I had a really hard time deciding what to write about for this month’s Classics Circuit tour – the Ancient Greeks. You see, I have history with the ancient Greeks. I studied both Latin and Ancient Greek at school until I was 18 and, as part of that, had to read great chunks of the classics in the original. Virtually all of Homer, most of Thucydides, significant bits of Xenophon, Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides – all was grist to my mill. I debated discussing Herodotus, the Father of History, which would have married my love of classics with my love of history. I almost went with Xenophon but decided against it. I thought lots of my fellow “tourists” would write about Homer so opted for something else. I was stumped. And then I noticed the calendar and remembered.
You may or may not know that every three years, students and alumni of Cambridge University (Britain’s second best university – guess who went to Oxford!) put on a play in the Cambridge Arts Theatre. It’s a very special play, one of the ancient Greek classics, performed in the original Greek. They’ve been doing this since 1882, with breaks only for those minor inconveniences of the First and Second World Wars.
And that’s where my reference to the calendar comes in. Because 25 years ago, almost to the week, young Falaise and his colleagues from the Upper Sixth Greek set were sat in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, plotting how many illicit drinks we might be able to consume before being hauled back to school. We were there to watch the subject of this post, the 1986 Cambridge Greek play, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.
The plot of Lysistrata is well known. In (very brief) summary, the men of Greece have been fighting the Peloponnesian War for years. Lysistrata, a woman of Athens calls a meeting of women from all the Greek city-states, at which she persuades them to swear an oath to withhold sexual favours from their husbands until they agree to end the war. At the same time, the old women of Athens seize the state treasury and barricade themselves inside the Acropolis to deprive the men of the funds they need to fight the war. After the old men of Athens try but fail to recapture the Acropolis, a magistrate appears and, after reflecting on "the problem with women", he is humiliated by them before being lectured to by Lysistrata on the frustrations that women have with war.
Next, having foiled a mutiny by the womenfolk, who are desperate for sex, Lysistrata persuades Myrrhine, the husband of Cinesias, a Spartan, to tease him until he is in a state of sexual frustration and then to refuse him until he agrees to try and seek peace. The men, suffering from large and panful erections, then call a peace conference and, after a certain amount of squabbling, peace is declared and the play ends with a big celebration and a sing-song.
As a school boy, I have to confess that the thing that amused me most about the production we saw was the unfeasibly large wooden penises that the men began to sport as their sexual frustration mounted. Childish I know but it was very funny. Otherwise, the most striking thing was just how funny a 2,400 year old play could be, even when performed in its original language.
Behind the comedy, I suppose I took away the view that this was, in essence, a play which portrayed an unconventional view of women for its time, a play that could even be described as feminist in its outlook, as well as anti-war. I think this is probably a common view of Lysistrata. But, is this view correct?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Lysistrata is, indeed, a strong woman, prepared to challenge male hegemony and the view that men should have total control of politics and the finances of the city. The play does also, it is true, spell out the message of the cost of war, not just in lives lost and money spent but also the impact it has on those left behind.
But this is only half the story. Lysistrata’s fellow conspirators are not all portrayed as emancipated women. Aristophanes can’t help painting the generality of women as being feckless, uncontrolled creatures in need of protection by men, even protection from their own worst instincts. Even Lysistrata is only driven to revolt when she realises that the men aren’t strong enough to being an end to the war themselves.
Lysistrata has to govern the women with a fist of iron, forcing them to take an oath to withhold sex and having to whip them back into line when the revolt starts to waver and some of the women want to go home to sleep with their husbands. As a general rule, with the exception of Lysistrata, the women of the play are painted as sex-crazed and only interested in fun, being content to leave serious matters to their husbands. This is not a play about the strength and wisdom of women overcoming the stupidity and aggression of men. It is a play about a single, strong woman manipulating others of her gender to achieve her goal.
Lysistrata is a very funny play to watch but, as a reading experience, depends heavily on the quality of the translation. I read an online version that wasn’t great but I am sure there are some good ones out there.
And one final question: can anyone enlighten me on the nature of the “Lioness on the Cheese Grater” sexual position? And is it as uncomfortable as it sounds?
Other stops on the Ancient Greeks tour today (Thursday 27th January):
- Shelf Love writes about The Oresteia by Aeschylus
- The Literary Rapport writes about the character Electra in Euripides and Sophocles