Show People: Dirty old man does it again: 81. Aristophanes

TO ARISTOTLE, he was vulgar. To Plato, he was dangerous. To less snooty citizens of the world's first democracy, he was Spitting Image, Viz and Ray Cooney rolled into one. He didn't invent comedy, but he is the earliest comic playwright whose work survives. They say humour doesn't travel, and satire is not supposed to last, but this week Aristophanes of Athens, aged about 2,450, is back in the West End of London.

His play Lysistrata, directed by Sir Peter Hall and starring Geraldine James, comes to the Old Vic via the Liverpool Playhouse, where a dozen punters a night are reported to have walked out, unable to cope with the bawdiness of the text and the balloon-like appendages worn by the women in the cast.

Lysistrata was first staged in 411 BC, during Athens's endless war with Sparta. Genocide had been perpetrated by both sides and there was no end in sight. So Lysistrata, an Athenian housewife, hatches an unorthodox peace plan: she persuades the women of both sides to go on a sex strike. 'Civil war and the sex war are perennials,' says Ranjit Bolt, Hall's translator. 'That is why this show still works. You could even argue that it's the first feminist play. It's a jolly comedy with men's sexuality being ridiculed.'

As all the roles would have been played by men, and Athenian women had no rights and could not even own property, any feminist interpretation does seem to be pushing it. His plays are set in the realm of fantasy and the protagonists are caricatures. The actors wore huge leather phalluses and padded their crotches - a comic convention exploited to the full in Lysistrata.

'The costumes were grotesque,' says Dr Oliver Taplin, Fellow of Magdalen, Oxford, who has been known to strap on a pair of balloons and appear in Aristophanes himself. 'It's like Spitting Image - everything is exaggerated. Now, people say the grotesque and fantastical is just what they want.'

Is Aristophanes funny? Generations of schoolchildren, forced to translate The Frogs at a snail's pace, might say no. Hall says a firm yes. 'He's high on my list. I know nobody who is quite so funny at the very moment when he is being serious.' He has been a fan of Lysistrata 'since university'. Two things stopped him staging it sooner: the lack of 'a decent translation' (Bolt's came from the blue, after the two men worked on Moliere's Tartuffe), and the question of taste. Hall remembers Joan Greenwood's version, in the Sixties, as twee. 'The play was impossible to do properly until the Seventies,' he says. 'It's too lewd. It has to do with the effect of Christianity and the piss-elegant respectability.'

If the backlash ended late, it also started early. Aristophanes fell out of fashion soon after his death: Aristotle, a generation younger and a noted critic as well as philosopher, pronounced him vulgar. The comic playwrights who followed tended to produce domestic, apolitical farces, the equivalent of today's anodyne TV sitcoms.

In their sheer anarchic energy, Aristophanes' plays are closer to the spirit of vaudeville. The humour ranges from sophisticated parody to riotous scatology, and there was much singing and dancing. In Hall's production, as in contemporary performances, the actors wear masks. He believes that this classical costume licenses the bawdiness. 'One couldn't do what we're doing - men running around with erections and women farting, uproarious lewdness - unless masked. The text has been written with the mask in mind, so the outrageous forces are unleashed. It enables us to do things in the spirit of absolute comedy.'

Little is known about Aristophanes' life. He was born in or near Athens between 457 and 445 BC, a generation after Sophocles and Euripides. He had a son, Araros, who became a playwright too. He died circa 385 BC, aged between 60 and 72. Eleven of his plays survive, but he wrote more than 40, churning them out for the competitions at Athens's two annual festivals of theatre.

He was prosecuted by the politician Cleon, a demagogue who was one of his favourite butts; better at dishing it out than taking it, he was upset by the crowds who attended the trial in the hope of a good laugh. One source says the prosecution was unsuccessful, another that Aristophanes had to pay a hefty fine. His targets couldn't sue for libel, but they found other charges; Cleon accused him of slandering the city.

Aristophanes also features in Plato's dialogue on the question of love, the Symposium. Plato claimed that Aristophanes' parody of Socrates, in The Clouds, contributed to the witch-hunt that led to Socrates' execution. Yet he gives Aristophanes the best lines in the Symposium. He is suffering from a hangover, like all the characters except Socrates, who could apparently drink anyone under the table. Aristophanes has an attack of the hiccups, but eventually comes out with an engagingly ingenious speech. He argues that the gods created three sexes - male, female and hermaphrodite. Each of these sexes had double sets of limbs and organs but Zeus split them in half for rebelling against the gods. In falling in love, therefore, we are seeking to be whole again: literally looking for our other half. Whether this was Aristophanes' actual view, history does not relate. It sounds a little too polite.

'Lysistrata' is now previewing, opens Tuesday at the Old Vic (071-928 7616).

(Photograph omitted)

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