The Birds premiered at the theater of Dionysus at Athens as part of the festival taking place in that city in what would have been March of 414 B.C. As proof that some things never change, today this comedy is generally agreed to be one of the prime works to spring from the pen of Aristophanes, yet it managed only to take only second prize in competition at the festival.
Roughly a year earlier, a mighty military force set off in hopes of conquering Syracuse and devastating Sicily. The Peloponnesian War was raging and Athenians were fired with martial expectation that their empire was about to grow by significant degrees. As a result, rumors were flying about concerning the progress of the invasion like birds dancing in flight formations. Anyone who has ever heard something described as CloudCuckooLand and wondered from where that term derived need wonder no more: CloudCuckooland is a city in the sky built by birds that is the symbol of ridiculously misplaced optimism that verges on outright delusional lunacy.
The streets of Athens existed far below the ephemeral avenues and boulevards of the sky, but The Birds has been interpreted as a response by Aristophanes to the unwieldy and insupportable expectations that upon the return of their victorious soldiers, Sicily would essentially be little more than colony over which their city-state imposed absolute authority.
Rumors of the construction of CloudCuckooland mirror those rumors coming from Sicily and soon enough the fictional Athenians of Aristophanes salivating over the prospect of new fields to conquer and exploit mirrors the same anticipation of those in the real life Athens. Eventually, the city in the sky takes on a more expansive symbolic image as a utopian ideal where everyone’s dreams can come true.
A year after The Birds appeared and two years after the military forces took off on their engagement, overly optimistic anticipation turned into stunned disbelief and panic as the outcome of the invasion finally became clear: every last Athenian soldier had either been killed or captured and sold into slavery. Athenian CloudCuckoolanders fell from the fictional utopia in the sky and landed with the sickening thud of reality in the actual Athens below.