Sunday, 18 December 2016

'Populism' & Tyranny in Cloudcuckooland

A lecture on Aristophanes’ Birds I gave in October at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens has just gone online on youtube. It is in English and starts at 7.44 minutes in. The lecture preceded both the U.S. election and the latest wave of repressions in Turkey. But Birds is eerily relevant to our times.

The comedy that gave us the idea of Cloudcuckooland is often viewed as a joyous, lyrical utopian fantasy, or a comment on the Athenians’ doomed expedition to Sicily. But in my view it is a bitter satire on faux-'friends of the people’ who use allegedly democratic processes to increase their personal power and fill up their private moneybags.

Thracian in Greek Imagination
The protagonist Peisthetairos, ‘Chum-Persuader’, goes to the Balkans to use Bird-Jingoism to persuade the gullible, under-educated feathered natives of Thrace to ‘elect’ him tyrant. He becomes Master of the Universe. My lecture argues that he is the comic counterpart of the Athenians who made personal fortunes from colonial properties and commercial operations (mines and slave markets) they owned in Thrace, especially those who set themselves up as tyrants of Hellespontine semi-barbarian communities.

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz
Peisthetairos is usually said to be the charming counterpart of Dr Dolittle, talking to the animals. But he is much closer to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, the brutal ivory trader in the Belgian Congo who commands a trading post and persuades the natives he is a demigod. Or to his descendant the AWOL Colonel Kurtz, Despot in Cambodia,  in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

The Real Cloudcuckooland?
Under the Cloudcuckooland regime, rebel birds are secretly arrested, executed, and eaten by their own species. The obedient birds willingly concede all decision-making and executive power to their human exploiter. He uses a pharmaceutical to grow wings, in order to appear to be 'one of them', although really remaining human.


In August I visited Pistiros, an ancient Greek entrepot in Bulgaria with an enormous wall which I think may even have been the original Cloudcuckooland, or at least a place like Cloudcuckooland, where cynical Greeks colonisers and merchants exploited local labour and resources.



I would love to stage a production of the Birds amongst the ruins of Pistiros. The only problem would be deciding the face of which ‘populist’ dictator-manqué currently hogging the international headlines to feature on the 'hero's' mask.

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