Using sex (or its absence) to end a war

Last year, singer Janelle Monáe told the magazine Marie Claire, “Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex.” The #metoo movement has since taken over the internet and rules the world of U.S. politics.

In 2009, Kenyan women launched a sex strike to stop tribal warfare, and within a week it ceased.

Violence in a village on the Philippine island of Mindanao ended after a women’s sex strike.

In 2006, women withheld sex to protest soaring violence in the Colombian city of Pereira. The murder rate dropped by more than a fourth.

In 2003, a sex strike in Liberia helped to end a civil war. Its organizer, Leyman Gbowee, won a Nobel Peace prize for her efforts.

Way back in 1600, Iroquois women rejected sex to stop a war and were then given a veto over future wars.

These real life episodes make the 2,400-year old plot of “Lysistrata,” a notorious Greek play by Aristophanes, a lot less implausible than it might seem at first blush (pun intended).

In 2003, as part of the nationwide movement against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Drue Robinson, a playwright, poet and teacher who lives in western Washington State, adapted “Lysistrata” for contemporary theater audiences. The result is “Lysistrata: A Woman’s Translation.” 


L to R, Tait Petersen, Amy Bourque, Jen Stephenson, Kim Gleason and Wendy Scot. Photo by Ryan Dobs.

The Vortex in Albuquerque first performed the adaptation 10 years ago. Now, it is re-staging the play for a new generation with new ideas on feminism and pacifism.

The comedy, which opened last week, combines sex, bawdy jokes, female empowerment, a rebellion, an antiwar movement and several onstage physical fights between groups of men and women. It is hard to imagine a more winning combination.

The Vortex production highlights the fun and funniness that link 21st-century America to fifth-century B.C. Greece. The links are rather stunning. 

Aristophanes wrote the play during the 27-year-long Peloponnesian Wars, an internecine conflict that permanently crippled the once-powerful Greek city states, paving the way for first Macedonia and then Rome to dominate the ancient world. The Vortex is presenting “Lysistrata: A Woman’s Translation” during renewed concern over America’s seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia, among other countries.

The 14-person Vortex cast, led by Jen Stephenson as a forceful and dominant Lysistrata, takes on this hoary fixture of regional theater with elan and panache. Although their performances and the direction of Bridget S. Dunne are less polished than usual on this stage, their indomitable fun and enthusiasm save the day.

The Vortex refers to Robinson’s text as both a “translation” and an “adaptation.” However, in its contemporary language and references and some changes in the story line, it differs so much from other English versions of the play that “adaptation” seems to me the more accurate term. Robinson’s version elicits lots of laughs from the audience by emphasizing the bawdiness and boisterousness of the story, as well as the sexual frustration of not only the men but also their women.

The plot is simple. A group of housewives are so fed up with wartime death and abandonment that they decide to do something about it. Their cabal is twofold—deprive the men of the gold to finance the war by seizing the treasury deposited in the Parthenon, and deprive their mates of the will to fight by depriving them of sex. The sexual aspect attains an additional dimension with the casting of males in some of the female chorus roles.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that, at least on the stage, their conspiracy is a grand success. However, David Richard Jones comments in the playbill notes, “Both humility and truthfulness require us to note that neither the Peloponnesian War nor the US-Iraq war was stopped by the performance of a play. Was W. H. Auden right, when he said at the outbreak of World War II, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’?”

“Lysistrata” is advertised as a feminist and pacifist play. But these terms need considerable qualification. At the end of the play, the newly empowered women don’t seize the exclusively male government of Athens and Sparta, nor do they reform sexist Greek society; they return eagerly to their homemaker (and bedroom) duties. And there are several sentences in the original text that suggest the women’s target is not all wars but only this one, because of its length and futility. 

“Lysistrata: A Woman’s Translation” continues at the Vortex Theater, 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE, on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. until March 3. For information and tickets go to vortexabq.org or call 505-247-8600.