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Aristophanes: the Michael Moore of his Day
Published on Wednesday, July 14, 2004 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Aristophanes: the Michael Moore of his Day
by John Louis Anderson

"Fahrenheit 9/11" has sunk in the ratings, all the way to second place, but the gnashing of teeth can still be heard from its political opponents. wants desperately to "Stop Michael Moore from profitting (sic) in his attacks on . ... our military." Apparently that's worse than profiting by overcharging our military, as Halliburton commonly does.

The irony is that the same people who thought "The Passion of the Christ" was suitable for children are now demanding that America avert its eyes in the presence of Moore. These folks need to lighten up and go see some theater.

There they might see Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," an anti-war play from the fifth century B.C. The women of Athens and Sparta decide to withhold sex from their warring husbands until the men made nice with each other. It's something of a concept play: War is bad, hootchie-kootchie is good.

We live in timid theater times, though, and "Lysistrata" -- let alone the more biting plays, plays where Aristophanes names names -- are seldom seen. Consider "The Knights."

"The Knights" was the "Fahrenheit 9/11" of ancient Greece. It's a direct personal attack on Cleon, the head of the Athenian State and chief cheerleader for the Peloponnesian war. Cleon was a useless, two-bit demagogue (The historian Thucydides called him "malignant" and "the most violent of citizens"), but malignant demagogues are often wildly popular.

Even though Aristophanes didn't actually call Cleon by name, everybody knew who he meant. That's why no actor was foolhardy enough to portray Cleon onstage and no mask-maker crazy enough to carve a life-like mask of the Top Gun.

So, like Michael Moore, Aristophanes put himself into the middle of the drama. Instead of wearing a mask, Aristophanes smeared his face with wine-dregs to mimic Cleon's bloated, blotchy face.

Getting personal with Cleon, Aristophanes made it payback time for the countless personal attacks Cleon had made on him at the Public Assembly. Cleon had even filed a nuisance lawsuit against Aristophanes, charging him with having "slandered the city in the presence of foreigners." In the same spirit, now hints darkly at links between Hezbollah and Michael Moore.

In "Fahrenheit 430 B.C.," Aristophanes portrays "The People" as a superstitious, self-indulgent and weak-kneed character who has several servant/managers reporting to him who manage his wealth, his estates and his slaves.

The first manager is "The Tanner," an "unprincipled, lying, cheating, pilfering scoundrel, fawning and obsequious to his master, but insolent towards subordinates."

The two other managers are named Nicias and Demosthenes, which just happened to be the real names of the high admiral and a vice admiral of the Athenian navy, both of whom would rise in power till they could carry off the disastrous Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 B.C.

The final character is the Sausage-Seller, who is pitted against the Tanner in a competition of "impudent flattery, noisy boasting and unscrupulous allurement." After a fierce battle of scurrilous sarcasm and dastardly diatribes, the Sausage-Seller beats the Tanner at his own game of invective and innuendo.

Like "Fahrenheit 9/11," which won top honors at Cannes, "The Knights" won the first prize by public acclamation at Athen's annual theater competition. The public was mad about it, couldn't get enough of it, and everybody talked about nothing else.

But the sad reality was that the public loved both "The Knights" and their mean and nasty leader, Cleon. People cheered for the play, then cheered for Cleon and then went on to some other divertissement or back to the exciting business of piling up more wealth until the next catastrophic war.

Life imitates art, but only art can assure happy endings.

John Louis Anderson, a Minneapolis writer, is author of the book "Ferocious Common Sense."

© 2004 Star Tribune.


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