An introduction to a classic play
It has to win the prize for ‘classical play known under the most different titles’. Although not his most famous play, Assemblywomen is one of Aristophanes’ most interesting. It’s been translated as Congresswomen, Women in Parliament, Women in Power, Women Holding an Assembly, A Parliament of Women, and, of course, its most familiar title, Assemblywomen.
Written in 391 BC, it’s a wonderfully fun play, a comic fantasy about women being in charge of government and men reduced to feeble, pitiable creatures in drag. This makes it a great play to analyse and discuss. It even contains the longest word in all of literature: Lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypotrimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakechymenokichlepikossyphophattoperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon. It is the name for a fictional food dish containing meat, fish, and wine, and is 183 letters long – enough for six antidisestablishmentarianisms.
Assemblywomen, like Aristophanes’ more famous play, Lysistrata, is about the relationship between war, power, and gender, with women (literally) taking centre-stage. The women of Athens, led by Praxagora, decide to take over the city’s parliament, the Assembly, arguing for a number of radical reforms. Women should have all the power in Athens, all property should be held communally, and there should be complete sexual liberation, with people free to go to bed with whomever they choose. (The old and ugly are to get first dibs on sexual partners, so as to ensure that they’re not left out.) This, in summary, is the setup for Assemblywomen.
In effect, Aristophanes offers us the first literary example of the utopia. But as with another classical example of the utopia, Plato’s Republic – and, indeed, much like Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia which gave the genre its name – we cannot be sure how far Aristophanes is seriously endorsing such political ideas and how much he is satirising them. Michael Billington, in his gripping and informative The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present, lauds this ambiguity as one of the play’s chief strengths: Aristophanes offers both sides of the argument, the case both for and against revolutionary ideals. And, of course, he can generate laughs from both sides, too.
But we should be careful not to view Assemblywomen as a play that was purely ‘ahead of its time’ in terms of its presentation of female power. True, Aristophanes seems to be implying that women could do a better job of running things than the men; but this would have been seen as a joke poking fun at the incompetence and mismanagement of the (men-only) Assembly rather than as a genuine call for parliamentary reform. Women, of course, were absent from the stage and from the audience of Aristophanes’ play when it was first staged. The joke at the heart of Assemblywomen is actually a rather conservative one – indeed, it’s sexist deep down – because it turns on the idea that ‘even a load of women could make a better job of it than this bunch of clowns!’
But drama is not about setting down ideas in firm outline so much as presenting debates and exploring imagined alternatives. And in this respect, Assemblywomen is not only fun, but truly progressive, because it anticipates so many of the political ideas which we do take seriously these days: gender equality for one, but also the idea of a fair society (where people are not discriminated against on the grounds of appearance or age), and, if not complete sexual freedom, then at least a less puritanical approach to sex and marriage.
Similarly, if you won’t find many people banging the drum for extreme communism these days, then the ideals and ideas of socialism, and eradicating the gulf between the richest and poorest in our society, are values which many of us hold. These are present in Assemblywomen, even if they are fundamentally being offered as jokey alternatives to a corrupt, if ultimately immovable, Way of Doing Things. The result is a play which does what drama does best: an exploration and analysis of alternative ways of running society, offered without dogma and with a joke rather than a sledgehammer.
Learn more about the author of Assemblywomen, Aristophanes, with our curious facts about his life and work here.
Image: Portrait of Aristophanes (artist unknown), Wikimedia Commons.