Lysistrata is a funny play.
It’s also a play about war, a feminist play, and of course a “classic.” But most of all, it’s funny.
The humor is not sophisticated humor. The humor is sometimes rude, often crude, and very lewd. If Aristophanes were alive to today, he would be more likely to be writing in the style of Mel Brooks than the style of Tom Stoppard. No joke is too low for Aristophanes, as long as it makes an audience laugh.
Yet, based purely on having seen three different productions of Lysistrata, I used to think the play was not funny at all. Instead, the productions I had seen had always felt a little intellectual and archaic, filled more with respect for an old classic than modern joy and humor.
My brother, David, had had the same reaction to all of Aristophanes’ plays. It had inspired him to name a tall, potted plant he owns after the ancient playwright.
“Why is your plant named Aristophanes?” I asked.
“Because, “ he explained, “this plant is considered, by other plants, to be a brilliant humorist, but we humans don’t find it amusing at all. It’s just like Aristophanes—to the ancient Greeks he was a brilliant humorist, but to us…”
It was true. I didn’t find him amusing at all. Until I started looking at the original, that is.
Lysistrata was originally performed in 411 B.C. at either the Dionysia, the major annual festival of Dionysus, or at the Lynaia, a smaller festival of Dionysus which focused only on comedic plays and which was open only to Athenians. Because another play by Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria, also premiered that year, it’s hard to say which play premiered at which festival. But it is certainly clear that the play premiered in an atmosphere of drunken revelry, providing entertainment for a spirited and probably unruly crowd.
That audience had come to laugh. They were willing to listen to a little philosophy, as well, but most importantly, they wanted to laugh until they peed.
So when doing this adaptation, I tried to keep that in mind. I imagined the play during the Dionysia, partly because the plays in that festival were performed at the Acropolis, which is also the setting for much of the play (and to me, an argument that the play was actually performed at the Dionysia, rather than the Lynaia). During the original performances, I even began the show with drunken revelry (mostly simulated, though there was an active bar in the theater), to create the mood.
To help me with the adaptation, I consulted several very old translations of the play, as well as a computer program that created literal translations from the ancient Greek lines. One of the translations was filled with elaborate, flowing poetry, lots of sophisticated rhythms, but absolutely no sex. It was written in Victorian times, and the translator somehow managed to euphemize the subject into virtual non-existence.
I discovered a curious fact as I worked. We do not have a script that mentions characters at all. Or rather, it mentions the characters in the dialogue, but it does not assign the dialogue to any particular characters. So who says what is always a matter of deduction and opinion.
It reminded me, in a way, of the work of a very modern writer I’ve directed, Richard Foreman. Foreman writes plays that are only collections of dialogue, and the director is allowed to discover the characters and assign the lines. For any director who is interested in having the same process with Lysistrata, I have also included a script without characters or stage directions, just lines. Feel free to create the rest from scratch, once more.
For an adaptor, like a director, having only lines to work with is a golden opportunity to interpret the play anew. Some decisions are obvious—the Spartans speak differently than the Athenians, sometimes one character is directly addressing another, etc. But other times the decisions are wide open. For example, I decided to give the Theban Woman and the Corinthian Woman lines in the first scene, two characters who are referred to in the text but often, in translations, ignored. I decided that the Spartan who speaks to Cinesias and the Spartan who appears in the final scene are the same person, though many translations assume that they are two different people. I inserted Myrrhina and other characters in scenes where they don’t usually appear in other translations.
In many translations, in fact, most characters appear briefly and then are never seen again. But I tried to fit Lysistrata a little more into the mold of what in modern terms we would consider to be a well made play. If a major character was introduced, I tried to bring back that character in some way to give him or her an arc. I don’t know whether that was a rule that Aristophanes followed in his time. Probably not. But I am sure, if he were trying to entertain a modern audience, he would. Aristophanes was interested in entertaining his audience, above all things.
One of the greater liberties I took was with the songs. In the original, the songs were long and extensive, full of elaborate ancient rhythms. I wrote much shorter versions, which conveyed the same basic ideas, but in far fewer lines, and in a more typically modern scheme of rhyme and rhythm. Some of those old rhythms returned in the music created by William SullivanNiederkorn, who used ancient Greek rhythms as an inspiration.
I also cut a few passages in this adaptation of the play, most notably a long passage on weaving that appears originally in the Magistrate scene. The passage depends on a knowledge of local politics and, of course, weaving, that the modern audience cannot possibly have. It is a fascinating passage for historians trying to figure out the intricacies of Athenian politics, but even the funniest Saturday Night Live sketch about web surfing and/or Ted Kennedy will probably have lost some interest in 2500 years.
But though I tried to modernize the humor, I tried not to include anything too jarringly anachronistic. For example, I chose a style of speech for the Spartans that I felt conveyed the Athenian stereotype of Spartans as deceptive, muscleheaded lovers of anal sex (yet also matched Aristophanes’ idea that if you got them drunk enough, they weren’t so bad), without assigning them a specific existing accent. All the translations I have read give the Spartans an accent, whether it is Southern or Cockney or Mexican, which identifies them with a certain cultural group the translator felt was a good analogy for the Spartans. However, I find those stereotypes too loaded with modern associations, and I also think hearing a modern accent takes an audience member out of the world of the play. So I chose a style of speech that is not exactly entirely new but definitely not assigned to any existing ethnicities. I came up with something that is part caveman and part Cookie Monster, I would say.
There is also no email or cable television or even electricity mentioned in my adaptation. Perhaps the most modern innovation referred to (and even in this case it is only referred to in a stage direction) is a cock ring, and I suspect that there may have been similar devices even 2500 years ago.
In fact, if anything surprised me, it was how little sex jokes have changed in the last 2500 years. Many of them turned out to be much more modern sounding than I would have expected. Perhaps the intervening mores of the Victorian age confused this fact, but it became obvious to me that when a Borsht Belt comedian tells a joke that sounds as old as the hills, it may literally be just that.
Perhaps that is what has made Lysistrata Aristophanes’ most enduring play. Whatever changes in the world, a few things remain—sex, war, and laughter. In 2500 years, we have not been able to get rid of the war, but at least we have been blessed with the penis jokes. It’s been a long, hard two and a half millennia.