Lysistrata  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Lysistrata (full text)

Lysistrata (literally: "Army-disbander") is one of eleven surviving plays written by Aristophanes. Originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BC, it is a comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end The Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual gratification from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace — a strategy that, consequently, inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is notable for being an early exposé of sexual politics in a male-dominated society.

One of the few surviving examples of Old Comedy, the dramatic structure employed in Lysistrata represents a departure from conventions that organize Aristophanes' earlier plays. In particular the absence of a formal parabasis, or choral ode, and the informality of debate during the agon draw attention to the absurdity of a classical woman engaging in public debate.

Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, another play focused on women transgressing the boundaries of the hearth (oikos) to participate in the political arena, premiered in the same year. Close on the heels of Athens' catastrophic defeat in the Sicilian Expedition of 413 BC, these plays exemplify Aristophanes' marked talent for satirizing contemporary society, politics, literature, and the Peloponnesian War. It was most famously illustrated by the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

Lysistrata – the plot

Lys.: There are a lot of things about us women
That sadden me, considering how men
See us as rascals. Cal.: As indeed we are!

These lines, spoken by Lysistrata and her friend Calonice (Greek: 'Kalonike') at the beginning of the play, set the scene for the action that follows. Women, as represented by Calonice, are sly hedonists in need of firm guidance and direction. Lysistrata however is an extraordinary woman with a large sense of individual responsibility. She has convened a meeting of women from various city states in Greece (there is no mention of how she managed this feat) and, very soon after confiding in her friend about her concerns for the female sex, the women begin arriving. With support from Lampito, the Spartan, Lysistrata persuades the other women to withhold sexual privileges from their menfolk as a means of forcing them to end the interminable Peloponnesian War. The women are very reluctant but the deal is sealed with a solemn oath around a wine bowl, Lysistrata choosing the words and Calonice repeating them on behalf of the other women. It is a long and detailed oath, in which the women abjure all their sexual pleasures, including The Lioness on The Cheese Grater (a sexual position). Soon after the oath is finished, a cry of triumph is heard from the nearby Acropolis – the old women of Athens have seized control of it at Lysistrata's instigation, since it holds the state treasury, without which the men cannot long continue to fund their war. Lampito goes off to spread the word of revolt and the other women retreat behind the barred gates of the Acropolis to await the men's response.

A Chorus of Old Men arrives, intent on burning down the gate of the Acropolis if the women don't open up. Encumbered with heavy timbers, inconvenienced with smoke and burdened with old age, they are still making preparations to assault the gate when a Chorus of Old Women arrives, bearing pitchers of water. The Old Women complain about the difficulty they had getting the water but they are ready for a fight in defense of their younger comrades. Threats are exchanged, water beats fire and the Old Men are discomfited with a soaking. The magistrate then arrives with some Scythian archers (the Athenian version of police constables). He reflects on the hysterical nature of women, their devotion to wine, promiscuous sex and exotic cults (such as to Sabazius and Adonis) but above all he blames men for poor supervision of their womenfolk. He has come for silver from the state treasury to buy oars for the fleet and he instructs his Scythians to begin levering open the gate. However,they are quickly overwhelmed by groups of unruly women with such unruly names as σπερμαγοραιολεκιθολαχανοπώλιδες (seed-market-porridge-vegetable-sellers) and σκοροδοπανδοκευτριαρτοπώλιδες (garlic-innkeeping-bread-sellers). Lysistrata restores order and she allows the magistrate to question her. She explains to him the frustrations women feel at a time of war when the men make stupid decisions that affect everyone, and their wives' opinions are not listened to. She drapes her headdress over him, gives him a basket of wool and tells him that war will be a woman's business from now on. She then explains the pity she feels for young, childless women, ageing at home while the men are away on endless campaigns. When the magistrate points out that men also age, she reminds him that men can marry at any age whereas a woman has only a short time before she is considered too old. She then dresses the magistrate like a corpse for laying out, with a wreath and a fillet, and advises him that he's dead. Outraged at these indignities, he storms off to report the incident to his colleagues, while Lysistrata returns to the Acropolis. The debate or agon is continued between the Chorus of Old Men and the Chorus of Old Women until Lysistrata returns to the stage with some news — her comrades are desperate for sex and they are beginning to desert on the silliest pretexts (for example, one woman says she has to go home to air her fabrics by spreading them on the bed). After rallying her comrades and restoring their discipline, Lysistrata again returns to the Acropolis to continue waiting for the men's surrender.

A man soon appears, desperate for sex. It is Kinesias, the husband of Myrrhine. Lysistrata instructs her to torture him and Myrrhine then informs Kinesias that she can't have sex with him until he stops the war. He promptly agrees to these terms and the young couple prepares for sex on the spot. Myrrhine fetches a bed, then a mattress, then a pillow, then a blanket, then a flask of oil, exasperating her husband with delays until finally disappointing him completely by locking herself in the Acropolis again. The Chorus of Old Men commiserates with the young man in a plaintive song. A Spartan herald then appears with a large burden (an erection) scarcely hidden inside his tunic and he requests to see the ruling council to arrange peace talks. The magistrate, now also sporting a prodigious burden, laughs at the herald's embarrassing situation but agrees that peace talks should begin. They go off to fetch the delegates; and, while they are gone, the Old Women make overtures to the Old Men. The Old Men are content to be comforted and fussed over by the Old Women; and thereupon the two Choruses merge, singing and dancing in unison. Peace talks commence and Lysistrata introduces the Spartan and Athenian delegates to a gorgeous young woman called Reconciliation. The delegates cannot take their eyes off the young woman; and meanwhile, Lysistrata scolds both sides for past errors of judgment. The delegates briefly squabble over the peace terms; but, with Reconciliation before them and the burden of sexual deprivation still heavy upon them, they quickly overcome their differences and retire to the Acropolis for celebrations. Another choral song follows; and, after a bit of humorous dialogue between drunken dinner guests, the celebrants all return to the stage for a final round of songs, the men and women dancing together.

Influence and Legacy

  • 1600's John Fletcher wrote his play The Tamer Tamed, which echoes Lysistrata's sex-strike plot.
  • 1946: Lysistrata was performed in New York with an all-black cast, including Etta Moten Barnett. It had particular resonance after a war in which many African Americans had served their nation in the armed forces, but had to deal with a segregated army and few opportunities for officers' commissions. In addition, veterans returned to legal segregation and near disfranchisement in the South, as well as more subtle but definite de facto segregation in many northern cities.
  • Student Bob Fink composed music for an opera version of the play, to be performed at Detroit's Wayne State University. The director canceled the play when the tenor was drafted into the army four days before the performance. He was worried about the anti-Vietnam war aspects of the libretto, and used the tenor's draft notice as an excuse to perform the opera in a small room with a new unrehearsed tenor. Fink regarded that action as unacceptable censorship and withdrew the opera.
  • 1976: Ludo Mich adapted the play for a film in which all the actors and actresses were naked throughout.
  • 1987: Ralf König freely adapted the play in a comic strip, satirising gay and lesbian mores and libertation movements of the era.

In summer of the same year, Jason Tyne's adaptation set in present-day New York City was premiered in Central Park. Lucy and her fellow New Yorkers Cleo and Cookie called all of the wives, girlfriends, and lovers of the men controlling the most powerful countries to engage the women in a sex boycott to bring the men into line.

  • 2007: James Thomas directed the play for PBS as part of a series on "Female Power & Democracy", which explored how female participation in civic life was moving from comedy to reality.
  • 2008: Veit Helmer directed the film Absurdistan, where women are protesting the lack of water (due to a pipeline break).
  • The Senior Theatre & Musical Theatre Class of the American University Department of Performing Arts produced an original production of "Lysistrata: The Musical" for their 2009 Senior Capstone project. The production consisted of completely original & student-designed music, lyrics, book, choreography, set, and staging. They put the "pussy on a pedestal" with their original adaptation.
  • 2009 (April) A group of Kenyan women organised a week-long sex strike aimed at politicians, encouraging the wives of the president and prime minister to join in too, and offering to pay prostitutes for lost earnings if they joined in.

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