An introduction to a classic play
The Frogs is one of Aristophanes’ most curious plays. It’s the only Greek play which we know for a fact was popular enough to have been given a repeat performance. It’s also notable for its discussion of the nature of theatre – an early version of literary theory and analysis, which Aristotle would help to develop in his Poetics nearly a century later. The 1974 Stephen Sondheim musical version of The Frogs was the first musical ever staged in a swimming pool, which, if nothing else, shows that people are continuing to experiment with this most experimental of plays.
The plot of The Frogs can be summarised easily enough. The god Dionysus – in whose name the City Dionysia, incorporating the ancient Greek theatre festival, was held – goes down into the Underworld to find the tragedian, Euripides, who had died a year earlier. He is looking for Euripides because he believes the recently deceased playwright will be able to save the city of Athens from itself. Disguised as his own altogether more tough and heroic half-brother Heracles, so that spirits won’t be tempted to tangle with him, the rather incompetent Dionysus gets ferried by Charon across the lake leading to the Underworld, debating with a chorus of frogs as he makes his journey.
Because Heracles had made a few enemies when he had been in the Underworld (namely to steal the dog Cerberus), Dionysus’ disguise actually ends up getting him into trouble, rather than protecting him from danger as planned. Panicked, Dionysus gets his slave Xanthias to put on the Heracles disguise instead. (The disguise seems to be nothing more than a set of clothes, which can be swapped around like people backstage at some am dram production.) But when Xanthias, mistaken for Heracles, is invited to a feast (featuring dancing maidens), Dionysus soon wants to swap clothes with his slave again and attend the riotous banquet. But then he encounters more people who have a bone to pick with Heracles, so Dionysus quickly trades clothes with Xanthias yet again. More confusion follows over which of them, Dionysus or Xanthias, is the real god, until the issue is finally resolved.
In the palace of Pluto, god of the Underworld, Aeschylus and Euripides are vying for the title of the best (dead) tragic poet. This gives rises to a flyting contest – which sees the two playwrights quoting snatches of their verse at each other, with each offering a (sometimes rather barbed) critique or analysis of the other’s style – with Dionysus acting as judge. Aeschylus, it is decided, is the weightier poet, and Dionysus decides to return to the land of the living with him, owing to the practical advice Aeschylus offers concerning how to save Athens from ruin.
What we have in The Frogs, then, is a self-conscious piece of art: a comedy that critiques the different styles of two of the leading Greek tragedians, pokes fun at their perceived weaknesses of style and character, and on top of that, provides a commentary on the state of Athens in 405 BC, the year that Aristophanes’ play was first performed (and took first prize in the contest, we might add).
Athens had been involved in a disastrous war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, which would only come to an end a year after The Frogs was performed (though Aristophanes’ play probably had little effect in bringing the war to an end). The play is a comic response to contemporary events, using farce (the swapping of clothes is like something out of a nineteenth-century bedroom farce, or perhaps a sitcom), fantasy (the chorus of frogs, the gods), and artistic discussion and literary analysis (the argument between Aeschylus and Euripides) to explore the usefulness of art as a way of changing the world.
Yet for all that, it is the ‘flyting’ between Aeschylus and Euripides that forms the core of the play, and it is during these scenes that we see the play’s real comic energy. The Frogs might even be considered the first act of ‘creative criticism’ or critical-creative writing, fusing literary analysis with creative drama as it does.
In her underrated modernist long poem Paris (1920), the British poet Hope Mirrlees quotes from the frogs’ chorus, shortly before offering an allusion to another Aristophanes play, Lysistrata. That was another play written against the backdrop of war, just as Mirrlees was writing in the wake of the recent conflict that was the First World War. In examining and analysing the link between art and war, The Frogs does something that Lysistrata would do for the connection between sex and war. We’ll just have to hope that Sondheim’s swimming-pool musical version gets a revival soon.
The recommended English translation of The Frogs is the one included in Aristophanes: Frogs and Other Plays: A new verse translation, with introduction and notes (Oxford World’s Classics).