Aristophanes, an ancient Greek author, specialized in writing comedies, of which several survive till this present day. One of them has the same title as an Alfred Hitchcock Film, namely “The Birds.”
Since I do not own a copy of the Greek original, the following summary is based on an English translation by R.H. Webb, which is included in “The Complete :Plays of Aristophanes,” edited by Moses Hadas. This translation does not slavishly follow the original in every detail, especially when putting the Greek jokes into English. Because I am using a translation that makes alterations, it is possible that my summary may deviate from Aristophanes’ original work in a few details. (When I was able to access the internet, I studied another translation for comparison, but used it sparingly.)
Two Athenian citizens named Euelpides and Pisthetaerus are trying to find a hoopoe named Epops. Their guides are two birds which they have purchased in a pet shop: a crow and a jackdaw. They are tired of the legal wrangling in Athens and are looking for a quiet place to settle down. They think that Epops might help them, since he has seen many places as he flew through the air.
When they find the residence of Epops, Euelpides tries to attract his attention by shouting: “Hey, boy!” When Pisthetaerus objects that the bird Epops is not a boy, Euelpides corrects himself and shouts: “Hey, boid.” (This is a good example of how Webb applies English puns to the Greek text. I cannot think of any way to make a pun out of the Greek word for boy and the Greek word for bird. The other translation has no equivalent pun.)
A servant of the hoopoe comes out and complains about the shouting. He is, of course, a bird. When he notices that he is dealing with human beings, the traditional enemy of birds, he threatens to kill them.
The frightened men try to save themselves by pretending to be birds. Euelpides claims that he is “Jim Crow, from way-down-south.” Pisthetaerus says that he is “a yellow turtledove, from Turkey.” (These are alterations by Webb. The concept of Jim Crow and the country of Turkey did not exist in the fifth century before Christ, the time when Aristophanes wrote this work.)
When Euelpides asked the servant who he was, the latter identified himself as a slave bird. He had served Epops when his master was a human being named Tereus. When Tereus became a hoopoe, he asked his servant to become a bird also and continue to serve him. (This alludes to a Greek myth in which Tereus, his wife Procne, and his sister-in-law Philomel were all changed into different kinds of birds.)
When the hoopoe appears on the scene, the two travelers explain what they want. Epops suggests several places that might serve as their new home, but Euelpides does not like any of his suggestions.
Pisthetaerus then suggests that the birds unite and form a bird metropolis in the air. They would then control all traffic between earth and heaven, just as an Athenian has to ask the city of Thebes for permission to pass through Boeotia when he wants to visit Delphi. The birds could prevent burnt offerings from ascending to heaven unless the gods agreed to pay tribute.
The hoopoe likes the idea. Together with the nightingale, into which his wife Procne had been changed, he summons the birds, whom he has previously taught human speech.
As the birds begin to arrive, Euelpides, Pisthetaerus, and the hoopoe identify them, injecting witty comments. When all are present, the birds form the chorus of the play.
The chorus of birds looks upon the two human beings as their traditional enemy and threatens to tear them to pieces. Euelpides and Pisthetaerus make ludicrous plans to defend themselves. However, the hoopoe persuades the birds to listen to the proposition of the two men.
Pisthetaerus claims that the birds were once kings. They were more ancient than the Titans or Mother Earth. Therefore, it ought to be their right to rule with unchallenged authority. Moreover, the rooster used to rule over the Persians, and the kite held sway in Greece, while the cuckoo was lord of both Phoenicia and Egypt.
Pisthetaerus then suggests that the birds recover their rightful authority by building a city in the air, where they can control all intercourse between heaven and earth and force gods and men to do their bidding.
Pisthetaerus also suggests ways in which the birds could win the worship of men. For example, if a swarm of locusts threatened their crops, a squadron of kestrels and owls could quickly wipe them out, while thrushes could protect figs from ants and gall-flies. Moreover, they could enrich people by showing them where they could find buried treasure, and they could warn sailors when storms were about to occur.
There is, however, one problem. Pisthetaerus points out that he and his friends would have trouble living with the birds since they could not fly. The hoopoe tells them that there is a magic root. If they take a single bite, they will grow wings. After musical entertainment by Procne, they head for the site of their new city in the air.
A lengthy choral interlude follows. The chorus gives poetic expression to the story previously invented by Pisthetaerus concerning the origin of the birds. The chorus then urges people to apply to them for assistance and relates all the wonderful things that birds can do for them. Finally, the chorus invites people to become birds. It graphically shows how the possession of wings can help them.
In the next scene, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus joke about their newly-grown wings, and discuss the name of their new city. They decide on nephelococcygia. (This is composed of the Greek words nephele, meaning cloud, and kokkyx, meaning cuckoo.)
Pisthetaerus then sends Euelpides to supervise the building of the city. He is also supposed to dispatch heralds to the gods above and to men below. This is the final scene in which Euelpides appears in the play.
Pisthetaerus is plagued by some troublesome visitors from earth: a priest, a poet, a soothsayer, a surveyor, an inspector, and a statute salesman. He does not appreciate their proffered services and manages to get rid of them.
After a brief choral interlude, a messenger announces that the city wall has been completed. In a humorous dialogue, the messenger describes the part different birds played in its construction. For example, the woodpeckers were the carpenters, and geese used their webbed feet to shovel mortar into the hods.
A crisis then occurs. The rainbow goddess Iris has eluded the vigilance of the jackdaw sentinels and entered the city. When she arrives on the scene, it is learned that she did not apply to any of the jackdaws before entering, nor has she obtained a visa from the storks. Among the comical comments that follow, Pisthetaerus states that Iris deserves to die. She protests that she is immortal, but Pisthetaerus tells her that she’d die anyway.
After Iris leaves, a herald returns from earth with good news. People have forgotten about such former heroes as Sparta and Socrates and are admiring birds. They even adopt avian habits. They perch on twigs and give themselves bird nicknames. For example, Opuntius is “the One-Eyed Crow” and Syracosius is “the Jay.” The herald expects that thousands of people will come to the city to ask for plumage.
The demand for wings is so great that the city has difficulty gathering a sufficient amount of feathers.
After a brief choral interlude, Prometheus arrives on the scene. He does not want Zeus to know that he has visited the city, so he first shields his face and then holds a parasol over his head so that Zeus cannot see him. He tells Pisthetaerus that the gods have not received any sacrifices since the time when the city was built, so they are sending an embassy to the city to negotiate. He advises Pisthetaerus not to make peace unless they agree to give him Royalty, a beautiful maid who takes care of the thunderbolts of Zeus and everything else that pertains to his government.
After another short choral interlude, the embassy arrives. It consists of Poseidon, Heracles, and Tiballus, a barbarian god who is rather inarticulate. (According to Wikipedia, the last-named god was a deity of a Thracian people called the Tiballians.)
In the ensuing discussion, Pisthetaerus agrees to peace if Zeus restores the scepter to the birds. Heracles quickly agrees to the terms because he is a glutton and is very anxious to receive sacrifices once more. However, Poseidon objects. Nevertheless, when Pisthetaerus explains some of the advantages that will result when the birds become lords of the universe and when the inarticulate mutterings of Tiballus are interpreted as assent to the terms of Pisthetaerus, Poseidon acquiesces.
Then Pisthetaerus mentions one thing that he had previously forgotten. He will allow Zeus to keep Hera, but Pisthetaerus wants the maiden Royalty to be his wife.
Poseidon then wishes to break off negotiations and go home, but Heracles still wants peace. Poseidon points out that Heracles is the heir of Zeus. If Zeus gives up his throne, he will become poor, and Heracles will not inherit anything when Zeus dies.
Pisthetaerus tells Heracles that he is not the heir of Zeus because he is illegitimate. He quotes Solon, an Athenian legislator, who says that if a man dies without legitimate heirs, the estate should be divided among the nearest kinsmen. So Poseidon, the brother of Zeus, would be one of the heirs.
Pisthetaerus wins Heracles over by fair promises, but Poseidon still opposes the agreement. So Tiballus has the deciding vote. Tiballus again expresses himself in a clumsy fashion, and Heracles adroitly persuades everyone that Tiballus has agreed to surrender the maiden Royalty.
Royalty comes, bringing the thunderbolts of Zeus with her. In the final scene, Pisthetaerus is wearing a kingly crown and escorting Royalty. The chorus sings wedding songs, and Pisthetaerus invites all the birds to the wedding feast.
“The Complete Plays of Aristophanes”; Moses Hadas, editor
The Internet Classics Archive: The Birds by Aristophanes
Wikipedia: The Birds (Play)