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Saturday, June 01, 2002

Arts & Letters


Lysistrata by Aristophanes, adapted by Robert Brustein and the American Repertory Theater, original music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics by Matty Selman, and directed by Andrei Serban. May 10-June 9, Loeb Theater, Cambridge MA.

Lysistrata is one of the few extant plays by Aristophanes, the only writer of comic drama in fifth-century BCE Athens whose work survives. It is characteristic, if we can generalize from so small a sample, in its political themes and in its humor derived from human genital and alimentary functions. It is unusual, however, in presenting a central character more fully realized than is normally the case in Aristophanic comedy, and even more unusual because the character, Lysistrata, is a warm, intelligent, humane woman. Aristophanes’ other plays center on rather disagreeable, narrow males who are more caricature than anything else; the women, when they do appear, are shrill and devious, or sex kitties waiting to go to bed with whatever old man wins the day in the last scene.

Leading a coalition of mostly unwilling allies, Athens was in the latter stages of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and the other Dorian cities when Lysistrata was produced in 411 BCE. Neither side was really winning; it was more like two punch-drunk fighters holding each other up as they stagger around the ring. The premise of the play is the Athenian Lysistrata’s idea that all the women of the Greek-speaking world refuse sex with their mates until the men agree to stop fighting. What is particularly striking is Lysistrata’s (Aristophanes’) ability to see Hellas (as it was known before the Romans took up the word “Greek” and bequeathed it to the world) as something more than petty, warring city-states. Rather, it is a culture shared by all the combatants, and an entity worth respecting and saving. Getting the women to agree to forego sex, and dramatizing the male sexual frustration until the men’s capitulation, constitute the dramatic movements of the play.

As a dramatic proposition, therefore, it is a one-joke play. Audiences that don’t find endless comments about unrelieved tumescence and females in heat will probably not enjoy it. It is like Borscht-belt humor or Mel Brooks’s The Producers or Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. The strange amalgam of what we would call off-color language and allusion and political themes was unique to comic drama of the fifth century; contemporary scholarship links it to scatological and insulting remarks in religious ritual, which is to say that Aristophanic comedy is something more than entertainment. In the fourth century, comedy turned social, personal, and romantic. Boys and girls fell in love, stern fathers and cruel female authority figures kept them apart, ladders at the window provided for elopements, bribed slaves acted as go-betweens, the poor sought the rich and the rich bought the poor in the pursuit of love. It was this comic vision that the Romans, Plautus and Terence, took over and bequeathed to Shakespeare. All the elements of Shakespeare’s comedies – not to mention those of Oscar Wilde, or Noel Coward, or even Wendy Wasserstein – had their start in fourth-century BCE comedy.

The background to Lysistrata matters because it seems always to be embedded in the motivations and direction of the theater company that produces the play. The current ART production is a tribute to Robert Brustein, and the finale of a long and distinguished theatrical career. Although he has always been a provocative and intelligent drama critic, Brustein is certainly best known, first, as the dean of the Yale drama school, and, subsequently, as the founder and director of Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, which he is leaving at the end of the academic year.

Some have said that plays at the ART tend to be over-produced, a strategy never entirely successful, with the possible exception of Lee Breuer’s memorable production of Wedekind’s Lulu, in which the title character performed on roller skates. Brustein has a penchant for Brecht, political plays in general, Central European directors and authors, and, of course, the plays of classical antiquity. All that seriousness can be a little heavy going; sometimes one pines for a little more art for art’s sake and a little less emphasis on meaning. But Brustein has a host of admirers, from the chattering classes who pass their summers on the Vineyard, Nantucket, or the Cape, to the serious, tweedy professors and their wives who come out of the suburbs surrounding Cambridge to fill the Loeb Theater. It is certainly not a New York audience, either the bridge-and-tunnel crowd of Broadway or that of off-Broadway theatergoers.

Thereby, as they say, hangs a tale. Brustein initially commissioned Larry Gelbart, who had made over a Roman Plautine comedy into the sensationally successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to make a contemporary adaptation of Lysistrata. The script was delivered, read, tried out, and rejected by Brustein, as well as by his leading lady, Cherry Jones, once a stalwart of the company who’s gone on to a Broadway career but has returned to ART to participate in this valedictory event. Needless to say, it created quite a stir when they declared that Gelbart’s translation was too “pornographic,” whatever in fact that means. Perhaps it just came across as boring as the original Greek text is to many of its readers. Brustein went on to say that Gelbart’s version was better for a New York audience, and indeed Manhattanites will have the opportunity to sample Gelbart’s “smut” when the Manhattan Theater Club mounts his production. Brustein must have thought that Gelbart could make something like Funny Thing, but the author seems to have been true to the Aristophanic original in emphasizing the scatological lens through which the play views life.

In Lysistrata, of course, all the elements of the sexual enterprise – male, female, penis, vagina, thrust, penetration, etc. – are relevant to the adoption and cessation of military power. One can imagine a very close reading of the play from contemporary psychological and gender studies, but that might get an audience uncomfortably close to the political and social implications of their own genital equipment. A major problem in any translation of Aristophanes is that Anglo-American gentility still balks at the enunciation upon the bourgeois stage of a range of words easily spoken by the so-called lower classes. A steady barrage of off color language offends the genteel middle classes because they unlike characters from The Sopranos hear every word. The language is sufficiently new to their experience that they register it, and it is the constant hearing or registering the same tired expressions that is boring, not shocking.

What Brustein, Serban, and Company have done is to fashion a kind of vaudeville show with a variety of musical numbers, rhyming passages, impassioned speeches opposing war, dance, slapstick, and a mild attempt at hootchy-kootchy – everything, in short, that one can imagine to take the audience away from the tedium of the one-joke original. The musical numbers are often excellent – Cherry Jones singing the blues, for instance, or the old men dancing and singing about a deus ex machina, the first, emotional and heartfelt, the second, extremely witty. Sometimes the jokes are excellent twenty-first-century vaudeville replacements for Aristophanes. For instance, the president of the Athenian assembly (Will LeBow) declares sternly, “I don’t take orders from a skirt,” but then looks down at his chiton and says defensively, “This is an ensemble.” The constant anachronism of referring to the several Greek-speaking city-states as “the Greek nation” is grating because of the historical reality. (One searches for contemporary parallels and thinks of Palestinians and Israelis except that the deck is stacked so much in favor of the latter. Perhaps Serbs and Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, Albanians and Serbs, Kurds and Turks, although all these peoples represent more radically differentiated cultures. Perhaps the wars of Europe in the fifteenth – or twentieth – century are the best analogue, although they do not translate at all into the Aristophanic context.)

Aristophanes presents his audience with two situations. On the one hand, there are his women campaigning for peace with their soldier-husbands desperate to get laid. There is great humor in males whose stratagems of patriarchal control are continually threatened by their erections, which are ready to follow the lead of the females. On the other hand, there are two choruses. One is made up of old men who are veterans ready to war once again, this time against the women, holed up in the Acropolis, which they have seized; and the other is composed of old women, who take the initiative and fight their feeble spouses. Again, there is humor (pathos as well) in old men whose virility is now just a feeble response trying to fight old women who, like old women in almost all cultures, not only survive their males, but in the end dominate them utterly. There is nothing more formidable in contemporary Greece than the yiayias bustling about tending house while their enfeebled husbands play backgammon in the village square.

The present production is skewed, however, by the elimination of the chorus of old women to match the presence of the four male stalwarts played by Alvin Epstein, Jeremy Geidt, Thomas Derrah, and Remo Airaldi. Their talents and the large part written for them diminish the roles and presence of the younger males, whose erections are – or should be – the centerpiece of the drama. One wants more young male buns, thighs, chests, to match the several scantily clad young or youngish ladies who are there to entice the males into peace. Thank Heavens for Benjamin Evett, who brings an expert blend of sexiness, confusion, horniness, male stupidity, and bravado to the role of Kinesias. The acting talents of the production are not evenly balanced. The chorus of old men are all exceptionally good but their parts go nowhere. The younger women are mostly too new to the theater to bring strong characterization to their roles. Cherry Jones is excellent, managing to submerge her usually earnest self (except in the antiwar speeches) in acerbity tinged with sweetness and warmth. Her interaction with Kalonika, Lysistrata’s next-door neighbor, reminds one of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz. The best comic turn is Stephanie Roth-Haberle’s Spartan-muscled woman warrior Lampito. Aristophanes has given her a kind of harsh Doric dialect and Serban & Co. have translated this into what seems to be the linguistic mannerism of Arnold Schwarzenegger. She is very funny indeed, growling, flexing her muscles, flashing her incredibly made-up eyes.

The younger males sport phalloi made from inflated cigar-shaped balloons that rise and fall amusingly. The finale, when the males acquiesce to the female demand to end war – and thus assure themselves of immediate access to long-denied sexual intercourse – is punctuated by a sudden explosion in which the balloons burst, leaving only the metal structures that enclose it still protruding from the male crotch. The image is puzzling. Males will certainly want to believe that it portrays an orgasm; anything else is too painful to consider.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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