The play takes place during The Peloponnesian War, when Athens and Sparta were embroiled in a hard, sweaty, nasty conflict. Lysistrata, an Athenian woman who is sick of all this war nonsense, manages to convince a large group of women from several city-states (including Sparta) to come together for a meeting, wherein she proposes a dramatic tactic: they (the women) should swear a vow to bring about the end of the war by refusing to have sex with their men until there is peace. As a more practical measure they seize hold of the root of the war effort: the Acropolis, which contains Athens' treasury. The menfolk laugh at the absurdity of this idea: in Ancient Greece, All Women Are Lustful, and indeed Lysistrata and her friend Calonice must constantly prevent their co-conspirators from sneaking out to, shall we say, engage enemy forces. With the women's resolve shown to be firm and upstanding, the menfolk, their ability to make war now wilted and slumping, and tormented by enormous, err, burdens, agree to work out a peace treaty. Celebration ensues.
And if you think that the previous summary was full of hot and steamy innuendo, you should be aware that the play itself is a hell of a lot raunchier. We're not joking about the burdens: the costumes for male characters include a Gag Penis. Oh, and, the vow sworn by the women includes very explicit detail of what they are forswearing, such as agreeing not to "crouch like the lioness on the cheese grater" (No, we don't know what that means either. It's been lost to the mists of time. All we have from the historical record is a menu from a Greek brothel, on which this position is the most expensive act you can purchase from a prostitute. Imaginations, start your engines).
This is the Trope Namer for the Lysistrata Gambit, a more X-rated version of Exiled to the Couch. And, if it's performed by a cast with enough balls (and ovaries) to do it justice, it is still side-splittingly funny today.
Because translations often reflect the spirit of their own era, some of them include rather bizarre euphemisms and dated-sounding dialogue.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes provides examples of:
- Accent Adaptation: often necessary when actually producing this play—and, indeed, many ancient Greek plays, as they frequently include accent-based humor. British English translations tend to use Scots accents for the Spartans; US translations have been known to use Texas accents.
- The Germaine Greer adaptation specifically states that each of the four Cleaning Women (characters added by Greer, essentially the Chorus/voice of the people) has a specific dialect with which they speak. The dialogue in the script is written in the respective dialects used at the time of original production, but Greer says that the dialects my be changed at the director's will and any colloquialisms may be changed to fit the accent.
- An audio version with Hermione Gingold as Lysistrata ha all the upper-class Athenians speaking BBC English, the lower-class Athenians speaking semi-Cockney, the Spartans speaking US Southern, and other Greeks speaking various rural British accents.
- All Women Are Lustful: Consider how much difficulty the women have committing to their Lysistrata Gambit, as opposed to modern-day uses of that trope where the woman often treats it like it's no effort for her at all.
- Battering Ram: The women barricade themselves in the Acropolis and vowed to withhold sex from their husbands. So we get a scene where the much-deprived men of Athens grab a big trunk of wood and ram it against the doors of the Acropolis again and again, desperately trying to force their way inside...
- Distracted by the Sexy: To really thrust the point home, Lysistrata invites a voluptuous woman named "Reconciliation" to the peace negotiations. Then maps the territories in dispute on her body.
- Freudian Slip: While mapping out the territories with Reconciliation and they talk about a Long Wall, someone says Long Legs.
- Gag Penis: The male actors are supposed to wear fake oversized phalluses just to drive home their, er, frustration.
- It should be noted that unlike in modern culture where size equates to virility, in Ancient Greek culture the size of your member correlates to how much control you have over your sexual urges (the smaller the better). You can guess what this implies about the men in the play.
- Greek Chorus: Composed primarily of the aforementioned Dirty Old People.
- In the Germaine Greer adaptation, the Cleaning Women and the Senators are essentially this.
- High School A.U.: The Broadway musical comedy Lysistrata Jones which places the action at "Athens University" and the conflict surrounding a college basketball team.
- Lucky Translation: Several dirty jokes from the original Greek work just as well for modern audiences, provided they're given the obvious translation.
- At a meeting of the women, Lampito's tardiness is noted by the rest — of course she's late, because Spartan women never come on time.
- At one point, Lysistrata admits that the women aren't finding the sex strike any easier than the men are. The faithful woman to whom she speaks cries out "Zeus help us!", to which Lysistrata winces and says there's no need to get HIM involved in this. At least one translator has rendered the conversation thusly: "...We want to get laid, too." "By Zeus!" "No, not by him!"
- Lysistrata Gambit: Trope Namer. Unbuilt Trope as well, since the women clearly have trouble withholding their urges while more modern versions of the trope show it as effortless.
- Meaningful Name: Lysistrata (Λυσιστράτη) means "army-disbander".
- Mood Whiplash: Take into consideration why this was considered a comedy in Aristophanes' time: Women weren't considered citizens, coming in after poor citizens and before slaves. Hellenic comedies were meant to display ideas that were ridiculous, and this play's was the idea that a group of women could take over Greece's government. Women were also basically the property of men—first their fathers, then their husbands.
- Uber-feminist Germaine Greer's adaptation creates even more mood whiplash by contrasting the silly, child-like Society Women (the group to which Lysistrata belongs) with the poor, working-class Cleaning Women. In particular, the character of Katina has had her husband, father-in-law, and brother (all the men in her life that she relies on and who would normally support her) all taken off to fight in the war, and are probably dead (it's implied that the wealthy men who are serving don't see any fighting—only the working-class men). Then, her mother-in-law dies, leaving Katina by herself on the farm. Unable to run the farm on her own, Katina escapes with a group fleeing the fighting, and along the way, prematurely gives birth, and the baby dies. This is all before the play. During the play, she's nearly raped (with implications that she may have been raped before, prior to leaving the farm). Looking at things realistically, Katina's only option, having no men to support her, is probably to become a prostitute.
- Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?: Perhaps the Ur-Example, as said by the Magistrate: "But look, you are hiding a lance under your clothes, surely."
- Skinship Grope: Lysistrata uses this to, ahem, "size up" the attractions with which one of the Spartan women will be able to tempt her menfolk.Lampito: La! you are feeling me as if I were a beast for sacrifice.
- Tomboy: Lampito, the Spartan woman, especially compared her Athenian counterparts. There's at least one version where she's played by a man. There were only 2 male actors, and she is played by the Spartan Actor, who is far more masculine.
- Truth in Television: Spartan women were the only women in Greece who were allowed to take part in public exercise along with men. They also used to crop their hair short (though ironically, this made them look less like Spartan men, who'd grow their hair out in the belief that this would make them stronger.)
- Unbuilt Trope: Aristophanes wrote the play as a farce, which ridiculed female empowerment. Later interpretations of the Lysistrata Gambit are usually more literal, as a feminist strategy.