Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Fanfrolico Press from 1926

{Ed. Note: In December 2011 Books and Vines published a review of The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius from Fanfrolico Press (1927), which generated some interest in other Fanfrolico Press works. Luckily, Books and Vines contributor dlphcoracl has the much sought after Fanfrolico Lysistrata from 1926, which he is now kind enough to review for us here. Note that the direct quotations below actually come from the Limited Editions Club edition with illustrations by Pablo Picasso, translated by Gilbert Seldes,  rather than the Lindsay translation in the Fanfrolico Press edition.  The English language translation in the LEC edition is more contemporary and direct, easier to read and follow than Lindsay’s translation.}

Of the classical Greek plays to survive, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is one of the most popular and frequently performed.  It appeals to modern sensibilities and is often interpreted and portrayed as a pacifist and/or feminist statement. This is an oversimplification and, in reality, it is neither although there are distinct elements of feminist sentiment in the play. The basic plot is well known to many.  In 411 B.C., the twentieth year of the Peloponnesian War between rival Greek states Athens and Sparta, an Athenian housewife (Lysistrata) devises a plan to end the conflict.  She calls a summit of Athenian women and women from the surrounding states involved in the conflict to meet at the Acropolis where she proposes that they withhold sex from the men until Athens and Sparta agree to a truce.  Upon seizing the Acropolis and locking themselves in the Parthenon’s Temple of Athena (where the treasures necessary to fund the war were kept), they are challenged by a group of old men who threaten to set fire to the Temple and smoke them out.  A series of spirited comedic dialogues and conflicts ensue with the comedic highlight (lowlight?) occurring when a group of Scythian guards, under the direction of the President of the Senate, challenge Lysistrata who threatens them in return.  When the soldiers return from combat with full-blown erections expecting and demanding sexual gratification from their wives they are denied and eventually acquiesce into calling an end to the conflict.   The play concludes with a celebration of feasting, drinking and dancing between the men and women.

Some thoughts regarding Lysistrata:

1. This is not a play advocating pacifism.  Rather, it is a play against warmongering, pointless prolonged wars with dubious rationale or potential benefit, wars which take on a life of their own and then perpetuate themselves at great cost to society.  In trying to enlist the support of the women to begin a sexual strike,  Aristophanes illustrates how longstanding wars engender prejudices that trump common sense and actions that are of potential benefit.  Initially, Athenian women Kalonika and Myrrhina refuse to include the Spartan women in the discussion simply because they are from Sparta, invoking a misplaced sense of loyalty.  Lysistrata relies:

LYSISTRATA: Yes —- you’re loyal — but to what, my sister?  You’re loyal to the war what bleeds us white, that ruins Attica and ruins Greece, that maims our husbands and destroys our city.  Do you doubt I’m loyal, Myrrhina, loyal to peace and to the good of Athens….

Interestingly, Aristophanes touches upon two aspects of the war that are remarkably prescient and bold for its time:  (1) the misrepresentation of the war (propaganda) by the elected leaders to placate the populace, and (2) war profiteering by the older elected leaders who remain at home as the young men fight and die.  Just prior to the famous wool analogy between Lysistrata and the President of the Senate, Lysistrata states:

LYSISTRATA: The war has lasted twenty years now.  Every winter you do nothing but make enormous preparations and tell us all the big drive’s coming, and just before it comes, the Spartans sweep through you, and you send a runner home to say that our armies have retired to stronger positions on the hills.

PRESIDENT OF SENATE:  These are matters of strategy.  What can you know about them?

LYSISTRATA:  And when we ask how the war is going, you answer “War is the business of men.”

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: A very good reply —- and very proper.

LYSISTRATA:  Yes, so I thought until I found the business going badly.  So it went on, from year to year, and at last we knew our cause was lost. And yet our generals were unsatisfied and sent the messengers back to ask for men and still more men and men again, until you sitting in the Assembly Hall had to cry out, “There isn’t a man left fit to carry arms in all of Athens”.

Over two thousand years later, it takes little imagination to see the parallel with General William Westmoreland repeatedly appearing on television during the height of the Viet Nam War,  reassuring the American public that we were winning the war because we were “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, or to listen to then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara misrepresent the war with a barrage of charts and statistical analysis to claim that steady progress was being made and that we would win a war of attrition.   All the while both would repeatedly insist that if additional troops were provided we could “win the war”, despite an increasing number of eyewitness reports from photojournalists, television war correspondents and returning Viet Nam veterans claiming otherwise.

Toward the end of the play, after Kalonika has teased and rejected Kinesias’ sexual advances, the President of the Senate and the six other members of the senatorial council appear and, with remarkable candor, describe their roles in waging the Peloponnesian War:

THE SENATORS: We are the Seven whom Athens has chosen to save her from Sparta and, by Zeus, we’ll save her.  We are her bankers; we fit out her ships; we muster the men and send out provisions.  We are the Seven.

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: We are the Seven who would die for our city.

FIRST SENATOR: But as we don’t die, we live rather well.

SECOND SENATOR: No one can complain if we spend all the money, since Athens has ships and the soldiers have food.

THIRD SENATOR: And all this we do without pay or reward.

CHORUS OF SENATORS: Except the commissions we make on all sales.

FIRST SENATOR: One talent for Athens and two in our pockets.  Now what could be fairer?  

(cf., Taxman by the Beatles — “There’s one for you, nineteen for me, ’cause I’m the taxman……Should five per cent appear too small, be thankful I don’t take it all”)

Each senator then recites what commerce he engages in as a civilian and how he profits from the war, all the while as the Chorus of Senators interpose and chant: “The war must go on.”  The First Senator summarizes:

FIRST SENATOR: How well things fall out for the people of Athens, that we have been chosen to rule and protect them!

CHORUS OF SENATORS: War gave us riches and war gave us power.  We say down with the women who don’t want the war.

2. Strictly speaking, this is not a feminist play in the truest sense. Aristophanes is not advocating full and equal rights for women, i.e., the right to vote and share in power and governance, but there are definite feminist elements in the play.  Although initially Aristophanes plays to the Greek female stereotype of women as shallow, submissive, governed by emotion and libido as Lysistrata alternately cajoles and chastises the Greek women to act in their eventual best interest by participating in her sexual strike, he recognizes that women are capable of rational thought men do not always possess.  In the following passage, Lysistrata understands the connection between war and finance, arguing that since women manage the household finances they are equally capable of managing the Treasury at the Temple of Athena and, by extension, managing and ending the Peloponnesian War.  In this regard, women have a greater sense of reason than men.

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: I ask you now, why did you bar our gate?

LYSISTRATA: To hold the treasury.

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: And why do that?

LYSISTRATA: To stop the war.

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: So this is the logic of women.  Is money the cause of war?

LYSISTRATA: It’s the cause of all our troubles.  Politicians, demigods, agitation, all for money.

Aristophanes also recognizes the dual standard in Greek society regarding the concept of beauty and sexuality and how men and women are viewed and valued differently. At the start of Act I, the old Greek women lament:

OLD WOMEN CHORUS: Old age is a sorrow.  Old age is a sickness for which there’s no comfort, no cure or physician.

LEADER OLD WOMEN CHORUS: This is the common lot of man.  But for women a worse fate comes with the years.  Their beauty departs and their strength is no more.  The children they bear forsake and desert them.  The men they have served forget and deny them.

This point is reiterated later in the play during the vehement argument between the President of the Senate and Lysistrata after she elaborates her wool analogy regarding how she would reform and govern Athens:

LYSISTRATA: Our children die but that’s not enough.  In the bloom of our youth, when the tide of life courses powerfully through our bodies, we are left to die here, alone, without love or joy, languishing for our husbands.  Yet, worst of all, if we who have known the love of men can live without it, what of the young girls who are growing now to womanhood and grow grey and old and die a virgin’s death?

PRESIDENT OF SENATE: But don’t forget that men grow old as well.

LYSISTRATA: But not the same way.  When the soldier comes home from the war his hair may be white but still he can find a young wife to love him.  But a woman has only one summer.  She blooms just once.  If no one plucks her —- then the flower fades.  And afterward she lives alone, spending her days with oracles, which never send her a husband.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Lysistrata is the profound influence it has had on our current concept of what constitutes comedy.  In Fifth Century B.C. Greece Old Comedy prevailed, a style of comedy that relied upon satire and ridicule of public figures, politics and institutions.  The dialogue was often fast-paced and coarse, relying upon vulgarity and innuendo to elicit laughs.  It made great use of a Greek theatrical device known a stichomythia, consisting of brief, rapidly alternating lines of dialogue spoken during vehement arguments or expression of strong emotions, the ancient Greek equivalent of modern day one-liners.  In Lysistrata Aristophanes takes this style to an extreme, starting with a premise that has little grounding in reality, e.g., a sexual strike by Athenian women,  building upon it and stretching it to the point of absurdity to great comedic effect.  This stylistic device has become a staple  of American media culture over the past eight-five years, playing a crucial role in the success and popularity of two of the great media innovations of the past century, the advent of the talking film with The Jazz Singer (1927) and the introduction of commercial television and network programming in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

In cinema, as Hollywood transitioned away from the Silent Era to talking film (“talkies”), the screwball comedy became popular during the Great Depression and throughout the 1930’s.  The parallels between the great cinematic comedies of that decade, e.g., It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937),  Bringing Up Baby (1938), etc., and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata are inescapable: the films often began with an absurd premise followed by a series of escalating farcical situations, using rapid-paced dialogue and featuring strong, independent, self-confident women.  Conflict between social classes is also prevalent in screwball comedy much as it is in Lysistrata, where an ordinary Athenian housewife challenges and outwits the powerful President of the Senate and Council of Seven.  Similarly, during the formative years of commercial television in the early 1950’s, situation comedy (“sitcoms”) became a dominant art form.  The most wildly popular sitcoms in the United States were those that intuitively understood and employed Aristophanes’ comedic innovation of absurdity as a starting point, I Love Lucy with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (1951-1957) and The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows (1951-1955).  The enduring and endearing nature of this form of comedy is best demonstrated by the fate of The Honeymooners, which is still seen in re-runs today and is remembered fondly by many Americans over forty years of age despite its surprisingly short run.   It maintains its hold on the American imagination and its permanent place in the history of our media culture although it was not wildly popular in its time.  After debuting in its first full season (1955) as the #2 TV show in the U.S., it rapidly waned in popularity and, after only 39 episodes, aired its final episode only one year later on September 22, 1956.

About the Edition

The Fanfrolico Press was founded in 1926 by Jack and Norman Lindsay, along with P.R. Stephensen. The press published mostly classics, with Jack Lindsay responsible for the typographical design and Jack’s father, Norman Lindsay, providing illustrations for many of the books. Norman Lindsay is thought of as one of Australia’s greatest artists, and his work in Lysistrata certainly helps confirm that.

  • Published by Fanfrolico Press in 1926
  • Rendered into English verse by Jack Lindsay, who also signs this edition
  • Illustrated by Norman Lindsay
  • Typography and binding arranged by John Kirtley
  • Printed on Batchelor’s Hand-made paper
  • Printed under the personal supervision of F.J. Newbery at the Chiswick Press, London
  • Limited to 425 copies for England, 300 for overseas

Pictures

Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Cover
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Cover Detail
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Title Page
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Text #1 (Forward)
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, List of Characters
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Text #2
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Macro View of Sample Text 2
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #4
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Lysistrata, Fanfrolico Press, Signature

6 thoughts on “Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Fanfrolico Press from 1926

  1. Note:

    Newbery was involved with The Golden Cockerel Press and his name, alongside that of the Chiswick Press, appears on many of the colophons of Cockerel books.

  2. Magnificent !

    I had not paid much attention to the Fanfrolico Press, but now realise what a treat I have been missing.

    The illustrations achieve art and humour at the same time as well as adding to the nicely printed text.

    Having seen the two Fanfrolico volumes on Books and Vines now, I realise what a talented and individual artist Lindsay is.

    I am now faced with the challenge of resisting the temptation to aquire a copy for myself.

    Great review!

  3. I read the play in the Heritage Press edition in the early sixties, and haven’t touched it since then. The Easton Press edition,, covered in a bright red leather, is a nice edition so I think I’ll try reading the play once more. The illustrations by Picasso were all line, so they were easily reproduced for the Heritage and Easton editions.

    The Franfrolico edition is more sumptuous than the HP or EP editions, and I’ll never have the LEC edition at the price it commands.

  4. Definitely one of the all-time classics, and probably Lindsay’s finest effort at book illustration. I have wanted a Fine copy of this for years, but, alas, it has been out of my price range. Still, despite the fact that the Picasso-illustrated [Lysistrata] fetches over 10 times the price of the Fanfrolico edition, it’s the one I’d prefer.

Leave a Reply