Lysistrata (/laɪˈsɪstrətə/ or /ˌlɪsəˈstrɑːtə/; Attic Greek: Λυσιστράτη, "Army-disbander") is a comedy by Aristophanes. Originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BC, it is a comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace — a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is notable for being an early exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society. The dramatic structure represents a shift away from the conventions of Old Comedy, a trend typical of the author's career. It was produced in the same year as Thesmophoriazusae, another play with a focus on gender-based issues, just two years after Athens' catastrophic defeat in the Sicilian Expedition.
LYSISTRATA: There are a lot of things about us women That sadden me, considering how men See us as rascals. CALONICE: As indeed we are!
These lines, spoken by Lysistrata and her friend Calonice at the beginning of the play, set the scene for the action that follows. Women, as represented by Calonice, are sly hedonists in need of firm guidance and direction. Lysistrata however is an extraordinary woman with a large sense of individual responsibility. She has convened a meeting of women from various city states in Greece (there is no mention of how she managed this feat) and, very soon after confiding in her friend about her concerns for the female sex, the women begin arriving.
With support from Lampito, the Spartan, Lysistrata persuades the other women to withhold sexual privileges from their menfolk as a means of forcing them to end the interminable Peloponnesian War. The women are very reluctant but the deal is sealed with a solemn oath around a wine bowl, Lysistrata choosing the words and Calonice repeating them on behalf of the other women. It is a long and detailed oath, in which the women abjure all their sexual pleasures, including The Lioness on The Cheese Grater (a sexual position).
Soon after the oath is finished, a cry of triumph is heard from the nearby Acropolis – the old women of Athens have seized control of it at Lysistrata's instigation, since it holds the state treasury, without which the men cannot long continue to fund their war. Lampito goes off to spread the word of revolt and the other women retreat behind the barred gates of the Acropolis to await the men's response.
A Chorus of Old Men arrives, intent on burning down the gate of the Acropolis if the women don't open up. Encumbered with heavy timbers, inconvenienced with smoke and burdened with old age, they are still making preparations to assault the gate when a Chorus of Old Women arrives, bearing pitchers of water. The Old Women complain about the difficulty they had getting the water but they are ready for a fight in defense of their younger comrades. Threats are exchanged, water beats fire and the Old Men are discomfited with a soaking.
The magistrate then arrives with some Scythian archers (the Athenian version of police constables). He reflects on the hysterical nature of women, their devotion to wine, promiscuous sex and exotic cults (such as to Sabazius and Adonis) but above all he blames men for poor supervision of their womenfolk. He has come for silver from the state treasury to buy oars for the fleet and he instructs his Scythians to begin levering open the gate. However,they are quickly overwhelmed by groups of unruly women with such unruly names as σπερμαγοραιολεκιθολαχανοπώλιδες (seed-market-porridge-vegetable-sellers) and σκοροδοπανδοκευτριαρτοπώλιδες (garlic-innkeeping-bread-sellers).
Lysistrata restores order and she allows the magistrate to question her. She explains to him the frustrations women feel at a time of war when the men make stupid decisions that affect everyone, and their wives' opinions are not listened to. She drapes her headdress over him, gives him a basket of wool and tells him that war will be a woman's business from now on. She then explains the pity she feels for young, childless women, ageing at home while the men are away on endless campaigns. When the magistrate points out that men also age, she reminds him that men can marry at any age whereas a woman has only a short time before she is considered too old. She then dresses the magistrate like a corpse for laying out, with a wreath and a fillet, and advises him that he's dead. Outraged at these indignities, he storms off to report the incident to his colleagues, while Lysistrata returns to the Acropolis.
The debate or agon is continued between the Chorus of Old Men and the Chorus of Old Women until Lysistrata returns to the stage with some news — her comrades are desperate for sex and they are beginning to desert on the silliest pretexts (for example, one woman says she has to go home to air her fabrics by spreading them on the bed). After rallying her comrades and restoring their discipline, Lysistrata again returns to the Acropolis to continue waiting for the men's surrender.
A man soon appears, desperate for sex. It is Kinesias, the husband of Myrrhine. Lysistrata instructs her to torture him and Myrrhine then informs Kinesias that she can't have sex with him until he stops the war. He promptly agrees to these terms and the young couple prepares for sex on the spot. Myrrhine fetches a bed, then a mattress, then a pillow, then a blanket, then a flask of oil, exasperating her husband with delays until finally disappointing him completely by locking herself in the Acropolis again. The Chorus of Old Men commiserates with the young man in a plaintive song.
A Spartan herald then appears with a large burden (an erection) scarcely hidden inside his tunic and he requests to see the ruling council to arrange peace talks. The magistrate, now also sporting a prodigious burden, laughs at the herald's embarrassing situation but agrees that peace talks should begin.
They go off to fetch the delegates; and, while they are gone, the Old Women make overtures to the Old Men. The Old Men are content to be comforted and fussed over by the Old Women; and thereupon the two Choruses merge, singing and dancing in unison. Peace talks commence and Lysistrata introduces the Spartan and Athenian delegates to a gorgeous young woman called Reconciliation. The delegates cannot take their eyes off the young woman; and meanwhile, Lysistrata scolds both sides for past errors of judgment. The delegates briefly squabble over the peace terms; but, with Reconciliation before them and the burden of sexual deprivation still heavy upon them, they quickly overcome their differences and retire to the Acropolis for celebrations.
Another choral song follows; and, after a bit of humorous dialogue between drunken dinner guests, the celebrants all return to the stage for a final round of songs, the men and women dancing together.
Some events that are significant for our understanding of the play:
424 BC: The Knights won first prize at the Lenaia. Its protagonist, a sausage-seller named Agoracritus, emerges at the end of the play as the improbable saviour of Athens (Lysistrata is its saviour thirteen years later).
421 BC: Peace was produced. Its protagonist, Trygaeus, emerges as the improbable champion of universal peace (Lysistrata's role ten years later). The Peace of Nicias was formalised this same year, ending the first half of the Peloponnesian War (referred to in Lysistrata as "The Former War").
Old Comedy was a highly topical genre and the playwright expected his audience to be familiar with local identities and issues. The following list of identities mentioned in the play gives some indication of the difficulty faced by any producer trying to stage Lysistrata for modern audiences.
Korybantes: Devotees of the Asiatic goddess Cybele – Lysistrata says that Athenian men resemble them when they do their shopping in full armour, a habit she and the other women deplore.
Hermokopidae: Vandals who mutilated the herms in Athens at the onset of the Sicilian Expedition, they are mentioned in the play as a reason why the peace delegates should not remove their cloaks, in case they too are vandalized.
Hippias: An Athenian tyrant, he receives two mentions in the play, as a sample of the kind of tyranny that the Old Men can "smell" in the revolt by the women and secondly in connection with a good service that the Spartans once rendered Athens (they removed him from power by force)
Aristogeiton: A famous tyrannicide, he is mentioned briefly here with approval by the Old Men.
Cimon: An Athenian commander, mentioned here by Lysistrata in connection with the Spartan king Pericleides who had once requested and obtained Athenian help in putting down a revolt by helots.
Myronides: An Athenian general in the 450s, he is mentioned by the Old Men as a good example of a hairy guy, together with Phormio, the Athenian admiral who swept the Spartans from the sea between 430 BC and 428 BC.
Peisander: An Athenian aristocrat and oligarch, he is mentioned here by Lysistrata as typical of a corrupt politician exploiting the war for personal gain. He was previously mentioned in Peace and The Birds
Demostratus: An Athenian who proposed and carried the motion in support of the Sicilian Expedition, he is mentioned briefly by the magistrate.
Cleisthenes: A notoriously effete homosexual and the butt of many jokes in Old Comedy, he receives two mentions here, firstly as a suspected mediator between the Spartans and the Athenian women and secondly as someone that sex-starved Athenian men are beginning to consider a viable proposition.
Theogenes: A nouveau riche politician, he is mentioned here as the husband of a woman who is expected to attend the meeting called by Lysistrata. He is lampooned earlier in The Wasps,Peace and The Birds.
Lycon: A minor politician who afterwards figured significantly in the trial of Socrates, he is mentioned here merely as the husband of a woman that the Old Men have a particular dislike for (he is mentioned also in The Wasps).
Cleomenes I: A Spartan king, who is mentioned by the Old Men in connection with the heroism of ordinary Athenians in resisting Spartan interference in their politics.
Leonidas: The famous Spartan king who led a Greek force against the Persians at Thermopylae, he is mentioned by the Spartan envoys in association with the Athenian victory against the Persian fleet at the Battle of Artemisium.
Artemisia: A female ruler of Ionia, famous for her participation in the naval Battle of Salamis, she is mentioned by the Old Men with awe as a kind of Amazon.
Homer: The epic poet is quoted in a circuitous manner when Lysistrata quotes her husband who quotes from a speech by Hector in the Iliad as he farewells his wife before going to battle: "War will be men's business."
Aeschylus: The tragic poet is mentioned briefly as the source of a ferocious oath that Lysistrata proposes to her comrades, in which a shield is to be filled with blood; the oath is found in Seven Against Thebes.
Euripides: The dramatic poet receives two brief mentions here, in each case by the Old Men with approval as a misogynist.
Pherecrates: A contemporary comic poet, he is quoted by Lysistrata as the author of the saying: "to skin a flayed dog."
Bupalus: A sculptor who is known to have made a caricature of the satirist Hipponax he is mentioned here briefly by the Old Men in reference to their own desire to assault rebellious women.
Micon: An artist, he is mentioned briefly by the Old Men in reference to Amazons (because he depicted a battle between Theseus and Amazons on the Painted Stoa).
Timon: The legendary misanthrope, he is mentioned here with approval by the Old Women in response to the Old Men's favourable mention of Melanion: A legendary misogynist
Orsilochus and Pellene: An Athenian pimp and a prostitute, mentioned briefly to illustrate sexual desire.
Pellene was also the name of a Peloponnesian town resisting Spartan pressure to contribute to naval operations against Athens at this time. It was mentioned earlier in The Birds.
As indicated below (Influence and legacy) modern adaptations of Lysistrata are often feminist and/or pacifist in their aim. The original play was neither feminist nor unreservedly pacifist. Even when they seemed to demonstrate empathy with the female condition, dramatic poets in classical Athens still reinforced sexual stereotyping of women as irrational creatures in need of protection from themselves and from others. Thus Lysistrata accepted the men's conduct of the war out of female respect for male authority until it became obvious that there were no real men in Athens who could bring an end to the destruction and waste of young lives. She must protect women from their own worst instincts before she can accomplish her primary mission to end the war – she has to persuade them to forgo sexual activity, even binding them with an oath, and later she must rally them with an oracle when they show signs of wavering. She is an exceptional woman and by the end of the play she has demonstrated power over men also – even the leaders of Greece are submissive once caught in her magic (ἴυγγι, íyngi). Her role as an improbable savior of Athens is anticipated in The Knights, where the protagonist is an obscure sausage vendor, Agoracritus. Some points of resemblance:
Lysistrata uses an oracle to manipulate women, Agoracritus uses oracles to manipulate Demos (the people);
Lysistrata presents the Athenian and Spartan envoys with the beautiful Reconciliation (Diallage), Agoracritus presents Demos with the beautiful Treaties (Spondai);
Lysistrata appears to have extraordinary powers (possibly magical powers), Agoracritus emerges as an agent of divine intervention, not only inspired by the gods but also able to be thought of as a god himself.
There are also some parallels between Lysistrata and two other plays written by Aristophanes on a peace theme: The Acharnians and Peace. The allegorical figure Reconciliation, virtually a prostitute in Lysistrata, appears also in The Acharnians and her beauty is celebrated by the Chorus of old Acharnians in a song full of sexual innuendo. In Peace, the goddess Peace is invoked as Lysimache ('She Who Undoes Battle) and her beautiful companion, Sacred Delegation (Theoria), is offered up to the Athenian Boule as a prostitute.
The play is not an attempt to promote universal peace – Lysistrata chides the Athenian and Spartan envoys for allying themselves with barbarians. In fact the play might not even be a plea for an end to the war so much as an imaginative vision of an honourable end to the war at a time when no such ending was possible. According to Sarah Ruden, Hackett Classics, 2003, ‘Lysistrata nowhere suggests that warfare in itself is intolerable, let alone immoral.’ (87)
Lysistrata and Old Comedy
Lysistrata belongs to the middle period of Aristophanes' career when he was beginning to diverge significantly from the conventions of Old Comedy. Such variations from convention include:
The divided Chorus: The Chorus begins this play being divided (Old Men versus Old Women), and its unification later exemplifies the major theme of the play – reconciliation. There is nothing quite like this use of a Chorus in the other plays. A doubling of the role of the Chorus occurs in two other middle-period plays, The Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae, but in each of those plays the two Choruses appear consecutively and not simultaneously. The nearest equivalent to Lysistrata's divided Chorus is found in the earliest of the surviving plays, The Acharnians, where the Chorus very briefly divides into factions for and against the protagonist.
Parabasis: The parabasis is an important, conventional element in Old Comedy. There is no parabasis proper in Lysistrata. Most plays have a second parabasis near the end and there is something like a parabasis in that position in this play but it only comprises two songs (strophe and antistrophe) and these are separated by an episodic scene of dialogue. In these two songs, the now united Chorus declares that it is not prepared to speak ill of anyone on this occasion because the current situation (ta parakeimena) is already bad enough – a topical reference to the catastrophic end to the Sicilian Expedition. In keeping however with the victim-centred approach of Old Comedy, the Chorus then teases the entire audience with false generosity, offering gifts that are not in its power to give.
Agon: The Roman orator Quintilian considered Old Comedy a good genre for study by students of rhetoric and the plays of Aristophanes in fact contain formal disputes or agons that are constructed for rhetorical effect. Lysistrata's debate with the proboulos (magistrate) is an unusual agon in that one character (Lysistrata) does almost all the talking while the antagonist (the magistrate) merely asks questions or expresses indignation. The informality of the agon draws attention to the absurdity of a classical woman engaging in public debate. Like most agons, however, it is structured symmetrically in two sections, each half comprising long verses of anapests that are introduced by a choral song and that end in a pnigos. In the first half of the agon, Lysistrata quotes from Homer's Iliad ("war will be men's business"), then quotes 'the man in the street' ("Isn't there a man in the country?" – "No, by God, there isn't!") and finally arrives at the only logical conclusion to these premises: "War will be women's business!" The logic of this conclusion is supported rhythmically by the pnigos, during which Lysistrata and her friends dress the magistrate like a woman, with a veil and a basket of wool, reinforcing her argument and lending it ironic point – if the men are women, obviously the war can only be women's business. During the pnigos of the second section, the magistrate is dressed like a corpse, highlighting the argument that war is a living death for women. The agon in Lysistrata is thus a fine example of rhetoric even though it is unusually one-sided.
1946: Lysistrata was performed in New York with an all-black cast, including Etta Moten Barnett. It had particular resonance after a war in which many African Americans had served their nation in the armed forces, but had to deal with a segregated army and few opportunities for officers' commissions. In addition, veterans returned to legal segregation and near disfranchisement in the South, as well as more subtle but definite de facto segregation in many northern cities.
1976: Ludo Mich adapted the play for a film in which all the actors and actresses were naked throughout.
A 2007 staging of Lysistrata
From the 2005 staging of Lysistrata produced in Central Park.
1982: Utopia (band)'s album "Swing to the Right" featured an anti-war song entitled "Lysistrata" that loosely paraphrases the content of the drama as dialog between the song's protagonist and his female significant other.
2004: A 100-person show called Lysistrata 100 was performed in Brooklyn, New York. Edward Einhorn wrote the adaptation, which was performed in a former warehouse converted to a pub. The play was set at the Dionysia, much as the original may have been.
2005 (June): Jason Tyne's adaptation set in present-day New York City was premiered in Central Park. Lucy and her fellow New Yorkers Cleo and Cookie called all of the wives, girlfriends, and lovers of the men controlling the most powerful countries to engage the women in a sex boycott to bring the men into line.
2007: James Thomas directed the play for PBS as part of a series on "Female Power & Democracy", which explored how female participation in civic life was moving from comedy to reality.
2010: Author Kody Kepplinger devises a modern retelling of the play in a YA novel called "Shut Out", in which high school girlfriends refuse their boyfriends of sex until they agree to end a feud between the football players and the soccer team.
2010: As part of the Corona Classic Cuts season of Oran Mor's Play Pie and Pint, a reduced version adapted by David Maclennan and with music by Dave Anderson was performed by an all male cast with Colin McCredie as Lysistrata, Iain Robertson as Cleonice and Dave Anderson as Magistrate / Cinesias.
2011: Lysistrata Jones — a contemporary riff by Douglas Carter Beane (book) and Lewis Flinn (music/lyrics) for the Transport Group Theater Company, starred Patti Murin and Liz Mikel, and opened at in New York at the Judson Memorial Church Gymnasium and later transferred to Broadway.