David Stuttard

Looking at Lysistrata

168 pages

ISBN 978 1 8539 9736 5, PB £12.99

Published in August 2010, this collection of essays is accompanied by David’s adaptation of the play.  It seeks to set Lysistrata firmly in its historical and social context, while exploring Aristophanes‘ purpose in writing it and considering the response of modern audiences and directors. 

Reviews and Comments

It is that rather impossible thing, a faithful adaptation.

Professor Alan Sommerstein  

Most readers will have seen touring productions by the Actors of Dionysus: company supremo Stuttard here presents his lively acting version of Lysistrata with eight commissioned essays.  His introduction stresses the complex fluidity of the political situation when the play was first performed in 411 BC.  He also justifies the use of modern allusions (urging further topical updating in performance) in a ‘fantasy amalgam’ of registers reminiscent of Aristophanes’ own technique, most obviously in Birds.  Performance history occupies several contributors.  Michael Walton shows how the central issue of the play has been variously identified, with interesting information about early translations.  James Morwood explores the idea of role-reversal, to emphasise (through intertextual reference to the Iliad and Medea) how war is indeed the concern of women.  Edith Hall stresses the innovation of so strong a heroine in comedy, comparing Lysistrata to assertive women in myth and history; with other essayists, she accepts David Lewis’s theory of allusion to the real-life priestess Lysimache, suggesting that Lysistrata virtually takes the role of Athena herself.  Alan Sommerstein (going beyond the familiar point that a peace-promoting Aristophanes is very different from a modern pacifist) claims that even in a war-weary world, the settlement proposed in Lysistrata is so unrealistically pro-Athenian that it can only be a comic fancy.  James Robson explores the gallery of personalities in the play, stressing the blatantly revisionist history (e.g. of Cleomenes and Cimon) which underlies the vision of co-operation between Athens and Sparta.  Alan Beale explores the illogical implausibility of the plot, though of course disbelief is willingly suspended in performance.  Martin Revermann shows how modern feminist and anti-war readings, although they distort the text, nonetheless keep it alive and make it ours by their productive misunderstanding.  Finally Lorna Hardwick offers a survey of notable modern productions.  Stuttard’s version of the play (hovering between translation and adaptation) bounces along and reads well: the mix of verbal ingenuity and relentless double-entendres (some of them added in) gives it the character of an upmarket Carry On film.  The book is well-produced, excellent value, and surely an essential purchase for any department or school library.

Journal of Classical Teaching

Lysistrata was first performed in Athens in early 411 BC probably at the Lenaea, one of two annual Athenian religious festivals of drama sacred to the god Dionysus.  Both festivals included tragedies and satyr plays (a sub-genre of comedy with plots set in the world of mythology), as well as comedies.  Comedies were not just funny; they were intensely political in nature, often using the veil of humour to make serious comments about important issues of the day.  As James Morwood reminds us in his contribution to this collection, Aristophanes himself commented in his Acharnians (performed in 425 BC), ‘Comedy too [i.e. as well as tragedy] knows about justice’ (line 500).  Whatever the type of drama performed, in a political world completely dominated by men, the actors and choruses were all male.  It is possible that the audience were, too.

Because it was held in the month roughly corresponding to our January, the Lenaea was purely for the local community - at that time of year teh sea was too unpredictable to allow foreign visitors to attend.  Lysistrata was therefore aimed exclusively at an Athenian (male?) audience, whose shared experience added to its sense of intimacy and immediacy.

Of course, preparations for the production had begun much earlier.  The previous summer (412 BC), Aristophanes would have submitted his proposal for inclusion at the festival, part of which may have included the reading of passages from the script.  For a comic writer, this must have presented its own challenges, because much of the humour of the play relied on up-to-the-minute jokes about topical events.  So we must assume that it was accepted that the script was fluid and that additions might be made right up to the day of the performance.  But it does mean that the overarching theme of Lysistrata - that the women of Greece vote to withhold sex from their men-folk until such times as they have concluded a peace settlement - had probably been decided some six months in advance of the first performance.

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