Wednesday, 9 August 2000

Aristophanes: Lysistrata (411 BC)

Translation: Patric Dickinson, 1957
Edition: Nick Hern, 1996
Review number: 568

One of the reasons that Aristophanes' plays still work - even though the situation and people they are satirising are thousands of years out of date - is the way that they develop their ideas. The modern equivalent in feel to his humour would probably be a combination between political and absurdist stand-up comedy. This usually works by taking a sensible idea and developing it to the point of absurdity, while Aristophanes does almost exactly the opposite. He takes an absurd idea (becoming a bird because you're fed up with human politics, making a private peace treaty with the enemy in a long running war) and develops it as though it were serious.

In the case of Lysistrata, the absurd idea must have seemed completely ludicrous in a society in which it could be seriously debated whether women had minds at all. As in Women in Power, the play is about women taking over masculine politics. (And it should be remembered that another level of absurdity is provided by the fact that all the female parts would originally have been played by men in drag.) What they want is an end to the long-running Pelopponesian War - a motivation in several of Aristophanes' surviving plays - and the way that they intend to achieve this is to deny sex to their husbands until they see sense.

The potential for comedy in this scenario is fairly obvious, and Aristophanes makes a good deal out of it. The funniest moments are the women - desperate for sex themselves - trying to sneak past Lysistrata; Myrrhine - the name is the equivalent of something like 'sexpot' in then current Greek slang - working her husband up to a peak of frustration; and the delegation of Spartan men bent double to try to hide their erections. Not subtle, but very funny.

Not as clever as The Frogs (my favourite Aristophanes play), Lysistrata is continually funny and must have been extremely hard hitting as satire when first performed, by men to an audience of men telling them that women could run public affairs better than they were.

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