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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Make Love, Not War – Lysistrata, A Review.



Comedy in Gender War and Liberation

The return to direct talks by the Mid-East Quartet, Israel’s Netanyahu and Palestine’s Abbas, mid-wifed by Hilary Clinton, illustrates one of the positions of this week’s Book Review, that of Lysistrata, the leading character in a play with the same title by Greek playwright, Aristophanes. If you are as eager like me to read ancient playwrights who wrote pieces having triumphant women, then this classic would start us off a tour of major works that tackled sexual politics and gender issues of their time—with a light touch, contrasting the more philosophical Sophocles and Euripides—if you are lucky to read a modernized translation.
Most critics find Lysistrata bawdy and lewd when compared to other great Greco-Roman playwrights, except for its uproarious style. Filled with uncouth conduct and shameless absurdity, Aristophanes' battle of the sexes is amazingly ahead of its time because discussions of nymphomania and dildos is a wide departure from (his writing peer) Antigone’s bitter tears or Dionysus’ lightening bolts to Olympus.  
An Old Comedy written over 2000 years, yet still relevant and poignant to the modern world because sex ruled the media in 400 BC as it does today. This classical play couldn’t have described our own penchant to declare war, or the occupation for senseless bloody war that for far too long, killed, destroyed, displaced, etc. We all desire to end the war but we don’t know how to untangle ourselves from the stalemate. So this is an arousing comedy of a ‘Road Map’ to end war between Athens and Sparta (as well as figuratively, men and women) projected by an Athenian woman, Lysistrata.
Her plan is simple, in rallying round Greek women and convincing them that men will submit to peace if they frustrated them sexually. They call for a countrywide sex-strike. The women, the girlfriends and even the prostitutes bandy and take control of the (literal) Gates of Acropolis (and literary the economic heart) to distance themselves from the men. The strategy enables them to have ‘zero shagging’ until the men all consent to a ceasefire—“until a treaty has been signed.”

Soon, pressure bulges inside all the pants of Greek men, bringing a settlement mutually sought between the warring cities. Picture the agonized sex-starved soldiers running around with enormous erections for the rest of the play (of course, you can’t rule out guy on guy thing to appease their libido)!

With a plot like this, the play is no doubt, uncouth but Lysistrata herself is one of Aristophanes most striking characters, and his compassion for the complexity of women’s lives in wartime gives the play an authority as a poignant comment on the imprudence of war. Sex (or the absence of it as there’s no intercourse throughout out the play) is the central theme, and with such a premise, connotes wry humour, and as with sexuality and its entrails, follows a deliberate impropriety in dialogue, flattering Aristophanes' irreverent creativity. The work is agreeable only in an obscene ancient Greek kind of way. It also arouses you to reckon the power play between men and women in society (and the function that sexuality assumes in that power play). 

The dialogue is full of insinuation often with unequivocal reference to sex in attempt to flatter women and ridicule men. There are lots of jokes about blueballs and boners in such an eccentric, yet a witty way. It would require a queer artist to stage this play in contemporary theatres, for if our modern translations are anything to go by, terrible (sometimes so unrestrained) allusion is made to nude scenes, and that could be quite an uproar to moderate and conservative theatres, although it’s an entertaining piece for students. This foundation in satire builds further to a climax of more intense absurdity in hideously blatant and vulgar dialogue. She strategizes the battle for sex thus:

‘Just sit snuggled in your tinniest-thinnest gowns, perfumed and powdered and those men won’t stand still, they’ll go crazy… Col. Menelaus threw his sword when he saw Helen’s breast… a man doesn’t like it unless the girl cooperates….first the gulf behind there and the land between legs.’

The protagonists to this premise cite the obvious antithesis that the supreme muscle of womankind would be in starving men by denying them sex. On neutral grounds, the play simply explores the women’s use of their ultimate weapon comically and presenting sex not just as one sided and male dominated, but openly desired and enjoyed by both genders. There are ups and downs in pursuing gender balance in this regard, therefore what men can do women can—alongside every successful man is a woman. This is exactly what Lysistrata demonstrates by organising and planning her troops for the battle of wit and will.

The brilliant satire on sex itself and the upside-down position of domineering women to submissive men is ridiculously touched, women connive and utilize sexuality to satirise the stupidities of the politicians and bureaucrats who have lived in every historical age yet don’t know how to stop the troubles they have caused. Instead they sit in round tables, sipping champagne, drinking to peace, like the Athenian envoy drunkard who reminds one of the saying that ‘the only efficient ambassador is a drunken ambassador.’ Perhaps what the former British Premier, Tony Blair, should have quoted in his latest biography, ‘what a few lies, washed down in good strong drink!’

The play also reveals a consideration of the position of women held as in seclusion especially by her dominating husband. She possessed few civil rights, couldn’t vote, nor partake in any political process, was just like a slave but at least above the status of that gloomy Bride in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ movie. Kalonike, an Athenian woman, outlines the typical function of a Greek female at the onset of the play when she articulates the duties of women as not being more than to please their husbands and dab in housework.
Myrrhine's worry "And if they beat us, what then?" suggests an accepted and routine domestic violence if one was to disobey her husband. Lysistrata clarifies this by stating that a woman expressing an ambition to run state affairs would be branded with headstrong obstinacy only paralleled by rebelling against her society. The Athenian Magistrate nods to this, ‘You’d have been soundly smacked, if you hadn’t kept still’. But passivity isn’t for the likes of Lysistrata, at least not for so long. She bravely presents her case explaining that women are wholly capable of saving men, if not better, than men to women.
Her laughable strategy is to ‘treat the war like a ball of wool, [drawing] out a thread here and a thread there with our spindles; thus, we’ll unsnarl this war’. War, previously men’s burden, has now become a woman’s affair. And Lysistrata compares the war solution to the yarn and thread she’s weaving (this option is still viable for our Middle East envoys). The slapstick in her speech untangles in the sneaky way she simplifies plain political disputes into a chore that requires little feminine ingenuity. The men, on the other hand, who have waged eternal wars, and without getting near a long lasting agreement, would better give her a ‘right of citizenship’ to make her voice.

Some of these imbalances have already been addressed by the unpopular Western Radical Feminists or the Lesbian Separatist, but are still being digested by the Liberal Socialists who champion sanity in society with a lukewarm approach—not bending to radical changes nor asking for discrimination. Through Lysistrata, we already know that Greek women exerted considerable influence as they supervised and controlled the many domestic functions, which included dominance in conjugal rights.
The other side of Greek life, and contemporary life for that matter, is the disparity between the status of old men, and old women. A fifty-year old woman marrying a twenty-year old boy is shamefully unacceptable. However, it’s a blessing for the girl if the man is seventy years old. This was the case in the ancient world, which was a world away from us, but it’s interesting to note this is still happening today lending credence to the fact that the apple doesn’t fall far away from the tree that nothing remarkable has changed.
Feminists have called it an early women's liberation play, but while inferred as a bare oral declaration for women’s rights, I disagree. The women demonstrate all the acumen and aptitude throughout the play, and men are displayed as increasingly clownish, I suspect Aristophanes wasn’t empowering and liberating women with unequivocally equal political rights in Athens. I tend to think that he was commenting more on the brunt of war on the home front, more like the Anti-War protestor questioning those who keep fuelling and waging world wars. Lysistrata knows her place, as this line suggests: ‘I’m only a woman, I know, but I’ve a mind/and I can distinguish between sense and foolishness/I owe the first to my father; the rest to/the local politicians.’

In all fairness though, as much as I agree with the social comment the play present, as a satiric tale of female empowerment and making a feminist statement, this ground upon which the play builds, is a sadly an expired stereotype even with its intentional comedy. While it empowers women, it also paints them as excessive sex-obsessed caricatures and exclusive hypocrites, so it becomes more of an experiment both to Feminism and bigoted masculine stereotyping rather than correcting the gender balance it hoped to address.
We nowadays read many attention-grabbing discussions of Pacifism and plans to ‘crush down’ ruthless systems of governance. We know from the arguments by the anti-war opponents that ‘someone’ is reaping from the spoils of war which has become a self-sustaining profitable business, and therefore, it’s not surprising to read Aristophanes deduce similar findings from his social lab, over 2,000 years ago.
But recent world perception on war also demolishes his black-and-white optimistic structure; Washington’s desire to invade Tehran, (while other countries watch helplessly) then later on send their Mid-East envoys to heal the wounds of war, (while others watch helplessly) is not much of an antithesis to Lysistrata's oversimplified dynamics of hard-line men and pacifistic women in the Theban war. The resolve for peace and the gluttony entrenched in war is in every blood—man or woman, Muslim or Christian or Jew! That’s why I am for the opinion that the play is too straightforward and insolent in arriving at the whole truth, although I’ll be blasted if it wasn't popular in Spartan days.
I think I understand what Aristophanes attempted to make, and trust only men, on the grounds of this play, to assert that womankind's greatest weapon is their sexuality. Most pressing themes are that of war and greed—and are by far the more critical dynamics than Aristophanes can permit. We all know that abstinence never turned anyone into of a Gandhi of peace or of morals; in fact it’s quite the opposite. (If I can be honest as a man, my decency was never badly bruised... the playwright in me, like Aristophanes, is aware and appreciate that the male characters have to go through a little embarrassment before the play is out—for the sake of satire, for the love of slapstick, and to advance the mockery.) 

Men, being so ingenious, would look for other alternatives for copulating. Their erect ‘swords’ wouldn't pain them, after all. They'd masturbate and go ‘guy to guy thing’. Even though in the play, these men formulate multiple ‘alternatives’ to whet their insatiable desires, these strategies are unsuccessful. Or if you thought it’s hard to get banged when she has a headache, try making love when her moods desire war to end.

The stock characters are especially engaging as the main focus of the play’s hilarious plot. Likewise, literary techniques are minimal and the setting irrelevant. Lysistrata conforms to the essential elements of satirical comedy as issues are handled comically, lighter and humorous in a way as to cause laughter, and not tight as in tragedy. The stage directions are at bare minimal so as not to solicit tragedy but portray lighter mood. Aside from a sexist view on the feminist overtones—perhaps that women’s only supremacy and talent bask around the art of seduction and sex—it’s safe simply to agree that Lysistrata is a witty play. 
It restores faith in ancient Greek literature as intellectually philosophical, launching to blow up many downbeat platforms upon which the literary Greek prejudice stands. The reader can’t help but break into an uproarious laughter when a Greek girl triumphs, ‘What? Are we going to be on top?’  The licentious nature of the plot and blatant bawdy actions of the characters proves to be outrageous and compelling at the same time. The wit employed is ageless as civilization never outgrows its less than refined traits. Aristophanes succeeds in bringing new accolades to crown and grace Greek literary tradition.
I enjoyed the means by which Aristophanes utilises in a bid to bring together profound scrutiny about his belligerent and debauched society with shocking humour that swings between droll to crude (to ribald) in this ultimately nonsensical play.

I love the valiant romanticism and razor-sharp sarcasm of Lysistrata, as a character, armed to ‘tooth and nail’ with her enthusiasm and that of her cohorts to vehemently repulse the daft men who have the ‘balls’ to confront them (and the amorous ones who desire to bed them), so that she could draw a road map for long-term peace.  
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Biography
Aristophanes' exceptional touch with comedy is best appreciated against the backdrop of the original Greek comedy, Old Comedy, which was a matchless dramatic cocktail of fantasy, satire (literary ridicule of human folly), slapstick, and blatant sexuality. The layout for all his comedy is striking rhythmic poetry.
All of Aristophanes' comedies faithfully reflected political climate of Ancient Athens. In times of peace, he wrote emotional pieces and boorish celebration of popular things done during peacetime. In times of Athenian political intrigues and pre-war disagreement, he wrote his own conspiracies, such as Lysistrata, an illustration of the women of Greece protesting against the war by denying their men connubial rights in bed. With such a plot, the play was predictably offensive but Lysistrata herself is one of his most Machiavellian characters, and his compassion for the intricacy of women in wartime makes the play a poignant statement on the foolishness of war.

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