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American Journal of Philology 126.1 (2005) 127-133

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Aristophanes' Frogs:

Brek-kek-kek-kek! on Broadway

Montclair State University
Aeschylus: Answer me—why should the dramatic poet be admired?

Euripides: For cleverness and sound advice, and because we make the men of the cities better.

Aristophanes, Frogs, 1008-1010

Thirty years ago, Robert Brustein, the dean of the Yale School of Drama, commissioned Burt Shevelove to restage a production of Aristophanes' Frogs that Shevelove wrote during his graduate school days at Yale in 1941.1 The performances were to be held in the Olympic-size swimming pool of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Shevelove asked Stephen Sondheim, with whom he had collaborated on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to compose the lyrics for the musical numbers and Carmen de Lavallade to choreograph the dance pieces. The cast included students at the Yale School of Drama (among the chorus were Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver), and, as in 1941, members of the Yale swim team were assembled for the frogs. In addition to stripping the original Greek script of most of its topical allusions, Shevelove updated the comic agōn by replacing Aeschylus with Shakespeare and Euripides with George Bernard Shaw, whose detractors, much like Euripides' opponents, characterized him as "subversive" and "unpatriotic" and believed that his plays favored criticism over commitment. Broadway columnists traveled to New Haven to review the [End Page 127] performances, and, for the most part, the response was positive.2 Despite this acclaim, however, only a few other directors in the intervening years have dared to stage this imaginative adaptation.3

The Lincoln Center Theater decided to mark its twentieth anniversary with a revision of this script that poses an answer to Aeschylus' question in Frogs, "Why should the dramatic poet be admired?" The production owes its very existence to the advocacy of Nathan Lane,4 who shrewdly decided to employ the talents of Tony Award-winning Susan Stroman as choreographer and director. Lane updated the original script, and he and Stroman convinced Sondheim to write additional songs for the libretto. In an interview with John Guare, Lane revealed that he saw Aristophanes' Frogs as speaking directly to challenges of our times: "There's something idealistic about the notion of someone believing that the arts can make a difference, that you can effect a change. Dionysos' dream to go down to Hades and bring back this great writer who could actually have an effect on the world, it's noble and touching and crazy—all at the same time. I found it moving, in light of what was going on in the world."5 Stroman, too, believed that Frogs could offer comfort not only to fifth-century Athenians embroiled in a thirty-year civil conflict but also to those trying to rebuild their lives after the recent terrorist attacks: "And when Nathan first brought this [script] to me, it was only a [End Page 128] year after September 11th. We were all still reeling. I think that's another reason I was attracted to the play immediately. Usually, when one grieves, you can go somewhere and have a little relief from it. But when September 11th happened, the entire city of New York was grieving. There was nowhere to go, and there would be nowhere to go for a very long time. No one was stepping forward who could truly speak about what just had happened. No one could find words to comfort us or explain these images we were overwhelmed with daily. There was no one to ease our hearts."6 Although the links that Lane and Stroman draw between fifth-century Athens and New York often work well—the topical jokes about George Bush elicited veritable "hooting and hollering" from the typically reserved Broadway theatergoers—the play's final message, that a dramatic poet, in this case Shakespeare, can save the world from its present woes (or at least help it along), seems unlikely to satisfy an audience whose...


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