Lysistrata by Aristophanes [Book Thoughts]

Lysistrata has a fascinating premise but has little to offer to a modern audience.


Lysistrata by Aristophanes 

(Douglas Parker Translation)

Aristophanes was a comic playwright in Ancient Greece and of his 30 or so plays, only 11 of them survive today in their complete form. According to Wikipedia at least, Lysistrata is one of his more notable working having been written in 411 BC, making it over 2400 years old. The age shows.

Lysistrata begins against the backdrop of the war between the Athenians and the Spartans in Ancient Greece. The women from either side have become so fed up with the war keeping their husbands busy that a woman (Lysistrata) emerges from amongst them and enacts a plan to bring about peace. She convinces the Athenian and Spartan women to hit the men where it hurts i.e. to withhold sex from their husbands until they manage to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the war. A perfectly reasonable plan I suppose. A battle of the sexes erupts.

 On paper Lysistrata sounds funny and, up until around around 30 pages in, I was convinced it was going to be one of those clever tongue-in-cheek plays filled with wit and candour. No such luck. The tone quickly decays from humorous to scathing and the ‘battle of the sexes’ turns out to be more violent than satirical. No really: by about halfway through the ‘battle’ is fought with punches and kicks and the jokes don’t get wittier than ‘hairy backsides’. Bawdy is perhaps a better description.

There are also some blatantly malicious undertones later on in the play. The way the women lash out seems very similar to the modern anti-man feminist arguments and the men are portrayed as brutish one-dimensional ogres. Perhaps the gender roles were far more oppressive in Ancient Greece, and thus the drastic portrayals justified, but I think a modern reader might expect a more intelligent  investigation than women getting punched on the jaw and ‘men are pigs’-type arguments. That and the countless song and dance routines were clearly meant for another time (they don’t translate well from Greek). Perhaps it is admirable that a 2400 year old still manages to bear some kind of contemporary relevance but Lysistrata is certainly more of an ancient artefact than a timeless classic.

There are also some stylistic I took with Douglas Parker’s translation. For starters, he’s chosen to represent the Spartans’ unpolished dialect by writing their lines in a Redneck drawl (Why?). The choice backfires: the language comes across as dreadfully out of place and trying to decipher what “Aw kin dunnit” means is irritating. The translation is also loaded with so many lengthy footnotes that it breaks flow having to stop every second page to find out what a particular line is referring to. Perhaps this is another sign of the play’s decrepitude: that it needs so much exposition to make sense. But then again, what was I expecting? This play is older than Jesus. Oh and poor Judith Fletcher; I didn’t read her afterword.

Lysistrata has a fascinating premise but has little to offer to a modern audience.

 See you next week

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