lysistrata 2January 2007

The annual Ancient Greek festival of tragedy took place in springtime, when the seas and mountain passes were once more safe for travel, Athens was pullulating with foreign traders and dignitaries from other parts of Greece, and ail that was best in the city was on display. The festival of comedy was an entirely different matter. It happened during the closed season, a private occasion for Athenians to enjoy a bit of bawdy humour and to laugh at themselves, their allies and enemies – if sharing a joke with fourteen thousand other citizens can be called-private. The master of Old Comedy was Aristophanes, and the best known of his surviving works is Lysistrata, The few members of the Book Circle not suffering from seasonal ailments spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening reading the splendid translation by the poet Patric Dickinson.

Lysistrata was written at a time when the war with Sparta had already been endured for several years; the play deals with a joint attempt by the women of Athens and Sparta to put an end to hostilities. Their solution is simple: they will not sleep with their husbands until peace is declared. After a hilarious initial meeting when Lysistrata manages to secure promises of abstention from everyone, the Athenian women lock themselves up in the Acropolis (where all the money for weapons is stored) and Lampito, the leader of the Spartan women, returns home to organise a similar strike. A chorus of old men sums up the male attitude to this outrage; a chorus of old women cheers on their younger comrades. The effect is immediate, despite several attempts to break their oath, each one foiled by Lysistrata. The men’s despair is depicted in a marvellous scene in which the resident sexpot, Myrrhine, teases her lovelorn husband, Kinesias. Eventually, the ambassadors of the warring factions come together, sign a treaty, are given a feast by the women, and all ends with a hymn of praise to the Gods. The dancing and singing of the original production must have been spectacular; we made do with a bit of choral speaking from our comfy sofas in Joan’s drawing room. But what fun we had!

Our next meeting will be held on Thursday, 8th February, when the book under discussion will be Small Island by Andrea Levy.

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