Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.10

Ismene Lada-Richards, Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes' Frogs.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1999.  Pp. xxiv + 387.  ISBN 0-19-814981-6.  $145.00.  

Reviewed by Mark W. Padilla, Bucknell University (
Word count: 1953 words

Scholars (such as myself) who are partial to Aristophanes' Frogs and to readings of Athenian drama that stress Dionysian structures and poetics have long considered the comedy overlooked as a rich ground for the kind of "archaeology" of ritual and social practices long now associated with Euripides' Bacchae. Lada-Richards (L-R) has now brought the Frogs out fully from the shadow of its tragic cousin and, in an optimistic and expansive fashion, attempts "to reconstitute the original circuit of communication between the play and its recipients, that is, to identify the codes which would have made possible the emission and decipherment of messages within the original communicative channel between the author/sender of the Frogs and his fifth-century addressees, whether spectators or readers. Rather than seeking one single meaning, this book attempts to reconstruct the wider spectrum of potential meanings that various segments of the text could have in their own sociocultural milieu" (pp. 12-13). A mouthful to be sure, but still just the beginning. The book is a revised and expanded Cambridge dissertation and its significant drawback is its encyclopedic ambitions that threaten to bury Aristophanes' play beneath several "tons" of Dionysiaca, material that is carted in from multiple directions and ritualistic contexts. Whether or not the play remains alive amid this mass of referentiality perhaps depends, to maintain the archaeological metaphor, on how assiduous readers remain in digging through the study's full treatment.

Initiating Dionysus features an introduction, nine chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix on "Ritual Disguise in the Greek World" (in addition to the General Index and Index of Frogs Passages Discussed). The Introduction expands on the quotation provided above. Chapter One -- "'Dionysiac' and 'Heraclean' in the Prologue of the Frogs" -- discusses some of the structural similarities between Dionysus and Heracles, such as their human, bestial, and divine attributes and ambiguities. Since Dionysus appears on stage dressed in a Heraclean skeue and visits the hero's house, the audience witnesses the two clusters of mythological and ritual characteristics both as entities at opposite ends of a single semantic pole and as an "intertwinement." Chapter Two -- "'Separation', 'Limen', 'Aggregation': The Frogs as a 'Rite of Passage'" -- develops ritual elements that complement the mythical ones developed in Chapter One. Focusing on the "rite of passage" as the operative paradigm, L-R discusses why she wishes to broaden the frame of inquiry beyond the categories of mystery rites (Dionysian, Eleusinian and Orphic) that other scholars have discussed, so as to emphasize ephebic initiatory material, as organized by the separation-limen-aggregation model developed by Arnold van Gennep. A number of traditional elements associated with these kinds of rites that are thematically featured in the play are discussed. In an assessment of how tragedy and comedy respectively utilize ritual liminality, L-R argues that, while tragedy's "tendency [is] not to resolve the ambiguities of ritual liminality" (p. 114), "it appears that comic liminality tends primarily to exploit and magnify the features which narrowly defined ritual liminality ... shares with festive occasions or civic rites of reversal, for instance, rank reversals (masters/slaves), exchanges of costume, etc. In a word, in the comic dramatization of liminary time and space, playfulness is paramount" (p. 115). The Frogs participates in this pattern, by unfolding "along the lines of the most characteristically comic rhythm, namely, that of release, renewal, and revitalization" (p. 119).

Chapter 3 -- "The God of Wine and the Frogs" -- incorporates the sympotic and festival aspects of Dionysus as represented in the play, perhaps arguing most originally that the literary debate, or agon, functions for the audience as a kind of "intellectual banquet" whose mimetic qualities evoke the symposium. However, the focus extends beyond the private sphere, in that "both Euripides and Aeschylus succeed in implicating the purely political dimension of the city's life in the theatrical/sympotical discourse, and are expected to exert a beneficial influence on it" (p. 146).

Chapter 4 -- "Initiating Through Acting" -- considers the play's metatheatrical dimensions. In an analysis that tends toward the abstract, L-R argues that the ritualistic and theatrical components of Dionysus' identity are set into relief, and that "the play stimulates the spectator to hold in sight simultaneously the two angles from which the phenomenon of 'playing the other' is conceivable, both of which are markedly 'Dionysiac' and ultimately based on the experience of ekstasis" (p. 172). The god's engagement in a Heraclean persona functions centrally in this project. Chapter 5 -- "Dionysus, the Poets, and the Polis" -- picks up the thread woven more intermittently in the previous chapters, namely the ways in which the character of Dionysus "evolves" (by virtue of its functionality in the play's action, pp. 216-17) in a fashion that symbolically rescues the "politico-religious identity" of the polis community of Athens, a movement ratified and confirmed upon Dionysus' judgement of Aeschylus as the agon's winner.

Chapters 6 and 7 -- respectively, "Aeschylus: A 'Dionysiac' Poet?" and "Dionysus 'Returns' to Heracles" -- develops the idea that the god's evolution, culminating in the declared victory of Aeschylus over Euripides, aligns him with the older poet in ways that confirm the naturalness of the decision, given the tragedian's own "Dionysian" elements in the contexts hitherto developed. Secondly, the figure of Heracles, too, is brought into this alignment, so that the god, the tragedian, and the hero all stand together in ways positive for the city and against the sensibilities infused in the fictional characterization of Euripides. Here, L-R substantially expands upon the lines of an argument I myself presented in a 1992 essay1 in the attempt to frame the play's dramatic action and thematic structure as a coherent whole (as opposed to a collection of two or more disparate parts, as some scholars have argued). This coherence is rooted in the development of Dionysus' character as it moves first awkwardly and ironically through the Heraklean impersonation scenes and then more affirmatively into his growing valuation of the polis-affirming sensibilities of Aeschylus. L-R states: "In a classical Greek audience's perspective, the agon of the Frogs can be said to complement the divine actor's 'character advancement' not only by effecting the reincorporation of 'Heracles', the model, into the persona of Dionysus, the impersonator, but also, most importantly, by steering and transfusing the Dionysiac and the Heraclean sides into the space and the moulds of the polis" (p. 278).

Chapter 8 -- "Dionysus the Civic Viewer" -- crowns this reading, and also opens the path to the final chapter (Chapter 9) -- "Dionysus, Comedy, and Tragedy." Here, Dionysus develops yet "another metatheatrical position, that of an 'internalized' spectator, a role culminating in the highest function reserved for him within the play, namely, the role of a civic judge." This "mediational" role takes place on a number of different levels and is "envisaged as an amalgam of possible audience-responses in other respects as well" (p. 280). These responses are concerned with the "point of view of the ignorant, uneducated, unperceptive member of the audience as well as with the mental framework of the education minority, preoccupied with issues of semantics, definition, and accuracy of diction" (p. 283). This perspective assumes a theatricalized organization, in that the god possesses a "simultaneous" combination of tragic and comic personas, thus suggesting that "the Frogs recreates and re-enacts the interplay of conflicting moods and tensions which builds the real event of the Great Dionysia dramatic festival, the primary civic occasion which hosts the theatrical performance of both genres" (p. 324).

L-R provides a powerful and long overdue appreciation of the complexity, sophistication, and importance of Aristophanes' Frogs. Though often dismissed as a broken-backed play whose major contribution is as a proto-literary critical treatise, one belonging with the assessments of Plato and Aristotle on tragedy, we can now more fully appreciate that the comedy is much more; its very structure engages the audience dramatically with its messages, in that the audience ideally experiences on some receptive level the very process of Dionysian fusions and juxtapositions that render the god a powerful force simultaneously in civic and theatrical life. Thus the Frogs stands alongside of Euripides' Bacchae, albeit with a comic center of balance, as an important vehicle of the symbolic vocabulary that Athens developed in the late fifth century to understand and express the interrelations of its culture, rituals, society, and politics under the sign of Dionysus.

Aside from certain stylistic concerns (e.g., such repetitious transition phrases as "In other words"), my critical responses are organized into two main areas. The first concern is the question raised at the outset of this review, namely, whether the play survives this reading as a piece of theater. In the attempt to appreciate how "Dionysus' perspective has broadened so much during the agon of the Frogs as to become identical with the perspective of the entire Athenian polis as a theates" (p. 312), one wonders if that effort of total encompassing ultimately deconstructs itself. Has the god become too complicated, too invested with referentiality, to allow for the notion that the fictionalized god can speak for an entire audience at a time of tremendous upheaval? If the "intertexuality" that L-R seeks to tease out is aligned with that "elucidated by Julia Kristeva ... as the relation of a text to the multiplicity of cultural discourses" (p. 16), the stability of the proposed reading is itself a suspect construct. The "utopian" orientation of the play surely did not answer all of the audience's concerns, no matter how inclusive its repertory of ritualistic registers. Therefore, the "hope and light" with which the play "fills both stage and auditorium" (p. 329) and which mitigates the "funereal" requirement that the saving of the city lies in the hands of a long-dead poet is overly dependent upon a fractured Dionysian cultural poetics.

A second area of concern is located in the play's status as "history." L-R's structuralist emphasis leaves the play dislocated from the immediate context of its production. In my own reading of the play, I suggest that the Frogs ultimately features a militaristic emphasis, in the "boot camp" experience of Dionysus learning under the drill instructors of the Heracles-Aeschylus axis; the joke resides in the event of a proven "wimp" becoming a readied soldier. Moreover, this attention to militarism would seem to reflect the late stages of the Peloponnesian War. L-R's reading might argue for a very different historical referentiality, but it provides few hooks to attach the play to anything of a "concrete" nature; rather, the set of ideas presented and featured drifts in the broad currents of the fifth-century Athens. Although Aeschylus' plays were re-performed after his death, the tragedian's sensibilities are rooted in another era and the play's fun with, and criticism of, certain elements of those sensibilities are themselves a dramatic message. Indeed, comedy was itself changing at this time, as was tragedy and the city for that matter. Thus Aristophanes' ultimate valuation of Aeschylean virtues is a celebration of them, but also, somewhat coldly, a farewell to them in the way celebrations often signal; they dismiss as much as recall. Aeschylus will not in fact "bring these things into effect" (v. 1515), any more than the fictional "Maximus," in the recently released movie, "Gladiator" (Universal Pictures-Dreamworks, 1999), was historically able to thwart the self-serving Emperor Commodus and return Rome to a virtuous Republic as intended by the "Aeschylean" Marcus Aurelius just before his death. L-R is on safe grounds when she grounds her reading in ritual-genre considerations (as noted above); but the shift from convention into actual audience appreciation and perception is a tricky one.

Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes' Frogs is an important, comprehensive, theoretically sophisticated, and well-researched treatment of a single play. In this reader's view, it is also a most welcome study.


1.   Mark Padilla, "The Heraclean Dionysus: Theatrical and Political Renewal in Aristophanes' Frogs", Arethusa 25 (1992): 359-84.

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