Sunday, March 29, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Part 1 of 4)

Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Time: First performed in 411 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas Considered: Duty, Courage, War and Peace

[The complete text of Lysistrata can be found online at This text differs some from the Sommerstein translation I'll be quoting from, most notably in Sommerstein's playful use of a Scottish dialect to differentiate the Spartans from the Athenians.]

Among Aristophanes’ eleven extant plays, Lysistrata is the one with which modern readers most often identify though for reasons that have more to do with modernity than the play itself. This wishful story of an Athenian woman who brokers a lasting peace to the Peloponnesian War generates its humor in the typical Aristophanic fashion through the inversion of particular status quo value. In this case, Aristophanes takes the typically passive role that women played in classic Greek culture and reverses it as the women refuse to perform their wifely duties until the war’s conclusion. Lysistrata’s ribald dialogue and openness in discussing sexual relationships between men and women has made it a perpetual source of controversy and, no doubt, contributed to its persistence within the Western cultural tradition. Aristophanes’ device of placing a woman at the story’s center as its heroine has also gained attention from post-feminist thinkers as prescient in its depiction of women as co-equal to men, in deed if not social status.

In contrast to its reputation, Lysistrata is not unique among Aristophanes’ work (even among those extant) in its candid discussions of sex. If anything, Lysistrata is positively moral by Victorian standards in comparison to The Clouds which is replete with homoerotic humor and nary a female character to be found. Most of the sex discussed in Lysistrata is of the marital variety and predominantly heterosexual in nature. While it does presuppose, if only satirically, that women have sexual needs that go beyond their desire to procreate (a subject of much debate in the US up through the 1950s), no actual sex occurs within its narrative frame; literally, much ado about nothing.

As a reader well-grounded in the canon of feminist writing, I also have extreme difficulty thinking of Lysistrata as a feminist work of any sort. At best, it might be described as ‘womanist,’ tacitly acknowledging the personhood of women without seeing this distinction as grounds for a true reconsideration of the gender roles as prescribed by the traditions of culture. For all the attention paid to sex by the play and posterity that has received it, sex is but a magnified symbol of the many contributions that women make to society through their management of the household while men are away, busy slaughtering one another. In their refusal to perform the totality of those duties (including but hardly limited to sex), Lysistrata and her band of conspirators cripple the productivity of Greece in the same way that a slave rebellion or a grain embargo might. In this sense, Lysistrata can be read as a vigorous defense of the traditional Greek values of womanhood even as it upsets the social order for comedic purposes with its value inversion.

So, if Lysistrata is neither the Greek equivalent of the Tropic of Cancer nor The Feminine Mystique, then what the heck is it? To begin that discussion, it is important to set Lysistrata as most immediately relevant to a particular place and time; namely, Athens in 411 BCE, when and where the play was first performed. Socially, Athens was in utter turmoil. After fifty years of unquestioned superiority among the Greek city-states and the dominions beyond, Athens’ status began to slowly erode with the onset of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. Their military and naval might forced the first leg of the War to a conclusion in 421 but, within six years, conflict broke out again and, in 415, the Athenian navy was destroyed by Syracuse allied with Sparta. Humiliated by that defeat and the loss of some of their colonies, Athens elected to double down and use the lumber and wealth that had placed in reserve at the war’s onset to raise a second fleet. In 411, the same year that Lysistrata was first performed, the Athenian democracy was overthrown by an oligarchy known as the Council of Four Hundred. The tension between the democratic and oligarchic factions could be essentially boiled down to how the remaining funds and resources would be spent in preparation for the recommencement of full-scale war. While the Council of Four Hundred would only persist for four months before Athens’ democratic system was restored, one can only imagine the degree of anxiety about the future that the average Athenian (such as one who might have attended this play) was feeling. In a way, the mere inversion of women’s relationship to war that sits at the play’s heart would be a comfort in comparison to the whiplash reversals of fortune that had plagued the city for over two decades.

Sitting down with the Syntopicon to decide which of the Great Ideas might prove illuminating for a discussion of Lysistrata, I found myself embroiled in a quandary. Much to my surprise (and I must admit, chagrin), Gender is not one of the Great Ideas. Woman and/or Womanhood are not Great Ideas. Man, on the other hand, is a Great Idea and, as one might suspect, this is the Old School definition of Man that presumes both men and women under its authority. However one might see fit to measure it, I’m just feminist enough in my acculturation that I loathe hearing the words ‘Man’ or ’Mankind’ as a synonym for humanity. Whenever reading a passage aloud that insists upon doing it, I usually insert the parenthetical (“because they didn’t have women back then”) just to keep from feeling like an ass.

One of the most persistent and, frankly, well-earned criticisms of The Great Books series and the editorial materials that accompany it is that it is, at best, chauvinist and, at worse, openly misogynist in its organization of ideas and in its selection of works for consideration. We nearly lost Kendra a couple of weeks ago to the dunes of seething anger when we realized that the only woman represented by ALL TEN YEARS of the Great Books reading list was Jane Austen. The argument I made then and then one I present now is that the lion’s share of the scholarship that went into compiling the Great Books series was done in the early 1950s. The editorial board, at the time, didn’t feel that enough time had elapsed in the 20th century for them to develop the amount of cultural objectivity requisite to deciding what might be of lasting historical merit and what might not. When Adler and his staff returned to the task in the late 1980s, they did feel confident enough to include works published from 1900 to 1950. Consequently, the selections from the second edition highlight a virtual explosion of women contributing to the Great Conversation in the first half of the 20th century. For all the Aphra Behn’s and Sappho’s that might have been considered in the first edition but weren’t, the second edition does improve upon its relationship with women, if not repair it altogether with a more exhaustive examination of what the breadth and depth of that contribution to the written tradition might actually be.

Deprived by the Great Ideas of a direct way to address the womanist aspects of Lysistrata, my thinking turned immediately subversive. I considered selecting Slavery and drawing parallels from the play between that institution and the one of marriage. I also considered selecting Man and using it as an opportunity to criticize the inadequacies of the Great Ideas as they stand. In the end, however, my desire to utilize the Great Ideas in the constructive spirit in which they were collected prevailed. I visualized them as an elaborate Tarot Deck, broadly sketching various aspects of the human experience with the assumption that the aspirant will bring their own knowledge to the table to truly flesh out the medians between the various ideas. Narrowed down to three from a possible field of six, I chose to filter my discussion of Lysistrata through the Great Ideas of Duty, Courage, and War and Peace.

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