Ancient Athenian Drama
Aristophanes: The Birds
5th century BC, Ancient Greek, Athens.
Well here he is, this gentleman, returned from Olympus. A man who is now a bird.
For some reason, my mind has just thrown at me the image of a theatrical player dancing onto the floor of the theatre in the costume of a crab. This is typical of the sort of comedies that are performed at the festival of Dionysus. As well as the individual actors, the chorus often plays a group of animals, or natural phenomena. Yesterday the drama was quite witty in that a chorus of wasps was really a gang of old men, jurors who were addicted to casting their votes to convict defendants in the law courts. Old men with stings in their tails!
As long as the basic rules are followed, it seems, a play can busy itself as much as it likes with slanderous satire upon contemporary life. Dionysus does not blush for our politicians. Before me I see a man, a man with wings, an elderly gentleman who has become a bird. Earlier in the play he had had enough of Athens and, guided by a jay and a crow, went to visit a hoopoe who had once been a man. As a result of this meeting a marvellous plot was hatched! A plot whose outcome we now see in all its splendour before us.
As a result of his visit to the hoopoe, the elderly gentleman acquired wings and instructed everyone on Earth to worship the birds and instructed all the birds of the world to build a city in the sky. A delegation of gods arrived – Poseidon, Heracles and, astonishingly, a barbarian god; for such, we were told, are also gods. The gods were being starved because the smoke of sacrificial offerings could no longer penetrate through the air to the heavens. The elderly bird-gentleman offered to let this wind-blown nourishment through if he was handed the sceptre of Zeus and if he could marry the goddess who is really the power behind this sceptre, this generator of lightening. I tell you, revelations were coming thick and fast! A goddess lies behind the power of Zeus! A goddess!
Well here he is, this gentleman, returned from Olympus. A man who is a bird. The deal is done. The birds have absolute power over the Earth. They are the gods. He cries: ‘Let all these fellow citizens of ours who have wings follow me to occupy Zeus’s Mansion. Take hold of me, my darling wife! Take hold of my wings and let us dance! Let us fly into the air in each others’ embrace!’