Aristophanes was a favorite in his own time, when The Frogs won first prize at a Dionysian festival, 405 B.C.E., featuring competitions for tragic and comic dramas. At no time since has he enjoyed less respect and appreciation. That elusive quality of his humor we admire as wit, his appeal to a mental rather than sentimental response, his uncanny ability to be at once topical and universal, these typify a style whose sum nonetheless is greater. Even without his well known scatological world view, we recognize him as cerebral yet physical, intellectual yet given to buffoonery, socially and politically conscious yet always widely accessible.
A circle of men wearing girlish wigs, padded curves and huge dildoes turn up in a few plays to bring big issues down to Old Comedy’s measure in sex and food. Aristophanes’ satire, paradoxically the least durable sort of comedy since the most topical, does not skewer so much as tease his victims: the complacent, the politically dense, the greedy, the socially obtuse. They appear in one form or another in all his plays, though not at the center in The Frogs. This, his only literary play, pivots instead on tension between writers’ ambitions and their conventional masks of aloofness; the great playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus compete for the throne of theater in the afterlife.
The idea is loose enough to accommodate opinions and attitudes about theater, or theater about itself, always a popular subject, at least theoretically. Still, there’s a limit to what can ride in on good will for show biz and this Frogs rubs the limit.
The plot hinges on the efforts of Dionysos (Nathan Lane), divine source of drama, to restore the moral and philosophical seriousness of tragedy by fetching Euripides back from Hades. Athens needs to renew its highest values, expressed in and by its greatest drama. The deaths of Euripides and Sophocles the previous year handed Aristophanes his topical material, though he attacks Euripides in nearly every play for debasing high tragedy with commonplace characters and vulgar plots.
In updating the play, Nathan Lane, writer and actor, substitutes Shakespeare (Michael Siberry) and Shaw (Daniel Davis) for the rival Greeks. But they are WS and GBS in costume only, to populate Hades. The characters serve as props in a perfunctory plot meant as a vehicle for Lane, who for two hours performs an extended version of himself as stand-up comic. Well, yes, he travels down to Hades to find his wife, Ariadne, and as one result Sondheim wrote one lovely, new song in her name.
The rest of the music dates to the first and second productions in 1941 and 1974 respectively. The surly boatman Charon (John Byner) uses every chance to grumble and bad mouth his passengers–all the same moral size, Aeschylus or Shakespeare, when they get to him–and there’s a wonderful map blown up on the back wall that lights up key spots as Dionysos crosses the Styx.
As for frogs, or Frogs, an attack of about half a dozen hideously outfitted in bright green viscous looking skins hop around the stage in Scene Two singing a hideous song while Dionysos slogs on the road to Hades. (Otherwise Sondheim’s music is, as always, a treat.) The Greek text reportedly is saturated with sexual and excretory allusions on every page and so, one imagines, frogs with their disgusting sounds and slimy forms offered Aristophanes enough occasions for bawdry nigh unto obscenity. There is nothing cute about frogs anyway until they land on the Broadway stage and are embraced, no, cuddled by three flimsily clad doxies.
The play’s political content, slight, in which frogs sort of represent status quo conservatives, pretty well disappears in Lane’s version. Aristophanes typically wrote a call to civic duty in nearly all his work, subsidized after all by the polis for his power to arouse the rabble. The Frogs, too, was an anti-war play. None of this remains in the present version. What it is about I cannot fathom. Apparently Lane believed his setting "time: the present; place: ancient Greece" incorporated "contemporary things," unspecified, but the idea is lost in the illiterate phrasing.
Everything good about the production has nothing to do with frogs in general or the plot in particular. A wonderful blue-green back wall splits to reveal black, sharply edged "trees." Or showgirls hanging and slithering down ropes make up the sexy best part of a rather dopey chorus sounding like "na, na, na na"–don’t ask. A great starry sky opening and closing across the back is not particularly Greek except that a huge Greek vase splits into two jagged parts for an interesting effect.
And there is the occasional good line, moral, asin "good for you." When Shakespeare wins the contest with Shaw for a trip back to earth it’s because poets are more needed than critics. Indeed.