Lysistrata, performed first in 411 bce, begins with the title character, an agitated Athenian woman, impatient with the tardiness of other women whom she also considers too passive in the face of male suppression and marginalization. They gradually arrive, and Lysistrata shocks them by declaring, “It lies with us to decide affairs of state and foreign policy. The Spartan Question: Peace or Extirpation?” (352). But “Glamor is our only talent,” remarks Kleonike (353). Lysistrata agrees: ornamentation and beautification will be their weapons.
Lampito, a crude Spartan woman, joins them. Lysistrata explains further her proposal: “We can force our husbands to negotiate Peace. Ladies, by exercising steadfast Self-Control. By Total Abstinence” (360). The women are horrified at the idea of giving up sex: “On with the War!” (361). Lysistrata is angry and ashamed of women. Kleonike tries to think this through: “Suppose they take us by force and drag us off to the bedroom against our wills?” “Hang on to the door” (363).
They will also take over the Akropolis, with Athena’s temple. They all agree ceremoniously, involving drinking wine and the “mighty Oath” that they won’t “dilute it with water” (366). Line by line, Lysistrata reads the vows that the women must repeat.
A Chorus of decrepit men enters, irked that their wives, whom they thought previously to be mere bothers, are now posing a national threat. “Queen Athene, let these strumpets / crumple before our attack / Grant us victory, male supremacy / and a testimonial plaque” (377). “Never been confronted with such backtalk. Can’t allow it” (379). The men prepare for fiery violence: “I brought this fire to ignite a pyre and fricassee your friends” (381). But the women have pitchers of water, and the men must retreat.
A Commissioner tries to command a capture of the Akropolis, and Lysistrata says, “Frankly, you don’t need crowbars nearly so much as brains” (385). With household weapons the women drive away several archers. The women have blockaded the Treasury, knowing that “The War Effort needs this money!” (391). But “Who needs the War Effort?” (392). Lysistrata recounts how often after the men’s workday “we’d hear that you’d done it again — manhandled another affair of state with your usual staggering incompetence” (394). The women wrap a veil around the Commissioner’s head and deck him out with other female accoutrements. With metaphors from the fiber arts, Lysistrata explains how the women will achieve the peace (399). The women do have a stake in this: at least their sons (405). And what happened to the post-Persian-War prosperity from two generations ago? The male Chorus continues to be outraged: “Their native respect for our manhood is small, / and keeps getting smaller. Let’s bottle their gall / The man who won’t battle has no balls at all!” (406). The women retort: “We’re angry. The brainless bird who tangles with us has gummed his last mush” (407).
The women admit, “we want to get laid” (409), and Lysistrata must shame a few out of defecting and into persisting. Myrrhine’s husband Kinesias enters with an erection and their baby, trying to guilt his wife into sex. She leads him on at length, but ultimately departs. A Herald and others are also sexually frustrated by now, the semi-articulate Spartans too. Kinesias decides, “we’ve reached the bitter end. It’s Peace, or we fall back on Kleisthenes [apparently a famous homosexual]. And he’s got a waiting list” (442).
Lysistrata brings out her handmaiden, Peace, naked, which of course further frustrates the men. The men finally agree to a literal peace, and Lysistrata announces that there will be “the delights of a home-cooked banquet. Then you’ll exchange your oaths and pledge your faith, and every man of you will take his wife and depart for home” (449). And so, perhaps, “Eros and sophia, sex and wisdom, join as the civilizing force of love” (343).
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Trans. Douglass Parker. Four Plays by Aristophanes. NY: Meridian, 1994. 335-468.