THE PLOUTOS OF ARISTOPHANES, KARAGHIOZI AND GREEKNESS.
Why use parody and laughter to portray the grimness of poverty, to show a political system in crisis and a society falling apart? Why the puppet-style of acting? why modern Greek folk costumes and music? why the painted faces?
The play we are performing whose Greek title Ploutos means ‘Wealth’, in both modern and ancient Greek, might equally have been entitled ‘Poverty’, as the plot revolves around a long time familiar dilemma between being either poor and honest or rich and dishonest, as also around the various conundrums arising out of the impossibilities of being both rich and honest.
The story kicks off as Chremylos, a farmer, accompanied by his slave Carion, is following a foul smelling blind old man. Chremylos had just consulted Apollo’s oracle at Delphi about his only son’s upbringing: should he teach him to be honest and poor, or dishonest and prosperous? The oracle had mystifyingly replied that he should follow the first man he encountered and take him to his house. After much bullying and questioning, it turns out that the blind old man is the god Ploutos (Wealth) whom Zeus has struck blind so that he cannot discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving.
(It is not entirely clear in the play whether the distribution of wealth is indiscriminate or wilfully unjust)
Chremylos then has the brainwave of having Ploutos’s sight restored at the shrine of Asclepios, the healer. This occasions a visit from the irate Poverty, who vainly pleads the cause of frugality and hardihood.
Ploutos’ miraculous cure creates a wave of prosperity in which the just are rewarded while sycophants/informers find themselves unemployed, gigolos leave their ugly old mistresses and the god Hermes and priests defect from Zeus’s service to follow the new god. This is shown in a number of short scenes in which each character—a just man, a sycophant, an old woman, a gigolo, Hermes and a priest enter and leave in quick succession. In the end, even Zeus himself (who does not appear in person) follows suit and the play’s finale consists of a procession in which everyone participates with the exception of Poverty and the sycophant.
A TYPICALLY ARISTOPHANIC PLOT
This is a typically Aristophanic plot where a real problem finds its solution in fantasy. Humour bounces off often grim realities involving catastrophes and death or, as in the Ploutos, widespread poverty such as the poverty which followed the long drawn out Peloponnesian war in 431-404 BCE. (See Edith Hall’s ‘Seriously Funny’ on this site)
The comedies of Aristophanes were performed for a democratic community which included all male citizens as part of a religious festival dedicated to Dionysos. The audience had a close connection to these comedies on several counts: first, they were regularly attended by the entire (male) community and so formed a common bond; secondly, unlike tragedy (which was set in the world of heroic myth) they related to the contemporary world and (unlike tragedy) acknowledged and ridiculed prevalent social tensions and divisions prevailing at the time of their performance; thirdly they were cast in a familiar traditional genre known as Old Comedy which licensed laughter arising from slander and mockery of harsh realities. In short, humour was communal and it was in the here and now.
We chose Aristophanes because of his ability to generate penetratingly critical thought through laughter; and we chose the Ploutos because, of all of Aristophanes’ plays, it is the most allegorical—see for example the vivid personifications of Poverty and Wealth. Although the allegory and the humour rest in part on the assumption of a communality absent from a modern audience, we were able to extract a code from the ancient comic genre in general, and from the Ploutos in particular, and to recast the play into another comic genre so as to make it more accessible to our audience.
This other form is the shadow puppet theatre known as Karaghiozi which was inherited from the Turks and which flourished in Greece from around 1890 to the 1950s.
PARALLELS BETWEEN OLD COMEDY AND SHADOW PUPPET THEATRE.
The starting point of our comparison is that Old Comedy is not realistic. The plot is based on fantasy, on distortions of reality and illogicalities. The actors of comedy, (unlike the young men of tragedy), were probably mature men sporting limp phalluses attached to costumes that gave them a bulbous appearance. They also wore masks with coarse features and grotesque laughing expressions; the dances must have been correspondingly distorted/mis-shapen and movement would have been instigated as well as restricted by both mask and costume.
Unlike the lofty epic language of tragedy, comedy’s ‘language’ relates to the body and its basic needs: sex and food. Obscenity figured prominently in Aristophanes’ plays with the exception of the Ploutos where persistent hunger for food replaces raucous sex. ……
to be continued