Ancient Greek comedies are not performed too often these days. It isn’t for lack of quality; the survivors are packed with absurdist plots, madcap banter and more dick jokes than a whole season of Family Guy. But if good tragedy is universal, good comedy is specific. The political satire and pop culture references that were trending with the Athenians 2,500 years ago just won’t do the trick for modern audiences.
That is, with one exception: Lysistrata by Aristophanes. This fantastical tale of an anti-war sex strike led by women has yet to go out of fashion. Whilst The Clouds is argued over by philosophers and The Frogs riles up literary critics, Lysistrata is inevitably being re-staged this year at a theatre near you. There’s even a movie coming out next week; Spike Lee’s Chiraq, which shifts the story to south-side Chicago. Until the wars end and/or girls run the world, Aristophanes’ clash of sex and politics isn’t going anywhere.
The eponymous heroine, an Athenian noblewoman scraping through the darkest days of the bloody Peloponnesian War, calls the women of Greece to a secret meeting. Lysistrata persuades them — from all cities, all sides of the conflict — to go on a sex strike until their husbands and lovers negotiate a peaceful end to the war. She and her supporters seize the Acropolis (including the state treasury), and barricade themselves inside, depriving men of both sex and money. Duelling choruses of old men and old women spar at the barricades, but the women cannot be dislodged, and Lysistrata humiliates a city magistrate who tries to brow-beat her into ending the strike. Fighting back dissent from sex-starved wives eager to sneak back to their husbands, Lysistrata succeeds in bringing the men of Athens and Sparta — all sporting enormous erections — to the negotiations. The men quickly hammer out the agreement, and Lysistrata returns their wives for a finale of festive dancing (and, presumably after the curtains close, much sex).
For a flavour of the play in action, check out the live reading staged recently at the Almeida Theatre of Germaine Greer’s adaptation Lysistrata & the Sex Strike, starring the wonderful Tamsin Greig (of Black Books fame) as Lysistrata. Your imagination will have to supply the phalluses.
Aristophanes would be surprised to discover that his plea for peace (and delivery system for dick jokes) has taken new life as a feminist call to arms. In Aristophanes’ day, democratic Athens denied women the vote and wives were expected to remain silent and veiled in public. Women could not perform in the theatre — they may not have even been admitted in the audience. Lysistrata’s political power play, let alone the strike and occupation, would have been a clear absurdity to the original all-male audience. Citizens may have been tired of the twenty-year-long war, but would imagine their wives held the answer? Even Lysistrata’s competence is part of the joke; the war has progressed so badly, and so diminished its leaders, that the only ‘real man’ left in Greece with the balls to do something is… a woman.
Modern audiences don’t have such a hard time taking Lysistrata seriously. Even on the page, she is a remarkable character: bold, decisive and clever, constantly disappointed by her peers but unwavering in her vision. She may be the lead in a comedy, but the joke is not on her. She redirects the little power that women could wield in Ancient Athens towards a simple solution that the men, for all their high talk and experience, will not accept without a push: peace.
A ludicrous plan in ancient Athens can be a reality in the 21st Century. Sex strikes have been staged in recent years in Italy, Belgium, Togo, Liberia and Poland to end civil war, push reforms and fix roads. A few are held up as success stories: a strike by women’s organisations in Kenya in 2009 to challenge government infighting saw the impasse end within the week; the partners of gang members in Pereira, Colombia in 2006 held a “strike of crossed legs”, which corresponded with a significant downturn in the city’s murder rate.
Sex strikes are a sure publicity winner. Layman Gbowee, who led the ‘Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’ movement in Liberia, felt their strike “had little or no practice effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.” Likewise, when we talk about Lysistrata, it is easy to focus on the sex and ignore the women’s more radical act: the capture of the Acropolis. Denying men sex continues to define women’s bodies by how others use them; the overthrow of the Acropolis, however, sees women entering a male sphere and dominating it. It sets off a great wave of anxiety in the chorus of old men who fail to break the barricade:
“If once we let these women get the semblances of a start,
Before we know, they’ll be adept at every manly art.
They’ll build a navy, quickly master strategy marine,
And fight against the City’s fleet, just like that Carian queen!”
Aristophanes was more concerned with punching up his anti-war screed with dick jokes and double entendres than championing revolutionary feminism; after all, this is a play that gave us the saying “Women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” It hasn’t stopped today’s artists from pushing the cause of Lysistrata and her sisterhood further. Germaine Greer’s 1972 version, Lysistrata and the Sex Strike, maintains Aristophanes’ structure whilst introducing more nuance to the assembled women, injecting issues of class and civil liberties (and even more sex jokes, because why not?). Aristophanes could never have written the following speech, and yet it flows naturally from Lysistrata:
“Good little woman, I held my tongue. Then I hear that the senate was for escalation of the war, and I ask my respected husband how he could ever have agreed to something so wicked and so future, and he frowned and he muttered, ‘you look after your housekeeping, war is men’s business’ … I couldn’t sit there and do nothing whilst whole civilisations butchered each other. I believe in negotiating for peace. That’s why I set up a peace treaty with the enemy, who are as demoralised as we are – with the women of course, just to make you understand, that it’s only the men who want war, we women have never declared war on each other in any country in history.”
Aristophanes ends his play with a celebration of peace, and a return to normalcy — with the war ended, women may return to their husbands and domestic servitude. But Germaine Greer’s modern chorus steps back from the celebrations, for they see what Aristophanes could not — in reality there was no Lysistrata, and no equal peace. Only more devastation, until Athens was subjugated. “This has been an old man’s wartime fantasy,” they conclude. Aristophanes created Lysistrata to shock — a one-off revolution to inspire an end to a terrible conflict. Today she speaks for something greater, for the role of women in governance.
Productions of Lysistrata have always proliferated in times of bloodshed, and in defiance of traditionally male spaces. In the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, world-wide readings of the play were staged as part of a mass peace protest dubbed The Lysistrata Project. Productions have been staged in Israel and Palestine, repeating Lysistrata’s cross-cultural plea for solidarity and negotiation over war. Spike Lee’s new joint, Chiraq, pits Lysistrata against gang-culture and American gun violence, filtered through Samuel L. Jackson’s spoken word poetry:
Now and again, life proves that change is possible. Layman Gbowee’s sex strike in Liberia in 2003 was only one part of concerted push by women’s organisations to end the civil war. The strike attracted global media attention, but the final act of the campaign was also reminiscent of Lysistrata: Gbowee and hundreds of demonstrators overran the hotel where negotiators had stalled for months, and held the men “hostage” in the hall until an agreement was reached. Peace achieved, Liberian women did not relinquish their newfound public role in the nation’s politics; in 2005 Gbowee’s collaborator Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President, becoming the first female head of state in Africa. In 2011, Gbowee, Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Aristophanes could scarcely have hoped for a better outcome for his own nation.
Yet we cannot separate Lysistrata from its dick jokes and double entendres. Millenia on, they still supply the laughs, and prevent the play’s worthy message from lapsing into self-seriousness. But focusing on sex does more; it reminds us that the stakes in war are personal as well as political, and will always follow us home. And home is where attitudes can begin to change. Layman Gbowee explains that whilst her movement could not reach all men, it helped get ‘good men’ thinking: “We said, ‘we need you to take a stand.’ And they did.” Sex, in a protest or in a play, may just start a conversation we need to have.
In our own era of fear, reactive policies and loose talk of invasion, we would be better off borrowing Lysistrata’s refrain: “It’s intelligence and common sense that we need, not violence.”
Plus, maybe, whatever the “lion-on-a-cheese-grater position” is.
This is the first in a new series revisiting ancient myths and classics, and bringing them into the present. Next week we’re going Roman with the famously debauched Satyricon. Read ahead, and share your thoughts!