Last June, after the new musical Lysistrata Jones opened Off-Broadway to good reviews, the show's bookwriter, Douglas Carter Beane, got a call from director Jack O'Brien, who asked, "Did you just make a hit out of Lysistrata!?"
Beane laughed at the recollection. "I said to him, 'What?! Everyone does Lysistrata in college.' He said, 'No, everyone has been in a great production of Lysistrata, but no one has seen a great production of Lysistrata.'"
This winter, many people who aren't versed in the classics will became familiar with the 2,500-year-old pillar of Greek Drama — after a fashion. Beane and composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn's show does indeed take its inspiration directly from Aristophanes' ancient comedy, but Lysistrata Jones takes place at a college named Athens University in the present day. And, this time, the stakes are considerably lower. The women are withholding sex, just as in the Aristophanes. But their goal is not to get the men to stop making war, as in the Greek original. Led by the head cheerleader — the title character — they're keeping their legs crossed only until the school's losing basketball team wins a game.
The Transport Group production started in an actual gymnasium, at the Judson Memorial Church off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Reviews were so positive that talk of a move to Broadway started almost immediately. Flinn is not surprised that the plot of Lysistrata remains relevant two-and-a-half millennia after it was written. "The general human condition hasn't changed," he said. "It's universal. It all comes down to personal politics at the end of the day."
Still, not every comedy from the golden age of Greek drama has fared as well. "If the saying that comedy does not age well is true, then it is doubly true of ancient comedy," said Robert Davis, who teaches ancient Greek theatre in the drama department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "We have lost so many of the topical references and cultural milieu of these plays that they tend to fall flat. However, Lysistrata is the exception that proves the rule. We always have conflicts in our society between war, peace, sex and gender, and Aristophanes handles those themes masterfully across more than twenty-five centuries."
The play was written during a period of tumultuous warfare in Athenian history. (The title, by the way, literally means "Dissolver of Armies.") The Peloponnesian War, a nearly 27-year conflict between Athens and Sparta, was in progress when the play premiered. "Lysistrata was performed in 411 BCE, just two years after the Athenians had admitted defeat in a disastrous attempt to conquer Sicily, which had resulted in the dismantling of Athenian military dominance," explained Davis. "Athens had been winning the war, but now Sparta began to take power, which even included getting funds from the Persian Empire, arch-rivals of all Greeks, to build their own navy. Following the Sicilian debacle, Athens could arguably have sought peace, but a party swayed the assembly to use a special financial reserve to aggressively rebuild the military for further campaigns. Later in the same year as Lysistrata, the Athenian democracy was briefly overthrown in a reactionary coup, rumors of which must have been circulating at the time of the performance."
Of the 40 plays Aristophanes wrote, only 11 survive, including Lysistrata. The play has never quite fallen from view, with translators, adaptors and directors finding new ways to bend the text toward the concerns and issues of their times.
According to Professor Davis, Lysistrata was still considered provocative enough in the 19th century that it was effectively censored by being included in the anti-vice Comstock Law of 1873 (named after moral crusader Anthony Comstock), which prohibited transmission in the U.S. Mail material considered lewd. In the 1920s, the Moscow Art Theatre toured the United States with a production of Lysistrata, even though the entire company was being threatened with arrest. During the 1930s, a production by the Negro Theatre Unit of the government-funded Federal Theatre Project was shut down before it even opened by the Mayor of Seattle for being too lascivious. In the 20th and 21st centuries especially, Lysistrata was interpreted by theatre artists as a call to battle by advocates of feminist rights and anti-war activists. Most recently, a 2003 venture called "The Lysistrata Project" organized readings and productions of the play around the world as a way to protest war and injustice connected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Lysistrata is not only still resonant, its plot is actually not far removed from real life. Actual Lysistratas crop up around the world from time to time. Most recently, in September, a sex strike initiated by a women's sewing collective in a Philippine village reportedly successfully put to an end a decades-old conflict.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Lysistrata Jones obviously taps into the humorous, rather than the political, side of the classic story. Initially, the sport at the center of the pop musical tale wasn't basketball, but football. But then, songwriter Flinn pointed out, "Then everyone's wearing helmets." Not exactly ideal headgear for singing. So basketball was suggested. "Basketball works because it's only five people," he said. "Also the physical movement of basketball is so similar to the choreography." (Tony nominee Dan Knechtges, who choreographed another Greek-inspired pop musical, Xanadu, directs and choreographs the new musical at Walter Kerr Theatre.)
Beane went to a sports bar last March to do some research. "There were seven screens with seven different games on," he said. "They had loud pop music playing. As I listened to the music and watched the basketball players jumping up and down, I said, 'It's kinda like a musical — I'll take it.'"
The writers are not great sports fans, but Beane was not entirely on unfamiliar ground. "My life has put me in weird places at weird times," he said. "I happened to grow up outside Philadelphia in the late '70s, which was an amazing time for basketball. It was Dr. J, it was the 76ers. It was the greatest team that never won a championship. And then there were the college teams."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Lewis, meanwhile, is beginning to see the appeal of the sport. "I went to my first Knicks game the other week," he said. Who did they play? Lewis hesitated, then, betraying his theatre pedigree, said, "I have to check my program." (No self-respecting basketball fan would call it a "program.")
So far, theatre scholars have been enthusiastic about the musical. "I went to Princeton and have a lot of classics major friends," said Flinn. "They've come and they just think it's really funny. You can draw parallels to the real Lysistrata. It's fun, for the people who want to go there." Beane had an encounter with a more fervent fan. "This guy with a beard came up to me, and he's so excited. He said, 'I'm a classics professor. And Oh my God, this is just what it should be! I just want to go f*** someone. It's so funny and sexy and I'm so horny now.'"
While Professor Davis probably won't match that reaction, he is looking forward to taking in the show. "I can't wait to see it, actually!" he said. "I'm very interested in how the contemporary setting and the ancient ideas meet."