Unless you google it, you probably don’t know what that means or where it’s from.
Perhaps it would be easier in the original Greek: “βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ.”
No? That didn’t help?
Well, I’ll tell you. It might help if you think of the Major General’s song from The Pirates of Penzance. Remember this line?
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
OK, so we’re all finally on the same page. Except that this post has absolutely nothing to do with Gilbert and Sullivan. Read on…
Here’s a bit of relevant background:
- Of the four great playwrights from ancient Greece, three wrote tragedies: Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripides (to use the Greek spellings of all three, instead of the more popular Latinized spellings).
- The fourth great playwright was Aristophanes, who wrote comedies. For various reasons he is much less well-known than the tragedians.
- Back in high school, we read some Sophokles and Euripides in the original Greek. That was in Greek 3 and 4, as these authors aren’t unreasonably difficult. Aristophanes, on the other hand, is unreasonably difficult, so we didn’t read anything by him until my sixth year of Greek, which of course was in college. We did read a couple of his plays in English translation in high-school: in the published versions by Dudley Fitts, who, as I’ve mentioned before, taught me AP English. One of those plays was The Frogs.
- Now take a sudden leap to Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a not-very-well-known musical by the same name (not very well known even though the original Broadway cast starred Nathan Lane, see clip below), based somewhat loosely on the original play by Aristophanes—complete with the “croaking chorus” but updated with modern references, including self-referential allusions to American musical theater.
So there’s the back story. The real point of this post is to discuss that little-known Sondheim adaptation, which turned Frogs into a musical. Here are the elevator pitches about the premises of the two versions (courtesy of Wikipedia). First, the original Aristophanes version:
Euripides had just died, so Dionysus decides to go to Hades to bring him back from the dead to rescue the Greek theater from its perilous state. He brings along his slave Xanthias, who is smarter and braver than Dionysus.
And now the Sondheim version:
Dionysos, despairing of the quality of living dramatists, travels to Hades to bring George Bernard Shaw back from the dead. William Shakespeare competes with Shaw for the title of best playwright, which he wins. Dionysos brings Shakespeare back to the world of the living in the hope that art can save civilization.
Never having seen it, I’ve been listening to the songs on CD. It’s all familiar Sondheim: exceptionally clever lyrics in lines of three to five syllables matched with punchy music of a wide variety of genres.
Speaking of lines of three to five syllables, I think I can see why Sondheim’s music is a good fit for Aristophanes. For instances, take a quick look at some lines that include the aforementioned “brekekekéx-koáx-koáx.” Ignore the fact that they’re in Greek, which you probably don’t read; just focus on the line length and get an impression of the number of words per line:
βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ,
βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ.
λιμναῖα κρηνῶν τέκνα,
ξύναυλον ὕμνων βοὰν
φθεγξώμεθ᾽, εὔγηρυν ἐμὰν ἀοιδάν,
ἣν ἀμφὶ Νυσήιον
Διὸς Διόνυσον ἐν
ἡνίχ᾽ ὁ κραιπαλόκωμος
τοῖς ἱεροῖσι Χύτροισι
χωρεῖ κατ᾽ ἐμὸν τέμενος λαῶν ὄχλος.
βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ.
Linguistic interlude: What’s that I hear? You are puzzled about why “κοάξ” sometimes has an acute accent over the alpha and sometimes a grave accent? Very observant of you! The answer is that accents indicated pitch in ancient Greek: acute indicated that the voice was rising, circumflex rising and then falling, and grave falling or level—just like the shapes of the accent marks. You will notice no acute accents on the last syllables of words that are immediately followed by other words: the pitch stays level in those contexts, so the acute accent changes to grave. That’s one of the cool things you learn about when you study ancient Greek. BTW, the accent marks are still used in Modern Greek, but now they merely represent stress. Don’t get stressed out about this, as it’s the end of your linguistics lesson for the day.
Now back to Sondheim’s musical, for my favorite number from it—favorite not because it’s the best (it isn’t) but because of the combination of its opening music from the best musical ever (based on Shaw) with great quotations (directly from Shaw):