The script of Aristophanes’ Wealth transmitted in manscripts from antiquity was first produced at an Athenian festival of Dionysus in 388 BCE and is the last of his plays to have survived. Its plot is simple enough. As in several other Aristophanic comedies, an Athenian citizen (here Chremylos) has decided to solve a problem afflicting his city (in this case, dire poverty). On seeking advice from Apollo at the Delphic oracle, he was instructed to invite the first man he encountered to return home with him. That person turns out to be the god Wealth, who is, paradoxically, blind and a beggar himself. After a long argument with the goddess Poverty, Chremylus, along with his resourceful slave Cario, takes Wealth to the Athenian sanctuary of Asclepius to be cured. Wealth then joins the household permanently, and the blessings that money can confer become abundant. Chremylus and Cario between them deal with a series of visitors, most of whom are suffering from the economic transformation of society, including the god Hermes. In an extraordinary reversal of status, he agrees to become a slave in Chremylus’ household under the direction of Cario.
These days, the opportunity to see this play in performance is rare. To have an innovative theatre company like Thiasos stage it, using the stylised conventions of Karaghiozi—a type of Greek and Turkish shadow puppet theatre—is precious indeed. To be true to the effect of Old Comedy, arresting music, movement, gesture, dance and colourful spectacle need to fuse to form a total experience, but an intellectually cogent one. Thiasos’ past performances have shown that it is in this type of illuminating, multi-sensory synthesis and experimental, intercultural approach to theatre that they excel.
But the current neglect of Wealth both in the academy and in the stage repertoire has not this always been the case. In the Byzantine era, Wealth was the best known ancient comedy, preserved in 148 manuscripts (more even than Clouds).It continued to be the most popular in the Renaissance, when readers and spectators enjoyed the absence of political vituperation and sexual obscenity (relative to other Aristophanic plays), and identified with the personifications and the moral content of the dialogue between Wealth and Poverty. It was placed first in the earliest printed edition of the complete Aristophanes, published in 1498. It was among the first works from Greek antiquity to be translated into Latin. It was the first Greek play to be performed in England (in Cambridge in 1536), and the first comedy adapted into English, as the Ploutophthalmia Ploutogamia by Thomas Randolph (1651). It was also the first Aristophanic comedy translated into French and Spanish. It remained an important text on Victorian school curricula, Charles Gerard writing in the preface to his verse translation (1847), that ‘The Plutus is, perhaps, next to the Clouds, the best of Aristophanes’ productions.’ After replacing the god of wealth with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, an Indian poet in collaboration with a Scottish imperial administrator even translated it into Gujarati in 1849. Yet, in the 20th century, Wealth fell from grace, while the movement for women’s suffrage put Lysistrata and Assemblywomen at the centre of the cultural radar.
Although one Irish version of 1659 implicitly protested against British treatment of the poor of Ireland, and Henry Fielding translated Wealth to protest against the censorship of the stage, it has usually been regarded as morally conservative, discouraging the poor to get above their station and eschew hard work, for example in Francis Wrangham’s anti-revolutionary Reform: A Farce, Modernised from Aristophanes (1792). But contemporary scholars have reached no agreement on the comedy’s fundamental ‘meaning’. Some say that it is an optimistic affirmation of democratic principles and the importance of sharing wealth across society. Others have seen it, on the other hand, as deeply pessimistic, showing that universal prosperity must always remain a ludicrous fantasy, and that hard work and indigence are inescapable except in the fictional world of the theatre.
Although the play’s theme of escape from poverty is timeless, the Athenians were enduring greater economic hardship than at any time within living memory, except during the catastrophic months immediately following their defeat by the Spartan alliance which ended the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. In 388, they had not yet recovered from the burning of their arable fields, vineyards and olive groves during the conflict, let alone the loss of revenues from their former colonies. Many farmers had been defeated by debt and evicted. The poorer Athenians’ financial distress is also reflected in legal speeches of the time, in Plato’s experimental thinking about a communistic utopia in his Republic (an idea which had also informed Aristophanes’ second-last comedy, Assemblywomen, in 392 BCE), and Xenophon’s economic treatise Ways and Means. But Wealth is actually far from pessimistic: it is a riotous celebration of the medium of comic theatre itself. The Athenians knew they were lucky that their theatre, the symbol of their democratic culture, had survived the 404 disaster.
In 405, when Frogs was first performed, the Athenians were facing the worst crisis in the history of their democracy—the battle to prevent the extinction of Athens and its egalitarian constitution altogether. And, by 405, their theatrical performances had become the very symbol of Athenian collective identity and of what made Athens so remarkable in comparison with all the other city-states in Greece. Although plays were occasionally performed in other major cities, Athens remained the the undisputed epicentre of international theatre culture. In Sparta, however, which was poised to obliterate Athens and her distinctive way of life and leisure, there was no significant worship of Dionysus at all. No wonder in Frogs Dionysus led a campaign to save Athens by revivifying a great dramatist who can, as Dionysus himself says near the end of Frogs, ensure that ‘the city is saved to perform its choruses’.
When Cario leads the chorus in its hysterically funny sung-and-danced impersonation of the Cyclops’ sheep, who then morph into Circe’s pigs, the audience must have felt unbelievably relieved that their choruses had indeed been saved on the restoration of the democracy. It is actually in this sense that Wealth is ‘political’. It is one of Aristophanes’ funniest plays, the humour mostly beeing created, directed, and sustained by his brilliantly knowing and cynical slave, Cario. Its sheer hilarity, enjoyed in the theatre of Dionysus, the very symbol of Athenian democratic culture, must have felt like a joyous, insouciant, even defiant collective gesture in the face of Athens’ vastly diminished status in the ancient Greek world.