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Profile: Coordination of Worldwide Readings of the Ancient Greek Play "Lysistrata" as a Way to Protest a Possible U.S. War in Iraq

All Things Considered: March 4, 2003

Lysistrata: 'Ancient' War Protest



MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Six weeks ago, actor Kathryn Blume was thinking about ways to protest the war when she had what she describes as a lightning bolt moment. Her idea was to coordinate a worldwide reading of the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata," a comedy in which women refuse sex with their husbands until the men give up war. Blume came on the show to tell us about the plan and how she hoped it might unfold, and yesterday it did. From Athens to Phnom Penh and Sydney to New York, people staged readings of "Lysistrata" in 59 countries and every US state. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

On the Web, The Lysistrata Project not only listed many hundreds of readings, but you could download more than a dozen versions of Aristophanes' play, including some that might be inappropriate for radio, as well as a five-minute water cooler version appropriate for the office, a children's version and assorted translations in many languages.

Written in 411 BC, the play takes place after the Peloponnesian War has continued for 20 years and women have rarely found their men at home. Some readings were as serious as the subject of war.

SOUNDBITE OF BIG BEN TOLLING

ADLER: In London, somewhere between a hundred and 200 people stood surrounded by the houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and, of course, Big Ben.

SOUNDBITE OF BIG BEN TOLLING; MUSIC

ADLER: The actors wore blindfolds, which they tore off and waved, becoming what they called a chorus of disapproval.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC; PUBLIC READING OF "LYSISTRATA"

Group of People: (Reading in unison) In the Third World War, we'll destroy brother, people and cities. But the memory of Troy, stories that shaped the spirit of our race, are held in the balance by you in this place.

ADLER: In New York City, where there are tens of thousands of actors, Darcy Marga(ph) led an international group of 35 to 40 acting students, many from the Tisch School of the Arts and the Lee Strasberg acting school. They danced in sub-freezing weather, gave out apples and read a version of the comedy that lasted for more than an hour.

SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC READING OF "LYSISTRATA"

Unidentified Woman #1: At home in celibacy shall I pass my life...

Group of People: (In unison) At home in celibacy shall I pass my life...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...so that my husband will get as hot as a volcano for me.

Group of People: (In unison) ...so that my husband will get as hot as a volcano for me.

Unidentified Woman #1: But never willingly shall I surrender to my husband.

ADLER: If you wanted to stay warm, you could stand in Grand Central Terminal, where Chris Alonzo(ph) was the narrator in a six-minute-long simplified children's version of the comedy.

SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC READING OF "LYSISTRATA"

Mr. CHRIS ALONZO: In the very old days in ancient Greece, women didn't used to do the same jobs that men did. Women swept and dusted and tidied their houses. They nourished and mothered their babies and did the family cooking, too. What about men, though? Oh, men knew nothing else but making war, always at the ready, weapons in hand, eager to go and conquer some new country.

ADLER: Meanwhile, uptown in a church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a group of homeless women and men read the play before an audience of people in the neighborhood.

SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC READING OF "LYSISTRATA"

Unidentified Woman #2: We can force our husbands to negotiate peace, ladies, by exercising steadfast self-control by total abstinence.

Unidentified Woman #3: From what?

Unidentified Woman #2: Total abstinence from sex. Why are you turning away? Such stricken expressions...

ADLER: Famous actors also played their part. In New York, Mercedes Ruehl and and F. Murray Abraham participated in a reading at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And in Venice, California, Alfre Woodard and Julie Christie gave this performance.

SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC READING OF "LYSISTRATA"

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD: But we won't go near them.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Ms. JULIE CHRISTIE: Total abstinence. I wouldn't be surprised if the war would stop within a week.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

ADLER: Kathryn Blume and Sharon Bower, the two actors who came up with the idea of The Lysistrata Project six weeks ago, said they made it really easy to get involved.

Ms. KATHRYN BLUME (The Lysistrata Project): We spent about a week designing the Web site and saying, `Do a reading. Don't do a full production. Do it in your living room. Do it in your community center.' It's a simple thing to do. It doesn't take much.

At the same time, it's a really fun play, it's saucy, it's very sexy and a little foul sometimes in some of the translations. And I think that gets people a little excited and titillated.

Ms. SHARON BOWER (The Lysistrata Project): Let's face it, Margot. Sex sells.

Ms. BLUME: Yeah.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Ms. BOWER: So does war...

Ms. BLUME: Yes.

Ms. BOWER: ...as we can see on CNN. Countdown to Iraq, you know.

ADLER: While they say they maxed out on their credit cards, the server space cost only $75, the posters and buttons were donated, and someone gave a generous donation for the space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

When asked why "Lysistrata," a play that has been called sexist among other things, the women appear sex-crazed for men, Blume and Bower say the play is about a group of disenfranchised women who find a new and creative way to be heard. When asked what about the women all over the world who would be killed or abused if they refused to have sex with their husbands, Bower responds.

Ms. BOWER: For those women who don't have a voice, for those women who can't say no, it's our job to holler all the louder.

Ms. BLUME: Yeah. And the fact is we're not advocating the tactics used in the play. We're not advocating bedroom politics. That's what the play is about. The movement is about providing a voice for people who haven't felt like they've had one.

ADLER: It's hard to assess what impact these 1,000 readings have had. But even these five readings were totally diverse--from sexy comedy to epic drama, readings by ordinary people and famous actors. Tens of thousands of people all over the world heard a play more than 2,400 years old and had a chance to ponder some eternal themes: war, peace, men and women. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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