BMCR 2023.02.03

Aristophanes. Frogs

, Aristophanes. Frogs. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2021. Pp. 184. ISBN 9781647920067.



I want to translate an entire play of Aristophanes for publication about as much as I want to put my head in a wood-chipper. Aristophanes’ comedies are filled with obscure contemporary Athenian political, religious, and cultural references that only a very few Classicists will be familiar with, let alone the general population. Registers collide in ways alien to us, as characters swear by divinities like Demeter and Persephone, while divinities appear onstage shitting themselves.[1] Peter Meineck’s new translation of Aristophanes’ Frogs, however, offers expert and funny solutions to such challenges, and he shines most brightly when it comes to the comic playwright’s particularly hard-to-tackle choral odes and monody, as he rewrites Aristophanes’ lyrics to tunes by AC/DC, Wu-Tang Clan, and Bruce Springsteen. While reading Meineck’s latest translation, I had YouTube open the entire time, tapping my feet to “Thunder Struck,” “Triumph,” and “The Rising.” Meineck’s primary objective, as always, is creating a translation that can be performed (he is founder of Aquila, a theater company that is known for original music, among other things), and his most recent offering, with its attention to music, stands out from other translations of Frogs, because Meineck represents the different musical styles of Aeschylus and Euripides in creative and modern ways.[2]

I assign Meineck’s 1998 translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in many of my undergraduate classes, so I was already familiar with his skill and talent (he has written extensively on translation, and he has translated other plays by Aristophanes), and I welcomed a new translation of Frogs even though I wondered how he would manage this Empousa.[3] A thorough and clear introduction contains discussions of, e.g., “Props,” “Music,” “Translation,” “Staging,” “Historical Background,” “Aristophanes and Old Comedy,” as well as a brief look at each character in the play. Meineck draws attention to interesting modern parallels, suggesting that, for example, Youtube videos of the British performer Max Wall (7) might help us understand how costume may be used to accentuate the body for comic effect. He also points to contemporary Greek festivals as comparanda, like the Apokries (Carnival) festival on the island of Skyros in late March (occurring at a similar time to the Athenian Great Dionysia in late March) (8), which involves dancing, invective, and ribald, padded dancers. The introduction also includes observations concerning gender, status, and ethnicity as these issues relate to Frogs. A section on “The Doorman, the Handmaid, the Innkeeper, and Plathane” contains helpful notes concerning that scene’s social commentary on metics and foreigners, and the ways in which Hades is figured as an “alternate Athens, with the same kind of classes and social structures” (40).

Meineck transforms the choral lyrics of the ancient playwright into accessible and hilarious musical numbers by means of parody, transposing Aristophanes’ songs onto popular music. The chorus of Frogs arrive onstage to the tune of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The chorus of Initiates sing to 1970s R&B songs by McFadden and Whitehead, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. To illustrate what Meineck is doing, here is Henderson’s translation (lines 384-393, including the famous lines in which the chorus pray that they may say many funny (geloia) and serious (spoudaia) things), followed by that of Meineck.

Demeter, lady of pure rites,
stand beside us
and keep your chorus safe;
and my I safely frolic and dance
all the livelong day
And may I utter much that’s funny
and also much that’s serious,
and may I frolic and jest
worthily of your festival
and be garlanded in victory.

And now Meineck, who offers parody, not direct translation, to the tune of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” by McFadden and Whitehead:

Watch over your chorus, chorus
Dancing the way
Listen Demeter, Demeter
To every word I pray, every word I pray

Ain’t no stopping us now
We’re in the grove
Mirth and mischief allowed
We’re on the move

Ain’t no stopping us now
We’re in the grove
Mirth and mischief allowed
We’re on the move

I know you know our ritual needs a negative vibe
To bring balance to our festival and push the fun aside
But comic contests are the way to go
Ask me if I’m winning, I don’t know.

Meineck is winning here, and in other moments too, like when Xanthias responds to mention of Charon by singing quietly, “Don’t pay the ferryman” by Chris de Burgh, or when Xanthias remarks, “And like the famous actor Hegelochos, we too can say,/ ‘I can see curly now the storm has gone’” (Frogs 303-304), and Dionysos corrects him, “you mean ‘clearly,’” (an allusion to the moment when the performer Hegelochos in Euripides’ Orestes mispronounced γαλήν’ (γαλήνα, calm) as γαλῆν, weasel).

Euripides performs to the tune of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” (Frogs 1332-63).[4] Meineck admits that to capture Euripides’ subversiveness he “went outside of [his] own aesthetic comfort zone,” (45) turning to the innovative hip-hop group from the 1990s and early 2000s. Meineck anticipates criticism from one group of Classicists, when he remarks that some of his own colleagues will perhaps suggest that he has “done Euripides a disservice” (46). Such a (by now) predictable response from the “too unsettling for comfort” camp is discussed by Lorna Hardwick in “Translated Classics Around the Millennium: Vibrant Hybrids or Shattered Icons?” [5] To my mind, Meineck’s choice to attach “Triumph” to Euripides is a “Vibrant Hybrid.” The song represents one of the highlights of a seminal hip-hop album, and it even name-checks Socrates, a figure whom Aristophanes lampoons in Clouds. Meineck’s parody allows us to see Euripides (and Wu-Tang Clan) anew.

In the concluding song, Dionysos brings Aeschylus back up to earth to the tune of “The Rising,” by Bruce Springsteen. For me at least, “the Boss” evokes a kind of (non-toxic) masculinity along with a tension between the stuff of patriotic America and a trenchant critique of that stuff. A child during the 70s and early 80s, I watched as the right repeatedly tried to appropriate Springsteen’s music, blasting “Born in the USA” at rallies and events, despite the fact that Springsteen’s songs are critical of, e.g., the Vietnam War and income disparity. Somewhat similarly, a tension exists between, on the one hand, the way that Aeschylus is portrayed in Aristophanes and, on the other hand, the experience of reading Aeschylus’ tragedies or seeing his plays performed. Aristophanes in Frogs paints Aeschylus in broad strokes as jingoistic and martial, in contrast to Euripides, whose radical, avant garde nature is underscored. Yet Aeschylus’ plays often critique such martial themes, and Persians hardly comes across as a warmongering screed. Thankfully, unlike the Reagan campaign, Aristophanes’ comedies do not deliver a single, unifying political message. Instead, Aristophanes’ messy humor runs wild and uncontrollable. Meineck’s decision to attach Springsteen to Aeschylus serves up the tragedian as an object of nostalgia in a new way, incorporating “the Boss” into our perceptions of Aeschylus, and vice-versa.

Meineck’s musical choices will no doubt resonate in different ways with different people and different age groups; my own response as a white, female GenXer is just one of many. One effect of Meineck’s musical choices is a kind of distancing, since his translation is filled with lots of “old” (to Millennials and GenZers) music. The most recent music is Springsteen’s “The Rising,” produced just after 9/11. This past semester, I assigned Meineck’s translation of Frogs in a grad-level Euripides class (we had finished reading two of Euripides’ plays in Greek, and we had a week on reception at the end of the term). The class was a mix of Millennials and GenZers, and one of the students commented that, as he read Meineck’s translation he kept thinking about his own father and his father’s music. It’s hard to know how Meineck’s translation will age and how it can be updated. Given the changing musical landscape, will it be difficult to find songs that large groups of people know in common?

In general, Meineck translates the dialogue sections and the (non-musical) parts of the play in a much more straightforward manner, and he retains allusions to ancient Athenian poets and political figures, offering helpful and concise footnotes throughout. Meineck’s parodic musical approach gives the play a strong contemporary flavor, and occasionally new collides with old. Herakles describes the area in the Underworld where oath-breakers and plagiarizers are housed, and Dionysos adds, “And those who have been found twerking, by god!/ I just can’t stand those hideous new-fangled war dances of Kinesias” (page 77, Frogs 152-53).[6] Here, the combination between an obscure (for non-Classicists) reference to a dithyrambic poet and a modern dance move results in what some will experience as a frisson of excitement, others as awkward or out of whack.

Meineck’s Frogs provoked such a rousing discussion in my grad-level class that I look forward to assigning it in my undergraduate classes as well. So, grab a copy of Meineck’s Frogs, open YouTube, and soon you will be humming Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” but with a slight twist, after Meineck, as “the final smackdown.”



[1] For discussion of some issues connected with the translation of “obscenity,” see, e.g., Deborah Roberts’ 2008 “Translation and the ‘Surreptitious Classic’: Obscenity and Translatability” (In Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture, edited by A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, 278-311. Oxford).

[2] Recent translations of Frogs include Stephen Halliwell’s (2015) Frogs and Other Plays: Aristophanes Translated with an Introduction and Notes (Oxford), and Jeffrey Henderson’s (2008) Aristophanes: Frogs. Translation with Introduction and Notes (Focus) and his 2002 Loeb (Aristophanes: Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth. Loeb Classical Library 180. Cambridge).

[3] See, for example, Meineck’s 2021 essay on “infidelity” in translation (“Forsaking the Fidelity Discourse: The Application of Adaptation,” in Adapting Greek Tragedy: Contemporary Contexts for Ancient Texts, edited by V. Liapis and A. Sidiropoulou, 77-109. Cambridge) and his 2013 discussion of the challenges of translating Greek choruses (“The Thorniest Problem and the Greatest Opportunity: Directors on Directing the Greek Chorus,” in Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, edited by R. Gagné and M. Hopman. Cambridge). Meineck has translated Clouds (Aristophanes Clouds (translation and notes) with introduction by Ian C. Storey. Hackett Publishing 2000), as well as Wasps and Birds (Aristophanes Volume 1. Wasps, Birds, and Clouds (Translation and Notes) with introduction by Ian C. Storey. Hackett Publishing 1998). Meineck also produced a version of Frogs in 1991.

[4] Here, Meineck intervenes quietly (page 257) by adding a line spoken by Aeschylus, “Euripides, if you would be kind enough to sing,” and then indicating in his stage directions that Euripides sings “Triumph.” This represents a departure from what is usually taken to be Aeschylus reciting or singing the lyrics in imitation of Euripides.

[5] Hardwick, L. 2008. “Translated Classics Around the Millennium: Vibrant Hybrids or Shattered Icons?” In Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture, edited by A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, 341-66. Oxford. Hardwick underscores the hybridity and “dialectical reciprocity” associated with translation, emphasizing the ways in which translation “changes conceptions of the source text and language and of the target context and language by creating a ‘text’ that is part of a new network of relationships between both,” 346.

[6] Occasionally Meineck adds a line to draw out a meaning, to make the sense clearer to a contemporary audience, or even to make an additional joke (e.g., page 69, 71, 74, 79, 87, 92, 118, 157).