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Lysistrata | Study Guide


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Lysistrata | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Originally performed in Athens in 411 BCE, Aristophanes's Lysistrata tells the story of one woman's plan to end the Peloponnesian War—by withholding sex. The woman, Lysistrata, convinces her fellow women of Greece to cease having sex with their husbands until the men negotiate peace and end the war.

The Peloponnesian War was a 27-year-long war fought between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan Confederacy. It had already been going on for 20 years by the time Lysistrata was first performed, and Athens was devastated by it. Aristophanes was opposed to the war and likely wrote Lysistrata to show his contempt for it.

Though Lysistrata is far from being progressive by today's standards—it presents women as foolish and irrational—it is notable for its female protagonist. Lysistrata is one of Aristophanes's best known works, and it has inspired countless theater, musical, opera, ballet, literary, and film adaptations. Not only does the work live on for modern audiences, even the idea of withholding sex to effect change (known as a sex strike) has been used by women around the world to promote peace and improve people's lives.

1. Lysistrata may have been based on an actual Athenian woman.

The name Lysistrata means "the dissolver of armies" in ancient Greek. Some scholars have noted that Lysistrata may have been loosely modeled on an Athenian woman named Lysimache, a name that means "the dissolver of battle". Lysimache was a priestess of Athena Polias (a religious faction in Athens) at the time Lysistrata was produced, and she was an opponent of the Peloponnesian War.

2. The actors in the original production of Lysistrata probably wore leather phalluses.

Costumes in ancient Greek plays were often heavily exaggerated to make the characters visible and distinct from hundreds of feet away. Many of the costumes in Aristophanes's plays were known as "phallic costumes" because the male characters wore huge artificial phalluses made of red leather. The actors also wore padding on their stomachs and rears, as well as giant masks to help audience members identify them from far away.

3. Lysistrata may have inspired several real-life sex strikes.

Countless real-life sex strikes have been organized ever since the idea appeared in Lysistrata. In 2003, for example, a women's group in Liberia organized a sex strike as part of a series of actions demanding an end to the country's brutal civil war. In a Colombian town in 2011 a "crossed legs strike" convinced the government to build a new road. And in 2012 a female activist in Togo urged Togolese women to "keep the gate of your 'motherland' locked up" in an effort to motivate the country's men to take action against their dictator.

4. Aristophanes revolutionized comedy in ancient Greece with Lysistrata.

Ancient Greek comedy is typically divided into three periods: Old, Middle, and New Comedy. Aristophanes is considered the defining playwright of Old Comedy, but by the time he wrote Lysistrata he was beginning to experiment and diverge from the conventions of the old style. For example, Lysistrata features a divided chorus—it begins as two choruses (Old Men and Old Women) and unifies by the play's end. Lysistrata also lacks a conventional parabasis, a direct address to the audience by the chorus.

5. Though modern adaptations of Lysistrata are usually feminist in aim, the original play certainly was not.

One critic notes that Aristophanes likely used a female-controlled government not to highlight the plight of women, but rather to show the "foolishness and stubbornness of the men in his society." Though the women take over the government, Lysistrata still reinforces sexual stereotypes and presents women as irrational creatures in need of protection.

6. Lysistrata was produced the same year as another of Aristophanes's plays that explored gender issues.

Aristophanes's play Thesmophoriazusae was presented in 411 BCE, the same year as Lysistrata. Like Lysistrata it explores the role of women in a male-dominated society. The play's plot centers on the women of Athens seeking revenge on the playwright Euripides for his misogynistic portrayals of female characters—as irrational, murderous, and sexually depraved. In classical literature women were often depicted as irrational and in need of protection, but Thesmophoriazusae reversed these traditional stereotypes by presenting women as organized and dignified and men as ridiculous and irrational.

7. Lysistrata mentions several real figures from Greek history.

References are made in Lysistrata to dozens of historical figures, including Myronides (a general in the First Peloponnesian War), Cleomenes I (a Spartan king), and the writers Aeschylus and Homer. The line "War is men's concern," for example, is a famous quote from Homer's Iliad. Aristophanes's original audiences likely would have been familiar with all these historical figures and references.

8. One Broadway production of Lysistrata was so terrible it closed after eight performances.

This musical production of Lysistrata, which lasted for only eight nights in 1972, was adapted and directed by Michael Cacoyannis and starred Melina Mercouri. One writer called the musical "vulgar and stupefying" with "puerile lyrics," summing it up as "Melina Mercouri's nightclub act as written by Aristophanes, with bathroom jokes by Michael Cacoyannis."

9. More than a thousand readings of Lysistrata were held internationally for a peace protest initiative.

On March 3, 2003, more than 1,000 readings of Lysistrata were held in all 50 U.S. states and in 59 countries. The global protest, known as The Lysistrata Project, was initiated by two New York City actresses who wanted to express their disapproval of the war in Iraq. They explained: "Our purpose is to make it clear that President [George W.] Bush does not speak for all Americans." The readings raised money for peacekeeping and humanitarian charities working in the Middle East.

10. Lysistrata inspired a film adaptation set in the Wild West.

The 1955 musical comedy film The Second Greatest Sex sets the story of Lysistrata in Osawkee, Kansas, in 1880. In this adaptation men from three Kansas towns fight over which one gets to be the state's county seat. Their wives and girlfriends, having had enough of all the bickering, hole themselves up in a fort until the men can prove that they are worthy of them. The movie includes several "gymnastic boot-slapping dances and spirited songs."

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