Aristophanes’ Lysistrata: A Fair and Honest Peace

Andrew David Irvine

More than any other Ancient Greek play, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BCE) conjures up images of the prurient and licentious. Over the years, the comedy has been sanitized and censored more for this reason than for any other.[1] In 1910, when Gertrude Kingston established the London Little Theatre, the city’s censors gave her permission to produce a “severely bowdlerized version” of the play, in which she starred as the title character. The result, according to one reviewer, was a “tame and school-girlish affair” that had little connection to the original script.[2]

One of George Barbier’s costume designs for a 1919 reproduction of Maurice Donnay’s Lysistrata (1892) at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris.

In the United States, the first English-language Broadway version of the play premiered in 1930. Adapted by Gilbert Seldes, the play was previewed in Philadelphia. There, the opening-night audience “gasped quite audibly,” not just at the magnificent art-deco staging and the elaborate costumes but at the show’s more titillating moments. Once the play arrived on Broadway, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied successfully to have police officers posted throughout the theatre to ensure that censorship rules were being followed. Thanks partly to the resulting notoriety, the play ran for an impressive seven months.

The touring version of Seldes’ production was not so lucky. In Los Angeles, as Emily Klein reports in her book Sex and War on the American Stage: Lysistrata in Performance (2014), nearly a dozen police officers “stormed the stage mid-scene and arrested 53 members of the cast.” Sadly, the LA Police Department was unable to locate “the depraved playwright” who had been listed as a person of interest on the arrest warrant: one Arthur Aristophanes.

In 1936, when Theodore Browne’s Lysistrata of Aristophanes – An African Version was produced by Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company, an offshoot of the Federal Theatre Project, the play was shut down by the city’s mayor immediately following its sell-out, opening-night performance. A decade later, a second all-black production was staged in New York. The cast featured superstar Etta Moten Barnett, along with the on-stage debut of a young Sidney Poitier. The production enjoyed only a three-night run.

In Greece in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the Nazi occupying force banned performances of all Classical Greek plays, including those by Aristophanes. A quarter century later, the country’s autocratic military regime banned not just Lysistrata but all plays emphasizing anti-war and pro-democracy themes.

Etta Moten Barnett (Lysistrata) and Rex Ingram (President of the Senate): promotional poster for Lysistrata, staged at New York’s Belasco Theatre 17-19 October, 1946 (credit James J. Kriegsmann).

Early publications of the play were no less mercurial. The first English-language version appeared in print in 1837. Even so, it was accompanied by the observation that, “The Lysistrata bears so evil a character that we must make but fugitive mention of it, like persons passing over hot embers.”[3] As a result, it omitted more than a third of the play entirely.

Nothing to see here: a tactical omission from Wheelwright’s Lysistrata (Oxford, 1837).

When Benjamin Bickley Rogers published Revolt of the Women: A Free Translation of the Lysistrata of Aristophanes in 1878, he pointedly said nothing about the play’s subject. But when his subsequent commentary appeared, his opening sentence conceded that “it is much to be regretted that the phallus-element should be so conspicuous in the present play.”[4] And when Samuel Smith’s anonymous translation appeared in 1896 under the title The Lysistrata of Aristophanes: Now First Wholly Translated into English and Illustrated with Eight Full-page Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, the eye-popping artwork guaranteed the book’s notoriety as a limited edition of “sophisticated pornography.”[5]

The least explicit of Beardsley’s illustrations for Lysistrata (1896)?

In New York, when Seldes’ Broadway adaptation appeared in print in 1934 under the title Lysistrata by Aristophanes: A New Version, it was accompanied by etchings by the already internationally renowned Pablo Picasso. Even so, in the introduction to the book Seldes mentions an English reviewer’s observation that an unredacted version of the play was still “far too gross for the English stage.”[6]

The Oath of the Women, Pablo Picasso, 1934.

Twenty years later, a copy of the play mailed from England to a Mr Harry A. Levinson, a bookseller in Los Angeles, was seized by the US Post Office. As justification, the Post Office cited the 1873 Federal Anti-Obscenity Act (commonly known as the Comstock Act). The act banned the delivery of lewd, indecent, filthy and obscene materials sent through the post.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr Levinson took the US Postmaster General, Arthur Summerfield, to court, arguing that the government “had no respect for the literature of the ages” and that the court should remove Mr Summerfield “from the business of literary censorship.” The ACLU also requested that the federal court declare the Comstock Act unconstitutional and that it bring an end to the Post Office’s ability to “supervise the sexual contents of literature and art sent through the mails.” Not wanting the court to establish a precedent, the Post Office released the book to Mr Levenson before a judicial decision could be reached.

All this fuss over a handful of words written 2,400 years ago about a fictional tale of how the women of Athens and Sparta, frustrated by decades of war, swear an oath to go on a sex strike until a peace treaty is signed.

Despite the play’s storied history, it is important to recognize that the primary focus of Aristophanes’ story is not sexual licence or even sexual power. Instead, it is the difficulty, almost the impossibility, of obtaining a “fair and honest peace” in times of war.[7]

This is not to say that the sexual nature of Aristophanes’ play should be understated. As we read in a translation widely attributed to the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, so determined were the women of Greece in their fictional quest for peace that they soon entered into the most solemn of agreements. Together, Lysistrata and her co-conspirators would “refrain from the male organ altogether”[8] and, after doing so, it would be little more than a moment before their husbands and lovers would capitulate. Despite their confidence, on Aristophanes’ telling it turns out to be a close contest as to who will capitulate first: the men because they miss their women, or the women because they miss their men.

Promotional poster for Lewis Flinn’s musical comedy, which premiered on Broadway in 2011.

Today, eleven of Aristophanes’ plays remain extant. Scholars also know the titles of perhaps thirty-two more, although several are disputed. If we add Babylonians (which exists only in fragments) to the list of known plays, fully six of the twelve focus on the folly of war. In its day, Babylonians was particularly controversial, since it was the first of Aristophanes’ plays to ridicule Cleon (c. 475–422 BCE), the war-hungry leader of what Gilbert Murray called the “Knock-out Blow Party”, and the man who effectively ruled Athens at the time. A coarse, unscrupulous populist, Cleon is described by the contemporary historian Thucydides as being the chief obstacle to peace during the early stages of the Peloponnesian War. In Babylonians, Aristophanes attacks Cleon and portrays Athens’ allies as nothing more than slaves to the Athenian demos.

The ensuing court case had nothing to do with the sexual content of Aristophanes’ play. Instead, Cleon appears to have accused Aristophanes of slandering Athens in the presence of foreigners and of coming close to treason in his criticism of the city’s military leaders. What penalty Cleon sought, and whether he was hoping to have Aristophanes fined or exiled, remains unclear, in part because the only report modern readers have about the exchange comes from Aristophanes himself.

Even so, Cleon appears to have been unsuccessful in his attacks on the outspoken playwright. We know this because only a few years later, in Knights (424 BCE), Aristophanes returned to his target, describing Cleon as nothing more than a dim-witted demagogue who is going to be defeated in the next election by an ordinary sausage maker. As Gilbert Seldes wrote,

Cleon had tried to deprive Aristophanes of his citizenship, to exile him from the noble company of his friends, and this play is marked by a savagery and bitterness which may be considered personal; but if Aristophanes was unfair to Cleon, he was not unfair to the eternal demagogue, scoundrel and profiteer who makes his appearance in every war and persuades his countrymen not only that all patriotism has descended upon him but that all patriotism must flow out of him, and that to reject him is to be disloyal and traitorous.

Perhaps it is partly for this reason that Aristophanes himself is such a propitious figure for modern readers. Threatened by Cleon, he was fortified in his opposition to a brutal, needless war. Writing at the height of the Great Depression and in the lead-up to the Second World War, Seldes sums up this modern-day feeling:

He knew Socrates, Plato and Euripides, he wrote forty or fifty comedies between his twenty-first and sixtieth year—perhaps that is enough to know. We know, however, one thing more of prime importance, which is that somewhere between his twelfth and eighteenth years, the war which destroyed Greece began, and continued, with half-hearted truces, until he was in the forties, when he saw the fall of Athens and later, the resurgence of minor wars which ended with the defeat of Sparta and the domination of Greece by ignorant and barbaric tribes. He saw, in effect, what many people think we are seeing today—the downfall of civilization—and that is probably another reason why he is so sympathetic to us.

Promotional poster for Chi-Raq (2015), Spike Lee’s retelling of Lysistrata on the streets of Chicago’s South Side).

Without question, Aristophanes had an eye for the absurd. He wasn’t above going for a cheap laugh. But he also wasn’t afraid to speak plainly to his audience about matters of crucial importance. In his plays, he remains focused on the corrupt and pompous, the powerful and unprincipled, especially in a democracy and especially in times of war.

He also emphasizes the need for people to work together if they are ever to solve the great challenges of their day. Do women and men, rich and poor, allies and adversaries, have enough in common to laugh together about their eccentricities and foibles, hopes and dreams, successes and failures? Or will our differences be the end of us? This is something of no small importance when faced with the difficulty, almost the impossibility, of obtaining a “fair and honest peace” in times of war.

Andrew David Irvine teaches philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He is a past head of the Department of Economics, Philosophy and Political Science at UBC’s Okanagan campus and has held visiting positions at Canadian and American universities. His play Socrates on Trial has been performed internationally.

Further Reading

For a general exploration of Aristophanes and his comedy, good places to begin are Paul Cartledge’s Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd (Bristol Classical Press, 1990) and Douglas MacDowell’s Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays (Oxford, 1995). For broader context about dramatic productions in Ancient Greece, try Gwendolyn Compton-Engle’s Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes (Cambridge UP, 2015), and David Wiles’s Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction. (Cambridge UP, 2014). To trace evolution of comedy in the Greek and Roman world, Nick Lowe’s Comedy (Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics 37, Cambridge UP, 2008) is an excellent place to start. For the history of Aristophanes on the modern stage, there is a great deal of information in Emily Klein’s Sex and War on the American Stage: Lysistrata in Performance, 1930-2012 (Routledge, New York-Abingdon, 2014) and Edith Hall and Amanda Wrigley (eds.), Aristophanes in Performance, 421 BC-AD 2007: Peace, Birds and Frogs (Legenda, London, 2007).


1 The text of the play can be explored in Greek and English here.
2 The translation, billed as “A Modern Paraphrase from the Greek of Aristophanes,” was produced by Laurence Housman, younger brother – and regular provocateur – of the Classicist A.E. Housman. In this instance, Laurence was glad to evade the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, who had that same year forbade Pains and Penalties, his period drama about the marriage troubles of George IV and Queen Caroline, from being staged. Fittingly enough, the Lysistrata was printed in 1911 by The Women’s Press, founded in 1907 to promote female suffrage.
3 C.A. Wheelwright, The Comedies of Aristophanes (2 vols, Oxford, 1837) II.61, readable here.
4 The original translation can be read here, and the later commentary here.
5 Although Beardsley once thought the drawings “the best things I have ever done”, on his deathbed, aged only 25, he gave the order “to destroy all copies of Lysistrata”. Ignoring the request, Beardsley’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, continued to circulate the illustrations as ‘under-the-counter’ erotica.
6 The review appeared in The Spectator, 15 October, 1910. The thrust of the objection was that “exactly in proportion as the [far too gross elements] are watered down, the performance becomes unintelligible and inept … The whole atmosphere is serious, heavy, almost boring.” The negative review offered a handshake in conclusion: “at least the mistake is heroic, and no one need be ashamed of failing to achieve the impossible.”
7 Lampito, the representative of the Spartan women, uses this phrase at line 169.
8 The offending word “organ” was omitted from many versions of even this translation.