Report | Lysistrata on Stage and on the Street: Aristophanes, Popular Theater and Politics from the French Revolution to the Age of the Web
|September 9, 2019||Posted by Marina Kotzamani under E-journal, Language/Literature, Reports|
Citation with persistent identifier: Kotzamani, Marina. “Lysistrata on Stage and on the Street: Aristophanes, Popular Theater and Politics from the French Revolution to the Age of the Web.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:KotzamaniM.Lysistrata_on_Stage.2019
My project explores Lysistrata’s extraordinary performance history, unearthing a staging tradition of Aristophanes as popular theater, stretching continuously over two centuries and linking 1789 revolutionary politics in France to global activism today. I maintain that there is an integral connection between popular approaches to staging Aristophanes and the legacy of democratic enlightenment values. Another trait of this unique performance tradition is its strong intercultural character, already in place at the beginning of the 19th century. Intercultural discourse begins to flourish in the 1890s, coinciding with the advent of director’s theater and the re-discovery of Aristophanes as an author for the stage, solely on the strength of Lysistrata. I identify the early 20th century as a seminal period in the play’s production history and provide a comparative analysis of how landmark productions of Lysistrata in the great metropoles of the West established distinct but interrelated traditions in the staging of Attic comedy as popular and as political theater, which have contemporary relevance. Engaging important artists such as Max Reinhardt and Norman Bel Geddes, these traditions reflect on major 20th century ideological and artistic trends including feminism, consumerism, and engaged theater. Moreover, they are responsive to extraordinary developments in world history such as the advent of mass culture, the Russian revolution, WWII and the digital era.
As a fellow of the CHS this in the academic year 2018-2019, I had the opportunity to make substantial progress on the writing and research of my book on the production history of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. My project explores Lysistrata’s extraordinary performance history, unearthing a staging tradition of Aristophanes as popular theater, stretching continuously over two centuries and linking 1789 revolutionary politics in France to global activism today. I maintain that there is an integral connection between popular approaches to staging Aristophanes and the legacy of democratic enlightenment values. Another trait of this unique performance tradition is its strong intercultural character, already in place at the beginning of the 19th century. Intercultural discourse begins to flourish in the 1890s, coinciding with the advent of director’s theater and the re-discovery of Aristophanes as an author for the stage, solely on the strength of Lysistrata. I identify the early 20th century as a seminal period in the play’s production history and provide a comparative analysis of how landmark productions of Lysistrata in the great metropoles of the West established distinct but interrelated traditions in the staging of Attic comedy as popular and as political theater, which have contemporary relevance. Engaging important artists such as Max Reinhardt and Norman Bel Geddes, these traditions reflect on major 20th century ideological and artistic trends including feminism, consumerism, and engaged theater. Moreover, they are responsive to extraordinary developments in world history such as the advent of mass culture, the Russian revolution, WWII and the digital era.
The book has eight chapters. With the exception of the introduction and the final section on the contemporary period, each chapter is organized around a major interpretation of Lysistrata and deals with issues of production, reception, as well as the influence of each staging on, and by other major productions of Attic comedy. Fellowship support from CHS has enabled me to complete chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6. Moreover, I am currently revising a first draft of chapter 7, which I expect to have completed soon. Here is a summary of the chapters I have already completed:
‘Prostitutes in Lysistrata: Sexual Politics and Boulevardic Spectacle’
This chapter focuses on Maurice Donnay’s boulevardic adaptation of Lysistrata (1892) and its significant impact on French popular theater until 1930. The hallmark of this first major interpretation of the comedy is the addition of prostitutes to the original. Of special interest in this Lysistrata of the Belle Époque is the exploring of discourses about female identity within the context of the emerging consumer culture at that time. I approach Donnay’s adaptation as an ambivalent text, presenting conflicting views of women as sexual commodities and as autonomous agents, in control of their own bodies. Moreover, I explore how the French version’s ambivalence played out in the production and reception of the adaptation, as well as in its use as a dramatic model. I conclude that Donnay’s Lysistrata is a strikingly original political play about female autonomy, masking as a sexual play. A secondary concern is to show that, in recasting the ancient chorus, Donnay drew on popular crowd theories of his own era to exorcise anxieties over crowds at the Belle Époque, as a threat to social order. Concerning Aristophanes, the Belle Époque Lysistrata has nuclear significance to the history of Attic comedy production in the twentieth century: Donnay consolidated a French 19th century tradition of interpreting Attic comedy as popular and even as political theater, which had strong impact on Aristophanic performance in the 20th century.
‘Lysistrata on Max Reinhardt’s Staircase: Aristophanes and Modernist Theater’
This chapter focuses on Max Reinhardt’s production of Lysistrata (1908, revived 1920), the first major attempt to stage Aristophanes in director’s theater. Drawing largely on archival material, including Reinhardt’s promptbook, I show that the production was organized according to modernist theatrical principles, featuring a unified conception of mise en scène, as well pioneering use of an architectural set, composed of stairs. While the concern to integrate the production’s elements departed from the original’s episodic structure, setting choral movement on the staircase provided a modern space, in which the ancient comedy’s playfulness could be theatrically viable. Still, the aesthetically innovative spirit in this production is uneasily reconciled with impressionist effects emphasizing sexually titillating spectacle. In this respect Reinhardt’s Lysistrata is directly aligned to Donnay’s version, although sexuality is presented in a more romanticized spirit than in the boulevardic paradigm. More conservative regarding gender than the French paradigm, Reinhardt’s interpretation presents women in their conventional role as objects of desire, cancelling Donnay’s forward looking ambivalent representation of prostitutes as agents of modernity. The production is also remarkable as a first attempt to interpret late 19th century crowd theory in terms of choral movement on stage. Mass, which has feminized characteristics in crowd theories as well as in Reinhardt’s production, is firmly under the control of the all powerful figure of the male modernist director.
‘Aristophanes votes for women’
In this chapter I discuss feminist interpretations of Lysistrata, mainly associated with the English suffrage movement from the end of the 19th century to the onset of WWI. Although these were not particularly significant as theater productions, they closely dovetail to the major theater interpretations considered in this book. Central focus falls on two feminist adaptations of Lysistrata: La Grève des femmes by Marie Després (Paris, 1895) and Laurence Housman’s Lysistrata, produced by Gertrude Kingston in London, in 1910. I explore comparatively how Després and Housman shape Lysistrata into an engaged play, by undermining the comedy’s sexual content. In this respect, the model for the feminist heroine is male and the mainstream modernist dichotomy between male/female, sex/politics, body/language is unchallenged. The two adaptations have strong connections to the French and the German major productions, respectively. Comparing Després’s to Donnay’s Lysistrata, I trace how gender affects the treatment of similar adaptation choices, such as the addition of prostitutes to the original. Moreover, I show that the production of Housman’s Lysistrata has been directly influenced by the German interpretation. A highlight of this chapter is that, beside straightforward theater productions discussion expands over other performance based activist mobilization of the English suffrage movement, such as demonstrations. I argue that these constitute interpretations of Lysistrata as played out in the street and form part of the feminist movement’s unified approach to its multifarious activist engagements. Another highlight of this Chapter is the discussion of a forward-looking pictorial interpretation of Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896), which appears to support women’s sexual liberation more unequivocally than Donnay’s version.
‘Lysistrata, Capitalism and the American Popular Culture”
This chapter deals with Norman Bel Geddes’s Lysistrata (Broadway, 1930). This production has a singular place in the history of Aristophanic performance as the most important and influential theatrical interpretation of Attic comedy in the U.S. Drawing on the thriving American popular culture of its own age, Geddes transformed the Attic comedy into an entertaining spectacle that celebrated the capitalist ideology. At the same time the production is responsive to the Crash of 1929 and the era of the Depression that ensued, instilling a consumerist ethic. Regarding form, Geddes’s version is a sophisticated instance of the rapprochement between popular and avant garde theatre, that was characteristic American culture in the 1920s. Of particular interest is the American version’s relation to the Russian interpretation (Moscow, 1923), perceived as an ideological challenge. I show that Bel Geddes set up a capitalist model of modernization in Lysistrata, in response to the Russian communist model: the achievement of peace is depicted as a smart business transaction involving efficient, centralized management of the female strike. In production the capitalist Acropolis took the shape of an impressive, Bauhaus style modernist architecture, transparently evoking New York skyscrapers, which contrasted sharply to the aesthetics and functioning of the Soviet constructivist set. Beyond the Russian, I show that this version incorporates features from all earlier modern productions of Lysistrata, including the architectural set and acting inspired by popular entertainment. This chapter is a revised and expanded version of an earlier article I had published on the American Lysistrata.
Research on the production history of Lysistrata is largely based on primary sources located in theater archives internationally. Besides writing, in the spring of 2019 I had the opportunity to complement my search of archival sources through a visit to the British Library in London, where I studied Lysistrata material in Joan Littlewood’s archive, part of which has recently opened to the public. A British female theater director in a male dominated field, Littlewood has been important to theater history for exploring experimental forms of political theater within the context of theater collectives. A central highlight of my research was the discovery of a manuscript containing an adaptation of Lysistrata (authored by Ewen MacColl for the Theater Union collective), as well as detailed staging notes for a communist production of the play directed by Littlewood during WWII (1941) in Manchester. Drawing on this and other new archival material at the British Library, I argue for a re-assessment of Littlewood’s work on Aristophanes correcting misapprehensions, including factual information, in existing research. My work will also offer significant insights concerning the Theater Union’s development in the 1930s and early 40s, a period which has been particularly resistant to research. Incorporated into chapter 7 (Lysistrata and the World Wars), my interpretation of the new archival material on Littlewood will also form the basis for an article on the history of the Theater Union, directed towards researchers of British theater history.
Contributions to theater studies and beyond
My project relates to recent work on the reception of Greek drama, challenging traditional views of classical Greek culture as the province of Western, mainstream and text-based high culture. While books on the reception of Greek drama in the modern theater mostly focus on tragedy, there has also been growing interest in the reception of comedy, especially post-2000. My study is primarily directed towards scholars of Theater and Classics. However, because of its interdisciplinary scope, it would also be of interest to scholars of popular culture, comparative literature and gender/feminism. The book’s emphasis on aesthetics, as well as the material on contemporary performance might also interest artists.
This will be the first book on the production history of Lysistrata, by far the most frequently performed Aristophanic play in modern times. This play’s long and richly intercultural tradition of performances is unparalleled by comparison to the history of any other Attic comedy since the 19th century. The phenomenon is also probably unique by reference to the production history of Greek tragedy. Guided by the Aristophanic material under study I emphasize an intercultural perspective in my work, with discussion ranging over high vis-à-vis pop art; mainstream vis-à-vis alternative cultures; traditional vis-à-vis revisionist readings of modernism; Western vis-à-vis non-Western Aristophanic performance; theater vis-à-vis performance in material culture.
The book will complement book-length studies on the performance of Greek comedy in the modern world, contributing a comparative and comprehensive study of significant traditions of Aristophanic staging in Western theater, involving major directors and influential interpretations. Equally significant is that early twentieth century Lysistratas outline virtually all essential traits of Aristophanic performance in the 20th century. There is no book of comparable scope on Attic comedy in performance, in existing literature. The majority of current book-length studies tend to focus on Aristophanic production within a single, national culture; other major books on Aristophanic performance are collections of articles, of diverse interests and perspectives, in which connections across time and place are not comprehensive. Another merit of my project is that it will be the first book-length study on Aristophanes to put central emphasis on performance aesthetics. Exploration encompasses a broad spectrum of performance styles from high and avant-garde to pop and their hybrids, ranging over modernist and postmodern experimentation, boulevard theater and Broadway spectacle to théâtre du peuple, feminist engaged theater, counter-culture and inter-medial performance.
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