Pity poor Ariphrades. The ancient Athenian playwright has been dead for more than two millennia, and you’ve probably never heard of him. Google his name, and the first result is a Wikipedia article about a genus of moths. (More on this in a bit.) His notoriety, such as it is, is limited to a rivalry with his much more famous contemporary Aristophanes, who took a particular joy in mocking him. None of Ariphrades’s plays have survived; he didn’t go down in history.
But he did go down. That’s what caught the attention of Mark Haskell Smith. Ariphrades, it seems, was “publicly vilified as a practitioner of cunnilingus,” which made him the target of his fellow Athenians, who were otherwise not known to wax judgmental about sex. In Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey Through Greece, Smith—who is also the author of six novels and two other nonfiction books—uses the playwright’s predilection as a starting point for exploring comedy’s origins, taking many entertaining detours along the way. It’s a resolutely odd book, but also a very funny, frequently brilliant one.
Smith is quick to warn readers that Rude Talk in Athens “is not a book of scholarship. It is more of a ramble through a time and a place than an academic work. It is a speculative biography. Kind of.” That’s as good a description as any; Smith blends history, memoir, and travel writing, bouncing from topic to topic, trying to figure out what makes sex so funny.
Among his chief subjects is Aristophanes’s compulsive need to insult Ariphrades. Aristophanes, Smith writes, was “the master of the sick burn,” and hardly a prude himself; indeed, most ancient Athenians didn’t shy away from the licentious. They were fond of the phallus procession, which Smith describes, vividly, as “a penis parade of drunk men carrying large cocks and shouting obscenities as they cavorted through town like some kind of raucous frat party or a convention of drunk regional marketing managers set loose in Vegas.”
The Athenian obsession with bodily focused humor dates to around the time democracy was established in the city-state. There weren’t many things Athenians considered taboo, but cunnilingus was one of them; men who performed oral sex on women were disparaged as submissive and weak. Ariphrades evidently didn’t keep his practices secret, although neither did he brag about them. “But as far as we know,” Smith writes, “Ariphrades made no claim on cunnilingus; if he did invent it, he put it up on Creative Commons as shareware.”
A rivalry between playwrights isn’t enough to fill up a whole book, so Smith indulges in several peregrinations, which are delightful. In one section, he recounts seeing a Greek production of Aristophanes’s Clouds featuring “a troupe of actors dressed as drag queens, plushies, supermodels, and steampunk hipsters.” This leads him to reminisce about his own, very brief career as an actor, portraying Aegisthus in an experimental production of an Aeschylus play. By his own account, he was a guitarist, typecast for the role, and his experience inspires him to commiserate with Ariphrades. “A creative life,” Smith observes, “is full of risks, mistakes, and brushes with stupidity. Hopefully no one dies and you learn some things about yourself and maybe even have fun while you’re doing it.”
Another chapter finds Smith seeking to discover why Ariphrades shares his name with that genus of moths, which was first recorded in the 1890s. He enlists the help of a Los Angeles entomologist, but the two come up empty. “You know those old entomologists,” the expert conjectures, “were probably just showing off with the Greek names.”
The passage highlights Smith’s sly sense of humor; it’s essentially a shaggy-dog story. But it’s interesting and funny, even if it goes a little far afield.
Or maybe it doesn’t. For Smith, the journey is the destination; while he’s interested in how the ancient Athenians pioneered humor, he’s more interested in what he learns along the way. The book is full of vivid observations. “The ancient comedy writers understood that sex was the window into our souls,” Smith writes at one point. “Sex, and the lengths we go to have it, is what makes us human, and what makes us human is what makes something funny.”
Rude Talk in Athens ends on a note that’s as hopeful as it is sincere. Ariphrades, Smith insists, might not have achieved the immortality of some of his rivals, but his story represents a different kind of legacy. “The world needs people like Ariphrades,” he notes, “people who weren’t afraid to challenge the aristocracy, the ruling class, the status quo; people who have the potential to change the way people live. We need to cultivate enthusiasms like his.” It’s hard to pull off a genuinely touching call to arms centered on oral sex, but Smith manages it perfectly.
Smith is a delightfully funny writer yet also modest and self-deprecating—the smartest guy in the room who waves off compliments about his intelligence. Rude Talk in Athens is fascinating, bizarre, and refreshingly optimistic, a plea for openness and selflessness in a society that has become proud of its own callousness.
Or, as Smith has it, “let’s stop being so cynical and greedy, have a little faith in each other and bring about a more creative world.”•