Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Frogs - Aristophanes

Aristophanes’s Frogs is one of the earliest examples of comedy known to Western Civilization. First presented in 405 BC, this ancient Athenian play lampoons many people and concepts.  Among Aristophanes’s targets was literature in the form of the Ancient Greek Theatre, along with the concept of literary criticism itself. The play is both hilarious and thought provoking.

Aristophanes presents the story of the God Dionysus’s, and his slave Xanthus’s, trip to Hades in order to bring back a great tragic playwright. This quest is motivated by the opinion that the quality of serious drama has declined in Athens. Arriving in Hades, a contest between the prodigious, now deceased dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides is exacerbated as the two great authors vie to be Dionysus’s choice to return to the land of the living. In the process, each proceeds to make a mockery and ridicule one another’s work. In the end Dionysus chooses Aeschylus to return with him.

I first read Frogs about ten years ago. Having been much less intellectually prepared at the time, I would estimate that I comprehended about fifty percent of the references made concerning subjects such as Greek theatre, mythology, politics, contemporary events, Athenian government, etc. The fact that I am more knowledgeable about these topics now, allowed me to grasp a great deal more during this go around. However, I found that using an online set of notes, plus a very accessible translation by Ian Johnston, really opened up the play for me.

Frogs, with its myriad and ancient allusions can be tough to appreciate. Before tackling this work I recommend first reading both Aeschylus and Euripides. In addition, a basic knowledge of ancient Geek mythology is indispensible. An understanding of the outlines of Ancient Greek history, with emphasis on Athenian Democracy as well as the Peloponnesian War, during which time Frogs was written, would be very helpful. Finally, for all but those who are experts in the subject matter, a set of notes on the work is extremely advantageous.

Frogs both illustrates as well as sets the standard for how great comedy fits into our world. The plays of Aristophanes are some of, and perhaps the, oldest known examples of the form. Thus, in a way, Aristophanes has been the teacher of comedy for all who have delved into the medium since.

In Frogs Aristophanes satirizes not just the God Dionysus and various Athenian politicians, generals, etc., but he mercilessly ridicules both Aeschylus and Euripides themselves. I emphasize the mockery of these two figures because these playwrights were not only revered in Aristophanes’s time, but today, over twenty five hundred years later, they are still looked upon as some of the greatest artists who ever lived. Their subjects and themes encompass many of the most important and serious issues that we humans face. Their presentations and styles are considered to be some of the finest manifestations of high art created in all of human history.

Yet, a short time after the death of these literary titans, Aristophanes creates fictional and clownish representations of the pair, who proceed to engage in a zany, petty, vicious, and hilarious debate. Each tragedian spends line after line mercilessly skewing their counterparts’ poetic style, use of language, plots, themes, etc. They even resort to parodying each other’s work. As if this is not enough, the literary antagonists take opportunities to take gibes at one another’s personal lives and hurl cheap insults. Imagine if a modern day comedy were to portray recently deceased celebrities in the afterlife acting this. The public outcry and indignation would be intense and swift!

To me, this is the point of sophisticated and thoughtful comedy and farce. Great humor exists to show, through hyperbole, exaggeration, and at times a little meanness, the short - comings and foibles in both ourselves, as well as the world at large. One gets the sense that Aristophanes had immense respect and admiration for these men and the gravitas underlying their works.  Yet despite, and perhaps because something is immensely serious, sometimes it pays to step back and see that there is a little bit of silliness in it. In the attempt to draw attention to this affectation, Aristophanes created fictional and ridiculous representations of these men.

It seems very unlikely that in reality Aeschylus and Euripides were in any way like the immature buffoons portrayed here. Aristophanes was likely counting on the fact that his audience knew that these were not really accurate representations. Instead, these caricatures allowed the great comic playwright to look at and to analyze their works from a wholly unique and different point of view. Having read both Aeschylus and Euripides, and standing with the consensus that both were masterful geniuses, I also recognize that the parody here strips their admittedly magnificent plays of some of their pretentions. This sounds contradictory, but it is just another way of seeing the world from various points of view. At least for a short time, divesting some of the seriousness from these great tragedies is stimulating and enlightening. This is what real comedy should be about.

One final thought,

Brekekekex koax koax
Brekekekex koax koax !   


Violet said...

I had to read the Greek plays at uni and soon found out they are better read aloud. I think there was probably a lot of audience participation, too. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I have never seen a live performance of The Frogs. I bet that it would really bring a lot out. On the other hand I think that one might miss a lot of the obscure references. I suppose it is best to read these and then see them live shortly thereafter. I find that method works really well with Shakespeare.