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Humiliation? Voyeurism, violence, and humor in old comedy.

One of the principal attributes of Old Comedy, as much for modern critics as for ancient, is its aggression. From attacks on individuals, particularly historical individuals, to the behavior of its protagonists while pursuing their crazy schemes, the implications of such verbal and actual violence have proved in different ways problematic. The visual elements, in particular, have often proved troubling when set against the big political issues and self-proclaimed ambitions of the plays. While the resources of the comic stage have often been considered, the specific contribution of the spectacle of comic aggression has rarely been considered directly, even compared to obscenity, which has been treated primarily from a linguistic viewpoint. (1) For some critics, this comic aggression is all too easily dismissed as slapstick, childish jokes, a ritual hangover, or the integration of elements of popular nonliterary comedy--all far from any serious dimension. (2) Some critics, conversely, accept Aristophanic claims to be moving away from low comedy, despite patent evidence to the contrary. Others use the very crudeness of such humor to tell a simple story of power, in terms of genre-specific comic heroism or the straightforward expression of masculine power and male sexuality, common to other expressions of phallic aggression. (3) It is certainly the case that the visual dimension of comic aggression puts issues of masculinity and power center-stage and that the visual dimension to aggressive humor offers a particularly immediate source of ideological engagement for the spectators. I shall argue here, however, that the spectacle of violence is an altogether more anxious one, and poses questions about the exercise of power and nature of authority in fifth- and early fourth-century BCE Athens.

This paper falls in two parts. In the first part, I consider the violence of Old Comedy in relation to theories of humor that emphasize audience superiority, group solidarity, and the humiliation and social marginalization of targets. I shall argue that even in instances of comic violence and slapstick, a straightforward identification of victim with comic target is not always possible, that comic violence is less about social stratification than about political rivalry, and that the targets of violent humor betray as much political anxiety as they do triumphant heroism. In the second part, I develop these anxieties over masculine power within Old Comedy by bringing into this account of violence the elements of sexual aggression and humiliation. I discuss the audience's visual experience and pleasure, and its implications, by engaging with positions within feminist film theory: on the one hand, Laura Mulvey's (1975) theory of the sadistic, dominant male gaze, and on the other, Kaja Silverman's (1992) account of masculinity in crisis. Sexual aggression in plays of the 420s and earlier 410s use, I argue, sexual dominance as part of a process of 'remasculinization,' an attempt to cover up and compensate for the anxieties over masculine power. (4) In the latter part of the fifth century and in the early fourth century, such remasculinization in any visual sense was considerably more questionable and the process of male humiliation gathered apace. The watching (for pleasure) of male abjection, impotence, and lack occurred in the sexual sphere but has acute implications for claims to power in other spheres, not least politics.

Political Violence and Comic Mastery

Physical violence and slapstick humor constitute the most direct expression of power on the comic stage, and as such, readily offer the prospect of being analyzed in terms of a superiority theory of humor. According to this theory, the audience focalize through the speaker or actor and are laughing, usually with them, at the target, butt, or victim. Such aggressive laughter certainly has a long history in Greek culture, going back most obviously to the fate of Thersites in Iliad 2.265-78 or the lesser Ajax in Iliad 23.773-84. They also had a place in ancient theories of comedy specifically, starting with the contemporary witness Ps.-Xenophon in his Constitution of the Athenians 2.18, where it is argued that the demos (the audience) exerts through Old Comedy a form of political and social control. Aristotle's comments on comic character are in part about audience superiority in relation to the visual experience. In more modern times, a victim or superiority theory of humor is particularly associated with Henri Bergson, for whom aggressive comedy is a means of asserting social norms by attacking transgressors: "Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed" (1956, 187). (5) Such humiliation, I shall argue, is certainly an important component of Old Comedy, but in its strongest, visual form, it is strictly limited and targeted.

There are challenges to this emphasis on the theorization of comedy as attack, as the formation of in-groups and out-groups and the reinforcement of norms. Many linguistic, semiotic, and script-based models are centered instead on incongruity, and emphasize not only verbal, visual, and conceptual disjunctions, but also (implicitly or explicitly) productive connections and congruities. Such models can also, interestingly, be traced back to classical theory. (6) In such models, the position of the victim or butt has been contested--whether or not, indeed, the victim is an essential part of the comic transaction (speaker-addressee-audience-butt), or is an aspect of the comic transaction with sociological implications. Nor indeed does an audiences pleasure derive (only) from superiority, but from processing those conceptual juxtapositions, from transgression, recognition, or even empathy. (7) Even with the sort of visual humor in stage violence and sexual aggression, the butt is not always straightforward or stable. Audiences may find (or have found) violence funny, but that does not mean that the victim of the violence is necessarily the butt (or the only butt) of the joke.

In terms of the original audience experience, it is also important to bear in mind the very open way in which the audience's stance, expectations, and response are shaped from within the fiction, not least in terms of visual humor. On the one hand, a relatively stable collective identity and subject position is set up for the audience (male citizen body with occasional expansion). On the other, mutual watching is emphasized: fictional participants scrutinize their audience collectively and also pick out (notional or actual) targets within the audience. (8) Reproached at times for gullibility and passivity (particularly in relation to other discourses), the ancient spectators were frequently confronted with the expectation of a critical interpretative stance, not least in relation to visual jokes. (9) In Aristophanes, moreover, there is a particular deprecation of a kind of visual and violent humor (Vesp. 58-61; Nub. 537-44). These are mendacious claims, but as is well known, Aristophanes can engage in apparently just that behavior, including in the same play (not least Clouds, as I shall discuss shortly). Whatever the truth value, such instances of comic metatheatricality emphasize the active, critical, and interrogative stance of the audience and of the comic gaze, rather than a passive and quiescent one. (10) The mendacity however, is less in the question of whether comic violence exists or not, than it is in the hard lines drawn between Aristophanes and his rivals (cf. the prologue of Frogs) and between violence and visual humor and conceptual humor. Certainly, the much-maligned instances of Heraclean gluttony, when they appear, are thoroughly implicated in the kinds of conceptual humor that Aristophanes professes to prefer. (11) The same can, I argue, be said of Aristophanic violence.

A good starting point is the ending of the revised Clouds, perhaps the most startling display of comic violence and the humor of Schadenfreude. After Strepsiades' attempt to use the techniques of Socrates' workshop has spectacularly backfired, with his son turning into a father-beater--and some at least of the beating is enacted (1321-5)--Strepsiades is told by the Cloud Chorus that this was all a punishment. Strepsiades concedes that he was at fault, but decides to burn down the thinking-shop (phrontisterion) anyway (1452-66). He calls for a ladder, an axe, and a burning torch in order to bring down the roof on the students (1487-90). The audience clearly witness Strepsiades and Xanthias setting about this on the skene roof (even if not to the extent of literally setting the skene on fire), as students flee the scene:


I am going to exact some penalty from them today even if they are really cunning devils.

Student 1: Oh! Oh!

Strepsiades: It's up to you, torch, to set a great fire.

Strepsiades is quite explicit here: he is going to burn the students to death. This is both his desire and his expectation (1499-500). (12)

What of the audience? In a recent discussion (2006), Martin Revermann has argued that, uncomfortable as it is, such scenes of comic violence were intended for and received as audience enjoyment and that, as a corollary, the comic protagonist would not have been condemned for the use of violence in itself. I would not dissent from this, except to note that the questions of who is acting violently, and how, are of critical importance: Pheidippides' father-beating would have been perceived, and was characterized, in strongly different terms from the assault on the thinking-shop. I would resist, however, Revermann's (2006, 235) suggestion that the generic context renders the violence somehow safe and gives no meaningful direction to the audience: "The final violence has to be seen in its generic context as comic violence...."

This formulation is problematic in a number of ways. In a play that articulates its points through a series of extremely visual set-pieces--from Socrates on his dangling stool through the definition of the school and its students, the characterization of Socrates (blanket-stealing a specialty), and the two embodied logoi (13)--to deny similar meaningfulness to the final scene seems, to say the least, odd. Like most scholars, Revermann is unwilling to accept Plato and pin the blame for Socrates' death on Aristophanes; the suggestion that Aristophanes was encouraging fire-raising and assault (to any degree) sits uneasily with such a position. Nonetheless, Plato clearly expects his readers to remember the physical details of Socrates messing around in the air (perhaps Plato was wise to gloss over the ending).

Certainly I do not want to suggest that the audience would have been likely to walk out of the Theater of Dionysus and lay hands on the nearest passing Sophist, but in both narrative and conceptual terms, the place of this spectacle is telling. It is important to find a space between direct and immediate imitation by an audience on the one hand, and ideological, moral, or political significance on the other. Here it is useful to consider, for a moment, modern debates over the effect of watching violence (and associated moral panics) which have been a feature of public discourse since the development of mass media (particularly television). In these debates there has been considerable empirical study of the effect of watching the fictional enactment of violence, but it is such as to warn us against imposing simple models of audience engagement or effect. Commenting in the 1970s and drawing on empirical audience research, Stuart Hall (1976, 226-7) argued against simple behaviorist models (which are still problematic today) and commented on the effects of watching violence in Westerns:
   Not only do children "learn" the conventions of the
   simple-structure Western, like the rules of the game, but the very
   conventionalization of its elements serves to "background" the
   actual violent content, displacing the focus of interest onto other
   elements.... Westerns, indeed, have a strikingly clear, though
   often skeletal and over-simplified moral structure--a moral economy
   to which they strictly adhere. However strange it may seem, few
   violent actions are wholly gratuitous, meaningless or unexplained:
   they are always motivated in some way or another.

Violence, then, may be part of the repertoire of genres (old and new) and may accordingly be learnt as part of the rules of the game, as it were; but it is plugged into thematic, narrative, symbolic, and cognitive contexts, which may include superiority relations in the pragmatics of humor.

Such contexts are critical in Clouds. First, in dramatic terms, the visual violence is tightly woven into the articulation of comic victory. This is a common element in the plays, looking beyond the end of the performance into the judging and beyond (P. J. Wilson 2007), although it is rarely presented in such terms of pure violence. Second, unlike comic violence without consequences, as in cartoons like Tom and Jerry, (14) this violence has real effects within dramatic time and implicitly beyond. Unlike Tom, neither the students nor their masters will recover, or be seen to recover, within the fictional world. Third, this concluding spectacle serves as the punctuation mark for an unusually strong moral narrative in this play, which until almost the very end of the play is a profoundly negative one. Unlike other plays by Aristophanes, Clouds presents Strepsiades' quest for personal salvation through the evasion of the debts incurred by his son as an immoral act from the beginning. No other characters query this intent, except for the hapless, hopeless, and compromised Stronger Argument, until the Clouds reveal that they do in fact stand for traditional notions of dike and the traditional gods and that Strepsiades has been punished for his wickedness (1454-61). There are, then, plenty of reasons to see Strepsiades as far from an exemplary moral agent, and indeed as the butt of the joke (as he has been of Pheidippides' fists). Indeed, his burning down the thinking-shop may indeed be drawing further attention to Strepsiades' idiotic crudeness. The concluding violence, then, is multiply overcoded and motivated, and may suggest multiple targets for the on-looking audience, not only the victims of arson. The multiple comic motivations (and targets) are drawn from and reinforce the earlier explorations in this morality tale.

In no other extant play is the role of violence so marked as the culmination or even the articulation of the action. Even in Clouds, though, the relationship between the collective audience position and the perpetrators and victims of violence is somewhat complex. Similar ambivalence in relation to the comic 'hero' is seen regularly elsewhere with respect to violence. Although traditional models of Old Comedy would have the audience focalize through the comic hero (where identifiable) and see the dominant and expected plot-structure of the plays as one charting the triumph of the comic hero, overcoming narrative and physical obstacles along the way, comic violence tells a rather different story with respect to both character and action. (15) Above all, despite the strongly agonistic nature of the genre, the idea of physical mastery is relatively underdeveloped. The fantasies of empowerment and transformation set up in the plays, particularly in prologues, are rarely achieved through physical prowess, and never individual prowess. Such violence as there is in these terms is reactive and directed almost exclusively at (other, rival) self-appointed political experts like sycophants and oracle-sellers. (16) Indeed, the most significant physical action in plot terms is the rescue of Peace in Peace 458-519, which is very different in character--it is in fact not violent at all and is an example of collective, rather than individual, action.

Just as, however, it is easy to overstate the extent to which the Old Comedy is physically and visually violent, the complexity of comic violence can be understated, particularly in relation to the rhetoric of authority, for one consistent target of comic violence are comic protagonists (or 'heroes') themselves. In however transitory a fashion, the central characters of Old Comedy are as much victims as purveyors of violence, often indeed in the same play. The Chorus's assault on Dicaeopolis in Acharnians or on Pisetaerus and Euelpides in Birds (356-63, 386-92), or Bdelycleon's resorting to violence against his father Philocleon in Wasps (456-9) demonstrate less mastery than resistance and an attempt to be heard. (17) In Knights, the Sausage Seller's qualifications for dealing in verbal aggression, which is figured as physical violence (387-90; cf. 261-3, 450-9), stems explicitly from his own experience of violence (1236, 1239, 1242). In this respect, he is not so very different from other foci of comic plots.

Such a fluid relationship between violence and authority is evident in what is the most extended display of comic violence--the torture scene in Frogs (605-73), which plays with both class and identity. Dionysus is wearing a blatantly implausible Heracles outfit for his trip to the Underworld--a lionskin and club over his saffron gown (krokoton) and boots (kothornoi)--but the disguise is regularly taken seriously by the inhabitants of the Underworld, with dramatically good or bad results, which in turn prompts a series of costume swaps with his slave, Xanthias. As in other instances of incomplete disguise or transformation (discussed below), the butts are both the viewer and the viewed. (18) The running joke escalates into a routine where the doorkeeper of the Underworld (Aeacus) looks to punish the person who killed his pet dog, Cerberus. Xanthias (as Heracles) cheekily offers his 'slave' Dionysus for torture, whereupon Dionysus claims immortality and suggests that Aeacus torture Xanthias (supposedly an immortal) who should not be able to feel it either. Aeacus ends up beating up both to see who screams first.

The routine relies upon the default assumption on the comic stage that slaves deserve to be, are used to being, and can tolerate being beaten (cf. Clouds 56-60), even if that is not actually seen regularly elsewhere in the surviving plays. (19) Dionysus, on the other hand, has a track record of suffering and being poorly tolerant of physical discomfort, as in Eupolis's Taxiarkhoi (A. M. Wilson 1974; Storey 2003, 253-7; Ruffell, 2011, 305-6) and earlier in the rowing competition with the frogs. The comedy is partly that of superiority and Schadenfreude, as both master and servant are beaten and Aeacus is misled and confused, but also depends upon a series of gags where Dionysus and Xanthias cover up their screams with increasingly creative but implausible explanations of why they have cried out (650-5):


Surely you didn't feel it?

Xanthias: No by Zeus: I just thought of when the festival of Heracles is happening at Diomeia.

Aeacus: A holy man indeed. Right, time to go back over here again.

Dionysus: Ow! Ow!

Aeacus: What's up?

Dionysus: I can see the Knights!

Aeacus: Why did you yell, then?

Dionysus: I can smell onions.

Aeacus: Then you didn't feel anything?

Dionysus: I'm not bothered at all.

In terms of the wider strategies of the play, the violent humor of this scene affords a threefold problematization of authority in the figures of Aeacus, Xanthias (who goes further than any other character in Old Comedy in subverting master/slave relations (20)), and Dionysus. The abuse of Dionysus here comes on top of his manifest cowardice (271-331) and might be thought to undermine his authority to pronounce on anything, whether technical matters or the associated political question of how to save Athens. His creativity here, however, as in the competition with the frogs, is as significant as his victimhood. Dionysus is consistently this combination of patsy and wit, the embodiment of the comic, (21) but that combination makes the quite strident claims to authority after the parabasis difficult to take entirely straightforwardly.

The exploitation of violence for humor in Aristophanes implies a variety of relations between audience and fictional participants. The humor of Schadenfreude plays a part, but one consistently implicated with the ideological and literary positioning of the plays. While any comic character has the potential for treatment as a butt, there is a preference to select as victims rival participants in civic discourse, which suggests the consolidation of generic authority. Such instances require sympathy between audience and a comic protagonist, but audiences are not consistently aligned with one aggressor against a set of butts throughout a play, nor does comic victory require unequivocal comic domination. Indeed, the exploitation of violence may question hierarchies and the use of power as much as it consolidates them.

Voyeurism, Masculinity, and Power: From Ambivalence to Crisis

In this section, I explore further this ambivalence in comic violence by extending the scope of visual humor from (non-sexual) physical assault to forms of sexual dominance and humiliation. Enacted before the gaze of the ideologically (if not actually) male audience, the exercise of sexual power encompasses both an active, penetrating sexuality and an increasingly masochistic flavor, as citizen males are humiliated by men and women of every status. I shall engage with feminist film theory to argue that sexual power here stands as a proxy for political power. What can be seen in the earlier plays of Aristophanes as a recuperation of ambivalence and anxiety becomes increasingly symptomatic of a masculinity and political culture in crisis.

One element in the comic grotesque certainly looks like the celebration and uncontrolled expression of aggressive male sexuality, displayed by and for men. Indeed, one might easily come to the conclusion that Old Comedy, perhaps most flagrantly and publicly of any ancient form, involves the fetishistic and controlling male gaze. Such a notion descends from Laura Mulvey's classic psychoanalytic reading of Hollywood cinema, in which she contends that women in films are either voyeuristically exploited as sexual objects or fetishized in terms of unattainable beauty, but not allowed their own identity as desiring subjects. Mulvey's position has obvious attractions: it is easily assimilable to superiority theories of humor, is consonant with approaches to ancient humor which emphasize the pornographic aspects of ancient humor (both in terms of display and of sexual aggression and threat), and fits neatly the actual or supposed composition of the ancient audience. (22)

The character of Festivity (Theoria) is a good example of the way that such objectification works in Old Comedy. Theoria is one of the female characters in Old Comedy who act as markers of the attainment of a major character's goals. As one of the handmaidens of the goddess Peace, who has been rescued and is herself displayed to the audience as a large statue, (23) she is handed over to the council as a symbol of peace and male sexual desire, the two (as often in Old Comedy) being strongly related. Attainment of peace will be enacted in and through the sexual possession of Festivity (Pax 887-90):

   Council, executives, look at Festivity.
   Look at all the good things I've brought to give you,
   so that you can immediately lift her legs
   up high and then celebrate a Release.

It is further grist to this interpretative mill that Festivity actually refers specifically to spectating, with obvious application to the immediate performance context. The association of the audience gaze with active male sexuality is clearly very strong, and the division of sexual spoils--with Theoria going to the audience and Opora (Harvest Time) to Trygaeus--only serves to emphasize this association. Sexual dominance and collective cohesion seem to go unerringly together, unifying audience pleasure with the triumph of the comic protagonist.

A series of such sexual trophies can be seen particularly in the earlier Aristophanic comedies. Women, girls, and boys are all lined up for sexual penetration in Acharnians, Knights, and Wasps, together with the closely related personified abstractions Opora and Theoria (Peace) and Basileia (Birds). Dicaeopolis's victory, in particular, sees him exercising conspicuous sexual power over a number of participants, only one set of whom are his female prizes, his so-called girlfriends ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1217); these are preceded by arguably the most disturbing scene in Greek comedy, when the Megarian traffics his daughters to him, badly disguised as piglets, the visual enactment of an obscene pun, and reinforced by a sequence of agricultural fellatio jokes. The implicit violence is particularly strong in Knights (1384-95); we may contrast in Wasps the jokes that are as much at the expense of Philocleon's aging apparatus as at the flute girls he has kidnapped from the symposium (1342-4). Such figures are also drawn upon or developed in Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae, but also in rather more complicated explorations of sexual power, as I shall discuss below.

This aggressive desiring comic gaze is almost exclusively directed towards slaves and foreigners, male or female, personifications, abstractions, or even deities. (25) The individuated Chorus of Eupolis's Poleis (Cities), who are said to be being eyed by members of the audience, includes several of these categories. (26) There is, however, a marked reluctance to involve citizen wives in this way, which fits with other well-known comic reticences relating to the representation and even naming of citizen wives, at least before Lysistrata (Sommerstein 1980a, Henderson 1987), and which will become, if anything, stronger in New Comedy. Other desires could certainly be discussed (as in Clouds, by both Arguments) and our image of comic objects of desire might perhaps change if we had more of Eupolis's Autolykos I and II, but visual representation of male sexual desire remains largely consistent in Aristophanes. It is a picture in which humor reinforces social hierarchies and norms and in which the audience, particularly if they focalize through the comic males, are complicit.

This is, however, only a partial account of sexual dominance in Old Comedy, as can be observed on both theoretical and practical grounds. In theoretical terms, criticisms of Mulvey's approach are well known. One criticism is over a lack of actual audience research--although that is necessarily a flaw of classicists' studies as well. Two other objections are more fundamental. First, the options left for a feminist cinema (or audience) are narrow. Mulvey champions disruptive strategies long associated with the (male) avant-garde. This privileging of formalism over realism has been criticized as both restrictive and stuck within patriarchal categories and practice. (27) As far as Old Comedy is concerned, those avant-garde and modernist strategies and audiences are precisely those with which Aristophanic metatheatricality has been compared, including that of the active spectator, which I discussed briefly in the first part of the essay. Second, Mulvey's rigid construction of the gaze leaves very little space for strategies of rereading, contestation, and resistance. This, too, is problematic in relation to both the initial and subsequent reception of Old Comedy, where the possibility of dissident reading or even the attraction of new performances would be closed down. The continuing refactoring of the regularly revived Lysistrata is only the most conspicuous example of a problem from this perspective. The sadistic and fetishizing viewer cannot be a complete (or universal) explanation.

The nature of the comic grotesque also means that a straightforward translation of Mulvey's theory is not entirely feasible. If Mulvey's main problem in narrative cinema is that of beauty, and if the goal for feminist cinema is the destruction of such beauty, in Old Comedy there is the reverse problem: everyone is ugly. (28) This has important implications for the way the audience experiences the world of Old Comedy. While the grotesque comic bodies certainly do not obliterate difference, sectional distinctions in terms of 'ugly' versus 'not ugly' (or 'realistic') only develop over the course of the fourth century, largely at the expense of older men and slaves (Webster and Green 1978, 45-6; Green 1994, 34-8; Green and Handley 1994, 50, 58-61; Green 2002, 104-5). The convention of ugliness also makes it difficult to see the comic body in the first instance as an object of simple aggressive humor (to be laughed at) or as re-inscribing social norms; it is certainly far from the idealized and often highly class-based versions of the body found elsewhere in Athenian representations. (29) Its anti-idealizing and its emphasis on the material and the real create a fictional environment that is both dislocated and firmly anchored. (30) In that sense, there is the possibility of both disruptive carnivalesque liberation rooted in fundamental desires (and not only temporary license (31)) and (and for the same reason) the exaggeration of social norms, not least in the sexual realm.

Furthermore, although the evidence for the fifth century is limited, male characters are if anything more ugly and distorted than female characters. Certainly, the phallus renders the male characters more obviously distorted, and that visual focus draws particular attention towards exaggerated male sexuality. That tendency in the comic body is reflected in the obsession of comic plots with male sexuality, both aggressive and otherwise. This obsession leaves little room for genuine female subjectivity, short of some determined reading against the grain. It does mean, however, that a translation of Mulvey's approach lacks explanatory value in addressing the full ramifications of this concern for male sexuality. On the one hand, there is an excess of penetration in Old Comedy (or at least talking about, imagining, or anticipating it), which is at odds with cultural norms to the extent that it has arguably warped modern accounts of ancient sexuality. (32) On the other, a particular problem with attributing to the audience of Old Comedy a sadistic male gaze is that the most extended instances of sexual and gendered dominance in the genre consist of violence directed at men.

Let me explore this further by drawing on feminist explorations of masculinity, in particular Kaja Silverman's study of nonstandard or deviant masculinities. Like Foucault, Silverman sees sexuality and the social order as implicated with one another, but argues for a more complex relationship between them, through a process of ideological facilitation and fantasy that she calls the "dominant fiction":
   "Male" and "female" constitute the dominant fictions most
   fundamental binary opposition. Its many other ideological elements,
   such as signifiers like "town" and "nation," or the antithesis of
   power and the people, all exist in a metaphoric relation to those
   terms. They derive their conceptual and affective value from that
   relation. (1992, 34-5)

For Silverman, there is an excess of desire in even the most normative circumstances, but in non-normative contexts there is a much greater possibility of threatening or circumventing the social order. In the first instance, Silverman reads a number of post-World War II films, including the at first sight highly normative It's a Wonderful Life (1946), as explorations of male lack, masochism, and impotence in the wake of the historical trauma of the war, with attempts in most cases to shore up male sexuality and its association with social power.

If the dominant fiction's "most privileged term is the phallus" (Silverman 1992, 2), the male symbolic order is particularly visible, and vulnerable, in Old Comedy. (33) As an example, consider, again, Acharnians. Here, the dominant phallus (in a social as well as a sexual sense) is only achieved by the atomization of the male social and sexual order, and a masochistic exploration of both sexual and nonsexual violence. What looks like phallic affirmation actually leaves potentially troubling questions about masculinity and the relationship between the sexual and political orders.

Symbolic phalluses abound in the play. Once Dicaeopolis has enacted a personal peace with the Spartans, his celebration of the Rural Dionysia involves both a phallic procession, replete with normative gender roles, and a hymn to Phales, which features a rape fantasy. Set against these representations of masculinity in social and sexual spheres are the violent scenes that provide the frame, scenes in which the father and his allies are objects of violence. Thus Amphitheus, the supposedly divine character who arranges peace for him, is apparently dragged out of the assembly by the archers after spinning an extremely specious story of being a god and then demanding journey pay from the Athenian assembly (44-54). The joke is partly on the audience: it turns out that he can do what he claims after all. Dicaeopolis himself is at the mercy of the Chorus for most of the first half of the play. He is stoned by them on their first entrance (280-5); his subsequent recourse to a butchers block is a conspicuous reminder of that threat. His threat to "shaft them with words" (444) by means of the Telephus disguise certainly encourages the audience to see the Chorus as the butt of the joke, but it also draws attention to Dicaeopolis's impotence at this stage in the proceedings, as the threat of manual violation turns out to be rather less effective than advertised.

The relationship between sexuality, violence, and the political order is strikingly shown when Dicaeopolis strips Lamachus, the embodiment of the Big Man and the personification of militarism, (34) of his trappings of power: the shield (581-3) and helmet (584-8). As Lamachus worries about what Dicaeopolis is doing with his crests, Dicaeopolis's final visual insult is to suggest that Lamachus service him sexually (587-92):


Lamachus: Hey, you, what are you going to do? Are you going to use that feather to throw up? The feathers --

Dicaeopolis: Go on tell me, what on earth birds is it? A boaster's?

Lamachus: You are so dead.

Dicaeopolis: No way, Lamachus, you're not strong enough for that job; but if you're feeling forceful, why don't you peel me back? You're going well equipped.

The pun on Lamachus's equipment clearly references Lamachus's phallus, no doubt revealed flamboyantly in this moment, and it seems to be an invitation to the general to display with it his prowess sexually on Dicaeopolis. The shocking suggestion (for a citizen male), amplified by stage action, is thus the punch-line to the routine that deconstructs a series of visual symbols of power. The precise action is less clear. The verb, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is elsewhere used, as of the Odomanti (161), of retracting the foreskin, through erection or circumcision. The sword/phallus metaphor plays on both sides, but the implication seems to be that Dicaeopolis is inviting Lamachus to stimulate him through anal penetration with or without additional masturbation. (35) Either way, there is a progressive laying bare of Lamachus's political and military power in a series of visual symbols, until it reaches the symbolic kernel, the phallus.

The lack of political power that Dicaeopolis experiences in the prologue, and in which the audience is invited to share, is thus followed by a series of self-abnegations. In order to win his just outcome (on an optimistic reading of the play), Dicaeopolis has to be physically abused, make himself sexually available to the general, and adopt, however temporarily, a marginal socio-economic position. Indeed, both by the beggar costume and by apparently offering to be penetrated, Dicaeopolis is drawing attention to the powerlessness of the ordinary citizen male, as if he were no citizen at all. Lamachus, indeed, is as shocked by the implied class relationship as anything, as he repeatedly comments on Dicaeopolis's appearance as a beggar and cues Dicaeopoliss rejoinder that he is in fact the honest citizen, not the political hack (577a, 593-7). The only power for the honest citizen, however, has been the verbal and conceptual facility that has persuaded the Chorus through arguments encapsulated in masquerade and shamelessness. Although there are a number of strategies used to encourage the audience to focalize through Dicaeopolis, it is entirely possible to overstate their social solidarity in watching this masochistic display: he is at times the object of humor here, as well as the agent of it, at the expense of the Chorus and Lamachus.

By his facility in winning over or removing his opponents, Dicaeopolis is able to establish his new political, social, and mercantile order. In this new world order there is a recuperation of Dicaeopolis within norms of masculinity, at least as far as they concern him alone. Thus he now uses physical violence, against the regular comic target of the sycophant. He acquires both the Megarian's daughters and the 'girlfriends' with which he returns from the priest's dinner, in a realization of the hymn to Phales. As well, however, as having created the paradox of a polis of one within the Athenian polis, so too he seems to have created one male sexual order within another. After the parabasis, his is the only sexual power or pleasure to be seen. Indeed, as well as denying peace (and sexuality) to the men of Athens--the Chorus, Dercetes, and Lamachus--he puts sexual power, embodied in the peace ointment given to the bridesmaid, into the hands of the citizen wife (1059-66).

In that dispensing of sexual power, there is an explicit opposition of violence and sexuality, a contrast between those responsible for war (other men) who are denied control of their sexuality, and those not responsible (women). This opposition between sexuality, in the figure of the remasculinized Dicaeopolis who enjoys peace, and collective violence, in the figure of Lamachus who has to go on campaign (1071-141) and returns injured (1174-97), is presented clearly through verbal and visual parallels in the final scenes of the play (1214-21):


Lamachus: Hold me. Hold my leg; argh, hold tight, boys.

Dicaeopolis: Take my cock, both of you, round the shaft: hold tight, girls.

Lamachus: I'm dizzy--I was hit on the head by a stone and I'm fainting in the dark.

Dicaeopolis: I too want to sleep and I've got an erection and I want to fuck in the dark.

The power relations between Dicaeopolis and Lamachus are clearly reversed. The civic violence directed towards Dicaeopolis and other citizens has turned into violence inflicted on the politician. The paratragic threats of Lamachus have turned into paratragic victimhood (Foley 1988, 41-6): unlike Dicaeopolis, he is unable to step outside of his own tragic discourse.

The story of Dicaeopolis's little polis could be said, in certain terms, to be one of justice. A contrast is drawn between the practice of Dicaeopolis's polis, which removes civic nuisances, profits from civic enemies, and distributes peace to deserving parties, and the extremism of those deploying violence to narrow political engagement, close down debate, and commit to war. The distinctions are presented through a series of stark visual oppositions: Dicaeopolis and the assembly, Dicaeopolis and the butcher's block, Dicaeopolis and Lamachus. The presentation of violence would then emphasize two very different sets of political ideas about the ends of power and to a large extent its means too. (36) That would be a very cozy and tidy account, but Acharnians is less comfortable and more open-ended than that. Prospectively, within the fictional world, the political and sexual systems show no sign of reunification. Using the fictional city of one as a model for the actual city of many is, to say the least, problematic. Above all, if Acharnians is seen as a diagnosis rather than a suggested cure, it is hard to see the personal triumph of Dicaeopolis and his individual enjoyment of sexuality as entirely erasing the anxieties that are evident in the presentation of the male citizen in the sexual and political order of things.

A similar dialogue between personal victory and an earlier exercise in humiliation can be seen to occur in most of Aristophanes' early plays: Knights, Clouds, Wasps, and Birds (examples of which have been noted above). Political and social disruption in these plays is refracted through a crisis in masculinity, which is then shored up. Peace is the major exception in this as it is in other respects (Cassio 1985), such as the degree of coherence between major subject-positions: protagonist, chorus, and audience. Whether this challenge to masculine norms betrays a particular anxiety of the 420s--because of the developing nature of Athenian democracy, or because of the historical situation in the Archidamian War or the aftermath of the launching of the Sicilian expedition--is more unclear, given the lack of extant earlier plays that can be studied in similar detail.

If Silverman is right to implicate the political and the sexual, then any significant designs on the "dominant fiction" are always liable to be expressed in terms of masculinity, vulnerability, and lack, whatever the historical circumstances. In the extant plays of Aristophanes from 411 to 390, however, there is a still more extreme form of crisis, a more sustained masochistic witnessing of men being humiliated onstage and far less shoring up of masculinity within the world of the play, and certainly not in the visual sense that is witnessed in Acharnians, Knights, or Birds. I have already discussed the extended flagellation in Frogs, in the context of scenes of humiliation and role-reversal, at the hands of both male and female characters (Aeacus, barmaids). Frogs can be seen as part of a pattern of material over these decades. In Thesmophoriazusae, Lysistrata, and Ecclesiazusae the violence and humiliation have a much more strongly sexual sense. They share with Frogs the presentation of subverted power relations to the spectators without any effective visual counter.

Thesmophoriazusae is unquestionably the most violent of all the extant plays, but one where the connections between masculinity and power are put into stark question, not least through their visual representation. Much has been written about the cross-dressing in the comedy and the associated play with fictionality through its parody of tragedy, (37) but these are also implicated with violence and humiliation, in which audience enjoyment is overwhelmingly and certainly visually aimed at the representation and victimization of what looks like male, penetrating sexuality.

The play begins with apparent assertion of such comic male sexuality, as Euripides and his male relative, who might have been identified as "Mnesilochus," (38) seek Agathon's assistance in infiltrating the women's assembly. The relative, as a coarser foil to Euripides, has much in common with earlier comic protagonists such as Dicaeopolis or Strepsiades. When Agathon emerges, Mnesilochuss initial response has all the hallmarks of unrefined masculine aggression, as he is erotically stimulated by Agathon's appearance and music. Already, though, the aggressive sexuality is considerably mitigated: Mnesilochuss own desire is anally rather than phallicly stimulated (130-3), while his confusion as to Agathon's gender-blurring strengthens the mixed messages. (39) Such a response certainly reflects on Agathon's (excessively seductive) music and sexual preferences, but also undermines considerably the claims to phallic power made elsewhere in this scene (157-8). That phallic power is more explicitly undermined in what follows, as Mnesilochus is blackmailed into infiltrating the women's assembly himself and consents to being cross-dressed himself.

From an audience perspective, the economy of pleasure in this sequence is complex. The dressing scene is also an extended torture scene, as Mnesilochus is forcibly singed and plucked, with particular attention paid to the genital area. Even more than in Acharnians or Frogs, this relies on enjoyment of the abuse of the comic male (235-9):


Euripides: Do you see yourself?

Mnesilochus: No by Zeus: Kleisthenes.

Euripides: Stand up so I can singe you. Bend over and hold still.

Mnesilochus: Oh what an unlucky bastard; I'm going to be a suckling pig.

Euripides: Someone bring out a torch or a lamp. Bend over--and watch out for the top of your dick.

The phallus in flight is as much the butt of the humor here as are the singed buttocks. There are, however, forms of enjoyment here other than Schadenfreude at the expense of Mnesilochus. (40) This scene fits into a long cross-cultural tradition of forced cross-dressing narratives where force licences enjoyment on the part of the cross-dressed subject (cf. Garber 1993, 70). By extension, this may add a further vicarious connection between (male) audience and character.

Visually, Mnesilochus in a frock has continuities with other unconvincing costumes in Old Comedy such as those of birds and beggars. There is a basic incongruity within the fiction, central to much modern drag in performance (Newton 1979), even as Mnesilochus attempts to pass and, incredibly, does so. The incongruity of his outfit engineers a superiority of the actual audience over the internal audience of the women at their assembly. There is also a male complicity between audience and character, as the unconvincingly female Mnesilochus details to the fictional women their faults. But it only stretches so far because the implausibility of the disguise is always in danger of tipping over back onto Mnesilochus, while the whole scene flirts with the possibility that he might be discovered.

So the travails of Mnesilochus do not end with a very rough depilation. After jumping from the frying pan into the fire, his capture by the women entails further discovery, exposure, and humiliation, before both the women and the external audience. The search for Mnesilochus's phallus is an extended routine (643-8) but only part of a wider process of forcible disrobing, prodding, and removal of any element of his former passing. He is finally, after two abortive attempts at escape, tied to a board for public (audience) display (929-33):



So this is the crook that Kleisthenes was telling us about? You: why are you lurking there? Take him in and lash him, archer, to the pillory, and then set him up here watch him and allow no-one to approach him, but use the whip and, if anyone does approach, strike him.

The pornography of humiliation is nowhere else so blatant in Old Comedy. The violence is male (Scythian) on male, but much force (and pleasure) for the audience derives from (fictional) women watching an exposed and constrained man. It also derives from Mnesilochus's embarrassment at public exposure: nudity, he says, would be better than being this source of mockery--an old man in a (by now thoroughly disheveled) frock and headband (939-42). Imprisonment cues escape routines via the Andromeda and Palamedes, but the incongruous exposure and imprisonment and consequently visual humor continues for almost three hundred lines.

Mnesilochus's escapades thus provide frissons of excitement and pleasure, but pleasure in aggressive male sexuality barely registers beyond the opening scene. The handling of the archer, lured away from Mnesilochus by Euripides (again in drag disguise, 1199-1201) and his dancing girl, Elaphion, exploits both a female object of desire and the ridiculousness of male sexuality. That the Scythian stupidly 'fucks away' his prisoner (by fucking the slave girl Elaphion) is consistent with the treatment of male sexuality in the play. The phallus is central to the humor, but rather than signifying mastery, it signifies lack, weakness, submission, and subordination--in short, ridicule.

In Thesmophoriazusae this presentation of (the limits of) aggressive masculinity is bound up with issues of fictionality, particularly tragedy. In the other extant plays of Aristophanes in which women are center-stage, similar visual pleasures of humiliation are integrated into ideological concerns. In both Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae the men are again targets of the aggressive gaze, not only from the women, but also from male characters and the (largely) male audience. While comic stereotypes of women abound in both plays, (41) men are most consistently the butts of visual, aggressive humor.

In Ecclesiazusae, there is a stark difference between the women's cross-dressing and that of Praxagoras husband Blepyrus. The emphasis of the women's infiltration of the assembly is on passing. Paradoxically, even if they fail, they still pass as men, (42) a joke that hits more at comic politicians, their fictional audience, and thence their actual analogues than at the fictional female activists. Blepyrus's misadventures are of an entirely different order. His entry follows a hasty piece of sartorial improvisation, throwing on his wife's frock and footwear (317-9) to go outside and relieve himself (320-6):

   Where, where on earth can anyone take a crap in private?
   Surely anywhere is fine at night?
   No-one will see me shitting now.
   Oh what an idiot I am, that as an old man I got
   married. How many lashes I deserve.
   She's never gone out to do anything
   healthy. Still, I need to take that dump.

This cross-dressing, like that of Thesmophoriazusae, is a compulsion-narrative. By contrast with the women's, the incompleteness is greater and the threat of exposure and attendant ridicule much stronger, and duly realized. In contrast to Mnesilochus, he does not seek to pass, and his anxieties lead straight to an extremely aggressive scatological routine, where they are fully realized in the eyes of his neighbor and a passerby, Chremes.

This exercise in sustained visual humiliation is not the gratuitous humor that Aristophanes deprecates in Clouds. It is tightly wired into the thematic and argumentative structure of the play. Just as Praxagora is built up through internal explanations and intertextual echoes into a (for the time and the genre) plausible speaker

(Ruffell 2006, 78-82), so too her opposition is here substantially undermined. More significantly, the scene explores visually the question of male competence, a point of attack for Praxagora in her bid for power. Far from revealing its horrors, the sustained humiliation of men by men feeds the comic argument for gynaikokratia.

The same applies to the fate of the young lover, Epigenes, the object of serial sexual assault by three old women as their plans come to fruition. Although the old women are undoubtedly grotesque, they are also the dominant agents: the butt is in large part the young man. The comic grotesque here certainly amplifies standard comic representations of age and gender, but that in itself is far less surprising or radical than the reversal in power relations (1093-101):43


Epigenes: Oh god I've had it; I'm already close to the door dragged along.

Old Woman 3: That's going to be no use for you. I'll be coming with you.

Epigenes: No by the gods; It's better to be afflicted by one than two evils.

Old Woman 3: Yes by Hekate, whether you want it or not.

Epigenes: Oh I'm triply done for, if I have to fuck a sagging old woman all night and all day, and then, when I've got free of her, to do an old toad with a death-jar already at her jaws.

The sexuality of older women is of course one object of humor here (as often), but laughter and the aggressive gaze are aimed equally, if not more so, at Epigenes, as he is dragged off. This scene forms part of a running joke of sexual and scatological humiliation that asserts and enacts female dominance and, conversely, male and therefore civic inadequacy. (44) The hapless Blepyrus presents one (older, more everyday) masculinity, Epigenes one of the haughtier sort ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 632) deprecated in earlier discussion. (45) The net result is a far more ambivalent and less strictly ironic play than is sometimes supposed.

In Lysistrata the achievement of goals is far less rapid than in Ecclesiazusae. The power struggle is mapped out by physical confrontations on stage, where successful aggression is directed exclusively at men by women. It is not that men do not seek to be violent or to initiate violence. Both the male semi-chorus and the proboulos make efforts to penetrate the gates and retake the Acropolis by force. This aggression reflects the male aggression in war, but its failure also echoes the sex strike in progress offstage. (46) The men's assault on the Acropolis and the attempt of the proboulos to control the unruly women meet with actual violence or sexual humiliation in return. This visual assault on male power and authority is as central to the plot as the economic and religious mastery attained in seizing the Acropolis or the sexual mastery that is enacted as the play progresses.

The old men enter with a mixture of song and recitative that not only presents them as implausibly aged Marathonomakhoi (285), that is, at least 100 years old, but extends the joke further by pushing them back to the origins of the democracy and the Spartan occupation of the Acropolis (272-80). (47) Their first encounter with the far more sprightly semi-chorus of women proceeds with the men making a series of threats of violence and the women countering (356-80), all of which leads to the punch-line of the old men finally making a move with their torches and being soaked by the women for their trouble. The decrepitude and physical incapacity of the old men, already pointed up in their entry, is reinforced by suggestions of impotence and incontinence, as they complain to the proboulos (399-402):

   What then if you heard of their outrageous act?
   They've assaulted us in every way and drenched
   us from their water jars, and so we need to
   shake our little cloaks as if we had pissed in them.

The entrance of the proboulos descends from the self-confident beginnings of democracy, a central plank in democratic propaganda, to the most recent constitutional tinkering after the Sicilian catastrophe. The association is made clear in the proboulos's own comments on the iniquities of women (390-2). His recourse to violence--in ordering his slaves to break down the doors with their crowbars (424-9) and, after Lysistrata has emerged to counter him, to attack the women's leader--is again met with a forthright physical response from the reserve of market traders and barmaids (456-62). This brief but effective intervention plays, of course, upon well-established stereotypes, but also emphasizes that Lysistrata's women are united not only internationally but also across age and class divides. (48)

The disempowerment of the proboulos's slave bodyguard (with all its connotations) happens physically; that of the proboulos, verbally and symbolically. The visual dimension punctuates the debate and directs audience response just as it does later in Ecclesiazusae, although in Lysistrata the symbolism is a deliberate intervention rather than a consequence of male incompetence. The proboulos is fitted out (badly), first with the women's dress and equipment (veil and basket, 531-8) and then with funeral attire (602-10). This enacts visually the claims (within the fictional world) of female power and the need for the proboulos first to learn from women's experience and then to withdraw. It marks, too, the full assumption by Lysistrata of public speech and action: the claim that war will be women's business (Lys. 538; cf. 520 and Homer, Il. 6.492) gains a stark plausibility.

Despite the evidence that confronts them, and with ever-increasing implausibility, the old men of the Chorus continue to assert their claims to power through their democratic, anti-tyrannical, anti-Persian, and anti-Spartan credentials. (49) As well as pushing their age back still further, the claims are wildly at odds with the power dynamic enacted visually in the play. In this parabatic/agonistic confrontation with the women's semi-chorus, the sides strip for action, but it becomes clear that the men's symbolic nakedness becomes a marker not of athletic vigor but of naked impotence, as the women will later gently suggest (1018-21):


Old Men: Yes: for I will never stop hating women.

Old Women: Well, take your own time. Anyway, I won't ignore your exposure. See how ridiculous you are. I'm coming over and putting your cloak back on.

The reversal of gendered codes of nakedness (Sommerstein 2009, 239-46), continues as the play reaches its climax in the second half of the play. The men's claims to power echo even more hollowly as the women's sex strike takes effect.

The subsequent distribution of gazes reinforces the power dynamic that has been established. Although Myrrhine and then, particularly, Diallage (Reconciliation) are objects of male desire within the play and the latter the symbol of prospective (re-)union, the major comic focus is on the phallus as the source of vulnerability and weakness, as first Cinesias is teased and frustrated (50) and then the ambassadors are forced into agreeing to a peace treaty (1081-3):

   I see our native sons over here looking
   like wrestlers holding their cloaks
   away from their stomachs;

The erect and uncontrolled phallus is a particular source of visual humor, only this time it is not slaves or non-Greeks who are demonstrating their lack of self-control but Athenian citizens (and citizens of other states, even the Spartans). As the focus for the male gaze and the major source and object of humor in this part of the play, the phallus not only is a marker of reversal but offers a commentary on the masculine exercise of power and thus is symbolically linked to the play's central project. (51) Equally a symbol of sexual and political aggression and domination, it demonstrates by its lack of control the vulnerability, weakness, and need for correction that the women are bringing. Both Myrrhine's toying with Cinesias and Lysistrata's manipulation of the ambassadors show the limits of male power.

Throughout Lysistrata there is a disjunction between claims to (male) power, authority, and legitimacy, through the male semi-chorus as custodians of the past, through the proboulos as an incarnation of contemporary power, and through the ambassadors as the instantiation of foreign policy, and the visual dismantling of such claims through either direct violence or sexual humiliation. Even more than in Ecclesiazusae, the visual dimension serves to support systematically the women's intervention and to diagnose the nature of the masculine power. There is, to be sure, a restoration of marital relations in Lysistrata, just as ultimately the new regime in Ecclesiazusae is for the benefit of men and just as Mnesilochus and Euripides survive in Thesmophoriazusae-, but there is in none of these plays anything like the visual shoring up or reassertion of male sexuality and power as we see in Acharnians.

As a play aimed primarily at an Athenian audience, the specifically Athenian claims are the most targeted. As nowhere else in Aristophanes, Lysistrata explicitly addresses the way that Athenian democracy constructed and memorialized its past to validate its present. The male semi-chorus, in particular, provides a full tour of foundation myths for the Athenian democracy--from the period of the Peisistratids through Marathon and the Persian invasion--myths that were pervasive in visual and verbal accounts of the Athenian democracy. The emptiness of these myths is shown not through the implausible age of these ancient democrats in itself, but through their startling lack of power. Even compared to the treatment of the fanatical Chorus of Wasps, the visual undermining of verbal claims is striking. If ideology is concerned to hide the workings of power, Lysistrata smashes apart verbal claims and material reality, above all visually through the comic gaze.

Clearly, given the political context in 411 BCE, this is not a neutral act, but the implications are not spelt out. With the parallel treatment of the proboulos and the ambassadors, it is difficult to see in this ideological deconstruction any partisan position in relation to the events later that year. Rather, the stage presents a crisis in democracy, whose symptoms include both an increasingly toothless attachment to the past at the expense of the present and a failure of both collective and individual leadership.

In all three plays, the pleasure of the audience is in the watching of citizen male humiliation in violent and/or sexual terms. If the phallus is the distinguishing feature of Old Comedy, it is not, in these plays, in the spirit of aggressive male penetrative sexuality, but as a symbol of the complexities and vulnerabilities of both sexuality and power. In Thesmophoriazusae, the deconstruction of penetrative power is the corollary of the literary and metaliterary games that are pursued there; in Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, not only does the male body (mal)function in such a way as to undermine opponents of the protagonist, but male sexuality as an allegory of male political power is tightly intertwined with the main conceptual and political ideas of the play. The visual dimension provides one of the ways in which the presentation of these ideas through otherwise marginal figures is consolidated. The resulting interplay is a prime engine of humor, incorporating and transcending the simple pleasures of humiliation, domination, and audience superiority.

Masculine and civic power, considered as and through the phallus, seems to show in these plays a particular sense of crisis. Although an anxiety over power is a primary feature of Old Comedy in general, the plays of the later Peloponnesian War and the postwar period, including Frogs, all seem to present this anxiety visually at a much greater level, and that is regardless of the degree to which political troubles are an explicit theme. It is tempting to associate this particular anxiety over masculine power, embodied in the phallus, as a product of the historical trauma of the years after the failure of the Sicilian expedition, with its substantial casualties and the loss of Athenian military power, followed ultimately by the loss of Athenian political and imperial power at the end of the Peloponnesian War. The anxiety that has been evident but covered over and shored up (however inadequately) in the earlier plays of the Peloponnesian War is now given free rein and emerges into a sense of palpable crisis. This was not to last. Only four (or five) years later, Aristophanes' Wealth will proceed to marry an apparently subversive political scheme to a far more conventional and comforting display of masculine power and of the sadistic gaze, as Chremylus or his proxy Carion humiliate or physically maltreat a series of characters, in particular Poverty, the sycophant (929-45), and the old woman (1196-207). The times as well as the genre maybe changing.


The role of aggressive visual humor in Aristophanes is far from straightforward, indeed is far less straightforward than Aristophanes himself would have us believe. While some of the aggressive humor is used to reflect or construct marginal or transgressive groups or individuals (particularly slaves and foreigners), it does so in ways that cannot be explained with reference to simple sociological or behaviorist models or to an abstracted carnivalesque. Rather, there is a constructive use of both violence and its viewers, where the enjoyment of comic domination, overlaid with other forms of humor, serves to enhance or reinforce the conceptual humor of the plays, or even, as in the case of Lysistrata, serve as a central plank in the conceptual scheme. The implication of the phallus with the social and political order means that anxieties, tensions, or crises in the latter are presented manifestly in the former. To gaze at the comic phallus is more often than not to encounter comic inadequacy and a comic lack rather than comic mastery. The comic gaze in Aristophanes certainly has a dimension of a controlling desire, but it is also ambivalent, interrogative, and frequently self-critical, less an expression of sadism than of masochism. Taking comic pleasure in violence and humiliation is less an expression of individual or collective male mastery than the exposing and limiting of excessive or problematic power.

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* Thanks to Douglas Cairns, Anton Powell, Nancy Rabinowitz, Catherine Steel, and the journal's anonymous referee and editor for their comments on drafts of this paper, and to the panel at the Celtic Classics Conference in Cork, 2008, for discussion.

(1.) Obscenity: Henderson 1991a and Robson 2006, 70-94; cf. de Wit-Tak 1968.

(2.) For Aristophanes in the context of Greco-Roman popular comedy, see Murray 1972. He at least sees "in the better comedies" (189) the use of these elements for illustration of themes and vividness.

(3.) Comic heroism: Whitman 1964; see also Henderson 1993 and 1997. Sexuality and power: see esp. Zweig 1992; for aggression and sexual domination in ancient humor, Richlin 1992.

(4.) For remasculinization see the discussions of post-Vietnam films by Jeffords 1989 and of New Korean Cinema by Kim 2004.

(5.) For Aristotle, see esp. Poetics 1449a32-7 (comic characters worse than the norm); cf. Poetics 1448al-18; Plato, Resp. 395E5-396A6, 606C2-5 (behavior not to be imitated). For detailed treatment of laughter in Plato and Aristotle, see Halliwell 2008, 276-302, 307-31; in relation to the visual dimension, Foley 2000, 307-11; for Ps.-Xenophon and social control, Ruffell 2011, 10-1. Eco (1987) sees the comic involving the implicit assumption of norms.

(6.) For a survey see Attardo 1994, For linguistic, semiotic, and script-based theories, see Raskin 1985, the first half of Freud 1991, and the semiotic and narratological formulation of Palmer 1987, which includes analyses of purely visual gags in silent cinema. The productive aspect of jokes can be traced back to Aristotle on witticisms (asteia, including puns: Rhet. 1412a9-b3). For fuller discussion, see Ruffell 2011, 82-3.

(7.) Note, e.g., Pirandello's (1974,186) distinction between the humorous and the comic in terms of whether or not the audience feels empathy for the victim.

(8.) E.g., the different trades at Pax 543-9. On tragedy, see Rabinowitz, this volume. Contrast the anonymity of the modern audience in the darkened cinema and (usually) theater.

(9.) Explored by Slater 1993 and 2002 in relation to Acharnians. In Peace, the expectation is that the comic audience will speculate about the meaning of the (mostly visual) joke that is the dung-beetle (43-8); see also Slater 1999.

(10.) Traditional models of fictionality and dramatic illusion tend towards passive audiences; cf. Ruffell 2008.

(11.) Heraclean gluttony is certainly relevant to the plot but also to broader comic points both in Av. 1579-90 and in Frogs.

(12.) This particular conclusion to the play seems to be one of the clearly identifiable changes to the original version; see Hypothesis VI in the edition of N. G. Wilson 2007.

(13.) This would be all the more so if they really were represented as fighting cocks, but even anthropomorphized logoi are still making a strong visual statement.

(14.) For the fluidity of Tex Avery's oeuvre in relation to violence and its consequences (amongst other characteristics), see Wells 1998,146-7.

(15.) For the traditional formal model, see Pickard-Cambridge 1927 and, more recently, Gelzer 1976 and 1993. For the recasting of this model in Proppian terms, see Sifakis 1992.

(16.) Sycophants: Ach. 818-33, 910-58; Av. 1410-69; Plut. 850-958; Eupolis, Demes, fr. 99.79-120. Oracle-sellers and seers: Pax 1115-21 (Hierocles), Av. 959-91. The repertoire is extended in Birds to a series of political polypragmones, where Pisetaerus hits out at an inspector, a decree-seller and a town-planner (Meton). For the first in the sequence, see Av. 990, with Dunbar 1995 ad loc. The violence against Socrates in Clouds and even the ejection of Poverty in Wealth at the end of the agon, may fall into the same category of displacing rival self-appointed experts. See also the Phrynis and Pyronides vase (Salerno Pc 1812), which suggests violence against a poet in Demes.

(17.) Later in Wasps, Philocleon is violent offstage (1389-91, 1417-8), but the actual display of violence is mutual, between father and son (1386-7, 1442-4), which reflects their lack of mastery. The only agon to end in violence between characters is the unusual instance of Wealth, where an ideological impasse has been reached (see Ruffell 2006, with bibliography).

(18.) So Dicaeopolis as Telephus in Ach. 480-625 and "Mnesilochus" in Thesmophoriazusae (see below). The joke is more at the expense of the viewed character in Birds: first Tereus (92-107) and then Pisetaerus and Euelpides (801-8).

(19.) For threats against slaves, see Dover 1993, 43-4. In fact, the most blatant routine involving violence against a slave, in Peace (255-62), involves not humans but an appropriately violent pair of gods: Polemos (War) and Kudoimos (Mayhem).

(20.) For possible historical reasons, see Dover 1993, 43-50 on Xanthias, esp. in relation to Arginousai. For comic reticences in relation to slaves, see Vidal-Naquet 1986, with some comments in Ruffell 2000, 491-2 and note 86.

(21.) It is difficult to see these early scenes as learning experiences, despite the arguments of, in particular, Lada-Richards 1998, 69-109. Dionysus is not the only god to be treated in such an ambivalent fashion: see esp. Birds, where Heracles (and, in his own way, the Triballian) undermines Poseidon, while Prometheus's mission skulking under an umbrella is a significant visual joke (1493-512).

(22.) For perspectives on women in the audience, see Pickard-Cambridge 1988, 264-5; Henderson 1991a; Goldhill 1994. Henderson is, I think, right to argue that the balance of evidence supports the presence of (some) women in the audience, but its collective identity is overwhelmingly male, as Goldhill emphasizes. See also now Roselli 2011.

(23.) Pax 520; the statue is mocked by Eupolis, Autolykos, fr. 62 and Plato Comicus, Nikai, fr. 86.

(24.) The point of the play on [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is unclear; see Olson 1998 ad loc. The image of the sacrificial victims head being pulled back suggests a number of sexual positions, not least from behind.

(25.) Pisetaeruss threats towards Iris in Birds are followed by him shooing her off with some exclamations that hint at physical encouragement: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], (1258). The latter word is suggestive of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (I strike), but it may only be a further echo of Pisetaeruss sexual threats towards Iris without any physical contact; see Dunbar 1995 ad loc.

(26.) Eupolis, Poleis, frr. 223, 245-7; for discussion, see Rosen 1997 and Storey 2003, 218-20.

(27.) See, e.g., de Lauretis 1984, 58-69 and 2007, 26-30. Mulvey responds to some criticisms of her work in a later essay (1981). Rabinowitz (this volume) discusses the background to Mulvey's work and offers a critique in relation to Greek tragedy.

(28.) For raw material, see Trendall 1967, Webster and Green 1978, L. M. Stone 1984, Pickard-Cambridge 1988.

(29.) Winkler 1990, which is the starting point for the detailed treatment in Foley 2000.

(30.) This position insists on both elements in Bakhtins "grotesque realism." For the Bakhtinian grotesque, see esp. Goldhill 1991, Edwards 1993 and 2002, von Mollendorff 1995, and for carnival Carriere 1979. Pelling (2000, 125-6) suggests that the major difference between carnival and Aristophanic Comedy is that the latter starts from reality; whatever the truth of this in plot terms, it is false in visual terms.

(31.) Most recent scholars have preferred temporary license to the more optimistic formulations of Bakhtin. Foley (2000) emphasizes the obviously costume nature of the comic body as an engine for license; Revermann (2006,145-59) stresses humor and license. Halliwell's (2008,262-3) "institutional shamelessness," in which he emphasizes the phallus, apparently reduces to a form of temporary license.

(32.) Davidson (2001 and 2007) traces Foucaults model of ancient sexuality back to Dover 1978, which was heavily influenced by comedy. Stehle (2002, 377 note 301) suggests comedy operates on a Manichean hierarchy of penetration and, rather like Mulvey, attributes it to privileging heterosexuality.

(33.) Given Silvermans Lacanian underpinnings, this would actually be a triple metaphor: theatrical/fictional phallus for the male penis for the Lacanian phallus as signifier of male power.

(34.) Whatever the reality of Lamachus's politics, his name contributes a useful pun.

(35.) Olson (2002 ad Ach. 591-2) envisages purely anal stimulation, whereas Sommerstein (1980b ad 592) envisages Lamachus masturbating Dicaeopolis while penetrating him. On the verb, see also Henderson 1991b, 110.

(36.) It would be going, perhaps, too far to compare the distinction between repressive (civic) violence and enabling power proposed by H. Arendt 1970, but there are two distinct modes here.

(37.) Intersecting as it does the overlapping but hardly isomorphic or homogeneous discourses of feminism, queer theory, and transgender activism. See, e.g., the differing perspectives in Raymond 1980, Butler 1990, and S. Stone 1992. For treatments of gender in the play, see esp. Zeitlin 1981; Taaffe 1993, 74-102; and Stehle 2002, all with further bibliography.

(38.) He is unnamed, but Mnesilochus has intertextual form as a comic character (Telecleides, fr. 41).

(39.) Parsing effeminacy or cross-dressing as indicative of hypersexuality is common enough (cf. Garber 1993, 301-3, 309-11); what is striking is Mnesilochus's own physical response.

(40.) In the discussion at Cork, the possibility of actual penetration or revelation of an actual orifice was raised. Both are unlikely. The actors actual (as opposed to fictional) body is not explicitly indicated anywhere else in Greek comedy, while discomfiting an actor does nothing for comic timing or performance quality. As Louise Welsh (2002, 152) puts it, "Other possible side effects include ... piles, and a punch in the face for inflicting too much pain." In other dramatic traditions, graphic physical violence up to and including apparent anal penetration can be represented without literally breaching the fictional or indeed actual body. Marlowe's Edward II often features enthusiastic renderings of death-by-poker, most famously in the 1990 Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Swan in Stratford, with Simon Russell Beale as Edward II; see Forker 1994, 113-4 and, in relation to queer politics, Potter 2004, 273-5, with further bibliography.

(41.) In particular, the sex and drink jokes of Lysistrata, esp. in the prologue and attempted escape from the Acropolis, and the women's attempts at public speaking in Ecclesiazusae.

(42.) The comments on Praxagora's appearance at 418-9 only serve to make her a more plausible politician, given the setup at 110-4.

(43.) Similar language is deployed of the old women as of old men like Philocleon (esp. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Vesp. 1343, 1380 and Eccl. 884, 926, 1098), although that is not always reflected in critical vocabulary.

(44.) For older women in Old Comedy, see Henderson 1987; also Henderson 1991b, 99-104.

(45.) There are signs that he is also the sort to have signet rings ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 632). The old woman's criticism of him for not being democratic (941-5) may simply be tactical, but may also point to social status. Epigenes' suggestion that he will have to pretend to be a merchant ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1027; that is, a metic) suggests that he is a citizen of wealthy background.

(46.) For the sexual symbolism see Revermann 2006, 250-4. The reciprocal analogy is one of the ways in which the play's two plot strands (Vaio 1973) are intimately related. What is not represented analogically onstage is the possibility of marital rape, which is addressed frankly, if rather breezily, in Lys. 162-3.

(47.) So they are at least 120; later they become still older (616-35, 664-70).

(48.) Cf. the more explicitly sympathetic focalization through a market trader at 559-64.

(49.) Leipsydrion: 664-70; tyranny; 616-9; tyrannicides: 630-5; Sparta: 620,628; Artemisia: 675; Amazons: 678-9. The Stoa Poikile is specifically referenced in 678-9.

(50.) Cinesias's only exercise of power is to encourage (verbally but probably also physically) his baby to cry and so elicit sympathy from Myrrhine (Lys. 878-9).

(51.) It is surprising that Revermann (2006, 251) does not address this at all, but only the potential penetration.
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Title Annotation:III. Performance
Author:Ruffell, Ian
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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