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Greek to You

Both smart and slapstick, The Frogs is the essence of comedy


The Frogs is a literary parody in which Dionysus decides to go to hell, so to speak. He wants to go there in order to resurrect Euripides, there being no good writers above ground any more. When Dionysus gets there (dashingly disguised as the rough and tumble Heracles, who’s been to hell before), he runs into more than one great dead white male and a scuffle of egos ensues that should be familiar to anyone acquainted with more contemporary literary scenes.

However, “much of the fun in The Frogs,” according to Edith Hamilton, “turns on parodies of Aeschylus and Euripides which imply an exhaustive acquaintance with them [in particular] on the part of the spectators.” Will such an exhaustive acquaintance be part of the overall sensibility of Missoula audiences seeing the staging of this Greek comedy in The Montana Theater this weekend? Does it matter?

The comic plays of Aristophanes—who wrote during the fifth century B.C. at the time of the Peloponnesian Wars—presuppose an educated audience, “perfectly at home in the best thought and literature of the day.” At the same time, “to read Aristophanes,” as Hamilton writes, “is in some sort like reading an Athenian comic paper. All the life of Athens is there: the politics of the day and the politicians; the war party and the anti-war party; pacifism, votes for women, free trade, fiscal reform, complaining taxpayers, educational theories, the current religious and literary talk—everything, in short, that interested the average citizen. All was food for his mockery.”

Could we get a good grasp of the contemporary United States by reading “Doonesbury?” Maybe we could get close—closer, some would argue, than we would reading William Buckley or watching CNN. But surely the basic facts need to be in place for comedy to work its pull. The Greeks, especially, were keen on fact. Suppose we don’t have them? Suppose we haven’t read the 90 plays of Aeschylus (and also don’t have the proper typeface to render his name correctly). Suppose we haven’t read all 75 plays of Euripides? Suppose we haven’t read one? How can this comedy of Aristophanes work? What travels?

“Great literature, though fashioned for and by its time and place, always reaches out beyond, speaking to later generations as well.” So states Bernard Knox in The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics. Sounds grand. But how does it work?

The best comedy, it seems to me—or the best part of comedy—is always in the face of something. But it is based less on what else really exists (what’s out there to be known) as it is based upon what it is not (what’s out there to be sensed). It can smack of erudition—Woody Allen referring to Nietzsche. But in that example, the crux of the humor has little to do with the writings of Nietzsche (anymore than Steve Martin doing King Tut had to do directly with that ancient ruler), and everything to do with the out-of-whack pedant, a universal character. The humor of “Doonesbury,” for that matter, probably depends as much on the backdrop of the sage commentary of a Buckley type as it does on any actual comments made or on actual affairs of state.

We can recognize a cross-millennial intelligence at work in The Frogs from its very first line:

Xanthias (looking round at his burden with a groan):

Sir, shall I say one of the regular things

That people in a theater always laugh at?

He’s right, they do. People in a theater always laugh at certain things. Perhaps there is a universal humor that is situated in the body. Certainly, there’s a lot of butt talk in The Frogs that brings to mind Jim Carrey. There’s also a certain amount of “Who’s on first?” dialogue, reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, that simply mocks attempts at talking as a meaningful human activity.

There is a wit to this slapstick, though, that brings it closer to Monty Python, and, like Monty Python, it is somehow kindly inclusive, endearing us utterly to the actors. This is not so much comedy about Great Works of tragedy, as it is comedy about tragedy itself, and (the play says to us) tragedy is something we all know.

Contemporary references in classic works are the mode o’ the day, but they aren’t, in my mind, what brings a work close to home. It has more to do with a playwright’s pulling close an audience. Maybe we aren’t entirely up on our Euripides, but Aristophanes is still somehow presuming, after all these years, that we, the audience, are learned.
The UM Department of Drama and Dance presents The Frogs, Tuesday, Dec. 7 through Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the UM Montana Theatre. 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 11. Tickets $12 general, $10 students and seniors. Call 243-4581.

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