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Pherecrates’ Comic Poetics

Amy S Lewis

University of Pennsylvania

Pherecrates’ comedy appears to have been remarkably different from the aggressive political and personal comedy associated with his better-known younger contemporary Aristophanes (Urios Aparisi 1997, 83-4): the anonymous On Comedy (Koster III.29-31) states that Pherecrates “stayed away from abuse (loidoria)” and “was popular for introducing novel actions and being an inventor of plots.” The titles and fragments of his comedies likewise suggest little interest in political themes (Dobrov and Urios Aparisi 1995, 150) and a predilection for innovative domestic plots (Slave Trainer, Stuff), the stock figure of the hetaira (Petale, Corianno; Henderson 2000), mythological burlesque (Ant-Men, False Heracles), and utopian fantasy (Wild Men, Miners; Ceccarelli 2000, 455-8). Little attention has been paid, however, to Pherecrates’ statements about his own comedy. The aim of this paper is to offer an interpretation of these statements and situate Pherecrates in the competitive milieu of fifth century comedy (Biles, 2010). I will argue that he used many of the same competitive techniques as his better-known rivals, but that he defended a non-political comedy of broad popular appeal. In this way he differs from Aristophanes, who claims that his comedy is didactic, contributes to city affairs, and appeals to a sophisticated elite (Wright 2012, 17-18; 64).

In the first part of the paper I will consider three fragments (Crapataloi fr. 102, Chiron fr.156, and False Heracles fr. 163) that point to a poetic claim of non-involvement (apragmosynē) by denying a comedy of loidoria. For example, in the False Heracles fragment, a character on stage responds in the first person to a hypothetical spectator, described as “one who thinks he's so clever” (dokēsidexiōn). The character on stage rebukes the spectator, ordering him not to be so meddlesome (mē polypragmonei) but to pay attention. The first person address from stage enhances the metatheatrical technique of imagining audience responses to comedy. This was a popular technique, as seen in Aristophanes’ Peace 43-5 and Cratinus fr. 342. In the Pherecrates fragment, cleverness is associated with meddlesomeness (polypragmosynē) and the negative imperative implies that for Pherecrates’ comedy these are bad traits. We can compare this to Aristophanes, where the response to the clever spectator comes from another clever (Ionian) spectator who suggests that the dung beetle is an allegory of Cleon (Peace 47-8). Here, the response to Aristophanes’ clever spectator is an equally clever interpretation, suggesting that this is the type of spectator Aristophanes would like.

In the second part, I consider Pherecrates’ comparison of his comedy to food and drink in Crapataloi fr. 101 (“Whoever of the spectators is thirsty, let him gulp down a full lepastē like Charybdis”, Kassel and Austin 1989, 150-1) and Athenaeus’ testimonium (11.464) that Pherecrates’ audience never went hungry. I build on Wright’s observations about food as a metaphor for comedy. He argues that Pherecrates’ emphasis on being full is competitive and that, in his competitiveness, Pherecrates attempts to distance himself from the “world of fine dining with its fussy presentation and insubstantial portions” (Wright 2012, 130); thus, Wright argues, he seems to aim his comedy at an audience of lower socio-economic status. Agreeing with Wright’s suggestions, I offer further observations on the nature of the lepastē and how this contributes to a Pherecratean consumptive poetics: according to Athenaeus (11.485) the lepastē was notable for its size, its ability to facilitate quick drinking, and its association with excessive drinking at the expense of taste. In comic terms, this association translates to a comedy that is immediately digestible, effective, and satisfying to every spectator.

In the final part of this paper, I will suggest that Aristophanes engaged in a sustained and dynamic rivalry with Pherecrates since he was a prime example of the low-brow (phortikē) comedy that Aristophanes disdained.

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Greek and Latin Comedy

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