Book Report: Two Classical Comedies edited by Peter D. Arnott (1958)

I bought this book for a quarter at some long ago yard sale, so I beat the price of the Amazon resellers and I didn’t have to pay for shipping. Neener neener neener.

The book includes two classical comedies: The Birds by Aristophanes and The Brothers Menaechmus by Plautus. The first playwright was Greek and the second Roman; the book was designed to give the layman, or perhaps the student, an introduction to the comedies of both civilizations.

The Birds, oddly enough, does not appear to have been the source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same title–or any other Alfred Hitchcock piece for that matter. Two Athenians lead the birds as they assert their authority over gods and men. They speak highly, in verse, and I don’t appreciate much of the esoterica, even with footnotes. As the older play, oddly enough, it would work more as a modernist play; the characters wear masks, and the action is more absurd. If I didn’t know an ancient Greek had written it, I would have guessed it was written by a French academic or someone who came through an English program today.

The Brothers Menaechmus deals with the mistaken identity that ensues when a long lost twin brother appears and inadvertently intercedes in a squabble between his brother, the brother’s wife, the brother’s mistress, and a parasite who lives off of the brother’s largesse. The structure more clearly represents the Shakespearean and later comedies of relationships and errors, where the action is more realistic and less stylized. Ergo, I could relate to it much better and enjoyed it more. Also, it’s not the source material for The Brothers Karamazov and it’s 970+ pages shorter–and that comparison alone makes any book better.

Still, although I was educating myself in the classics but not in the classical languages, I read uncredited translations, so my experience is filtered through the translator’s interpretation and vocabulary, but the 1958 copyright date might indicate that the translation preceded the abominable trend of using too much contemporary idiom, which might make a translated work more accessible to the decade’s hepcats, but really makes the book useless as a long term backlister–or cheap pickup at a garage sale.