Creating the Outsider's Political Identity: Nathan Lane's Dionysus
Given, John, Helios
In his preface to The Skewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, which is about the institutionalized censorship in the early twentieth-century United Kingdom, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "It is no more possible for me to do my work honestly as a playwright without giving pain than it is for a dentist. The nation's morals are like its teeth: the more decayed they are the more it hurts to touch them" (Shaw 1970-1974, 3: 751). These words were repeated, not quite verbatim, (1) by a fictionalized George Bernard Shaw in the 2004 Broadway musical The Frogs. The Frogs was, according to the playbill, "written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes, freely adapted by Burt Shevelove, even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In Aristophanes' Frogs, Dionysus travels to the Underworld to fetch Euripides to bring skill back to the tragic stage (Ran. 71); as the play progresses, the god's mission shifts to the salvation of Athens (1419-21). In the musical, Shaw takes the place of Euripides and represents for Dionysus the best hope for "the survival of mankind" right from the beginning of the play (act 1, p. 3). In both the ancient and the contemporary versions, Dionysus judges an Underworld contest between his favorite and a revered poet of yesteryear. In Aristophanes, Aeschylus takes the role of nostalgic greatness; in the musical, the part goes to William Shakespeare. In both versions, Dionysus chooses to bring back the older playwright. The musical's Dionysus says he prefers Shakespeare to the witty but prosaic Shaw because Shakespeare is a "poet" who can "touch people's hearts as well as their minds" (act 2, pp. 55-6). Dionysus selects poetry's pleasure over the dentist's drill. (2) His decision raises the question whether the musical is aiming at pleasure or the moral rectification Shaw extols, for the play, like its ancient predecessor, is pleasurable and also comments forcefully on the world's decadent moral and political condition. In this paper, after some necessary background material, I broach the question of The Frogs' construction of its moral compass by interrogating one particular aspect of the 2004 production: the construction of Dionysus's sexuality, as Dionysus was performed by Nathan Lane, and its relationship to Lane's and Sondheim's articulation of their politics. I argue that Lane's and Sondheim's 2004 revisions of The Frogs make Dionysus into a purportedly inoffensive, heterosexual god in order that the more painful antiwar political message might get a better hearing.
The Frogs began its twentieth-century life in November 1941 as a short play with choruses, staged at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium pool at Yale University by Yale Dramat, with the Yale swim team playing the aquatic frogs. The play is often attributed to Shevelove, who was the director of Yale Dramat at the time; a contemporary notice in the New York Times, however, names Shevelove as the director but gives writing credit to one John Ward Leggett, Yale Class of 1942. (3) The play used Aristophanes' framework as a critique of the mid-twentieth-century the-atrical scene, and already contained the substitution of Shakespeare and Shaw for Aeschylus and Euripides. In 1974, Shevelove decided to produce the play' in an expanded version, again at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, which at the time he called "the nearest thing we have in America to a Greek amphitheater" (Gardner 1974). He asked Sondheim, with whom he had collaborated on the Plautus-inspired A Fumy, Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to write songs for the production. Even at the height of the Watergate and Vietnam crises, it remained a largely apolitical piece promoting a vague notion of fixing the things that had gone bad and taking over from those who had grown complacent.
On 22 May 2000, in celebration of Sondheim's seventieth birthday (which had been on 22 March 2000), the Music Division of the Library of Congress organized a concert performance of The Frogs in Washington, D. …