“When the truth hurts,
Tell a joke!”
Humour is a rubber sword, a sacrosanct weapon that allows you to bludgeon the victim, without drawing blood. A barbed remark or joke that’s cracked in ‘good humour’, may be a camouflage to cleverly veiled criticism. Taking this debate on the elevated status that humour enjoys, to be laughed at and then politely dismissed, I quote Freud, from his essay Jokes, who pointed out that Humour makes use of cognitive mechanisms of displacement, condensation and unification that generally result in a cathartic blow to an individuals subconscious regressions.
The fervent power of humour can’t be circumscribed to a vent from the mundane, and a good laugh down your belly. The earliest of writers, functioning within their limited agency nostrum, have adopted austere methods of avoidance of cliché or over-inflated forms of expression and comedy- above all- to highlight the ballistic blind spots in the society.
Right from the birth of comedy as a foil to tragedy in the Greek tradition, there’s been certain works in which we, as readers find ourselves glaring at a brightly plumaged landscape of aerial wit that requires an angle of vision wherein there’s a felicitous union of the aesthetic and the emotion.
Aristophanes (427-387 BC) was one such Greek playwright who managed to coalesce the idea while executing it on stage. In his most read comedy, Lysistrata, intellectual and spiritual tendrils intertwine and weave a fabric where the interstice between utopia and dystopia seems to blur. Most critics have argued that this play, performed during the festival of Lenaia (a parallel space to escape the humdrum of daily life by reincarnating as gaiety, subversive and carnal beings, all in the name of “festive spirit”), is Aristophanes’ greatest work because of the intimate perfume of femininity and vitalising sex with deep delight.
To view the play as a phallic comedy or a political pamphlet is upon the ruminating mind of the reader. We’re aware of the fact that what’s normal for the spider, is chaos to the fly and hence, a universal lens to any given situation is an unrealistic expectation. While critics like Jack Lindsay propagate the idea that “an Ideal state of the society was the last thing Aristophanes desired. He wished to eliminate baseness, but only that there might be free play for laughter and happiness.”, it has long been debated whether Aristophanes was making a bold, radical statement on the patriarchal society that became the handmaiden to war and a mouthpiece for devastation, or if he only wrote to express his vision on life, behind the warping screen of contemporary events.
The play, titled after the name of the protagonist, Lysistrata, literally translates to ‘dissolving armies’, and has a close similarity with Lysimake (whose name meant dissolving battles), a priestess of Athena, begins with summoning all the womenfolk of Greece to put an end to the long drawn Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. We notice two breakthroughs in the opening scene itself, a woman occupying centre-stage in the play in a society where women were mute-bystanders to the will and power of men and the very fact that because Lysistrata exhibits no hints of sexual desire, has no obvious husband or lover and doesn’t purposely flirt with men, she’s taken seriously and is able to orchestrate between events.
This plants the seeds of discourse. Why was a woman required to distance herself from domestic chores and acts of copulating to be able to voice her stance? Lysistrata chooses her words wisely, and her language seems to ‘enact’ what it depicts, thus abolishing the necessary distance between action and words, two binaries for masculine and feminine conduct, respectively. She admits that if she had called the women for an orgy in the honour of Bacchus, the wine-God, they’d all be there in time or “would’ve filled the streets the tambourine”.
When the women finally gather, and the clever plan of abstaining from sex is placed forth by our intelligent heroine, as a means to combat war, it is treated with wide discontent as the women jointly echo “On with the war!”. Calonice and Lysistrata look at Lampito, the Spartan woman as meat, which entails a pimp-in-reverse situation which ultimately makes women realise how hard it’d get for men to control not sleeping with their wives, and the sanctity of the idea comes across. Next up, comes the oath of chastity when Lysistrata calls a policewoman to bend over her shield to sacrifice sheep, which is convoluted by Calonice who reminds her that a peace treaty should not involve butchering, and they “slaughter” a jar of Thasian wine instead. The genius of the woman who can convince her reluctant tribe who previously said, “Why, its salvation hangs on a poor thread then!” when pitched in with the plan is a comment on diplomacy and how crafting of words, an art attributed to women since antediluvian times, can cause the moment of anagnorisis in the plot.
Another issue that is dissolved to some extent in the play is that of the clear polarities between the masculine domain and the feminine domain. While relating Power and War to men, and domesticity to women, we create these binaries. Lysistrata cleverly remarks that a woman can handle the affairs of the State adeptly as a woman has always been in charge of the household and if it runs smooth, it is all due to the homemaker- a hat traditionally donned by the Woman of the House. She destroys the excessive cultural baggage associated with biological sex, by debasing the Magistrate and offering him a veil when he tries to reason with her. It is also interesting to note how the Magistrate only comes in when money is involved, and not to address the higher issue at the dais, where the acropolis has been sacked by the Chorus of Old Women, a bunch of sterile, weak females whose power becomes paramount after coming together, like Maenids, worshippers of Medusa. The Magistrate also calls Lysistrata a slut and a comic scene happens when two men are required to tie her up, even though they are physically stronger than her. Hidden in this comic scene, could be a cryptic message, that of a woman slowly rising to power, a kind of power which fuglemen grow increasingly petrified of.
Cinesias, son of Anthros becomes the butt of all jokes when the women ask him to show his manhood and he’s put in a state wherein he has to bargain with Lysistrata to gain control over his wife, Myrrhine, whom he is lusting for (as he walks in with a bulge), and whom he considered his property to own. He represents the voice of the Athenian State in the play; a buffoon and misogynist extraordinaire, who uses a reminder of the duties of motherhood as a ploy to have sex with Myrrhine, who cleverly outwits him and keeps the plan going.
The voice of the Spartans is represented through the Herald, who also walks in with a whooping bulge and is treated to comments like “Are you a man or a walking phallus?”
“Men say we are slippery rouges.”
“Our sex is fitly food for Tragic Poets,
“Our whole life’s but a pile of kisses and babies.”
These lines in the text bring our attention to the statute questions of the identity of a woman, and how the society warped the female as second hand to the male.
The end approaches with an unavoidable reconciliation where we notice paravasis as the chorus unites and the Athenians “can not hold it in any longer” which exemplifies blazon, a poetic device which was food for poets writing Petrarchan sonnets. Talking of a the idea of the woman’s body as a “wonderland” (in the words of John Mayer), the situation today, thousands of years after the play was staged, is far from ideal.
Marina Abramovic, the most influential woman performing artist from the 1970s, whose art portrays the surreptitious linkage between bad ideas, theatre, execution, the artist and art, staged masterpiece, Rhythm 0, wherein she placed 72 toys for pain and pleasure before the audience and after a six hour exploitation of her body, she was left with cuts and marks all over her body, and knives inserted between her legs. The artist managed to show us basic masculine subversion and the idea of an unclaimed territory embodied by the woman, while removing social barriers of conduct. We’ve not made much progress, just learnt to hide it very well in the name of social conditioning. The same idea was staged by Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, in the early 1960s (though in a less severe form) when the currents of a freewheeling artistic atmosphere that creates a ripple effect of emotion, and ultimately action were abuzz.
Have the men really changed towards the end? In my opinion, the play fails to create a lasting impact because of the vague end, that doesn’t speak revolution, but an ordainment to the existing social order.
War is avoided with the grace of Aphrodite, and Lysistrata is seen as the living embodiment of Goddess Athena to carry off a reconciliation with unmatched wit. Was it necessary to accredit the win achieved through a moral woman to an immortal Goddess, is one question that takes the whiff off the credence of radical ideas echoed in the play. We must also not forget that Athenian men were the audience to this play and any outlandish mockery, would’ve harmed Aristophanes’ popularity. The fact that this play was staged during a festival can also not be ignored. Spreading thighs for democracy that won’t last- this can be seen as a part wastrel, because no resolution comes towards the end.
The women have not been elevated to positions of power and the State is still governed by men. But, if not the end, this can be seen as a means to achieve far larger goals which is why the essence of this play with respect to international relations and the woman question is still alive and under scrutiny thousands of years after it was conceived. Even though women need not channel their power through the bedroom today and form 15% of the world’s Parliamentarians, the persistent structure and philosophy of international power dynamics today still skews action in favour of half of the world’s population, while gracefully ignoring the other half.
These are some unresolved epiphanies which dawned upon audiences thousands of years ago, and are still searching viable solutions. I’d leave you with two quotes, both from different times, and painted with an entirely different gamut of world power-dynamics :-
“Disgraceful! Women venturing into the prate of War & Arms & High Affairs of the State!”
– Leader of the Chorus of Men, Lysistrata, 411 BC
“We lobbied for quota for women in the future legislature, the Transitional National Assembly. But, we faced opposition from male leaders who told us no man would agree to be represented by women.”
– Asha Elmie, Leader, 6th Clan Coalition, Somalia, May, 2003.
Let the stark semblances resonate.