By Emily Klein
Klein, assistant professor of English, wrote Sex and War on the American Stage: Lysistrata in performance 1930-2012. This is an excerpt.
Like almost no other play circulating in contemporary theatres, Lysistrata has long outlived its classical origins ... and has continued to shock, and delight audiences to this day. The play’s “make love not war” message renders it endlessly appealing to [many theaters] ... so much so that none of Aristophanes’ plays are now performed in the West as frequently as Lysistrata. Theater managers would be hard-pressed to find a play timelier than this 2,500-year-old classic, with its focus on war, politics, public sex scandals, protests, citizenship, and gender dynamics. Adding to the play’s interest and controversial appeal is the fact that its sex strike plot is grounded in a raunchy, pun-filled world of blue humor and burlesque sight gags. ...
With its vocal female protagonist who unites Athenian and Spartan women in a sex boycott to end the Peloponnesian war, Lysistrata’s explorations of gender roles and female leadership have also been at the heart of debates for centuries. The question inevitably asked today by most people who know the text is: Is Lysistrata a feminist play? The Lysistratas portrayed in many performances seem to respond with a commanding “Yes!” Often staged as an early antecedent to a popular brand of post second-wave girl power, many productions figure Lysistrata wielding her own incipient sexuality like a weapon while advocating a chaste war against war. Yet, despite this contemporary production trend, classicists have understood Aristophanes’ use of a central female hero as an ironic way of showing that the Peloponnesian War had become so unceasing and pointless that even the most irrational beast—woman—could imagine a way to bring the decades-long crisis to resolution.
The comedy’s fearless attention to female sexual desire and the corporeal qualities that link sex to war, and violence to pleasure, have troubled feminists and anti-war activists, classicists, and theater historians alike. As Sarah Ruden writes in the commentary to her own adaptation, the play’s “protest is remote from modern feminism […] That women have to make peace is less an encomium of women than a mockery of the men who have failed to do it. Alas, Aristophanes was likely not the feminist visionary some readers imagine him to be.