An extract from my recent book,
The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies
It didn't take long for rehearsals to go wrong. Aristophanes was telling his lead actor, Philippus, that he'd rewritten the opening speech – largely due to Philippus’s inability to deliver the original properly – when his assistant Hermogenes bustled up, looking worried.
‘Aristophanes! There's a problem with our penises!’
‘They're too floppy!’
Aristophanes took a step backwards. So did Philippus.
‘Speak for yourself,’ said Aristophanes.
‘I've never had any problem,’ said Philippus.
‘I mean our onstage phalluses! Look!’
He pointed to the small rehearsal stage, where the chorus was assembling, some already wearing their masks, some still carrying them. Each was wearing a simple rehearsal robe but they all had on the standard comedy phallus, an obligatory accessory for the Athenian comic chorus. Some hung down about twelve inches, others eighteen.
‘The big ones won't erect properly!’
Aristophanes hurried over to the chorus. They already had problems with just about every aspect of the production. The last thing they needed was a phallus malfunction.
‘Let me see.’
The actors in the chorus pulled the internal drawstrings that made their penises go erect. It was a classic move in comedy. All playwrights used it. A good Athenian comedy needed huge penises going up and down at regular intervals.
Aristophanes frowned. The twelve-inch phalluses were standing up fairly well, but the eighteen-inch models were drooping hopelessly. It made for a sorry sight. There were times when a droopy phallus was the right thing for your comedy, but they had to be able to stand up when required. Everyone knew that.
‘What's the matter?’ Aristophanes was irate. ‘Who made these?’
‘Normal prop workshop. But they say they can't get the correct materials. The war …’
Aristophanes clenched his fist. ‘Damn these Spartans. And damn these politicians who won't make peace. Now they're ruining my chorus's phalluses.’
‘Well,’ said Philippus, ‘the smaller ones’re not too bad, they’re standing up all right.’
Aristophanes waved this away. The smaller penis was only twelve inches long.
‘I can't send my chorus out with only twelve inches dangling in front of them. The audience will jeer them off the stage. I'd be ridiculed. Did you see the size of Eupolis's last year? When his chorus turned round they almost decapitated the front row. Look, Hermogenes, these just won't do. Tell Leon in the prop department we need them bigger and better. And harder.’
‘We don't have any money for materials. The props department is already scavenging around for scraps.’
Aristophanes could feel his fists clenching tighter. His production had been starved of money from the outset, thanks to the Dionysian drama committee giving him the producer from Hades.
‘Dammit! A soon as Antimachus was assigned to us, I knew there'd be trouble. He hates me. Eupolis gets Simonides as his producer, and Simonides is rich. My rivals are awash with money and I'm struggling with inferior phalluses!’
By now he was shaking with anger. ‘If I don't win first prize for comedy this year there's going to be trouble. Tell our so-called our prop designer—’
Aristophanes was interrupted by a tug on his tunic. As he turned round his face fell.
‘Luxos? Who let you in here?’
‘Hello, Aristophanes. Would you like to hear my new poem?’
Aristophanes sighed. Luxos was nineteen, the son of an oarsman. He wanted to be a poet. Zeus only knew why.
‘I don't have time right now, Luxos.’
‘But it's my new poem about the Battle of Salamis!’
‘What would you know about Salamis?’
‘My grandfather fought there.’
‘Did you consider following him into the navy?’
Luxos looked a little downcast. He was a pretty young boy, but he wasn't athletic.
‘They said I was too weak to pull an oar. Won't you listen to my poem?’
‘I'm too busy.’
‘But I want to be a lyric poet.’
‘Where's your lyre?’
Luxos looked embarrassed. ‘It's … being repaired.’
Aristophanes glared at Luxos. It wasn't the first time the putative young poet had interrupted his work. Aristophanes would have thrown him out of the theatre if they hadn't both been members of the Pandionis tribe. That did bring certain obligations. You were meant to be civil to fellow members, and help them out if possible. However, while Aristophanes did occasionally farm out some lyric writing to his staff, neither he nor anyone else was ever going to trust Luxos to write poetry for them, with his effeminately long, tousled hair, his obvious poverty, and his lack of training. He was wasting his time.
Luxos sensed his thoughts. ‘No one will give me a chance. Just because I'm the son of an oarsman …’
‘Face it, Luxos, few great Athenian writers have come from families of rowers. You weren't even educated.’
‘I educated myself! How about giving me the poetry spot before your play starts?’
Before the comedies were presented at the festival, it was customary for one of Athens’ great lyric poets to entertain the crowd with a few well-chosen pieces, to get them in the mood. As with everything connected with the festival, it was an honour to be selected.
‘Luxos, before my actors walk onstage, the crowd will be entertained by one of Athens’ great poets. Does that include you?’
‘Only in your own mind.’
‘But I could do it if I got the chance.’
‘Come back in a few years when you've made your reputation and I'll consider it.’
‘It's not fair,’ said Luxos.
‘We've been at war for ten years. Nothing's fair any more.’