Aristophanes' comedy "Birds"Aristophanes' comedy "Birds" (Vth c. B.C.) - prologue and parodos
Festival Project: Directors: Mari Murdvee & Heli Kohv, leading roles: Ergo VĂ€strik, Tarmo Tabas, Heikki-Rein Veromann; music provided by Conrad Steinmann (Switzerland) ja Massimo Cialfi (Italy)
Eleven comedies by Aristophanes have survived from antiquity. Not all of them have as yet been translated into Estonian, and are consequently relatively unknown. The Birds was first performed in Athens during a Dionysia in 414 BC and it is his longest comedy (1765 verses). The text was performed by three actors who played twenty-two parts, and the choir, plus a number of silent actors. The protagonist took only one role, that of Peisthetairos, the rest were taken by the other two actors. The choir was dressed as birds. As at the present festival only a fragment of The Birds is performed, the prologue and parodos (the entrance of the choir), we include here a synopsis of the complete text.
Two Athenians, Euelpides and Peisthetairos, leave the town in search of hoopoe Tereus who had once been human, but according to legend, had been turned into a bird. The men want to ask Tereus whether he could suggest a more comfortable city for them to live in, where there are no taxes or litigation. When they find Tereus, who turns out to be the king of birds, Peisthetairos convinces him that a new city should be established - the polis of birds which should hang in the air between men on earth and the gods on the Olympos. Through such location of the polis the birds would get power over both the humans and the gods, as the sacrificial smoke from the earth would not reach the gods above. Tereus is fascinated by the plan. He summons all birds to ask them for advice. The birds are used to looking upon humans as the bitterest enemies and initially want to tear them to pieces but Tereus's gift of persuasion tames them and they receive the two men (prologue and parodos). Peisthetairos claims that birds had originally been gods but later they had lost their power and instigates them to proclaim war on Zeus (agon). The city is built, walls are raised and the name of the new city would be Cloudcuckooborough. A rumour about the new city has reached humans and observers start to arrive: Poet, Fortuneteller, Surveyor, Seller of Laws, Special Envoy (parabasis). The Messenger from the construction site gives a survey of the work done, another Messenger announces that a messenger from the gods has come by who turns out to be Iris. She is given an ultimatum for Zeus and is banished with shame. A Herald comes from the humans and brings a gold wreath to Peisthetairos in acknowledgement of his wisdom and tells that there is a cult of birds on earth, people give each other birds' names and will arrive soon to demand feathers for themselves. Then come Fatherbeater, Kinesias the Dithryamb-maker and Informer who want to live with the birds but they are likewise sent away. Prometheus brings word that Zeus seeks a reconciliation. Poseidon, Heracles and Triballos the King of Thrace arrive to offer a truce and accept Peisthetairos's conditions who gets Zeus's sceptre and marries the beautiful Basileia (the little parabasis). The choir sings epithalamiums and rejoices that the gods have been defeated (exodus).
To stage The Birds in its entirety would demand a great effort from the translator, director, actors, stage designer, musicians and also from the spectators, because the time distance is too great and an effort has to be made to understand and interpret the play. For these and other reasons Estonians have no tradition of staging Aristophanes, actually no tradition of staging ancient plays at all. In other parts of the world it is quite common, this year The Birds is for instance staged in London. I believe that Estonians would be more interested in Aristophanes if the texts were available in Estonian. So far only full translations of The Knights and The Clouds by Uku Masing have appeared in The Anthology of Greek Literature and an extract of Pluto by Ain Kaalep and Ălo Torpats. Unfortunately these texts are incapable of being staged as they are philological translations which strive to render exact meanings and follow the author's verse patterns which can be adjusted to suit Estonian and can be followed when reading but which are unsuitable for reciting on the stage. Aristophanes wrote his texts for the stage and they were meant to be funny. For the text to work today the translator has to help the spectator as much as possible to catch the meaning, even if it means moving away from the original to an extent which is unacceptable to the true philologist. Some directors cut the text shorter and compensate the loss with pantomime and dance, as did Rachid Tika with Lysistrata. The result was impressive, but mainly as far as movement was concerned, which so successfully conveyed the plot that the surviving text extracts seemed a senseless anachronism. An involuntary parallel comes to mind here with the decline of ancient comedy from massive texts to complete eclipse in the first centuries AD. I still believe that should there be interested directors, philologists and directors might cooperate to produce wonderful adaptations for the stage, even from The Knights and The Clouds which are still stageable even today, 2,400 years later.