The great Ancient Greek comedy from Aristophanes, The Frogs, was first performed at one of the Festivals of Dionysus in Athens, in 405 BC, where it received first place. It remains one of the preeminent works of this golden era of human flowering, and it retains its humor and relevance nearly 2,500 years later. With a plot that centers around Dionysus playing a judge in a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus for the title ‘Best Tragic Poet’, how could this not be magnificent? These greatest of tragedians spend much time making fun of the other and quoting from their plays. Euripides insists that, because his characters are true to life and more logical than those of Aeschylus, his plays are better. Aeschylus believes in the ideal; because his plays have the heroic traits of his characters highlighted as models for virtue, he believes his plays are better. Ultimately, Aeschylus is chosen as the winner, and in a parting shot at Euripides, Aeschylus proclaims that Sophocles will guard his chair while he is gone.
Aristophanes (446 BC – 386 BC) was the great comic playwright of ancient Athens, who arguably remains unsurpassed, with the exception of Shakespeare, as the greatest comic playwright of all time. His ridicule could be scathing, his criticisms influential, and his insight into the world he lived was second to none. He is known to have written at least 30 plays, with eleven of them surviving through the ages in a nearly complete fashion. His work remains greatly influential from an artistic standpoint, and also as a window into the classical Athens world. Besides The Frogs, his best known plays are The Birds and Lysistrata. One could spend a solid year studying Aristophanes and a lifetime enjoying his work, so I will not waste your time writing more about him here!
This edition from Limited Editions Club is one of their many gems from the 1930’s era. It was designed and printed by Jan Van Krimpen at Jhn. Enschede en Zonen, Haarlem, Holland; which, according to George Macy, is the oldest printing establishment in the world, established in the 16th century and under the management of a member of the Enschede family ever since (at least as of this publication). For this edition Krimpen used 16 point Fleischman type (created by the famous designer J.M. Fleischman) on a slightly toned, white, mould-made all-rag paper. Concerning Fleischman’s type design, the great book designer D.B. Updike is not a fan, writing:
His types are singularly devoid of style, and usually show a drift toward the thinner, weaker typography which was coming into Holland as everywhere else. But Fleischman’s work was much the fashion in the eighteenth century, and it made such excellent founts as Van Dyck’s appear hopelessly obsolete.
Despite its lack of critical favor, the use of Fleischman type in this edition was intentional, with good reason. The type is bold and full of a rich black color (certainly not “thinner, weaker”), nicely pairing with the coarsely cut woodcuts from John Austen which are also done in a rich, black color. The binding of boards covered in a rough Dutch linen of natural color (appropriately called “holland”), stamped in ink with a drawing by John Austen, is particularly handsome. While the production quality and choices, as described, are very nice and work well together, I cannot figure out whether I think it a good holistic match to this comedy. See below and let me know what you think. One thing I do know — the watermark, also designed by John Austen, is perfectly devious for this work of Aristophanes!
This edition can usually be found in very good or near fine condition at around $50, and fine under $100. That makes this is a steal for a publication of this quality and age, especially for one of the great works of Literature.
About the Edition
- Illustrations from woodblocks by John Austen
- Prose Translation by William James Hickie
- Introduction by Gilbert Seldes
- Designed and printed by Jan Van Krimpen at Jhn. Enschede en Zonen, Haarlem, Holland
- 16 point Fleischman type (designed in the 18th century by a German named J.M. Fleischman)
- Mould-made all-rag paper made for this edition at Pannekock Mills in Holland, slightly toned white paper, with a watermark designed by John Austen
- Bound with boards covered in a rough Dutch linen of natural color (called “holland”) stamped in ink with a drawing by John Austen; book in chemise and brown paper slipcase.
- 8″ x 11 1/2″, 80 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by John Austen
Pictures of the Edition
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3 thoughts on “The Frogs, by Aristophanes, Limited Editions Club (1937)”
Chris, I have never been an unreserved fan of John Austen’s illustrations. Often I have found them effete and insufficiently earthy for such works as “The Old Wives’ Tale,” “Gil Blas,” “Pickwick Papers,” and the HP’s “David Copperfield” and “The Vicar of Wakefield,” and his illustrations for “A Comedy of Errors” strikes me as the weakest of all the LEC Shakespeare illustrations. He did achieve remarkable success with this style for “Vanity Fair” and “Peregrine Pickle,” where the very mannered quality of his work is ideally suited to the literary content.
But “The Frogs” stands out as the best thing he ever did for the LEC, in my opinion, with a style that is a radical departure from his usual. The grotesque characterization is so reminiscent of the Greek comical masks, and the heaviness of line so in keeping with Aristophanes’ own broad strokes (literarily-speaking), that for me it’s a perfect amalgamation of words and images–and I think far superior to Picasso’s perfunctory work for “Lysistrata.”
As for Van Krimpen’s work, I think only superlatives can do it justice. This is bookmaking at its best, with a perfect match of typography, paper and binding to the literary content. So in answer to your question about whether it’s a good holistic match, I would say “absolutely!”
(Incidentally, one of the universities to which I applied back when I was a high school senior was Yale University, and when I visited the school trying to decide whether to attend I saw a student reading Aristophanes and told him I was a big fan of the playwright. He rather condescendingly asked if I read him in the Greek original, which I hadn’t, much to his satisfaction, but he did tell me that the Frog’s chorus from the play was a famous Yale cheer at football games: “Brek-ek-ek-ex ko-ax, ko-ax.” I don’t know if it is still employed in these days–I don’t think Latin and Greek are even required for a B.A. from Yale, but as of the early 1960s, it shows that Aristophanes was still highly relevant!)