Lysistrata: Classic and Modernized Theatre

In my final acting class of my final semester for my bachelors degree in Theatre Studies, I was asked to prepare audition monologues for my portfolio. I came across Lysistrata for the hundredth time after studying it in other courses, so I decided to pull a section of text as one of my classical monologues.

“I’ll do that. Up to now through this long war we kept silent about all those things you men were doing. We were being modest.  And you did not allow us to speak up, although we were not happy. But still, we listened faithfully to you, and often inside the house we heard your wretched plans for some great deed. And if we ached inside, we’d force a smile and simply ask, “Today in the assembly did the men propose a treaty carved in stone decreeing peace?” But our husbands said, “Is that your business? Why don’t you shut up?” And I’d stay silent.

So there I am at home, saying nothing. Then you’d tell us of another project, even stupider than before. We’d say, “How can you carry out a scheme like that? It’s foolish.” Immediately he’d frown and say to me, “If you don’t spin your thread, you’ll get a major beating on your head. War is men’s concern.”

(Aristophanes 581-605)

“How do you relate to this? How does this make you feel?”, my professor asked me. I was not a woman alive in ancient Greece. I have not watched my husband go to war. Despite this, I feel Lysistrata’s rage inside of me as she is told to shut up, sit down, and know her place. 

A brief History on Lysistrata 

Lysistrata is a play which was written in 441 BCE by well-known comedic playwright Aristophanes. The comedy was first performed in the Lenaia of 441 BCE, in the Athenian month of Gamelion. The Lenaia Festival was one of many Greek festivals of theatre, which contained mainly comedies. (Swallow, 2014)

Greek theatre shaped western theatre as we know it today, however, its original purpose was not translated into modern theatre. Along with being a form of entertainment, Greek theatre productions were also a religious practice. The act of theatre performance was created as a form of worship, specifically to the Greek God Dionysus. (Coldewey, 1998)

Aristophanes, the writer of Lysistrata, is believed to have lived from 445 – 386 BCE. He was born and lived in Athens, and was alive during the real life war depicted in Lysistrata between Athens and Sparta. This war, known as the Peloponnesian war, took place from 431-404 BCE. (Wilson, pp 215)

Most information we know about Aristophanes is derived from his plays and poetry, as we do not know much about his personal life. He wrote approximately forty plays, but unfortunately, only eleven of them have survive today. Aristophanes is often named the most famous Greek comedic playwright. Aristophanes followed the standard for Greek theatre and used it to address political and societal issues. He used a comedic approach, often farce, in order to do so. Lysistrata is the third, and last of the plays he wrote that featured peace as a main theme. (Cartwright, 2013)

Lysistrata Summery

The play begins with Lysistrata herself pacing in front of her home in Athens, worried about the current war, the Pelopennisan war, taking place. She sees her friend and neighbour Cleonice approaching. Lysistrata informs her she has schemed up a plan in which all the women can come together and save Greece. Myrrhine, a young wife, and Lampito, a Spartan, join the women, along with some other women from Cornith and Boeotia. Lysistrata gathers them and proposes her plan, for all the women of Greece to go on a sex strike until the men agree to stop the war. (Aristophanes, lines 1-136)

At first, the women actually appose her plan, stating that they do not want to go without sex either. Lysistrata is able to persuade them by explaining that if the women wear their finest silks, rouge their cheeks, and seduce their husbands, and then object to sex until there is peace, the men will want it as bad as they do and call off the war. The women are won over and swear the oath over a drink of wine. (Aristophanes, lines 139-259)

While this promise is being made, a chorus of older women are storming and taking the Acropolis, which holds the treasury of Athens. This is not revealed to us until a bit later, but it is happening behind the scenes. What we do see is another chorus made of a large group of old men.  They arrive with plans to smoke the women out of Acropolis. They gather wood and begin to light fires. The previously mentioned chorus of old women surprise the men by already being prepared for their arrival, and defend Acropolis. They carry jugs of water to put out the fire, and dump the water over the heads of the men in triumph. (Aristophanes, lines 276-432)

We then meet the Magistrate, who arrives with some Scythian policemen. He has come to the Acropolis looking for money for the naval ships. He is shocked by the women’s behaviour. Lysistrata comes down to speak with the Magistrate, and he orders the policemen to arrest her immediately. The other women in the Acropolis warn the Magistrate to leave Lysistrata untouched. They manage to scare away the policemen. Lysistrata explains to the Magistrate why the women have taken over the Acropolis. She explains that if there is “no more money,” there is “no more war”. She argues the Magistrate and his policemen’s authority by mentioning how the women have the ability to manage funds and expenses, and they understand the gravity of blocking off the Acropolis, because they are the one who handle all the money within their households. Lysistarata tells the Magistrate that women were in charge, running a working society free of war would be “as simple as spinning wool”. She continues to argue about how the war affects the women just as much as the men, and that they too must make great sacrifices. Lysistrata throws water on the Magistrate, and the other women dress him in their clothes to embarrass him, and he decides to leave. (Aristophanes, lines 433-737)

We next pick up after some time has passed. There are no breaks in scenes in Greek theatre, but there has been a build in tension as the  sex-strike has dragged on. We know some time has passed because everyone is beginning to feel its effects. Myrrines husband, Cinesias arrives at the doors of the Acropolis begging for his wife. Cinesias has a very obvious erection and says anything he can to try to get her to come down to him. He is desperate for sex and also brings along their infant child, carried by a servant. Cinesias tells her he needs her to come home, but Myrrine refuses to leave until he can promise the end of the war. He agrees, and promises to try to find peace between Athens and Sparta. (Aristophanes, lines 737-1142)

As he leaves, we meet the Herald of the Lacedaemonias, or a Spartan Herald, who also has an erection. He informs the women that the men are fed up, and that they are ready to sign a peace treaty so they can get their wives back. All of the men gather outside the Acropolis, waiting for Lysistrata to come out and bargain. Lysistrata emerges and presents a beautiful nude goddess named Peace. Peace is the deus ex machina, which is a plot tool used in ancient theatre of presenting a god or goddess and having them wrap up the story and solve the conflict. Lysistrata preaches the practices and beliefs shared by both the Greek and Spartans. She compares the similarities they share and questions why they cannot simply get along. However, during her speech, the men are heavily pre-occupied with the beautiful nude goddess. Finally, the men tell Lysistrata they are ready to sign a treaty for peace, so she welcomes them inside the Acropolis to sign for peace, to enjoy a feast, and to re-connect with their wives. Everyone celebrates and peace is achieved. (Aristophanes, lines 1143-1515)

Need a refresh on the plot of Lysistrata? Check out this (very brief) video explaining the basics to contextualize!

Journey Through Classical and Contemporary

The act of simply reading a classical play, like Lysistrata today, gives it a different meaning than it held when it was first written and performed. All the way back in 441 BCE when Lysistrata first hit the stage, it was performed by an all-male cast, as a comedy. Lysistrata included sexual innuendos and costume pieces with huge leather phalluses showing how horny the men were, who were being refused sex. (Miller, 2006) We cannot look at this play without our societal biases today, so we often interpret it as a feminist play, or a non-feminist play, or an empowering play, or a crude play, and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because our biases exist for a reason. We are experiencing a different culture than Ancient Greeks, so why would we not interpret art differently? Regardless of what Lysistrata was or wasn’t originally written to achieve, I want to talk about what it can now achieve on a modern stage. So maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a feminist play, but that doesn’t mean it can’t transform into something different.

Lysistrata can be intersected with a lot of current feminist views and issues. To list a few, Lysistrata talks about consent, rape culture and sexual assault, gender roles, war and violence, and so on. All of these relevant topics in todays world open to door to adaptations of Lysistrata to reflect our own society. Lysistrata has survived for so long and reached so many theatres and audiences through its ability to adapt to the society engaging with it. Working in theatre we often ask, why should the audience go see a show they have already seen or read? How can we create drama for an audience that already knows the stories structure? How can we take a story that’s already been told and make it fresh and engaging? These aren’t just questions that we ask in modern theatre, and the answers may be found within Greek theatre. So, to jump back to ancient Greece for a second, we can talk about a few basics:

  • Greek theatre was created in order to honour Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, fertility, and revelry.
  • Greek theatre and Greek religion worked hand in hand with one another, because Greek theatre performances and festivals were created to honour the gods.
  • Most plays written for these festivals honouring the gods were based off of Greek myth. These myths were passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, and often held important messages of relationships and problems presented in everyday life. 

So what? Well, if the majority of Greek theatre was based off of pre-existing myths, that means that the audience already knew the story before seeing the production. Lysistrata falls under the categorization of “old comedy”, which “makes fun of social, political, or cultural conditions.” (Wilson, pp 217) Much like theatre today, the playwrights of ancient Greece had to create content which kept the audience engaged.

One of the issues in the world of theatre right now in 2021 is engaging an audience that isn’t live. We simply cannot produce theatre as usual during a global pandemic. COVID-19 has forced us to examine some long existing questions, such as what defines something as theatre. This is a whole other conversation, but what is important about it is that theatre, as an art form, was able to adapt in this new way of life. One solution we have collectively worked out is the use of technology to create things like “zoom theatre”.

An example of Lysistrata and “Zoom Theatre”, from the Riviera Amateur Dramatic Association

Online performances don’t fit the normal conventions of theatre as we have known it through history. Obviously, zoom boxes on a computer screen are much different from the average modern-day theatre, whether it be a small black box or an extravagant auditorium. What is interesting with the perception of modern theatre now, is that where it is performed is not as important as it was in ancient Greece, because western theatre is typically not connected to the celebration of gods. The theatre of Dionysus, which held a lot of ancient performances, survives today and shows us how theatres functioned in ancient Greece. Along with the basics of the stage (named the orchestra by ancient Greeks) a place for the audience to sit, the ancient Greek theatre also included an alter used to worship the gods as a piece of the performance. (Wilson, pp 219)

And once again we go back to the question, so what? Well, as time staggers on and the world around us changes, so does art, and culture, and theatre. Recent times have shown that as the world changes, theatre adapts to fit its new mould. We can take this ancient piece of text and asses it as a political statement, we can use it to talk about real, heavy issues today. We can also adapt it to something silly and fun, like Lysistrata Jones on Broadway.

Lysistrata Jones On Broadway Trailer

Theatre is a way for us to connect with one another, to be entertained, to celebrate, and even to relate to people who lived thousands of years ago. As the world adapts, so do its problems. Lysistrata has taken many different forms and meanings over its long lifetime. The play is has created visceral reactions in people all across time, myself included. Regardless of why Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, (because this will always be up for debate unless someone can ask him themselves) the play can hold a different meaning to each consumer of it.

For me, Lysistrata has been a tool to connect me and my perception of being a woman to other women throughout history. Women have been fighting the war of equality for a long time. I am lucky to be able to view Lysistrata with my biases, to connect it to my life and hope to use it as a tool for change rather than a dream of a different world all together.

“Up to now through this long war we kept silent about all those things you men were doing. We were being modest.”

Aristophanes, 583-585

This passage stands out to me the most. The text supports that Lysistrata is talking about the Peloponnesian war, but I connect it to the war previously mentioned, the war of gender equality. Instead of aiming to physically dominate and create more violence, in feminism and Lysistrata the path has often been closer to non-violent resistance. Lysistrata contextualized the saying “Make love, not war”. This has been a common practice throughout feminist movements and continues to be used today in peaceful protests such as the Me-Too movement. My interpretation and connection is just one in many possibilities, and I am sure if I were to read it ten years from now, I would be able to relate to it in different ways.

The beauty of ancient texts and theatre is their timelessness. Whether it be Lysistrata’s first time on stage, or its millionth performance through zoom, each actor, director, and audience member has found a different connection to it. When we continue to find new ways to explore old media, we are able to create magic and keep characters like those in Lysistrata alive.

Work Cited

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translated by Ian Johnson. Vancouver Island University.

Coldewey, John & Streitberger, W.R. (1998) Drama Classical to Contemporary, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall inc. pg 96-97

Miller, John. (2006) Aristophanes’ Birds, Cornell Collage.

Swallow, Peter. (2014) Reconstructing the Lenaia, The Post Hole.

Wasson, Donald. (2018) Lysistrata, World History Encyclopedia.

Wilson, Edwin & Goldfarb, Alive. (2012) Theatre the Lively Art, The McGraw-Hill Companies, pg 210-217.


Aristophanes, Wikipedia.

Lysistrata, Wikipedia.

Peloponnesian War, Wikipedia.

Theatre of Dionysus, Wikipedia.

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