Wilder’s Island

In his beautiful short novel The Woman of Andros, an adaptation of Terence’s Andria, Thornton Wilder changes the setting of the story from Athens to the island of Brynos. It is regularly remarked that the island is Wilder’s invention. I have not, however, seen any speculation on why the island is named “Brynos.”[1]

It’s an odd name: it sounds Greek, but is not, as it turns out, a classical Greek word. The closest term is the word βρῦν [brūn], which occurs only once outside of grammatical and rhetorical texts:[2]in that sole attested use, it is found in the idiom βρῦν εἰπεῖν [brūn eipein]. LSJ tells us it means the cry of children for drink. The Scholia vetera on Aristophanes call it an ἄσημος φωνή [asēmos phōnē], an “inarticulate” or “unintelligible sound.”

And where is it found? In Aristophanes, Clouds 1382. In Peter Meineck’s translation:

You insolent ruffian, have you forgotten who raised you?
I was the one who had to listen to your lisping baby talk, when you went "wu-wu!" [βρῦν εἴποις]
I knew what you wanted and would fetch you something to drink.

Why might this be significant? A number of classical works are mentioned in The Woman of Andros, but only one by Aristophanes: you guessed it, The Clouds.

Chrysis, one of the main characters in the work, is a courtesan who holds symposia (think Plato’s Symposium) filled with intellectual discussion and recitation of canonical Greek works. At one of them, Wilder writes,

She had intended to recite to them The Clouds of Aristophanes that evening, but now changed her mind. She felt the need to nourish her heart and those watchful eyes with something lofty and deeply felt. Perhaps what she called the “lofty” was in this world merely a beautiful form of falsehood, cheating the heart. But she would try again tonight and see whether, after so dejected a day, it woke any stir of conviction. “What shall I read?” she asked herself as the tables were being removed. “Something from Homer?–Priam begging of Achilles the body of Hector? No….No….Nor would they understand the Oedipus at Colonus. The Alcestis? The Alecestis?

One of the shyer guests, seeing her deliberating over the choice of the evening’s declamation, timidly asked her to read the Phaedrus of Plato.

After some brief further discussion, she recites the beginning and the end. The final remark about prayer causes an intense emotional response, and that is where I resume quoting:

All went well until this phrase. Then Chrysis, the serene, the happily dead, seeing the tears that stood in the eyes of Pamphilus, could go no further, and before them all she wept as one weeps who after an absence of folly and self-will returns to a well-loved place and an old loyalty. It was true, true beyond a doubt, tragically true, that the world of love and virtue and wisdom was the true world and her failure in it all the more overwhelming. But she was not alone; he too saw the long and failing war as she did, and she loved him as though she were loving for the first time and as one is never able to love again. That was sealed; that was forever assigned.

After a few moments she collected herself and quieted the guests who had risen in concern about her. “Sit down, my friends. I am read now,” she said smiling. “I shall read you The Clouds of Aristophanes.”

But it was some time before the laughter rose among the couches, the laughter that was a just tribute to the divine wit of the poet of The Clouds.

I quote from the Library of America edition. The quotation comes from pp. 212-14.

Now, is it actually plausible that Wilder means to refer to Aristophanes with the name of his fictional island? I’m not sure. It is admittedly a bit of a stretch.

But if one were to speculate, he might say a couple of things. First, the presence of The Clouds in this scene and in the work as a whole makes sense. Aristophanes deals with philosophy and its shortcomings, comedically; Wilder does so, too–but tragically. And note that in the excerpt quoted above The Clouds bookends a long reference to Plato’s Phaedrus.

Second, the use of βρῦν in Aristophanes has to do with a baby, comedically. The plot of The Woman of Andros also has to do with a baby–I won’t spoil it by saying how in case you’d like to read it[3]–tragically. Naming the island after a piece of funny baby-talk would give extra point and pathos to the way in which Wilder’s story is ordered not to humor, but to happiness and sorrow, or rather to happiness in the midst of sorrow.

If my suggestion is correct, or even plausible,[4], it is a microcosm of what Wilder does in The Woman of Andros writ large: namely, to take a comedy (Terence’s Andria) and turn it into a tragedy.


It is entirely possible that there is a much more obvious explanation for the name that I am missing. If anyone can alert me to such an explanation, I would be grateful.


1 I also haven’t looked very hard.
2 In the form βρῦν, it occurs only in Aristophanes, Hesychius, scholia on Aristophanes, and (the non-classical) Eustathius of Thessalonica. The form Βρῦνος is, as far as I can find, used once as the local name for a river in the Historiae of the 15ιh-c. writer Michael Critobulus.
3 You should read it.
4 I mean to suggest nothing more than that it might, just conceivably, be plausible.


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