Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Ecclesiazusae, Plutus

In the first post about Aristophanes, we learned about four plays named after the type of chorus. We commented upon their important role in channeling the plays’ political aspects. In these four plays, the political satire is as strong as ever. In fact, this is what defines Aristophanes as being a playwright of the Old Comedy, as opposed to the situational humor of New Comedy, a division which has persisted to the present day. (Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, seem mostly in the vein of New Comedy – their messages are moral, not political, if they have any at all.) The first two plays were written during the tribulations of the Peloponessian War between Athens and Sparta, which would eventually destroy Athens’ status as the leading power among Greek city-states. Ecclesiazusae and Plutus are more general comedic explorations of novel political situations. What led me to group these plays together, however, is their common thread of trying out a novel political solution to current political problems and exploring the implications. We already saw a glimpse of that in The Birds. But as we will see, the ultimate thrust of these plays are very different from that of The Birds.

Lysistrata

In Lysistrata, probably Aristophanes’ most famous play, the women of Athens and Sparta, led by the vocal and clever leader Lysistrata, vow to withhold sex and intimacy from their husbands until they agree to make peace with each other. Lysistrata is a refreshing use of female characters, in comparison to other Aristophanes plays (such as Peace and The Wasps) where female characters can be reduced to insignificant or even non-speaking roles, serving as a mere prop for success, happiness, or desire (such as Philocleon stealing a flute girl at the end of The Wasps to illustrate his erring ways). Here, however, they are direct actors and movers of the action. Aristophanes is well aware of the common perception of women at the time, using it for comedic effect; the early parts of Lysistrata seems to purposely play up the women’s overtly sexual behavior, perhaps meant to insinuate that they, too, can be just as lewd as men. The female characters are well aware of their perceived limitations and expectations on how to behave: Lysistrata’s plan is initially greeted by skepticism. But she persistently turns the tables at each objection:

CLEONICE
But how should women perform so wise and glorious an achievement, we women who dwell in the retirement of the household, clad in diaphanous garments of yellow silk and long flowing gowns, decked out with flowers and shod with dainty little slippers?

LYSISTRATA
Ah, but those are the very sheet-anchors of our salvation — those yellow tunics, those scents and slippers, those cosmetics and transparent robes.

Remarkable in Aristophanes’ mastery of the details of humor in this play is the scene between Myrrhine and her husband Cinesias: she seems to have decided to break her oath after all and they are about to have sex on the bed, but at the last moment she insists on getting something that they have forgotten. This is repeated with different objects (a pillow, blanket, perfume, and so on), creating a mounting sense of expectation: as Myrrhine tortures her husband with dashed expectations, the audience is tortured as well. Having depicted the women as being every bit as sexual as the men, their struggle to keep to their oath is in the audience’s interest; so we keep wanting to find out: will these women succeed in following their own commitments? Or are they just typical weak-willed women, just like they are expected to be? Myrrhine turns out to have been in control of the situation all along. In the end, Lysistrata’s plan works out, and she becomes a powerful mediator as the two sides struggle to find an acceptable peace treaty. Peace is concluded, and the women (and in particular Lysistrata) have been vindicated.

The Ecclesiasuzae

This brings us straight into the other play that features women in politics: The Ecclesiasuzae (The Assemblywomen), where a group of Athenian women, led by the main protagonist Praxagora, successfully execute a more elaborate, deceptive plot by which the Athenian parliament is persuaded to hand over all political power to women. Praxagora is almost a carbon copy of Lysistrata, being the one woman who refuses to back down in the face of doubt and common prejudices against women. The details of the women’s preparation, consisting of donning disguises, fake beards, and practicing parliamentary speeches provide the humor in the first part. Having gained power, Praxagora proceeds to implement her vision of government: one almost explicitly preempts communism by over two thousand years. As put in her own words:

PRAXAGORA
Let none contradict nor interrupt me until I have explained my plan. I want all to have a share of everything and all property to be in common; there will no longer be either rich or poor; no longer shall we see one man harvesting vast tracts of land, while another has not ground enough to be buried in, nor one man surround himself with a whole army of slaves, while another has not a single attendant; I intend that there shall only be one and the same condition of life for all.

Praxagora is immediately confronted by skeptics about this bold view of equality, including her own husband Blepyrus. As she is questioned, it turns out that her views are more radical than any modern-day communist: everyone is to share everything in common, including sexual partners and spouses. Any man or woman would be able to have sex with any other person they chose; in her view this would get rid of the incentive to hoard additional personal goods that could be given as a present to impress a prospective partner. As everything is in common, all would be provided with adequate food, clothing, and board, and there would be no need to fight or oppress others to obtain these things. Blepyrus counters with the blatant truth: wouldn’t everyone simply want to sleep with the most attractive men and women? This question nudges at the difficult truth that there are indeed real, inherent physical inequalities between different people other than their wealth which threatens the practicality of a society based on radical equality. Praxagoras’ solution is that no one has the right to refuse sexual advances; even the most attractive people are obligated to sleep with the uglier people first. At first this seems like an adequate logical stopgap. But is her government successful?

As Praxagora’s communism is put into practice, the cracks in the power of the system are quickly evident: a nameless Citizen refuses to surrender his goods to the common trust, being skeptical that everyone else would also be willing to part with their goods. His reluctance illustrates the difficulty of persuading people to commit to such a costly social contract without a large amount of preexisting trust. The Citizen comments that people who have already given over their things to the common trust are those who have very little anyway, highlighting the wildly different appeal a communistic system has to a rich as opposed to a poor individual. The insinuation is that communism lets the lazy and unproductive leech off of those who are not. The latter group of people can easily see this and refuse to participate in the system, destroying the foundation of the entire premise: that everyone is willing to contribute everything and still keep up their current level of productivity. Ecclesiazusae doesn’t develop this critique of communism to such logical lengths, but it provides a vivid glimpse into these difficulties, which would ultimately become a real problem in 20th century communistic states.

In the final, most humorous part of the play, Praxagora’s sexual laws become fodder for humor, as an attractive young man is prevented from being able to have sex with an appropriately similarly attractive young woman by a succession of increasingly uglier old women. Similar to the sexual teasing scene in Lysistrata, Aristophanes uses unexpected, escalated repetition to great effect. It becomes clear that Praxagora’s logical solution to the problem of inherent is too naive to work: the problem of inherent inequality is too strong. Too many people are attracted to a small group of people. The only way forward would be to micromanage the people even deeper, eventually ending in explicitly decreeing who is to have sex with whom, a totalitarian system.

Despite this logical breakdown of the system, since Aristophanes is a comedian, it does not end tragically, instead being played completely for laughs as the young man is helplessly assailed by the three old women. The play ends in joyful celebration at the common banquet for all – a happy conclusion but not necessarily a logical one.

Plutus

In Plutus, we get an analogous social experiment also based on redistribution of wealth, but on entirely different premises. Here, ordinary citizen Chremylus, guided by an oracle, brings home a blind beggar, who turns out to be the god of wealth, Plutus. Plutus’ vision is restored at the temple of Asclepius, and he proceeds to redistribute wealth according to virtue, such that nobody is undeservingly rich. While at first this seems to be a naturally reasonable scheme compared to the radical equality of Ecclesiazusae, the impact is still drastic. Previously rich people complain about their lost wealth, who are then scorned as having never deserved it in the first place. In the main humorous scene in the second part (analogous to the scene with the young man and three ugly women in Ecclesiazusae), a rich old woman complains about how her young lover no longer wishes to see her, as he now has no need of her money. Eventually Hermes himself comes and complains about how no humans are offering sacrifices to the gods anymore. Fearing for his own fate, he decides to become a servant to Chremylus. As with the previous play, Plutus has a happy ending. Chremylus manages to persuade the old woman to offer a sacrifice in honor of Plutus, assuring her that the young man will return to her, and all is well.

If Ecclesiazusae is a veiled critique of proto-communism, how are we to interpret Plutus? If we insist on taking this play as seriously as the former, then it might be interpreted as the conservative Aristophanes being against any sort of societal upheaval, as it can only lead to instability in chaos. Though arguably, the troubles resulting from Plutus’ virtue-based redistribution of wealth is much less serious than that of Proxagora’s.

More interesting is the explicit debate between Poverty and Chremylus in the middle of the play. Poverty presents her arguments that poverty is a useful thing, since without it no one would bother to work to produce goods and keep society running. In addition, poverty makes governments work, since the people who are rich are always the ones who conceive of plans which undermine the government. Chremylus is depicted as being completely unable to reply to these arguments coherently, instead displaying a hint of greed for easy pleasure from the wealth which would be given to him through the recovery of Plutus’ eyes. Poverty is not depicted as a villainous character, but one with a completely reasonable argument: she tellingly comments that sordid greed is much more shameful than poverty. This supports her point that poverty is the fount of all blessings. It is an initially seemingly ridiculous stance that logically works out, in a twisted way. To this, Chremylus can only shoo her away.

This episode with Poverty, where a defence of poverty is presented in such a deadpan way, leads me to think that Aristophanes is indeed implying that even unpleasant elements of society are there for a reason. Without them, society cannot work. Thus at the core, while his comedies can certainly be enjoyed at face value, as brilliant pieces of comedic writing, at the core Aristophanes is a conservative playwright.

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