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Introduction

From A to Z:

ARISTOPHANES AND ZAPPA

copyright 1998 by Chris Maxfield and The Blitz Ink. Web Publishing

Contains Mature Themes and Language

(Photo copyright 1984 Barking Pumpkin Records--Used Without Permission)

1.  Frank Zappa and Ike "Thing Fish" Willis

INTRODUCTION

     In the history of theatre, some styles and conventions have been nurtured, adapted, and remain in use from ancient times until the present day. A good example would be Greek New Comedy which flourished in the Fourth Century BC: comparatively simple comic plays featuring plots built on coincidence and mistaken identity.  Separated twins seem to have been a popular convention in these light plays.  Menander was the most famous New Comedy playwright, and his plays were borrowed and adapted by (and for) the Romans by playwrights such as Plautus (The Twin Menechmae) and Seneca.  These same simple comic plots were borrowed and adapted again by the Elizabethans in the late 16th Century :  William Shakespeare's and Ben Jonson's comedies, for example.  Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors can be seen as the purest homage since it was essentially an updating and rewriting of Plautus's The Twin Menechmae.  Eventually, these same stereotyped plots would become the basic model for the radio comedies of the mid - 1920's through the late forties, and finally the television "situation comedies" of the Twentieth Century.

     Compared to New Comedy, the forms and style of Greek Old Comedy from the earlier Fifth Century BC, as written by the only playwright with works extant, Aristophanes, have been largely abandoned.  Aristophanes wrote boldly, using strikingly crude language, music, dance, singing, and graphic scatological humor to make satirical points, and his plays display a bitter, ironic mind extremely impatient with political rhetoric and deceit.  Additionally, these plays often dealt with sexual topics as in his most famous work, Lysistrata, which presents a sex-strike undertaken by the women of Athens intended to end the War With the Spartans, then a current event.  Scholars believe one of the chorus groups in Lysistrata was a group of horny old men, frustrated by their wives' refusal to have intercourse, who each wore on stage a large, erect facsimile penis (crafted from leather and stuffed with wool, I was told in Theater History) strapped around their waists. While Lysistrata may be the most famous of Aristophanes plays, he wrote many others including The Clouds, which featured a biting satirical attack on Socrates and on the intellectual and moral "uncertainty" Aristophanes believed stemmed from his Sophist teachings.  Indeed, Socrates apparently attributed much of his downfall to the public feeling against him stirred up by Aristophanes in The Clouds.  Citation?

     Aristophanes' later play and the focus of my essay here, Frogs (or "The Frogs"), is less sexually explicit than the previously-mentioned Lysistrata, yet it displays a fairly remarkable irreverence toward both homosexuality and religion.  "Real" gods are lampooned in Frogs.  Just because Dionysus was the god of wine and sex and theater did not make him a "less important" god to the Greeks of 5th Century Athens. Yet in this play Dionysus is portrayed as an ineffectual effeminate, ridiculously disguised in the robe of a hero:  Herakles (aka Hercules).  To add to the portrayal of homosexuals as somewhat foolish, Aristophanes has Dionysus refer by name to a prominent and notoriously effeminate gay politician of Athens.  Since Dionysus has asked how to get to Hades, Herakles suggests several methods of suicide including hanging and the drinking of hemlock.  Remember, when Frogs was being performed Socrates had just been forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock after being found guilty as an enemy of the State.  It is unclear whether this reference to hemlock in Frogs was meant as a regretful gesture toward the dead Socrates or as a gloating one.  It should also be remembered that this production was performed in a time when virtually every Citizen of Athens (a fairly significant distinction, I grant you) voted, knew about art and politics, and shared essentially the same religion. These plays were socially-sanctioned by that same elite mass of men [the same ones credited with "the birth of Western Civilization" --along with--and sometimes after--the Egyptians] and sanctioned despite or, one might argue, because of one of that society's strongest beliefs:  the belief in freedom of thought and expression for everyone who was a Citizen of the State.  Of course, some people of Athens, Citizens or otherwise, probably felt that these rights should also extend to women and immigrant populations, but I feel we must reject the urge to retroactively judge ancient cultures by the "more enlightened standards" of today.

     In any event, perhaps it has only been since the 1960's --itself a time of increasing liberalization of international society and, arguably in retrospect, American democracy--that anyone has attempted to create works which mirror, in certain ways, the content and style of Aristophanes' comedies. Examples of such attempts could include the "religious" films of the British comedy group Monty Python:  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (United Artists, 1974) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (Handmade Films, 1979). The Python films capture some of the tone of Aristophanes in their criticism of religion, politics, and society at large and by virtue of their being bawdy and humorous.  It might be noted, however, that these films have the arguable advantage of having been written in collaboration by four Oxford and Cambridge University graduates and "an American draft dodger" and soon-to-turn-into a provocative and original filmmaker, Terry Gilliam. (Graham Chapman, A Liar's Autobiography, 1980.  Sorry, Terry G.)   In particular, since it has a comparatively-cohesive plot and certainly makes a moral satirical argument, Life of Brian would be an interesting contrast with the works of Aristophanes, but that would be the provence of a different essay.  Based on research, it seems that the only historical plays which truly come close to the spirit of Aristophanes are the 17th Century comedies of Beaumont and Fletcher.  Their satire The Knight of the Burning Pestle was quite bawdy ("burning pestle" being a euphemism for a penis inflamed by gonorreah), and that play and their other works included strong doses of parody and satire.

     However, in my opinion the best example of an artist following in the footsteps of Aristophanes' works would be Frank Zappa and his 1984 musical comedy concept album Thing Fish. Released in 1984 by Zappa's own label, Barking Pumpkin Records--and recorded in Frank's home studio with "friends"-- Zappa's work is a bitter satire concerning creative paucity in the theatre industry, governmental genocide conspiracies regarding race and sexual preferences, the A.I.D.S. crisis, and male/female relationships in the 1980's. In this essay, Thing Fish will be directly compared to Aristophanes' Frogs because the similarities (and even resonances of the differences) between these works seem especially significant. Like Aristophanes and Frogs, Frank Zappa's Thing Fish can be viewed as the work of a frustrated, intelligent man who was often radical in his art but who was, in many ways, conservative in life.  Zappa lived through the America of the 1960's, and he viewed it with a cynical eye, rejecting many of the trappings of the so-called Hippy movement.  He spoke out in the media about his own belief in not using any drugs stronger than coffee and tobacco at a time when doing so risked alienating the very audience who supported his work as consumers.  He admitted to smoking marijuana on several occasions in the mid-Sixties, but he found that the drug simply made him sleepy and gave him a sore throat and so rejected it.  

While essentially advocating "free-love" -- or perhaps simply "an open-minded and adventurous attitude toward sex" -- in much of his music, Frank married Gail Sloatman, the woman he loved, when she was nine-months pregnant with their first child.  Raising four children together, they remained married for the rest of his life.  Seemingly opposed attitudes like this create, in the works of Frank Zappa as in those of Aristophanes, an intriguing blend of perspectives. In each case, the author uses humor to "sugar-coat" serious, difficult moral and ethical lessons intended for their respective audience.  By examining the authors' lives, their plays, and their perspectives on politics, religion, and sex, it should be possible to illustrate how Zappa's work reflects, either consciously or unconsciously, the works of Aristophanes.

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