Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2,577: Lysistrata by Aristophanes

I had a really hard time deciding what to write about for this month’s Classics Circuit tour – the Ancient Greeks.  You see, I have history with the ancient Greeks.  I studied both Latin and Ancient Greek at school until I was 18 and, as part of that, had to read great chunks of the classics in the original.  Virtually all of Homer, most of Thucydides, significant bits of Xenophon, Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides – all was grist to my mill.  I debated discussing Herodotus, the Father of History, which would have married my love of classics with my love of history.  I almost went with Xenophon but decided against it.  I thought lots of my fellow “tourists” would write about Homer so opted for something else.  I was stumped.  And then I noticed the calendar and remembered.

You may or may not know that every three years, students and alumni of Cambridge University (Britain’s second best university – guess who went to Oxford!) put on a play in the Cambridge Arts Theatre.  It’s a very special play, one of the ancient Greek classics, performed in the original Greek.  They’ve been doing this since 1882, with breaks only for those minor inconveniences of the First and Second World Wars. 

And that’s where my reference to the calendar comes in.  Because 25 years ago, almost to the week, young Falaise and his colleagues from the Upper Sixth Greek set were sat in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, plotting how many illicit drinks we might be able to consume before being hauled back to school.  We were there to watch  the subject of this post, the 1986 Cambridge Greek play, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.

The plot of Lysistrata is well known.  In (very brief) summary, the men of Greece have been fighting the Peloponnesian War for years.  Lysistrata, a woman of Athens calls a meeting of women from all the Greek city-states, at which she persuades them to swear an oath to withhold sexual favours from their husbands until they agree to end the war.   At the same time, the old women of Athens seize the state treasury and barricade themselves inside the Acropolis to deprive the men of the funds they need to fight the war.  After the old men of Athens try but fail to recapture the Acropolis, a magistrate appears and, after reflecting on "the problem with women", he is humiliated by them before being lectured to by Lysistrata on the frustrations that women have with war.

Next, having foiled a mutiny by the womenfolk, who are desperate for sex, Lysistrata persuades Myrrhine, the husband of Cinesias, a Spartan, to tease him until he is in a state of sexual frustration and then to refuse him until he agrees to try and seek peace.  The men, suffering from large and panful erections, then call a peace conference and, after a certain amount of squabbling, peace is declared and the play ends with a big celebration and a sing-song.

As a school boy, I have to confess that the thing that amused me most about the production we saw was the unfeasibly large wooden penises that the men began to sport as their sexual frustration mounted.  Childish I know but it was very funny.   Otherwise, the most striking thing was just how funny a 2,400 year old play could be, even when performed in its original language.

Behind the comedy, I suppose I took away the view that this was, in essence, a play which portrayed an unconventional view of women for its time, a play that could even be described as feminist in its outlook, as well as anti-war.  I think this is probably a common view of Lysistrata.  But, is this view correct?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.  Lysistrata is, indeed, a strong woman, prepared to challenge male hegemony and the view that men should have total control of politics and the finances of the city.  The play does also, it is true, spell out the message of the cost of war, not just in lives lost and money spent but also the impact it has on those left behind.

But this is only half the story.  Lysistrata’s fellow conspirators are not all portrayed as emancipated women.  Aristophanes can’t help painting the generality of women as being feckless, uncontrolled creatures in need of protection by men, even protection from their own worst instincts.  Even Lysistrata is only driven to revolt when she realises that the men aren’t strong enough to being an end to the war themselves.

Lysistrata has to govern the women with a fist of iron, forcing them to take an oath to withhold sex and having to whip them back into line when the revolt starts to waver and some of the women want to go home to sleep with their husbands.  As a general rule, with the exception of Lysistrata, the women of the play are painted as sex-crazed and only interested in fun, being content to leave serious matters to their husbands. This is not a play about the strength and wisdom of women overcoming the stupidity and aggression of men.  It is a play about a single, strong woman manipulating others of her gender to achieve her goal.

Lysistrata is a very funny play to watch but, as a reading experience, depends heavily on the quality of the translation.  I read an online version that wasn’t great but I am sure there are some good ones out there.
And one final question:  can anyone enlighten me on the nature of the “Lioness on the Cheese Grater” sexual position?  And is it as uncomfortable as it sounds?

Other stops on the Ancient Greeks tour today (Thursday 27th January):
Please do visit them and all of the other Ancient Greek tourists.  Let's keep the classics alive.


    Anonymous said...
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    Anonymous said...

    Besides the Oedipus trilogy, I've ignored the Greek classics, I'm ashamed to say. After your review, I'm adding this one to my TBR list and am hoping to get to it this weekend. Thanks:)

    Falaise said...

    Jenny - thanks for the comment and I hope you enjoy Lysistrata - it's a fun introduction to Greek comedies.

    Meadowlark Layne said...

    I'd love to see one performed in the original Greek, though I don't speak a word of it, I imagine it would be a bit akin to seeing an Opera in Italian.

    This sounds like a great story. The ties of the comedy are another thing that never ceases to amaze me, that we have changes so little in so many years as to still find the same things funny! It's rather comforting actually.

    By the way, I just love the whole concept of your blog. It made me laugh out loud, and then terrified of what my "number" might be.

    Falaise said...

    I suspect that's right. We had a translation with us and had read it beforehand so we were able to follow it quite well.

    I agree - it is very comforting to realise that thousands of years can pass and we still laugh at a lot of the same things.

    Thanks for the comment on the blog - my number did feel very low indeed when I first calculated it but hopefully I will have the pleasure of outliving it!

    Anonymous said...

    It is great that you've been able to see Lysistrata performed in its original language. I think it's always more fun to be able to see a play in the way it was much meant to be experienced. The Columbia University Classics grad program staged Plautus' Persa in Latin last year and it was such a great experience!

    I can only imagine the shock and laughter of the audience when those wooden penises came out.
    I've read Lysistrata in translation and don't personally find it to be a feminist play at all. As you so perfectly noted, Aristophanes still plays up the common stereotype of women being always in need of protection from men. Even when Lysistrata tries to convince her fellow women to withhold sex, the other women are always faltering and finding ways to go back to their men. Some of their excuses are ridiculously funny too.

    Lysistrata has to invoke the gods in order to keep a united female front and when I think of feminism, I think of women who are willing to go the distance to achieve what they want.

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Anonymous said...

    I agree about Lysistrata not being a feminist play. Lysistrata merely attempts to convince women to use the one powerful tool they have, their sexuality, to manipulate the men.

    I saw a college production of this on a date awhile ago. It was much more modernised in costuming than the production you saw. Instead of wooden phalluses, they were made of many things, all colorful, including one of those foam pool noodles. It was a very funny experience.

    Anonymous said...

    Interesting review and perspective. I read this years ago back in college but honestly hadn't remembered much beyond the basic plot, etc. It's also great to have someone participating in this tour that read some of these works in the original Greek. As a classics minor when an undergrad I learned some Latin, but not Greek.

    I always was drawn to the classics because of knowing that for centuries - even millennia - after these works were written, they were being used to educate the 'literate' people of the world.


    Orhedea said...

    Am ditching my Virgil now, heading to the library)

    Rebecca Reid said...

    this sounds so very funny, and I love the intriguing ideas it's making about women. I just read Aristotle's Poetics and he said some things about women as characters. "it is not appropriate in a female character to be manly or clever" he says, because it's not believable. Sounds like Lysistrata defies that! (Of course, I don't think Aristotle liked Aristophanes, as he rarely mentions him...)

    Falaise said...

    Nancy C - You are quite right. Ultimately, I think it is a play about a single exceptional woman and probably is unusual for that time in that it portrays a female character as having qualities of leadership and political ability.

    libellulebooks - Your college production sounds hilarious, especially the pool noodle.

    Jay - What is as interesting is the way in which
    non-christian texts managed to stage a comeback after the Church-dominated world of the early Middle Ages.

    Orhedea - I wouldn't ditch the Aeneid just yet!

    Rebecca - Very interesting quote from Aristotle. I think that the view he expresses was the general Greek view at that time which may explain why Lysistrata is seen the way it is.

    Katrina said...

    I haven't read Lysistrata yet although I knew the story.Thankfully I only did Latin at school and we sniggered enough at The Rape of the Sabine Women. This would have finished us off.
    The only boys who did Greek were those intending to become church ministers, no girls in those days! Thanks for the review, I hope to find time to read it.

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