Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Reading or seeing Lysistrata, we remember a comment that James Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle, made about her husband: "He may have been a great genius, but sure and he had a verry durty mind."

Lysistrata allows one to watch bawdy actions and to hear dirty talk, and at the same time—since, after all, it is regarded as a masterpiece of Greek drama—to tell oneself that one is having some sort of significant aesthetic experience. But surely it is hard to convince oneself that reading or seeing Lysistrata has some sort of moral or educational value. On the other hand, shouldn't we take the play seriously? After all, it deals with war. And with sex. And with gender roles—which is to say that it deals with power. These are big topics, the themes of many great works of dramatic literature, and they are as much a part of our life as they were a part of life in Aristophane's day. Still, reading or seeing Lysistrata one feels (or at least we feel) that the fun is evident, but the political and moral relevance are nil. A comparison comes to mind: In the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers (1933), there is talk about war between Freedonia and Sylvania, but a connection between war as it is shown in the film and war as the audience might have known it is hopelessly remote. For example, when Margaret Dumont seeks to encourage the soldiers by singing a patriotic tune, the soldiers cease to attack the enemy and start pelting Dumont. Very funny, but what does it tell us about war?

We have to take it on faith that Lysistrata powerfully moved Athenians, who for some twenty years had been engaged with Sparta in the devastating Peloponnesian War. The problem for a modern audience is partly that the specific objects of satire are unknown to us—footnotes can give us information, but a joke that has to be explained is usually a joke that remains unfunny. In an effort to give life to jokes that once were topical, some productions update the references. Thus, a production at Wayne State University during the Nixon-Agnew years introduced characters called Richard Stillhous Noxious and Spiral Upyou. A second difficulty (in addition to the remoteness of much satire) is that even in our relatively liberated age we have trouble seeing jokes about erections as relevant to issues other than sex.

Obviously not all instructors will agree with these comments—which perhaps means that the comments are worth discussing in class. One might well begin by asking students what value the play has. Is it just a bunch of laughs (or things that presumably once were laughs), or does it speak to us today? Certainly, a production can be funny—lots of slapstick, farce, funny costumes, etc. Peter Hall's production in Liverpool and London (1993), with women in the female roles, was more or less set in the Victorian period, with women in bloomers but sporting great exposed false breasts. The men, also in Victorian costume, were equipped with erect phalluses. The costumes were engaging and funny in themselves, but part of the joke was that these folk with oversized genitalia were dressed in a period that we associate with sexual repression. You might ask students how they would costume the play. (In fact, our fifth question in the text does raise the issue.)

Another question that might be raised, and one that is not raised in the text, concerns music. Almost all productions of Lysistrata use music, but what sort of music? To the best of our knowledge, they use music that the audience is familiar with, sometimes country, sometimes blues, sometimes rock.

All of these issues can be effectively raised in class, but we also like to talk about the language of the play, or, rather, the language of the translation. You may want to photocopy a few speeches from a couple of translations and invite students to compare them with the version in Types of Drama. Below we give two versions of Lysistrata's speech near the end of the play (Scene 5, lines 3341), but first we give the version (by Dudley Fitts) that is in our text:

                    That's fair enough,
unless you men take it into your heads
to turn to each other instead of us. But I'd know
soon enough if you did.
                    —Where is Reconciliation?
Go, some of you: bring her here.
                    And now, women,
lead the Spartan delegates to me: not roughly
or insultingly, as our men handle them, but gently
politely, as ladies should. Take them by the hand,
or by anything else if they won't give you their hands.

Given the fact that the men have large phalluses, the last line and a half of this speech—"Take them by the hand/or by anything else if they won't give you their hands"—seems to have a pretty clear referent. Anyway, now for two other translations: Donald Sutherland translates it thus (Fitt's Reconcilation in this version becomes Harmony):

The work's not difficult, if one can catch them now
while they're excited and not making passes at
each other. I will soon find out. Where's Harmony?
Go take the Spartans first, and lead them over here,
not with a rough hand nor an overbearing one,
nor, and our husbands used to do this, clumsily,
but like a woman, in our most familiar style:
if he won't give his hand, then lead him by the prick.

Finally, here is a version we found on the Internet. More precisely, Sarah Ruden put on the Internet a small sample of a rather free translation she was then working on. Here is the sample, in which Reconciliation or Harmony is called Conciliation:

It's no hard job to take both sides in hand—
Our hands are large—and make them understand
Conciliation, bring the Spartans here.
Take the Athenians and draw them near—
Not as a man would do, with threats and lies,
Hasty and inconsiderate, but female-wise.
[Points to Spartan] Take Frowny Bear in hand, bring him along—
Or rather simply take him by the dong.
[Points to Athenian] Passive-Aggressive Bear must come with you
As well, and you can show him what to do.

We confess that we like the use of rhyme. You may want to invite students to take a passage from the Fitts version and put it into rhyme.

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