Review of Lysistrata by Aristophanes

I have a brief tour of Greek drama scheduled, and I put this play on the top of the list because I thought it would be a light introduction. Turns out I was right. Lysistrata is brisk, amusing, and ribald, exactly the sort of thing one expects at a festival of Bacchus. The translation I read was spirited and worked earnestly to give us not just the meaning but the spirit of the play.

The story is simple. The women of Athens are sick and tired of their husbands being at war with Sparta for so long, and so the lead character, Lysistrata, hatches a scheme with all of the woman of Greece to bring the war to a quick and honorable end. The key part of their strategy is to withhold sex from the men until they sign a peace treaty. They reason shrewdly that it won’t take long for the men to come begging to be readmitted into their marital good graces. The other half of their strategy is to seize the citadel in Athens, locking the men out and depriving them of the money they need to conduct the war. It is impossible not to turn the citadel into a sexual metaphor, but it also doesn’t do any harm, and so there you go.

At first the woman are reluctant to participate in this scheme because they like to get laid as much as anybody, but eventually they come around, and in short order the men are on their way to knuckling under. We have some skirmishes at the citadel where the soldiery prove themselves exceptionally inept, and the women are amusingly adept at making complete fools of them. And then we have a nice scene where a soldier comes to see his wife and get a little action, and she teases him into a state of acute distress, only to leave him alone, standing at attention. It was amusing on the page, but well acted it surely had them rolling in the aisles back in the day.

Eventually some men from Sparta show up with painful erections asking to negotiate a peace, and a group of men from Athens with painful erections are more than happy to comply. Just to ensure their compliance, Lysistrata presides over the negotiations with a naked woman along with her, so the men are basically helpless to do anything but comply. Then the peace is signed, and they have a nice feast, and presumably everyone gets laid that night. The end.

The whole thing is a study in sexual politics, but there’s not much to say about that other than what it is: Men are strong, but idiots. Women are weak, but in fact hold great power. And their power is not merely what is between their legs, but what is between their temples. Aristophanes was woke, yo.

I read the translation by Douglass Parker, which was pretty amusing. I gather that the Spartans were seen by the Athenians as sort of backwoods hicks, and Parker renders this idea by making them all speak like Appalachian hillbillies. At first it was distracting and weird, but overall it works pretty well. When the leader from Sparta says, Hit shorely is. Hain’t nothing to argue after. Let’s git dressed, one hardly even notices. He (or the editor) was also a terrible pedant, and so many of the footnotes are focused on different fights within academia regarding this misunderstood point or that mistranslated passage, none of which have any bearing on the play; I read them just for the entertainment value.

I would like to see a production of this if I get the chance, but regardless it was a perfect introduction to Greek drama. Next up is The Bacchae by Euripides, which I’m hoping is just as entertaining. And then we’re on to the Oedipus, which I’m certain will be a barrel of belly laughs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *