The Curse of Aristophanes’ Phallus

November 2012

USM Production


The play Lysistrata is a comedy written by the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes. Ancient Greek plays were written in a very different context from modern plays. The symbolism of the Greek world does not properly translate in the modern context. The phallus did not incite the same sense of obscenity that it does today. Phallic sculptures and images were used in public for religious purposes and were often found in homes as decoration. Lysistrata makes wide use of the phallus not only as the main form of decoration of the set and actors, but also as the driving force for political change. The true impact of this symbol has been lost to the centuries. However, a modern rendition of this ancient play can still make comedic and political impact by marginalizing the importance of the phallic imagery and relegating it to an inane sight gag. The actors are the best weapon against overwhelming a prudish, modern audience with the sheer number of phalluses on the set; yet, the two lead actors use contradictory approaches to tread the line between funny and obscene.

Lysistrata, played by Lisa Fischel, and the Magistrate, played by Derrick Phillips, were the two shining stars of this production; they were both text book examples of how accomplished actors can manipulate their voices and bodies to tell a believable story. First, Lisa and Derrick are superb outside actors. They orchestrated both body movement and vocals in a believable way to forward the story. Both actors used big and small gestures to enhance the audience’s understanding of the spoken lines. Similarly, they used the rise and fall of the volume and pitch of their voices to engage with the audience’s imagination. Next, Lisa and Derrick are outstanding inside actors. They use the psychological aspects of the acting process to transform themselves from people in costume acting silly in the presence of others into living and breathing characters of fiction. Through the in depth study of play, the director’s instruction, and their own intuition, Lisa and Derrick bring the appropriate motivation and emotional content to their roles. Lysistrata and the Magistrate became the anchors that the ancillary characters needed to bring them into the world of the play. Notwithstanding their pivotal roles in the bringing together of the cast of actors, Lisa and Derrick began the play by moving in opposite directions in terms of the mood of the play.

Like Newton’s third law of motion, Derrick and Lisa’s every action were equal and opposite. Lisa played her character as a light hearted humorous character. She maintained the themes and political Ideas that the play was trying to put across just in a friendly, unassuming manner. However, Derrick played his character as a bombastic overly serious tyrant. His tact did not harm the meaning or message of the play, but it was harsh and jarring considering the play’s overall zaniness. This is not to say that a bombastic overly serious version of this play would not work. In fact, if the whole play was interoperated in such a way, it could fit into the genre of dark comedy. However, this version of the play was conceived as a broad comedy, and the tyrannical acting style adopted by Derrick was inappropriate to the play. Even though Lisa and Derrick were both greatly skilled, the first half of the play suffered due to the one actor’s conflict with the genre of broad comedy.

During the fifteen minutes of intermission something mystical and magical must have happened back stage because the rift in the mood of the play seemed to be mended. Derrick must have received feedback from the director, other actors, or audience members because he had softened his portrayal of the Magistrate to a tone that fit the play’s genre. From this point on, the play began to be enjoyable. All of the characters that were distracted by the conflict began to be drawn into the magic of the play. They forgot that they were performing in the play, and they became the play. Additionally, the second half showed a remarkable change in the general rapport of the actors. The actors and the audience were finally having the shared experience of delight and excitement that is expected of a play instead of the merciless anxiety of the first half.

Although the lead actors started the play with contradictory approaches, they worked things out and created a play that overcame its cultural limitations; the actors were able to make the world’s longest penis joke into a generally enjoyable experience. However, there is much more to Aristophanes’ play than just juvenile humor. Only, it cannot be seen past the modern interpretation of image of the male organ. If it was possible to change the phallic symbolism into more modern religious symbolism, the play might retain much more of its original power and meaning. However, even Aristophanes would blush at the idea of crucifixes protruding from men’s open zippers.


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