The question I wanted to ask when I picked up Lysastrata for the second time is: how can anyone ban this hilariously pervy play? While reading it, however, I found myself actually asking, how can anyone not ban this hilariously pervy play?
Indeed, how is it that this play, though crude and provocative on every level, is still read and performed over two and a half millennia later? (See timeline on xi.) Perhaps, as I heard some argue, it is the first classical play, that we know of thus far, to advocate for female power in a “man’s world”… but it doesn’t feel that feminist to me. Perhaps, as Ewans argues in his introductory section on Lysistrata, it is the underlying call to peace between peoples that make it relatable… but this peace seems limited only to the ancient Greek peoples. It is neither relevant to modern society or deeply philosophical. What, then, makes this play tick for audiences throughout time? My conclusion: it makes audiences laugh, precisely because its content and characters are so crude, provocative, and, overall, ridiculous that it remains relevant through its very absurdity.
Let’s consider Aristophanes’ original audience. Aristophanes’ would have been writing for a male audience in a heavily patriarchal society, where men ran the state and political affairs while women were “regarded [by men] as less intelligent and less logical” (12). That his play centers on woman taking over state and economic affairs — that in itself would have been seen as ridiculous to his male audience. Furthermore, though Lysistrata has some empowering speeches about the power and dignity of women, these speeches are down-played by the more frequent degrading speeches of woman as merely sexual creatures. Lysistrata’s first lines demonstrate this more clearly, complaining that the women would have definitely come to the meeting if its purpose was sex-oriented (55). Aristophanes would not write about female equality because his audience would not have taken it seriously. This, in addition to the exaggerated sexual tendencies of both the sexes, would seem all the more ridiculous to his original audience.
Within the context of the play, however, there would also be a kind of shock factor, a kind of novelty, in its concept of empowering women for the ancient Greeks. On the one hand, Aristophanes does degrade women to overtly sexual creatures; on the other, the center of the play is on the women asserting their own power, which succeeds in the end. The language between the two sexes are equally matched, if not more clever on the female side, and there are moments that call into question the gender stereotypes during that time (i.e. the intelligent man and the unintelligent women). For example, in the “Choros 2—A1,” the Bureaucrat laughs at Lysistrata’s plan for the women to run their economy, but cannot argue why this is so ridiculous a notion, whereas Lysistrata makes a logical point when asking, “Is this so strange? Don’t we run your household finances for you?” (73). Though not fully advocating for female equality, this perspective of woman taking over state affairs would have been shocking and new to the ancient Greek audience.
In the modern context, this concept of female empowerment is not shocking or new: we often see and hear about woman in office or taking more leadership roles. Now the attitudes have flipped. Whereas the ancient Greeks would have found the sexist language when talking about woman perhaps mundane, people of the modern day would find it very wrong, either hilariously inaccurate or offensive. The most shocking thing about the play now is its crude and provocative language, characterization, and action. Instead of paying attention to the social implications of its concept, we are more drawn to the hilarity of actors marching around on stage with giant phalluses, to the sexual innuendos at every turn of speech, and the raunchiness of the actions on stage, such as the naked girl, Reconciliation, during the peace negotiation scene. Whereas the Greeks were used to seeing giant phallic images being paraded, perhaps rendering these elements not as ridiculous to them, for a modern audience that is not used to such sexual idolatry, those are the most shocking and absurd elements to the play.
The overall conclusion: Lysistrata is just a ridiculous play that intrigues audiences throughout time through its own absurdity. There are many other things that make this play absurd (not literarily) not discussed here, but I think people will always find a way to be completely shocked by its content. What does this suggest about humanity? Perhaps we are just fascinated by things that don’t really make sense, or perhaps we have always liked phallic-like images, but I hardly agree with Fraud, or the ancient Greeks for that matter. One thing is certain: humanity has not changed all that much in the last two and a half millennia, and that we love to laugh at the ridiculous.