By the time classical Greek poet Aristophanes wrote his second anti-war comedy, 15 years had passed since The Acharnians, his initial foray into pacifist theater (and humankind’s first extant anti-war drama). For six years longer than that, the poet’s beloved Athens had been at war with Sparta.
It was autumn of 413 BC, and thousands of Athenians had recently died in a crushing defeat at Syracuse, the entire invasion force trapped and decimated by the Spartan and Syracusan armies. Following that season of grief, Aristophanes composed what would ultimately become his best-known work — Lysistrata.
The play has now endured 24 centuries — as world empires rose and fell, as democracy repeatedly struggled to gain footing and failed, as weapons evolved and death became wholesale through war after war after war.
So why has Lysistrata prevailed? It can’t just be its healthy dose of timeless humor.
It’s the sex, stupid.
Or, in this case, the lack thereof.
The plot line of the comedy is simplicity itself: Lysistrata recruits wives and mistresses in the warring city-states to her pacifist scheme — no sex for the fellas as long as the fighting continues.
The war ends.
The sex angle has always worked. In Victorian England, in 1897, an explicitly erotic limited edition of the script containing “the decadent illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley” was distributed in the last year of that famous illustrator’s short life. In 1934, New York’s Limited Editions Club published Lysistrata, By Aristophanes; A New Version by Gilbert Seldes; With a Special Introduction by Mr. Seldes; and Illustrations by Pablo Picasso to widespread accolades and equally harsh criticism. (Picasso’s modernism clashed with traditionalist notions about Greek drama.) Both illustrated versions stressed the sexiness of the women, perhaps to add fuel to the play’s argument against war.
Or perhaps to sell books.
Last year, Lysistrata was performed as the first global theatrical event, with the Lysistrata Project linking actors in 59 countries for 1,029 readings of the play to protest the Bush administration’s unilateral war on Iraq.
Highland Repertory Theatre’s current production of Lysistrata was in the works before last year’s worldwide endeavor, back when Congress was signing off on the incipient invasion.
“We started looking at the play in fall 2002,” explains Artistic Director Andrew Gall. “The notion that our country would be so directly engaged and divided over similar issues depicted in the play was not something we foresaw at the time.
“The questions raised by the play are appropriate and timely, certainly,” Gall continues. “I would hope that the message comes through loud and clear. Just because the situation in Lysistrata is satiric, it should not diminish the serious nature of the similar questions we face in terms of our current political situation.”
Mia Self, who adapted and is directing the current production, has an extensive stage resume spanning a decade-long career in Mississippi, Missouri and throughout Western North Carolina. Self’s fight direction was displayed during the Montford Park Players’ 1998 Shakespeare festival, in both King Lear and As You Like It (and it’s again put to good use in Lysistrata), while her Greek-drama credits include directing Seneca’s Oedipus at Asheville’s Broadway Arts Building in 1996.
About her decision to adapt Lysistrata to a modern setting, Self reveals: “Highland was interested in seeing a sexier, more modern visual take on the production. The early conversations centered strongly around the visual impact of the film Chicago.”
However, that movie’s 1920s-style costuming didn’t do much for her. “I began to look for another period that inspired,” Self admits. “This adaptation was set in the 1940s, because I love the garment lines of the [time].”
Self also notes that ribald stage productions enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during that era.
The pairing of American burlesque with WWII’s impact on women in the home during the 1940s will, she hopes, yield “a fresh new look at this 2,000-year-old play.”
The director hastens to point out that hers is “a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes. For example, the script is prose rather than poetry.”
Lysistrata will feature Ali Le Morte (Brevard Little Theatre, Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre, Asheville Community Theatre, Belfry Players) in the title role, with set design by Xpress contributing cartoonist and writer Jerry Pope.
“Our production,” puts in Gall, “was developed by artists here in Asheville for an audience here in Asheville.”
Which leads one to hope that Highland Rep’s not-for-kids caveat for Lysistrata refers only to the play’s sexiness — and not the obscenity of war.
Highland Repertory Theatre presents Lysistrata at Diana Wortham Theatre from Thursday, April 15 through Saturday, April 17, and from Thursday, April 22 through Saturday, April 24; all shows are at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10/Thursday, $20/Friday and Saturday. For reservations and more information, call 257-4530.