REVIEW: Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Translated by Ranjit Bolt, Directed by Peter Hall, The Old Vic, London. Sallie R. Goetsch, Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, U.S.A. e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu
Greek Old Comedy is named for the komos , the festival procession from which it sprang and with which it so often ends. After showing us what a mess the city is in and lampooning the politicians and public figures, sometimes quite viciously, comedy brings all the good guys together for a party which sweeps satire aside in favor of celebration. The komos is a grand finale of a sort which has survived to provide a satisfying, definite closure to musical comedies throughout the ages. It serves, among its other functions, to distract the audience from the implausibility of the solutions Aristophanes offers for the city's problems so that they could go home happy.
Oliver Taplin suggests in his program notes for Peter Hall's Lysistrata that the komos is there to demonstrate that communal enjoyment of the good life brings peace. Aristophanes, according to this theory, intended his audience to make love, not war, and so used the concluding festivities to smooth away any objections the audience might have had to the play's ending. The poet wanted no grumblers, no protestors, and no shadows cast.
Not so modern directors, who seem uncomfortable with the komos and turn it on its head. Ariane Mnouchkine did it with Les Eumenides and Peter Hall has done it with Lysistrata. As the actors lined up on the stage of the Old Vic to toast their treaty, clutching cheerfully phallic balloons and embracing one another, the audience, which had been spontaneously applauding and laughing heartily throughout the production, was ready to explode. And then suddenly the balloons popped and recorded machine-gun fire blasted out over the loudspeakers as the lights went down. The spectators were baffled, halted mid-clap as a wave of embarrassment and confusion swept the theater. Finally, hesitantly, the applause began, picking up energy as the actors appeared, masks in hand, for their curtain call.
It was a conclusion which cheated its audience of the good feeling and optimism towards which the play had appeared to be building from the moment when Geraldine James appeared in mask and padding to paint anti-war slogans on the massive wall of the set and express her frustration at the unreliability of Athens' women in Ranjit Bolt's excellent rendering of Aristophanes into English. While machine-gun fire and popped balloons could not efface the exuberant slapstick and laughter which preceded them, nor obliterate the impressive achievement of getting the actors to work so effectively with their masks that it was their naked faces, revealed during the parabasis, which looked unnatural and intrusive, they did cast a shadow over all that had gone before. Even though a play is a totality, experienced through time and not reducible to a single moment, such an ending reverberates back across memory. It invites the audience not to be distracted from noticing the utopian impossibility of Lysistrata's method of ending the war.
Of course the solution presented by Aristophanes is impossible, even if 'make love, not war' is sound enough advice. Comedy is a make-believe world where things can work as they do not in reality. Lysistrata is set in a fictional Athens which operates by its own rules, and a sex-strike against men who are never home is not required to be any more plausible than a flight to heaven on the back of a dung-beetle. Inconsistencies are there to be forgiven, a fact which critics forget when they adduce Lysistrata as evidence that Athenian men valued their wives more than their boyfriends or their mistresses.
The smoothing away of objections by means of the komos is not intended to lull the audience, to sedate them, to keep them from taking action. Quite the contrary. By generating a temporary optimism, a belief that solutions are possible, Aristophanes' utopias provided a socially useful contribution to troubled times, an inspiration to keep trying, to find answers that work in life and not just in fiction. If the poet had portrayed his solutions as unworkable even within the dramatic fiction, what would have been the use of striving? The komos normally counterbalanced the slashing criticism of contemporary politics which suffused Old Comedy by suggesting that there was an alternative to the present disorder. Fracturing the komos denies that possibility and says instead that there is no hope.
Though his production was a tremendous achievement, accomplished and enjoyable, the ending of Peter Hall's Lysistrata is calculated to produce despair, and that is as sad a testimony to the director's outlook as anyone could hope to find.
Sallie R. Goetsch
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 3 - August 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606