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The Frogs | Context

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Decline of Athens

The Frogs was staged in 405 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE) between Athens and Sparta—just a year before Athens surrendered to Sparta after the loss of its fleet. By the time The Frogs was written, Athens was in serious decline.

Some of the issues plaguing Athens in 405 BCE included changes in leadership, more restrictive laws, and decreased focus on traditional values. Tragic playwrights, including Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, wrote of these issues. Their popularity led to greater public awareness and activism. By 405 BCE, however, all of these great tragedians had died, some very recently. In The Frogs Aristophanes sends Dionysus to the Underworld to retrieve Euripides, a tragic playwright, for the alleged purpose of helping to restore Athens to its former glory.

Satire

The Frogs, like most of Aristophanes's plays, was written as satire. Satire is a form of writing that employs jokes, irony, exaggeration, and other literary tools to poke fun at political, artistic, or social issues. While satire is usually comedic, its purpose is serious: to expose unethical or problematic practices, behavior, policies, or laws.

With The Frogs, Aristophanes conservatively defends tradition against innovation. With the rejection of Euripides in favor of Aeschylus, Aristophanes suggests that the famed Euripides contributed to the decay of Greek tragedy. Euripides is known for his rejection of Greek religion, his transformation of traditional larger-than-life characters to flawed humans, and themes of human suffering, in addition to structural changes in traditional Greek tragedy. On the other hand, Aeschylus is regarded as a master of stage conventions, plot, character, and reverential themes.

Structure of Old Comedy

The Frogs was one of the last Old Comedy plays ever written. Old Comedy was the first type of Greek Comedy, written around the 5th century BCE. Aristophanes is the best-known of the Old Comedy playwrights. It was known for its combination of energetic songs, dances, jokes, and commentary on political figures and events. Members of the Chorus were often dressed as animals. Both Chorus and lead characters used masks. Old Comedy plays were presented in Athens during the Festival of Dionysus and were usually presented only once.

The Frogs was well received, winning awards at the winter and spring City Dionysia festivals of 405 BCE. This was unusual, as plays presented at the festivals were usually presented only once. Like most of Aristophanes's plays, it is filled with both verbal and slapstick humor but also communicates a serious message.

Like all Greek plays, Old Comedy included certain stock elements, usually in a traditional order.

The structure of a Greek comedy is built on six parts:

  • The Prologos (PRAH-luh-goss), or prologue, introduces the play's characters, settings, and themes.
  • The Parodos (PAIR-uh-doss), or opening choral ode, introduces the Chorus.
  • The Parabasis (Puh-RAB-uh-sis) is a choral ode in which the Chorus members remove their masks and speak, on behalf of the playwright, directly to the audience.
  • The Agon (AG-ohn) is a debate between two speakers, usually stock characters. The first speaker traditionally loses the debate.
  • The Episodes occur between the other sections. They feature action that moves the plot forward.
  • The Exodos (EX-uh-doss), or exit scene, ends the play. Many Greek comedies included song, dance, and reconciliation in the Exodos.

In The Frogs, the action follows the same Old Comedy structure while breaking tradition in places. The Prologos: The Frogs begins with comic interactions among the major characters (Dionysus and Xanthias), but the introduction of the character Hercules appears toward the end of the Prologos. During the play the characters sometimes break the fourth wall to address the audience.

The Parodos: The first appearance of the Chorus. In The Frogs the chorus first appears as a chorus of singing frogs, but it is unclear from historic records whether they actually appeared in costume or sang from off stage.

The Agon: The Agon, or argument, usually occurs in the first half of the play. In The Frogs, however, the Agon occurs toward the end of the play, breaking with tradition. Typically, the Agon involves the protagonist defending him or herself or arguing with the Chorus. In The Frogs, however, the protagonist (Dionysus) is a judge who listens to an argument between two other characters (the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides).

The Parabasis: In the Parabasis, the Chorus is on stage alone and addresses itself to the audience in poetry, song, and/or dance. In The Frogs the Parabasis focuses on Athens's decline and the need for a return to traditional ways of thinking, teaching, and behaving.

The Episodes: Episodes are short, humorous scenes in which the protagonist interacts with a variety of characters. Many of the Episodes in The Frogs involve comic interactions among various characters at the gates of Hades.

The Exodos, or Finale: Often, the finale of a comic play is a short, humorous sendoff. In the case of The Frogs, however, the finale incorporates a heartfelt set of verses performed by the Chorus, who reinforce the play's messages.

The Frogs in the Modern World

While the overall plot of The Frogs isn't well known, the singing frogs are often alluded to in modern settings:

  • In English composers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance (1879), the Major-General sings that he "knows the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes."
  • American composers Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove adapted The Frogs to develop a modern musical by the same title. Instead of a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides, however, Sondheim substitutes Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and English playwright William Shakespeare.
  • The frog chorus is part of Yale University's spirited "Long Cheer," which is also included in American composer Cole Porter's musical Out of This World (1950).
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