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For the Birds


by Aristophanes, adapted by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and directed by Susan Stroman
at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York,June 22–October 10, 2004


During the harsh Balkan winter of 407–406 BC, the Athenian playwright Euripides died in his self-imposed exile in Macedonia. He was just shy of eighty, and had been presenting tragedies at the theater of Dionysus in Athens for just under half a century. In view of the ways in which he had so daringly exploded tragic convention during that time—pushing the genre in the direction of romance, showing an ever-increasing preference for happy endings, introducing “low” and even quasi-comic elements (plebeian characters, outright parody)—it was perhaps only appropriate that the tidings of the tragedian’s demise, when they were received back home in Athens, should have inspired both a moving tragic spectacle and a great comic invention.

The evidence for the tragic spectacle is to be found in one of the highly unreliable (but often just as highly delectable) ancient biographies, or Vitae, of the great poets—in this case the Vita Euripidis, or “Life of Euripides.” Here we are told that just a few weeks after the news from Macedonia reached Athens, another famous poet—Sophocles, who at that point was nearing ninety and himself had only a few months to live—honored his long-time rival by donning a black cloak and having his chorus and actors appear without the traditional festive wreaths when they took part in the civic ceremony known as the proagon, the parade that preceded the annual dramatic competition. There is no reason to doubt that, as the Vita goes on to say, “the people wept” in response to this irresistible (and, you can’t help suspecting, rather self-serving) bit of theater from the aged master. But it is hard to swallow the anecdote that immediately follows, which gives the cause of the great man’s death. Euripides, the author of the Vita solemnly reports, died after being torn apart and devoured by a pack of wild dogs.

Two pieces of evidence are traditionally cited to refute this alarming story. The first is that the bizarre modus moriendi is suspiciously similar to one we find in one of Euripides’ own plays—his last tragedy, Bacchae, which ends with the young Theban king Pentheus being torn to pieces by frenzied maenads. The second, which is of greater interest to us here, is laconically summarized in the Oxford Classical Dictionary as follows: “unlikely in view of Aristophanes’ silence.” Which is to say, if Euripides had perished in the headline-grabbing fashion described in the Vita, it would surely have been mentioned in what was, as it happens, the other noteworthy contemporary response to Euripides’ death, the comic one: Aristophanes’ Frogs.

Whatever form it actually took, the death of Euripides was unlikely to have gone unmarked by the popular comic playwright, who was then perhaps in his early forties. From the beginning of his career, Aristophanes had made Euripides the particular object of his parodic mirth. No other real-life figure—not even the poisonous demagogue Cleon, who took the irreverent Aristophanes to court for (an ancient commentator notes) “wronging the city” by mocking its politicians—turns up as often as a character in Aristophanes’ plays. There he is, his comic persona already firmly in place, in The Acharnians of 425, just two years after Aristophanes’ first comedy was staged: Euripides the misanthrope and misogynist, a faddish devotee of the intellectual avant-garde, a modernist who puts beggars and cripples on stage and outfits his kings in rags.

There he is again in Women at the Thesmophoria (411), a brilliant fantasy in which the women of Athens, fed up with being portrayed by Euripides as adulteresses, sex fiends, and murderesses, come together under cover of the all-female Demetrian rite called the Thesmophoria to plot the kidnapping and murder of the playwright. (Desperate to learn their plans, Euripides persuades an aged male relative to dress up in drag—advice about which they first seek from the notoriously effeminate tragedian Agathon—and to infiltrate the ritual, where he is eventually found out: a motif that Euripides himself, in one of the boldest and most felicitous literary ripostes of all time, brilliantly appropriated to devastating tragic effect in Bacchae.) And there he was yet again—or so we are told by an ancient commentator on the Wasps—in two comedies, now lost, suggestively entitled Dramas and Proagon. The association between the comedian and the tragedian was so familiar to Athenian audiences that another comic playwright, Aristophanes’ older contemporary Cratinus, coined a verb to commemorate it: euripidaristophanizein, “to Euripidaristophanize.”

Euripides would appear one final and unforgettable time in Frogs, which was produced at the Lenaea Festival, a civic and theatrical event at which comedy predominated, in the early spring of 405—just a few weeks, as it happened, before the first, posthumous performance of Bacchae, at the City Dionysia. The play is yet another ingenious fantasy involving the abduction of Euripides, although this time the kidnapping may be said to be more of a rescue mission than an ambush. The donnée of the comedy is that the theater god Dionysus, sorely missing his favorite playwright, decides to sneak down to Hades in order to restore the recently dead poet to the upper world. (In order to get there in one piece, the rather fey god of theater and wine goes disguised as the macho Herakles—a clever inversion of the drag scene from Women at the Thesmophoria, and source of a good deal of comic business.) But as so often in Aristophanes, the burning private yearning of a single, rather monomaniacal character ends up involving the body politic itself. For when he finally reaches Hades, Dionysus finds himself embroiled in a “great fight among the corpses” (in Richmond Lattimore’s felicitous translation): a “high argument,” one that has been raging between the rather august Aeschylus, dead for fifty years, and the newcomer Euripides, about “which one really was better than the other.”

It is only now that the mission of the god shifts: he agrees to judge the theatrical contest, and in so doing he assumes a public role that would have been familiar to Athenian audiences, for whom theater, like nearly everything else, was a competitive event. And indeed, it is during this contest that the comedy’s most memorable literary-critical claim emerges: that the dramatic poet’s duty is, in fact, a public one—to “inject some virtue into the body politic.” Given Aristophanes’ generally old-line tastes, it’s inevitable, once this claim is made, that it will be Aeschylus—here presented as manly, patriotic, rather bombastic—and not the prickly, over-intellectual, avant-gardiste, doubt-mongering Euripides whom Dionysus will bring back to Athens in order to set the grim, war-torn polity on a straight course once again. Clearly this choice struck a responsive chord: the Athenians liked the play so much that they not only awarded it a first prize, but—a rare distinction—granted it a second performance.


In view of the fact that most of his theatrical career overlapped with the drawn-out and ultimately disastrous Peloponnesian War, and, further, that there was no shortage of corrupt, inept, and harmful politicians to make fun of, the popular comedian’s marked preoccupation with a poet of high tragedy may strike us, today, as odd. (It’s as if Jon Stewart were to hold forth every week about Harold Pinter.) And yet the way in which the contest between the dead poets in Frogs enmeshes artistic concerns and political issues reminds us that for the Athenian theatergoer attending the play’s first performance, theater (occurring only during the course of the annual state-sponsored patriotic festivals) and politics (played out, as often as not, by prominent “actors” on the public “stage,” artfully trained to perform before audiences of citizens sitting in assemblies much as they sat in the theater) were far closer to one another than we can even begin to imagine today. Indeed, although there has been a great deal of scholarly comment during the past generation on the way in which Greek tragedy—which is to say, Athenian tragedy—was a vehicle for working out issues central to the ideology and identity of the democratic state, it was of course also the case that comedy, too, was deeply political.

Even if you don’t go as far as some modern critics have in their attempts to set comedy on an equal footing with tragedy (claiming, for instance, that comic poets “were the constituent intellectuals of the dêmos during the period of full popular sovereignty…and in their institutionalized competitions they influenced the formulation of its ideology and the public standing of individuals”1 ), it is easy to see, from the remains of Athenian comedy, that it was able to comment on the preoccupations of the polis—corruption in political office, the excesses of the radical democracy, the effect of the war on families back home—with a kind of caustic gusto and explicitness that tragedy, sealed as it was in the world of mythic allegory, could not. Here a vignette from another of those ancient Vitae—this time the “Life” of Aristophanes himself—is deeply suggestive, however apocryphal it may be: we’re told that when Plato’s not very apt pupil, Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, declared that he wanted to study the politeia of Athens (a word that can mean not only “constitution” but also “the life of the citizen,” the whole democratic way of life), Plato replied by sending him a text of Aristophanes.

It was precisely because it so strongly reflected the concerns of the state and its citizens that comedy was so preoccupied with tragedy. We must remember that for the Greeks, tragedy wasn’t “high” and comedy wasn’t “low”—at least not as we think of these categories today; we must remember that for the Greeks, Greek tragedy was, like Greek comedy, a form of mass entertainment. All citizens of Athens were expected to attend the tragic festivals (the nominal two-obol fee was subsidized by the state in the case of indigent citizens). It is impossible to understand Greek comedy’s relationship to Greek tragedy—to understand, in other words, Aristophanes’ obsession with Euripides—without acknowledging the extent to which tragedy was a form of what we today would call “popular” entertainment. In an essay about Frogs, Sir Kenneth Dover emphasized that since tragedies

were written for mass audiences, tragedy as a whole could be used as material for humour in the same way as agriculture and sex and war could be used; it was part of the life of the community, not like chamber music or Shakespeare—the cultural interest of a minority.2

It is in this context that we should read a play like Frogs, in which aesthetic battles turn out to be a kind of code for ideological conflicts, as Professor Dover also argued:

Aiskhylos was the poet of the generation which fought off the Persians and created the Athenian empire, Euripides the poet of their own more precarious days. This makes it possible for Aristophanes to assimilate the contest between Aiskhylos and Euripides to the familiar antithesis between the valour, virtue and security of the past, sustained by what seemed from a distance to be unanimity in the maintenance of traditional usage and belief, and the insecurity of the present, beset by doubts, “unhealthy” curiosity and “irresponsible” artistic innovations.3

  1. 1

    See Jeffrey Henderson, “The Demos and Comic Competition,” in Oxford Readings in Aristophanes, edited by Erich Segal (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 65–66.

  2. 2

    K.J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (University of California Press, 1972), p. 188.

  3. 3

    Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, p. 183.

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