Lysistrata in Manchester

The first production was performed under the banner of Theatre Union in a cluster of plays responding directly to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. Other than Lysistrata the group staged performances of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna (or The Sheep-well) and an adaptation of Hasek’s Good Soldier Schwejk. The Lysistrata script, first performed in and around Manchester from circa 1938 to 1941,” was closely based on a readable, unexpurgated and anonymous translation, found in the Eleven Comedies of Aristophanes, first published privately in 1912 for the Athenian Society in London.’” MacColl’s copy, however, may have been the 1936 reprint by Tudor Publishing Company, New York.’7 We can tell from the scene breakdown, shown in the 1938 programme (Figure 25.2), that there is little digression from the original plot. Those original scenes of the play remain relatively close to the 1912 translation, even when it was rewritten with additional scenes, as in Operation Olive Branch nearly a decade later.

After the outbreak of war, when their usual rehearsal space in the Manchester Communist Party HQ was commandeered in the name of the war effort, Theatre Union found rent-free rehearsal space in the crypt of All Saints’ Church.58 The vicar, Etienne Watts, believed that ‘communists were the only true Christians’.’9 He decorated the crypt with two banners, one red with a golden hammer and sickle, and the other bearing the symbol of the cross. As the men in the play were called up to the front, Joan Littlewood and her dwindling troupe rehearsed Aristophanes beneath the hammer and sickle and surrounded by the dead.60 Some members of the company were literally buried for a time, when the Blitz directed its destructive gaze northwards, and All Saints’ Church was damaged beyond repair.”1


1 A public square in Athens

The summoning of the women

2 The old men’s club

Formation of the Old Guard

3 A hill before the Acropolis

The Old Guard Offensive

4 The Senate House

Secret Session


5 Before the Acropolis

The women weaken

6 The same

Tears and Sweat

7 The same

The Solution

8 Let us sing to the future



the great Athenian comedy writer of the •

5th century B.C. was a man who fought consistently against the reactionary rulers of his day. At the time this play was written the power of Athens was beginning to erumble. The Spartans had crushed her armies at Aegitpotaml. She was no longer mistress of the seas and her fleet, the finest the ancient world had ever known, was destroyed at Syracuse. But Cleon, the Imperialist, still held power. There was famine throughout Greece. Some of the colonies. notably Lesbos, tried to break away from Athens, but Cleon put down these attempts with unparalleled brutality. War and famine had exhausted the people, the days of peace were forgotten but there was still a way out—and for all the warring peoples of Greece, the Spartans, the enemy, as well as the Athenians. Thro’ the mouth of Lysistrata. the leader of the rebellious women, Aristophanes puts forward his solution of the problems of his day.


FIGURE 25.2 Centrefold of 1938 programme of Lysistrata by Theatre Union, reproduced by courtesy ofTheatre Royal Stratford East Archives Collection, London.

MacColl referred to the pre- and early war Lysistrata as ‘a spirited romp with lots of bawdy jokes and amusing horseplay’.62 Its official opening at the Lesser Trade Hall, Manchester, coinciding with the Munich Agreement, or ‘Munich Betrayal’ (September 1938), was marred by ‘the rising tide of fear and confusion’ which accompanied that episode. MacColl recalled,

We had passed the point where events could be influenced by a reference to the Peloponnesian War ... It’s not enough, we said, to have plays which make a generalised exposure of the nature of Capitalism, they must have specific objectives and they must be about events which are taking place now.63

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >