The Lysistrata Project

Theater of Peace

Nova Scotia's Women of Wolfville theater company will perform Lysistrata on March 3 to protest a U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The poster for the Amsterdam production asks bluntly: “War or Sex—what’s it going to be, boys?” The Phnom Penh production will feature Cambodian drummers and an Arabic dance troupe. In Israel, coordinator Limor Shiponi has mobilized a force of storytellers to go out and tell the story in as many forums and locations as possible.

As the United States prepares to launch a preemptive strike on Iraq, Lysistrata, an antiwar comedy written in 411 B.C. by Greek playwright Aristophanes, is getting a revival its creator could scarcely have dreamed of. On March 3, 2003, the play will be read or performed by over 800 groups in at least 49 countries as an act of protest against war in Iraq.

The idea was the inspiration of Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower, two New York actresses who saw a message for our times in the ancient play. Raunchy even by today’s standards, Lysistrata tells the story of a fearless heroine, the eponymous Lysistrata, who encourages the women of Greece to go on a sex strike until their warring husbands sign a peace treaty. Driven to distraction by sexual frustration, the men give in and decide to make love, not war. They also come to realize that their wives aren't as stupid as they'd assumed.

Blume says that for those who feel their voices are being drowned out in the current military buildup, the play offers a particularly empowering message. “It makes it possible for people who feel they don’t have a voice to imagine a creative, nonviolent, powerful approach to conflict resolution,” she told WPR. As a boost to their efforts, she and Bower are encouraging regional directors to donate their profits to organizations working for peace.

Blume stresses that she's not advocating a literal interpretation of the play—even if on the project’s Web site, she and Bower cheekily imagine First Lady Laura Bush engaging in a Lysistrata-style boudoir veto. It's the play itself, not the bedroom politics, that is the protest message here. Bringing Lysistrata into a modern context “has enabled theater artists to feel that they have a relevant voice,” says Blume—though she points out that it’s not only theater artists that are involved in the worldwide day of protest.

Indeed, Blume and Bower could hardly have anticipated the response that the project would garner. News of global readings continues to flood in to the project’s Web site, with the total number of readings and productions growing hourly. From the war-torn streets of Belgrade to the jungles of Hawaii, groups all over the world will gather to watch Lysistrata and her female compatriots outwitting their combative menfolk, with Lysistrata telling a bellicose official that “You don’t care what happens to the rest of us, how many die or what the cost is, as long as you are the victors!”

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the tremendous excitement and enthusiasm we’re hearing from countries all over the world,” says Blume, who admits she’s never before been involved in anything of this scale. “The excitement is infectious,” she says. “It’s wonderful to think that all over the world on March 3, from Cambodia to South Africa, people will be discussing the ramifications of conflict.”

The enthusiasm was palpable in emails WPR received from regional Lysistrata directors—or, as the project’s Web site calls them (in reference to the play’s military-phallic imagery), “spearheads.”

“I’ve never done this kind of performance,” wrote 30-year-old writer/director Yesim Ozsoy Gulan from Istanbul. “It’s not my style, but this time I feel obliged.” Gulan’s group, ...And Other Things Performance Group, plans to mount a live webcast of the play, with group members addressing the camera one by one. “Ninety percent of the population [in Turkey] is against the war,” Gulan wrote, yet “our parliament has just accepted the agreement of compliance for war, indicating that they will be allowing 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Turkey and will be sending our soldiers if necessary.”

From Hilversum, a town of around 80,000 in the Netherlands, Marlous Laval wrote, “Actually the play is not enough, women should really go on a sex strike.” Laval plans to put together a radio documentary in which excerpts from the play will alternate with other audio material, including interviews with politicians and reports from war zones around the world.

In other communities, productions range dramatically in size: There will be private readings in apartments, small gatherings in outdoor venues, and full-scale performances at major cultural venues. In Singapore, 19-year-old drama student Dawn Chow plans to hold a barbecue and reading for her friends, complete with face paint and balloons. In Barcelona, expatriot American Elizabeth Breedlove is organizing a performance at Barcelona’s prestigious Contemporary Culture Center, and expects to attract hundreds of viewers.

“I didn’t know much about the war, so I went online and read all the leading newspapers in the world,” wrote Chow (whose name has been changed to protect her identity, since protest activities are monitored by Singaporean government). Realizing that “this war was already knocking at our doorstep,” she signed up to become a Lysistrata spearhead. “Stopping the war would be like me jumping up and down frantically, trying to stop a ship…but being human and not wanting people to die is a good reason I should fight against it,” she told WPR.

But can a play, even one as vibrant and life-affirming as this one, make a difference? In Lysistrata, the heroine and her cohorts succeed in persuading their menfolk that domestic bliss is worth more to them than a fruitless war. Could The Lysistrata Project have the same effect on the Bush administration? “Quite honestly, I don’t think those gentlemen would ‘get’ the play if they saw it—I haven’t noted that they have a well-developed sense of humor or irony, or that they’re interested in dialogue,” says project originator Blume. But asked whether she thinks the war machine can be stopped at this point, she doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” she says. 

To illustrate her belief, Blume points to a recent shift in U.S. media reporting on the war. Since the global antiwar protests of Feb. 15, she says, journalists have been posing tougher questions and talking about the war hypothetically rather than as an inevitability. “In a speech he made in a school in Georgia recently, even President Bush said that while he was willing to spend enough money to win the war, he was also willing to spend enough so that we didn’t have to go to war,” Blume says. “That’s a huge shift.”

A triumph of poetry over politics? Perhaps it's not unthinkable. In an ideal world, says Blume, “The Lysistrata Project would change the relevance of the voice of ordinary citizens… and it would make war on Iraq impossible.”