Some days I am haunted by the “for richer or poorer, sickness and health” dichotomies of the marriage vow. Some days the good to bad range extends to unreasonable expectations. This was one of those days.
“So let me get this straight. You wear a red vinyl penis on the outside of your clothes, use a walker and sing?”
“I am not going.”
“You will find it interesting.”
“I don’t think so.”
My husband is an actor who seeks out theatrical challenges. Other than a college monologue in which I claimed that “the calla lilies are in bloom” in my best Katherine Hepburn voice, I am a non actor who stays home and sews. I dutifully support his performances, and enjoy seeing him on stage, but the material is occasionally sketchy. What he finds a dramatic adventure; I can find nerve racking and weird.
“You already know the story. This is just this director’s vision. By the way, I do simulate sex on stage, but I am supposed to be really old so it isn’t very sexy.”
“Why do you do this to me?”
He told me several months ago that he was interested in auditioning for a Greek Comedy being produced by a local community college. He had worked with the director on Shakespeare and was intrigued by her interpretations of classic works. It seemed harmless, intellectual even, like he could take it on the road to high school English classes. So I said, “Good for you! Go for it!” and paid no attention. Then he made it.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes is the most popular of his eleven plays. Although only performed once in 411 B.C.E., it is often produced for modern audiences. The universal themes of male and female relationships amid questions of war and peace are timeless as society repeats the same dilemmas over and over. The story was familiar to me; the staging – a mix of contemporary dress and ancient symbols of the fertility festival – stretched my imagination. It was typical of the time for the male actors to wear painted breasts if they were playing woman and large, bright red phalluses if playing men. I am not prudish, but I unlike my husband who thrives on the unpredictability of live performance, I am skittish, tense, and always worried that someone will fall and hurt themselves. I am the antithesis of improvisational, always thinking ahead: is this really a good idea? What is the audience gets distracted and doesn’t pay attention? Let’s play it safe.
“What if I just read the play again and we talked about it?”
“We are already talking about it. You have to see it. Trust me, you get used to the costumes after a while. Besides, I am in the old men’s chorus and my costume is not as, well, obvious.
Opening night I steeled myself. I always feel anxious for people about to perform and this worry spills over to hoping the stage hands don’t trip in the dark or whether that woman will be able to find her seat. This was compounded by uncertainty about my husband’s role. I had seen him kiss another woman on stage before, but this could take it to a whole other level. When Lysistrata came out, she was indeed wearing red Madonna-pointed breasts and a triangle of teddy bear fur over a t-shirt and jeans. My husband was right in that by the time the tenth woman came out in the same get up, the jarring effect began to fade. And when the warrior men appeared, sporting what looked like light saber toys attached to their jeans, it only seemed equal. My husband’s costume was more toned down, although the Florida sweat suit and sunglasses were more disconcerting than the appendage. The audience, who had clearly read their program, seemed unperturbed. Once I had determined that no one was going to be humiliated, I settled in to watch.
The story is quite wonderful. A group of Athenian and Spartan women join together and protest the devastating effects of war on their community. They pledge to deny their husbands, and themselves, sexual contact until the husbands agree to stop fighting. Sex as leverage takes on added layers as they mourn the loss of the sons they have raised, the loss of marriage opportunities for woman with a brief “window” of eligibility and the loss of financial stability for sustaining themselves and their families. All of the characters, male and female, are struggling to adhere to a constructed ideal while the most basic human desires for connection and survival threaten to overwhelm them. The chorus, cleverly conceived as a group of old people commenting on the silliness of the young, banter back and forth about how it used to be versus this current conflict. The old men say: it was better when men were in charge. The old women say: you only thought you were in charge. We have always been in control, and so on. In the end, everyone is reconciled, Athens and Sparta, men and women, old and young. Peace and a musical finale.
“What did you think?”
“I liked it.”
“Really? I told you. I knew you would like it.”
“I know, I know.”
The irony of watching a comedy about marital sacrifice, giving up one’s own wants and needs to support some larger cause, was not lost on me. At the edge of my mind, I knew there was some link between my not wanting to go and my husband’s cajoling and my going after all with the farce played out on stage. But I couldn’t quite make out who was Lysistrata and who was the errant husband. It was murky. As apparently this sort of thing always has been.
“Hey, do think you could bring home one of those warrior costumes?”