Letter from Thessaloniki

As the heat on Iraq is turned up by President George W. Bush, it so happened that I had a most remarkable chat with a playwright who has been portrayed as the spokesman par excellence of the peace party: Aristophanes. As a matter of fact, the most definite political topic that engaged the greatest comic writer of his day is the life-and-death struggle between the Athenian and Spartan leagues during the Peloponnesian War. That war bears some resemblance to today’s struggle between that lying scoundrel in Iraq, who is hiding weapons, and the United States, with its 280 million people and most powerful military forces on Earth. Aristophanes, with four of his plays containing passionate and eloquent pleas for peace, exposes the whole panorama of ancient Greek society (and some of our modern social order as well), well larded with the poet’s inexhaustible humor. In his works, the whole machinery of government, of administration, even of the merry war between the sexes is caricatured. Now for our conversation: ME: I’m thrilled that your war satires are still going strong after – what is it now? – 25 centuries? ARISTOPHANES: 2,578 years, actually. That is since my earliest work «The Acharnians» (425 BC) where the main character, called Dicaeopolis (which means «just city»), criticizes the Athenians for rejecting the proposals for peace with Sparta, and… ME: Could you identify Dicaeopolis with any of the present leaders of France, Germany and Belgium – not to mention Greece? ARIST.: The analogy is faulty. Dicaeopolis is just a simple Athenian farmer who acts only out of self-interest and who cunningly manages to have a feast amid the poverty. If you want to see him as the statesmen you just mentioned, it’s OK with me. But don’t quote me on that. ME: Aren’t you unjust? After all, as a politician, one is supposed to represent not just abstract principles but interests. National interests. Doesn’t everyone, then as now, do just that? ARIST.: They sure do. Although America had not been discovered in my time, I am well read as to what happened after my death. So, wasn’t it US President Coolidge who said that «What is good for General Motors is good for America?» And right he was, mind you! ME: I am sorry to correct you, sir. That line was by Charles Wilson, President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense. What Coolidge said in the 1920s was: «The chief business of the American people is business.» ARIST. (slightly annoyed): Whatever. I may have mixed them up. I am greatly impressed, you know, by that typical American proclivity for giving directions. Stage directions. By the way, how is Broadway doing those days? ME: It is dancing again, sir. Back to your plays though. Take «Peace.» Do you think it would have a similar effect today? ARIST.: Alas, I am mourner of a vanished world of literary sophistication. The situation has changed so immensely. First, those ancient cosmic vulgarities that were once so powerfully shocking for my contemporaries no longer have the same impact. In present-day Greek society, where every second word is «wa…er» – not to mention Anglo-Saxon four-letter words – most of my jokes seem merely offensive. They’ve lost, oh woe is me, all their punch. ME: I asked you about «Peace,» which is a big subject nowadays, you know. ARIST.: Oh, about that comedy. Sure. Well, personally I used to prefer «Lysistrata,» yet «Peace» is cool too. It reminds me so much of your current foreign minister, Giorgos the son of… ME.: Papandreou? ARIST.: Yes, him exactly, with that author-brother of his. A colleague. He too, just as Trygaeus in «Peace,» flies up to heaven and discusses war and peace with Hermes, that is the world of dignitaries. He tends also to chess-move his way through situations. The only difference is that Trygaeus used a dung beetle as a flying-machine while your «Giorgakis,» as I believe you call him, uses a private Lear jet, and is followed by a press team. ME.: If I comprehend you rightly, sir, there is some solution after all, as in this play of yours. ARIST.: You must be surely kidding! If you haven’t read «Peace» as you should have done, at least read this! He handed to me the memoirs of some ancient commanding general of the US Marine Corps, named General Smedley Butler, who must have served during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. ME (insulted and confused): But excellency, I have read «Peace»… ARIST. (sneeringly): Oh yeah? And what about that final part where I pointed out how much ambitious military officers and weapons merchants profit from wars, and how they are interested in prolonging them at all costs? Do you remember my verses where I describe what kind of blessings peace brings to the people? Do you recall that I made the chorus sing: «You can leave your darts behind you: yea, for sword and spear shall cease. All things all around are teeming with the mellow gifts of Peace.» (With a mischievous smile) Do you forget how I put out of business the crest-maker, the breastplate-seller, the trumpeter, the helmet-seller and spear-burnisher? Do you? Would it pass censorship? ME: There is no censorship now. Yet, let’s take your «Lysistrata,» which has been in constant production for 25 centuries, and is one of the world’s oldest surviving comedies. There, don’t the women end the war by getting the men to stop fighting and to think about more important – you know what – things? How do you account for its appeal? ARIST.: Oh, hush! Don’t mention that name after «Lysistrata» was made into an opera (insipid lyrics by Christos Lambrakis, boring music by Mikis Theodorakis). I know that she will never be an interesting musical comedy, but that doesn’t matter; the saga of its success is lurid… ME (diplomatically changing the subject): So much for comedy, Mr Aristophanes. What do you think of our gathering storm? How is the war going to end? ARIST.: Study history, I say. Read about the Peloponnesian War. While Sparta finally won the war technically, there was anarchy and terrorism after that in all Greek states. States did not have much of anything left, until your Philip II of Macedonia – I believe you are from those parts, aren’t you? – came south and conquered the whole area in 359 BC. Days later, I remembered the book Aristophanes had handed me. In his memoir, the commanding general of the US Marine corps, General Smedley Butler, wrote: «I spend most of my time being a high-class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914… made Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.» And he concludes: «The best Al Capone had was three districts. I operated on three continents.» I was reminded of recent remarks by former generals like Norman Schwarzkopf, Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark all expressing concern about the rush to war. Then as now, Aristophanes had outfoxed us all.