The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Ben Tanner
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There are plenty of items from the ancient world that I revisit on a relatively frequent basis. Places such as Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, or Sorrento in the Bay of Naples are absolute favourites. Authors like Catullus will similarly always hold a special place in my heart.
Teaching in a school, there are some things that come around annually: for instance, I teach an A Level component on Greek Theatre, and examine it for OCR. Whilst I love Greek Tragedy, and – at a stretch – one could call it reassuring in that natural order is generally restored by the end of the play, it’s hardly what I’d call a “feel good” experience overall: it is designed to put the viewer or reader through the wringer, before they get the reward of catharsis.
On the other hand, Greek Comedy – which to all intents and purposes is Aristophanes – generally does have the feel-good factor, even in the relief that an audience member feels from the author’s polemics in the parabases which generally push a feel-good agenda, even if they highlight that Athens is in a pretty wretched state at times. So, my chosen text is Aristophanes’ Frogs (probably to be found in a very battered and ramshackle Penguin translation), not because it’s necessarily my favourite Aristophanes (I studied Wasps in Greek for A Level, wrote my undergraduate thesis on Masculinity in Lysistrata, and my favourite individual vignette is probably Trygeas riding the Dung Beetle in Peace) but because it’s the old-faithful, to which I keep coming back and which, since its return to the A Level Classical Civilisation syllabus, I’m very much enjoying teaching once more.
When did you first come across this play?
My first experience of Aristophanes, and of Frogs, was when my school and the girls’ school across the road [loud cheer from the Editor, who was there!] put on a performance of Frogs in English when I was 15. I wasn’t in the production; as I was studying GCSE Greek at the time, I was pressganged into performing in the other half of the double bill, Euripides’ Bacchae in the original Greek (and can still remember a few words of my section of the messenger speech), but I watched the rehearsals for Frogs avidly, enjoying my friends’ performances* and marvelling at how risqué it managed to be. Can they really say that? Did Aristophanes really write that?
(*another illustrious Comfort Classicist gave a brilliant cameo as Charon, complete with rubber dinghy!)
Can you tell me a bit about this play and its context?
405BC. Nearing the end of the Peloponnesian War and Athens has had a tumultuous few years, following the rise and fall of the oligarchy, the battle of Arginousae, and the departure of Alcibiades. Dionysus, the same god of ecstasy who is revered and reviled in Bacchae from the same year, is ridiculed in Frogs for his effeminate nature, his cowardice, his laziness, and his half-arsed approach to a quest of his own instigation, viz. a trip to the underworld to rescue and resurrect the recently deceased Euripides in the hope that the late, great tragedian will teach the Athenian hoi polloi an important lesson about respect and tradition. Needless to say, things don’t go entirely to plan.
The play represents a development in Old Comedy, relocating the agon beyond the parabasis, and incorporating a pair of distinct comic tropes, the journey and the contest. It’s also an excellent piece of literary criticism, giving us a unique window onto the Athenians’ view of their favourite playwrights.
What is it about this play that appeals to you most?
I think it’s the number of levels upon which the play can be read. Every time I read the text or watch a performance, I find something new to appreciate. As a 15 year old, it was just splendidly silly, with the groanworthy puns, the physical humour, the Pythonesque surrealism, and – of course – the eponymous chorus of musical frogs; now, I’m trying to teach it as a product of its context and examine Aristophanes’ underlying message, and examine its portrayals of Athenian institutions… but I hope I don’t gloss over the silliness too heavily. In troubling times, it’s good to see a comedian leading the way, through humour and ridicule, offering a solution to the world’s problems; whilst I might not agree with Aristophanes’ politics, necessarily, I love the way in which he articulates himself.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
In the last few months, I have spent as much time as possible with my children outdoors, whether it’s just in my garden or wandering around my village, or getting slightly further afield, deeper into the countryside when lockdown rules have allowed. In more normal times, I quench the thirst for Vitamin D and the need for time and space without my thoughts by standing in a field concentrating on a 5¼oz orb of red leather, twine and cork (I like playing village cricket!). And if I have to be indoors, I’m probably at my happiest when eating a pizza!
After studying Classics at Cambridge, Ben Tanner qualified as a teacher in 2003. He has taught in a range of different schools, fulfilling a range of different roles, ever since (taking time out to complete an MA in Classics at KCL in 2010). He is currently Examinations Officer and a part-time Classics teacher at RGS Worcester; he also leads CPD for other Classics teachers, tweets at @eupraxisedu, and makes silly little Latin & Classics videos in his Shed which end up on YouTube under the guise of “Mr Tanner Teaches…”.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.