Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Physis, Nomos, Phallos: the Comic Revolution of Aristophanes

    The absurd humor of The Assemblywomen begins with the title itself: an "assembly of women" in fifth century BCE Greece sounds as ridiculous as a parliament of cats. Assembly (ekklesia) is a word with distinctly political overtones, like Senate. As Professor Harvey mentioned, from the very opening moment when Praxagora (whose name could be rendered "Mrs. Gogetter") emerges, we are witnessing the exteriorization of a purely interior world of women.  They are planning an invasion of the public sphere of the polis, but for the good of the polis. Unlike the self-interested machinations of an oligarchy, this coup is really imposing a benevolent gynecocracy that will rule through communal mothering. "We women will manage this central pool [of property] with thrift and good judgment, and we'll take good care of you" (lines 580-581) It's a kind of kitchenocracy.
    Of course, a whole dimension of humor is missing if you simply read the script, since the impact of the initial scenes stems from the literal performance of gender.  Remember the audience is almost entirely male, the author is male, the cast is entirely male.  The male actors perform their female roles in an atmosphere of high camp in Old Comedy, but this play takes it a step further by having the campy male-constructed "females" attempt to impersonate campy female-constructed "males." Note in the opening scene, where they rehearse their plan for the assembly, how much of the humor revolves around badly executed maleness.
    There is a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian that approaches this kind of complex, gender-twisting humor. The British comedy troupe regularly performed drag roles, but in this film, which takes place in Roman occupied Judea during the life of Christ, they play Judean women who impersonate men in order to attend a stoning, a privilege normally reserved for men.  Notice how here too the fake beard is the essential signifier of travestied maleness.

    There is more to the play than this performative verve, however. The play is a utopian fantasy that pulls apart certain views of nature and culture. The new kitchenocracy imposes a form of communism that clearly undoes the seemingly artificial nature of the disparities of wealth in society. It is a common motif in myths of the primitive "Golden Age" that when human beings were closer to nature, they lived simply and equally, untroubled by the race for wealth. So this utopia in a sense returns people to a more natural state of social equality, but one prefaced by the surrendering of private property. You can see this dramatized in the scene with the Selfish Man (lines 747-903) who refuses to give up his goods. But unlike the Golden Age, the citizens won't just eat honey and acorns. They'll enjoy sumptuous meals with grand menus. Another bit of virtuoso performance is simply saying that terribly long word Prof. Harvey mentioned:


Definitely a mouthful!
  But juxtaposed to the "unnatural" economy of personal ownership is another economy in the play that contradicts the idea we are all "naturally" equal: the sexual economy. Nature, it turns out, is not egalitarian. Some of us are inherently more beautiful and desirable than others, if not in terms of our immediate natural endowments, then certainly with the onset of old age. As natural beings, we wither and decline, but sexiness is a quality of youthful vitality: life is just not fair. So now the utopian intervention attacks not the conventional disparities of wealth imposed by civilization, but the marked disparities of "sexual capital" that occur naturally.
  Athens was a radical democracy, and Aristophanes is toying with a comic extension of the principle of equality to a ludicrous extreme. But he hits upon one of democracy's historical injustices when Blepyros raises the simple question: who will work the land? Praxagora replies with gleeful simplicity: "The slaves! Your only concern will be to get all slicked up when the shadow-clock says it's time for dinner" (lines 653-4).  There is one big exception to the removal of ownership: some people will still be owned. The freedom and equality of this kitchenocracy rest upon slave labor, just as the radical democracy in Athens never thought the radical thought that slavery itself should be undone.  The Founding Fathers failed to accomplish that thought as well, and as you know, there was no funny way to resolve the issue. And unlike pooping, slavery is still not funny.

—Richard Armstrong