Strengths and Limits of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”

Voice of Reason

Andrew S. Hughes

The film “300,” which is set at the battle of Thermopylae, opens today, but it’s not the only artistic work inspired by the Greeks at war that might titillate area audiences.

Goshen’s New World Arts theater also opens its production of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” today.

Written in about 411 B.C. and set during the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens against Sparta between 431 and 404 B.C. and was won by Sparta, “Lysistrata” offers a novel if extreme idea of how to end war: Led by the title character, the women of Athens and Sparta pledge to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until the men agree to peace.

“It’s always produced during times of war, especially wars that seem to drag on for long periods of time,” director Laura Gouin says of the play’s relevance to today and the war in Iraq. “I think the audience will really connect with the monologue Lysistrata has with a magistrate where she talks about how easy it can be to end a war.”

Lysistrata attacks politicians who profit politically and financially from war, points out how the war has squandered Athens’ treasury, argues that the war deprives young women of potential spouses, and questions why war seems like a reflexive action for men.

The play, however, isn’t a simple anti-war treatise.

“Aristophanes, a lot of people think he’s an anti-war writer, but he was against Greeks against Greeks,” Gouin says. In the text, for example, both Sparta and Athens received praise for previously coming to the defense of the other.

Productions of “Lysistrata” flourished during the Vietnam War, and the play has been revived numerous times in various forms since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. In April, for example, Indiana University South Bend also will produce “Lysistrata.”

The play also presents other problems to theater companies. For one thing, Aristophanes wasn’t the champion of women’s rights that an outline of the play’s plot might suggest.

“The play does read as a feminist play until the end,” Gouin says. “If you stopped two-thirds of the way through, you’d think he was forward-thinking, until you realize it was all meant as satire.”

In particular, the play ends with negotiations between two men about Peace, a female character.

“The reconciliation scene was difficult to do,” Gouin says. “The two ambassadors essentially divvy up parts of a woman’s body as the land they want. We’re doing it in a way that’s more dignified for her.”

Although Aristophanes doesn’t challenge the male dominance of his society, he does make Lysistrata appealing as an orator, but up to only a certain point.

“The character of Lysistrata appears well read and educated, and her character is written very differently from the other characters,” Gouin says. “She’s the voice of reason; they’re the buffoons. She seems the most like what we’d like to be.”

Until, that is, Aristophanes no longer needs her.

“He uses Lysistrata as his tool, but once (the men) agree (to peace), she disappears,” Gouin says.

Even translations of the play sometimes present problems for theater companies. Gouin, who directed Chicago-based playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu’s feminist rewritings of “Ismene” and “Antigone” in recent years at New World, chose Jeffrey Henderson’s translation from 1997 for New World’s production.

“A lot of the translations make the Spartans sound Southern (and unintelligent),” she says. “I didn’t want to do that. We went with one that makes them sound Russian. We wanted to go with something outside the U.S.”

New World’s production, Gouin says, will try to cover some of the original text’s other problems with its staging.

“Part of what we’ve done is taken the play out of ancient Greece,” she says. “Everything is caricatured, both the men and the women. Aristophanes wasn’t kind to either. He was really upset with what was going on.”

The set, Gouin says, plays into that, too, with a look that might remind audience members of Dr. Seuss’ books.

“We’ve set it in a cartoon world,” she says. “The lights are fun and circuslike. The props, we’ll just say, are larger-than-life.”

So is the play’s use of sex for humor. The women’s sex strike, for example, produces painful results for both the men and the women. Aristophanes’ text is explicit in its use of sex for humor, and Gouin doesn’t recommend the play for children, although parents may bring their own if they want.

“The play is not about sex,” she says. “It’s about the lack of sex, and the consequences of the lack of sex are very visible onstage. … I’m used to working on dramatic pieces. I’ve never worked on a play where I had to give directions much like, ‘Touch his phallus on this line.'”

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See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini


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