S#22: Ancient Foibles

In her infinite wisdom, Steff Metal recommends reading Aristophanes, starting with the Lysistrata. She described it as laugh-out-loud funny. And she is so right.

Aristophanes is an ancient Greek comic writer, who like many ancient writers, is hilariously rude. Rude enough that I don’t want to quote a specific example here. Suffice to say that the “very beautiful” naked young woman* who appears in a crucial scene (the warring antagonists discuss land allotments by drawing on her, getting rather distracted as they do so) isn’t the rudest part.

The Lysistrata is about a war between Athens and Sparta, and opens with  a woman called Lysistrata calling together all the women from both sides of the conflict to say she knows how to stop the war. They’re interested until she outlines her plan: they have to stop sleeping with their husbands until it’s resolved. With some fast talking, Lysistrata convinces them it’s worth it, and they take over the temple (wearing their most diaphanous garments and best make-up – and fully armed) until the men sort out their mess (the temple is where the money is stored). After several days, some of the women attempt to leave, faking everything from urgent work to do, to being in labor (with a helmet shoved under her dress). Lysistrata is not impressed.

It’s an absolute delight to read a story from so long ago where the women have all the best parts, the funniest lines, the most developed characters, and all the plot. Also, it’s hilarious.

The plot is neatly summarised by one of the desperate menfolk as “they put a Keep Out notice over their whatnots.” (That was the politest way they put it in the whole play, believe me. Personally I *don’t* want to see this play live – too much!)

Early on, the women swear an oath not to give in to their men. They’re originally going to sacrifice an animal, but since it’s a vow of peace they decide not to use blood. Instead, they opt for wine:

Myrrine: “. . . and then we can swear over the cup that we won’t – put any water in.”

Lampito: Whew! That’s the kind of oath I like!

Lysistrata: A cup and a wine-jar, somebody!

[They are brought. Both are of enormous size.]

Calonice: My dears, isn’t it a whopper? It cheers you up even to touch it! . . . What lovely red blood! And how well it flows!

Lampito: And how sweet it smells, by Castor!

Myrrhine: [pushing to the front] Let me take the oath first!

Calonice: Not unless you draw the first lot, you don’t!

And so, sloshed and pretty much naked, the women take over the city.

The men attempt to reason with them, which turns rapidly into a fight with hair-pulling and profanities (both by the women). The men rally and say, “It’s shameful to surrender to a girl without a fight” (reminds me of another saying about fighting girls – I like this one better) but the policemen are “quickly brought to the ground, and punched and kicked as they lie there“.

The signing of the treaty features plenty more wine. Two Athenian men walk out saying:

“”Never known a party like it. The Spartans were the life and soul of it, weren’t they? And we were pretty clever, considering how sozzled we were.”

“Not surprising really. We couldn’t be as stupid as we are when we’re sober.”

One of the surprising things about this play is that it was performed while Athens was still at war with Sparta. That’s awesome. Aristophanes, you lack the sexism and racism of your time, and I love you.

Something else I love is Girl Genius. The creators, Phil and Kaya Foglio, photographed their Hugo Award on a shelf in their house (the little guy with the eye on the right was a big part of the inspiration behind “Gizmo”, although that character walks, and Gizmo rolls):

http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20101014

*who would be played, like everyone else, by a man. The mind boggles as to how.

Tomorrow: The low-down on that startling piece of news I recently received. As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, it’s the kind of news that I think will have an effect on the rest of my life.

Monday: Photos and tales of the Steampunk 21st I’m attending tonight!

Published by Felicity Banks

I write books (mainly adventure fantasy for kids and young adults), real-time twittertales, and a blog of Daily Awesomeness. @Louise_Curtis_ and http://twittertales.wordpress.com. My fantasy ebook is on sale at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/278981.

10 thoughts on “S#22: Ancient Foibles

    1. Thanks Ben. That was truly an experience. My favourite lines (or two of them, anyway) were “The island was a great solid cheese, as we afterwards learned by tasting it.” and “It was said that Rhadamanthus was angry at Socrates and had often threatened to banish him from the island if he kept up his nonsense and would not quit his irony and be merry.” Socrates was so emo.

      1. I love ‘LampLand’, with all of the being-in-space and ‘snuffing’ that goes on there…

      2. Ben: Yep. And then he recognises his own lamp and has a chat about how the wife and kids are.

  1. I loooooooooooooooooooooove Aristophanes, even in translation – though most of the jokes are so referential that you have to keep going back to the footnotes. Funnily even with that time-consuming process it doesn’t seem to subtract much from the humour or the narrative flow. This is a great description of Lysistrata, perhaps not my favouritest of A’s plays, but definitely the most famous of them.

    It’d be good to see a good production of Aristophanes – I’ve only seen two and both have been pretty amateur; there are so many obviously slapstick moments in the plays that any good physical actor would recognise, and be able to work with.

    Hmmm, time to go back to the books again methinks and reread one!

    1. TimT: Yay! One of the not-so-secret goals of this blog is to inspire readers to play along at home.

  2. I’ve seen the Lysistrata performed as a student production directed by Michael Hurst, and it was fantastic. I’ve also acted in The Clouds, which is another of my favourites.

    In the original production, all the parts were played by men wearing giant breasts and penises tied to their bodies. I think we miss some of that kind of contextual humor by not quite understanding the difference between ancient greek plays and modern plays. Nevertheless, it never fails to amaze me when you connect with someone writing from thousands of years in the past.

    1. Thanks Steff Metal, it was excellent. Do you like Lucien too? Ben just sent me to read “A True Story” and now I’ll never need to take hallucinogenic drugs.

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