Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sex and Power in Lysistrata

Ancient Athens' great comic playwright, Aristophanes (446 B.C. - 386 B. C.), staged Lysistrata (literally "Army-disbander") in 411 B.C. The comic play recounts one woman's campaign to end the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) Aristophanes has been called the "Father of Comedy;" Lysistrata's mix of rowdy comedy and social commentary is, in many ways, as nuanced, sophisticated and "modern" as anything you'll see today. His comedy, profoundly confronting social taboos of the day, set a standard that continues to the present.

A woman of Athens, Lysistrata, rallies with Lampito of Sparta to persuade Greek women to withhold sex from their husbands until the Peloponnesan War is ended. To accomplish this, they must overcome the reluctance of the women, who are attached to their hedonistic pleasure in sex, and they must endure the skepticism and hostility of the old men (who appear as a chorus).

Lysistrata opens the play musing on the tepid reponse to her call for a political rally. She confides in her friend Calonice, "I'm so annoyed at us women. For among me we have a reputation for sly trickery-"

"And rightly, too." replies Calonice.

With her noble ambitions, Lysistrata and her earthy companion continue their dialogue, with Calonice injecting sexual innuendo into almost every retort.

Lysistrata had already recruited the older women to occupy the Acropolis (which housed the treasury being used to finance the war) and she finally convinces her friends to forego their own sexual pleasures, having them swear an oath over a bowl of wine.

In the next scene, the men too old to go to war confront the occupiers of the Acropolis, finding that they have met their match and then some. Lysistrata holds the line on suspending sexual relations and taking control of the city's treasury to bring the war to an end. Eventually, the male "victims" of the scheme begin to appear on stage, in varying stages of distress over the withholding of sex. In response, Lysistrata finds various ways to inflame their lust, only compounding the "agony" that they are suffering.

In short order, the frustrated warriors of Athens and Sparta reach a truce, and Lysistrata launches a Dionysian celebration of song and dance to mark the end of the war and the renewal of congress between men and women.

Aristophanes, Lysistrata, translated by Charles T. Murphy


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