Men of Constant Comedy: The comic reception of the Odyssey(s) in O Brother, Where Art Thou?


Loes Wolters, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands*

Introduction

Traditionally, humor research in the classics has focused on the Greek and Roman comedies, meant to make the audience laugh out loud. Recently, the comic side of the classics has received more scholarly attention, for example in Mary Beard’s book Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (University of California Press, 2015). However, some genres continue to be overlooked as potentially humorous. The dignified Homeric epic still seems a strange place to look for the comic. Moreover, ‘humor’ and ‘laughter’ are often mistaken for synonyms, making it difficult to find humor in narratives where no-one laughs light-heartedly. [1] In this paper, I argue that the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers (2000) in combination with the extant fragments of the Epic Cycle reveals the comic potential of Odysseus’ apologoi and his so-called Cretan Lies. First, I will discuss the Coen Brothers and the genre of screwball comedy. Next, I will analyze how O Brother, Where Art Thou? engages with the Odyssey in terms of content, form, narrator, and setting, while paying special attention to the phenomenon of capping and the various levels of narrators and narratees. [2] Finally, I will connect the main narratological features of the Epic Cycle to the Odyssey. Interpreting the epic alongside the film and within the larger epic tradition shows that the apologoi and Cretan Lies might not be laughable, but that they are certainly humorous.

The Coen Brothers and screwball comedy

From their debut in 1984, the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have worked independent from the Hollywood mainstream. [3] Their postmodernist oeuvre blurs the boundaries between art and entertainment. Many films playfully nod to earlier films and literature through the use of parody, irony, and so on. In the chapter O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Hayseed Epic, Adams (2015) points out O Brother’s three main antecedents: the Odyssey, Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and the historical period of the American Great Depression of the late ’20–’30. In all cases, the Coen Brothers both respectfully borrow from and spoof their source. [4] This technique of free adaptation has evoked mixed reviews. In his introductory chapter, Adams remarks that some critics accuse the Coen Brothers’ films of lacking depth, stating that they provide mere games of ‘spot the reference’. Contrastingly, others praise their work as ingenious combinations of new material and multiple sources. When following the latter judgement, Monro’s Law comes to mind. [5] This rule in adaptation studies holds that a remake consciously features elements that are underexposed in the original, while simultaneously avoiding clashes in content. The adaptation anchors itself in the larger tradition and complements it, paying a tribute to its predecessors. As will be shown later, O Brother is a perfect example of Monro’s Law in practice.
Before analyzing the film, the most important elements of the screwball comedy have to be addressed. [6] Named after an unpredictable throw in baseball, screwball comedy’s main characteristic is its endless diversity. The genre dates to the Great Depression in the US, offering escapism through parody, irony, and subversive humor. Screwball comedies are fast-paced, episodic, and focus on eccentric people and extraordinary events. The films feature slapstick fights, repartees, and a constant battle of the sexes. In the end, when all classic romcom elements have been parodied, not love but the quick-witted woman conquers all.

Ulysses’ apologoi

As stated earlier, O Brother perfectly illustrates Monro’s Law. For example, the film merges Odysseus’ stay at Aeaea with the Siren episode when Ulysses, Pete and Delmar are seduced by singing washerwomen, who allegedly turn Pete into a “horny-toad”. Additionally, O Brother zooms in on elements that are underexposed in the epic. With a few exceptions (Eurylochus in Odyssey 10.266–269, 431–437, 12.279–293, 339–352; Perimedes in 11.23, 12.195), Odysseus’ crew is a nameless, obedient but foolish collective that is blamed for current misfortune. [7] In the film, the crew is elevated to the level of sub-protagonist. The sheepish Delmar represents the men loyal to Odysseus, whereas Pete frequently critiques Ulysses and questions his leadership like Eurylochus does in the epic. Both men are important sidekicks, and Pete even features in a short parallel storyline. [8]
Monro’s Law does not only include reduction and amplification. In Brill’s Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic (2018), Minchin discusses so-called story-moments and story-details. Story-moments mark important content shared by the original narrative and its adaptation. Story-details are small links between an adaptation and its antecedent. In both cases, the remake actively recalls its source. The character Big Dan Teague is a story-moment. The enormous one-eyed Bible-salesman who is eventually killed by a burning wooden cross clearly refers to the Odyssean Cyclops. However, contrary to the epic, this filmic Polyphemus is more eloquent than Ulysses and beats him up with a wooden club. Other story-moments include Sherriff Cooley and the upcoming flood, representing the divine powers—Hades and Poseidon, respectively—that follow Odysseus everywhere he goes. Cooley travels with a large dog, is described as the devil, and repeatedly appears when Ulysses and his friends are about to die. Consequently, a comparison with Hades, who personifies the countless deaths Odysseus encounters on his travels, is easily made. [9] The flood that threatens to obstruct Ulysses’ homecoming but in the end unexpectedly saves him reminds the audience of the fickle Odyssean Poseidon. Some of the characters’ names in the film are story-details. Ulysses, his wife Penny, and the political leaders Menelaus Pappy O’Daniel and Homer Stokes all refer to their epic namesakes and their functions within the story. [10]
Odysseus and Ulysses both talk about their adventures in lying tales and a song. Because the so-called Cretan Lies in the Odyssey differ from the apologoi, the latter and its filmic counterpart will be discussed first. Odysseus’ apologoi is an extraordinary example of the typical Homeric song: an extensive account of whimsical events in dactylic hexameter, guided by audience participation. [11] In the Odyssey, the Phaeacian royals prompt Odysseus to talk about his sufferings and king Alcinous later requests a specific episode, a catalogue of the heroes Odysseus met in the Underworld. In O Brother, the apologoi is reduced to the country-folksong Man of Constant Sorrow. Despite the difference in length, Ulysses’ second performance of his travel-song during Homer Stokes’ election party (‘Homer’s Hoedown’) covers the same topics as the apologoi. In front of an audience hanging on to his every word, Ulysses sings about his encounters with a Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, and Helios’ cows. In other words: Ulysses has managed to summarize four Odyssean books in a four-minute song.
As apologoi-narrator, Odysseus is a Homeric singer, a travelling professional performer who combines known and new materials, while simultaneously catering to the tastes of his live audience. [12] For the singer to obtain a reward, a successful interaction with his audience is crucial. Odysseus might not be a professional bard, but he is an expert storyteller. His apologoi is a combination of familiar myth and legend and his own adventures, tailored to the wishes of his Phaeacian hosts. Consequently, Odysseus receives the reward he needs to return to Ithaca: many riches and a ride on a magical Phaeacian boat. Similarly, Ulysses is a skilled amateur, showing off his eloquence everywhere he goes. With Man of Constant Sorrow, he links his life’s story to classic country-material. After performing his song at Homer’s Hoedown, he obtains the necessary rewards to win back his wife Penny: absolution of all his crimes and a well-paying government job.
In O Brother, Homer Stokes’ party takes place in a large banquet hall. The guests, all important people in Stokes’ constituency, enjoy an after-dinner show with multiple bands. The singers in the Odyssey—Phemius, Demodocus, and Odysseus himself—also perform during ‘parties’. Homeric feasts are elite gatherings with numerous protocols and ceremonies, including the drinking of wine that anticipates the later symposium. Guests are entertained with music, dance, and, notably in the Odyssey, storytelling. [13] The setting of Homer’s Hoedown, then, aligns neatly with the performance spaces of the Odyssey in general and Odysseus’ apologoi in particular. Odysseus performs during an after-dinner drinking at the Scherian court, in front of all the Phaeacian royals. Apart from the fantastical content, the poetic and musical form, and the type of narrator, this performance context indicates the nature of both Ulysses’ and Odysseus’ apologoi. They are entertainers, telling stories packed with action, drama, and, considering the richly flowing wine, humor.

Ulysses’ Cretan lies

Odysseus’ so-called Cretan Lies (Odyssey 14.192–359, 462–506; 19.165–202, 220–248, 262–307) are different from the apologoi, starting with their form. The Cretan Lies are examples of an aristocratic sympotic game called capping. Speaker and audience participate in this verbal competition and try to find out the other’s intentions through riddles and puns, while simultaneously fulfilling their own objectives and entertaining all parties involved. [14] Again, a successful interaction between the main speaker and his audience is necessary for the former to receive a reward. A disguised Odysseus tests Eumaeus’ reliability and tries to obtain garments with a carefully constructed sob-story. In O Brother, Ulysses tries to convince the blind radio station owner Weezy to pay him “to sing into a can”. He constructs a new identity—John Rivers with The Soggy Bottom Boys from Cottenelia, Mississippi—and tries to find out what songs Weezy wants to hear. Weezy tricks Ulysses by asking if they perform certain songs and then quickly requesting a different genre. O Brother, then, neatly captures the form and content of the capping between Eumaeus and Odysseus. The two narrators, especially Ulysses, evoke the ancient verbal virtuosos. Furthermore, Weezy’s country-side radio station refers to Eumaeus’ remote cottage and the former’s blindness can be interpreted as a reference to the swineherd being metaphorically ‘blind’ to the presence of his master. [15]
Another interpretation of this first performance of Ulysses is informed by cultural appropriation and issues concerning race, which are recurring themes in O Brother. [16] Ulysses, a white man full of misguided pride, pretends to be the humble front man of a ‘negro band’ to diddle Weezy out of a large sum of money. Additionally, the only Afro-American member of the band, Tommy Johnson—a reference to the semi-legendary Robert Johnson—is said to be white. In line with this interpretation, O Brother not only alludes to the Odyssean theme of pretending to be someone else (a beggar, a Cretan nobleman) but also reveals the epic’s tense power dynamics and colonialist aspects. Many scholars have pointed out that Odysseus behaves like an arrogant and destructive colonizer on multiple occasions, notably in the Polyphemus episode. [17] Consequently, Ulysses and Odysseus generate different ‘shades’ of humor, which is characteristic of screwball comedies. On the one hand, O Brother and the Odyssey feature entertaining situations, e.g. the abovementioned capping session. On the other hand, Ulysses’/Odysseus’ entitled pride and (ab)use of other identities for their own profit evoke a sense of subversive or even dark comedy.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus tells his second Cretan Lie to test Penelope’s loyalty. Despite her emotions, Penelope critically analyzes Odysseus’—or rather, Aethon’s—stories and does not speak her true mind. She tests her insolent guest, constantly reminding him of her dominant position. Eventually, Penelope defeats Odysseus at his own game. During their dialogue, husband and wife prove to be proficient capping players in their Ithacan palace hall, a setting that corresponds with the typical aristocratic symposium space. The same dynamics appear in O Brother. Ulysses tries to reclaim his place as paterfamilias, but Penny snappily reminds him that she needs a supportive bona fide husband. The separated couple engage in swiftly moving dialogues, packed with insolent puns and priceless one-liners. In every conversation, Penny clearly has the upper hand. Except for a brief exchange at Homer Stokes’ party, Penny and Ulysses interact in an atypical symposium space. However, by referring to Ulysses as “some no-account drifter” and letting him be thrown out of a shop after his fight with her suitor Vernon, Penny evokes Odysseus’ disguise and the great risks he must take in his own palace.

Narrators and narratees

The various levels of narrators and narratees further clarify how screwball humor operates in the Odyssey. In O Brother, the Coen Brothers as directors and Ulysses as Homeric singer are the primary narrators. As a result, we as the Coen Brothers’ primary narratees are equated with Ulysses’ primary narratees during the second performance of his song. This blurring of structural boundaries explains why Odysseus’ tragic apologoi is outspokenly humorous. To Odysseus and Ulysses, their own disastrous adventures are no laughing matter, but to the Phaeacians and us, listening to the stories from a safe distance, they definitely are. The second Cretan Lie and Ulysses’ interaction with Penny work the same way. The primary narrators are the omniscient epic poet and the Coen Brothers, the epic and filmic audience their primary narratees. Odysseus/Aethon and Ulysses are the secondary narrators with their wives as narratees. The conversation between Odysseus and Penelope is painful, awkward, and confronting. Similarly, neither Ulysses nor Penny derive any pleasure from their bickering. However, the external audience looks at these situations from a different perspective. The filmic and epic second Cretan Lie show the triumph of a distressed but strong woman over her inflated husband. This particular power struggle is arguably screwball comedy’s most amusing aspect.

The Odyssey and the Epic Cycle

To further support a humorous reading of the Odyssean passages, I will now turn to the Epic Cycle. While many of its epics are largely or completely lost, the surviving fragments and testimonia give an idea of its content and narratological features. The Epic Cycle covers materials on the origins of the gods to the aftermath of the Trojan War, including Odysseus’ death. However, because its exact contents and dates are unclear, it is difficult to define the relationship between the Epic Cycle and the Homeric epics. In The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle, Burgess (2001) concludes that both corpora belonged to the same oral tradition of correlating yet flexible and independent stories. Consequently, there are many differences as well as similarities regarding narratology and content. [18]
Ancient scholarship strongly preferred the Iliad and Odyssey to the non-Homeric materials because of their perceived contrasts. This negative judgement has had a long tradition, but recent criticism has been more favorable to, and interested in, the character of other early epics. Contrary to the Homeric texts, the Epic Cycle poems are fast-paced, have an episodic structure, and are packed with slapstick action. [19] In his chapter “Wit and irony in the Epic Cycle,” Konstan (2015) distinguishes Epic Cycle humor from Homeric comedy via a comparison with Roman comedy. [20] He states that Plautus’ farcical humor corresponds to the comedy in the Epic Cycle, whereas the humor in the Iliad and Odyssey is similar to Terence’s more constraint style. However, this analogy does not apply to Odysseus’ apologoi and Cretan Lies. Books 9–12 of the Odyssey are hardly swift in terms of length, but it is the action-packed narrative par excellence. The apologoi features clashes between Odysseus as cavalier colonist and his unsuspecting opponents. The Epic Cycle includes similar battles, for example in the Telegony. Telegonus, Odysseus’ son by Circe, is on a quest to find his father. He reaches Ithaca but does not know where he is and starts to plunder the island. Odysseus tries to fight him off but is murdered by his son. [21] When read from the perspective of this Telegony episode, Odysseus’ invasions gain a strong undertone of dramatic irony.
Because the apologoi is abundant with exciting events, the passage never drags despite its great length. This sense of a swiftly moving narrative is complemented by two other features of Epic Cycle narratology: the combination of episodic structure and an overarching linear theme. Danek (2015) discusses the contents of the Nostoi, the homecomings of the Greek heroes after the Trojan War. [22] Like the tales in the Nostoi, the adventures of Odysseus and his crew are independent biographic accounts. However, the separate stories are connected through the linear progressing story arc of heroes travelling homewards. Moreover, Danek notes how the many references in the apologoi to the Nostoi anchor Odysseus’ journey to Ithaca within the larger tradition of returning Greeks, while simultaneously inviting a comparison between the two narratives.
Odysseus’ Cretan Lies are closer to the pace of the Epic Cycle because of their capping-format, a fast moving verbal competition that requires quick thinking. The Ilias Parva opens with Ajax and Odysseus fighting over Achilles’ armor, a situation highly reminiscent of capping. Aristophanes’ parody of this scene in Knights 1056, explained by the scholia, equates the heroes to bickering girls, which exposes the original’s comic potential. [23] Additionally, when Odysseus meets Ajax in the Underworld, he implicitly admits to the childish nature of their earlier argument to persuade Ajax’s dismissive ghost to come talk to him (cf. Odyssey 11.543–564). Returning to Eumaeus’ cottage, the ‘beggar’ and his host discuss a wide range of themes. Like many Epic Cycle poems, the first Cretan Lie is both episodic and linear; the different objectives of Eumaeus (identifying his guest) and Odysseus (determining the swineherd’s loyalty) run through their conversation as a central theme. Back in his own palace, Odysseus—or Aethon—employs the same capping-strategy to test Penelope’s fidelity. Again, this conversation moves at warp-speed because of its form, but even more so because Penelope gives her insolent guest a hard time obtaining his goal. Aethon’s second Cretan Lie includes multiple themes to provoke Penelope, ranging from a detailed description of Odysseus’ clothes made by his wife to his popularity among the Cretan women. The conversation even includes a dramatic scene in which Eurycleia almost exposes her master. Again, the different episodes are linked through an overarching theme. Both Odysseus and Penelope try to uncover each other’s intentions while keeping in mind their own conversation goals.

Conclusion

In sum, the Odyssey contains more comic narratives than the well-documented Song of Ares and Aphrodite in book 8. O Brother bolsters the intuition that screwball comedy elements are discernible in Odysseus’ apologoi and Cretan Lies. Story-moments and shared narratological devices indicate similar forms of humor in the Epic Cycle and Homeric poems. The Odyssey, the Epic Cycle, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? form a discursive system in which the separate elements function as each other’s explanatory frame, especially regarding the comedy mechanisms at work. Most importantly, it shows that despite all their hardships, Odysseus and his descendants are men of constant comedy.

Bibliography

Adams, J. 2015. ‘Introduction’, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Hayseed Epic’ in The Cinema of the Coen Brothers: Hard-Boiled Entertainments. London/New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 1–14, 134–146.
Burgess, J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University Press.
Burgess, J. S. ‘The Epic Cycle and Fragments’ in Foley, J.M. ed. 2005. A Companion to Ancient Epic. Malden MA/Oxford/Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 344–352.
Collins, D. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Cambridge/Massachusetts/London: Harvard University Press.
Ford, A. L. ‘Singers’, Franklin, J.C. ‘Music’, Lateiner, D. ‘Feasting’ and ‘Laughter’, Martin, R. ‘Performance’, West, M. L. ‘Rhapsodes’, Wilkins, J. M. ‘Wine’, Rutherford, R. B. ‘Irony’ in Finkelberg, M. ed. 2012. The Homer Encyclopedia. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Jong, I.J.F., de. 2014. Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Konstan, D. ‘Wit and irony in the Epic Cycle’; Danek, G. ‘Nostoi’; Tsagalis, C. ‘Telegony’ in Fantuzzi, M., Tsagalis, C. eds.. 2015. The Greek Epic Cycle and Its Reception: A Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 164–177, 355–379, 380–404.
Lindvall, T. ‘Movie Humor Types’ and ‘Movies’ in Attardo, S. ed.. 2014. Encyclopedia of Humor Studies, pp. 521–523, 523–529. Online via https://sk-sagepub-com.ru.idm.oclc.org/reference/encyclopedia-of-humor-studies.
Milberg, D. 2013. The Art of the Screwball Comedy: Madcap Entertainment from the 1930s to Today. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Minchin, E. ‘The Odyssey after the Iliad: Ties That Bind’ in Simms, R.C. ed.. 2018. Brill’s Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic, pp. 9–30. Online via https://brill.com/view/title/23806.

Footnotes

[ back ] * Paper delivered at the Center for Hellenic Studies Kyklos Conference The Greek epic cycle and its reception in the performative arts, literature, art, music, etc., June 2021 (https://chs.harvard.edu/kyklos-2021-contributors-and-abstracts/).
[ back ] 1. On the often bitter irony and laughter in the Homeric epic, cf. Rutherford (‘Irony’) and Lateiner (‘Laughter’) in Finkelberg 2012.
[ back ] 2. Cf. Collins’ Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry 2004; De Jong’s Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide 2014.
[ back ] 3. Cf. the introduction to Adams’ The Cinema of the Coen Brothers: Hard-Boiled Entertainments 2015, pp. 1–14.
[ back ] 4. Referring to Mottram’s The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind (2006), Adams states that the two directors jocularly borrowed from the Odyssey while writing the film’s script. O Brother includes both subtle and direct references to Sullivan’s Travels. The film does not have Sturges’ sharp satirical socio-political character but, as Adams points out, O Brother “does not ask to be taken seriously as social commentary” (141). Finally, O Brother abounds in mockeries of entire film genres—George ‘Babyface’ Nelson is a charicature gangster—and historical figures, e.g. governor Menelaos ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel, a reference to Louisiana’s ‘Singing Governor’ Jimmie Davis.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Minchin’s chapter in Simms 2018, pp. 9–30.
[ back ] 6. Cf. Miberg’s The Arts of the Screwball Comedy: Madcap Entertainment from the 1930s to Today 2013, notably ‘Part I: The Essence of Screwball’.
[ back ] 7. For a more detailed discussion of the epic crew, cf. Louden (‘Odysseus’ companions’) in Finkelberg 2012.
[ back ] 8. After Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar have been seduced by the three singing washerwomen, Delmar thinks Pete has been turned into toad. However, it turns out that the women have turned Pete in to Sherriff Cooley, who sent him to a prison farm. Pete is eventually saved by his friends.
[ back ] 9. Adams considers Sherriff Cooley Poseidon’s counterpart because both men are personifications of Odysseus’/Ulysses’ destiny. He explains the life-saving flood, “the very element that Poseidon rules” (137), as irony. In my opinion, it is more logical that Cooley symbolizes Hades (death personified) following Odysseus and his friends everywhere they go.
[ back ] 10. Homer ‘disappears’ from the narrative during Odysseus’ apologoi and the character Homer Stokes is forcefully removed from his own hoedown when Ulysses and his band perform.
[ back ] 11. Cf. Franklin (‘Music’) and Martin (‘Performance’) in Finkelberg 2012.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Ford (‘Singers’) and West (‘Rhapsodes’) in Finkelberg 2012.
[ back ] 13. Cf. Lateiner (‘Feasting’) and Wilkins (‘Wine’) in Finkelberg 2012.
[ back ] 14. Cf. Collins 2004, pp. ix–x, 15.
[ back ] 15. Alternatively, Weezy can be equated with Homer as narrator; both men are blind, provide stories and music, and bring κλέος (fame) to the story’s protagonists. I thank Christos Aristopoulos and Jonathan Burgess for these remarks.
[ back ] 16. I am grateful to Lynn Kozak for pointing this out to me in personal correspondence.
[ back ] 17. E.g. the first chapters (‘Facing Frontiers’ and ‘Colonial Conflict’) of Part II of Hall’s extensive reference work on various receptions of the Odyssey (The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural of Homer’s Odyssey 2008).
[ back ] 18. Cf. Burgess 2001, notably the third chapter (‘The Epic Cycle and Homer’, pp. 132–171).
[ back ] 19. Cf. Burgess in Foley 2005, pp. 344–346, 350–351.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Konstan in Fantuzzi and Tsagalis 2015, p. 177.
[ back ] 21. Cf. Tsagalis in Fantuzzi and Tsagalis 2015, pp. 380–401.
[ back ] 22. Cf. Danek in Fantuzzi and Tsagalis 2015, pp. 355–379.
[ back ] 23. Cf. Konstan in Fantuzzi and Tsagalis 2015, pp. 173–174. According to the scholiast, two girls were arguing about Ajax or Odysseus being the better hero. One of them proposed Ajax because he rescued Achilles from the battlefield, to which to other girl responded: καί κε γυνὴ φέροι ἄχθος, ἐπεί κεν ἀνὴρ ἀναθείη / ἀλλ᾿ οὐκ ἂν μαχέσαιτο (‘Even a woman might carry the burden, if a man were to place it on her, / but she could not fight.’).



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