Thursday, September 30, 2021

Sex Strike & The Thinkery

Lysistrata and Other Plays
Lysistrata and The Clouds 

“What doesn’t polite society, in all seriousness, want to discuss? Sex, money, political corruption, bodily functions, religion, loss and despair?

These have been the very subjects attracting writers of comedy since Aristophanes penned “Lysistrata” as a vehicle for the young Joan Rivers.”  ― Gina Barreca

Lysistrata is a bawdy and demented fest of diatribes between women and men. When the women, led by the titular character, withhold their sex in their demand for peace the men seem to be at a significant disadvantage.

The name Lysistrata can be loosely translated as "she who disbands armies". That is behind both her mission and her leadership of the women of Athens who she encourages to withhold their sex from the men until peace can be brokered with Sparta. The play was produced during the Peloponnesian War and Athens had suffered a major blow when defeated in Syracuse with the loss of her navy. While they were recovering from that disaster the war continued with no end in sight (did I mention that these plays address very contemporary issues for those of us living in twenty-first century America?).

The play is famous for the roles given to women, particularly noteworthy since there is no evidence for women attending Athenian theater, and since it entailed the somewhat comic difficulty of having men, already in their phallic-oriented costumes, play the roles of the women. It is much more bawdy and extreme in its humor than The Clouds with the focus on the "battle of the sexes" centered at the Acropolis as a means used by the women, led by Lysistrata, to bring the men to their senses. The humor is magnified in the opening sections as the men who oppose them are old and perhaps a bit senile since the young men are all at war.

The pride of the old men is deeply wounded when Lysistrata declares that the women have assumed all civil authority and will henceforth provide for the safety and welfare of Athens. The magistrate cannot believe his ears when he hears Lysistrata say that the women have grown impatient with the incompetence of their husbands in matters that concern the commonweal. For rebuking the women, the magistrate receives pots of water poured on his head. When the ineffectual old men declare that they will never submit, the women answer that the old men are worthless and that all they have been able to do is legislate the city into trouble.

The women do have difficulties maintaining order within their ranks, but that just adds to the comedy. The result of this and further comic moments, including a riot surrounding the birth of a baby to one of the women, is a delight that transcends the centuries and overcomes many of the difficulties of translation. This has become my favorite play by Aristophanes.

While also a comedy critical of aspects of culture, in The Clouds Aristophanes takes as his theme the contrast between an older educational mode and the new interrogative style, associated with the name of Socrates. He begins with a prologue (lines 1-262), which introduces the two principal characters, Strepsiades (“Twister”), worried by the debts accumulating because of the propensity for chariot racing of his long-haired son, Pheidippides (“Sparer of Horses,” or “Horsey”). The idea occurs, with the assistance of “a student,” to have the son enter the school, the "Thinkery" next door, operated by Socrates, wherein by the logic of the sophists one should be able to learn how to talk so as to evade one’s debts. Not unlike sons in our culture, Pheidippides son refuses to attend, lest his suntan be ruined, and his father goes instead. He finds Socrates suspended in a basket from the roof, wherein rarefied thinking can be more appropriately done in the atmosphere of the clouds.

What follows is the entrance of the chorus of “clouds” singing and dancing (lines 263-509), following the incantations and chanted prayers of Socrates, to the alarm of Strepsiades. In brilliant repartee, the chorus is introduced as the goddesses, who, with wind, lightning, and thunder, patronize intellectual development. Yet the buffoonery that follows indicates that it is some weird intellect, for Socrates, in answer to questions about rain and thunder, assures Strepsiades that there is no Zeus but only clouds displaying analogies to the human bodily functions of passing water or gas. Strepsiades is convinced and agrees to become a student.  He proves to be incompetent as a student, for he cannot memorize what is required but only wants to learn how to outwit his creditors. Subsequent to his own dismissal, he forces Pheidippides to enroll under threat of expulsion from home. It here that he is exposed to the debate between “Right” (“Just Logic”) and “Wrong” (“Unjust Logic”), from which it is obvious that the argument of the latter will prevail.

Aristophanes is successful in parading buffooneries and a satiric presentation of his son's great success, he discovers that success means that his son now knows how to whip him. Along with a commentary on the ancient tragedians there are amusing anecdotes concerning child development in Strepsiades’ argument to Pheidippides, but Strepsiades has been defeated by his own intentions. 
I found Aristophanes somewhat more cerebral and obscure in this play when compared to Lysistrata, but the caricature of Socrates is enough to make the play worth while for anyone who is interested in the golden age of Athens.


Stephen said...

Encountering this book right out of high school was startlingly and funny. We were so accustomed to "Classics" being straightlaced and moralistic!

James said...

This is surely far from straightlaced in our modern translation, but I imagine the Victorians toned it down a bit.