, darts throwing, coffin and lettered cubes. Song/Dance P. 54-55 Song: Hokey Cokey Comic Fool p.72 “Final question….Are you there?” Comic routine p. 43-45 Scribe interviewing God. Farce p. 78-81 The impending birth of Word’s baby. Zeugma Throughout play The ludicrous distortion of words and images to create propaganda. Exaggeration p. 68 The spying scenario. Breaking illusion p. 54 Preacher speaks directly to audience. Witty dialogue p. 37 “The big print giveth and the small print taketh away.” Topical/Universal War propaganda applies to any era, any country. Doubling/Travesty None. Parody P. 66 Shakespeare: “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Political provocation p. 41 “All we have to do is spin it until a lie becomes the truth.” Bawdy p. 69 “It’s a long time since we had a big cock up.”
Table 5 reveals that Soft Murder utilised all but one of the Aristophanic conventions as outlined in Table 1. The convention of doubling/travesty is the one not used, basically because Soft Murder is a satire on the politics of the establishment and not on the politics of sexuality. The use of doubling/travesty might distract from the major theme and it was therefore, for me, a redundant trope to include. I have not seen any commentary on why Brecht did not use this convention. Perhaps it was for reasons similar to my own.
Preacher is the comic fool who eventually points out, first to himself and then to others, the horror of propaganda. Rather than constantly waiting for his
“messages from above”, he decides to speak out with his own message for the world,
becoming in his own small way, a saviour, hence the references to his being crucified. The juxtaposition of farce in scene 19 with the sad inevitable truth in scene
20 adds to the power of the premise that danger lurks wherever there is apathy.
Bawdy is limited to the gentle sexual teasing between Tick and Tock and their phallic dusters, while the several clichéd yet funny song and dance routines plus the comic routine between the scribe and God, pinpoint specific serious issues within the farce.
The projections onto screens of news and factual information adds power to the political provocation. This idea flowed from the use by Brecht and Littlewood of similar stylistic presentations. The limited but powerful use of song and dance in the play was influenced by both Brecht’s cabaret style and Littlewood’s music hall presentation. The crazed behaviour of Preacher on the phones is reminiscent of the
Madman’s behaviour in Fo’s play, while the scene when Word is in the last stages of labour relies on the farcical elements of Fo and Aristophanes. Soft Murder is written and set in the immediate present so I used available technology such as computerised projections and the answering machine. All these conventions supported each other and fitted in well with traditional conventions. The exaggeration of properties such as the large spinning wheel, the distortion mirror and the cubes plus the vomiting into a waste paper basket, the witty dialogue and the visually striking coffin all contribute to the efficacy of Soft Murder. The influence of Aristophanic conventions and the additional techniques used in the case study plays is clear.
Aristophanic conventions readily suited the stylistic presentation of Soft
Murder with witty dialogue setting the satiric backdrop against which the comic business is played out. In modern terms Soft Murder is a mixture of music hall, circus and melodrama, all styles having connections to Ancient Greek theatrical
conventions. The traditional tropes served the dramatic needs of the play well, enabling a small story to be played out in an outrageously flamboyant style. The funny treatment of a serious contemporary issue in Soft Murder was received well by the audience at the November 2006 reading. There was lots of laughter and there was no impediment to audience enjoyment because the comic conventions used have an old yet solid base.
What follows in Table 6 is a summary of those conventions used in all four case studies. It is clear from this table that effective use has been made of Aristophanic conventions in each of the plays. The strengths of a matrix of comic conventions that the Literature Review and the specific case studies reveal indicates that they are ongoing tools of trade for playwrights of political satire. The very fact that a thread has been traced from Aristophanes to the present demonstrates that strength.
Table 6. Aristophanic conventions used by all four case study plays.
Aristophanes Ui War Anarchist Murder
Fantastical setting Yes Yes Yes Yes Song/Dance Yes Yes Yes Yes Comic Fool Yes Yes Yes Yes Comic routines Yes Yes Yes Yes Farce Yes Yes Yes Yes Zeugma Yes Yes Yes Yes Exaggeration Yes Yes Yes Yes Breaking Illusion Yes Yes Yes Yes Witty dialogue Yes Yes Yes Yes Topical/Universal Yes Yes Yes Yes Doubling/Travesty No Yes Yes No Parody Yes Yes Yes Yes Political provocation Yes Yes Yes Yes Bawdy Yes Yes Yes Yes
From the analysis of the case study texts it can be argued that the plays, between them, exploit all of the principal conventions of Aristophanic political satire. On a textual analysis it can be demonstrated that these conventions can create an effective vehicle for informing and entertaining a modern audience. Each play utilises elements of the conventions to differing degrees, with the emphasis between written text and presentation techniques variably balanced when compared with the highly tuned balance achieved by Aristophanes. Overall there are relatively minor adjustments to the traditional method of producing political satire. These are made because of either the context of the subject matter, the era in which the play is written and/or the era contained within each play, or the technology that can be used in each era.
There is a universality about each play beyond the specific time, place and events portrayed. Propaganda, war, death, lies, greed, stupidity, ego are all shown to be characteristics of horrendous incidents that happen across time and space. Skill in demanding attention to the universal as well as to the particular is an essential quality for effective political satire in the theatre of any era.
The commercial success of the first three case study plays, The Resistible
Rise of Arturo Ui, Oh What a Lovely War and Accidental Death of an Anarchist, confirms that they have the essential qualities to please an audience and to make them ponder on the particular circumstances presented. While the fourth case study play, Soft Murder, has yet to be commercially produced its affect upon the audience during the moved reading in Brisbane – a great deal of laughter during the reading and much discussion afterwards - suggested that it too was conveying a serious message effectively via the use of satiric comedy devices in the mode of
I would confidently contend therefore that the comedic conventions of
Aristophanes’ political satires are every bit as important and effective in the 21st century as they were in Ancient Greece. In this field of study similar matrixes might be identified for other theatre genres in further research.
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