(Mendelsohn’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 6/23.)
At the climax of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, a tartly affectionate parody of Greek tragedy that premiered in 405 BCE, Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, is forced to judge a literary contest between two dead playwrights. Earlier in the play, the god had descended to the Underworld in order to retrieve his favorite tragedian, Euripides, who’d died the previous year; without him, Dionysus grumpily asserts, the theatrical scene has grown rather dreary. But once he arrives in the land of the dead, he finds himself thrust into a violent literary quarrel. At the table of Pluto, god of the dead, the newcomer Euripides has claimed the seat of “Best Tragic Poet”—a place long held by the revered Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, who’s been dead for fifty years.
A series of competitions ensues, during which excerpts of the two poets’ works are rather fancifully compared and evaluated—scenes replete with the kind of in-jokes still beloved of theater aficionados. (At one point, lines from various plays by the occasionally bombastic Aeschylus are “weighed” against verses by the occasionally glib Euripides: Aeschylus wins, because his diction is “heavier.”) None of these contests is decisive, however, and so Dionysus establishes a final criterion for the title “Best Tragic Poet”: the winner, he asserts, must be the one who offers to the city the most useful advice—the one whose work can “save the city.”