Friday 11 February 2011


Having explored military matters in recent posts it may provide a little balance to report my attendance at a performance of Aristophanes' Lysistrata at the Grand Theatre, Swansea, last night. This is a play about pacifism comically imagined through a sex strike by women of various warring Greek factions, notably Athens and Sparta, organised by the eponymous Athenian heroine and aimed at forcing their men to end the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC).

The play dates from 411 BC when Athens was in desperate straits following the annihilation of its massive and ill-judged amphibious expedition to Sicily. So the play will have got a sympathetic reception. The following year the Athenians were briefly back in the ascendancy but the Spartans went on to win the war, so it's a pity the strike didn't really take place.

Though one of Aristophanes' best plays it wasn't much studied officially in my time at school because of its unrestrained lewdness (don't ask me to explain) though all of us young classicists read it - and in the original Greek not because we were studious scholars but because the rude bits were bowdlerised in translation. This was hard work as vulgar words could be found in Liddell and Scott's Greek Lexicon but they only gave the Latin translation, necessitating recourse to Lewis and Short's Latin Dictionary - and even there the translations were periphrastic (or "circumlocutory"?) at best as these two, like the Greek geeks, were morally upright Victorian gentlemen (Dean Liddell was the father of Alice in Wonderland, one of ten children in a household where one imagines there was no talk of sex strikes). I own a beautiful and weighty 19th Century edition of Liddell and Scott given to me by Mrs Blog on my 25th birthday.

But the reward for our effort was great - there is no superior triumph for the schoolboy than to find that an adult has written something smutty even if it was 2,400 years previously. I am not sure why this should be so but I guess it was because it proved that adults were low and bestial forms of life just as they hypocritically accused us of being.

This performance by the Fluellen Company is performed energetically and the translation is true to the original only updating some of the political jokes and softening some of the smut. It also bears comparison, which you wouldn't see just from reading the play, with those war-time British comedy films which combine a light-hearted childishness with an underlying, deadly-serious urgency. It makes you realise that war must seem much the same to people in every era.

By the oddest coincidence I get home from the theatre to read in my paper that Belgian senator Marleen Temmerman is trying to organise a sex strike to persuade her male colleagues to settle their differences and form a united government (they haven't had one for 241 days owing to the distrust between the two linguistic communities). I suppose she knows what she is doing but I wonder if her fellow legislators might hold out for a long time, finding solace in moules frites and hand-made chocolates washed down with those powerful fruit-flavoured beers which they enjoy so much. Besides, the Belgians have never really had their heart in their own country, an invention of the Duke of Wellington I seem to remember rather than the rallying point of a united people.