Aristophanes’ Frogs: An Ancient Reality Drama Show & An Introduction to Literary and Dramatic Criticism

Aristophanes’ late play Frogs greatly impressed me. Frogs is, apparently, our earliest surviving “example of literary criticism of a high technical order” (Moses Hadas), and is among Aristophanes’ best works; it may also be my personal favourite.

The play, which was performed in 405 BCE, begins with Dionysus and his servant, Xanthias, as they go down to Hades to bring up Euripides, who had died only the year before. (The selection of Dionysus among all the Olympian deities is significant because drama was born in the context of Dionysian worship, and dramatic contests were regularly held in the Dionysia festival. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as well as Aristophanes himself had their plays performed there.) Dionysus is nostalgic for old times, bemoaning the inability of the modern “poets” (as the dramatists were called) to produce anything substantial; this is why he seeks to bring up Euripides.

While going down to Hades, we find out that the god may ride in Charon’s boat across the Styx, but the god’s slave may not. After many all-too-human adventures in which Aristophanes himself mocks belief in the Olympian deities, god and slave arrive in Pluto’s (Gr: Plouton; this is a Greek name, not merely a Roman one) halls. There, they find Euripides and Aeschylus quarreling over who has the right to sit on the chair belonging to the best dramatist. Sophocles is asked if he would contest the chair, too, but he answers that he will yield to Aeschylus; if the latter is found unworthy in a contest before Hades and Dionysus, than he will contest the chair in a match with Euripides.

Hades grants Dionysus’ request to take up the winner of the competition; Dionysus himself would also judge, since, a slave of Pluto’s reports, Aeschylus did not want any Athenians to judge the merits of his plays (“too many crooks, no doubt!” according to one eye-witness).

The chorus, which forms an emotional bridge from the stage to the audience, is in wonder at this reality contest that features “phrases designed–Yea, / Fathered by the matchless mind” (an allusion to Sophocles’ “Ode to Man” chorus from Antigone). The sensitive modern reader is equally excited!

I must say that since I have read all the surviving plays of the Three Tragedians, and most of Aristophanes, I got a lot out of this play. I particularly enjoyed the tremendous contrast in the prayers of the two competing dramatists at the outset of the competition. Dionysus tells Aeschylus he may pray, and he does, with an elegantly powerful, awful, humble simplicity:

“Demeter, nurse and mother of my art,
Let me be worthy of thy Mysteries.”

When Dionysus invites Euripides to pray, though, the latter says,

“No, I thank you. No. The gods I worship are of another stamp. . . .
Aether, my Bread of Life, O vibrant Tongue,
O Mother Wit, O Nose fastidious,
Grant that I neatly pin him to the mat!” (emphasis in original)

The bit about Aether and the Nose is obviously a joke at Euripides’ expense, but the fact remains that Euripides was anything but a good orthodox Olympian in religion.

Euripides then begins by promising to show how Aeschylus’ works were problematic, promising to proceed to his own achievements as a dramatist only afterwards; in so doing, Aristophanes’ makes his Euripides reflect well the prevailing rhetorical strategies–strategies still taught students by their academic writing instructors today!

First, Euripides attacks Aeschylus for his reliance on silence to build suspense in his prologues. Then, he criticizes Aeschylus’ prologues for their unrealistic diction and their repetition. In regards to the former, Euripides says of Aeschylus:

“He’d spout a stream of great beefy words, gigantic forms astradle
Great steeds with beetling brows and crests–a literary diet
That Athens never ate before!”

I think most scholars would allow that this was actually a fair criticism, and nobody would say that Aeschylus’ Greek is easy for the modern student (though Euripides’ is supposed to be).

Euripides’ criticisms of the opening lines of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers are strong and Aristophanes executed them hilariously. Aeschylus recites his own words, and Euripides finds them faulty:

Aesc: Hermes of the nether world who surveys paternal power,
Be savior and ally at my supplication:
I come to this land, here I return.
[snip]
Eurip: Would a man whose father had been treacherously murdered by a woman’s intrigue speak of Hermes as surveying?
[Dionysus approves of this criticism; snip]
Eurip, quoting Aesc: I come to this land, says he, and I return, the meaning’s the same.
[snip]
Aesc: A man who has a country and happens to arrive comes;
An exile comes comes and returns.
Dion: Good, by Apollo. And what do you say, Euripides?
Eurip: I say that Orestes never returned. He sneaked in, surreptitiously.
[ambiguous response from Dionysus].

Aeschylus responds with his own criticisms of Euripides. First, he gets agreement from Euripides that the primary role of the poet is to be a teacher of mankind. “Great words are begotten to match great thoughts,” the old idealist says, telling the younger dramatist that dramatists “must write of the fair and the good.” Euripides, he says, does the opposite. These criticisms are not far from the ones made of Socrates, but they have greater sting here in that Euripides really did feature horrific violence and shady, amoral characters, especially in his later plays. In addition to introducing corrupting topics and characters into his plays, Euripides is also guilty, according to Aeschylus, of “training our youth in the art of sophistical gabble.” Even Euripides’ meter is not good: it’s so bad that “an oilcan can be fitted in.” Each time Euripides recites some of his own lines, Aeschylus interrupts him with “Lost your oilcan!” Dionysus agrees with this criticism especially.

At the end, then, judge and contestants decide to weight their poetry like meat. Aristophanes was fully aware of what he was doing here: obviously, poetry and drama are not something that can be objectively weighed in a scientific manner. Nevertheless, Aristophanes is seeking to persuade his audience of one way to judge art: by the “weightiness” of the imagery. Euripides’ “wit” and similar words are much lighter than Aeschylus’s “broken chariots” and “death.” Dionysus, still unable to make his choice, asks how he can choose between them: “One I think clever, the other delights me.” Finally, both dramatists are asked a pointed question relating to the current political-military problems of Athens, and Aeschylus, who gives the more practical advice, wins the trip back to the land of the living.

Aristophanes’ play, which is obviously nostalgic, leaves no doubt about the final medal standings: Sophocles, Aeschylus firmly tells all, and not Euripides may have his chair in Hades until he comes again, and thus we are left with the First, Second, and Third prizes for this reality competition.

A Problem
This so-called “problem” is more of an observation on my part of an interesting phenomenon that is possibly not really a problem at all. Basically, I see Aristophanes as coming out from under Euripides’ overcoat, as it were. In making Dionysus’ slave get the better of the god in several bantering exchanges over a good portion of the play, Aristophanes does two things that Aeschylus and Sophocles had never done: make gods look ridiculously funny–we’re laughing at them, not with them–and give the servants significant (comic) roles. Aristophanes allows as much when he makes Euripides speak to his own record of democratizing the theatre:

“My characters were kept at work right through to the finale;
The prince, the pauper, young or old–no one could dilly-dally;
Servants and masters, women, men, were equally loquacious.”

Furthermore, Aristophanes recognizes other virtues of Euripides when he makes the latter claim them as his own:

“By choosing themes that were concerned with everyday reality,
I taught them [i.e. the Athenians] how to criticize a play with rationality,
Their sober reason undisturbed by mere theatricality. . . .
I showed them logic on the stage
Till logic now is all the rage.
They reason, they discriminate,
And everything investigate.
Their homes they manage better, too.”

Against this, Aeschylus’s summary of his own contributions largely centers around the idea of war and the virtues of the warrior–topics of much contemporary interest given Athens’ losing position in the Peloponnesian War, the other topic that co-dominates the play. In fact, the play can be read as an answer to this question: of what practical reality is the dramatist? Aristophanes asserts that the dramatist is still a teacher, and the teachers set the tone for the city. Given the lowly position into which Athens was sinking fast, Aristophanes looks back with nostalgia to the old ways, the old men, the old values of the warrior class. It’s a strange turn-about for the man who wrote the “peace plays”–the Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata. Frankly, I think this 180 degree reversal is most remarkable, and requires explanation. Whatever the cause, though, Aristophanes’ Frogs, while possibly an exercise in jealousy, and while certainly a fine example of literary criticism, can’t really be said to be “new” in this regard; Aristophanes, in creating for Euripides the lines he has, admits to as much; the play, in fact, speaks to the towering role of the third of the three Tragedians. Frogs is a fine example of literary criticism, and is excellent evidence for the literary ability of the average Athenian (spoken of in the play as bringing “books” to the dramatic performances). Perhaps Aristophanes was only concerned with literary and dramatic criticism insofar as they had practical value for the “modern” state, though, a state the comic playwright had been trying to “save” for decades.

Meanwhile, who are the frogs? We see, or rather, hear them, croaking their songs when Dionysus enters the realm of Hades. They are busy croaking away, and Dionysus can’t bear them. He tells them quite brusquely to shut up, and when they won’t, he out-croaks them till they’re silent. This happens before the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, and so I interpret the frogs to be the Athenians in general, and the Athenian dramatists, poets, and leaders–the very people Aristophanes was most disappointed with–in particular. Their proper role, he says, is to give in to the divine inspiration of the true poets, those who provide practical leadership for the city. The play, then, was written to help the Athenians separate the great poets from the frogs, just as much, if not moreso, as it was an exercise in dramatic criticism.

My verdict: a clear success for Aristophanes again, even though I am a partisan of Euripides: five stars out of five, and a more intellectually racy drama I don’t think I’ll ever read or see than this one written two-thousand five hundred years ago.


Note: for the table of contents for this series, click here.

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