Go Deeper

Fifth Grade Lysistrata

Posted April 10th, 2012

Theater artist Domenick Scudera has a regular Festival Blog column about his experiences in the performing arts.

Aristophanes, funnyman for all ages.

Upon college graduation, I landed a job as an elementary school drama teacher. I had no experience teaching, no experience working with children, and no formal training in drama. But I figured my Judy-Mickey-let’s-put-on-a-show mentality would get me through any rough times.

The job seemed easy enough: match a play with what the kids are learning in the classroom and mount the play on the school’s tiny stage. However, this was no ordinary school. This was an exclusive, private school for rich kids. The curriculum was arts-centered and hoighty-toighty. For each year of schooling, the students were introduced to a different culture and all their studies that year centered on that culture. So, for instance, sixth graders might study the Italian Renaissance by building miniature St. Peter’s Cathedrals and performing an adaptation of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Fifth grade focused on the Greeks. As the fifth grade students were busy tackling Socrates’s philosophies and sculpting busts of Athena, I set about finding an appropriate play for them to perform. I quickly discarded the idea of performing a Greek tragedy. A nine-year-old Medea or Oedipus? No. My vague knowledge of Greek theater afforded me another idea: a comedy! I had never actually seen or read a Greek comedy, but the thought of working on something funny appealed to me. I went to the library, took out an anthology, and started reading.

If I was going to stage a Greek comedy, I figured it should be the best and the funniest. I quickly learned that Aristophanes is considered the greatest Greek comic writer and that Lysistrata, an anti-war comedy, is considered his greatest play. Perfect! The students could work on this show and study the Peloponnesian War, with a nice message about peace thrown in. There were lots of female roles—an essential consideration when choosing a play for the students. In fact, it had a terrific female lead, a real role model for the girls. Sounded good to me. Lysistrata it was.

When I mentioned to some of my new colleagues that I was working on Lysistrata with the fifth graders, I encountered a few quizzical looks. “Really?! Um . . . can’t wait to see that!” I detected some cynicism, but dismissed it. I was going to knock their socks off with my stunning new interpretation of this Greek classic.

What I failed to recognize is that Lysistrata is a sexually graphic play. The female hero, Lysistrata, ingeniously brings about peace by getting all the women on both sides of the war to deny sex to their husbands. In this sexcapade, the female characters taunt their husbands by physically manipulating large red leather phalluses onstage. Lots of visual arousal and erection jokes. The horny men bring the war to a screeching halt just so they can get their rocks off again. Funny stuff for a typical ancient Greek.

Pornographic smut for fifth-grade children.

Because I had never heard of Lysistrata before, I assumed no one else had either. I thought I could easily change some of the details without anyone noticing. A little trimming of the storyline here, removal of sex jokes there, and you got yourself a fifth grade comic gem. Or so I thought. After removing all the script’s sexual references, I was left with five minutes of material. Drastic action was necessary. I had to re-envision the play and rewrite Aristophanes.

And so I wrote my own little play about a group of girls who decide to ignore a group of boys to make them do what they want. The girls basically stop talking to the boys and turn their backs to them. This makes the boys upset and pouty and eventually the girls have them in the palm of their hands.

The original Lysistrata starts mid-action, but because I had stripped so much of the sexual activity and innuendo out of the play, there was not much action to start in the middle of. To solve this problem, I devised a clever little choral opening:

CHORUS 1: The time is 411 B.C.
CHORUS 2: The place is Athens.
CHORUS 3: It is the twenty-first year of the Peloponnesian War.
CHORUS 4: The men of Athens are fighting with the men of other cities.
CHORUS 5: The women remain home.
CHORUS 6:  They grow frustrated as the war continues with no end in sight.
CHORUS 7: There seems little prospect of peace.
CHORUS 8: The desperate state of things demands a desperate remedy.
CHORUS 9: But who will solve the problem?
WOMEN: Lysistrata!
MEN: Lysistrata?
CHORUS 10: She is an intelligent woman.
CHORUS 11: She has a strong will.
CHORUS 12: And she has a plan to end the war?
CHORUS 13: How can a woman end the war?
CHORUS 14: Listen!
CHORUS 15: Watch!
CHORUS 16: You will learn!
CHORUS 17: She has called the women of Athens to a meeting.
CHORUS 18: She has also invited female delegates from other cities.
CHORUS 19: She waits impatiently for their arrival.

Subtlety was not my forte. But, hey, I had thrown in a few expository lines, introduced the main character, added a dash of history, and reinforced the value of education. Plus I had masterfully added 19 extra roles to the play so that every actor had at least one line to memorize!

The scene continued with more crafty dialogue:

LYSIST: I will tell you my plan. We must ignore our husbands.
WOMAN 1: Ignore?
LYSIST: Yes. They will never be able to live without us.
WOMAN 2: I will not do it. I will miss my husband too much. Let the war go on.
WOMAN 3: Nor will I. Let the war go on.
WOMAN 4: Are you sure peace will come sooner?
LYSIST: Of course. Without us to be kind to them, they will hasten to make peace, I am convinced of that!
WOMAN 5: You are right. I will agree to your plan.
LYSIST: Will you all agree?
ALL: Yes!

Ah, if every problem could be solved this easily!

The students threw themselves into rehearsing this little travesty, this mockery of ancient literature. They immediately identified with the characters. I was really getting these children to understand the minds of an ancient culture! Brilliant! Never mind that they were working with a completely sanitized, bastardized version of an ancient Greek play. I was bringing the world of the Greeks alive!

On performance day, the parents seemed particularly suspicious of me upon entering the theater for the 9:00 a.m. premiere (and only) performance. These people were wealthy, with solid Ivy League educations and a proper knowledge of ancient Greek culture. They knew exactly what Lysistrata was. I could feel them eyeing me up and down. But I was still delusional at this point. I thought maybe their little darlings had told them about the terrific new drama teacher and they were simply drinking in my fabulousness.

To the parents, I am sure that Lysistrata re-interpreted as a pre-teen squabble of the sexes was a sight to behold. For instance, for anyone with any knowledge of the original script, there is a funny scene where one of the women, Myrrhine, taunts her husband, Cinesias, by arousing him to a sexual frenzy and then ultimately denying her body to him. This scene lasts a full six pages, with Myrrhine lying down with her husband, fondling his phallus, and then interrupting the love-making by demanding a mattress, a pillow, a blanket, whatever she needs to prolong his erection . . . and torture. When she returns with the blanket, she tells him, “Now, get yourself up!” and he responds “I’ve got this up!” In the end, he is begging for sex, which is the perfect opportunity for her to artfully slip in her request, “Will you vote for peace?”

In my fifth grade re-interpretation, the scene reads like this:

CINESIAS: Myrrhine! There you are! Come here!
CINESIAS: What’s wrong? Won’t you please come to me?
MYRRHINE: No. Goodbye.
CINESIAS: Why are you acting so strangely?
MYRRHINE: Until you men have finished the war, we women will ignore you.
CINESIAS: What do you mean? How can you do this to me? Everything will go to ruin at our house without you.
MYRRHINE: I don’t care.
CINESIAS: Well, if you wish it so much, I will try to make peace.
MYRRHINE: Good! Now convince the rest of the men to do the same!

Admittedly, this is terrible. But there is a certain beauty in the efficiency of the language and action, in the clear, pure characterizations, right?

After the performance, Myrrhine’s real-life mother gave me a perfunctory “Thank you.” Lysistrata’s father looked down his nose at me and managed a meager “Well, that was interesting,” and quickly exited. Despite the lackluster reviews, I continued to believe that I had discovered an untapped talent within myself as an adapter of classic drama.

The next year, I adapted The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht. For the sixth graders.

–Domenick Scudera