Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
In the late twentieth century, Lysistrata became the most frequently produced of the ancient Greek dramas, for reasons that are not hard to determine: The play deals openly with sex, feminism, and pacifism—all major preoccupations of that era. It is clear, however, that many audiences since Aristophanes’ day have taken up Lysistrata largely for its ideology rather than for its intrinsic value as a play.
By contrast with the playwright’s other works on similar themes, Lysistrata seems rather thin in imagination. Undoubtedly the basic assumption of the comedy—that women could achieve peace and governmental reform by refusing to have sex with men—was an ancient idea even in Aristophanes’ time. Aristophanes’ plays Acharns (425 b.c.e.; The Acharnians, 1812) and Eirn (421 b.c.e.; Peace, 1837) present novel, if bizarre, methods of achieving peace, while Thesmophoriazousai (411 b.c.e.; Thesmophoriazusae, 1837) and Ekklesiazousai (392 b.c.e.?; Ecclesiazusae, 1837) show women in a funnier, more satirical light. Modern-day audiences as a rule appreciate directness and simplicity and in many instances do not object to a certain lack of originality, but they probably would dislike a satirical treatment of Lysistrata, who is both a militant feminist and a pacifist.
In structure, the drama is straightforward. The problem is simple: The women are tired of living without their husbands because of war. Out of the solution they devise—teasing their husbands but withholding sex from them until the men settle the war out of sheer frustration—everything else in the play follows. The women capture the treasury; the old men try to force the women into submission; when force fails, the two sides hold an inconclusive debate in which the magistrate, a chief warmonger, is first decked out like a woman and then as a corpse; the women begin to defect from their oath of chastity, but with strenuous effort Lysistrata whips them back into shape; and finally the Athenian and Spartan men agree to negotiate for peace. When those negotiations fail, the diplomats are tricked into a peace settlement through feasting and drinking. Once the problem has been established, almost all of the consequent action is predictable, yet it amuses nevertheless. Perhaps the funniest idea in the play is that diplomats should never negotiate when they are sober: Cleverness and greed are inimical to peace, whereas drink and festivity promote goodwill.
Sex—particularly the battle of the sexes—is a traditional subject for comedy, and Greek comedy in fact evolved in part from phallic farce. The central idea of Lysistrata—that women take over the affairs of state—would have seemed irresistibly comic to Aristophanes and his audience. The slapstick and banter between the chorus of old men and the chorus of women simply restate the age-old contest between male and female.
Lysistrata, however, carries a more important theme than sexuality, which is used merely as a weapon to bring about peace. At the time this play was first produced in 411 b.c.e., Athens had been through twenty hard years of war with Sparta, and the conflict was not to end for another seven years. The seriousness of the war is brought out very forcefully when Lysistrata tells the magistrate that sons have perished in battle and that many young women will never find mates because of this. The fact that the chorus consists of old men underscores the point that many Athenian youths have died in the Peloponnesian War. Here the drama reveals Aristophanes’ true feelings about the war with no trace of buffoonery. The dramatist clearly regards Lysistrata as a heroine and not as the butt of humor. When men have failed so thoroughly to govern the affairs of the city, he says, it is time for others to take over. All the while, Aristophanes and his audience are fully aware of women’s weaknesses. In essence, the playwright is scolding the Athenian men and telling them that if they cannot put an end to the war after twenty years, they might as well give up.
Lysistrata was originally presented as a musical comedy, with songs, choreography, colorful costumes, and masks. The actors were all male, as in the theater of William Shakespeare’s time. This type of presentation tended to soften the strength of Aristophanes’ biting wit, and it gave the play an air of spectacle, of festivity. Aristophanes had the keen comic wit of George Bernard Shaw, but he employed it in a different medium and style, and used it for opposite social ends.