Aristophanes, The Frogs
The Frogs won first prize in 405 bce. It promotes peace, vs. the Athenian Kleophon who refused to compromise with the Spartans. The one more inevitable battle after so many in recent years, “if won, must be used as a means to an honorable peace, not as a means to conquest and empire” (474).
Dionysos, “son of Grapejuice” (481), and his slave Xanthias are travelling. Dionysos has “a craving for Euripides”: “What I want is a clever poet. For some of them are gone. The ones who’re left are bad” (486). Why not resurrect Sophocles? “Sophocles behaved himself up here. He would down there” (487). Others are “a lot of morning-glories talking to themselves” (488).
They visit Herakles, since he’s been to Hades. He tells them to kill themselves, but that’s not exactly the idea. Dionysos tries to make a deal with a corpse. He succeeds in getting a lift from Charon, while a Chorus of frogs sing and dance.
After much business in the underworld, a debate is arranged between Aeschylus and Euripides; the former “didn’t go down so well with the Athenians.” “Maybe he noticed most of them were bank robbers” (539). Euripides assesses Aeschylus: “His verse is fiercely made, all full of sound and fury, language unbridled uncontrolled ungated-in untalkable-around, bundles of blast and boast” (540). Aeschylus calls him a “compiler of Cretan solo-arias [who] fouled our art by staging indecent marriages” (541). The debate seems to be between the stodgy, moralistic, old guard — all about respect and easily offended — and the sassy, decadent, and subversive younger generation. Euripides claims he “made the drama democratic” (548): “So that’s what my plays are about, / and these are my contributions, / and I turn everything inside out / looking for new solutions / to the problems of today / … / and they come away from seeing a play / in a questioning mood, with ‘where are we at?'” (549). Aeschylus shames the audience: “you could have practiced austerity too,” and he says, “I put on my Persians, and anyone witnessing that would promptly be smitten with longing for victory over the enemy. Best play I ever have written” (552). (Not at all the impression one has from the play! So Aristophanes is indicating that the playwright is the worst judge of his own work?) Aeschylus is proud that he “never regaled you with Phaidra the floozy — or Sthenoboia the strumpet” (554); “the poet should cover up scandal, and not let anyone see it. He shouldn’t exhibit it out on the stage” (555). Euripides retorts, objecting to Aeschylus’ pompous style, “You ought to make people talk like people” (555). Aeschylus says that he set “a standard of purity” that Euripides “corrupted” (555).
Euripides dissects the opening sentences of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (558ff), and Aeschylus critiques the opening of Euripides’ Oedipus (563f). Fragments from several lost plays are also cited. Dionysos involves himself more in the event, until: “Gentlemen, my friends. I can not judge them anymore. I must not lose the love of either one of them. One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one” (576). Pluto reminds him that he came all this way, for nothing? Very well. Dionysos came to bring back a poet to help the city survive: so which can offer the best advice? Both give good answers concerning Alkibiades. After further exchanges, surprisingly, Dionysos selects Aeschylus to return with. Pluto sends off Aeschylus with the hope that he will “save us our city by your good sense and integrity. Instruct the foolish majority” (582). “All this will I do,” promises Aeschylus. “Here is my Chair of Tragedy. Give it to Sophocles there to keep for me until I come down once more, for I judge him to be the greatest of poets — after me” (582).
Aristophanes. The Frogs. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Four Plays by Aristophanes. NY: Meridian, 1994. 469-595.