Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Frogs, by Aristophanes

The odds were firmly stacked against my liking The Frogs, in spite of my previously well reported love for the Sondheim play based on the same material.  The supposed problem was with the author.  Whole books have been written about the complex relationship between Socrates and Aristophanes; indeed, even up to the point of suggesting that Aristophanes' satirical view of Socrates in his plays may have placed a bit of Socrates' blood on the great comedian's hands.  Readers of my joint blog with my wife know that Socrates is my spirit animal and I felt, as I was beginning to read this piece, I would be fellowshipping with darkness, as it were.

But then, as it turned out, I loved the piece unequivocally.  It was the piece in all of the Harvard Classics which I have most enjoyed reading.  I actually laughed out loud at one section.  I do not expect that to happen again in the 42 volumes I have left to read.  I found many comedic conventions employed which still have yet to be improved upon.  In this, it is difficult to imagine a more concise definition of a comedic "classic."

We have a very different view of the gods in this piece, especially of Dionysus who goes from a chaotic murderer in the previous piece to a slapstick, foppish goofball.  Dionysus is grieved over the death of the tragedian Euripides and, taking a cue from Heracles, decides to descend to the Underworld in order to bring Euripides back from the land of the dead.  In fact, Dionysus goes seeking direction from Heracles dressed in a lionskin, just as Heracles did.  This gives opportunity for more visual humor:

I was amazed at the sophistication of the satire and meta-narrative.  Aristophanes, in having Dionysus praise Euripides at the outset, sets him up to be mocked and roasted as the action unfolds, all without, presumably, delivering offense to those Euripideans in the audience.  In the first few moments of the show, Xanthias reveals that the characters are aware that they are in a play (also referenced later in Hades when the audience is referred to as some of the more ignoble damned.)  The section in which Dionysus judges between Euripides and Aeschylus to decide which he will bring back from the dead acts as a sort of Christmas tree on which Aristophanes gets to hang jabs at each of the playwrights.  The part that elicited genuine, vocal laughter from me was when Aeschylus interrupts Euripides' prologue recitations with "... and lost his little flask of oil" at moments where the phrase fits perfectly while reducing the verbal image presented to absurdity.  It is a form of humor that we still practice in "That's what she said" or when we add " bed" to the end of fortune cookie fortunes. 

We as a society.  Not we as in Laurie and I.

This piece, placed between The Bacchae and Cicero in our series, was a much needed respite.  I would love to produce this play (direct actually.  Or play Dionysus.  I think the character, at least in this piece, is within my type-range.)  I think the placement was an inspired stoke on the part of Dr. Eliot.  We have the basis of understanding the material by this point, we are then given the opportunity to play with it.  I feel that this is one of the great and important functions of education, specifically a Classical one.  One must needs understand the rules, as they say, before one proceeds to break them.

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