The Frogs

This article is about the play by Aristophanes. The Frogs is also a controversial rock band. See The Frogs.

The Frogs is a comedy written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. It was performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 405 BC.


The play

The Frogs tells the story of how the god Dionysus, despairing of the state of Athens tragedians, travels to Hades to bring Euripides back from the dead to rescue the Athenians.

However, in the underworld, a small "civil war" is going. Euripides, who had only just recently died, is challenging the great Aeschylus to the seat of 'Best Tragic Poet' at the dinner table of Pluto. A contest is held with Dionysus as judge . Dionysus eventually chooses Aeschylus, although he had originally set out to retrieve Euripides, because he knew "from the depth of his heart" that the traditional and morally sound Aeschylus was the only tragic poet for the job.

The title of the play derives from the chorus of frogs that greets Dionysus when he is ferried across the river Styx.

Plot synopsis

Dionysus decides to descend into the underworld, a Katabasis, in order to bring Euripides back from the dead. He is taught the safest way by Heracles, his half-brother, and the only living man to have successfully made the journey there and back (other ways include hanging, hemlock, and hurtling from high towers, which Dionysus declines...) Heracles gives Dionysus directions, and the ritual lion skin and club (Heracles hyper-masculinity is mockingly contrasted with Dionysos effeminacy in this scene). Dionysos travels with a slave on this journey, with whom he will constantly exchange the lion skin and club, in order to gain advantage in various situations. Travelling via Charons ferry, Dionysos listens to the chorus of the frogs (as amphibians, effectively guardians of the passage between the two worlds, their chant - Brekekekex ko-ax ko-ax is constantly repeated as if it were a magical invocation), these turn out to be the dead initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and after winning a contest with them Dionysos manages to cross the river Styx. More obstacles face the travellers however. Following threats from Aeacos - the aged gatekeeper of Hades - of a terrifying ordeal, after which Dionysus admits to soiling himself (though telling Xanthias the slave that he gave an 'involuntary libation'), as well as hearing promises of the luxuries of food and dancing girls awaiting them, the pair pass a final whipping ordeal - to prove their divinity - and finally trick their way passed Aeacos into the palace of Hades. When recognised Dionysos is then made the judge in the great Agon, or poetry contest, between Euripides and Aeschylus, and unexpectedly brings back Aeschylus.

The play is clearly a comedy and mocks Dionysus and his ways (some believe a secret initiation of the Dionysian Mysteries may even be preserved in the narrative), however the humour also contains a secret lesson.

The musical

Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove "freely adapted" The Frogs into a musical, performed in Yale's gymnasium's swimming pool, in the mid-70s. Again Dionysus, despairing of the quality of living dramatists, travels to Hades to bring George Bernard Shaw back from the dead. William Shakespeare competes with Shaw for the title of best playwright, which he wins. Dionysus chooses to bring Shakespeare back instead, thereby improving the world, and its political situation. This original production is most famous for having Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang in its ensemble. Sondheim described the acoustics of the original production thusly: "It was like performing in a urinal."

A revival production, "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane, opened on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in July 2004, with Nathan Lane and Roger Bart headlining. (Chris Kattan had co-starred in previews, but dropped out a week before the premiere and was replaced by Bart.) John Byner, Daniel Davis, Peter Bartlett, Burke Moses, and Michael Siberry all appeared in lesser roles, with a young and attractive chorus dancing and performing acrobatics, and frog ballet on bungee cords.

Songs include the "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" ("Don't fart. There's very little air and this is art.); "I Love to Travel"; "Dress Big"; "All Aboard"; "Ariadne"; "The Frogs" ("Brek-kek-kek-kek, Brek-kek-kek-kek! Whaddaya care the world's a wreck? Leave 'em alone and send a check. Sit in the sun and what the heck, whaddaya wanna break your neck for? What for? Big deal! Big bore!); "Hymn to Dionysos" ("We are come to thank you for the gentle tendrils that intertwine to produce the grapes that produce the wine... Out of wine comes truth, out of truth the vision clears, and with vision soon appears a grand design. From the grand design we can understand the world. And when you understand the world, you need a lot more wine."); "Hades"; "It's Only a Play" ("Words are merely chatter, and easy to say. It doesn't really matter, It's only a play. It's only so much natter which somebody wrote. And the world's still afloat so it's hardly a note for today"); "Shaw", and "Fear No More".

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