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Aristophanes the Actor?

Jennifer Starkey

     The idea that Aristophanes acted in his own plays has been accepted and rejected a number of times since it was first proposed over a century ago. Neither side, however, has offered an argument based on a full examination of the evidence. This paper seeks to fill that gap and ultimately rejects the theory.

     The idea first arose as a possible explanation of several puzzling passages in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (377-82, 497-508, 515-6), in which Dicaeopolis seems to speak directly for the poet. Modern critics, who are accustomed to hearing the poet’s voice only from the chorus in the parabasis, have sometimes solved the problem by speculating that Aristophanes himself played the part of Dicaeopolis. If so, it is not so much that a character (instead of a chorus) speaks on behalf of Aristophanes, but that the poet-actor occasionally breaks character to speak for himself; such a scenario also seems plausible because of comedy’s penchant for metatheater. This possibility was discussed by Merry 1887 (p. 8 and ad 377) and Starkie 1909 (ad 377), argued at greater length by Bailey 1936, and re-proposed by Sutton 1988 (who also suggests that Aristophanes played the part of the Sausage-seller in Knights). However, as Olson 1990 notes, the theory has failed to gain general acceptance and is usually ignored in scholarship on Aristophanes’ early career (but see Slater 1989); at the same time, critics rarely give specific reasons for rejecting the idea, and their relative disinterest cannot in itself be a satisfactory rebuttal.

     This paper demonstrates why neither Aristophanes nor any other comic poet in that period could have acted in his own plays. Since there have been a number of successful attempts to explain how Dicaeopolis’ statements can be integrated into the action of Acharnians without imagining that Aristophanes himself appeared onstage (e.g. Bowie 1982, Foley 1988), I turn instead to matters of theater history and procedure at the Lenaea.

     I begin by considering how actors were assigned to playwrights prior to the festival. According to Hesychius, it was done by lot, though this evidence alone does not prove that the allotment was already in place in the fifth century. I argue that it was by examining two other points:  a) comic mockery of actors and b) statements in both comedy and tragedy about dramatic collaboration. Fifth-century comedy regularly mocks tragic actors but avoids mentioning comic actors altogether; this suggests that the allotment was in place, since it would be unwise for comic poets to mock actors who might someday be assigned to act in their plays. And if the actors were assigned by lot, it would also be unwise for a comic poet to enter the histrionic competition, since he would risk being assigned to a poet other than himself. Again, passages like Andromache 476-7 and Clouds 553-4 show that collaboration between poets was a current topic of discussion, but no mention is ever made of collaboration between a poet and a poet-actor; furthermore, poetic collaboration is invariably cast in negative terms.

     Other important evidence includes the second hypothesis to Knights and the Aristophanic Vita. The first, which claims that Aristophanes καθίησι τῶν Ἱππέων δρᾶμα δι’ αὑτοῦ, probably refers to him as producer rather than actor (Haigh 1968: 228 n. 4); the second, which states that δι’ ἑαυτοῦ ὁ Ἀριστοφάνης ὑπεκρίνατο αὐτοῦ τὸ πρόσωπον μίλτῳ χρίσας (cf. Σ Knights 230), is not a reliable source, as the writer seems to have misread the hypothesis and proceeds to confuse the chronology of Knights and Acharnians. Additionally, there is no evidence that any other poet of this period who is said to have acted (e.g. Crates, Pherecrates) did so while writing plays; it seems rather that acting could be an early stage of a career in theater, preceding and entirely separate from composition and production. If Aristophanes ever acted, it was on behalf of other poets before his own career even began.

Session/Panel Title

Politics and Parody in Old Comedy

Session/Paper Number

59.4

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