2022, Theran Press, 124 pages
Preface by Jeffrey Henderson and Introduction by Robert Holschuh Simmons
Knights, or Men and Their Horses
Knights is a comedy written by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes. It’s a political satire lambasting the Athenian general Cleon. Translations are hard to come by. It’s not in the Meridian edition (which contains Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, and Frogs). It’s not in the Penguin edition (which contains Lysistrata, Acharnians, and Clouds). It’s not in either of the Oxford editions (which contain Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women, Wealth, Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs). A new Oxford edition translated by Stephen Halliwell, however, came out this year and it does contain Knights. At the time of writing, only the hardcover is available, and Oxford would like USD $115. So it is more or less unavailable to mere mortals. I’ll check it out later when it’s available in paperback. In Aristophanes’ back catalog, Knights, perhaps along with Wasps–another play attacking Cleon–seems to get the least love. Knights is available in the Loeb edition (translated by Jeffrey Henderson, who writes the preface for the Lippman-Major translation). But the Loeb editions are geared towards scholars rather than performers (they are parallel texts with the Greek original and an English translation on facing pages). Lippman and Major’s translation is one of the few available, and the best one to stage a production around. That this was a translation made with performance in mind is made clear in the acknowledgements, where the translators thank the team that performed a staged reading at a classics conference in 2020.
To give you an idea, here’s a passage from the Henderson translation (1998) followed by the Lippman-Major:
Second Slave. Well then, our best option is to make for some god’s image and kowtow.
First Slave. What do you mean, “immmage?” Say, do you really believe in the gods?
Second Slave. Sure.
First Slave. What’s your evidence?
Second Slave. Because I’m godforsaken. Isn’t that enough?
Nicias. Then given the situation, best option for the two of us
Is to go and get ourselves some y’olde tyme religion.
Demosthenes. Like ancient Greek religion? Do you really believe any of it?
Nicias. I surely do.
Demosthenes. What proof do you have?
Nicias. Well, the gods hate my guts. Isn’t that proof enough?
The Henderson translation preserves the repetition of “gods,” e.g. “do you really believe in the gods? (theoús)” and “Because I’m godforsaken” (hotiē theoīsin echthrós eim’, literally “Because I’m an object of hatred to the gods”). The Lippman-Major translation goes for a more direct attack. The reference to “olde tyme religion” is to Bob Seger’s 1979 song “Old Time Rock and Roll.” The reference connects the audience to the comedy in the same way as so many references in Aristophanes would have connected the comedy with the original audience. “The gods hate my guts” also carries a visceral punch. The Lippman-Major translation strives for a lively, visceral, punchy quality that is alive.
Choice of Title
As to the choice of calling Aristophanes’ play Men and Their Horses, Simmons, who writes the introduction, says:
The original play was titled Hippeis in Greek, which translates literally to Knights. The title of this translation, Men and Their Horses, is a way for the play’s translators to make the more literal translation of the play’s name more accessible to a contemporary audience, which–if it thinks of knights at all–thinks of them as wearing shining armor and jousting at Renaissance faires. The Greek word hippeis, like the English word “knights,” means, at its root, someone who operates from a horse, and typically a horse that the operator owns.
This is all well. I wonder, however, how easy it would be for someone looking for the play to find it? The easiest way of searching for something is to type the words into a Google search. But how many people looking for Aristophanes’ Knights know to type into Google “Men and Their Horses”? And would a Google search of Knights bring up Men and Their Horses? I tried and it doesn’t show up in any of the eleven pages of results that Google found. Googling “men and their horses” directly brought up many pages about horses, but wasn’t able to find the book. Perhaps this is due to the newness of the book, which came out earlier this year. The distribution appears limited, again, perhaps due to its newness. I found it on B&N, but couldn’t find it on Amazon. As I’m in Canada, it’s easier to order from Amazon (which ships domestically) than B&N (where it’s coming from the States). If B&N stocks it, why not Amazon?
The Comedy Wordmill
In line with giving the audience a taste of what it was like to have experienced an Aristophanes play, the language and characters have been updated. Paphlagon, the barbaric tanner from Paphlagonia, who is the comic representation of the real-life Athenian politician Cleon, is called “The Drumpf,” who, in turn, stands in for American politician Donald Trump. The Sausage Seller, in turn, has been updated into Hot Dog Man.
The songs sung by the chorus are also updated to be sung along to modern songs such as “The Halls of Montezuma,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Beer for My Horses,” and others. For example, one of the choral songs can be sung to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” It runs:
The Muses know when to tell you,
Know when to scold you,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to pun.
You never count on Muses
When you’re writing for the scholars,
Only some who write are funny,
When the scripts are done.
The playful and inventive language is truly one of the gems in this translation. To me, one of the great things about comedy is how, in laughter, comic poets play with language in unexpected ways. This translation has fun with the language with Drumpf, for example, saying: “It should make all those haters shut up for good. As long as we remember my unpresidented election win.” This is comic gold.
The Evolution of Comedy
Reading Men and Their Horses got me reflecting on comedy, and the evolution of comedy. In Aristophanes’ time, the dramatic art form of comedy was still developing. I would argue that comedy didn’t achieve what it was meant to be until the times of Plautus. For example, Shakespeare and other writers can emulate Plautine comedy with great fanfare (e.g. The Comedy of Errors). Emulators of Aristophanes are less common. And, even Aristophanes, after Knights and Wasps, seems to have moved away from these biting and brutal satires for other types of comedy. I wonder why that is?
I also wonder if Cleon was personally in attendance. And I wonder if Men and Their Horses were staged, how Donald Trump would react, if he were in the audience. I guess it is one thing to be roasted, but another to be viciously lampooned. Reading this play brings to mind Molière’s Those Learned Ladies (Les femmes savantes). Like Knights, it is a work by a comic genius. In Those Learned Ladies, Molière savagely attacks preciosity (an affected manner of speaking popular at that time) and satirizes pedantry. But, unlike, say The Would-Be Gentleman, another play he wrote where he pokes fun at human nature, I always thought Molière was too strong in his attacks in Those Learned Ladies. While the “villain” in The Would-Be Gentleman is a likeable doofus, there is the sense that the “villains” in Those Learned Ladies are idiots, plain and simple. What is more, it is quite apparent that Molière really does not like the antagonists in Those Learned Ladies. I think the degree of animosity detracts from the humour. In the same way, because it is so clear that Aristophanes really doesn’t like Cleon (who is the butt of the jokes), it takes away from what the play might have been, if the anger did not seem so personal. Perhaps it is for this reason that Aristophanes shifted gears shortly after Knights.
There seems to be a line between being mean-spirited and being funny. Perhaps I didn’t put that right. One can be mean-spirited and be funny. Or one can be funny without being mean-spirited. Think of live, stand-up comedy. A stand-up comic can say hurtful things to the person in the front row, and this could be funny to the audience. Or a stand-up comic can say funny things, but with a kind-hearted approach. Both are funny. But I think some audiences would prefer the comic who is funny and kind-hearted at the same time. Perhaps for this reason Aristophanes changed gears shortly after Knights. But this remains a conjecture, if an interesting one.
The Hot Dog Stand is Open for Business
In Men and Their Horses, Lippman and Major have translated the experience of what the original audience felt into contemporary English. To recapture the verve of the original is a fantastic achievement, a new benchmark in the translation of comedy. After 2,500 years, the hot dog stand is back in business. This is the type of translation that will make comedy great again.
– – –
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil
Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.