Aristophanes‘ Stagecraft in His Comedy The Frogs

As we have seen, especially in his early comedies, Aristophanes often built entire scenes around carefully selected objects. Indeed, he was still reinventing this type of scene twenty years later in Frogs, a play that does not want for comic spectacle. However, if we look closely, we see Aristophanes adopting a new approach to stagecraft. Several scenes require only a few humble stage objects or perhaps none at all. Others focus on the characters’ costumes. Still others describe objects that in earlier productions the playwright might have integrated into the script. In Frogs, Aristophanes masks these departures from the stock scenes of the 420s by focusing the audience’s attention, particularly in the second half of the comedy, on the poetics of the play.

At the outset, Dionysus enters wearing a Heraclean lionskin and a club over his traditional effeminate garb of a saffron gown and ladies’ boots. He is accompanied by his slave Xanthias, who is preoccupied with the demands of riding a donkey and with balancing a luggage pole and their extra supplies and bedding. This modest combination of costumes and stage properties inspires most of the humor in the opening scenes of the play: the luggage pole and the baggage enhance the burlesque jokes at lines 5-15 and 21-32 and Dionysus’ Heraclean disguise provides a focal point for the comic routine in front of Heracles’ door at lines 45-8.

Aristophanes’ initial scenes of the 420s also derive their humor from the interplay of text and objects: in Acharnians, the colorfully costumed Persian ambassadors and their expensive peacocks40 provoke Dicaeopolis into making a private peace with Sparta and celebrating the Rural Dionysia; in Knights, Demos’ slaves interact with Sausage Seller, who often punctuates his thoughts with reference to his sausage-making utensils; in Wasps, Philocleon tries numerous escape antics in his quest to flee the house; and in Peace, Trygaeus embarks upon his perilous journey to Olympus upon the mechane-supported dung beetle. Likewise, the objects at the beginning of Frogs are used to punctuate the physical antics of the actors as they manipulate Xanthias’ donkey, and they highlight the humorous references to Dionysus’ costume and subsequent Heraclean disguise.

By minimizing the number of objects needed in the opening scene, Aristophanes maximizes the effect of the boat aboard which Charon enters at line 180. The ferry ride sets the stage for the frog chorus’ first and only musical number. Scholars have long debated whether this chorus actually appeared onstage or whether it sang from the wings. If the chorus performed the ferry song from backstage, Aristophanes would have tricked the spectators into thinking that they were about to see another lavishly costumed animal chorus. Thus, in the next choral interlude, when the ‘frogs’ appear as initiates, the audience would be startled not just at the change in the chorus’ identity but also at their lackluster costumes. They are wearing sandals, ragged clothing, and myrtle wreaths (404-6), and they are carrying torches (340). The costuming of the chorus in such strikingly inexpensive clothing fits well with a play that emphasizes the importance of tragic diction and stagecraft rather than the spectacle of traditional comic performance.

After the initiates exit, Aristophanes returns to the humor he employed at the beginning of the play and stages another scene based on the exchange of the characters’ costumes. As the scene unfolds, Dionysus and Xanthias exchange the Heracles disguise three times (495-97, 532, and 589). Because the frenzy of these costume changes captivates the audience and culminates in the burlesque scene where Aeacus whips both Xanthias and Dionysus (605-73), additional stage objects would be superfluous.

In this scene, Aristophanes appears to be reinventing techniques that were prevalent in his earlier productions: he now has the characters regale the audience with descriptions of sumptuous articles, but the items themselves never appear. When Persephone’s servant enters and catches sight of Xanthias in the Heracles disguise, she insists that Heracles hurry to the banquet her mistress has prepared in his honor. Persephone’s table will include bread, two or three pots of soup, steak, flat cakes, rolls, poultry, sweets, wine, and sliced fish (503-20). These same items appear in the splendid displays of expensive delicacies that abound in the plays of the 420s. In Acharnians, when Dicaeopolis is amassing his provisions for the upcoming Choes festival, he packs his hamper with sliced fish, fig leaves of fat, pigeon and thrush, a bowl of hare’s meat, sausages on a spit, baked bread, a flat-cake with cheese, honey for the flat-cake, and his pitcher (1095-1142). In Knights, both Sausage Seller and Paphlagon inundate Demos with delectable goodies including barley cakes, scooped bread, pea soup, sliced fish, various specialty meats, two types of flat cakes, wine, and hare meat (1151-1226). By contrast, the descriptive stagecraft of Frogs is much more economical.

The exchange with Persephone’s servant is not an isolated example of this new mode of presentation. Several lines later, after Dionysus has re-assumed the Heracles disguise, a hostess from the inn of the underworld arrives enraged at Heracles for devouring her loaves, stewed meat, garlic, smoked fish, cheese, and even her baskets. Not only is this litany of stolen goods reminiscent of the goodies portrayed in Acharnians and Knights, but the hostess seems to appear without any stage property to mark her character. Earlier in his career, Aristophanes staged a similar scene in Wasps. The bread-seller Myrtia runs onstage with an empty tray and accuses Philocleon of hitting her with his torch and stealing over ten obols worth of loaves (1389-91). Myrtia and the hostess in Frogs share the same hatred  of thieves: Myrtia swears she will inform the commissioners of the agora about Philocleon’s transgressions (1406-8), and the hostess of Hades threatens to exact her revenge with the help of Cleon and Hyperbolus (568-71). These exchanges mark another subtle shift: they evoke the techniques of earlier comedies, but they establish characters less defined by stage objects.

Yet even in Frogs, with its diminished use of stage properties, objects continue to play a significant role. For instance, Aeschylus insists that he wants to compare his poetry to Euripides’ by measuring their value on a balance equipped with the appropriate pans (1365-7). The scale dominates the closing moments of the agon and calls to mind tragedy’s emblematic stage properties, especially Zeus’ scale in Aeschylus’ Psychostasia. In other words, the balance becomes a tragic symbol that defines the outcome of a comic agony.

Finally, as the chorus bids farewell to the victorious Aeschylus, Plutus entrusts him with various ‘remedies,’ so that upon his return to Athens, he can eliminate four troublesome politicians, including Cleophon. Although Plutus does not mention these ‘remedies’ by name, Dover, followed by Sommerstein, based on comments in the scholia, identifies the demonstrative pronouns of lines 1504-7 as a sword, two nooses, and hemlock, respectively. At the beginning of the play, when Dionysus was asking Heracles about the most expeditious route to the underworld, Heracles suggests these same remedies (120-33). Thus, even in a play where Aristophanes has employed a relatively small number of stage properties, he links the opening scene and the final choral ode by transforming Heracles’ comic suggestions into the concrete weapons of the tragic poet. And so, Frogs can be seen as a transitional play in as much as it reveals a tendency to favor the description of objects over their presence, yet it retains a more focused, albeit less extravagant, use of objects.