Rude Talk in Athens—Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey through Greece, By Mark Haskell Smith, 195 pgs.

Sep 16, 2021

In addition to making a case for the Oxford comma, the subtitle does a good job of telling you what Rude Talk in Athens is about (as opposed to the …And Changed the World school of non-fiction subtitles)—the rivals are Ancient Greek playwrights, whose comedies, Smith writes, “contained elements of what we call Battle Rap,” i.e., barbs directed at each other.

I’ll start with the highlight: the book makes me, for the first time, eager to see a staging of a play by Aristophanes—whose plays survived, atypically—one that captures his raunchy energy; ideally a modern, demotic translation. Smith has labored to recreate what the experience of seeing a play by Aristophanes or one of his peers was like, including a full-feeling portrait of ancient Athens.

Smith spends more time on the much lesser-known playwright Ariphrades—mainly for Ariphrades being contemporaneously synonymous with cunnilingus—which Smith uses as jumping-off point to explore themes like mores and religion.

I’m review-obligated to tell you that, structurally, the book is pretty ragged, but that’s something we can just go with. If he’s done writing about history for awhile and wants to write about a favorite Athenian neighborhood, or something autobiographical, or about butterflies, he does so. We’re not going to stop reading (though we may occasionally suspect a not-urgent, particularly tangential passage is there to assuage page-count worries).

As it’s a book about comedy, and as Smith makes a lot of jokes, I’m also obligated (despite being a humor snob in recovery) to tell you that enough of the jokes fall under the category of Petty Liberal On Twitter that they start to tax you (or maybe just me—it’s obviously a popular category).

The final chapter, though, features a genuinely funny scene, centered on a famous rock riff that I will never hear again without smiling at the scene’s memory. –Jim Woster (Unnamed Press,

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