Aristophanes [?445-385 BCE], Lysistrata [411 BCE]

        Aristophanes' Lysistrata is usually called a dramatic comedy, and it does a good job of illustrating the Greek sense of what healing effects can come from laughing at distorted social values.  Whereas the tragedy makes the audience feel the catharsis of pity and terror in identifying with a great protagonist's inescapable fall, the comedy squeezes purging laughter from them by tickling their eyes and ears with the absurd, the malformed, and the foolish.  Both the tragedy and the comedy are intended to heal the cityby rebalancing audience's values and sense of themselves, almost like being able to put Congress through periodic psychoanalysis (don't we wish!).  But the things Lysistrata's comic scenes refer to are startlingly serious.  The very real warfare that is pitting Greek city against Greek city in 411 BCE is about to lead to the end of Athenian democracy.  Like a slow-motion car accident that the drivers can see coming at them, Greek culture's addiction to the agon and its incredibly destabilizing effect on social alliances is opening all the cities to subversion from within and (eventually) imperial conquest from without.  The play's treatement of this impending catastrophe as comic is both an opportunity to think about what makes a work "comic" and to see the genre already bending into something new, satire.  In Roman culture, satire (from the Latin "satura" or "stew") throws together a surprising mixtue of topics distorted by two similar mismatches between content and tone: serious things are treated humorously and ridiculous things are treated seriously.  The effect is to call into question the sober authority of questionable social institutions and persons, and to expose the folly and vice that we allow to flourish as "normal" because we fail to question it.  Click here for some modern satiric parodies of various kind of consumer products and advertising conventions performed by several generations of Saturday Night Live actors.   The advertising executives who nominated the winning ad parodies often provide a concise guide to exactly what cultural foolishness and advertising conventions are being pricked with satire's sharp wit.  Click here for a modern reconstruction of the male chorus, complete with phalloi.

Some Contemporary Historical Background

Comedy and satire are genres invented in the form we know them by the Greeks, and passed down to us by their Roman conquerors.  Typical satires make serious matters seem ridiculous to expose the human folly and vice that creates so many of our troubles.  Aristophanes was one of the last surviving playwrights to come down to us from the "Old Comedy" which used actual citizens' names and referred directly to specific, recent historical events.  Later, these daring plays were banned and the "New Comedy" arose, making fun of general human "types" (the braggart warrior, the wily servant, the jealous old lover), but never naming actual persons or events as the target of the satire.  How bad was it in Athens when this play was performed in 411 BCE?

        How do these events in the immediate past and the current context of the comedy change your reading of the play?  (For more on the state of the city in late C5 and early C4 BCE, see Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (N.Y.: Touchstone, 1991), pp. 260-74.)

 "Old Comedy" vs. "New Comedy" or "Naming Names" vs. "Type Characters": In the "Old Comedy," politicians like the rabble-rouser Cleon, other playwrights like Euripides and Phrynichus, and even the philosopher, Socrates, were the subject of Aristophanes' comic wit.  (Plato returns the favor by depicting Aristophanes as one of the banqueter-debaters in The Symposium.)  Those mocked in the comedies apparently achieved a degree of fame from it and most appear to have enjoyed the experience.  Socrates famously stood up in the theater so that people could admire the skill with which Aristophanes and the actor had captured the quirks of his character.  (The politician, Cleon, however, may have been more hostile to his repeated depiction as a low-bred opportunist.")  The "New Comedy," which followed in the decades after Aristophanes and which might be seen emerging in Lysistrata, created characters who were "types" or social caricatures, like the Old Man, the Braggart Warrior, the Young Lovers, or the Wiley Slave.  Depiction of actual living persons on the stage might cause the playwright to be sued for slander.  How might this help us understand the segmentation of modern American television comedy series between shows which play during prime time and those which appear after 10:00 PM?  Are there shows that mingle the two comic styles, and how do they deal with the socio-political implications of the "Old" style?  More importantly for our understanding of what had apparently happened to Aristophanes before the production of Lysistrata.  How do the persons and events of the period 413-411 BCE compare with what we see on stage, and how does the new play assign the blame for the situation in which Greece found itself?  This would not be the first cultural upheaval which transformed a literary genre.  Another example would be the medieval romance, which faded from view in England after the Civil Wars, 1642-9, and the Puritan Protectorate (1649-60).  The romance's ethical system, knights following a chivalric code in service to kings and ladies who rewarded them, became ideologically and aesthetically radioactive in the period immediately after the Parliament convened a court that found the king, Charles I, guilty of treason against the state, and executed him.

Questions that might lead to paper topics or class discussion issues--

1)  What problem in Greek society does Lysistrata intend to  solve?  Specifically, what are the two meanings of "it" in the dialogue among the women?

2)  What do Lysistrata and Calonice fear about their female allies?

3)  What effect is the translator striving for in the unusual dialect he gives Lampito, the Spartan?  How is physical comedy (gestures, stage movements, etc.) indicated by the dialog here? 

4)  What is Lysistrata's general strategy for solving the problem in #1 above, and how is it related to the other "it"?

5)  With what type of speech do the women bind themselves to act in concert, and how does it relate to other passages of that type we have seen (e.g., in Aeschylus)?

6)  What structure in Athens does Lysistrata order occupied and what does it signify? 

7)  Who opposes  Lysistrata's "army" and how do Lysistrata's campaign against them?  Compare this Chorus to those of Aeschylus. Why might this Chorus refer to the enemies as "detested both of all the gods and of Euripides"?  What does this pairing say about Euripides?  And to what play might this Chorus be referring?  (No specific surviving play of Euripides contains this line, so it might be a "pastiche" or scrambled paraphrase of several.)

8)  The chorus of "Old Men" have a hard time igniting their flame and find their "logs" hard to carry.  What is the significance of those two actions as comic metaphors?

9)  How do Lysistrata's army defend the structure they have taken over?  Specifically, where do they get the means to extinguish the blaze started by the other Chorus?  If you are reading Sommerstein's translation, look with skepticism on the certainty with which he identifies a sacred well some distance from the Acropolis as the source.  These women are coming from the Acropolis, a high stony butte with no naturally occurring water source other than rain, and nobody mentions rain.

10)  How does the Magistrate interpret these events?  Especially, what does he say is their cause?

11)  What are the issues in the debate over the treasury and how would economists  read this part of the play?  If you have taken English 215 and/or read any of the French "materialist feminist critics" (Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin), how does the control of women's bodies affect or enable the control of the economy?

12)  How does Lysistrata describe the previous political process in Athens and how does the women's untangling a knotted skein of wool pose an alternative model for discourse?  Note that L generalizes from solving the problem of the war to solving all of Athens' problems.  What was their ordinary form of government and how might it degenerate into war or rise to become metaphorical "untangling" of knots?

13)  What is the effect of the two Chorus's battle strategies, and how does this continue the theme of #1 above?

14)  Why is the false pregnancy symbolically appropriate by the manner in which it was constructed?  Note that this is something Aristophanes is doing to the entire Homeric warrior-ethos, as well as to the literary tradition that carries it.

15)  What is Cinesias' full name, and how do the women play with it (so to speak)?

16)  What are the "places" referred to in the negotiations?  What happens to  them by the end of the play?

17)  If you are interested in a modern dramatist's attempt to use Aristophanes' strategies of nudity and profanity to alter a nation's political course of action,  compare what you read in Aristophanes' play with the legal brief describing the trial for obscenity of the actors, author, and producer of Lennox Raphael's Che (1969, tried and convicted in Manhattan District Court in March, 1970).  My friend, Paul Georgiou, played "The President," and was among those tried for obscenity.  I saw both the play and one day of the trial on which the Broadway producer, David Merrick, disgraced himself by testifying for the prosecution that the play had no artistic or social merit.