Make Love, Not War – Or Else

lysistrataTry this fantasy on for size: Laura Bush comes to her senses, realizes that war is hell and refuses to sleep with her husband until he gives up his warmongering ways. His libido running rampant, Bush agrees to make peace with Iraq and the wheels of war are brought to a grinding halt.

Nice fantasy. If only Laura Bush could be more like the eponymous heroine of Aristophanes' antiwar comedy "Lysistrata," who uses this sex-for-peace strategy with great success. Lysistrata encourages women from opposing sides of a civil war to withhold sex from their husbands until the men, conquered by unrequited lust, agree to ratify a peace treaty. The play captured the imagination of two New York actors, Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower, who in early January kicked off the Lysistrata Project, a series of readings of the play that will take place throughout the world (in all 50 states, and 59 countries so far) on Monday, March 3.

"We would love for no one to live their life on March 3rd without running into Lysistrata," Bower told the Village Voice. The way the readings are proliferating, it will be hard to walk five feet without tripping over Lysistrata. The number of performances and cities involved are increasing hourly; there are now 1,004 scheduled readings, a joyous Greek chorus of dissent that would have astonished and gratified Aristophanes, who spent most of his life writing political satire that challenged the imperialism of the Athenian state.

The Lysistrata events range from regional theater companies to experimental street theater to readings in private homes, libraries, hospitals and college campuses. Anyone is welcome to stage a reading using one of the dozens of translations of the play available; this theatrical protest aims to be as inclusive as possible.

All-star evening performances are scheduled on the east and west coasts. In New York, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, Peter Boyle and Kyra Sedgwick and husband Kevin Bacon perform; and in Los Angeles, Julie Christie reads the part of Lysistrata in a production that includes Alfre Woodard, Christine Lahti, Ed Begley Jr. and Eric Stolz. "At least for the record of history, we have to let it be known that millions and millions opposed this war," Julie Christie said.

Throwing a Lyssy Fit

Those who equate classical Greek theater with watching paint dry should know that "Lysistrata," like most of Aristophanes' work, is outrageously bawdy and rife with sexual innuendo (the actors are usually outfitted with leather phalluses to give them the appearance of enormous erections).

Lysistrata herself is a literary heroine who translates remarkably well to the modern era, considering she was created during the Peloponnesian War. Courageous, creative and sassy, she's equal parts Xena the Warrior Princess, Gloria Steinem and Erin Brockovich. Not only do Lysistrata and the Greek women in the play withhold sex – effectively spearheading a 2,500-year-old tradition of peaceful resistance to war – they take over the Acropolis (the city treasury), barring the men access to those other precious chests – their war chests.

Not that the women make their sacrifice willingly. "Who'd have thought we'd come to this, kicking our men out of our beds, just when we want to drag them back in!" wails Lysistrata's Spartan homegirl Lampito (in a translation by Carolyn Balducci).

Purrs Lysistrata (in a different translation): "We need only sit indoors with painted cheeks, and meet our mates lightly clad in transparent gowns of Amorgos silk, and perfectly depilated; they will get their tools up and be wild to lie with us. That will be the time to refuse, and they will hasten to make peace, I am convinced of that!"

That the Lysistrata Project so quickly grew into an international event suggests a collective hunger for more imaginative and diverse forms of antiwar expression.

"Both women and artists need more ways to feel like they can take action against the largely masculine war project," says Prof. Valerie Ross, a lecturer in the humanities at Stanford University. "This play and its message remind us that women are complicit unless they use any means of resistance they can. It has always been the duty of artists to find creative and visceral means to resist the destructive forces of our culture."

Far from being a women-only enterprise, the Lysistrata Project is equally a vehicle for men who prefer to march to a different beat than Bush's war drum.

"Aristophanes represents millennia of men trying to speak out against war too," Ross points out. "Just as there is an age-old heroic tradition of men fighting battles, there is an ancient tradition of men speaking out against war and its absurdities."

Alternative Bully Pulpit

Does it matter that George W. Bush probably doesn't know the difference between Lysistrata and Listerine? Not at all, says Kathryn Blume. The purpose of the Lysistrata Project is not education, but expression, and above all, "to make it clear that President Bush does not speak for all Americans."

Interviewed on NPR in January, Blume said the worldwide act of theatrical dissent aims to engage participants and audiences in antiwar dialogue. One of the hopes is to provide an alternative to the constant stream of war talk issuing from the White House and dominating the mass media.

"The Bush administration has turned Teddy Roosevelt's famous bully pulpit into kind of a bully's pulpit," Blume said. "And they've co-opted the institution of national and international media to hammer home their arguments for why this war is a good idea. And unfortunately, there's no equivalent alternative, public alternative for people who oppose the war to air, discuss and debate their views. And so, we're trying to create what we think of as an alternative bully pulpit – which is the theater. And we want this reading to be the opportunity for communities to come together and discuss alternative possibilities."

The original "Lysistrata" was performed to a war-weary audience that had already endured two decades of civil war and still had seven more to go. The Athenians' army was decimated, their economy was in ruins, and, as they didn't have enough problems, they had recently undertaken a disastrous invasion of Sicily that wiped out nearly their entire fleet.

But Aristophanes knew how to please an audience; like all his theatrical works, "Lysistrata" is a fantasy and a happy one at that. Lysistrata helps negotiate a truce between Athens and Sparta and peace is restored across the land. The men lay down their swords, Lysistrata and her sisters open their arms (and their legs) and the bedrooms of Greece echo with the moans and sighs of conjugal bliss. Not so far out, really, when you think about it.

For information on where to attend a performance, how to stage a public reading in your community, make a contribution or download a translation of the play, visit The Lysistrata Project.

Tai Moses is a senior editor of AlterNet.

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