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…

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