Vol. 11, No. 2 Fall 2004
Something Not So Familiar
Sweeney Todd turns 25
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum feels like an old friend, one you can visit years later and still understand exactly where she's coming from. The Frogs feels more like your freshman roommate: You got along well enough, but in the end he was just too strange. Forum and Frogs, of course, have many similarities. Both are adapted from the works of ancient playwrights. Both open with an actor directly addressing the audience in song. Both have protagonists best played by a clownish actor, the sort who typically plays himself playing his character. Despite their similarities, though, certain differences suggest The Frogs will probably always be less popular with today's audiences and critics. That judgment, I think, is based on a shortsighted vision of what comedy can be.
First, some historical background: Plautus, whose plays inspired Forum, lived in Rome during the third century B.C. His comedies, which usually take place in an ordinary house or city street, thrive on everyday situations taken to the extreme. They feature easily identifiable "type-characters," such as a conniving slave (Pseudolus), pimp (Marcus Lycus), innocent courtesan (Philia) and bombastic soldier (Miles Gloriosus). They contain plots of mistaken identity, love stories with now-predictable impediments and tales of long-lost relatives. The plots are always carefully logical, albeit frivolous, and always result in the restoration of a stable social order.
In short, Plautine comedy is the ancestor of today's television situation comedies, set in a home or workplace, with formulaic plots. In sitcoms, we find common type-characters: the wise though not necessarily smart father, the intelligent but never too powerful mother, the oddball neighbor, the mischievous teenager. Since new episodes start from scratch, each episode generally ends by re-establishing the status quo. Forum feels so familiar because it taps into a form of comedy we have come to accept as "normal."
The Frogs, in contrast, presents a situation — a god traveling to the underworld to resurrect a dead playwright — that is hardly the everyday reality of a sitcom. It's a world of pure fantasy, a world typical of the Greek playwright Aristophanes, who wrote the original Frogs two centuries before Plautus. In Aristophanes' plays, we also find ordinary characters, like farmers and slaves, but their stories are extraordinary. Nothing much happens with regard to plot: The basic fantasy is sketched, and the comic hero has a series of not necessarily logical misadventures within that pretense. Characters freely use obscenity, sex and vulgarity; they mock by name anyone in the city who deserves it, especially popular politicians. During the "parabasis" (a choral digression) the chorus addresses contemporary topics that concern the playwright, especially politics and his own popularity. The parabasis in Frogs proffers political advice about how Athens can prevail in the 25-year-old Peloponnesian War. Noticing such differences, ancient scholars called the works of Aristophanes and his contemporaries "Old Comedy." The plays of Plautus and others were labeled "New Comedy."
Sondheim's Frogs, both in its 1974 incarnation and the 2004 production, feels so unfamiliar because its authors have closely adhered to the unusual model of Old Comedy. The plot has little logic; for instance, Shaw happens to say something bad about Shakespeare as Shakespeare happens to enter the stage. Before we know what's happening, we have a literary contest.
Most of the humor derives from such absurd situations, from one-liners or from pure fantasy. There is some vulgarity ("please don't fart …"), but not as much as in Aristophanes. With regard to contemporary issues, Burt Shevelove's 1974 version lamented the impoverished state of the theatre, although there were some political barbs. While Nathan Lane's new version retains Shevelove's literary criticism, he re-emphasizes the political element omnipresent in Aristophanes but foreign to most modern comedy. Lane has written new speeches for himself as Dionysos, speeches that censure the Bush administration's policies regarding war and personal freedoms, although he never names the president, and he leaves the Iraq War behind the very thin veil of the Peloponnesian conflict. If there is any criticism to be made, it's that Lane's political statements are the easy and obvious criticisms habitually made by the political left. Still, politics takes center stage, and the literary contest is fully subordinate to Dionysos' desire to recreate a world of good citizens with good leaders.
The most significant way in which The Frogs can make us uncomfortable, though, is that it does not restore a status quo but seeks to transform the world. After Shakespeare wins the contest with the song "Fear No More," he and Dionysos return to earth, where the playwright is introduced to the audience.
In the new version, Sondheim has added a reprise of "Instructions to the Audience," urging us "please don't nod" just because we agree with Dionysos' diagnosis of the world's need for help. Get out of your seats and do something, he says. We should leave the theatre laughing and admiring the performance. (My, how those frogs can dance!). But if we're not also thinking and acting, trying to make the play's fantasy real, we've missed Charon's boat and will be stuck in the world of the never-changing sitcom.
John Given is an assistant professor of classical studies at East Carolina University.
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