January 24, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein
Top philosopher’s favourite comic dramatist
Famously, in his Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle tried to define the nature and social function of tragic drama and what made a good tragic play. But what we know as the Poetics is actually only the first half of Aristotle’s treatise. The second half dealt with comedy, and a recent book by Walter Watson (The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics, University of Chicago Press, 2012) makes the latest of several attempts to reconstruct it on the basis of remarks on comedy surviving mainly in a tenth-century manuscript amid a miscellany of other material ultimately derived from Aristotle or his commentators. Be that as it may, we can at any rate identify Aristotle’s favourite comic dramatist – or at least the one whose turns of phrase were most likely to stick in his mind and be quoted in the course of discussions of quite different subjects. No, it wasn’t Aristophanes, whom he quotes only once. And it certainly wasn’t Menander, who probably made his debut in 321, a few months after Aristotle’s death. His favourite appears to have been Anaxandrides, whose career lasted from the 370s to the 340s BC – thus covering the whole of the time during which the young Aristotle was a member of Plato’s Academy – and who during that period was probably the top man in his profession, winning ten first prizes at the major Athenian dramatic festivals. Aristotle cites him four or five times (though never in the surviving text of the Poetics). After Plato’s death Aristotle left Athens, returning about 335 to head his own school at the Lyceum; but he never refers, in the Poetics or any other text we possess, to any individual comic dramatist of the 330s or 320s. Even after this, Anaxandrides continued to be highly esteemed. In the late fourth century the practice had become established of staging at the City Dionysia one comedy from an earlier generation, in addition to the regular competitive staging of new plays; and the one specific record we have of such a revival, in this period, is of a play by Anaxandrides, The Treasure (Thesauros), produced in 311 BC. As on many other subjects, Aristotle’s tastes and prejudices in the matter of comedy seem to have been quite close to those of a large proportion of his contemporaries.
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