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This review is from: Four Comedies (Ann Arbor Paperbacks) (Paperback)
"Lysistrata" is Aristophanes' best-known comedy. Its humor, drawn from the timeless subject of sex, translates well, and the play is still being performed twenty-four centuries after its first production in 411 B.C. At the time when it was written, the Peloponnesian War had been dragging on for twenty years. The plot of "Lysistrata" revolves around a group of Greek women, led by an Athenian named Lysistrata, who take over the Acropolis. They blockade the treasury and vow to forgo sex until peace is declared. Initially, the men of Athens are too shocked by the women's audacity to realize the implications of this declaration, and simply focus their efforts upon reclaiming the Acropolis. A "battle of the sexes" ensues as the men try to break through the locked gates of the building, first with battering rams (note symbolism), then with fire. Ultimately, as enforced abstinence saps their strength, they are reduced to shameless begging. Indeed, as the siege continues, both the men and the women suffer from the lack of sex. Lysistrata is forced to acknowledge that her troops are becoming restless, and morale is low: "In briefest compass, we want to get laid." Meanwhile, the men's desperation builds to a crisis level. Aristophanes uses slapstick comedy and double entendre to keep the action moving and to illustrate the characters' plight. All in all, this is a very funny play.
One interesting aspect of "Lysistrata" is that although women were considered second-class citizens in Aristophanes' time and had few legal rights, the acrimonious relationship between the sexes which is so apparent in the works of later Classical writers (for example, Juvenal) is not in evidence here. The back-and-forth between the husbands and wives during the play's "battle scenes" suggests an easy camaraderie. The insults exchanged are not hate-filled attacks, but more the grumbling banter born out of years of familiarity. The husbands accuse their wives of farting in bed. The wives joke about their husbands' hairy asses, aka "overgrown underbush" (prompting this glorious rejoinder from a hirsute male: "A hairy behind, historically, means masculine force; Myronides harassed the foe with his mighty mane, and furry Phormion swept the seas of enemy ships, never meeting his match - such was the nature of his thatch"). Aristophanes' portrayal of women in "Lysistrata" is not mean-spirited. While some members of Lysistrata's army have qualities that reflect unflattering sexist stereotypes, Lysistrata herself is intelligent, articulate, and a good strategist who runs circles around the men who are sent to subdue her (after one particularly ignominious defeat, the leader of the men charges his troop with "gross ineptitude," lamenting, "A sorry day for the Force"). Classicists are always reminding us that women of this time period were scarcely one step above slaves, so it's surprising that so many strong women feature in the tragedies and comedies of the age. The fact that 5th century dramatists included the female perspective in their works might be a sign that Athenian women wielded more power (behind the scenes) than their limited public role would indicate. On the other hand, perhaps male playwrights could afford to depict strong women and women's viewpoints precisely because there was no actual looming threat, i.e., female subservience was unquestioned in 5th century Athens. According to this view, the idea of women getting "uppity" and disrupting the status quo was simply unimaginable (in contrast, Juvenal was writing in Rome at a time when women enjoyed a higher social status and were seeking to educate themselves).
Like "Lysistrata," "The Archanians" is a plea for peace. It is Aristophanes' earliest extant comedy, written in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War. Its main character, Dikaiopolis, spends the play trying to reason with Archanians - a violently anti-Spartan, pro-war people who inhabited an area north of Athens - but every time he mentions the word "peace" they attempt to kill him. The play has many funny moments, but the humor is incomprehensible without the footnotes. I can't imagine this play being staged today because the jokes are impossible for a modern audience to grasp. For example, there's an extended sequence featuring an emaciated man from Megara who sells his daughters in exchange for some garlic and salt. The footnotes tell us that the humor lies in the fact that Megara was a Greek state that suffered grievously during the war and was reduced to a state of dire poverty early on. The footnotes are also necessary in order for us to understand why a character from Thebes speaks in a Bertie Wooster dialect (according to the translator, the Athenians viewed the Thebans as "impossibly stupid aristocrats"). As long as the reader is armed with the footnotes, there's plenty of political, cultural, and artistic humor to be enjoyed, with Aristophanes making fun of various people and institutions, among them: 1) Kleon, a venal demagogue who was the leader of the anti-Spartan faction in Athens; 2) the "civic affliction" of informers, men who worked for the Board of Trade during the war and who, by declaring all imports contraband, deprived Athenians of such cherished delicacies as eels wrapped in beet leaves; 3) Athens' out-of-control litigation (Aristophanes singles out lawyers who prey upon the elderly for particular abuse); 4) and of course, Aristophanes' favorite target, Euripides, whose writing style and subject matter are mercilessly parodied to great comedic effect.
"The Congresswomen" shares some similarities with "Lysistrata." A strong, spirited woman, Praxagora, and her dim-witted female followers dress up like men and take over the Congress. Once ensconced as senators, the women unveil a radical communist agenda which sounds suspiciously like the utopian community presented in Plato's "Republic": shared land, shared money, shared meals, and shared sexual partners. As Praxagora explains, in order to ensure that everyone gets a chance to copulate there will be a pool of women, "a public hoard for the use of every man who wishes to take them to bed and make babies. They'll be arranged in rows, the ugly and snub-nosed right beside the really divine. The man who wants the latter will have to take a crack at the gruesome first." The same will hold true for women: "(W)e'll enjoin the women from climbing in bed with the swell and the tall before they've raised the spirits and warmed the cockles of the grisly and squat." The second half of the play describes life under the new regime, focusing upon the sexual ordinance and its repercussions - for example, in order to have sex with a sweet young thing, a man first must contend with three lustful hags. While "The Congresswomen" is not the greatest play ever, there are parallels to the current political situation in America which make it a good play to read right now. Classicists always describe Aristophanes as an archconservative (I myself don't see much evidence for this in his plays, but I'll take their word for it), so it's interesting to contrast his bemused reaction to the communist ideas that were floating around in 5th century Athens with the alarmist howling and hand-wringing that has been modern-day conservatives' response to Obama's "socialist" policies. Evidently, a tolerance for conflicting viewpoints existed twenty-four centuries ago that is no longer with us.
"The Frogs" is my favorite Aristophanes comedy. Not only do I love the chant of Hades' frog population - "brekekekex ko-ax ko-ax" - but I love the play's grand finale: a showdown between Euripides and Aeschylus, with each criticizing the other's plays and defending his own. At the beginning of the play, Dionysos, the god of Greek drama, is lamenting the loss of all the great playwrights: Sophocles and Euripides had died shortly before "The Frogs" was presented, and Aeschylus was long since dead. Dionysus decides to go down to Hades with the goal of bringing good writing, in the form of Euripides, back to Athens. Dionysus naturally would prefer "the deathless way" to Hades, so he seeks out Herakles for advice, the hero having survived the trek to Hades during the course of one of his labors. There are some hilarious exchanges between Dionysos and Herakles, with Dionysus quoting Euripides' "dreamy" tragic lines to a horrified Herakles. Herakles responds, "You like that stuff? It's bilge. It's awful." Much humor in the play is derived from Aristophanes' portrayal of Dionysus as an effeminate, squeamish artiste. For example, Dionysus impersonates Herakles in the underworld when it seems beneficial to do so; when it seems dangerous to be Herakles, he hands Herakles' lion skin cloak to his servant and the two switch roles. All of the action that takes place in Hades is hilarious. The shades in the underworld are political pundits criticizing Athenian leadership and decision-making. As mentioned, at the end of the play Euripides and Aeschylus square off for the privilege of returning to the land of the living, attacking one another's plays. Euripides criticizes Aeschylus for his phony dramatic effects ("He'd start with one veiled bundled muffled character plunked down in place,/ Achilleus, like, or Niobe, but nobody could see its face / It looked like drama, sure, but not one syllable would it mutter") and turgid dialogue. Aeschylus dismisses Euripides as a dangerous freethinker who lowered the moral tone of Athens with his egalitarian dramas. In his depiction of Aeschylus as a stuffy, martial defender of manly virtues and Euripides as an effete radical who wrote sloppy verse, Aristophanes is at the top of his game. This is a very funny play.
All four of these comedies are worth reading, not only for the humor they provide but because they open a window into the everyday life, politics, and culture of a distant age. They also serve as a reminder that in ancient Greece, just as in our own time, comedy could function as a vehicle for discussing serious political issues and advocating for change.