The Lysistrata Project

Clara McCarthy

On March 3, 2003, Aristophanes’ voice spoke to people from a distance of over 2000 years. 1029 readings of his play Lysistrata were held in 59 countries, including one in northern Iraq.

Started at by Sharron Bower and Kathryn Blume of New York, the Lysistrata Project brought audiences around the world Aristophanes’ bawdy play about a coalition of Athenian and Spartan woman who deny their husbands sex in order to stop a war. Three readings were held in Syracuse: at Borders, Syracuse Stage, and the First Unitarian Universalist church. While innuendos and fake phalluses kept the audience laughing, anachronisms such as Axis of Evil, terrorism, and Homeland Security underscored the relevance of this ancient anti-war play for today.

An Athenian, Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata 22 years into the Pelopponesian War, a deadly conflict between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. Each attempt at truce ended when people on either side saw the chance to press an advantage or neutralize a perceived threat. Beneath the “facts” is a history of human suffering for almost thirty years of bloody warfare. The Athenians’ tactic of crowding the populace of Attica into Athens not only left the countryside open to destruction by Sparta but it led to outbreaks of plague that devastated the city. Democracy in Athens was continuously overthrown. Then, as now, when those in charge wage power struggles, it’s the powerless that suffer—women, old men, children, even the soldiers only following orders.

In Lysistrata, those traditionally seen as powerless stop the war using one of their “weaknesses”: sex. The women of Athens also take over the treasury and soon their blue-balled men folk have no choice but to make peace with their similarly afflicted brethren in Sparta. The play still speaks to us, showing the power of globalization from the bottom. The Athenian women’s struggle works because their sisters in Sparta are putting pressure on their own men.

Proceeds from the play went to peace and humanitarian organizations all over the world, including SPC. The Lysistrata website suggests women in many countries today can use the power that they didn’t have in ancient Greece and don’t have everywhere, to run for office, speak out for humanitarian foreign policy, and teach youth about conflict resolution. We can also use less obvious sources of power. Bush’s endless war with the rest of the world depends on the smooth running of things back home.

Maybe even more powerful than the lessons from the play, the global reach of this project shows us that we are not alone in our struggles against war. Not in the past, present, or the future.

Clara is a poet living in the Westcott nation.