first performed in 423 BC at the City Dionysia festival, the chief religious
and civic event of the Athenian calendar. Though he slaved over the composition
and considered it his best work, Aristophanes suffered a humiliating third
place, ousted by two arch-rivals. In Cratinus' lost Bottle, the
alcoholic playwright left his faithful wife Lady Comedy to go on a drunken
spree with Ms. Jugs. The Connus of Ameipsias, about which still
less is known, also pilloried Socrates, dealing with his own musical education
at the hands of the title character.
In retrospect it is likely that Clouds was simply too innovative
for a rowdy festival audience accustomed -to a strict diet of dick and
fart jokes the staple of what is now termed Old Comedy. The primeval
comic genre was a panto-style episodic vaudeville, which originated, according
to Aristotle, with "the leaders of the comic processions"
a fertility rite involving scurrilous invective, obscene songs and 30-foot
todgers. The roots were still evident in Aristophanes' day, when by convention
every comic actor, regardless of his role, sported an oversized phallus.
Aristophanes proudly claimed that this comedy was "chaste and pure
... the first to come on stage without stitching on a dangling red-headed
bit of leather". Here the poet protests too much, for the play is
rife with sexual and scatological humour and not a few dick jokes.
Nevertheless, its innovations are still more evident, for Clouds
is the first comedy which has what we might call a plot. It tells of Strepsiades,
a rustic codger driven deeply in debt by his son Pheidippides' mania for
chariot-racing with the lads. The old man has hit upon a way out: he needs
to acquire the Wrong Argument, a spin-doctoring perversion of truth and
justice taught for a price at Socrates' Thinkery. The unshod,
bug-ridden pedants who haunt this institution have cast aside the traditional
Olympian gods, worshipping the Clouds and other meteoric phenomena as
they pursue the latest developments in science, philosophy and rhetoric.
Yet these nebulous deities remain aloof from Socrates and his disciples,
until with growing hostility they exact the vengeance of Zeus upon the
Thinkery for its perversion of the natural order they represent.
Clouds thus ends with a rough justice alien to the festive spirit
of Old Comedy, and this may have contributed to its failure. Indeed, the
tone of the play and of the choral passages in particular
is often closer to tragedy. We know from Euripidean melodrama that the
two genres were beginning to converge at this time as epitomized
by the comic coinage "Euripidaristophanization". Interestingly
enough, Plato's Symposium portrays Socrates and Aristophanes in
drunken debate about whether the same playwright could compose both tragedy
The friendly vignette discourages us from seeing the finale of Clouds
as mere moralizing by the playwright. It is only by comic license that
Socrates is made to stand for the troubling intellectual developments
of the late fifth century: one easily imagines the great philosopher in
the audience, joining in the laughter. To be sure, Socrates was notorious
for his disheveled appearance, absent-mindedness and satyrish sexual appetites.
But generally the Athenians seem to have felt a grudging fondness and
admiration for the eccentric thinker. Despite his pedagogic association
with Alcibiades and other revolutionary figures, his eventual execution
on the charge of corrupting the youth and importing foreign gods was due
as much to his own stubbornness and integrity as lack of concern and offers
of help from his fellow citizens.
Like the best political cartoonists, Aristophanes excelled at presenting
two sides of an issue in counterpoint epitomized in this play by
the debate between the Right and Wrong Arguments to reveal the
valid and ludicrous aspects of both. With its remarkable blend of low
humour and weighty social content, the play remains difficult both to
watch and perform. But the enduring relevance and strangely modern note
of Clouds is more remarkable still. JCF