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Julian Meynell's Books

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Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Other Plays

Lysistrata and Other Plays - Aristophanes, Alan H. Sommerstein

I'm slowly working my way through the Ancient Greek play writes and I have read Aeschylus and Sophocles but not Euripides.  Aristophanes is my first comedic Greek play write and likely to be my last because he is the only one that survives.  This volume contains Lysistrata, The Archanians and the Clouds.  There quality varies although all are good.  I would give The Archanians 4 stars, The Clouds 4 1/2 starts but Lysistrata 5 stars because it is by any stretch of the imagination a brilliant piece of art.

The short format of Greek plays lends itself better to comedy than to Drama and that means that unlike the Greek dramatist who typical must compress epic tragedy into a brief hour, Aristophanes is working without those kind of time constraints.  Aristophanes style is remarkably earthy and ribald.  There are lots and lots of jokes about farting, shitting and penises here.  There are also a lot of puns that the translator understandably struggles with.  The best bits are however satires of individual persons, many of whom remain well known to anyone who knows about the period and general satires of the foibles and stupidity of humans.

The works are remarkably daring and political.  Ancient Greek plays were usually only preformed once in a particular venue with a huge audience watching.  It is remarkable then to consider that these plays would have been performed with many of the satirical targets sitting in the audience.  Aristophanes politics are mostly propeace, but otherwise reactionary.  The Clouds attacks Socrates and the new philosophy.  This is often considered an unfair attack, because Aristophanes ascribes views to Socrates that clearly were held by other philosophers, but it is clear that Socrates stands in for all the philosophers, sophists and rhetoricians of his day.  I say this as an entire convert to Socrates cause.

Lysistrata is a play that almost defies explanation.  It is about women withholding sex so that there husbands will make peace.  Written towards the end of the Peloponnesian War it is remarkable in its tolerant attitude to Sparta.  If someone where to write a play like this today about a modern conflict, it would feel fresh revolutionary and controversial.  In a weird way the closest thing to it today is the more intelligent comedy of Matt Parker and Trey Stone.  The way in which, in all the plays, the chorus is used is extraordinary and it is amazing to thing that that device can be used in such a subversive manner.

I don't know that it is one of the funniest works ever written, but I find you can never tell with comedies until you watch them performed, but my it is daring and thoughtful and mixes the most and least sophisticated ideas seamlessly.  Brilliant writing.  No wonder it has lasted almost two and a half thousand years.