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This Comedy was acted Ol. 91. 2. Archonte Chabria in Dionysiis τοις κατ' αστυ. It was judged the second best; the Comastæ of Ameipsias being the first.
Euelpides and Pisthetarus, two ancient Athenians, thoroughly weary of the folly, injustice, and litigious temper of their countrymen, determine to leave Attica for good and all; and having heard much of the fame of Epops, king of the birds, who was once a man under the name of Tereus, and had married an Athenian lady, they pack up a few necessary utensils, and set out for the court of that prince under the conduct of a jay and a raven, birds of great distinction in augury, without whose direction the Greeks never undertook any thing of consequence. Their errand is to enquire of the birds, who are the greatest travellers of any nation, where they may meet with a quiet easy settlement, far from all prosecutions, law-suits, and sycophant informers, to pass the remainder of their lives in peace and liberty.
1 Perhaps the reader may be inclined to think with the editor, that the plan, or detailed argument, of the Aves is drawn up with such peculiar vivacity, pointed humour, and originality of manner, as to be a model of its kind.—[MATHIAS.]
Act 1. Sc. 1.
The scene is a wild unfrequented country, which terminates in mountains: there the old men are seen, accompanied by two slaves who carry their little baggage, fatigued and fretting at the carelessness of their guides, who, though they cost them a matter of a groat in the market, are good for nothing but to bite them by the fingers, and lead them out of the way. They travel on however, till they come to the foot of the rocks, which stop up their passage, and put them to their wit's end. Here the raven croaks, and the jay chatters, and looks up into the air, as much as to say, that this is the place: upon which they knock with a stone, and with their heels, (as though it were against a door,) against the side of the mountain.
Act 1. Scene 2.
Trochilus, a bird that waits upon Epops, appears above; he is frighted at the sight of two men, and they are much more so at the length of his beak and the fierceness of his aspect. He takes them for fowlers; and they insist upon it, that they are not men, but birds. In their confusion, their guides, whom they held in a string, escape and fly away. Epops, during this, within is asleep, after having dined upon a dish of beetles and berries: their noise wakens him, and he comes out of the grove.
At the strangeness of his figure they are divided between fear and laughing. They tell him their errand,
and he gives them the choice of several cities fit for their purpose, one particularly on the coast of the Red Sea, all which they refuse for many comical reasons. He tells them the happiness of living among the birds; they are much pleased with the liberty and simplicity of it; and Pisthetærus, a shrewd old fellow, proposes a scheme to improve it, and make them a far more powerful and considerable nation.
Epops is struck with the project, and calls up his consort, the nightingale, to summon all his people together with her voice. They sing a fine ode the birds come flying down, at first one by one, and perch here and there about the scene; and at last the chorus in a whole body, come hopping, and fluttering, and twittering in.
At the sight of the two men, they are in great tumult, and think that their king has betrayed them to the enemy. They determine to tear the two old men to pieces, draw themselves up in battle-array, and are giving the word to fall on. Euelpides and Pisthetærus, in all the terrours of death, after upbraiding each the other for bringing him into such distress, and trying in vain to escape, assume courage from mere despair, seize upon the kitchen-furniture which they had brought with them, and armed with pipkins for helmets, and with spits for lances, they present a resolute front to the enemy's phalanx.
Act 1. Scene 6.
On the point of battle Epops interposes, pleads hard for his two guests, who are, he says, his wife's relations, and people of wonderful abilities, and well-affected to their commonwealth. His eloquence has its effect; the birds grow less violent, they enter into a truce with the old men, and both sides lay down their arms. Pisthetærus, upon the authority of Æsop's fables, proves to them the great antiquity of their nation; that they were born before the creation of the earth, and before the gods, and once reigned over all countries, as he shows from several testimonies and monuments of different nations: that, the cock wears his tiara erect, like the Persian king, and that all mankind start out of their beds at his command; that, when the kite makes his first appearance in the spring, every one prostrate themselves on the ground before it; that, the Egyptians and Phoenicians set about their harvest, as soon as the cuckoo is heard; that, all kings bear an eagle on their sceptre, and many of the gods carry a bird on their head; that, many great men swear by the goose, &c. &c. When he has revived in them the memory of their ancient empire, he laments their present despicable condition, and the affronts put upon them by mankind. They are convinced of what he says, applaud his oration, and desire his advice.
Act 1. Scene 7.
He proposes that they shall unite, and build a city in the mid-air, whereby all commerce will effectually be stopped, between heaven and earth: the gods will no longer be able to visit at ease their Semeles and Alc
manas below, nor feast on the fume of sacrifices daily sent up to them, nor men enjoy the benefit of the seasons, nor the fruits of the earth, without permission from those winged deities of the middle region. He shows how mankind will lose nothing by this change of government; that the birds may be worshipped at a far less expense, nothing more than a few berries or a handful of corn; that they will need no sumptuous temples; that by their great knowledge of futurity they will direct their good votaries in all their expeditions, so as they can never fail of success; that the ravens, famed for the length of their lives, may make a present of a century or two to their worshippers; and besides the birds will ever be within call, when invoked, and not sit pouting in the clouds, and keeping their state so many miles off. The scheme is highly admired, and the two old men are to be made free of the city, and each of them is to be adorned with a pair of wings at the publick charge. Epops invites them to his nestroyal, and entertains them nobly. The nightingale in the mean time joins the chorus without, and the Parabasis begins. They sing their own nobility and ancient grandeur, their prophetick skill, the benefits they do mankind already, and all the good which they design them; they descant upon the power of musick, in which they are such great masters, and intermix many strokes of satire; they shew the advantages of flying, and apply it to several whimsical cases; and they invite all such, as would be free from the heavy tyranny of human laws, to live among them, where it is no sin to beat one's father, or to lie with one's mother, &c. &c.