The Lysistrata has behind it much suffering and a burning pity. Aristophanes had more than once risked his civic rights and even his life in his battle for peace, and is now making his last appeal. It is owing to this background of intense feeling that the Lysistrata becomes not exactly a great comedy, but a great play, making its appeal not to laughter alone but also to deeper things than laughter.
—Gilbert Murray, Aristophanes: A Study
With its perennially relevant antiwar and gender themes, Lysistrata speaks to modern audiences more forcefully than any other of the playwright’s remark-able comedies, making it one of the most frequently produced Greek dramas and the most famous of Aristophanes’ plays. If Aristophanes cannot be credited with the actual invention of stage comedy, he is the earliest practitioner whose plays have survived intact. Aristophanes provides us with our only surviving examples of Greek Old Comedy, the raucous, profane, and intellectually daring dramatic form that, along with choral tragedy, was the great achievement of Attic drama during the fifth century b.c.
We know very little about Aristophanes’ life and personality, but a great deal about his times as reflected in his plays (11 of his more than 40 works have survived). A native Athenian, Aristophanes was a political and intellectual gadfly whose dramas offer some of the best reflections of the period’s controversies and preoccupations. It is said that when Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, wanted to learn about the people and the institutions of Athens, Plato advised him to consult the comedies of Aristophanes. He was born around 450 b.c., in the years when Pericles was initiating the reforms that created the golden age of Athenian democracy and lived through the period of Athens’s growth as an empire and as a center of extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievement. Nine of his surviving plays, however, reflect the tragic consequences of the punishing Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which was waged from 431 to 404 and culminated in Athens’s defeat and rapid decline. When Aristophanes died in 385 b.c., the last surviving great fifth-century playwright, his passing ended a century of unparalleled dramatic accomplishment. His final years, however, were spent in a very different milieu from his heyday as a dramatist, one hostile to the freewheeling, nothing-is-sacred tolerance upon which his great comedies depended. The Old Comedy of Aristophanes would be replaced by the more sedate New Comedy of the fourth century, a more prosaic, less outrageous and fantastical comedy of manners. As written most notably by Menander, and adapted by the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence, the New Comedy with its stock characters and situations formed the main tributary for Western comic drama. Aristophanes’ comedy, however, should be regarded as more than a dead end and a cultural curiosity. His plays as a form established the bedrock of comedy’s greatest resources by offering a serious reflection of the world while encouraging our ability to laugh at its absurdity, excesses, and pretensions. Aristophanes’ dramas have remained a rich comic inspiration and influence, to be reworked and refashioned through the centuries. Echoes of his inventiveness and comic methods are readily found in the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, the absurdist, existential dramas of Samuel Beckett, and the intellectual high jinks of Tom Stoppard. If later comic drama is less exuberant and more predictable than Aristophanes’ plays, the essential elements in his works—irreverence, a mix of serious themes and low comic farce, a celebration of human nature’s foibles and vitality, and an exhilarating liberation from repression and pretensions in their many guises—established comedy’s core ethos and strategies.
The origins of Greek comedy are as obscure as those of tragedy. Both dramatic forms seem to have derived from the communal and ritual celebration of the god Dionysus. The Greek word kômoidia, from which the term comedy is derived, means the “song of a band of revelers”; the komos was a procession of revelers who sang and danced through towns or festivals, often dressed as and impersonating animals while celebrating the vital force of nature and fertility. Their raucous performances, filled with obscenity, scatology, and the direct taunts of the onlookers, were intended to disrupt routine and to provoke an emotional and sexual release. The komos formed the prototype for the comedy that Greek playwrights in the fifth century b.c. adapted into a chorus, with actors taking the parts of characters in a plot in which obstacles are surmounted, often in fantastical manner, to end in celebration and affirmation. Elements of these early comedies are found in the satyr plays that concluded tragic trilogies, and comedies were first included in Athens’s annual drama festival, the City Dionysia, in 486 b.c., with a second festival, the Lenaea, featuring comedies, established in 442 b.c.
Aristotle, in the Poetics, established the accepted contrast between tragedy and comedy by the latter’s depiction of less exalted characters and situations. The method and outcome of comedy are the opposite of tragedy in which pity and fear are evoked by a telling dramatization of a hero’s exposed limitations. In comedy laughter is the desired outcome, derived from the breaking of boundaries, from the shattering of illusions, and an emotionally satisfying transcendence over the ordinary or the preordained. Tragedy moves from order to disorder and death; comedy from disorder to a renewed stability, marked by obstacles overcome and a restored harmony in the repaired breach from the opposing forces that condemn the tragic hero. Different from tragedy’s familiar mythological subjects involving heroes who are paragons, Attic comedy was original and invented, making use of both the fantastical and the details of ordinary life, with characters as flawed and as recognizable as anyone in the audience. If tragedy aspired to the timeless and universal, Greek Old Comedy exploited the local, reflecting specific controversies in the political, cultural, literary, and intellectual issues of the day. Aristophanes’ comedies also make use of actual figures, such as Socrates, Euripides, Aeschylus, and the Athenian political leader Cleon. During a performance of the Clouds, it is said, Socrates stood up in the audience to show how well done his likeness was on the mask of the actor who played him. Aristophanes’ targets include such revered institutions as Athenian democracy and the Athenian jury system that are exposed as falling comically short of the ideal. Euripides is ridiculed in several of Aristophanes’ plays, making Aristophanes in a sense the original dramatic critic. Almost all of Aristophanes’ surviving plays were produced during the Peloponnesian War, which the playwright daringly condemns as unjust and morally reprehensible. There is perhaps no better example of Aristophanes’ topicality, as well as Athenian toleration of dissent and self-assessment, than Aristophanes’ comic attack on war and its conduct as it is being waged. In the Acharnians (425), the earliest extant comedy, Dicaeopolis makes a separate peace with the Spartans and must get the better of a hard-line general whose patriotism is exposed as a destructive fraud. In Peace (421) the Goddess of Peace must be rescued from the pit in which she is imprisoned by Trygaeus, who ascends to heaven on a dung beetle. Lysistrata presents the provocative fantasy that war could be stopped by the women through denying sex to the combatants until peace is secured.
Aristophanes mounts his case in Lysistrata through paradox and inversion. It is the only extant ancient Greek comedy in which women take center stage and control the action. Lysistrata (whose name means “disbander of armies”) conceives the so-called happy idea central to Old Comedy that women can end the madness of war and restore common sense and sanity, jeopardized by male dominance of public affairs, by witholding women’s most powerful weapon: sexuality. As critic A. M. Bowie has observed, “Lysistrata portrays the temporary imposition of a gynaecocracy on the city of Athens.” As the play opens Lysistrata summons females from across Greece to present her radical notion. Women simply convening an assembly before the sacred gates of the Acropolis would have struck Aristophanes’ first audience as unthinkable and as an outrageous violation of accepted standards. Confined to domestic duties in their homes, Athenian women had no power and no place in the public sphere. Conspiring to take charge of the patriarchical Athenian society asserts the play’s topsy-turviness that escalates into a series of comic reversals and witty ironies. To save the state its subservient dependents must take control of it. To make peace the women must go to war. Theirs will be a battle of the sexes in which their opponents are their own husbands. Women’s sexual power is to be asserted by withholding sex; a normal, peaceful sexual life is to be reclaimed by foregoing it. To restore domestic tranquillity gender roles are reversed, with women becoming more masculine and men reduced to helpless dependence on their newly empowered mates. The men will be vanquished by their own virility to make peace and resume enjoying its blessings. Aristophanes’ clever, dizzying inversions set in motion a delightful series of bawdy comic situations, an apparently inexhaustible stream of double entendres in which the erotic principle seems to infect every comment and aspect of Athenian life, outrageous sight gags of the males sporting near-crippling erections, as well as the playwright’s many profound and serious points about the true cost of war and the true value of peace.
To start her rebellion Lysistrata must first get her sisters to assemble on time and then convince them to abstain from sex themselves. This proves to be no mean feat, and Aristophanes’ play opens with confirmation of comic female stereotypes in the women’s triviality, deceitfulness, drunkenness, and licentiousness. For Lysistrata’s scheme (and Aristophanes’ comedy) to work the physical realities of women and men’s lives must be acknowledged. Sexual desire and the carnal must be shown as far stronger and far more important than political power or other abstract virtues. Erotic passion must trump the rational, and the life force must be shown superior to any death wish for con-quest or vengeance in order to break war’s hold on Greece that has subverted what is most central in human life. As Aristophanes makes clear, the women assembled are no more virtuous paragons of principles than their mates but are the first to recognize in their appetites and passions what truly matters. Wittily Aristophanes shows that women’s gender liabilities—confinement to the domestic and their sexual preoccupations—are actually strengths and worth protecting, and Lysistrata manages to convince Athenian and Spartan women alike to just say no, as the play’s rambunctious assault on dignity, propriety, and pretension commences.
Reflecting the gender discord that ensues, the play’s chorus is divided into sparring, antiphonal contingents of old men and women who enact a version of the frustrated sexual act as the men try to storm the barred gates of the Acropolis held by the women with battering rams and flaming torches. The women, having taken control of the city’s treasury as the younger women have kept their physical treasures from their husbands, extinguish the assault and cool the ardor of their attackers by throwing water on them. An Athenian magistrate arrives to reassert order, and his verbal combat with Lysistrata over the role and responsibilities of women to the state forms the core debate in the play. He asserts that state affairs and the conduct of war are no business of women, to which Lysistrata responds with an extended comparison between her plan for saving Greece and the domestic art of weaving. The Magistrate replies: “It takes a woman to reduce state questions to a matter of carding and weaving.” Lysistrata powerfully responds to his charge of women’s irrelevance by pointedly observing that women have the most to lose from a mismanaged state that leaves them widowed and unmarried. “Instead of the love that every women needs,” Lysistrata states, “we have only our single bed, where we can dream of our husbands off with the army.” For maidens there is an urgency that war disrupts. A bald and toothless man can still find a mate, but, as Lysistrata points out, “A woman’s beauty is gone with the first gray hair,” and an aging woman will wait in vain for a husband.
Having successfully turned away a physical and verbal male assault, Lysistrata and her rebellion must next deal with internal dissension as the women begin to waver, inventing elaborate ruses to return home for sex. Lysistrata is only able to steel the women’s resolve by the promise of an oracle that Zeus will “set the lower higher.” The strategy of delaying the gratification of the men is comically played out as the husband Cinesias, “simply bulging with love,” tries to convince his wife Myrrhine to gratify the love that is “killing me.” Myrrhine appears to comply but agonizingly delays in successive searches for a bed, mattress, pillow, coverlet, and perfume before leaving Cinesias cold after her failures to commit to the desired treaty. An embassy of erect Spartans arrive, and under the spell of an enormous statue of a naked woman representing reconciliation, they agree to peace terms with the Athenians. Lysistrata is allowed a final and moving speech on behalf of a common Greek heritage and past common cause that should cancel current differences before feasting and dancing conclude the play. The gender divide is repaired; the chorus joins in harmony, and the values of hearth and home and the life force have been reestablished as central under the temporary, comic management of the women. Aristophanes’ dramatization of the principle “Make Love, Not War” pushes to a delightfully preposterous extreme certain absurdities in gender relationships and civic affairs to reach more basic truths in the power of life over death and love over hate.