you're reading...

Greek plays: Lysistrata redux (BBC, 1964)

1964 BBC Lysistrata (Listener)A couple of months ago I wrote a blog piece about a 1964 BBC production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. I’m now certain that no television recording of this production exists, but I have recently come across a copy of the camera script in the Written Archives Centre, and today I will draw on this script to augment my earlier piece with some further observations.

To recap, briefly: Lysistrata; or Women on Strike was directed by Prudence FitzGerald for broadcast as part of the BBC’s Festival series at 9.25pm on Wednesday 15 January 1964. The opening of the production used a film clip of a mushroom cloud which was strikingly superimposed over an image of the Athenian Acropolis, a vigorous start to a (potentially) politically engaged production. Yet this was not Lysistrata brought entirely up-to-date, for it is clear from extant photographs that the set and costumes were in the ancient mould (see the images here, and in the earlier post).

Patric Dickinson, Aristophanes against WarThis pretty explicit and bawdy ‘sex-strike’ comedy of 411 BC was translated from the ancient Greek by Patric Dickinson, who had by this point built up a twenty-year relationship with the BBC: in the late 1940s he had served as Poetry Editor for the Third Programme; and thereafter he worked on a freelance basis supplying poetry and plays in translation for broadcast on the air. He was very keen to get more ancient Greek and Roman comic drama broadcast and in 1955 his translation of Aristophanes’ Acharnians appeared on the BBC Radio’s Third Programme, the radio network established in 1946 for the broadcast of ‘high cultural’ works. The BBC commissioned from him translations of two further ancient Greek ‘anti-war’ comedies — Peace and Lysistrata and, before he had finished these translations, Oxford University Press approached him about publishing them in a single volume which appeared in 1957 (the year in which Peace and Lysistrata were broadcast on the Third) under the title Aristophanes against War. I’ve not yet come across any sources documenting the genesis of the idea to put Lysistrata on television in 1964, but doubtless it was Dickinson’s prior work for BBC Radio which recommended his translation as the basis for the television script.

Lysistrata is often conceived of as a feminist and an anti-war play; it is certainly true that the play involves a battle of the sexes but, under Lysistrata’s leadership, the women’s sole aim in withdrawing from sexual intercourse and occupying the Acropolis is merely to put an end to the specific war with Sparta and return to the peacetime domestic status quo, not to bring about a seismic social and political shift of power between the sexes or to put an end to all war. The camera script attests that there were no changes to the Aristophanic play to suggest that the women-take-power and anti-(Peloponnesian)-war themes were made to work towards 1960s feminist and pacifist agenda: this was, therefore, no modernization in political terms nor a direct ancestor of, for example, Tony Harrison’s The Common Chorus which was set in the women’s anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common. However, there was, of course, nothing to stop audiences from finding in the play their own ‘creative mis-readings’, as Lysistrata‘s audiences have done over the course of the twentieth century, and applying them to the rapidly changing world of 1960s Britain.

1964 BBC Lysistrata - Diane Cilento in the title role (Radio Times)

1964 BBC Lysistrata - Diane Cilento in the title role (Radio Times)

Dickinson’s text was cut and adapted for the television production by Marc Brandel so that, as the critic in The Times considered, it ‘did not offend the sensitive mass audience’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15). It is really interesting to read the 1964 camera script against the 1957 radio script and Dickinson’s original, published translation. No scenes are lost in the television version but throughout the dialogue and the choral verses are pared down, the language is more colloquial and the sentences simplified, giving the play an economy and therefore a lightness which, I am tempted to think, Brandel thought would work effectively in television presentation.

As may be expected, some of the more explicit sexual references were cut for both the radio and television productions, but it is striking to see how much was left in, which begs the question of how these sexual and other explicit references in the script were portrayed on screen where very little can be left to the imagination. For example, following what is sometimes referred to as the ‘striptease’ scene with his wife, Kinesias is left in a painfully aroused state on which the chorus comment as follows:

Leader: Poor old cock!
Chorus One: You’re in a bad way!
Chorus Two: You’re distressed –
Chorus Three: We’re sorry for you.
Chorus Four: The pangs of unemployment.
Chorus Five: Are more than a body can bear.

When the Spartan Herald arrives in a similar state, the innuendo does not stop:

Leader (admiringly): Look at him.
Chorus One: A big one, isn’t he?
Second Man: Where did you spring from?
Spartan: From Sparta.
Third Man: I see you’re having the same trouble down your way.
Fourth Man: No! He’s just stiff from the journey.
Spartan: I’ve got an urgent message to deliver to your senators.
Fifth Man: It’s urgent all right.
Leader: But it isn’t a senator you need.
Spartan: It’s a matter of public importance.
Leader: Looks more like a private problem to me.

And so it goes on. As noted above, the production made visual reference to ancient Greece with, for example, costumes consisting of robes, cloaks and sandals, and the introduction of sacrificial goats. The set also included strong Grecian references, with great columns suggestive of the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis. Did the producer stick with Aristophanic convention and portray the male actors with larger-than-life phalli, in accordance with the ‘fidelity’ to ancient convention in the costume and set design? (The genre of Old Comedy in which Aristophanes was operating featured actors wearing large leather phalli and substantial padding around the bottom and belly.) There were limits, of course, to nudity permitted on television, and one strongly suspects that the painfully erect phalli which are continually referred to in Aristophanes’ play were rather left to the viewer’s imagination in the televised Lysistrata, thus surely introducing a glaringly obvious and awkward tension between what was heard and what was seen.

Mary Whitehouse
Mary Whitehouse

As I noted in my previous post, some viewers let the BBC know that they had found aspects of the production ‘disgusting and coarse’ (BBC WAC Audience Research Report). One digusted viewer (who nevertheless seemed to have forced himself to watch to the very end) wrote a sternly worded letter to the Director of the Television Service, complaining in particular about Lysistrata but also more broadly about ‘The pre-occupation with sex and infidelity which permeates the BBC’ (letter from Mr H. B. Stanton to ‘The Director of Television Service’, 16 January 1964, BBC WAC T5/2160/1). Lysistrata was clearly not, for some, the only bit of sauciness on television in the early 1960s. This was, of course, the beginning of the era of Mary Whitehouse’s Clean Up TV campaign, the purpose of which was to excise any reference to sex or violence from the media, and whose manifesto made a direct appeal to the women of Britain in January 1964, the very month of this production! One has to wonder what she may have made of this televised Lysistrata.


5 thoughts on “Greek plays: Lysistrata redux (BBC, 1964)

  1. Amanda Wrigley wrote:

    > it is striking to see how much was left in,
    > which begs the question of how these sexual
    > and other explicit references in the script were
    > portrayed on screen where very little can be left
    > to the imagination

    I saw that Lysistrata on BBC TV in 1964 and can assure
    you that it left little to the imagination. For the time, the
    production was allowed great freedom, presumably on
    account of its classical ancestry. There was a ruse
    whereby the apparent male erections were supposed to
    be attributable to actors carrying rolled up scrolls
    inside their garments, but that was, I imagine, only
    to placate the censor: it was clear that the sex-strike,
    very provocative teasing and very skimpy costumes
    were having the intended effect.

    Most memorable, to my mind, was the sheer fun that
    the women had in realizing their power, through solidarity
    in a specific and pacific cause, over men who had previously
    been seen as dominant.

    For me, as a 17-year-old schoolboy, it was a memorable
    introduction to feminism as a force for change. The fact that it
    was also very sexy reinforced this: instead of women being
    presented as sex objects, it was we men who were made
    to look small, however large our organs might swell.

    I seem to recall a letter in the Manchester Guardian, a few days
    latter, along the lines: “Did you see the amazing production
    of Lysistrata on TV? How on earth did they get away with it?”

    It was a remarkable production, well grounded in
    Aristophanes’ original context and almost as
    explicit as one might imagine the original to
    have been. Had it been less explicit, it might
    have become merely smutty.

    What a shame that the recording is lost
    and that you have to rely on my imperfect
    memories of 50 years ago.

    Best wishes

    David Broadhurst

    Posted by David Broadhurst | 24 April 2014, 2:58 am
  2. By a strange coincidence, a 1963 Finnish adaptation DOES survive.

    Posted by Wels | 17 March 2018, 3:28 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
%d bloggers like this: