Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Assemblywomen - Aristophanes

Aristophanes (446 BC- 386 BC)

Athens. Sometime during the Corinthian War (395-386), the Assembly has traditionally been poorly attended and ordinary citizens have been discouraged from speaking up, but after Agyrrhius successfully proposes the introduction of assembly pay, for the first time the Assembly becomes crowded and men rush to be the first 6000 into the assembly and receive their 3 obols. This creates an atmosphere of political experimentation, where endless theories are created and ideal systems of government are debated. It is in this climate that Aristophanes writes his satire.

Our heroine is Praxagora, and like Lysistrata, she has grown jaded by the ineptitude of the men to govern society and decides to take matters into her own hands. But while Lysistrata's solution is temporary, withhold sex until the men call a truce to the Peloponnesian War and return home to a more sedentary lifestyle, Praxagora wants a completely new system of government. She decides to create a communal utopia under female governance. Polis management should be like household management and her plan is to replace the polis with an expansive household. As she prepares to approach the Assembly, dressed as a man, her compatriots likewise dressed and in tow, she hones her argument, demonstrating why women would be natural leaders.

After a long monologue arguing for the steadfastness and predictability of women, who choose to stay with the tried and true customs rather than this constant political muddling she ends with these final points:

"Consider only these points: First, as mothers they'll want to protect our soldiers; and second who would be quicker to send extra rations than the one who bore you? There's nobody more inventive at getting funds than a woman, and when in power she'll never get cheated, since women themselves are past masters at cheating. I'll pass over my other points. Adopt my resolution and you'll lead happy lives."

The Assemblymen, after being successfully duped by Praxagora's fake beard, believe her to be an intelligent male orator with an intriguing political solution to their current stagnation. Praxagora humbly takes the role of government officiator and rather than staying true to the customs of yore, instead changes everything. No more work, the slaves will see to everything. The government halls will turn into dining rooms for the now communal dinners, all private property will be abolished and citizens will be encouraged to bring their belongings to the government for proper utilization. The family unit is no longer necessary, instead all older women will be seen as mothers and all older men as fathers, and since no one will be able to verify their paternity no crimes will be committed against the elders and all will equally support and care for them. Any man may copulate with any woman, as long as he first makes the old and ugly a priority...and here is where things begin to break down.

What begins as a utopian sexual revolution goes terribly awry and becomes more of a sexual revulsion. Even when the only form of taxation is obligatory sex with the old and ugly, this tax is ultimately too high a cost to pay, even for paradise.

To illustrate this point we are first introduced to Blepyrus, Praxagora's constipated old codger of a husband. As he wakes up and finds his wife and his cloak missing he wanders outside to whisper sweet nothings to his bowels. A neighbor is produced as a foil for him to continue to explicitly talk about his digestive system. The only thing that can momentarily preoccupy him from his troubles, is the thought that he's slept through the assembly and therefore won't receive his 3 obols for doing nothing but taking up space.  When Praxagora returns and tells them new legislation has passed making working unnecessary, all political necessities will be seen to by the women and all manual labor will be seen to by the slaves, Blepyrus is in a state of disbelieving ecstasy. His life can now be as carefree as that of a little boy, with his only concern now being where to eat and who to have sex with. When he mentions his concern that no one would want to have sex with him, he being an an ugly old man, Praxagora reassures him that having sex with him is now compulsory. And with a sigh of relief he wanders off to find some appreciative young maidens.

We then meet an old woman and young maiden both sitting and waiting for the first eligible bachelor to head their way. As the old woman tries to sing a melody to entice a young suitor her way the young girl laughs at her attempts to be desirable. It is beyond belief that the old hag would every be slept with, even under government authority and the young girl, coquettishly sits back, confidant in her good looks and many physical attributes.

Enter Epigenes, bemoaning this new edict. After dining at the communal feast, he hopes to take his pleasure with a young woman he's had his eye on for some time, but doesn't see a way around the compulsory sex with the old hags that seem to come out of nowhere each more haggish that the last. By law the ugliest have first priority, but when two of the women are both of equal abhorrence, he finds himself being dragged away by both simultaneously, it being impossible to resolve the question of priority.

Second Old Woman: Hey You! Where are you taking this man, in violation of the law? It's plainly stated that he's got to sleep with me first.

Epigenes: Good grief, where did you pop out of, you apparition of damnation? This horror is more revolting that the last one!

Second Old Woman: Get over here!

Epigenes: Don't let her drag me away, I beg you!

(Girl runs away)

Second Old Woman: It's not me but the law that drags you away.

Epigenes: No, it's some kind of Empusa (bogey-woman) covered with one big blood blister!

As his protestations are ignored and the second woman is dragging him away along comes the third:

Third Old Woman: Hey You! Where are you going with her?

Epigenes: I'm not going anywhere; I'm being kidnapped! But whoever you are, bless you if you don't just stand by and watch me be tormented (turning to see Third Old Woman) Heracles! Pan! Corybantes! Dioscuri! Here's another horror, and much more revolting that the last! Please, someone tell me what in the world it is! A monkey plastered with makeup? A hag arisen from the underworld?

The other episode that illustrates the complexity of a communal society deals with the issue of the "selfish" man. What happens when someone refuses to give up their property and take part in a communal society and yet still goes to the communal feasts enjoying the pleasures of the new system without paying any of the associated costs? Although this scenario is not resolved, and the "selfish" man goes off to the banquet while managing to avoid turning over his property, Praxagora argues that private property makes no sense in a communal society, since everyone will be amply provided for.

Aristophanes, rather than creating a pragmatic political treatise instead creates a comic world where he can obliquely critique the contemporary Athenian political institution. It's interesting how similar some of his ideas created in jest are to those of Plato's Republic. Plato argues for a similar abolition of riches to create an egalitarian society that has abandoned the traditional family construct. With no concept of family there can be no nepotism. With no concept of ownership and private property, there will be no inequality or motive for civic selfishness. While Aristophanes creates a hilarious predicament of compulsory sex, Plato crafts a system of eugenics and social cohesion based on dictated breeding criteria.

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