That’s just not funny Aristophanes

Aristophanes is universally known as the ‘father of comedy’, the master of the barbed lampoon, innuendo, double entendre, phallic imagery all set within outrageous or fantastical settings. He is one of the best sources of contemporary social, political, philosophical and religious topics, tensions and concerns. It is difficult to think of a modern-day performance, theatre or television, that would incorporate all comedic styles – he is Brian Rix farce meets Up Pompeii meets Monty Python meets Spitting Image meets Have I got News For You. So, it is a strange suggestion that his audience could be shocked and possibly bought to tears and yet, that is what he does in Lysistrata lines 388-610. Briefly, this is where Lysistrata and women go to the Acropolis and take charge of the treasury so that, without cash, war cannot continue. The magistrate enters with slaves and four policemen and the following action sees the police routed and, after debate where Lysistrata tells the magistrate how to win the war, he is dressed as if a corpse and told to hurry up because Charon, the ferryman of the dead, should not be kept waiting.

Mention Lysistrata and thoughts go to sex strikes, phalloi, innuendo, bawdy scenes and women taking charge. To the Athenian audience the idea of sex strikes and women advising men would have been preposterous and, although Aristophanes may have been reflecting an underlying dissatisfaction and social disquiet, there is little doubt that laughter would have echoed round the theatre. However, to understand how hard hitting and audience silencing the passage would have been the wider context has to be considered. This was not the first time Aristophanes used the backdrop of war for his comedies. In 425BCE The Archaneans was an appeal for peace and Peace, four years later in 421BCE was a celebration of peace whereas Lysistrata performed in 411BCE is more of a wistful fantasy about peace. The difference being the Peloponnesian war was still raging but far worse, late in 413BCE there was the devastating news that the expeditionary force to Sicily had been totally destroyed. In one fell swoop, Athens had virtually lost its navy, Sparta gained the upper hand and there appeared to be no hope. The passage specifically refers to the Sicilian disaster invoking the near memory and anguish, both personal and state, this inflicted.

As a general point although there are comical tropes and scenes within the passage, the depth of despair is evident. This is a far cry from Salamis and Marathon which contributed to the Athenian belief of invincibility. There is now a reliance on other states: heavy infantry from Zacynthus should have been enlisted for the Sicilian expedition, the policemen accompanying the Magistrate are Scythian and Lysistrata’s analogy or running the city state which should include everyone, immigrants, friendly foreigners even those in debt to the treasury should not just be included but on an equal basis. The reliance on others must have been a bitter pill to swallow. However, there are specific lines which signposts the Sicilian expedition to the audience.

In the opening lines the Magistrate, who is first to speak, whilst railing against the hysteria of women states:

“Demonstratus, curse him, was saying we ought to let the Sicilian expedition sail, and this woman, dancing on the roof, she cried ‘O woe for Adonis!’.” (lines 391-394).

Demonstratus was a leading advocate for the Sicilian expedition which set sail in 415BCE after the festival of Adonis so sets the action in context.

Having set the scene there is an exchange between Lysistrata and the Magistrate which very likely killed any laughter. It is only a few lines but starkly drives home the loss, devastation and the raw memory of the Sicilian disaster. Lysistrata is answering the Magistrate’s question as to what have women ever done for the war effort:

“Lysistrata: Done, curse you? We’ve contributed to it twice over and more. For one thing we’ve given you sons, and then had to send them off to fight.
Magistrate: Enough, don’t open old wounds.” (lines 389-392)

Shortly after this the tension is broken with the women dressing the Magistrate up as a corpse and singing a funeral ritual – it is possible to imaging that, after the pathos of the previous lines, laughter would start returning. But Aristophanes has one last sting in the tail:

“Lysistrata: So why do you wait? You’ll make Charon late! Last call for the next boat to hell!” (lines 604-605).

Innocuous though this appears, to some members of the audience it would invoke a feeling of self-sacrifice and loss as they would recall a similar passage:

“Charon, the ferryman of the dead! Already he is calling me: ‘why do you linger? Make haste! You hold us back!” (Alcestis lines 254-255).

Euripides’ Alcestis is a story of death self-sacrifice where Alcestis agrees to save her husband, Admetus, by taking his place when death calls. As the passage has extreme pathos and is bookended by an explicit reference to the Sicilian expedition and the implied self-sacrifice of the Athenian fighters it is extremely likely this particular passage would have been anything but funny.

However, this conclusion hinges on making the connection between the lines in Lysistrata and Euripides’ Alcestis, a tragedy performed twenty-seven years previously. I would argue that this is not just likely but virtually a certainty based on three factors: Athenian cultural memory, Aristophanes’ style and competitive reinforcement.

It is generally accepted that, in non and semi-literate societies and cultures, the spoken word has a far greater importance and ‘weight’. The ability to re-call lines, phrases and details was far greater than in modern literate societies. Verbal contracts depended on the ability to recall details. Within this, the ability to recall the spoken word through drama and the theatre had a much greater role in Athens in the fifth century. Drama allowed the Athenians to escape reality and examine moral and philosophical questions, it was linked to politics and democracy and the spoken words were recalled and remembered. It was inextricably linked to all aspects of their lives as explored by Professor Michael Scott in the series ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and, as such, was an important part of their identity. Therefore, the spoken word through drama, because of its importance, would likely be more memorable. Plutarch writes about some of the Sicilian expedition Athenian prisoners: “In the present case, at any rate, they say that many Athenians who reached home in safety greeted Euripides with affectionate hearts, and recounted to him, some that they had been set free from slavery for rehearsing what they remembered of his works; and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they had received food and drink for singing some of his choral hymns” (Plutarch Nicias 29.3). The ability to remember not just the spoken word but sections of tragedy is evident.

Whilst there is a similarity with Alcestis in the quote, this is not the only occasion Aristophanes ‘uses’ tragedy to intertextually layer meaning whilst remaining in control and engaging the audience. Researching her thesis ‘Aristophanes and Euripides: a Palimpsestuous Relationship’ Dr Gina May identifies 276 occasions where Aristophanes ‘utilises’ the tragedians (detail in the appendices). How these references and texts are used and their effect Dr May breaks down into nine categories (p.35). In the case of the similarity in the Lysistrata/Alcestis passage the category is a ‘variation’ and is a conscious replication to replicate a previous treatment. It would therefore elicit a similar audience response, in this case a feeling of pathos, of self-sacrifice possibly mirroring the sacrifice of the sons sent off to war as articulated by Lysistrata. Aristophanes’ intertextuality technique was almost certainly recognised by the audience. In Clouds, Aristophanes directly speaks to the audience through the Chorus where is both trumpets his skill and the audience’s ability and cleverness in recognising the comedy: “So may I conquer, and be accounted skillful, as that, deeming you to be clever spectators, and this to be the cleverest of my comedies, I thought proper to let you first taste that comedy, which gave me the greatest labour.” (Clouds lines 519-521). The link between the Lysistrata and Alcestis quotes has been made, recognised by the audience which would have precipitated a similar emotional response.

Competition is in the Athenian DNA. Whether it was aresteia, excellence, in battle, hospitality skills, rhetoric, poetry, athletics, horse racing or chariot racing competition touched most aspects of life, even the play the audience was watching was a competition with other playwrights. As has been mentioned the knowledgeable audience would have been aware of Aristophanes use and layering of tragic texts it would be reasonable to assume that this would give the opportunity for the Athenian competitive spirit to recognise as many references as possible. Bearing in mind that Alcestis was performed 27 years previously it would follow that just some of the audience would recognise the similarity. This would give the opportunity to not only demonstrate their depth of knowledge but impart details in discussions after the festival which undoubtably took place. Not only would this maintain the knowledge of myths but would also reinforce the feeling of Athenian identity by revisiting the political, moral, social of philosophical questions being asked through drama in the original performance and the impact or effect on the state.

Yes, there were many elements of Aristophanic comedy in Lysistrata, sexual innuendo, farce, phalloi, outrageous and unbelievable situations and it is likely Lysistrata gave the audience a release from Athens’ perilous position. However, with the disastrous Sicilian expedition in the recent past and the direct and indirect references in the passage ending with the reminder of self-sacrifice, it is likely the audience would have found it just too hard hitting, near the bone and just not that funny.

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