Friday, July 1, 2016

Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Genre: play, comedy
Published: 411 BCE
Translated by Douglass Parker

The Peloponnesian War has raged between Athens and Sparta for many years.  Lysistrata, an Athenian woman, becomes fed up with the devastating war and her husband's refusal to even speak with her about the possibility of peace:

Lysistrata: "...When the War began, like the prudent, dutiful wives that we are, we tolerated you men, and endured your actions in silence.  (Small wonder--you wouldn't even let us say boo.) 

Too many times, as we sat in the house, we'd hear that you'd done it again--manhandled another affair of state with your usual staggering incompetence.  Then, masking our worry with a nervous laugh, we'd ask you, brightly, "How was the Assembly today, dear?  Anything in the minutes about Peace?"  And my husband would give his stock reply. 
"What's that to you?  Shut up!"  And I did." 

So Lysistrata comes up with a simple yet ingenious plan.  She summons the war-weary women of Athens and some from Sparta as well and announces that they are going to force their husbands and lovers to end the war by refusing to have sex with them until they call an armistice.  In the meantime, they will dress and perfume themselves as seductively as possible, wearing thin gowns and such, and the older women of Athens will seize and occupy the Acropolis.

I had somewhat high expectations for this play, having known it by reputation for a long time.  When I was younger, I imagined it must be a sort of Grecian "battle between the sexes," which in a way, it kind of is.  As I grew older and became more self-consciously a feminist, I assumed Lysistrata must be a feminist play, since it features women mobilizing together and wielding what power they have over men in a patriarchal society to bring about peace. 

However, Lysistrata is first and foremost a comedy.  It is not at all a feminist (or more accurately, proto-feminist) work.  Although women are the agents of conflict and change in the play, none of Aristophanes' characters are what one might call proto-feminist.  In fact, even the women in the play decry their own gender at times; Lysistrata laments that her comrades in the strike are so weak and useless.  That said, she also does have a few stirring lines which assert her dignity and the dignity of her cause.  "What did you expect?" she asks an Athenian commissioner who comes to try to persuade her and the other women to leave the Acropolis,

"We're not slaves; we're freeborn Women, and when we're scorned, we're full of fury.  Never underestimate the Power of a Woman."

Other than this disappointment, which I perhaps should have been better prepared for (Ancient Greek playwrights are not known for having had a high regard for women), I did somewhat enjoy Lysistrata.  Some scenes were funny, as when Myrrhine teases her husband by pretending to get everything ready for them to sleep together (bed, pillows, blankets, perfume, a better perfume, etc) and then running away.  I also have to commend the translator (Douglass Parker, in the edition I read) for translating all of these sometimes obscure Greek sexual puns and double entendres into English, which cannot have been an easy task.  That said, I avoid sex comedy films like the plague and found some of the humor here to be crude.     

While the play is not itself feminist, I do think it is one that feminists and those who are interested in gender studies, gender and power, etc, should check out.  Lysistrata and the other women are adamant that war affects everyone, not just warriors and not just males but also women and children and communities.  While the story is a myth, the play demonstrates that anyone can change the course of history by promoting peace, even if one works to do so by means of apparently simple or, er, unorthodox methods.  Also, phallic jokes are apparently timeless.

I was excited to see that one of my favorite fin-de-si├Ęcle artists Aubrey Beardsley actually created some striking illustrations for this play, but decided not to include any of them in this review because most of them are bordering on pornographic.  I do not really know the age range of this blog's vast audience (haha), but back in the day I did have many younger readers.  Anyway, though, I digress...

I am going to try reading another Aristophanes comedy, possibly The Frogs, which I have heard good things about.

This play is

bawdy         raunchy (yes, I realize that is a synonym for "bawdy," but it bears repeating)    

This play was on my Classics Club list

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