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Monday, August 23, 2004

Arts & Letters

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora

One of the legends of American theater is the 1974 Yale Repertory Theatre production of Aristophanes’ Frogs. This considerably adapted version had a libretto by Burt Shevelove, lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, and a cast that included Yale drama students Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. Members of the Yale swimming team made up the frog chorus and the setting was the university’s Olympic-sized pool. The event’s mythic status derives as much from the site’s unbelievably bad acoustics, which put into question what one did or did not hear, as from the pool’s extreme heat and humidity, which sent the audience in and out of sleep, as if in a trance. (This reviewer remembers only that the evening was short: something under an hour).

In 1990, Nathan Lane discovered the script when he was asked to play Dionysos in a performance celebrating Sondheim’s seventieth birthday. His enthusiasm accounts for the present production, to which he has contributed additional hilarious lines. Sondheim himself looked again at the music of the 1974 version (which can be heard on a Nonesuch disc sung by Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell), deleted some numbers, and added enough to create a musical of conventional length.

Aristophanes’ plays are the only examples we have of comic drama performed in Athens during the fifth century BCE. The occasion was always a religious festival in honor of the god Dionysos, during which comic and tragic playwrights competed on successive days. Of Aristophanes’ few scripts that survive, the most popular in his day was The Frogs, which won first prize at the Lenaia festival in 405; the play was so admired that the public demanded a repeat performance very shortly after the festival — an extreme rarity in ancient theater practice. In a culture that was generally conservative in esthetic matters, the comic playwrights, despite their idiosyncrasies from play to play, all obeyed certain conventions. Defined characters, a chorus, and a plot of some sort were features brought over from tragic drama, which had assumed its canonical form earlier in the century. Then there were conventions unique to comic drama. One was the extraordinary mélange of language styles employed by the playwright, from tragic, epic, and lyric poetic diction to street idiom and the rhetoric of law courts and the assembly. Contemporary audiences are not used to the occasional extremity of honest expression; and Aristophanes doesn’t use euphemisms for the graphic details he puts into his characters’ mouths. Classical scholars habitually refer to this as “coarse language,” but then the prudery that occasions our prurience was quite unknown in fifth-century BCE Athens.

The other distinguishing comic dramatic convention was an interlude called the parabasis, when the chorus addresses the audience directly, usually on matters of immediate topical interest, dropping whatever pretense the playwright might have established to make the chorus part of a dramatic storyline. Fifth-century BCE Athenian comedy is overtly political and social in a way that tragic drama never is. It is also funny, the way Minsky’s Burlesque or the Borscht Belt comedians were funny, or as The Producers is funny. It is not subtle, clever, and amusing like Noël Coward’s plays; it is full of corny jokes and a plotline that meanders so much as to be entirely incidental — along with moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty and intelligence.

The Lincoln Center production of The Frogs, with its one-liners and beautiful babes in high heels sporting some heroic décolletage, is in this grand tradition, and its centerpiece — as much the clown under the Big Top with the big nose and oversized shoes — is Nathan Lane, playing himself playing Dionysos. The first part of the opening number, “The Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” sung by Xanthias and Dionysos before the curtain, recalls the same duo in the opening of Aristophanes’ play, discussing the lines calculated to make the audience laugh. It concedes the drama for the exhilaration of humor; in this case, however, the constant wordplay, alliteration, and puns are a device of later, Roman Plautine, theater (brought over by Shakespeare into English comedy). The Frogs’ fantastical plot, on the other hand, is truly Aristophanic, and lurches from episode to episode with minimal coherence, finally managing to reverse direction entirely at the end.

An Aristophanic plot has been likened to a dream, a narrative out of Lewis Carroll, suited to the state of inebriation that probably fueled the ancient Athenian audience as it sat in the winter’s cold celebrating the god of wine. The critics of the popular press who have dismissed this production seem not to know their Aristophanes. Clearly, the writers worried over the contemporary audience’s ignorance, since the opening number’s second portion, chanted by the chorus, is an odd lecture on, more or less, Aristophanes, ancient comedy, and its fifth-century BCE context. Standing before a giant representation of an ancient Greek vase, the chorus concludes with a mention of the Peloponnesian War and the incompetence of Athens’s leaders, which coincides with sounds of an explosion, rising smoke, and the giant vase splitting in two. Suddenly, we are in the twenty-first century, with the Twin Towers collapsing, terrorism, and the failure of our present-day leaders to extricate us from this mess. Dionysos resolves to find a solution, while the play’s frog chorus is characterized as obdurate political conservatives who seek to strangle all opposition in their determination to achieve social, as well as political, conformity (shades of the Christian right!). The political theme that runs through this Frogs seems more aggressive and partisan than what one can read into Aristophanes, but it gives the immediate edge so characteristic of ancient comedy.

What is so well done here is the combination of serious political criticism with the nonstop delivery of silly jokes and wordplay, all done in the deadpan style of, say, Jack Benny. There are equally hilarious moments when the ancient and contemporary are juxtaposed, as when Dionysos is outfitted by Herakles with a lion pelt so as to impersonate the latter in a scene filled with dialogue and gesture that comes straight from the fitting rooms of some high-class women’s furrier. I guess you either like that stuff or not. This critic (who must confess to not being enchanted by Aristophanes, even after having read all of him more than once) found himself, on two visits to this play, right alongside the rest of the audience, laughing himself silly (at least part of the time).

The dramatic premise of The Frogs is that, with Euripides and Sophocles recently dead in 405, Dionysos, god — or, as we would say now, patron saint — of theater, decides to journey to the underworld to retrieve Euripides so as to restore moral, ethical, and philosophical tone to drama. (It’s the sort of thing today that would be a Time cover story: “Where Is Drama Heading Now?”) Once there, Dionysos finds Aeschylus and Euripides quarreling over the throne of drama, and he determines to hold a contest, at the end of which he quite arbitrarily decides to bring back Aeschylus because he is so noble. This change in plot is an intervention as arbitrary as the chorus’s out-of-character pleas for amnesty (for citizens who were exiled in recent political unrest) or its yearning for the good old days of Athens. These are what scholars consider to be an expression of Aristophanes’ fundamental conservatism in an Athens hugely changed by empire, war, and the throngs escaping into the city from a countryside ravaged by invaders. In 405, we must remember, Athens was 25 years into its war against the Spartan-led coalition that challenged its imperial stranglehold on the islands of the Aegean.

It is hard to read Aristophanes at this distance, but some would say that his portrayal of Dionysos as a kind of fearful, mindless, but earnest fellow is the playwright’s own estimation of the Athenian audience for drama. The Euripides he wishes to bring back is the same dramatist Aristophanes parodies in his other extant plays as trendy and an intellectualist who questioned the established myths of state cults, espoused relative values, championed the rights of women and slaves, and was a seductively glamorous wordsmith. As he so often condescends to Euripides, Aristophanes condescends in The Frogs to an audience that admires Euripides; this being comedy, however, Aristophanes redeems that audience at the end by having Dionysos choose to bring back Aeschylus in the contest. Shevelove, however, substitutes Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw for Aeschylus and Euripides.

Thirty years ago, when this piece was originally presented, most educated persons would have known that the great classicist Gilbert Murray used to say that Shaw (his good friend) was a modern-day Euripides — which is perhaps true. One cannot imagine a contemporary audience, with its limited knowledge of dramatic texts, making much of it, however; Pinter might have been set up as a counterpoint to Shakespeare, although then the contest would have turned on style rather than content. The debate between dramatists should be the great set-piece of the play: intelligent, appealing to the audience’s sense of theater and esthetics. This is not the case here, either in the writing or acting; and, because the scene is so brief, the Shakespeare-Shaw debate doesn’t work. The bigger problem is probably that theater just doesn’t matter anymore; hence, the debate and the premise are pretty much meaningless. Maybe pitting Playhouse 90 against TV “reality” shows would have made more sense.

Lane brings something of the scheming slave he played in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Dionysos, who is, as Aristophanes conceived him, so constantly contradictory that it takes a master to hold the conception together. Dionysos is a god, so an authority, but he is also fearful and cowardly, thus more acted upon than actor, and he is a liar; whatever interest in theater or in the salvation of Athens he claims to have is diluted by his persistent self-regard. At times, Lane seems to be modeling his Dionysos on the character he played in Lisbon Traviata, without the bitchiness. The scene with Herakles — played by Burk Moses, who manages an aggressively stereotypical masculinity to match the prominent musculature of his half-naked body — seems to establish polarities of male identity in which Dionysos comes off as a dear old sweetheart more than anything else. Even before this scene, the slave Xanthias (the stereotypical subservient figure of comedy), played by Roger Bart (who entered the cast late into the previews to great acclaim), has a stance and voice that show a measure of manly authority in contrast to Dionysos’ essentially wishy-washy effeminacy. Bart and Lane are curiously reminiscent of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; in fact, one could say that Costello’s facial expressions and physical gestures are part of Lane’s comic repertory. In the latter half of the play, Peter Bartlett appears in a hilarious rendition of Pluto, the king of Hades, playing him as a dear old queen, a sort of Quentin Crisp of the dead. The comic John Byner is a marvelously funny, cranky, argumentative, and abrupt Charon, who is there to ferry the souls of the dead across the river Styx into Hades; he is equally convincing as Aeakos, gatekeeper of Pluto’s palace, employing the same dry, deadpan delivery that suits the endless laugh lines assigned to the two characters. In a production in which style is all and substance nothing, it makes wonderful comic sense to have Byner’s manner of delivery as a counterpoint to that of the Dionysos and Pluto characters.

Sondheim is famous for his clever lyrics, and he certainly does not disappoint in The Frogs; his pieces are the equivalent of the great lyric choruses that won Aristophanes such renown, especially the haunting “It’s Only a Play.” Choreographer Susan Stroman, who also directed (although one senses Lane’s hovering presence here), and the costume designer, William Ivey Long, are nowhere more effective in working with Sondheim than in the great parodos, that is, the chorus’ entrance as frogs. It is a perfectly turned combination of frog language (the famous “brek-kek-kek…koax,” as Sondheim transliterates Aristophanes’ Greek), superb frog costumes, and frog choreography, the pleasure of which is interrupted only once with an overly elaborate harnessing procedure meant to send Dionysos aloft. The high energy of the frog chorus reflects the paradox of an aggressive insistence upon their do-nothing conservative agenda; Sondheim’s lyrics for this song are a survey of negative attitudes toward any kind of change or amelioration. One is tempted to read the distinction between the chorus’ energy and the hesitating, timid manner of Dionysos as a kind of clichéd portrait of present-day conservative assurance versus the wishy-washy unfocused liberal agenda.

The production’s comic momentum is suddenly lost, however, by the curious addition — not in Aristophanes — of a kind of subplot based on a love between Dionysos and Ariadne. Ancient myth recounts how the latter was treacherously abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, only to be discovered by Dionysos, who has some kind of relationship with her, after which she dies and the wreath he had given her as her suitor is thrown into the sky, where it becomes a star. Only late-Hellenistic sentimentality could have construed a love affair here; the classical version would have been about a lovesick girl abandoned by a callous male, alone and defenseless, and taken advantage of by a god who happens on the scene. As it appears here, it is untrue to the myth, untrue to Aristophanic comedy’s alternately dry and skeptical tone, untrue to ancient fifth-century BCE notions of love and affection, and nonsense as a possibility for the Dionysos character as Lane created him; Dionysos’ mooning over Ariadne can only make the viewer cringe. Especially at the end, as the dead Ariadne leans from above to salute her lover in what is meant to be most disconcertingly a “tearjerking” scene, the generous cleavage she displays would have scared this Dionysos more than anything else. The song Nathan Lane sings in her memory is unusually harsh and unmusical even for Sondheim, requiring Lane to hold the vowels in “said,” “hell,” and “Ariadne” in a pitch that emphasizes an ugly nasality. At its conclusion, when he sarcastically says to his sleeping Xanthias, “I hope I’m not boring you,” it is tempting to read this as the authors’ unconscious defense for using the Ariadne motif.

Amid the boffo jokes, the evening has its serious side. Pluto sings a song on the virtue of being dead, the psychic peace that comes from no longer having to measure one’s actions against mortality, the joy of surrender, an ideology very much the essence of the ancient Greek tragic sense of life, the very antithesis of the Christian view of things. The parabasis, which we must remember is the moment when the ancient comic dramatist spoke to his audience, contains the lovely song, “It’s Only a Play,” which is about constructed reality and its evanescence, rather much a statement of the illusion of living, which fits into the theme of Pluto’s song. In the contest of the poets, Shakespeare wins with his song, “Fear No More,” music (by Sondheim) set to words from Cymbeline that celebrate death with such marvelous phrases as “Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney sweepers come to dust.” The tragic sense of life conveyed in these passages seems to work against the exhortation to activism that Lane as Dionysos (or Dionysos as Lane) urges on the audience. But, then again, what was the message in a dear old queen speaking out, in the fashion of someone’s adorable child doing imitations at an adult dinner party, to an audience of adoring, earnestly agreeing, comfortably smug New Yorkers? Perhaps, in the end, really just something like the tame political lampooning Aristophanes was in the habit of making. Michael Moore’s comic sensibility is more to the point.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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