The crowd at Theatre Intime on the opening night of Clouds was definitely “intime”. The number of people on stage was roughly mirrored by the number of people in the audience, which incidentally consisted of close friends (read: relatives) of the cast. However, this is only a reflection of the fact that the publicity machine at Princeton had not yet whirred into gear to give the play the promo it deserves.
Admittedly, the expectations on my end were not high before the performance. College students handling an ancient Greek play yields a weighty potential for dryness. But I forgot that “Clouds” is a comedy of coarse humor and caricatures; in other words, it’s a play ripe for deft handling by college students who are not strangers to this kind of material. The play is a satire of fifth century Athenian society by a playwright with few inhibitions, Aristophanes. The script was recently revamped by a Princeton professor to accentuate the funny parts, i.e., the rude parts. So rude, in fact, that it inspired two elderly gentlemen in suits to discuss farting in drama through the ages in the Intime lobby. But before you assume that “Clouds” is just a play with Dumb and Dumber characters seeking to offend, be assured that that a significant part of the play’s humor rests on clever parody of the academic intelligentsia.
The play is called “Clouds” because Aristophanes plays on the idea that intellectuals, in this case the Sophists, walk around with their heads in the clouds, believing that they are above the uneducated. To illustrate this joke the main philosopher makes his debut from the heights of a step ladder. The cloud joke continues as the Sophist philosophers produce arguments that are fluffily insubstantial, like clouds lacking any grounding in reality.
Arisophanes’ particular grievance with the Sophists, typical of an aristocratic and conservative Athenian, was that they were corrupting Athenian education. The play depicts this bunch as philosophers who are not really philosophers, but instead money grubbing word- smiths. For the right fee they will teach the art of sophistical sleight that can guarantee victory in any argument, even if the points raised are weak and defy logic or justice. They prize quantity over quality in their arguments- like water against a dam, it doesn’t matter if the quality of water is as poor as New Jersey’s, because if there is enough of it, it will force a leak.
Although Socrates in real life opposed cash-hungry fibbers like the Sophists, as a prominent intellectual he was a sitting duck for a satire about the intellectual elite. Presiding over the quaintly titled “thinking shop”, the character Socrates is called upon to help an old man, Strepsiades, argue his way out of debt. Plenty of equine jokes later, the audience gets the message that Strepsiades’ profligate son has a fetish for horses and has been overspending at the stables. Amidst the very serious enquiry as to whether a gnat’s buzzing comes from air through its proboscis or its a**, Socrates finds the time to teach Strepsiades how to think. To help him, Socrates enlists the bevy of beautiful “goddesses”, known as the Clouds, who are supposed to be the muses for all human thought. Even their help is insufficient as Strespsiades turns out to have the intellect of Forrest Gump, without the ping-pong skills. After his one brain cell is completely knackered with the exertion of thinking, Strepsiades passes the job over to his son, Phidippides.
Phidippides quite rightly pours scorn on the Sophistic methods at first. Soon afterwards, however, he realizes that such arts of argument give him license to be as immoral as he likes, because with them he can always justify his actions. The rest of the play won’t be spoiled, but its general progression is Chaucerian: like the reeve in “The Reeve’s Tale”, Strepsiades is played at his own dirty game, and made to look foolish for laughs.
What made this play enjoyable was that the audience got to do a lot of laughing at the characters. The actor who played Socrates was terrifically pompous as the font of convoluted verbiage- capturing perfectly the essence of a Princeton student bs-ing in a precept when he/she hasn’t done the reading. The comic genius of Socrates’ speeches is that Socrates talks complete nonsense, but he says it with such conviction and his arguments are often so childishly simple and witty that they are almost convincing:
STREPSIADES: But by the Earth! Is our father, Zeus, the Olympian, not a god?
SOCRATES: Zeus! What Zeus! Are you mad? There is no Zeus.
STREPSIADES: What are you saying now? Who causes the rain to fall? Answer me that!
SOCRATES: Why, these, and I will prove it. Have you ever seen it raining without clouds? Let Zeus then cause rain with a clear sky and without their presence!
STREPSIADES: By Apollo! That is powerfully argued! For my own part, I always thought it was Zeus pissing into a sieve. But tell me, who is it makes the thunder, which I so much dread?
As for Strepsiades, who is simultaneously stupid and assertive, he waddles around the stage with great aplomb, making a complete arse out of himself. He is responsible for many of the crude moments, including some that involve interesting uses of rubber props. As if this wasn’t enough to entice you to go, there is also a very unique innovation in the treatment of the clouds. The director has split the chorus lines between the beguiling beauties, the clouds, and a rock band who sings words of truth. The tunes are all really familiar: music from the White Stripes, Ben Harper, John Mayer, and others, and they lend the performance a lot of energy. So, in between laughing at the jokes, you can jiggle to the good music and feast your eyes on the fit men in the band. “Clouds” is great entertainment, and I anticipate that more than just family members will turn up this weekend- even if this particular promo is unconvincing.