Waspy Juries

Long long ago , once upon a time  …. there was no cable TV. I know , I know , the horror is hard to imagine .  I wish I could tell you that these were the days of lore when dinosaurs and mammoths walked the earth but alas , it was a mere 20 odd years ago . In India , we had the the state run broadcasting corporation called Doordarshan (translated in English, door(far) darshan (viewing) which is incidentally the same as tele {far (Gr)} vision {see(L)} or as the Germans under Hitler ( and till date) call it as Fernseher ) . BTW they did not pick tele(Gr)vision(L); 2 different languages to torture us , tele{far (Gr)}scope {see(Gr)} had already been usurped in the  16th century. So most of us who were not very imaginative had to make do with either books or watch whatever was broadcast . I ended up watching a Hindi movie that showed 12 men locked up in a room , deciding the fate of a young accused . I loved the movie though in those days , it would have been a ‘art’ movie which meant that it did not bear the Bollywood stamp of approval , today we would call it an independent movie . However in those days , the adjective ‘art’ being attached to the movie was more pejorative in sense that it was understood that it would not draw crowds and be a commercial failure, it would be far too realistic for the tastes of the audience that sought an escape from the mundane realities of everyday life.And one might rightfully argue that the vast majority of Bollywood’s output should not be considered art. Regardless of any of this , the movie was wonderful and it kept me riveted when I was a mere stripling of a teenager . It would well over a decade later that I saw 12 Angry men and realized that the original Hindi movie that I had seen was an excellent adaptation for the Indian masses( though India does not have the jury system 🙂 ). I loved 12 Angry men and all the social and psychological drama behind it. Having lived for the last 18 years in the US and seeing several friends getting called to be jurors and seeing most of them dreading the whole exercise , I am not particularly enthusiastic about it but I know it is my civic duty and if called upon , I will do it but I am about as enthusiastic about it as I am  visiting my dentist.

Coming from such a background , I could not relate to the Wasps at all. The story is about a son Bdelycleon (hates Cleon(Gr)) who is trying to prevent his father Philocleon (loves Cleon(Gr)) from being a juror. As usual exaggerations abound with Aristophanes and it shows the son placing the father under house arrest and the father trying to escape from the chimney or chew his way through a net and other ridiculous contraptions which are solely to make us laugh. So why is this dude so crazy about being a juror? In the play you find out that there are perks , the juror wields enormous powers over the accused  including sentencing (they sting like wasps), due process was not followed closely , there were handsome rewards including easy money and young girls so older men were especially susceptible .A learned man informed me further that in the days just after the disastrous Sicilian expedition (more on that when I read Thucydides or Herodotus) they would abandon their lands and their normal duties so they could hang around the courthouse hoping to be called up as a juror . Cleon was an Athenian that supposedly is the man responsible for setting up this system so even the names are parodies . Cleon would also reward these jurors so they could pass judgement his way when needed , so it made for an extremely corrupt system.  Halfway through the play, we have Bdelycleon agreeing to setup a mock trial to convince his father of the foolishness  …

Details of the trial :

The jury – Philocleon

The accused : A dog!!!

The plaintiff : Another dog

The crime : Eaten some fine Sicilian cheese !!!

When Philocleon complains that he has no bar , Bdelycleon runs in and brings a stool and calls it a bar , replaces urns with pots .  The whole exercise again reminded me of a Hindi movie “Shatranj ke Khiladi”(Chess Players) directed by the greatest of India’s directors Satyajit Ray and written by the greatest of the Hindi novelists , Premchand . The main protagonists are two chess players who are obsessed with the game , to the peril of everything else including their marriages and their fiefdoms . At one point, one of the wives hides all the chess pieces and the players after chaffing for a while decide to play the game using vegetables and condiments to the chagrin of the wife .This situation in the Wasps reminded me of that exact scene from the movie , exacerbating the humor of the situation.

The verdict : a resounding guilty after the accused belches and Philocleon smells an odor of cheese but Bdelycleon convinces him otherwise and he ends up acquitting upon which he suffers pangs of regret.

It is a funny play with some brilliant humor and dialogue but seems hopelessly irrelevant and antiquated unlike most of his other plays  but I can see that it gives us a very close look at the judicial system and the political climate in Athens at the time.



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