It’s a midwinter evening in 393 A.H. (After Homer), and we’re sitting about midway up, somewhat to the left in the audience of the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens, awaiting the start of Aristophanes’ new play, The Frogs.
Two figures come on stage. One has a Dionysos mask, but seems to have thrown a Hercules costume over his clothes – he wears what looks like a lion-skin and he carries a club. The other follows behind riding a donkey and carrying a lot of luggage on his back. This second character speaks to the first:-
“Dionysos, Sir, I’ve just remembered a gag that suits our present situation.”
“Oh dear Heaven, what’s coming now?”
“It’s a good one.”
“Really? Are you sure it’s not just the one where you shift your bags around on your back and then complain that you really need to dump your load?”
“No, no, it’s completely different to that.”
“Which one is it then?”
“It’s the one where I ask for someone to take over the task for me, except I use the phrase ‘relieve me.’ ‘Won’t somebody relieve me?’ you see, then I can say ‘before I relieve myself.’”
“Er…right well Xanthus I’ll tell you what: if at any point it suddenly becomes necessary for me to vomit, I’ll get you to do that gag.”
“Hmm. Well you’re not suggesting I go to the trouble of carrying these props without even getting a joke out of it? There’s an amusing baggage scene in every comedy these days.”
“Yes, well there’s not going to be one in this play. Let’s leave all that frightfully witty stuff to those other playwrights, shall we? Anyway, what’s the problem – the donkey is doing the hard work.”
“What? I’m the one carrying the bags!”
“How can someone be the bearer of something, if something else is bearing them?”
“Well that sounds a bit too philosophomological to me, all I know is we’ll have to stop.”
“Because I need to dump my load.”
“Ah, here we are anyway, at Hercules’ house.”
Dionysos knocks on the door of a house façade on stage. Hercules answers it.
“My word,” says Hercules with a chuckle, “what on Earth are you doing dressed as me?”
“I want to emulate one of your feats, I need to go down into the Underworld and bring someone back. So I need your advice.”
“Who do you want to fetch back?”
“Well the other day I was sitting on deck, reading the script of Euripides’ Andromeda, when I thought to myself what a shame we haven’t got any classy poets like that alive in Athens any more. I had a craving.”
“Yes. How can I put this in terms you’ll understand? You know that feeling when you really want a big bowl of pea soup?”
“Well it feels like that, except I want some decent poetry. So first of all tell me, how do I get down to the Underworld?”
“There are many ways. Here’s one.”
“Just a minute, let me make a note of this.”
“You go straight up the road.”
“Left into Potter’s Row.”
“Climb up the tower.”
“…..up tower, got it.”
“Then jump off.”
“Then jump…hang on! No that’s not for me. I’ve always hated minced brains. What way down did you take?”
“I crossed the bottomless lake. There is an aged ferryman. Xanthus will have to go the long way round though, no slaves on board I’m afraid.”
“You mean I’ve got to carry these bags all that way?” says Xanthus.
Suddenly a funeral procession comes across the stage, with a corpse being carried. Xanthus has an idea.
“Why don’t we get that stiff to take them across – he’s going that way anyway. I say, excuse me, could you take these bags down to the Underworld with you?”
The corpse sits upright: “I might, for two drachmas.”
“You’re joking,” says Dionysos.
“Onward!” says the corpse to his bearers.
“How about for nine obols?” Dionysos suggests.
“Nine obols! Frankly, I’d rather live. Onward!” He lies down again.
“Pah, to Hell with him then!” says Xanthus. “I’ll take the bags myself.”
Opening scene of The Frogs, Aristophanes, abridged