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

It seems worth recalling these considerations about Aristophanes, comedy, politics, and mass culture just now because politics has, in large part, been the selling point of a recent and much-ballyhooed Lincoln Center Theater production of Frogs which opened in June and closed in October. Interest in the production was, of course, already great for a number of other reasons. It was presented in the musical adaptation by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim that premièred in 1974 in the Yale University swimming pool, a weekend-long run that has acquired a certain glamour in hindsight because in the company were a number of Yale Drama School students who went on to fame and fortune: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang.

The new production, moreover, starred Nathan Lane, who had a career-making triumph a few years ago in a revival of another Shevelove-Sondheim “classical” musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (an adaptation of several plays by the Roman comedian Plautus), and whose enormous success in the Broadway run of The Producers has made him a powerful star. It was, in addition, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, whose work on Contact and The Producers has made her something of a celebrity in her own right; and it featured new songs by Sondheim, commissioned especially for this revival.

But if it was felt that the troika responsible for such previous successes could not help but score a hit with Frogs, it was also felt by the show’s creators that because of the war in Iraq, Aristophanes’ ostensibly anti-war text suddenly had far greater relevance than it had had in a long while. A front-page article in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section that appeared just before the play’s opening noted that Lane, who was responsible for extensively revising Shevelove’s revision of Aristophanes (the program describes the play as “a comedy written in 405 b.c.” “by Aristophanes, freely adapted by Burt Shevelove, even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane”4 ), was especially eager to bring out the political strains he saw embedded in the Greek original:

Mr. Lane also talked with Ms. Stroman about the political resonance of the source material, which concerned a great democracy fighting an unwise war, leaders too puny to inspire a complacent populace, a longing to reclaim the greater voices of the past. Mr. Shevelove, following Aristophanes, for the most part had used the story to lament the terrible state of the theater; Mr. Lane wanted to focus on the terrible state of the state.

Ms. Stroman found the idea moving; “Remember, this was not yet a year after Sept. 11,” she said.5

And yet despite fervent efforts to make the revival relevant—the show is filled with in-jokes about the contemporary theater, and the final tableau is set against a glittering evocation of the New York skyline, in case you were likely to miss the post-9/11 point—this Frogs, however eye-popping its packaging, failed most egregiously in its attempts to be meaningful about the two principal themes of Aristophanes’ play: theater and politics. In an irony its creators cannot have intended, it showed, if anything, how little the theater today is “part of the life of the community,” as Dover put it; and, worse, it showed how clueless about the politics of Frogs the makers of this revival are.


Like so many contemporary updatings of Greek dramas (whether tragic or comic), this one actually becomes less relevant as a result of its frantic attempts to introduce contemporary topical references. Here I am not referring to the way in which Nathan Lane has gussied up both Aristophanes and Shevelove with jokes that neither would have dreamed of; if anything, contemporary productions of Aristophanes demand updatings of this kind, given how notoriously difficult Aristophanic humor is to get across to modern audiences. This is partly because of the extreme topicality of Aristophanes’ references (Euripides is one of the few victims of Aristophanes’ humor whom audiences today will have heard of) and even more because so much of the fun provided by Aristophanes lies in his hilarious manipulation of Greek. But to explain his wild, Grouchoesque verbal play is, of course, to kill the humor; and so Lane has, very sensibly if none too subtly, updated the jokes. There are gags about cell phones and “Viagra, the God of Perseverance,” in-jokes about the theater and about smoking pot, and arch allusions to camp film classics like the Joan Crawford biopic Mommy Dearest. Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village makes an appearance, too—as does pretty much anything that looks as if it might work in a quasi-classical context. (Xanthias remarks en passant that his parents once had a business selling condoms to Trojans.)

The visual analogues of the seemingly random, hit-or-miss humor are the spectacular, strenuously inflated production numbers: a chorus of frogs who yo-yo from bungee cords in Day-Glo tropical-amphibian leotards, writhe across the floorboards, and—inevitably—leapfrog gleefully across each others’ backs; Hellenically attired men and maidens posing like the figures on Attic vases; and a kick-line of statuesque “Hellraisers,” acolytes of Pluto whose brazen helmets erupt in flame at the end of their big number, like giant cigarette lighters.

Part of the reason these numbers feel so bloated is that the music to which they’re pinned is so weak; this score does not represent Mr. Sondheim at his best. To my mind, this is especially true of the “sentimental” song that Lane, as Dionysus, gets to sing in Act I about his dead wife, Ariadne, a song that suggests much that is wrong here. Apart from being disappointingly pedestrian (“So I gave her a crown/on the day we were wed/if you look like a goddess/you’ll feel like a goddess, I said…”), the song is an inorganically sentimental intrusion that slows down the show to no apparent point. Or, rather, a point that is only too apparent, which is the modern actor-writer’s inevitable sense that Dionysus should be a real, live, sympathetic, warm-blooded character. This is the kind of thing that contemporary audiences warm to, as the author of the Times article suggests:

But the biggest and most surprising change is what Mr. Lane made of Dionysos: in a feat of reverse apotheosis, he turned a witty but mostly disengaged demigod into a human being. Mr. Lane imbued the character, formerly little more than a vehicle for jokes, with a strain of melancholy and longing, and a powerful wish to change the world through art.

The problem, of course, is that the original Dionysus is in fact “engaged”; he just happens to be engaged not with feelings but with something less adorable, which is the theater and its politics. Lane’s desire to have his political satire’s main character be human and sympathetic suggests the root of this revival’s larger failure. Some critics complained that this Frogs was too overtly political, but what was striking about Lane’s adaptation was, if anything, how wan the political humor was—how coy, how lacking in bite. The real reason the elaborate trappings of this Frogs felt so pointless is that they were: this production had no idea what it was really about.

There were, it’s true, some political jokes about complacent “frogs,” who here stand in for those whose “narrow little eyes…match their narrow little points of view,” and there are a couple of jabs at certain politicians—“Words seem to fail them—even the simplest words!”—who “rushed into this war for reasons that are changing every day.” But when you heard these, you kept wondering why Lane couldn’t bring himself to do what Aristophanes loved to do, something that made the political humor personal, which was to name names. Why, you kept wondering, couldn’t he say “Republicans” or “Bush”? Lane, an insecure actor whose palpable craving for audience affection invariably leads him to play comic grotesques as adorable mischief-makers—as witness both The Producers and A Funny Thing, both originally vehicles for Zero Mostel—shouldn’t do political comedy, because he’s afraid to alienate even his victims.


Lane’s inability to engage incisively the material he’s taken on is most apparent in his handling—or lack thereof—of the play’s most structurally crucial and thematically important element. I refer here to Burt Shevelove’s transformation of the climactic debate between Aeschylus and Euripides in Aristophanes into a contest between William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Shevelove first had the idea of thus adapting the Greek comedy in 1941, when the young playwright was, apparently, more concerned with the fate of the theater than the fate of the polity. It’s only in that context that you can begin to fathom his choice of his contest-ants: Shaw representing “prose,” a rubric apparently meant to include incisive intellect and caustic wit (“gravity of thought…levity of expression”); Shakespeare representing “poetry,” under which, rather awkwardly it must be said, are subsumed qualities including beautiful artistry, emotionality, and overwhelming sentiment.

The conflict, for him, seemed to be this: Did people want socially edifying, but perhaps the tiniest bit boring, straight drama, or did they want something to catch their emotions—poetry, even music? Set against Shevelove’s culminating characterization of the difference between Shaw and Shakespeare as that between “intellectual interest” and “romantic rhapsody,” the fact that Shakespeare cinches his victory not by reciting verse but by singing (a song from Cymbeline) supports a reading of his Frogs as, essentially, one about the theater—more specifically, about competitions between straight plays and musicals. “The theater needs a poet,” Dionysus declares at the end of Shevelove’s text. “A great big poet. A star of poets. That’s what audiences are waiting for. Someone to lift them out of their seats, to get them going.”

Leaving aside the merits of Shevelove’s rather strained (and false) reductions of the two playwrights, there are other reasons why Shakespeare and Shaw might have made a kind of sense in 1941. It was a time, after all, when public school graduates still had read one or two plays by Shakespeare, and Shaw the controversialist was still alive, an august yet ornery figure, a presence. (In settling on Shaw, Shevelove might also have had in mind the famous connection between the Irishman and his fellow Fabian Gilbert Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, whose reading of his translation of Bacchae to the Fabian Society in 1901 made a huge impression on Shaw, who went on to model Major Barbara’s Adolphus Cusins on the classicist.) But what must have seemed a fresh adaptation sixty (and even thirty) years ago strikes you now as sadly dated. It would indeed be hard to think of a playwright less performed today, and less thought of, than Shaw.

Lane and Stroman cannot have failed to realize that Shaw means nothing to today’s audiences, that long citations from Saint Joan are likely to fall on ears innocent of any Shaw at all—and, one suspects, nearly as innocent of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, which is also cited in Frogs. In light of their professed desire to render the play more relevant, this unwillingness to tinker with Shevelove’s now outdated updating—to freshen the Aeschylus–Euripides conflict once more, substituting playwrights who occupy a more vivid place in the imaginations of today’s audiences—is disastrous. For one thing, it has the unintentional effect of making the theater seem irrelevant: one awful irony of the decision to leave Shevelove’s stale choices in place is that it makes the climactic contest of his Frogs into precisely what it wasn’t in Aristophanes’ Frogs, or even in Shevelove’s: the property of the “cultural minority.” To the Athenians, Euripides was a modern, and Aeschylus, however august, still someone worth arguing about; by allowing the aesthetic debate to be one between two (now) wholly canonical writers, Lane has emptied it of any urgency it might have had.

But the political implications of Lane’s inability to find contemporary analogues for Aeschylus and Euripides (or even Shakespeare and Shaw) are more serious. It’s no accident that most of the political jokes, such as they are, occur in the first part of the play—the part before the debate. You suspect that Lane figured that “politicizing” Frogs meant adding the veiled jabs at Hillary and Dubya and leaving things at that—that the debate about theater, in other words, had nothing to do with politics. Indeed, in the long final scene, his interventions into Shevelove’s text are minimal at best. Shevelove’s version, for instance, comes to a climax when Dionysus abandons his favorite, Shaw, upon realizing that what he needs is a “great big poet” to get people to jump out of their seats. Lane has satisfied himself with altering this line to give it an ostensibly political twist: “I now realize,” his Dionysus says, “a poet is what we need—to touch people’s hearts as well as their minds.”

“Hearts and minds” has a political ring, of course, although Lane’s unironic use of the phrase is awkward, given that it was used derisively by opponents of the Vietnam War. But then, there were other, more urgent reasons to wonder, as you sat through the grinding last hour of Nathan Lane’s Frogs, just how seriously the adapter was thinking about politics when he decided to seal the debate with a call for more “heart” in politics. I myself wonder how carefully he’d thought about Frogs as a political play before he undertook to present it in a time of war. I know that he did some research about Aristophanes and Greek theater—after all, he’s added some explanatory material to the opening, for instance the information that “everything that was of interest to the average Athenian was fodder for the author’s savage wit”—but I wonder how thorough his research was. I wonder how hard he thought about what was of interest to the average Athenian in the early spring of 405 BC, and whether it occurred to him that the average Athenian’s antiwar views might not coincide with his own.

I somehow suspect that his research did not take him far enough to learn that in Athens, it was the conservatives who were the peaceniks, and that it was the extreme democrats, under the sway of one demagogue after another, who again and again disdained peace offers during the thirty bitter years of the Peloponnesian War. Although Mr. Lane added to his introductory patter the information that Frogs enjoyed a rare repeat performance, he did not seem aware that the likely reason it was so popular among average Athenians was that there was, sandwiched into the play, a direct appeal to the audience in which the playwright called for an amnesty for those many citizens who had participated in an antidemocratic coup d’état a few years earlier.

I wonder, indeed, whether Lane was aware of Aristophanes’ essentially conservative nature, and whether in light of that, and the other things we know about Frogs and Athens in 405 BC, he understood what, to the average Athenian, the debate between Aeschylus and Euripides really stood for—that, as Professor Dover observed, it was a coded debate between appeals to the “security of the past” and “traditional…belief” on the one hand, and a so-called “‘unhealthy’ curiosity and ‘irresponsible’ artistic innovation,” on the other. If Lane and his collaborators in this superficially rewritten Frogs had kept thinking about the implications of Aristophanes’ Frogs in this light, they might have rethought their approval of Aristophanes’ “savage wit” and the way it punctuates the exchanges between the two playwrights. Between, that is to say, Aeschylus, who smugly boasts that drama ought to provide clean moral models for exemplary civic behavior, and “set…a standard of purity,” and Euripides, who desperately counters that tragedy must be subversive, that it should show “what really has happened” in order that audiences “come away from seeing a play/in a questioning mood, with ‘where are we at?,’/and ‘who’s got my this?,’ and ‘who took my that?'” But such exchanges about purity and subversiveness in art do not seem to have rung any political bells in Mr. Lane’s head.

Nor, in the end, did he seem to understand the implications of his failure to reconcile Shevelove’s Frogs with his own. To understand, that is, that the play he ended up writing, the play that everywhere values distracting pomp over genuine intellectual engagement, a play that ends, however naively, with a call for more heart and less head—with, let’s call it, an implicit endorsement of Romantic over Enlightenment ideals and values—actually serves the political aims of those real-life politicians who keep calling on us to be satisfied with the safe, grandiose nostrums of the past, rather than trying to see for ourselves what has really happened. Mr. Lane’s failure to understand his own source material made his adaptation of Frogs not very funny at all.

This unhappy consideration put me in mind of another text having to do with the lives of the ancient poets. The Vita of Aristophanes himself is largely a drab list of publications; far more interesting are the comedian’s cameo appearances in certain other works of the period. One is Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates, on trial for his life, blames the average Athenian’s bad opinion of him on Aristophanes’ Clouds, a vicious lampoon of Socrates and of intellectuals in general. Another is Plato’s Symposium, which purports to record a conversation that took place at a drinking party held in 416 BC to celebrate the tragic victory of another of Aristophanes’ victims—Agathon, whose effeminacy was so savagely mocked in Women at the Thesmophoria. The conversation is ostensibly about love, but like so many Athenian texts, it’s really about a lot of things at once; and indeed, theater—inevitably, under the circumstances—comes up.

The dialogue ends with all the revelers passed out except for Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon—the philosopher, the comedian, the tragedian. The first of the three, Plato tells us, “was trying to prove to them that authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy.” You have to wonder whether Plato, given the terrible hindsight he had—the dialogue was written long after Socrates’ execution, a fate his “apology” failed to prevent—had Aristophanes in mind, the comedian whose savage wit did so much damage. In the dialogue, you never find out, since just as Socrates was “about to clinch his point,” his interlocutors—unwilling, no doubt, to contemplate this intrusion into their respective turf—lost interest and drifted off. No matter, though: two millennia later, Nathan Lane has proved the point. He undoubtedly thought he was offering a comic solution to the world’s woes, never dreaming that his play is part of the tragic problem.

—Election Day, 2004

This Issue

December 2, 2004