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Reviewed by:
  • Tragedy on the Comic Stage by Matthew C. Farmer
  • Melissa Funke
Matthew C. Farmer. Tragedy on the Comic Stage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv + 288 pp. Cloth, $74.

In 408 b.c.e., the actor Hegelochus, performing in Euripides' Orestes, stumbled over accentuation in the line "After the storm, I see a calm sea," replacing "calm" (γαλήν') with "weasel" (γαλῆν) (Or. 279). Three years later, Aristophanes famously lampooned this moment in Frogs (304); the Aristophanic line remains one of the most well-known instances of comic metatheatre while the play itself has become an exemplar of the use of tragedy by a comic poet. Beyond the ephemeral humour of a slip of the tongue, how might such instances shed light on a generic relationship that has been well-documented since antiquity? In Tragedy on the Comic Stage, Matthew Farmer approaches this incident along with an array of others in a holistic fashion, drawing on a rich variety of material and building on a scholarly conversation that began with ancient scholiasts on comic manuscripts (e.g., the notes on Thesm. 1029–41 identifying the lines taken from Euripides' Andromeda). In examining instances of paratragedy (here, any type of engagement with tragedy by comic playwrights), Farmer delineates a complex matrix of paratragic references to plots, scenes, characters, and vocabulary that indicates a broad cultural influence operating on multiple levels simultaneously.

The brief introduction begins with a discussion of the opening scene of Frogs and Dionysus' pothos brought on from his reading of Andromeda. This scene has become a paratragic touchstone for modern scholars and Farmer builds on its parodic references to Euripides' Perithous and Oeneus with a reading that puts Dionysus in the place of a contemporary Athenian audience member. Working from this example of paratragedy, Farmer profitably divides such instances into references to tragic culture (in the "real" Athens) and tragic parody. To Farmer, tragic culture (alternately the "culture of tragedy") includes any instance of comic characters referring to tragedy (its poetry or the circumstances of its performance) or interacting with the tragic poets themselves, while parody is limited to direct imitation (13).

The book is split into two halves, the first dealing with comic fragments of the fifth and fourth century b.c.e. and the second examining paratragedy in four of Aristophanes' plays (Wasps, Women at the Thesmophoria, Wealth, and the fragmentary Gerytades). The first chapter of Part I, on tragic culture in comic fragments, is the highlight of the book and its most significant contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the interactions between tragedy and comedy. Here Farmer uses material including the comic poets' favored motif of the decline of tragedy from an earlier golden age to argue that by the fourth century the tragic canon was largely in place. A rich selection of comic references to tragic performance demonstrates that not only had tragedy become "part of the ordinary fabric of the everyday world" (55), but that fourth-century comic poets were engaged with their tragic contemporaries in addition to the famous poets of the fifth century. In this section, Hegelochus' blunder is revealed to have been fodder for not only Aristophanes but also for Sannyrion and Strattis, with [End Page 347] Euripides' clumsy composition an implied object of their jokes. (Strattis' play, titled Anthroporestes, presumably also took aim at Euripides more directly via parody).

The mentions of Euripides' rumored connection to Socrates are tantalizing (e.g., fragment 42 of Teleclides referring to Euripides as σωκρατογόμφους, "patched-up-by-Socrates"), but they surely merit more than a brief mention, especially given other associations of both men with sophistry in the comic tradition. This may however be a consequence of Farmer's engagement with fragmentary comedy, a corpus that is unwieldy and difficult to work through in a consistent fashion. His engagement with fragments, especially those from the fourth century, is welcome; if Farmer moves somewhat inelegantly between fragments at times (a Gordian knot the author of this review has yet to untangle), his use of them in assembling as comprehensive an image of paratragedy as possible is nevertheless to be commended.

The second chapter on fragmentary material focuses on parody. Beginning with...


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pp. 347-350
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