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A recent article on `The Number of Speaking Actors in Old Comedy' by D. M. MacDowell has argued that to perform the plays of Aristophanes required the use of four, but never five, speaking actors.(1) Systematically argued, MacDowell presents a cogent case against Henderson (xli-xliv), who has suggested that at times five actors were permitted. MacDowell also presents some very sensible observations on the nature of any prescription which might limit the number of actors. The final paragraphs, however, express considerable discomfort at the earliest work in the extant corpus: `Akharnians, however, remains problematic, since it has two scenes which may be thought to require five actors' (MacDowell, 335). A tentative solution is offered by MacDowell, which is that `these scenes were actually performed without a fifth actor, by making very quick changes in the scene with Amphitheos and the Envoy, and by using dolls for the Megarian's Daughters' (MacDowell, 335). Unspeaking performers for the Megarian's Daughters are more likely than dolls, since they must follow orders for movement (Akh. 732, 740-5). Apart from this, I have no doubt that this is indeed how Akharnians was performed, and an examination of the specific comic techniques employed by Aristophanes in the two problematic scenes in Akharnians demonstrates not only the comic desirability of their use, but their applicability to other plays by Aristophanes.
In addition to the three speaking characters who are on stage at Akharnians 824-8 (Dikaiopolis, the Sycophant, and the Megarian), there are the Megarian's two Daughters who have said [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Akh 735) and [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Akh. 780, 800, 801, 802, and ). Their words, then, are limited to onomatopoeic squeals and a repeated infinitive, which itself provides the expected answer to a question by repeating one of the two alternatives presented. Neither a high degree of elocution from the performers nor a great amount of focused attention from the audience is required for the necessary information here to be conveyed. In fact, if the lines were spoken by either the Sycophant or the Megarian, both of whom are on stage, the audience would probably assume that the words had come from the Daughters, which is to say the characters dressed as piglets, and about whom porcine puns were being made. The performers playing the Daughters do not need to utter a sound to be thought of as speaking characters, if we allow for the possibility (as MacDowell does) that their voices were being `dubbed' by other characters on stage. The scene then requires only three speaking actors to perform, and whether the Daughters were played by juveniles or dummies, the figures did not actually speak, and therefore would not be reckoned among the speaking actors of the play, about whom limitations may have been imposed by the state for the purposes of levelling the playing field in competition.(2)
This assumes that a form of `ventriloquism', where one performer could provide the voice for an otherwise silent performer to create the illusion of another speaking actor, was an accepted technique on the fifth-century stage. An instance of ventriloquism is generally accepted at Lysistrate 879, when Kinesias' baby cries [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Henderson, 177; MacDowell, 328). Ventriloquism is also suggested for Euripidean tragedy (earlier than Aristophanes), with Alkestis' Child at Alkestis 393-415 (sung by the actor playing Alkestis), and the supplementary chorus of boys in Suppliant Women (sung by the Chorus).(3) In both of these examples, sung lyric passages must be understood to be coming from the mask of a character other than the one actually producing the sound. With masks, ventriloquism is easily effected: the person producing the sound does not move, and the supposed source of the voice appropriately mimes accompaniment. An audience is willing to transfer the voice to the moving character, as it is for modern ventriloquists, who additionally must prevent their lips from moving while their voice is thrown. This of course is a subtlety not required on the ancient stage. Elsewhere, Aristophanes helpfully demonstrates that an audience is willing to accept different vocal registers being produced from the same mask. In Thesmophoriazousai 101-29, Agathon sings a lyric passage taking alternately the parts of a Priestess and the Chorus.(4)
Aristophanic ventriloquism requires no unparalleled experience for the audience, but does allow an opportunity for comic surprise, for in this instance the audience may not be fully aware that the …