“A classic journey — Frogs across the millennia”
by Christopher Weimer
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A classic journey
Frogs across the millennia
by Christopher Weimer
Stephen Sondheim’s sources span centuries as well as continents. They include Swedish and Italian films , an Austrian-born child psychologist’s study of fairy tales, a French Impressionist painting and the Roman comedies of Plautus. Older than any of these, however, is Aristophanes’ Frogs. This comedy about the journey of the demigod Dionysos to the underworld in search of a great playwright was first performed in Athens in 405 B.C. — no less than 2,400 years prior to the Broadway opening night of Sondheim’s musical. The following paragraphs will attempt to briefly trace the evolution of this unique work in the Sondheim canon.
Athens, Greece, 405 B.C.
Athenian audiences first saw Aristophanes’ play at the Lenaea, one of the city’s two annual festivals dedicated to theatrical competitions honoring drama’s patron divinity, Dionysos. The specific occasion is more than a literary footnote: The Lenaea, which took place in winter, and the City Dionysia, held in the spring, offer us an illuminating glimpse of classical Athens, a society in which theatre, religion and politics were not considered separate, much less antagonistic, institutions. Instead, theatre festivals, in which the greatest dramatists vied for distinction and acclaim, were considered both pious and essential to the public good. Thanks to taxes paid by the wealthier classes, all citizens, even the poorest, could attend. Theatre served to honor the gods and to cultivate virtue and wisdom in the people by examining political, philosophical and religious questions.
We need to approach Aristophanes’ comedy, which received first prize from the festival jury in 405 B.C., from this perspective. Athens and its allies had been at war against the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League since 431 B.C. Pessimism was in the air, and Frogs would be the last new play by Aristophanes seen by Athenian audiences before the city’s surrender the following year. Comic plays thrived in this time of crisis, not as escapist entertainment but as satiric vehicles for considering grave issues. Comedy, it has often been said, is no laughing matter.
The questions that Frogs presented to its original audiences were disturbing ones. Could Athens, on the brink of destruction both from within and without, be saved? And could theatre — in radical decline with its greatest practitioners Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles all dead — be saved? Though this juxtaposition might startle modern theatregoers, Aristophanes could not separate these two questions. For him, the revitalization of theatre was essential to the salvation of Athens. “I came down here for a poet; and why?” Dionysos asks rhetorically in Hades. “So that the City may survive and go on holding her festivals.”
The action of Frogs, broadly speaking, falls into two parts: the journey of Dionysos to the underworld and the contest he judges there between the first great Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, and his successor, Euripides, whose return to earth was Dionysos’s initial objective. Classicists Leo Strauss and Charles Paul Segal have both argued that it is Dionysos himself who unites these two apparently disparate sequences, for the play’s true plot is the deity’s self-realization. Dionysos begins the play, after all, more as a cowardly, lazy and often foolish figure than as the god of ennobling theatre. He spends most of his journey concealing, denying and refusing his identity, while his own followers sing hymns in his honor without recognizing his presence among them. In other words, he is not yet himself.
By the end of Frogs, however, Dionysos sheds his buffoonery and assumes his true role as drama’s god. Chosen by Hades (Pluto) and Persephone, he can now preside over the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, in the process defining the essence of tragedy and its relation to the public good. Moreover, he can realize that his original preference for Euripides was mistaken and recognize Aeschylus’s superiority — not as a mere aesthetic preference, but because Aeschylus possesses greater wisdom and political insight with which to educate the Athenians in their time of need. Frogs concludes with the chorus’s prayer that the returning poet’s guidance will bring blessings upon the city and liberate its people from their sufferings.
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1941 and 1974 A.D.
Playwright and director Burt Shevelove staged his original adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs at the Yale University swimming pool late in 1941, only a few weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He staged it there again in 1974 during the Vietnam War, this time incorporating songs by Sondheim. Obviously, Shevelove faced a difficult challenge, since he could not expect even Yale-educated audiences to be uniformly conversant with the classical playwrights active after the deaths of Euripides and Sophocles, Athenian debates during the Peloponnesian War or the differences between Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ respective dramaturgies.
Shevelove addressed many of these problems by universalizing his adaptation, removing the action from its Peloponnesian War context in favor of his paradoxical stage direction: “The time is the present. The place is Ancient Greece.” In place of Athenian politics, Shevelove and Sondheim offered a more generalized, timeless concern for human civilization as a whole in “It’s Only a Play”: “The great god Chaos, father of darkness, once ruled the earth. He was overthrown. He could return.” Shevelove and Sondheim also transformed Aristophanes’ never-seen chorus of frogs, whose ugly croaking Dionysos successfully silences while rowing across the Styx, into active enemies of the his mission, apologists for apathy in the face of decline and peril: “Everyone knows the world’s a wreck./Why do you wanna break your neck?”
Shevelove’s most radical departure from Aristophanes, of course, was his decision to replace the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides with one between William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Though it is tempting to attribute Shevelove’s choice primarily to modern audiences’ greater familiarity with the two British playwrights, there was a deeper guiding logic at work. For Aristophanes, Aeschylus embodies the virtues of a wiser era, an Athenian Golden Age before the city’s current troubles began. In contrast, Euripides arrogantly presents himself as a more sophisticated dramatist, proud of his modernity and intellectual rigor and scornful of what he considers his predecessor’s meaningless bombast. This is very much how Shevelove depicted the conflict between the humane, poetic Shakespeare and the brilliant, moralistic and cantankerous Shaw, who describes his defeat as the victory of “voluptuous reverie over intellectual interest, and romantic rhapsody over human concern.”
At the same time, however, Shevelove’s philosophical distance from Aristophanes can be seen most clearly in a comparison of Aeschylus’s triumph with Shakespeare’s decisive singing of “Fear No More” from Cymbeline. The Greek tragedian ultimately wins by convincing Dionysos that he can better instruct and inspire the troubled Athenians in their quest to reclaim their former cultural and military dominance, while Shevelove’s Shakespeare touches Dionysos’s heart with his gentle compassion for humanity’s suffering and its inevitable mortality.
Lincoln Center, New York City, 2004 A.D.
Actor Nathan Lane first read the script of Sondheim and Shevelove’s The Frogs in 1977. More than two decades later, he finally played Dionysos in a 2000 concert performance at the Library of Congress honoring Sondheim’s 70th birthday. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Lane found new relevance in the musical’s message of art saving an imperiled society. He revised Shevelove’s book and persuaded Sondheim to expand his earlier score for the 2004 production at Lincoln Center.
Lane’s The Frogs is substantially longer and more overtly political than Shevelove’s 1974 adaptation, returning in the latter way to the spirit of Aristophanes’ original. Lane did not insert specific references to the ongoing conflict in Iraq into the text. However, he did incorporate new dialogue ostensibly referring to the Peloponnesian War that also obviously expressed contemporary American doubts about Iraq: “We are still at war, Xanthius — a war we may not be able to win, a war we shouldn’t even be in.” Similarly, the play’s frogs now represent a danger far greater than apathy: “They hate change. They hate new ideas. They just like what’s good for them. And they’d like everyone to think the way they do. They’d like to turn us all into frogs.” Lane’s amphibians are clearly conservative Republican frogs seeking to impose their self-serving ideology on others.
In contrast to this Aristophanic repoliticization of Shevelove’s text, Lane’s boldest innovation was the introduction of a new character unmentioned in either previous version: the deceased wife of Dionysos, Ariadne. The demigod first sadly tells Xanthius about their ill-fated marriage while crossing the Styx and then encounters Ariadne in Hades, where she is instrumental in the contest between Shakespeare and Shaw. She gives Dionysos the final theme for the playwrights’ rhetorical efforts — death. Furthermore, Ariadne guides his decision, saying of the competition’s as yet undetermined winner, “Whoever it is, I hope he’s a poet.” Inspired by his love for a mortal woman, Lane’s Dionysos thus paradoxically follows his most human feelings to gain Pluto’s ultimate divine praise at the play’s end: “You’re a good god.” |TSR|
CHRISTOPHER WEIMER is a professor at Oklahoma State University, where he teaches courses in literature, Western humanities and Spanish.