Aristophanes and his rivals


ABSTRACT: This paper provides an introduction to the work of Aristophanes’ main rivals, especially Cratinus and Eupolis.
Just as there was a canon of three tragic dramatists, so the ancient world recognised a canon of three dramatists of Athenian Old Comedy: Aristophanes, of course, but also Cratinus and Eupolis.2 This article is chiefly concerned with Cratinus and Eupolis —a frustrating and unsatisfactory subject. Their plays are lost, and we have to rely on meagre fragments, preserved in quotations or on papyrus, and on various kinds of indirect evidence about their work. There is therefore very little that can be said about them, and even less that can be said with confidence. Nevertheless, the attempt to say something is worthwhile, in part because of the light that it may shed on Aristophanes’ surviving works if we can discern something of the context in which he was working, but also because these men were evidently masters of their craft. One word of warning is in order: despite their mastery of the comic craft, uproarious entertainment is not to be expected from a paper on Cratinus and Eupolis; if jokes that have to be explained are notoriously unamusing, what can we expect of jokes that have to be reconstructed conjecturally before they are explained.
I shall begin with a playwright who was not, strictly speaking, a rival of Aristophanes: Crates, whose career is thought to have ended before Aristophanes’ first play was performed in 427. Crates’ output was small—seven or eight plays over a period of perhaps 20 odd years; but three of them took first prize at the Dionysia, so that he was proportionately very successful. If we can believe Aristotle, Crates made a crucial contribution to the development of comic drama; he was the first (or possibly the first Athenian) comic dramatist to compose ‘universal’ plots (Poet.1449b5-9): ‘As for plot-construction, originally it came from Sicily; of those at Athens, Crates was the first to abandon the iambic form and construct universalised stories and plots.’ This is usually taken to mean that he abstained from abusing individuals, an interpretation at first sight recommended by the reference to iambic poetry (i.e., lampoons); so far as we can tell Crates did abstain from abusing individuals. But that cannot be what Aristotle means. ‘Universal’, in the Poetics, is a technical term concerned with plot-structure: a plot is ‘universal’ if the events which constitute it are connected with each other ‘in accordance with necessity or probability’ (1451b8-9, cf. 54a33-6); the opposite is the ‘episodic’ plot in which things happen one after another, but not because of each other (1451b34-5). free ebook