Or, History Class shouldn’t be long and hard.  It should be moist and inviting.

Comedy always seeks the shocking, and nowadays to diminishing returns.  TV folk crown themselves in glory for “pushing the envelope” year after year, delighting in the imagined hand-wringing of some wizened corn-farmer in Peoria.  But the true epicure of the prurient esteems most of all the works that precede the arrival of moveable type: impious Boccaccio’s Decameron, or the Asinus aureus of the pagan Apuleius, and perhaps foremost Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

This last has a remarkable history: it is an anti-war play produced in Athens during a long and terrible war.  Though the play makes fun of the city’s rulers it was not suppressed; rather, it was produced at public expense and awarded laurels as the year’s most outstanding comedy.  And it is irredeemably, thoroughly and entirely dirty.

Because the play is in Greek and relies heavily on puns, I can only give an imperfect sense of how this works.  The play opens with a crowd of Athenian ladies saying things like:  “This war has been long.  Yes, so long.  Yes, so long and hard on all of us.”  The dirty punning never stops, even while the plot unfolds: the ladies of Athens plan to convince their husbands to sue Sparta for peace by going on a sex strike.  Later a Spartan envoy arrives and discloses that the women of Sparta are up to the same trick.  Says the Athenian sentry, “If you’re the Spartan peace envoy, why are you hiding  a spear in your pants?”  Elsewhere the envoy reaches under his cloak to disclose a Spartan message rod (which was a real thing).  When negotiations actually begin, the generals arguing over a map keep confusing the names of actual places with the names of body-parts: obviously something else is on their mind.  Did I mention this is a musical?  There are songs about agonizingly tumescent members.

You get the picture.

It’s tempting to dismiss Lysistrata as an artifact of another age; those people are so different, and it was so long ago, and besides–didn’t they have different taboos back then?  A cursory glance at the text demolishes this objection.  The Athenians laughed at exactly the same dirty jokes that we do.  I find this comforting.  Two thousand years of social progress have done nothing to clean up our dirty minds.

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