Classical Drama and Society
SECTION 3: ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY
Reading 4: Old Comedy
TEXT: Aristophanes, The Frogs 460-673
Questions to Ponder Concerning This Text:
• How does this comedy, which deals so explicitly with the past and the theatre itself, relate to the history of comedy and drama?
• What does this comedy require of actors, technicians and producers?
• How does it compare to tragedy? Specifically, in what ways is the character of Dionysus here different from and similar to Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae?
• How does Aristophanes use (and abuse) the conventions of theatre in his day to enhance this particular drama? Consider especially the Heracles costume shared by the actors playing Dionysus and Xanthias.
Introduction: The premise of The Frogs is ludicrous, another preposterous "great idea" that is so typical of the themes driving many of Aristophanes' plays. In this case, the central character is none other than Dionysus himself, the god of drama, who, as the play opens, is worried about his Athenian festival, the Dionysia. Because of the recent deaths of Euripides and Sophocles (406 BCE), he fears there will be no more good playwrights and his celebration and worship will begin to decline. So he decides to dare the unthinkable and try to resurrect one of the great playwrights of the past to life. This means he must visit the Underworld and convince the very scary Hades, the god of the dead, to relinquish the soul of one of Athens' most popular playwrights.
This entails several problems, not the least of which is that the comic Dionysus is a terrible coward. He has, after all, died in his own mythology, so he knows just how bad and painful dying really is. Unsure about the best way to break into the Underworld and ever unsteady in his valor, he devises an ingenious plan. He will put on the disguise of Heracles (Hercules), who in the last and most spectacular of his famous labors forced his way into Hades' realm and stole the watchdog of Hell, the three-headed hound Cerberus. Dionysus figures that, if Hades' guards see "Heracles" coming again, they will all run away and let him enter without a fight. Pretending to be brave is a coward's best way in.
As the action begins below, the god and his man-servant Xanthias ("Blondie") have reached the gates of Hades and are about to knock on the door. Note that much of the comedy of this scene is based on character types: Dionysus is cowardly, Heracles is a glutton, slaves are wily and fickle, Hell is the sum of all fears.
DIONYSUS: (to Xanthias) So, how should I knock on the door? What do you think? How do they do it around here, the natives you know?
XANTHIAS: Stop stalling! Just take a big bite out of the door! You've got the clothes and the steel of Heracles.
DIONYSUS: (knocking boldly and calling the servant inside) Oh boy! Boy!
(Aiacos bursts out of the door. He is the doorman of Hades, Hell's butler of a sort.)
AIACOS: Who's there?
DIONYSUS: (striking a pose) Heracles the bold!
AIACOS: (advancing on Dionysus) Oh, you little fart! You shameless, disgusting, disorderly scumhead! Total scumhead! Number one scumhead! You snatched our dog. Remember him, Cerberus? Put a choke collar on him, flitted off and ran away, off you go, taking him. I was supposed to be guarding him. But now I've got you, right where I want you: pinned to the floor. Rocks, like those by the black-hearted Styx and the cliffs of blood-dripping Acheron, that's what's waiting for you! And the hounds of Cocytus are circling, and the Echidna with a hundred heads which will probably rip apart your spleen and then that giant, the eel of Kalamari, it's gonna mash up your lungs. And your kidneys, too, those together with your bleeding bowels, my good friends, the Gorgons, will rip them all into little tiny, biddy, micro-pieces. I'll go get them and be right back.
(Aiacos runs back inside the doors. Dionysus slides down the wall beside the door, speechless from terror. He looks down inside his Heracles suit.)
XANTHIAS: Hey! What's wrong? What is it?
DIONYSUS: (looking up from his pants) Number two. Gotta fresh diaper?
XANTHIAS: (sighing) You idiot! Now stand up! Hurry, before someone sees you like this.
DIONYSUS: (standing uneasily) I don't feel so good. Be a good boy, put a cold sponge over my heart!
XANTHIAS: There, there! (with a look of disgust, holding out the sponge for him) Fine, here. You, put it.
DIONYSUS: (feeling the air for the sponge) Where is it?
(Xanthias puts the sponge in Dionysus' hand. Dionysus immediately shoves it down his pants.)
XANTHIAS: Good golden gods! Is that where you keep your heart?
DIONYSUS: When it's scared, it creeps down there to hide.
XANTHIAS: You are the worst coward among gods—and men too.
DIONYSUS: (rising to his feet) Me? A coward? I asked you for a sponge, didn't I? Would a coward have done that?
XANTHIAS: As opposed to what?
DIONYSUS: Lie there and stink. If I were a real coward, that's what I'd do. But, no, I got up on my two feet and wiped my own self off.
XANTHIAS: The king of the jungle.
DIONYSUS: By god, didn't you nearly die of fright? The way he yelled? His threats?
XANTHIAS: No, by god, I don't care.
DIONYSUS: Well then, Man of Steel, big guy, you be me! (taking off the Heracles outfit) Take this club and this lionskin, Mister No-Fear-In-My-Spleen. And I'll be your baggage-handler in this act.
XANTHIAS: Fine, give them over! Like I have a choice. (putting on the Heracles outfit and striking a Superman pose) And now, behold! It's Hera-xanthi-cles! Bolder than the gods—or at least one particular god!
DIONYSUS: By god, you do look the part . . . of a runaway slave! Well then, I suppose I'll have to pick up these bags here.
(As Dionysus turns to pick up the bags, the doors open again and a beautiful, buxom maid appears.)
MAID: Heracles darling, you're back! (opening her arms) Come to mama! (rushing to him and smothering him in her breasts) Oh, when Persephone heard you were here, she immediately stuffed a big bulging batch of buns in her oven, and put on a pot of split peas—(correcting herself) no two! no three!—then she slapped on the grill a side of beef—(correcting herself) no two! no three!, . . . Oh, silly me, however many sides make a cow. And she made some brownies, your favorite! (dragging him toward the door) So come on in!
XANTHIAS: (pulling back) Thank you, no, but I couldn't.
MAID: Heavens to Apollo, I can't watch you go away like this. She's got breaded chicken breast, all sorts of fried munchies. And wine! She's opened her finest. (tugging on Xanthias) So, you have to come inside with me.
XANTHIAS: (pulling back again) You're very kind, I'm sure.
MAID: Are you crazy? I won't let you go. And there's a pretty little singing girl for you inside. The fruit is ripe and so is her back-up group. Two of them—no, three!
XANTHIAS: (giving way a little) A whole back-up group?
MAID: (pulling him toward the door) And their pears are full of juice and perfectly smooth. So come on in! Why, just this second the cook took the tortillas off her stove and set the mesa. Ole!
XANTHIAS: (pulling away) OK, you go in and tell those back-up singers to keep their backs up ‘cause Heracles is a-coming. (to Dionysus) Oh, boy! Be so kind as to carry my bags in, would you?
(The Maid goes back inside the doors.)
DIONYSUS: Just wait a minute here! What's the rush? It's not like anyone's gonna die here. (laughs at himself) You know I was only joking when I let you wear my Heracles suit. Now, let's stop all this silliness, Xanthias, and just take back this luggage, OK?
XANTHIAS: What? Was that your plan, to take it back?
DIONYSUS: Not exactly, but I'm doing it now. Hand over the lion skin.
XANTHIAS: (taking off the Heracles outfit) I'm going to remember this, as god is my witness.
DIONYSUS: What god? What did you think? Idiot! Fool! You, a slave and a mortal, could be Heracles?
XANTHIAS: Who cares? (throwing the costume at Dionysus) Take it! (threatening) But someday you're going to need me, and then god knows, I'll . . . I'll . . .
(Dionysus puts on the Heracles costume. The doors open again. Out rush two women, one a barmaid and the other a restaurant-owner named Plathane.)
BARMAID: Plathane! Plathane! Come here! (pointing at Dionysus) It's that scoundrel, the one who came into your restaurant and ate sixteen loaves of our bread.
PLATHANE: Oh my god! It is him!
XANTHIAS: Uh, oh! Someone's in trouble.
BARMAID: (accosting Dionysus) And on top of that, he took twenty steaks, already cooked, worth at least half an obol each.
XANTHIAS: (shaking his finger) You'll pay for that.
BARMAID: And garlic, a ton of it!
DIONYSUS: (to the Barmaid) Are you out of your mind, woman? You don't know what you're saying.
BARMAID: You think, since you're wearing those tragic boots, I wouldn't know you? Well, so what! I didn't even mention all the kippers, did I?
PLATHANE: My god, what about the cheese, our poor fresh cheese! He even ate the basket it came in.
BARMAID: And then when I gave him the bill, he stared daggers at me and roared like a lion.
XANTHIAS: (to Plathane) That's definitely him. That's the way he handles everything.
BARMAID: (starting to cry) And then he pulled out his sword and pretended he was mad.
PLATHANE: There, there! You poor thing!
BARMAID: (wailing) I was so afraid I ran straight upstairs. So did everyone. And then he left, just like that. (sobbing) And took our mattresses.
XANTHIAS: He ate your mattresses? That's him definitely.
PLATHANE: We've got to do something.
BARMAID: Go and call a lawyer. This is a job for Cleon.
PLATHANE: Oh, and if you run into Hyperbolus, get him for me. We'll cream this guy.
BARMAID: (to Dionysus) You big stomach! I'd like to take a rock and knock all your teeth out, the teeth you used to chew up my property.
PLATHANE: And I'd like to throw you in a big pit.
BARMAID: And I'd like to cut out your esophagus with a carving knife, the same knife you used on our sausages.
PLATHANE: I'm getting Cleon. He'll haul you into court for doing this and force it out of you.
(The women leave. Pause.)
DIONYSUS: (sweetly) You know, Xanthias, I would just die if I didn't have you.
XANTHIAS: Oh, I know what you're thinking. Stop! Don't even say it! I will not be Heracles again.
DIONYSUS: Don't say that, sweet little Xanthias!
XANTHIAS: How can a mere slave, what's more, a mortal, I, become the son of Alcmena?
DIONYSUS: I understand. You're angry, and you're right to feel that way. But even if you hit me, I won't say a word. (taking off the Heracles costume) And if I ever take this from you again, may I die right on the spot, completely, my wife too, and my dear little children. And Archedemos, sitting right there, bad eye and all!
XANTHIAS: (taking the costume) If that's your oath, then I accept . . .
(Xanthias puts on the Heracles costume again. Aiacos enters, carrying chains and a whip. He is accompanied to three burly thugs.)
AIACOS: (pointing at Xanthias) Dog-napper! Grab him! It's time for you to face the music. Get him!
DIONYSUS: (imitating Xanthias) Uh, oh! Someone's in trouble.
XANTHIAS: (to Dionysus) Oh, go to hell! (to Aiacos) Stay away from me!
AIACOS: Oh, you want a fight? (to the thugs) Ditylas! Sceblyas! Prodokas! Go over there immediately and beat that person up!
DIONYSUS: (to Aiacos) I'm shocked, really I am. The man steals your property and then attacks you.
AIACOS: We'll bring him down a notch.
DIONYSUS: Terrible! Shocking!
XANTHIAS: (holding out his hand and stopping the thugs) As god is my witness, if I ever came here before, may I drop dead, or ever stole anything of yours worth even a hair. And, if you don't believe me, I will prove it to you by doing the most gentlemanly thing I can think of. (pointing to Dionysus) Take my slave here and beat the truth out of him. And if you catch me telling a single lie, you can take me and kill me, too. (note)
AIACOS: Beat him? How?
XANTHIAS: Any way you like. Tie him up on the "ladder." Hang him. Whip him with the "porcupine." Flay him. Put him on the rack. Pour vinegar all the way up his nose. Pile a load of bricks on him. Anything like that, except no leeks. Don't hit him with a fresh onion or any cruciferous vegetable. He's allergic.
AIACOS: That seems fair. But what if I cripple him, by hitting him too hard? I promise I'll pay you for him.
XANTHIAS: (shaking his head) Oh, don't be silly.
Just take him away and torture him.
AIACOS: No, I'll do it right here. That way you can see what he says. (to Dionysus) You! Put down those bags! Hurry up! And don't even think about telling a lie.
DIONYSUS: I'm warning everyone here: don't you test me. I'm immortal! If you do, you'll have only yourself to blame.
AIACOS: Say what?
DIONYSUS: I am immortal, I say. Dionysus, the son of Zeus. (pointing at Xanthias) That man is my slave.
AIACOS: (to Xanthias) You hear this?
XANTHIAS: Yes, I hear him. All the more reason to whip him. After all, if he is a god, he won't feel anything, will he? (laughs, and Aiacos joins in laughing)
DIONYSUS: (to Xanthias) Okay, so if you're a god, as you claim, you should be beaten, too.
XANTHIAS: (thinking it over for a moment) That seems fair. (to Aiacos) So, whichever of us two you see crying or even noticing the blows first, you know he's not the god, right?
AIACOS: (to Xanthias) You certainly are a gentleman. You know what's fair. So, take off your shirts!
XANTHIAS: How are you going to test us fairly?
AIACOS: That's easy. Each of you, one blow at a time.
XANTHIAS: Oh, Aiacos, that's very good.
(Dionysus and Xanthias remove their shirts and stand with their backs to Aiacos.)
AIACOS: OK, here we go! (hits Xanthias)
XANTHIAS: Watch closely to see if I move when you hit me.
AIACOS: I already hit you.
XANTHIAS: Did not.
AIACOS: (to himself) Must not have felt it. I'll go over and hit this one. (hits Dionysus)
DIONYSUS: Any time now.
AIACOS: I hit you, too.
DIONYSUS: I must have sneezed and missed it somehow.
AIACOS: (to himself) I don't get it. I'll go try him again.
XANTHIAS: Well, do it then. (Aiacos hits Xanthias.) Oh god!
AIACOS: He said "Oh god!" He must have felt something.
XANTHIAS: No, no! I was just having a religious moment. Thinking about my festival, the Diomeia. (sighs and smiles)
AIACOS: A saint at least! Let's go back to the other one. (hits Dionysus)
AIACOS: What's that?
DIONYSUS: I thought I saw the cavalry coming.
AIACOS: (looking at Dionysus' face) I thought I saw a tear coming.
DIONYSUS: It's all those onions they feed them.
AIACOS: So, you didn't notice anything?
DIONYSUS: Nothing that bothered me.
AIACOS: Guess I'll have to go back to this one. (hits Xanthias)
AIACOS: What did you say?
XANTHIAS: (holding up his foot) I think I got a splinter in my foot.
AIACOS: I don't know. Better try this one again. (hits Dionysus)
DIONYSUS: Apollo in heaven! (singing, to the tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") . . . who lives over in Delos, Delphi too!
XANTHIAS: (to Aiacos) He felt that! You heard him, didn't you?
DIONYSUS: No, no, no. I was just singing one of those good old songs I love.
XANTHIAS: You're not really trying. Hit him on the side!
AIACOS: Good idea! (to Dionysus) Turn over. Let's see your belly. (hits Dionysus)
DIONYSUS: (yelling in pain) Poseidon!
XANTHIAS: Someone's hurting.
DIONYSUS: (singing through his tears, to the tune of "Maria")
. . . I just met a god named Poseidon!
AIACOS: Heavens to Demeter! I can't tell which of you is the god. We'll have to go in. The master will know who you are, and Persephone too. They're the real gods down here.
DIONYSUS: Good idea! But you might have thought of that a little sooner.
(Exeunt all inside the gates of Hades.)
[In the finale of the play, Dionysus presides over an agon ("struggle") between the ghosts of Aeschylus and Euripides, each vying to be restored to life. Their contest over whose plays were better not only ranks as Western literature's first lengthy extant piece of dramatic criticism but also gives us much information on Greek tragedy and its reception in the day.]
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