The theme: out with the new, in with the old. The structure: half buddy-buddy road trip (to Hades), half epic (poetry) contest. The plot: the God Dionysus (Son of Wine-Jar) decides to travel with his trusted slave Xanthias to bring Euripides back from Hades… and ends up judging a poetry contest between Euripides and Aeschylus to determine who deserves to be brought back.
Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Frogs is by far the best I’ve come across. He does an admirable job in bringing the play to life in contemporary terms while retaining the character as a translation rather than a broad interpretation as we see with things like “Shakespeare in Plain English.” I can only imagine how difficult it had to be to capture the slang and colloquialism and the constant, often ribald or vaudevillian jokes… not to mention making intelligible a series of exchanges between Aeschylus and Euripides that revolve around the rhythms of their poetry and specifics of their use of the original language. After reading through two other translations, this was the first time I felt like I was starting to “get” Aristophanes’ play.
In addition to almost being two different plays under one title, The Frogs is also a curious play in political and literary terms, about most of which I am barely able to go beyond the surface. The literary and the political are closely intertwined: Dionysus clearly intends to bring Euripides back from the dead, but ultimately chooses not to. He makes his late decision despite it not being clear that he is convinced Aeschylus is the better poet in literary terms. He is, however, convinced that Aeschylus is the best one to bring back for political reasons, because there is more possibility that he can inspire the Athenians to save their city. This change from a personal quest undertaken by a capricious, independent god to a god who is conscious of his social obligation to the Athenians happens as he is accepted as a god by Pluto (paralleling, incidentally, Xanthias’ acceptance by– and connection to– the slave Aeacus), which fits in with the evolving conception of the gods in Greek culture leading up to the time of Aristophanes.
The temptation to dive deep into the historical, literary, and political meaning of the play is great; I know just enough to know how much I don’t know. But for now I am happy to have experienced this very funny play in a translation that finally does it justice.