The simplest outline of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata goes like this: A bunch of women, tired of watching their men march off to war, deny their husbands sex until they stop. But there’s a problem applying this scenario to modern times, as I tell Kathryn Blume on the other end of the phone line in blizzardy New York: The current war effort is mongered by men — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld — who don’t seem particularly horny. (Yes, The Daily Show once highlighted a sizable Bush hard-on, but one suspects it was a power-induced erection, not the sex kind.) Blume, a regional theater actor who lives in New York, is one of the two women who landed upon the idea for a designated day of coordinated Lysistrata readings; with actor Sharron Bower she has managed to inspire more than 679 productions and readings. But does anyone seriously think that Bush would choose peace for the sake of pussy?
Blume laughs, “That’s not really what we’re advocating, that women deny their partners sex — although,” she allows, “people have successfully used that tactic to get something done. What happens in the play is that a group of people who are opposed to a war come up with a creative, nonviolent act of protest that gets them heard.
“Of course we ultimately want to stop the war,” she continues. “But letting the world and each other know about the tremendous wave of anti-war sentiment in the U.S. is just as important. And in that regard,” she says, “we’ve been incredibly successful.”
Maybe a little too successful: This “gargantuan act of service,” as Blume puts it, has caused both Blume and Bower many a sleepless night worrying about how to resolve what had never before occurred to them — such as how to advise the director who complains that another theater has poached on her turf. (“I told her to keep their eyes on the prize,” says Blume, “and to serve the cause of peace, not your career.”)
“It’s funny,” Blume admits. “We dreamed early on about readings all over the world. But it’s one thing to have a big dream about it, but another to actually see it happen. None of us have done anything like this ever before, and it’s consumed our lives. Occasionally we get to slip in something like a shower or a meal. Or some sleep.”
The mass-Lysistrata movement began impulsively in a conversation between Blume and Bower on January 4. Blume had been working on a screenplay adaptation, and she and Bower thought that maybe they could get a few other friends and acquaintances in other cities to stage readings concurrent with theirs in New York. They sent out e-mails the next day to various theater people, inviting them all to participate on March 3 — which they understood at the time to be a day-of-action promotion by New York activists Theater Against War (THAW). By evening, directors in Seattle and Austin had committed to stage readings. By the end of the week, more than 100 had signed on. In a month, through the miracle of the Internet, the e-mail had infiltrated inboxes all over the globe: “I got an e-mail from a woman in Iowa who said she’d received .
e-mails from people in Delaware and London,” Blume says. “And another from a woman who said that just that morning she’d been wondering what theaters should be doing to protest the war. It was amazing.”
It was right around that time that Blume realized something potentially disturbing: THAW’s day of action was actually Sunday, March 2. She and Bower had gotten the date wrong. It was too late to recall every e-mail from far reaches of the theatrical universe. “But then we realized that the 3rd is a Monday,” says Blume, “which for theaters is a ‘dark’ day.” (Theaters traditionally close on Monday.) And, spiritually speaking, three is a meaningful number. “Oh-three-oh-three-oh-three!” exclaims Blume. “Isn’t it euphonious?” They had picked the right day after all.
Since that time, the Lysistrata Project, as it’s now called, has expanded to include authors and translators, who have volunteered versions of the play, librarians, book clubs, church organizations and professional theater companies. There are 15 readings in Chicago, almost that many in Minneapolis. NGOs in Phnom Penh will read a version, as will a clandestine group in China.
In New York, “Somewhere between 20 and 50 teams of actors — call it 35,” says Blume, will invade the city’s public spaces with guerrilla readings; in the evening, Mercedes Ruehl and F. Murray Abraham will star in an anchor production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. “We wanted as many artists as possible to have the opportunity to participate,” Blume argues. “But we also wanted to garner as much attention as we could. The charismatic evening show helps with that.”
What do Blume and Bower expect will come from that attention? “We’re generally not gifted with the knowledge of the results of our actions,” says Blume. “But you know what the Buddhists tell us: No act is small. I refuse to believe this war is inevitable.”
“In the staging of our production, the men all become gay,” says Stefan Maria Brettschneider, dramaturgue of Lysistrate at theaterForum kreuzberg in Berlin. “They all turn into homosexuals and don’t need the women anymore. In that sense, of course, there won’t be a ‘happy ending,’ and I acknowledge that this is a rather pessimistic point of view. I am no pessimist by nature, but I do assume that there will be a war.
“That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve given up. To let Lysistrata end on a pessimistic note is a challenge to not go to war — so much more has to happen to avoid it. I do not want to say that the peace movement does not have an effect, but it is rather simple to say you can stop the war just with this one action.
“Lysistrata is called a masterpiece. But it does not answer the question: How do we arrive at a solution? The men have to be forced into happiness. So where is the moment of enlightenment and understanding? Of course, it is a first step.
“Sex in Lysistrata is a metaphor. It could have been farmers saying, ‘We put down our tools, and we will not grow produce anymore.’ But Aristophanes chose sex as opposed to produce — maybe because it is the opposite of war, as one expression of love.”
(This interview was conducted and translated by Jessica Schaefer.)