Facts about classical literature’s greatest comic writer
1. We have eleven of Aristophanes’ plays, but he is thought to have written more than forty. Aristophanes is the earliest comic playwright, or at least the earliest whose work has survived so that we can read it. We are lucky to have The Knights, The Frogs, The Wasps, Lysistrata, Wealth, and the six other Aristophanes plays that have survived beyond antiquity, but in fact we have lost a host of others, including Seasons, Storks, Old Age, Centaur, and Merchant Ships, as well as the promisingly named Frying-Pan Men and Women in Tents. We can only guess at their contents (and how funny they were).
2. Aristophanes gave us the phrase ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’. This appears in his play The Birds, where it is the name given to the city in the sky constructed by the world’s birds, at the request of an Athenian man named Pisthetaerus. The idea is that the birds will thus gain control over all messages sent by both men and gods, but the idea is – to borrow another metaphor – a castle in the air. Thus the term came to apply to a fanciful state of unrealistic and over-optimistic thinking.
3. The celebrated plot of one of Aristophanes’ comedies may have been inspired by a real-life event involving Euripides. According to the Life and Race of Euripides, a papyrus discovered in Oxyrhyncus in Egypt in 1911 but dating back over 2,000 years, Euripides angered the women of Athens because of his misogynistic depiction of heroines in his tragedies. The name of the author of the Life and Race of Euripides, ‘Satyrus’, suggests that we shouldn’t perhaps read this work as literal biography, but it is suggestive that Satyrus tells the exact same story as that which Aristophanes would later tell in his Thesmophorizusae. The women of Athens hold a council to decide what to do with Euripides, and Euripides sends his own father-in-law along – disguised as a woman – to listen at the meeting. Okay, so it may never have happened, but it does suggest that the plot of Aristophanes’ comedy was inspired by a myth surrounding another great playwright.
4. One of Aristophanes’ plays contains the longest word in literature. The longest word in all of literature is this offering from Aristophanes’ play Assemblywomen: Lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypotrimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakechymenokichlepikossyphophattoperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon. At 183 letters, it exceeds even Joyce’s lengthy coinages from Finnegans Wake (two of which exceed 100 words). It is the name for a fictional food dish containing meat, fish, and wine. Yum!
5. His play The Wasps came second in the dramatic contest – but only because another play by Aristophanes took the top prize. The Preview, a lost play by Aristophanes, was entered into the contest under a pseudonym. Such was Aristophanes’ talent (for not only writing but also directing: he directed many of his plays, giving him more control over their staging) that he took both first and second place in the contest, though of the two only The Wasps has survived. Aristophanes was held in high regard by his contemporaries and successors: Plato has Aristophanes (representative of the comedian) as one of only three people (the other two being Socrates, representing the philosopher, and Agathon, representing the tragedian) who are still awake in the morning at the end of his intellectual discussion – and booze-up – The Symposium.
Image: Portrait of Aristophanes (artist unknown), Wikimedia Commons.