Listen: Classicist Ralph Rosen '77 on Greek Comedy, Aesthetics, and 'Popular' Culture
Ralph Rosen '77, Vartan Gregorian Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, presents the annual Martin Ostwald Memorial Lecture. In his talk, "Greek Comedy, Aesthetics, and the Question of 'Popular Culture'," Rosen focuses on the comic drama of Classical Athens, a genre often described as "popular," and argues that the basic aesthetic and socio-cultural dynamics underlying our own theorizing of the "popular" were also operative in strikingly similar ways in Classical antiquity.
Rosen graduated from Swarthmore College in 1977 and earned his Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard University. He has published widely in many areas of Greek and Roman literature.
Ralph Rosen: Well, thank you for your generous words. It was great, and I can't tell you what an honor and pleasure it is to be here today. Every time I come back to Swarthmore, it's a ridiculously overdetermined home coming for me. Both my parents taught at the college, some of you may know. I grew up in the town, and I went to its public schools. As you just heard, I graduated from Swarthmore with a degree in classics. That of course meant that the man whos memory we'll come here to honor today, Martin Oswald ... see if I can ... Graduation ... Chicago, right?
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:00:39].
Ralph Rosen: ... was one of my teacher here, but my relationship with Martin began long before I had any idea what classics actually was. When Martin and Lora's younger son, David, who I'm happy to say has come down with us today. When David and I first met and became lifelong friends in 6th grade, and that was 1966. Years later when I joined the [inaudible 00:01:08] department in classical studies, Martin was as you just heard from Grace. Martin was part of the graduate faculty there, and we became colleagues until his retirement from that position from here to the same time in 1992.
You can see then why it's a very special privilege indeed for me to be here today addressing you on this very happy occasion, celebrating one of Swarthmore's most admired and beloved professor of the last century. Now I could of course spend our whole time here reminiscing about this extraordinary man, some of the details of which you've heard, recounting the details of his rich and influential life. I actually know many of you here would have many things you could add of your own, but thankfully we'll be able to replace all of that with a single photograph, which will save us a lot of time since it manages to capture Martin's essence as the brilliant scholar and teacher as he was.
A man formed, as you heard a little bit about, formed by the rigorous classical education of the German [inaudible 00:02:18] in the 30's and then transplanted to this Philadelphia suburb by way of Canada, Chicago, and New York. Now when David and I were carefree and I have to say somewhat irreverent school boys, to put it mildly, he used to say to me, David that is, "Can you think of anyone else who would rake leaves in a jacket and a tie," and as he reminded me the other day, "a tie clip?"
Well wouldn't you know, a photograph has surfaced to prove this, which as I said does all the biographical work for me. That's that [inaudible 00:03:05] professor [inaudible 00:03:05] philosophy department. There's a little bit of an in joke on the caption. One can perform an [interpretatio 00:03:21] of this image that would be informative as well as amusing, but I think this would just be putting words to what's already pretty clear. If clothes make the man, we could see that Martin was a 24/7 academic who obviously preferred discourse, preferable Socratic, to manual labor.
Like Socrates, he was always willing to perform his civic responsibilities no matter how [inaudible 00:03:51]. What the picture can't quite capture however, a little bit more seriously, although it does point in the right direction, is what the experience of studying with Martin at Swarthmore was really like. I just wanted to say a few words about this, particularly for the benefit of the classic students here today. How many are students here currently classics? Good, excellent. Not because I think it's the only or even the best form of pedagogy in our field, and it's not to pine away about a romantic lost era of peda ... nothing like that.
In many ways, I can trace the topic of my talk today directly to that experience and even to a specific seminar I took with Martin in my junior year at Swarthmore spring 1976, which is almost, I hate to say it, 40 years ago. Now that semester, Martin taught a Greek seminar on Greek drama in which our text were to be Sophocles' Oedipus [inaudible 00:04:50] I think. I forgot. Oedipus the King, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus [inaudible 00:04:56], Aristophanes' Clouds, and Aristotle's Poetics. I think I got them all.
We met at a building that was then called [Sharples One 00:05:04] or two maybe. It was a former fraternity I think, and then I think it's maybe now the [inaudible 00:05:13] student art gallery, is that possible? I looked on a map. We used to gather at 1 o'clock after lunch, and then when it ended was very difficult to predict. Around dinner time, of course there's a window from whenever Sharples the dining hall was actually open. Something around dinner time, because we would then stumble out to go to dinner.
It was an all afternoon five hour marathon. Philology interspersed with food and coffee, a couple of breaks, and things like that. I actually found two of the books that I used in that class, which are here, the very ones. If you open them up, it says 276 on them. Actually before that, here is that Martin from that era. Very nice picture in his office. I blew it up a little bit to see what he was reading, and of course I think it was staged, but it's the commentary on Thucydides. I think it was 1979. From the phoenix, it seems like I can almost get it. It's in the late 70's, so a couple of years after.
That's Martin, and if you open somewhat randomly to one of the pages of the text here from Euripides' Bacchae, this is that very book, you may be able to maybe ... I don't know. You can take my word for it. You may be able to make out some of the scribbles I had, including one up in the upper right where I made the "O" a little bit bright. I did add to that, and it says "Oswald's theory." This page is a perfect example of how a typical hour or two or three would have been spent under Martin's tutelage. The text on these pages comes from the messenger speech, many people know this, the messenger speech, which recounts [inaudible 00:07:11] frenzy and the delusional murder of her son Pentheus, who had refused to recognize the divinity of Dionysus.
Now there's much one could say about this passage and also from a variety of perspectives, but what especially interested Martin were certain loaded terms that can open up all sorts of pathways to understanding classic Greek culture and intellectual history, both of which I would say were his particular passions. It's been a long time. I can't quite reproduce all the details of what was surely a long presentation and discussion, but at issue here was the distinction between two Greek terms, [hamartia and hamartema 00:07:53]. You might be able to see ... I've got them right here.
Oswald's theory apparently was this, and I'm sure you can't read it. It was in my scribbled hand right up here that the former hamartia referred to an attitude about or a capacity to sin, to make a mistake, while hamartema is the sinful act itself. I think you can see something like the act itself or something like that right there. I jotted this dutifully down. This information of course would come with a strong admonition from Martin that if we insisted on using the English word "sin" for these words, then we have to make sure to purge our minds of all Judaeo-Christian connotations of that word. This was not a kind of sin familiar to any Greek we would be warned. I do remember that.
It may seem like a very specific and some might say limited mode of reading a text, but the long expanses of time those afternoons allowed for ample wondering over a broad exegetical landscape. In my notes from that page, you can also see it's clear that Martin also also held forth on [Oddecaima and Oddekia 00:09:24]. This led to that, which I'm not sure was even in this passage. That's okay. Then Sophia you can see down here, he was interested in Sophia and [inaudible 00:09:39] in there somewhere. I can't quite see it. [inaudible 00:09:43]. These words for wisdom and the word for self control, which it seems like Euripides is pining on ... It sounds like Sophia, but it's a different word.
At the time, I'm sure some of us thought, "Oh, so it must be the same root, Sophia. It sounds the same," but anyway. He taught us after that. Anyway, this was my first real experience with the great [inaudible 00:10:09] of classical Athens, and Martin made us feel we were in the presence of something monumental, enduring, and urgent, even for our own lives. Temperamentally however, I was a little more drawn to the comic poet Aristophanes. When we turn to his Clouds, I became fascinated by his ability to play with different and even divergent comic registers.
Most Aristophanic plays, as many of you will know, offered some combination of high concept plot lines, the problem of education in Clouds for example, the Athenian jury system in Wasps, the social disruptiveness of war say in Lysistrata, even income inequality and the redistribution of wealth in his last play called Wealth. They were also, as also many of you know, especially hopefully the students, full of bad puns, which is to say good puns, obscene jokes, lots of that, slapstick, and many cheap laughs, which also means cheap, meaning good laughs. As we might say, Aristophanic comedy has offered a peculiar mix of the high brow and the low brow.
To complicate matters further, plenty of self conscious commentary about such contrasts often slip into the lines of characters who were supposed by modern scholars to represent the views of the poet himself. In our Greek drama seminar, Martin approached Aristophanes as if he were as high brow as the [inaudible 00:11:40] we were also reading. We read Aristophanes always for serious meaning, usually of a political or philosophical nature, and comedy, satire, and laughter were all merely in the service of such a project.
Here is where I first started to get intellectually a little fidgety about the actual function of comedy, not only in ancient Greece, but also as a human phenomenon more broadly. I enjoy the potty humor of Aristophanes as much as the supposed edifying bits, and I certainly know Martin did too. He was as those of you knew him hardly a [inaudible 00:12:22] man, but I wanted to know how I or any ancient Athenian for that matter was supposed to reconcile these two modes. Did Athenian spectators leave a performance of an Aristophanic comedy with new insight into politics and human nature, or just with a feeling of pleasure because they laughed mightily for an hour and a half?
Is there something wrong with that if that's our answer? How do we even go about answering such questions? Aristophanes made many claims, usually through his choruses, that he was a high brow kind of guy. He claimed to have disdain for what we might call popular comedy, but what do then about all those other episodes that clearly were aiming for popular acclaim? Down the hill from here, I think we're up, down the hill nearly 40 years ago a career long engagement with the problem of comedy, its paradoxes and instabilities, had its genesis. Martin offered me the foundation of an approach that was standard for his generation, philological, historical, and intellectualized.
I understood that Aristophanes was no less a lead into high brow than all the other authors of classical can, and this helped me at the time begin to formulate a host of literary questions, especially about [inaudible 00:13:47] and social linguistic registers that have occupied me on and off ever since. My topic today then takes its queue from that Greek drama seminar, and I offer my presentation in profound gratitude to Martin and as a heartfelt tribute to him for inspiring in me a curiosity about the complexity of comedy that endures even today. With that, that's my official introduction. Let's get down into a topic.
In approaching the question of comedy as popular or not, one might think that its popular art and its broadest contours would be fairly easy to define. Popular art after all implies the kind of art that many people tend to like and value. That's [inaudible 00:14:34] good, okay. The more people like a work, the more popular it could be considered. Well a few seconds of reflection however is enough to show the inadequacy of this formulation. The criterion of quantity, how many people like a given work, almost immediately implies criteria of value. Is it better or worse for a work to be considered popular, and better or worse for whom?
Value moreover fans out in other directions, aesthetic, political, [inaudible 00:15:13] chief among them but just to name a few. From there, we become enmeshed in further questions, of class and gender for example, or especially today, of race and ethnicity. As notions of the popular and non-popular become aligned with mass [inaudible 00:15:29] and other terms that help us analyze human social hierarchies and their interactions with [inaudible 00:15:38]. Popular art and the larger category to which it belongs, popular culture, turns out to be extremely complex and subtle concept, despite the fact that we use it all the time as if we know exactly what it means.
The cultural theorists have made a lot of progress in analyzing this complexity over the past half century and have showed that conceptions of popular art are rife with paradox, qualification, and contingency. How can we analyze adequately what was happening for example in July 1991 when Luciano Pavarotti sang opera in High Park, London for an audience of 100,000 people? The Guardian's critic, Nicholas [inaudible 00:16:25], opened his review in that year, in July, by saying that, "The gulf between 'I can't get no satisfaction' and 'None shall sleep' was bridged under gray skies and pouring rain last night in High Park."
Speaker 3: Can you see the umbrellas down there?
Ralph Rosen: On that occasion, it seemed as if what was normally considered high culture opera had become popular, like a rock concert. As [inaudible 00:16:54] continues, "This bridge seems superficial at best, but the old social hierarchy's firmly in place." Close to the stage was an enclosed area reserved for those who could afford to pay up to 300 pounds for a ticket, but beyond that was the vast expanse of the majority. Here's what he says looking out in the packed open area, "The unpaying majority had rougher manners. Cola tins and plastic bottles were hurled at those daring enough to hold their umbrellas high."
In 1969, the crowd was hip and young with girls in see through dresses, the sent of this is ... This is written 1901, it's been a while. See through dresses, the scent of [inaudible 00:17:44] and marijuana in the air, while Jagger, true to the new promiscuous society, sported a shocking white mini dress. Last night, it was respectability from start to finish. Suits and expensive dresses in the enclosure, the unacceptionable elsewhere. Was this high art suddenly becoming popular, embraced as it was by a large unexceptional crowd of people, who normally preferred rock music?
[inaudible 00:18:10] account of the occasion shows just how unnerved he was by what he perceived to be the clash of aesthetic categories. When an icon of high art performs for [inaudible 00:18:20], I can say that here, or I'm sorry, the [inaudible 00:18:24], the crowd tries to behave differently, hence this respectability. Their manners are still rough as he says. When high art becomes popular, there's no real bridging of the gulf between high and low equal popular art, merely a scene that shows just how entrenched and unbridgeable such aesthetic polarities are in the minds of critics.
Popular audience it seems can play at being respectable but never actually be respectable for those who play the role of pacemakers. Despite frequent lip service to the contrary, works of popular art and popular culture still bear several long standing and interrelated negative connotations, summed up well by the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, some of will you know, who noted that despite historical moments when popular was used by the people quote unquote to reflect their own perspective for the most part. Older disdainful usage prevails. [inaudible 00:19:39] says here, "Popular culture was not identified by the people but by others, and it still carries two older senses, inferior kinds of work and work deliberately setting out to win favor, as well as the more modern sense of well-liked by many people, with which of course many cases the earlier senses overlap."
Comedy and comic charm is the specific focus of what I want to talk about today seen for the most part perennially consigned to the realm of the popular, so much so that one might even wonder whether the phrase "popular comedy" is simply pleomastic. Regardless of how many people actually like, read, or attend a given comic work, it's destined to be conceptualized as popular if only because as comedy, its fundamental [inaudible 00:20:30] is to elicit laughter from an audience. Since laughter is a more or less universally, there's too much dispute about that by anthropologists, but universally human physiological response, mysterious, and poorly understood even today. You should read the scholarship on that question.
Its associations have always tended to be populist. The non-rational corporeal nature of laughter makes it difficult to predict and control, which is why it has always made case makers and philosophers uneasy, if not simply hostile. Certain kinds of comedy, satire for example or parody, thrive in particular on the pretense on a populist kind of laughter, positioning itself in resistance often to political and cultural [inaudible 00:21:22], however serious their comic critique is actually intended to be. We're going to have to leave that one for some other talk.
Comedy takes many forms however, and each comes with its own hierarchies, sometimes generated externally by critics, and sometimes self-fashioned from within. If all comedy is in some respect popular, there's nevertheless a sense in which some comedy can be construed as more popular than others, replicating once again the hierarchies we see at work in the broader polarity, popular, or low brow from high brow. Consider for example how Charles Isherwood compared the comedy of Monty Python's flying circus to that of another British show of the late 20th century, probably a guilty pleasure for some people, Benny Hill.
Here we go. Benny and Monty were essential poles of British television comedy, and they represented distinct strains of British humor, both derived through sketch formats in part from the rowdy traditions of the musical. Benny Hill, because students are too young to remember this, just google them. Just don't do it here. Benny Hill stayed closer to its populist roots with its relentless parade of naughty innuendos and physical comedy. Monty Python mixed juvenile raillery with decidedly more analytical kinds of comedy reflecting the Oxford smarty pants satire beyond fringe and even the influence of European absurdist [inaudible 00:23:04] in Italics? Yeah, good.
Those are mine [inaudible 00:23:10]. Similar comparisons could be made between the classic American comedies of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges and many others. You can all think of your own perhaps more up to date examples. All such examples would be classified as popular genres by journalists and cultural theorists, but Monty Python or the Marx brothers would be additionally characterized by a host of refining and limiting adjectives less easily applied to their lower brow counterparts, sophisticated, cerebral, clever, things like that.
The same qualities conventionally used to distinguish the high brow from the low brow in non-comic works. These are qualities designed to claim, for at least some comedy, what we call a thinking audience, an audience in other words not merely devoted to laughter as a bodily reflex, but as a knowing intellectual response to a kind of humor accessible only to those with proper education and taste. The conditions of modernity and perhaps especially post-modernity might seem to take us far away from the conditions of classical Athens. That is to say that 5th to the 4th centuries BCE. But in the case of the arts and comedy in particular, this is what I want to argue here today, the basic aesthetic and the sociocultural dynamics that I just described were operative in remarkable similar ways.
The scale of dissemination may have been different for each Greek artist, in fact it was, but the fundamental distinction between producing art for mass and elite audiences was very much current, even if the variety of available media, geographical scope, and social fluidity of contemporary western culture makes this distinction far more complicated today than it was in Greek antiquity. When it comes to the comic theater of classical Athens, so again I'll be referring to this as old comedy in case your not familiar with that, again the 5th century and into the 4th century BCE, we'll find that the mass elite high brow low brow question continually framed many of the aesthetic pronouncements about the genre, made both by authors themselves and by theorizing critics and philosophers.
Ultimately as I'd like to show, the same paradox's intentions we see today between different conceptions of popular comedy not only drove much of the ancient discourse about old comedy, but also played a significant role in shaping the content of plays, their plots, their type of humor, and the genre's conventional discourse of self aggrandizement. It should be clear by now that the kind of popularity that I'm talking about in the case of old comedy has more to do with how audiences were conceptualized than how many people were in the audiences. That's not completely unimportant, but I'm not really talking about that.
There's a temptation to refer to both tragedy and comedy in Greece as popular, insofar as they were presented at public civic events. This merely means that Athenian drama had a more or less captive audience. Citizens attended the plays as part of the entertainment of the festivals of Dionysus, where they were treated to a program by various authors and styles across multiple dates. Greek drama, tragedy, and comedy was certainly public art, and we might say that the medium of performance of Greek drama is in some sense popular. This tells us very little about notions of aesthetic popularity that were prevalent at the time and which I think for me is more interesting.
The very structure of Athenian dramatic festivals as competitions clearly meant that not all playwrights were successful or equivalently popular, no matter how many people watched your plays. There were however different ways in which a poet could be popular, from casual approval to intense fandom. Now there's good evidence for the latter, for intense fandom. In the 5th century, Aristophanes alludes himself in his play Frogs [inaudible 00:27:32]. Aristophanes alludes to a crowd of crazed Euripidean fans in the underworld [inaudible 00:27:39]. This is a kind of popularity that probably involved relatively few people I think, and if Plato is any guide, made critics within the culturally elite especially uneasy.
It was he, Plato, who famously mocked this group of people some of you remember from Republic 5, the lovers of sights and sounds ... I guess it's the lovers of sounds and sights [inaudible 00:28:04] first, the fanatics who became obsessed with spectacle and sensation of the theater. Fan to me seems like a good translation of that. At the other end of the spectrum, these are fans in the sense of the novel and movie high fidelity, people in record stores or train spotters who are ... that's not really aesthetic, but you get the picture. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the self righteous democratizing of tragedy that Aristophanes has Euripides claim, the character Euripides, just in case you don't know this play, has a character the playwright Euripides claim as his goal in Aristophanes' play Frogs.
I'm referring here to a famous scene in the play here where Euripides contrasts his poetics to Aeschylus, so this is the famous debate between two great poets, between Aeschylus and Euripides in the underworld. Who is going to be the better [inaudible 00:29:08], so they have a contest. [inaudible 00:29:16] speaking parts for characters taken from all social classes and categories, women and slaves included. He stages domestic scenes, this isn't all in this passage, but it's in this area. I fit the whole thing on it. Domestic scenes, which he calls [inaudible 00:29:32] for those of you who know the Greek, and he avoid pretentious unintelligible language.
He further characterizes his tragedies as rational and reflective. He uses words like [inaudible 00:29:45]. He calls his efforts, and here we do have it 951 ... It's hard to know how to ... Actually the word here is [inaudible 00:29:58], an adjective related to our democratic. This is exactly the kind of line that would have occupied at least an hour and a half of the seminar that I was referring to. We didn't do this play. I don't think we would have gotten this far in the play, so who knows. Anyway, the word is democraticon, democratic. Again, it's hard to know how to translate this, but you see how it's done here. In the sense of empowering to the people, or perhaps you might make an argument to just say that it means popularizing in a way.
The rest of the exchanges here with Dionysus and Aeschylus make it clear that the popularizing of poetry of any sort, tragedy or comedy, is fundamentally about the interaction of class and taste, the way that reminds of strikingly of cultural theorist [inaudible 00:31:03]. Some of you may know his work. For Aeschylus, Euripides' democratizing meant pandering to the riff raff. For Euripides, Aeschylian obscurity and stylistic [inaudible 00:31:17] restricted admission to a cultural elite whose values were shaped by notions of manliness, property, and a shared educational background.
There comes to Greek comedy, of course that's referring to tragedy. When it comes to comedy of the 5th century, the same tension was played out, first in its relationship with tragedy, and second within comedy itself. On the one hand when compared with tragedy, comedy was regarded as the more popularizing as the two and as such was felt to appeal to more inferior sorts of people. On the other hand, even comedy had its own hierarchies, and the same polarity between elite and popular could be mapped on to these authors as well, much along the lines sketched out in the Aristophanic contest between Aeschylus and Eurpides.
Now several passages elsewhere in Aristophanes attempt to distinguish his own type of comedy that is Aristophanes' comedy from others according to the criteria of high and low or sophisticated, refined, and then vulgar, and suggest at least a pretense or a conceit that Aristophanes' comedy was not popular in the sense of popularizing, but rather strove to appeal to people of refined elite tastes. The opening of Frogs then, the beginning of the play, lays out the issue clearly, foreshadowing in its lighthearted way what will eventually become the play's theoretical concern.
As Dionysus and his slaves make their way to Hades in their effort to retrieve Euripides to be the savior of the city and hard times, Xanthias slave asked his master if he should make the kind of jokes that always get a laugh from the audience. The conversation develops into an opportunity for Dionysus to articulate exactly the kind of joking he claims to repudiate. We call this a [inaudible 00:33:27] in the classics club. When Xanthias then asks if he can tell a really funny one, Dionysus gets to tell him not to say that he don't say that one that says that I need to shit. Of course he's saying don't do those vulgar jokes, but he says it. Everyone in the audience is laughing, and you get it.
Then at 13 towards the end down here, Xanthias laments how unfair it is that he's forced to carry luggage but isn't allowed to make the kinds of joke that such comic characters are typically expected to make. He cites three other comic playwrights, [inaudible 00:34:14], who he claims all included baggage carriers making such jokes as he was doing. Not fair, not fair. Of course, you've had 30 lines or 15 lines making all the jokes that he's not supposed to do. This passage is straight forward enough, but it's worth a few moments of analysis I think.
The main contrast developed here is between what justifiably call popular comedy and something different, something supposed to be better. Xanthias wants to tell jokes that everyone will laugh at, but Dionysus claims to prefer a kind of joking that's more refined and will presumably garner fewer laughs or at least fewer spontaneous unreflective laughs than the joking Xanthias has in mind. Once again, the association between popular humor and the body is evident. Dionysus is objecting to jokes about backs, necks, farting, and shitting. Both characters recognized that such jokes seem to be universally appreciated, and Xanthias is happy enough to work in this comic mode at least for this scene. The stance shifts from low brow to high brow as need be throughout the play.
Xanthias is of course a slave, and his social status maps on to the kind of joking he claims to favor. The polarities come into focus now. Popular comedy here is slavish, coarse, and low, while the god Dionysus by definition of a higher class and status presents himself as interested in something in better, more clever, and sophisticated perhaps, although the scene moves quickly on in a typical fashion. We don't get any further elaboration on the topic here. There's so much irony in this scene of course that it's unlikely Aristophanes is trying to make a serious point. For one thing, Dionysus seems to be enacting what we might call a middle brow aesthetic.
He thinks he knows the kind of comic aesthetic he's supposed to endorse to be a member of the cultural elite, but he's not yet managed to shed all of his low brow tastes, as his occasional comments elsewhere in the play make clear. The scene does highlight however an awareness in classical Athens that even within popular genres such as comedy, the concept of popularity was invoked for quite specific axiological purposes, namely to establish a scale of value for comedy where value increased in inverse proportion to perceptions of popularity.
Now if any of you had been in Martin's Greek drama seminar, you would by now be thinking of another passage from Aristophanes where Aristophanical comedy is similarly invested with poetic value explicitly, because it does not strive for popular, which is to say mass or vulgar appeal. I'm referring to a section of his work Clouds, his play called Clouds, where the chorus leader speaking on behalf of the poet ... This is one of these scenes we call [inaudible 00:37:24] in case you are not familiar with that. It's this kind of rupture or break that you often, not in all the plays, but in many of the Aristophanic plays, where the chorus leader comes out, takes off the outer garden, and says, "Okay now, forget the play for the moment. I'm going to talk to you about, about the poet, about [ventriliquilizing 00:37:44] the poet and voicing all of his concerns through the chorus [inaudible 00:37:49].
Okay, so this is where he speaks on the poet's behalf. He famously complains here how unfair it was the chorus leader speaking on behalf of the poet to the audience, unfair it was that the original production of the play failed to win the prize. Original [inaudible 00:38:12] 23, the play that we have is a 2nd edition. We don't know when it was written exactly. People say 418, but the dating is really not very clear. We also don't know interestingly whether it was actually performed, but we're going to leave all of that aside for now. He complains in this section that it wasn't fair, that he should of won the prize last year. It's a long passage, but I think I'm going to put it up. You can follow along. I crammed it in, and I emboldened certain key things that I'll be referring to either indirectly or directly.
The first and most obvious feature of this passage is that it shows Aristophanes claiming to seek an elite rather than a popular audience. I emphasize claiming here, because once again it's very difficult to judge how seriously the audience is supposed to take his complaints, especially since so much of what he says in this passage is quite generic for satirists, not to mention the fact that things are mentioned that are not supposed to be Aristophanic which then you can find elsewhere in Aristophanes. That's a classic conundrum for Aristophanes scholars.
Let me just have a quick sip of water. This problem, the question of seriousness or not or irony, this is the problem that's occupied as some of you will know, particularly in some of my earlier work, where I argued probably [inaudible 00:40:00] to some of you, that abject posturing and indignation at being misunderstood and underappreciated are all common satirical tropes from then to now I would say, as are the claims, "I don't get no respect." That line is in this mode, as are the claims to be mainly interested in pleasing a knowing sophisticated audience.
We'll leave aside for now the problem of Aristophanes' tone here, whether it's playful and ironic or dead serious, we're not going to get into that, and concentrate simply on the ways in which he portrays the chorus leader's understanding of the options available to a comic poet at the time. The polarity between the high and low, the sophisticated and vulgar, once again maps on to the polarity between elite and mass, which in turn implies contrast between what we would call serious good and popular bad art. The chorus leader, speaking for Aristophanes, offers plenty of detail here.
Now you've had a chance to digest all of this, to describe each type of comedy on the serious or good side. We find you can lay it out like bullet points really. You've got the poet will appear intelligent and sophisticated. The comedies themselves will be very sophisticated and are written for sharper clever spectators. Very marked language here, even in the translation. A good comedy will usually be very difficult to compose [inaudible 00:41:35], "I spent all this effort making it, and you didn't even give me the first prize. Really?" When a good comedy loses, it's because it's been defeated by vulgar mass.
The judges, they were vulgar, whoever cast the votes which made him lose. It's their fault. The kind of comedy he claims to be avoiding in the new version of Cloud, which this is embedded, is comedy that stresses the physical and the bodily. That's what he's saying, "I don't do that. I don't do physical comedy." His comedy now in the new revised version will avoid phallic sight gags suitable only to get laughs from children it says, jokes about bald men, lewd dancing, and physical stage shenanigans by slaves. Pretty much all of these go to any commentary and say that wasn't that interesting. You can find examples of this [inaudible 00:42:37] that in place. Wow.
At the end of the passage, Aristophanes' objections to his rivals involved not just plagiarism, but corrupting what they've allegedly already stolen by adding vulgar physical comedy [inaudible 00:42:53] at the end. Leaving aside the perineal question of whether any of these accusations are fair, accurate, serious, or ironic, they make it clear that in 5th century Athens, there was already in place a critical discourse for establishing aesthetic hierarchies that take as their foundational premise the inferiority of the popular, with its emphasis on the physical and ease of comprehension.
At the other of the scale, we see the privileging of diversification that's in their relying on my words or my verses he says in 544. Novelty, I've brought in very clever new things he says. The desire to limit intelligibility to an educated minority who shared social standing and background are understood to be coterminous with share of tastes. In the passage from Clouds, which I just used to draw out such conclusions, the hierarchies Aristophanes has in mind refer to different kinds of comedy. Frogs of course shows that they were operative for tragedy as well.
Aeschylus there is portrayed by Euripides as difficult, verbally abstract, solemn, and uncompromising with his audience, while Euripides is maligned by Aeschylus for his desire to be accessible to everyone and for his [inaudible 00:44:21] for lurid and [inaudible 00:44:22] topics such as sex and psychological disfunction. This is the accusation against Euripides. The kinds of things that everyone likes to read about, that everyone wants to see. In the case of tragedy, there's no specific lexical term that I know of in Greek that captures for tragedy the negativity of our own popular, the Aristophanic Euripides terms of ... It's always hard to say that.
Euripides and Aristophanes, the term they use is [inaudible 00:44:59] democratic. It seems idiosyncratic to Frogs and is in any case meant to be understood positively there in that context. For comedy, we get quite close to our own popular comedy with all of its negative connotations, with a Greek adjective which I've been translating surreptitiously as vulgar. The Greek adjective for those who know some Greek is [inaudible 00:45:26], which vulgar is pretty good, how people usually translate it.
Aristophanes applied the term to low brow comedy in Frogs and transferred it to the people responsible for the defeat of his original production, of Cloud. The were called [inaudible 00:45:51] in the [inaudible 00:45:56]. "I was defeated by vulgar men, by [inaudible 00:45:58] men." Throughout antiquity in fact, it became the standard adjective to refer to any kind of art, and more often it's used for comedy. I will say that, but it's used universally for any kind of art that pandered to the masses, hence the translation of vulgar, sometimes coarse, sometimes translated as low brow. These terms I've already been using, but [inaudible 00:46:24] is the word that seems to capture this in Greek.
It will be surprising to note that we only find the term used by those already ... Sorry, what I mean to say here is it will hardly be surprising to note that we only find the term used by those already predisposed to privilege the opposite of vulgar, the high. Although we don't have access to critical voices from "the masses," those who are supposed to generally like such comedy, the fans of Benny Hill and the Three Stooges for example ... We have lots of voices of them here. It seems unlikely that that audience would consider such comedy vulgar and low, except maybe to use it I suppose as a positive notion. We don't have any of that evidence anyway.
[inaudible 00:47:22] as applied to comedy then reflects a very specific set of social values from the very specific perspective, that is the perspective from people who have to care enough to begin with to evaluate the arts and who have a vocabulary to do so and a specific stake in setting their taste at the top of an aesthetic hierarchy. Virtually all ancient occurrences of this word, [inaudible 00:47:49], in literary context, imply this association between the popular and low social status. The association was made particularly explicit really as early as Aristotle. Among the passages in Aristotle where he addresses this, and there's a bunch of them, but I'm just going to talk about one so don't worry, the most famous is probably the opening of his poetics, which we also did in that seminar.
I don't remember having this conversation, where Aristotle laid out his genealogy of tragedy and comedy as poetic forms that evolved from epic. He's concerned in this passage, I think we might as well put it up here ... I think this is it. I just gave you a bit of it. He's concerned in this passage with establishing the relative value in tragedy in comedy as high and low respectively. Both are offshoots as he sees it of strands already present in [inaudible 00:48:43] epic, but they split according to the polarity of serious, non-serious, which in turn aligns with categories of elite and popular.
Poetry branched, not too many people know this [inaudible 00:48:54] very famous passage ... Poetry branched into two, according to its creators characters. The more serious produced my nieces of noble actions. Am I reading ... Well sometimes I forget I put different translations ... while the more vulgar ... Here the word is not [inaudible 00:49:17]. It's a different word just in the ... Did I put that up there? No. The more vulgar is a different word I have to confess. It's [inaudible 00:49:22] for those of you who know the Greek, but it means the same thing. The more vulgar depicted the actions of the base, and here we have [inaudible 00:49:34] so also kind of the ... Is that up there in the base? Yeah.
In the first place by composing invectives. I added comic. In the interest of full disclosure, that's not in Aristotle. I added it only just to remind you that he has in mind invectives which were part of comic performances, just as the others produced hymns and [inaudible 00:50:07]. We've got hymns and [inaudible 00:50:08]. We've got invective and mockery on the other side. Presumably in practice, none of these categories were rigid in Aristotle's mind. Presumably he would hold that is forms of public art each genre could appeal to many people regardless of their educational background and social class.
A little later on, he even says that Athenian comic drama was grander and more esteemed than the iambic [inaudible 00:50:35]. That's the comic invectives from which he thought it derived. Everything's relative, but the basic axiological contours of each genre seemed quite set in his mind. Tragedy dealt with the serious and fine, comedy with the laughable and base. In another passage from his politics, Aristotle notes that everyone in the audience could enjoy a coarse joke or character, but not everyone could understand, value, or be edified by the serious. As a genre then, comedy was for Aristotle fundamentally popular in the freighted sense in which we use the term, unelevated, pandering, and bodily, even if at it's best it could be enjoyable and socially beneficial as Aristotle does realize and write about [inaudible 00:51:26] Ethics among other places.
You can contrast refined humor with coarse and obscene humor, so he always has a problem with the coarse and obscene but does recognize that for purposes or relaxation and chilling out a bit, comedy is okay. Elsewhere in the poetics, Aristotle complains that some people in his day found tragedy aiming to be popular in a negative sense. Aristotle himself disagrees and would reserve that classification, if we only had a good Greek term for it, for comedy, despite all the [inaudible 00:52:01] people were complaining that tragedy is popular. He said, "No, no, no." Comedy may be like that, but not tragedy.
Despite all of Aristophanes' special pleading that his own comedies were more refined and cerebral than his low brow rivals, Aristotle did not seem especially sensitive to such distinctions. For him, Aristophanes fell into the category of writers whose natures, he talks about this, were low, cheap, and worthless. This was popularized in the sense that anyone could readily understand and enjoy it and evidently did. Although Aristotle as he shows elsewhere again in the ethics was not on the ... I would say this. I don't think he was on a particular crusade against comedy. He did consider it inferior to more serious forms, such as epic and tragedy, and in some cases dangerous to youthful minds, which he also talks about in some of his other works.
Conceptions of popular in classical Athens than we've seen turn out to be every bit as complicated and unstable as they are today. One overarching question that our discussion today seems to leave us with, not only for comic [inaudible 00:53:13] I would say, is whether it's ever possible to refer to "popular literature" in a value neutral way. In the realm of aesthetics at least, our provisional answer seems to be no, at least in class stratified societies as we have in the case of Greece and most modern western societies. [inaudible 00:53:40] to identify where it's popular instantaneously situates it at the low end of an aesthetic hierarchy and triggers the various associations we've addressed today.
Anyone who articulate the concept of the popular in art it seems needs to be at least aware on some level that it only has meaning in the context of a specific cultural angeiotomy, which by definition distances itself from the popular. Even in societies that seek to engineer and value an exclusively popular aesthetic, reversing the angeiotomy of an elite aesthetic. Soviet era Russia is a good example of this. I'm not an expert in this, but I have discussed this with some of my Soviet expert colleagues at Penn, and they assured me it's right and have given me some bibliography on it.
Even in cases like that where they claim to have an exclusively populist aesthetic in that period, the enormous and deliberate effort it takes even to attempt something like this calls attention to how entrenched and empowered the aesthetics of a cultural elite typically are. In the case of the Soviets, everything just got reversed. What was populist became the elite at the high end, just flipped. Plus it didn't really work in the end. Comedy has its own particular challenges in ancient Greece as it does today, largely as we've seen because of its association with laughter.
This association handicaps all common genres at the most basic level insofar as they were always in a polarized relationship with the serious "and all the follows from the category." Aristotle laid this out for us clearly enough in the poetics, but we must look to the common authors themselves for the nuance in play, that this level of theorizing overlooked. Aristophanes then as we've seen turned the popular elite serious not serious dichotomies into tropes within a genre he already knew needed constant defense the charge of populism and all it's negative associations.
For him, comedy has its own aesthetic hierarchies, its own cultural elites in the audience with whom he wanted to align himself, and even if his grousing about unappreciative elite audiences was shtick, intended more as a populist [inaudible 00:56:03] than a tactic of exclusion. It does reveal a striking conceptual awareness of the complex interaction of popular and elite aesthetic. That's the end of my talk, and you don't have to clap yet. I have to show you one more picture. Ready? This is so good.
This is graduation day 1977. Thank you David for sending this. Two shots. Here's me of course. Okay, we were giving Martin something. I don't know what. [inaudible 00:56:48] here. We gave you cigars once I think.
Speaker 4: Is this comic or serious?
Ralph Rosen: I don't know. They're smiling. I don't know what it was, but we were giving him a gift I think. I think it was that way and not the other way. Some of you will recognize this is the very distinguished Jim James Porter, who's now professor in the department ... a very prestigious appointment [inaudible 00:57:15] rhetoric and with classics at Berkeley as of last year in fact. We were classmates together and good friends ever since. I love [inaudible 00:57:25]. Just for anyone that was here, this is Matthew [inaudible 00:57:31] I think. I'm not sure what happened to him, but we were all in Martin's [inaudible 00:57:36]. That's in front of ...
Speaker 4: In that lower picture, is that you on the right?
Ralph Rosen: That's me.
Speaker 5: Wow.
Ralph Rosen: That's me, same guy.
Speaker 5: You were so young.
Ralph Rosen: I was 21. [crosstalk 00:57:53]. Okay, that's all I've got for you.