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The dates of Aristophanes’ birth and death are variously given, but 445–375 B.C. is a possibility. We know that he was considered too young to present his first three plays in his own name: the lost Daiteleis (The Banqueters), which won second prize at the Lenaea in 427 B.C., when he would only have been about eighteen; the lost Babylonians, which won second prize in 426 B.C.; and The Acharnians, which brought him first prize in 425 B.C. when he was barely twenty. These plays and the four that followed over the next four years are the work of a very young man endowed with the courage to level unrelenting attacks on no less than the head of state—the demagogic Cleon.
Like the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (and, I expect, the poets of all ages), he decried the destructiveness and sheer stupidity of war, and in his most celebrated plays he warned and pleaded against it. Yet for twenty-seven years of his writing life, with one brief interval, Athens was at war with Sparta in an internecine struggle that finally left her exhausted and shorn of her glory, never fully to recover.
Aristophanes had no respect for shoddy politicians like Cleon, who plunged Athens into campaigns that led to defeat and decline, and he lampooned them without mercy. He himself came from a landowning family and his political outlook was conservative. Not necessarily in favor of oligarchy, he believed that democracy was best served by the brightest minds and not by selfish, clamorous demagogues. He was conservative too in his general thought, defending religion though he laughed at the gods, and he was suspicious of contemporary philosophy. He mocked Socrates as a Sophist knowing full well he was as anti-Sophist as Aristophanes himself; it was just too easy to use him as a scapegoat because he was well known and easy to parody. Aristophanes’ conservatism did not extend to his language, which is almost unimaginably rich and varied. The obscenity that crops up here and there is funny because it is unexpected. When one considers the milieu in which the plays were presented—“under the auspices of the state, to the entire population, at a religious festival under the presidency of a priest and on consecrated ground”1—how could it not be hilariously incongruous? It was as if somebody (preferably the grandest dignitary present) trumpeted a fart in a solemn moment at high mass.
But it is incongruous too because the rest of Greek literature from Homer to Thucydides (if we except Sappho) is so well behaved. Yet we ought not to be surprised by the phallic thrust of Aristophanes’ jokes, because the origins of comedy are undoubtedly found in fertility rites at the dawn of drama. Sex, after all, is the oldest human hobby.
Having said all this, it is important to add that the plays of Aristophanes are serious. In them he confronts and dares to laugh out of court some current trend or action or human aberration. He recognized that the prime function of the poet is to reduce to order—Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislator of this world”—in other words, to preserve a world worth living in, with the greatest political and personal freedom consonant with order, and the leisure to enjoy it all.
This is essential teaching at an organic level, and it is done not by giving information—the way of prose—but by lifting the spirit to a new plane of truth and beauty. “Ut doceat, ut demonstrat, ut delectat.”2 Such is the brief of the poet, and it is this last, “to please,” which is the touchstone of lasting poetry. This does not mean that poetry deals only with the beautiful but that when it deals with ugliness it remains in itself beautiful.
Not only was Aristophanes one of the greatest poets of antiquity but, in the words of Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, “the greatest comic dramatist in world literature: by his side Molière seems dull and Shakespeare clownish.”
Be that as it may, the lyrics of Aristophanes present the translator with an irresistible but crippling challenge, and the best he can do to meet it—if he is really trying to translate and not just to paraphrase or adapt—is ineluctably doomed to be a poor reflection of the original. Nevertheless, even this pittance is well worth trawling for.
* * *
Of Aristophanes’ forty-four comedies, only eleven have come down to us: The Acharnians, which won first prize at the Lenaea in 425 B.C. when he was about twenty; The Knights, a courageous attack on Cleon, then at the height of his power, which also won first prize, in 424 B.C; The Clouds, in 423 B.C., which for some reason was not a success and which he rewrote (it is this second version that survives); The Wasps, winning second prize in 422 B.C.; and Peace, again with second prize, in 421 B.C.
After this comes a gap of six years in which what he wrote is unknown to us, but in 414 B.C. came The Birds, perhaps his masterpiece and another second-prize winner. Thereafter we have no record of prizes, but we do know that he produced Lysistrata in 411 B.C.; the Thesmorphoriazusae (Women at the Festival of Demeter) in 411 B.C.; The Frogs in 405 B.C.; Ecclesiazusae (A Parliament of Women) in 392 B.C.; and Plutus (Wealth) in 388 B.C. (There were two additional comedies of which we do not even have the titles.)
In the Ecclesiazusae, produced when Aristophanes was about fifty-three—not old in our day but comparable to sixty-five or seventy then—there is a slackening of the youthful zest of his earlier comedies, and the choruses that were so essential to their lyric ebullience are greatly reduced. This perhaps is the first step in the evolution of what is known as Old Comedy into New. In Plutus, some four years later, the transmogrification is complete.
The chief features of New Comedy are that it virtually did away with the choruses, turning them into musical interludes (a direction already taken by Euripides); it presented characters as types rather than as individuals; it constructed elaborate plots rather than letting the context itself of a story dictate the setting; it discarded topical allusions, political satire and direct attacks on individuals, and it introduced the ups and downs, the torture and the ecstasy, of romantic love.
As to this last, New Comedy was the progenitor of the boy-meets-girl story, as well as all the clever Cox-and-Box mix-ups of mistaken identity. It is in fact the blueprint of drama such as we know it, with its complex but logical plots, its love entanglements, and its domestic comedy of manners. The chief exponent of New Comedy was Menander (ca. 342–292 B.C.), the Aristophanes of his generation, of whose work we have extensive fragments and one almost-complete play, Dyskolos (The Grouch). It is, however, mainly through Roman adaptors, Plautus and Terence, that we know his work.
* * *
CHORUS, COSTUMES, STRUCTURE, MUSIC
There were twenty-four actors in the chorus, which was divided into two sets of twelve that could sing and dance against each other. The chorus members were elaborately dressed in costumes on which large sums of money were spent. The choruses wore masks suitable to their parts—birds, frogs, wasps—and these masks in themselves must have generated a good deal of merriment. One can imagine the laughter that must have greeted the appearance of the “dog” Cleonacur in The Wasps, almost certainly wearing a mask that was an unmistakable caricature of the despised Cleon. Reflecting back to the Dionysiac fertility rituals of the Comus—the origins of comedy—the members of the chorus wore long floppy phalluses strapped to them, but these need not have been always visible and could be hidden if need be by a variety of clothing.
Though the members of the chorus were not professional actors, as were the leading players, they were rigorously trained in dance and song—at least six months’ preparation being thought necessary. Music, dance, and song were at the heart of the performance, and one wouldn’t be far wrong in regarding an Aristophanic comedy more as a musical than a play.
All parts, including female, were played by men. The naked flute girl Dardanis, for instance, in The Wasps, would have been a boy or young man dressed in tights with female breasts painted on him.
As to its general structure, the Aristophanic comedy followed this pattern: (1) Prologue, which could be a dialogue; (2) Parados, or entry of the Chorus, singing and dancing in character; (3) the Agon, or debate; and (4) the Parabasis, or address of the Chorus to the audience in the name of the author. Each of these sections was characterized by its own particular meters and system of prosodic repetition akin to the strophe and antistrophe of Tragedy. The music was provided by flute, lyre and kettledrum.
Strophe literally means “turning (one way),” so antistrophe would mean “turning the other.” These refer to movements of the Chorus: either the whole Chorus or the Chorus split into two, each part balancing the other. Normally strophe and antistrophe are identical in the number, meter, and length of lines.
* * *
Aristophanes is not easy to translate: He stretches the Greek language—that most elastic of tongues—to the breaking point and uses a vocabulary almost Shakespearian in its variety and richness: five or six times as large as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And as if it were not enough, he puns and coins words at the drop of an iota subscript. Moreover, the plays are in verse that shifts from one intricate meter to another throughout.
Some translators have valiantly set out to reflect this teeming prosody by using rhyme, but the results for the most part seem merely forced or fussy. My own solution is first of all to reflect the meter as far as I can, and then to echo rhyme more often than to use it, though I do use it fairly strictly in the choral parts where the sound pattern of the Greek becomes emphatic and condensed. Did Aristophanes himself use rhyme? Yes, but not in the way we do.
Greek versification compared to English is more like a plum pudding than a blancmange. In blancmange you get what you see. In a plum pudding you get what you don’t see. Greek prosody is stuffed with every kind of syllabic analogy—assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme—but because Greek is a polysyllabic language these sounds are buried in the middle of words, and even if they are at the end of lines they don’t get the same stress that they would in English. Consequently, this matching of sound with sound, Greek with English, is not subtle enough, especially when it comes to rhyme.
Putting Aristophanes into the straitjacket of English versification is like trying to turn plum pudding into a blancmange; perhaps this is a misleading simile, though, for English, far from being a blancmange, shares with Greek the delight in a rich variation of sounds. The difference ultimately is between a constantly polysyllabic language and a seldomly polysyllabic one.
To use rhyme in an attempt to reflect Aristophanes’ verbal effulgence produces something that is not nearly subtle enough. For this reason, I use rhyme warily, though I do use it, and instead I put the burden of capturing Aristophanes’ variations of sound, tone, and rhythm on a novel system of prosody that I call, rather grandly, “sonic intercoping.” This means that the end syllable of every line is “coped,” that is, topped with or tied into the endings of other lines before and after. Thus one gets the effects of verse without actually using verse.
Let me demonstrate this by taking a page at random from Lysistrata and showing how all the lines are sonically linked. One need not be conscious of this while reading the play. It will have its effect willy-nilly, so long as the flow of a passage reads naturally and the tie-ins of the preceding and succeeding lines do not seem forced. If on occasion they do, the fault is mine.
that comes with women. (a)
MEN’S LEADER: Wait till you hear how they’ve gone (a)
completely beyond the pale with their jars of water (b)
and almost drowned us, so that (c)
we had to wring out our clothing later (b)
as if we’d peed in it. (c)
MAGISTRATE: Great briny Poseidon, we get (c)
exactly what we deserve. (d)
We ourselves collaborate with our womenfolk (e)
and abet them in behavior that’s absurd. (d)
What follows is a blooming herbacious border of nonsense.
We go into a jeweler’s and say something like: (e)
“Goldsmith, you know that torque, (3)
the one you made my wife,
she was dancing with it on (f)
the other night, and the prong (f)
slipped out of its groove. (g)
I have to go to Salamis, so do you think (e)
you could spare the time one evening
to pop into her
and fit the prong inside her groove?” (g)
Any reader who wants to stop and analyze the system will see that sonic intercoping is based on a play of consonance, assonance, and alliteration, occasionally bolstered by rhyme.
Let me take five lines from A Parliament of Women and trawl them in my English translation and see how much can be retrieved. But first, let us be clear about the following.
Assonance: the same vowel sound enclosed by different consonants: boat, soul
Consonance: the same consonants enclosing different vowels: boat, but
Alliteration: syllables beginning with the same consonants or vowels: watered, wine; angry, assassins
Rhyme: the same vowel sound preceded by different consonants: boat, coat; at, bat
The English translation
If he can do it, I swear by this dawning day
that we too can carry out a coup and essay
something for our city, but as things are
we lie stuck in the doldrums
with power of neither sail nor oar.
Line 1: 4 assonances: if, it, ing, this
2 half consonances: can, dawn
6 alliterations: if, it, I; do, dawn, day
Line 2: 6 assonances: that, can, car, and; too, coup
4 half consonances: can, car; that, out
3 alliterations: can, carry, coup
4 rhymes: too, coup; day, say
Line 3: 5 assonances: thing, things, cit; our, are
5 half consonances: thing, things; for, our, are
Line 4: 2 assonances: stuck, drums
2 half consonances: stuck, drums
2 alliterations: dol, drums
Line 5: 4 half consonances: power, neither, nor, oar
2 alliterations: neither, nor
2 rhymes: nor, oar
Sonic intercoping line endings: day, essay; are, oar.
Perhaps the most perennial and greatest difficulty of all is that Greek, compared to English, is devilishly condensed. A single word often can only be done justice by a phrase, or sometimes only by a whole sentence. Mere transcription is not enough. One is trying to bring over not only words but thoughts, feelings, and connotations, which the words themselves sometimes merely adumbrate. And here lies a pitfall difficult to avoid: when one discovers that in one’s efforts to bring out the fullness of the Greek one has leapt from the legitimate boundaries of translation and landed in the realm of mere paraphrase.
Fidelity to the original, too, can be a stumbling block. Fidelity, yes, but this should not mean being a slave to the literal, which can put one on the high road to the absurd. For instance (to take a current language), one wouldn’t translate the name of the Spanish newspaper Ultima Hora as The Last Hour, which is the literal meaning, but by what the idiom means: Up to the Minute. Sometimes the translator feels compelled for the sake of clarity to add a phrase or sentence that is not actually in the original. Is this being unfaithful? Not necessarily, not if the addition makes explicit that which was truly implicit in the original. One might even go as far as saying that to leave it out is not so much fidelity as pedantry.
Perhaps the final challenge of attempting to translate Aristophanes is that, unlike the three great tragedians, he did not deal with grand universal themes ineluctably germane to the human scene, but with the here and now of a particular place and particular people, with particular problems, and at a particular time in history. It’s almost as if an Athenian of the fifth century B.C. were asked to put into Attic Greek the antics, absurdities, the cleverness and sparkle of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
The miracle is that, even if one is only half successful in doing justice to the letter and spirit of Aristophanes, and even if many of the names and places he mentions mean nothing to us, we still find him funny—so original is the cast of his imagination and so delightful his penchant for rank nonsense.
Lysistrata was produced by Callistratus in the early spring of 411 B.C., probably at the Lenaea. He had already presented four plays of Aristophanes, the last being The Birds. It is not known how it was received or if it won a prize.
* * *
It was a bad time for Athens. The grandiose armada invasion of Sicily had proved a disaster. She lost her fleet, her army, and a great deal of money. Meanwhile, the Spartans were on her doorstep and many of her allies were seizing the opportunity to defect from the Athenian hegemony. Aristophanes, who in his last three plays had done his best to show the stupidity, the waste, the corruption of war, now courageously writes a comedy with a brilliantly unexpected slant: funny enough to get around the warmongers, and serious enough to make them think.
* * *
LYSISTRATA, young Athenian wife
CALONICE, young Athenian wife
MYRRHINE, young Athenian wife
LAMPITO, young Spartan wife
MAGISTRATE, Athenian, with servants
THREE OLD WOMEN, of the marketplace
FOUR WIVES, citizens of Athens
CINESIAS, husband of Myrrhine
BABY, of Cinesias and Myrrhine
HERALD, from Sparta
SPARTAN DELEGATES, with servants
ATHENIAN DELEGATES, with servants
TWO LOUTS, of Athens
PORTER, of gate to Acropolis
CHORUS, twelve old Athenian men
CHORUS, twelve old Athenian women
Others: Spartan and Athenian wives, a Corinthian wife, Ismenia (a Theban wife), young Theban woman (Miss Boeotia), Scythian girl (servant of Lysistrata), more old women, four Scythian archer police, women friends of Calonice and Myrrhine.
* * *
To put an end to war Lysistrata hits on a startlingly simple way of forcing husbands to stay at home and become pacifists: deny them sex. Not all the husbands, of course, are immediately subject to this radical treatment because they are already away fighting, but even these would come home on leave—with one thought on their minds. Withholding sex from panting young husbands is the strategy Lysistrata has devised for their wives, but she has a different one for the older women: to make an assault on the Acropolis and seize and freeze the assets that fund the war.
* * *
“Lysistrata” (pronounced LySIStrata) means in Greek “the Demobilizer,” and if one wanted to be clever in English one could simply call her Lisa. But there is more to it than that. The “lys” part of the name is from the verb “luō,” “to loosen,” and one of the powers women possess is that of loosening the loins of men.
Lysistrata herself is something of a grande dame and is treated with decided respect by the other women. It is also noticeable that though she is the organizer of “Operation Prick,” she is not in the least bawdy, unlike her friend Calonice. In her initial conversation with Calonice, when she describes her enterprise as pressing, huge, and weighty, she is being quite literal; it is Calonice who is thinking of something very different.
Lampito, a Spartan, speaks in a Greek the Athenians would consider a dialect. Her words have shorter syllables than Attic Greek. The Spartans, or Lacedaemonions, from Laconia (another name for Sparta), were noted for their brevity—from which we get the word “laconic”—and their speech must have had the same relation to Attic Greek as, say, Catalan Spanish has to Castillian. Aristophanes takes pains to have Lampito speak in short clipped syllables, and translators do their best to follow suit and tend to put her into broad Scots. I don’t know what the American equivalent would be (perhaps Hillbilly), but for my part I would speak her lines in London cockney,3 because Cockneys also go in for swallowing their words in a language that is faster than the Queen’s English. The same applies to the Spartans.
As to my intentions as translator, let me say again what I think I said before: This rendering is strict translation, neither paraphrase nor adaptation. I try to keep as close to the Greek of Aristophanes as I can. This is not simply a matter of being faithful to meanings but of organizing them into patterns of sound that reflect the original, which entails keeping a steady watch on the way phrases and sentences hit the ear.
* * *
TIME AND SETTING
A street in Athens in the early morning, with the Acropolis in the background. LYSISTRATA is pacing up and down impatiently, and finally bursts out:
LYSISTRATA: Honestly, if they’d been invited to a Bacchic party
or a do at Pan’s or those goddesses of fucking, the Genetyllides,
the streets would be jammed and tambourines at the ready. . . .
Just look, not a female in sight!
[she continues to pace, then sees someone approaching]
Ah, at last! My neighbor at least.
Good morning, Calonice.
CALONICE: And to you too, Lysistrata. . . . But, my dear,
what a state you’re in—all tensed up!
It doesn’t suit you, lovey.
LYSISTRATA: Calonice, I’m absolutely furious—and with us women.
No wonder men think we’re an impossible group.
CALONICE: Well, aren’t we?
LYSISTRATA: Asked to come to a crucial meeting of no piffling import,
and they’re all asleep and don’t turn up.
CALONICE: They’ll be here all right, my sweet,
but you know what a business it is to get out in the morning:
There’s a husband to pack off, a maid to wake up,
a baby to bathe and give something to eat.
LYSISTRATA: I know, but some things are more pressing.
CALONICE: Like what you’ve summoned us to hear?
Well, I hope what’s pressing is something really big,
LYSISTRATA: It’s huge.
CALONICE: And weighty?
LYSISTRATA: God, it’s huge, and God, it’s weighty.
CALONICE: Then why aren’t they all here?
LYSISTRATA: Oh, it’s not that; if it were
there’d be a stampede. No,
it’s something that sticks in my mind hard as a shaft
and keeps me from sleeping, though I tease
it and tease it night after night.
CALONICE: By now the poor thing must be floppy.
LYSISTRATA: It’s collapsed.
Which leaves us women to save Greece.
CALONICE: Us women? Some hope!
LYSISTRATA: All the same, the salvation of our State rests with us,
even if it’s the end of the Pelopponnese. . . .
CALONICE: Ah! That would be a help.
LYSISTRATA: . . . and the Boeotians are wiped out.
CALONICE: Wait a minute, not the eels, please!4
LYSISTRATA: And I won’t mention the Athenians,
but you know what I mean. . . . If all us women
united en masse—Boeotians, Spartans, and us,
we all together could save Greece.
CALONICE: What on earth could we women do?
Anything brilliant and clever is beyond females like us.
We’re just household ornaments in flaxen dresses
and negligees you see through,
all nicely made up in pretty come-hither flats.
LYSISTRATA: Precisely, that’s
exactly what we’re going to need to save Greece:
a seductive wardrobe, our rouge, our negligees and our pretty flats.
CALONICE: But what’s it all meant for?
LYSISTRATA: To stop every living man
from ever raising a spear against another and . . .
CALONICE: I’ll have a frock dyed crocus yellow.
LYSISTRATA: . . . from ever lifting a shield or . . .
CALONICE: I’ll make myself completely see-through.
LYSISTRATA: . . . springing a dagger.
CALONICE: I’m off shopping for new shoes.
LYSISTRATA: But oughtn’t the women to have come?
CALONICE: They should have flown here long ago.
LYSISTRATA: I know, sweetie, but they’re Athenians
and can’t do anything on time.
No one has exactly raced here
on the Paralus and Salaminia.5
CALONICE: All the same,
I bet they’ve been properly manned and coming
since early morning.
LYSISTRATA: Even the women I counted on to be the first to appear
are not here.
CALONICE: I happen to know that Theogenes’6 wife
has been skimming this way at the tip of her ploughing skiff.
But look, here are some more of your ladies.
LYSISTRATA: And there are others over there.
[MYRRHINE7 and a group of women enter]
CALONICE: [wrinkling her nose] Ugh! Where are they from?
LYSISTRATA: Anagyrus—Stink City.8
CALONICE: I thought we’d just made someone fart.
MYRRHINE: [breathless] Lysistrata, I hope we’re not too late.
[a critical pause]
Speak, damn it! Say something.
LYSISTRATA: I do not approve, Myrrhine . . . um . . .
of people who turn up late when there’s so much at stake.
MYRRHINE: Dear, I’m sorry.
Couldn’t find my girdle in the dark.
But at least we’re here,
so what’s cooking?
LYSISTRATA: Wait a bit till the women from Boeotia
and the Peloponnese appear.
CALONICE: Right— . . . But look, here’s Lampito coming.
[LAMPITO, a robust young woman, arrives with other Spartan wives, a wife from Corinth, and ISMENIA, a Theban wife]
LYSISTRATA: Good morning, Lampito, my Spartan darling!
How luscious you look! Quite stunning!
Such clear skin, and that firm body,
why you could strangle a bull.
LAMPITO: By Castor and Pollux,9 that I could.
It’s the work I do in the gym, buddy,
jump-kicking and bumping my tail.
LYSISTRATA: [putting out a hand to feel]
My, what marvelous tits!
LAMPITO: Hey, lovey, you feeling me up for sacrifice?
LYSISTRATA: And who’s this young lady here?
LAMPITO: By Castor and Pollux, would you believe it, it’s
no less than Miss Boeotia.
MYRRHINE: Miss Boeotia? What a surprise! Lovely as a meadow.
CALONICE: [gazing at her crotch]
Yes, when the hay’s just been cut.
LYSISTRATA: And this other girl?
LAMPITO: She’s from Corinth. A bit o’ all right
by Castor an’ Pollox, real cute.
CALONICE: One can see that, back and front.
LAMPITO: But who called us all together?
LYSISTRATA: Me, right here.
LAMPITO: Pray tell, what for?
CALONICE: Yes, dear lady, do explain
what makes this so important.
LYSISTRATA: Explain I shall, but first I have a small question.
CALONICE: Then out with it.
LYSISTRATA: Don’t you all miss your kiddies’ dads
when they’re at the front?
I expect that every one of you has a man away from home.
CALONICE: My man’s been away five months in Thrace—how I miss him!—
keeping an eye on Eucrates.10
MYRRHINE: Mine’s been seven months at Pylos.
LAMPITO: As for mine, hardly is he in the door
when he’s strapping on his shield again.
CALONICE: What’s more,
there’s not the shadow of a lover left for us,
and since the Miletus crisis,11
not a dildo in the offing.
That at least would be better than nothing.
The highest mountain in Laconia (Sparta).
LYSISTRATA: Well, suppose I hit on a way to stop the war,
would you be with me?
CALONICE: Holy Demeter and Persephone! Absolutely.
Even if I have to pawn this blouse
and spend the proceeds on booze.
MYRRHINE: And I’m ready to slit myself down the middle
like a mackerel and give half to support the cause.
LAMPITO: I’d clamber to the tiptop of Mount Tagetus12
just to get a wee peep at peace.
LYSISTRATA: Then let me disclose.
In a word, dear ladies,
to make the men make peace
we’ve got to forgo . . .
CALONICE: Oh, what, please?
LYSISTRATA: Are you ready for it?
CALONICE: You bet. Even if death is the price.
LYSISTRATA: All right,
what we’re going to have to forgo is—phallus.13
ALL: Oh no!
LYSISTRATA: Hey, don’t turn away. . . . Where are you off to
so dolefully with clamped lips, ashen cheeks and shaking heads?
Will you or won’t you do it? What’s bugging you?
CALONICE: This is where I stick. . . . Let the war drag on.
MYRRHINE: Me too. I couldn’t for the life of me. Let the war drag on.
LYSISTRATA: That coming from you, Miss Mackerel, is against the odds.
Weren’t you saying just now that you were ready to slit yourself in two?
CALONICE: Ask for anything else, just anything you like,
I’ll walk through fire if you want,
but I simply can’t give up prick.
Lysistrata, darling, there’s nothing to compare.
LYSISTRATA: And what about you?
MYRRHINE: Fire for me too.
LYSISTRATA: Oh, what a low-down randy lot we are!
No wonder we’re the subject of tragedies,
like “Poseidon and the Tub” of Sophocles:
have fun with a god, then dump the brats.
But, Lampito, Spartan dear,
even if only you side with me, that’s
enough for us to make a go of it—so please!
LAMPITO: Eh, but it’s tough on a woman
not to sleep side by side with an erection.
All the same, we do need peace,
so . . . well . . . oh, all right!
LYSISTRATA: You perfect darling, the only real woman of the lot.
LAMPITO: But if we do give up . . . er . . . what you suggest,
which God forbid, is there any guarantee
that peace will result?
LYSISTRATA: By Demeter and Persephone, absolutely!
Imagine it: us lolling around all tarted up,
our pussies’ sweet little triangles neatly plucked,
and we float past them in our see-throughs,
and our men get stiff as rods and want to screw,
but we elude them and hold ourselves aloof—why, they’ll sue
for peace real quick. That you can bet.
LAMPITO: Like Meneláus at the sight of Helen’s melons,
chucking away his sword when he meant to slay her on the spot.14
CALONICE: I know, darling, but say the men just ignore us?
LYSISTRATA: That would be like—as old Pherecrates15 said—
skinning the same dog twice.
We’d just have to take dildos to bed.
CALONICE: Substitutes are so disappointing.
Anyway, what if they grab us and drag us
into the bedroom by brute force?
LYSISTRATA: Hang on to the door.
CALONICE: What if they hit us?
LYSISTRATA: Then give in, but start sulking.
Men don’t enjoy sex by force,
and you can get at them by other means.
Have no fear, they’ll soon kowtow.
No man’s happy with an uncooperative wife.
CALONICE: Well, if you two agree with this, we do too.
LAMPITO: There’ll be no problem with our Spartan men;
they’ll agree to a fair and honorable peace,
but those crazy Athenian roughs—good grief!—
how does one knock any sense into them?
LYSISTRATA: Don’t worry. We’ll get them to go along with us.
LAMPITO: I don’t see how:
not with triremes all primed for sea
and bottomless holds of brass in Athena’s treasury.
LYSISTRATA: That’s all been taken care of now.
We’re raiding the Acropolis today:
a job the older women will undertake,
and while the rest of us carry out our peace work here below
they’ll capture the Acropolis up there
on the pretext of coming to sacrifice.
LAMPITO: My, but you’ve got it all wrapped up real nice!
LYSISTRATA: Lampito, in that case
why don’t we ratify everything right now
and make it binding with a vow?
LAMPITO: Yes, a vow: we’re all agog to swear.
LYSISTRATA: Fine! Where’s that Scythian girl?
[she calls and her maid, a swarthy Scythian girl, appears carrying a shield and glancing about her open-eyed]
Hey, girl, what’s making you stare? . . .
Put your shield down in front of us, bottom up, right there. . . .
Somebody fetch me the sacrificial bits and pieces.
LAMPITO: What sort of oath are we going to swear?
LYSISTRATA: What sort? One like Aeschylus’s,
with the victim slaughtered over a shield.16
LAMPITO: My dear Lysistrata, not over a shield,
not when we’re making a vow about peace.
LYSISTRATA: Then how should the vow proceed?
CALONICE: How about getting hold of a white stallion
and slicing a piece off him?
LYSISTRATA: A white stallion? Come on!
CALONICE: How are we going to swear then?
LYSISTRATA: I’ve got an idea that you might like:
we put an enormous black wine bowl in position
and over it we slaughter a skin of Thracian wine,
swearing not to . . . add a drop of water.
LAMPITO: Yeah! That’s an oath you couldn’t better.
LYSISTRATA: Will somebody go inside and bring out
a wine bowl and a skin of wine.
[the Scythian girl goes into the house and brings out a bulging wine skin and an enormous bowl]
MYRRHINE: My word, girls, what a whopper!
CALONICE: Merely to touch it is to hiccup.
LYSISTRATA: Now lay your hands with mine on this mighty beast.
My lady Persuasion and you good Convivial Cup,
deign to accept this sacrifice from us.
[she opens the wine skin and lets the dark red wine bleed into the bowl]
CALONICE: What a robust and richly colored spurt!
LAMPITO: The aroma’s superb without a doubt.
MYRRHINE: Girls, I beg be first to take the oath.
CALONICE: By Aphrodite, not so fast.
Wait and see if your lot comes first.
LYSISTRATA: Hold your hands over the bowl—
Lampito, are you listening?—now,
one of you repeat after me this vow:
“No man whatsoever
whether husband or lover, shall . . .”
CALONICE: No man whatsoever
whether husband or lover, shall . . .
LYSISTRATA: . . . “come near me with a rampant cock . . .” Speak up.
CALONICE: Come near me with a rampant cock.
Oh, Lysistrata, my knees are buckling!
LYSISTRATA: “I’ll live at home in continence unrutting.”
CALONICE: I’ll live at home in continence unrutting.
LYSISTRATA: “All tarted up in my saffron frock . . .”
CALONICE: All tarted up in my saffron frock . . .
LYSISTRATA: “so that my husband is bursting to erupt . . .”
CALONICE: so that my husband is bursting to erupt . . .
LYSISTRATA: “while I stay aloof and adamant.”
CALONICE: while I stay aloof and adamant.
LYSISTRATA: “And if he exercises force . . .”
CALONICE: And if he exercises force . . .
LYSISTRATA: “I’ll receive him coldly; won’t waggle my hips or grunt . . .”
CALONICE: I’ll receive him coldly; won’t waggle my hips or grunt . . .
LYSISTRATA: “nor lift slippered feet to make it easy, nor of course . . .”
CALONICE: nor lift slippered feet to make it easy, nor of course . . .
LYSISTRATA: “crouch like a lioness waiting to be grated.”17
CALONICE: crouch like a lioness waiting to be grated.
LYSISTRATA: “And only if I keep this vow may I quaff from this cup.”
CALONICE: And only if I keep this vow may I quaff from this cup.
LYSISTRATA: “And if I don’t keep this vow may the wine be watered.”
CALONICE: And if I don’t keep this vow may the wine be watered.
LYSISTRATA: Now let all of you swear, all united.
THE WOMEN: We swear, we swear.
LYSISTRATA: Good. I’ll consecrate the cup.
[she takes a long draught]
CALONICE: Darling, not more than your share . . .
Surely we’re all on equal footing.
[while they quaff the sound of cheering from the older women reaches them]
Whatever is that cheering?
LYSISTRATA: It’s what I told you:
we women have seized the Acropolis and the temple of the goddess.
Therefore, Lampito, get cracking
and go and do what you have to do back home.
We can use your Spartan friends here as hostages.
Meanwhile, let’s join the other women on the Acropolis
and help them to barricade the gates.
CALONICE: But won’t the men launch an attack on us?
LYSISTRATA: If they do, I don’t give a damn.
Just let them try with threats and fire to unbar those gates,
we’ll make them come to heel.
CALONICE: So help me, Aphrodite, so they will!
Or else we women are an impossibly hopeless breed.
[All the women disappear into the Acropolis and the MEN’S CHORUS enters in a slow shambling dance. They are old and shabby. They carry logs, unlit torches, and live coals in earthen pots as they shuffle toward the Acropolis.]
MEN’S LEADER: Forward, Dracus,18 though your shoulders ache from carrying logs of green and heavy olive wood.
Live a long life and much will surprise you,
such as we elders
Are witnessing now. Oh yes, Strymodorus,
can you believe we’d
Ever be told these pestilent females
reared in our homes
Had taken possession of Pallas’s image
On the Acropolis and now have control.
And that’s not the end of their damnable damage:
They’ve bolted and blocked every entry and portal.
To the Acropolis, forward Philurgus,
as fast as you can.
Let us arrange around these women
logs in a circle.
They are the ones who have thought up this
Let’s make a bonfire and sizzle them up
with our own hands,
Yes, every one of them, starting with Lycon’s lecherous wife.19
Holy Demeter, I’ll not have them laughing
while I have life,
Especially not Cleomēnes,20 the first
who ever besieged
This place, and in spite of the bellicose Spartan spirit he breathed
He surrendered to us and scurried away
In the flimsiest jacket without his arms.
Dirty, disheveled, and needing a shave:
For six years he hadn’t deigned to wash his limbs.
Yes, I was fierce and that’s the way
I dealt with this fellow.
We camped before the gates in ranks
And now will I simply stand and watch
these brazen women,
Enemies of Euripides21
and of heaven? Oh,
I might as well wipe out
the glories of Marathon.
A little bit more and the slogging is done.
The steepest stretch is the last to come
Before the Acropolis, and I strain to reach the spot.
How can we lug these logs along?
We need a donkey—that’s for sure.
This log is making my shoulders sore
But I’ve got to reach that blessed gate
And also keep this fire alight;
I simply mustn’t let it go out
Until I’m where I should be at.
Fuck! Fuck! The smoke, the smoke!
Lord Heracles help me—this bloody smoke
Plunges out of the bucket and bites
Both my eyes like a bitch gone mad, a bitch in heat,
The fire’s a volcano. Yuk! Yuk!
My poor eyes, how they ache!
They must be a couple of bloodshot holes.
But I’ve got to get to the Acropolis,
And run, run, run if I can
To rescue the goddess Pallas Athena.
Laches, could the time be better?
Fuck! Fuck! The smoke, the smoke!
MEN’S LEADER: This fire’s a lively thing, thank heavens it’s awake.
Let’s put our logs down here
and dip our torches in the coals to get them lit. Then we’ll batter
the gates like rams and summon the women to surrender.
But if they won’t and refuse to open the gates,
we’ll set the doors on fire
and smoke them out. But first, let’s set the logs
Phew! Phew! This bloody smoke!
I wish some of you admirals at Samos22 could
lend us a hand with this damned wood.
[the old men unshoulder the logs and lay them down]
Oh brother! At last I’ve freed my poor back!
Now it’s all yours, you coals in the bucket.
My lady Victory, secure us a triumph over this womanhood
on the Acropolis. Bring us luck,
it is high time to punish them for their cheek.
[the CHORUS OF WOMEN, middle aged and elderly, comes into view. They are better dressed than the old men and carry pitchers of water. When names are used they are, as with the men, generic]
WOMEN’S LEADER: Women, I can see sparks and smoke.
There’s a bonfire somewhere. Hurry.
WOMEN’S CHORUS: Wings, wings, Nicodīcé,
Fly to Critilla, Calīcé,
And quench the galloping flames
Fanned by malevolent breezes
And nasty old men whose aims
Are to kill us. But are we
Too late for the crisis?
We’ve come from the well with our pitchers
And filled them to the brims:
A task that was hardly easy
With the crush and the clatter and din,
And elbowing maids from the homesteads
And branded slaves, but I heaved my
Pitcher on my head,
Rushing to help my neighbor
And rescue her with water.
Fanatic old men, it appears
Are gadding about with timbers
Costing a lot, and heading
Toward the Acropolis, stokers
Bawling their heads off, saying:
“We’ll burn you women to cinders.”
Grant, O Pallas Athena,
We’ll not be set on fire.
See us as heroines rather,
Saving Hellas from warfare
And folly. That is the reason,
O golden helmeted one.
Defender of your temple,
They’ve pounced on your holy shrine.
Divinity, I implore
You to be our helper
And if they should light a bonfire
Be nearby with water.
[WOMEN’S LEADER steps forward just as the old men are about to charge the gates]
WOMEN’S LEADER: Stop it, you disgusting men!
What d’you think you’re doing?
No decent men would behave the way you are.
MEN’S LEADER: We’ve got an unexpected problem—women
outside the gates, simply swarming.
WOMEN’S LEADER: Worried are you? Don’t tell me we’re
too hot to handle? You aren’t seeing
a thousandth part of our forces yet.
MEN’S LEADER: Phaedrus, are we going to let
them go on blabbing?
It’s time we got those logs and conked them on the nut.
WOMEN’S LEADER: Women, put your pitchers down and free your hands.
We may have to withstand a charge.
MEN’S LEADER: Two or three hefty socks in the jaw, ye gods,
would shut them up.
WOMEN’S LEADER: Okey-doke, here’s my mug, I won’t budge.
Have a sock and see if it quells.
But if you do, I’m the bitch that bites off balls.
MEN’S LEADER: Shut your damned gob,
or I’ll bang you out of your ancient hide.
WOMEN’S LEADER: Just lift a little finger, slob,
and I, Stratyllis,24 will . . .
MEN’S LEADER: Will what? Got a secret weapon to stop
me knocking you flat?
WOMEN’S LEADER: I’ll tear your chest wide
apart and rip your entrails out.
MEN’S LEADER: Euripides got it right:
“no beast’s so bloody as a woman,” he said.
WOMEN’S LEADER: [calling to the others]
Rhodippe and everybody, get your pitchers ready.
MEN’S LEADER: So, you god-detested crone, you’ve brought water, have you?
WOMEN’S LEADER: So, up yours too!
You’ve brought fire for a funeral, have you?
MEN’S LEADER: Not mine. The pyre’s for your cronies.
WOMEN’S LEADER: [thrusting out her pitcher]
And I’ll put it out with this.
MEN’S LEADER: You’ll put out my fire, will you?
WOMEN’S LEADER: That’s what you’re going to witness.
MEN’S LEADER: While I roast your backside with my torch.