Theatre Review – Aristophanes – Birds
Spoiler alerts – c.5 BC
Greek comedy is a medium I usually find mildly amusing, raunchy and philosophical, but not particularly funny. Even other works by Aristophanes, such as Lysistrata, in which Athenian women go on sexual strike to end a war, is political and clever but not particularly riotous. The play is not as feminist as its premise suggests as much of the action deals with the men showing off their naked charms to make the women pine for what they are missing.
Birds is an exception – a work that is utterly hysterical, while still being an astute look at social absurdity and hypocrisies.
Its heroes, Peisetarius and Euilpides, are sickened by Athenian corruption and decadence. They set off to find a better place to live which becomes a quest for Utopia. When they find Tereus, who was turned into a Hoopoe bird by the gods, the men decide that life with the birds of the sky is what they truly desire.
Peisetarius and Euilpides develop wings and set up their own sky kingdom with the birds – a realm they call Cloudcuckooland (from which the phrase has been handed down).
Various Athenians try to join them, including a poet who has already discovered odes tracing Cloudcuckooland’s centuries old history even though it has only just spring into existence. A tax collector tries to move in too, to hide from the people he angers by over-taxing them.
Peisetarius and Euilpides use the birds as a near infinite army, to crap on their enemies, but they soon face a new crisis. Cloudcuckooland has been built between Earth and the Olympian Heaven. Zeus can’t see Earth and sacrificial offerings from Earth are being intercepted by the birds, so the gods are starving.
After various envoys including Prometheus and a particularly dumb Hercules turn up negotiating for the gods, the Olympians declare Cloudcuckooland the new heavens and move out. Religion itself has literally gone to Cloudcuckooland.
Great fun to think of the actors walking round with deliberately absurd wings and beaks, squawking their lines with great irreverence for everyone and everything. Though the play has a huge cast of 24 characters, it is believed to have been performed by as few as four actors playing out multiple roles.
As well as Cloudcuckooland, which has become a part of our dictionaries, Birds also uses the word ‘Flapdoodle’ for nonsense, which deserves wider usage. Definitely a lot funnier than Sophocles.
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