Aristophanes’ The Frogs: Old Tales From White Males

WARNING!  This post contains TOO MANY old white men and no diversity!  Old tales from white males. 

AristophanesAristophanesThe Frogs is a comedy that seems to take part in the tradition of old people bitching about the younger generation and praising the golden age of their youths.  Aristophanes is a master and legend of the stage, and there is perhaps no Grecian playwright who was better at writing a comedy than Aristophanes, but The Frogs does not come across as his finest work.  The narrative is episodic, and though linked together through themes, each scene has little impact on the subsequent scenes.  This can be useful in some senses, but it is not an approach that I personally enjoy.  Coupled with this, the version of the play I read most recently is translated by Paul Roche, and the approach adopted by the translator can have a huge impact on the narrative.

 

When reviewing a translated work, it is important to address the approach of the translation.  In the original Greek, Aristophanes’ work was written in rhyme.  When translating this work to English, both the meter and the rhyme are at risk of being lost.  A word that might be a single syllable in Greek, might be three syllables in English, or vice versa.  This drastically impacts the meter.  Likewise, the order of the words may be changed from one language to another, changing the end word and thereby subverting the rhyme, which may also be subverted as the words in the translation, even if they remain at the end of the line, might not rhyme as they do in the source text.  Weighing these things together, a translator often has to decide whether or not to prioritize the meter and rhyme above the literal translation, in order to keep the poetic form intact, or to prioritize the literal translation of the words in order to keep the author’s intended meaning.  It is impossible, of course, to choose between the two, because when a poet/dramatics is writing, form is part of meaning, so to change the form is to change the meaning.  Roche makes an honest effort, but is tasked with a challenge that is impossible to overcome.  He keeps the poetic meter for the most part, but not the rhyme (though the work does rhyme in some instances).  A translation I read in high school maintained the rhyme and meter throughout the play, which made it much more enjoyable, but also likely took great liberties with the author’s word selection/meaning.  Roche deserves credit for walking a tight line, but I am ill equipped to gauge the efficiency of the translation as I do not speak the source language.

 

 

John Ritter might have been well cast in The Frogs.

John Ritter might have been well cast in The Frogs.

As to the narrative itself, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as interesting as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  There is perhaps too much toilet humour.  Indeed, the play opens with toilet humour as Xanthias suggests to Dionysus that he tell some of his ‘corny cracks’ that Dionysus assumes requires him to ‘take a crap’.  The use of the word ‘crap’ seems a little soft for raunchy humour (‘shit’ would have perhaps been more in keeping with the spirit of the source).  Later in the play, Aristophanes relies on some slapstick humour in similar fashion as Xanthias and Dionysus end up getting whipped and must pretend not to feel anything.  The scene frankly reads like something out of a Three Stooges film, or perhaps a John Ritter outtake from Three’s Company.  How clichéd such work would have been in the context of the Grecian stage is unclear, but I get the feeling that such humour would have been seen as base then as it does now, and does not lend much credibility to the agon that takes place between Euripedes and Aeschylus in the plays ‘climax’.  When one tries to make important political observations after employing base scatological jokes and slapstick humour, it is hard to take them seriously.  That is not to suggest that scatological references and serious political commentary cannot be employed in a successful unison (Sarah Kane manages this in her play Blasted), but Aristophanes seems to be preceding his political commentary with the classical version of a fart joke.

 

Aristophanes thinks Euripides is the better tragedian between he an Aeschylus.

Aristophanes thinks Euripides is the better tragedian between he an Aeschylus.

As to the agon between Euripides and Aeschylus, it serves to prove how finite the shelf life of political humour is.  There are a number of references to various public figures in Grecian life at the time, but few outside of those who study the classics would understand the references (and not even all such academics would understand the references), and so the humour is lost.  The scene amounts to instances of topic humour that simply do not translate well.  It would be like telling a joke about Oliver North to a millennial.  The observations Aristophanes seems to be promoting are akin to an elderly man bemoaning the passing of his youth and telling his unobservant grandchildren how much better things used to be.  It is something akin to a Fox News pundit bemoaning that Chris Christie can’t bully people around because a ‘man’s man’ can’t assert himself in a ‘feminized’ atmosphere.

 

 

gilbertmurrayFor those interested in the classics or familiar with Grecian history, The Frogs is certainly a play worth reading.  Likewise, if slapstick humour and/or toilet humour and/or extremely dated political humour is your preference, than The Frogs can be worth reading.  However, if base humour and poorly aged political humour is not your cup of tea, and it you get easily annoyed listening to those who complain about how things used to be better, then this play may be one you want to skip.  If you are going to read it and have a preference for translations that maintain meter and rhyme in favour of literal translations, then Roche’s translations may not be ideal.  Try perhaps the Gilbert Murray translation.  For those who prefer maintaining the literal meaning and trying to frame it in consistent meter, Roche’s translation may be the one for you.

 

And if you are curious to see what one mother’s experience was like introducing his children to Greek drama, check out this blog post by Melora.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. I found your site through a google search, trying to determine whether The Frogs was originally written in rhyme, and so I thank you for answering my question And for your excellent review! I just finished Frogs and was very disappointed with it, but when I posted my review on Goodreads I couldn’t help noticing that I was apparently one of the few readers who didn’t find it brilliant and witty. Your review confirmed my opinion and expressed it more gracefully!

  2. Rambler Rambler says:

    Yeah, I think people feel like because it is Aristophanes, they have to like it. It’s like Shakespeare…. it is held up on a pedestal and it can take some courage to concede that you don’t think a given piece is that great. The Frogs would have been important and likely entertaining when it came out, but political humour has a short shelf life. Watching episodes of The Daily Show in 2500 years is likely not going to make for an entertaining evening. It has a time and place. Aristophanes has other plays that have aged much more gracefully than has The Frogs. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to read my post.

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