ElAnt v1n4 - Obloquy - Aristophanes' Lysistrata (to Sallie R. Goetsch, EA 1,3, August 1993)
Tony Keen, Department of History, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, U.K. e-mail: AGKEEN@mh1.mcc.ac.uk
Sallie Goetsche in her review of Sir Peter Hall's production of the Lysistrata ( Electronic Antiquity 1, 3 [August 1993] ) complains that the staging of the final komos destroys the optimistic mood of the play. Regrettably, I was unable to see this production, but I wish to ask the question: is the Lysistrata an optimistic play? I think not.
It is not enough simply to set the play in the context of Attic Comedy in general; the actual context of the play's production in 412 BC must be considered. In 412 Athens was embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, and had been for the best part of twenty years. Most of the people actually doing the fighting couldn't remember a time when the War hadn't been in progress. And there looked to be no end. Athens' defeat in the Sicilian expedition made it unlikely that Athens would be victorious; but neither did the Spartans look like scoring a decisive victory. The people of Athens could look forward in the immediate future only to more war.
The Lysistrata is Aristophanes' comment on this. While some of his audience plotted to break the deadlock by overthrowing the democracy, Aristophanes presents a play in which peace is made. More than a decade before, in the Acharnians , he had suggested that if only the people of Athens would ignore the prejudices of their leaders and take matters into their own hands, peace was achievable. By the time he wrote the Lysistrata , however, he seems no longer to have believed this. Goetsche rightly mentions the fantastic nature of the solution Aristophanes presents, but did he mean by this to put the possibility of finding a solution into the heads of his audience, or, as I believe, was his intention to imply that no realistic solution to the situation could be found? And thereby perhaps to ridicule those who would suggest such solutions?
This seems to be the subtext behind the play. An Athenian might be cheered briefly by the final komos , but the unity of all the performers after what has gone before rings hollow (in a way it does not in the Acharnians ), and the audience would have known that they would leave the theatre to return to the reality of war. A modern western audience does not frame its reaction to the play with such a subtext; if the essential pessimism of the play is not to be lost, then either the komos must be omitted altogether (as in one production I have seen), or some solution such as that of Hall must be found. The rattle of machine-gun fire is not all that far removed from the clash of hoplite armour.
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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