Ancient Athenian Drama
Aristophanes: The Frogs
5th century BC, Ancient Greek.
Dionysus is persuading Xanthias to change clothes with him and to be Heracles. Dionysus hands to Xanthias the lion-skin cloak and the olive-wood club. They exchange masks.
I can tell you what happens at the end of this comedy. Dionysus descends to the gloomy halls of Hades with the intention of fetching back to Athens the dramatist Euripides, but instead ends up delivering the playwright Aeschylus back into the sunlight.
This is how the play ends. I have eagerly read the entire scroll and smudged only one word of the drying ink.
This scene playing out on the floor of the theatre below me at the moment is hilarious. The god Dionysus is dressed up as Heracles. Dionysus is travelling with his servant Xanthias and a little while ago encountered the boat in which Charon the ferryman transports the dead across the waters of Styx; he stepped aboard and let Charon instruct Xanthias to follow the edge of the lake around on foot and meet him at the other side! The audience were in hysterics!
Having stepped into the boat, Dionysus echoed the rowing song from a chorus of frogs and with blistered hands at last made the further shore, where he stepped onto land and met Xanthias, who was already waiting for him!
Then they came to a place that Heracles had warned was full of monsters. One appeared; now it was a mule, now a bull, now a beautiful young woman. It changed its form continually. Dionysus and Xanthias each tried to get behind one another at the same time; the audience around me were choking themselves with laughter.
And now they have arrived at the door of Hades’ hall. A maid of Persephone’s answers their knock. When Dionysus tells her it is Heracles standing there, and looking for herself and seeing that it appears indeed to be Heracles who is standing there, she rebukes him for stealing the dog Cerberus the last time he was here and rushes in to fetch someone to give him his punishment. Dionysus now believes he is in for a severe beating and is persuading Xanthias to change clothes with him and be Heracles. Dionysus hands to Xanthias the lion-skin cloak and the olive-wood club. They exchange masks. The door opens.
Here is another maid, though, inviting Heracles in now, to enjoy the most exquisite luxury imaginable. Dionysus is green with envy. Off comes the cloak! Into Dionysus’s hands once more goes the club.
But who is this now appearing at the door? Not the maid we saw a few moments ago but a cook. She is admonishing Heracles for eating so much the last time he was here. The audience are in stitches! In she goes to fetch someone to deliver to Heracles his just deserts!
‘No!’ pleads Xanthias to Dionysus. 'I know what you are going to ask me but no!' as Dionysus hands him the lion-skin cloak and we wait for the door to open once again.