Aristophanes' The Birds
The producers are delighted to be celebrating the third annual Dionysos Festival at Kirstenbosch Garden. In particular, we are most grateful to our audiences who have demonstrated such a loyalty to the production of plays from the Ancient Greek canon. First it was Euripides' The Bacchae (2002), then came Sophocles' Oedipus The Tyrant (2003), and now this year Aristophanes' enchanting comedy.
As a comic dramatist Aristophanes (c. 457 or 445 to 385 BCE) provided so many firsts. To our knowledge and in terms of what has come down to us, he was the first playwright to use the formal play to ridicule public and political figures, a descendant could be Pieter-Dirk Uys; in his plays we catch many glimpses of the use of pantomime and burlesque techniques (slapstick) so favoured by the traditional British pantomime and the music hall that we know; there is a vein of vulgarity, both sexual and lavatorial, which is used by certain contemporary stand-up comics and by Leon Schuster in his movies; some of the lyrics to the chorus songs, in translation, reflect the rhythms and rhymes of W S Gilbert; the daft whimsy of the physical representation of the birds themselves would be reiterated centuries later by Lewis Carol's creatures in Alice In Wonderland .
And so one could go on finding in Artistopanes' plays many comic techniques that would be borrowed, used and built-upon by generations of entertainers. He is truly the father of Western theatrical comedy.
The Birds , written and performed around 414 BCE, is not Aristophanes' most overtly political play. Rather it has to do with mankind's never ending search for utopia. For a place of peace and endless joy (`Don't worry, be happy'), especially culinary and sexual satisfactions, far away from the litigious, grasping crowd.
Two Athenians, Peisetaerus and Euelpides leave their city to seek out the Birds. It is their ambition to live amongst the Birds as one of their fellow Athenians, Tereus, has managed to do. Tereus has been transformed into a Hoopoe. The Birds are suspicious. Human beings are the enemies of birds They trap them, they eat them. It takes all Peisetaerus' rhetorical skills (no doubt honed fighting legal battles in the courts of Athens or arguing politics in the Athenian `parliament') to persuade the Birds that he and Euelpides should be taken in.
Peisetaerus triumphs, and together with his fellow traveller, Euelpides, and the Birds they creates their utopia, Cloudcuckooland . Fending off intrusions from human scumbags wanting to get in on their act and from a motley collection of Olympian gods who object to having been deposed by the Birds, our heroes see all the threats to their utopia off the premises. They all live happily ever after
or do they? In the end Peisetaerus is married to a daughter of Zeus, the Olympian Princess, who is described as being a formidable Olympian organizer, kind of boss of everything political, an Olympian female party leader with Zeus as Chairperson. Is this another first for Aristophanes? A subtle hint of feminism at the end of the play? Given his capacity for invention and ridicule, it would not be impossible to find him challenging the strict, paternalistic society that was ancient Athens.
A reminder: in the days of ancient Greece plays were performed at Festivals and they were always played in competition, with the judges awarding prizes to the playwrights and to the actors. Aristophanes demonstrates his anxiety about this matter in the action of The Birds .
The text we are using is essentially the translation of Gilbert Murray with the naughty bits brought back in. As nothing was sacred to Aristophanes, we trust his shade will forgive us if some of our interpolations don't treat his text with absolute reverence.
As we learn in the The Birds , the bringing of `owls' to ancient Athens is like bringing coals to Newcastle. But we believe that bringing the wise old owls of Ancient Greek drama to Cape Town is by no means a purposeless activity.
Chorus Leader, an Owl
Trochilos, a Slavebird and Cuckoo
Tereus, the Hoopoe
Ryan Di Domenico
Gobbler, a Turkey
Meton - a surveyor, Father-Beater, Commisar, Lawyer, Iris, Prometheus, Poseidon, Heracles, Triballian and Olympian Princess played by the company.
The action of the play takes place high up in the mountains amongst the tallest trees, in the clouds and in the sky
There is no interval.
Events Manager for Kirstenbosch
Production Manager for Roy Sargeant Productions
Masks made by
Rochelle de Villiers
Front of House
Music recorded by
The Producers wish to thank the Alexander S Onassis Foundation for their sponsorship. They also wish to thank the Greek Government and the Consulate of Greece, Cape Town, and the Consul, Mr Christodoulos Magaritis.
Kirstenbosch wishes to thank Artscape who, by collaborating on The Birds, fulfils its mandate of `theatre for the people, theatre to the people'.
Our thanks to Professor Richard Whitaker of the University of Cape Town.