The Conversation That Started All This

“The thing you have to understand about the Sixties,” Ed Starr tells me over coffee in the crowded, noisy cafeteria of the Air and Space Museum, “is that it really felt like the end of the world. Violence. Riots. War.”

Ed's agreeing to be my Assistant Director on Lysistrata; we met at the museum by pure chance on a lunch hour, and now we're talking theme, tone, what a production of Lysistrata would look like set in 1969, a flower children's cry for peace against the looming backdrop of Vietnam. Lysistrata is a wild, unabashed sex comedy, arguably Aristophanes' finest work, but Ed and I are in perfect agreement that we want it to be something a little deeper than pure farce, at the core. We want to touch on that strand Aristophanes did himself, the fact that underneath the play's building sexual frustration, the teasing, the genuinely funny battle of the sexes, there's real loss. All of these people have lost friends, brothers, lovers, husbands, sons to the war. Ed tells me it felt like the world was coming to an end. Surely, he wasn't alone in feeling that way.

I'm listening avidly, in part because my own tenure in the Sixties was only a matter of months (I was born in the summer of 1969, just-pre-Moon landing), and in part because Ed is one of the more fascinating conversationalists you're ever going to meet and He Was There. A young man in 1969. A goldmine, to someone contemplating setting a play in that era.

“It felt like that,” I argue, feeling him out, “and yet there was also a sense of real optimism to the age. Passionate activism. You can hear it in the protest music, see it in the art. I think it may have been the last time there was actually a sense that the actions of a few people could change the world for the better. That a protest or a play could make a difference. That a song or a symbol like a flower in a gun could win hearts and change minds.”

Ed doesn't disagree, so I go with it.

“The same force of fundamental optimism drives Lysistrata,” I say, staring into my cooling coffee as I feel my way through the thought. “For Aristophanes, it was the idea that Athens could be saved by comedy, that the pen could be mightier than the sword, and the war, shown to be exhausting and unnecessary, could end in lasting peace rather than disaster for Athens. It had to have felt like the end of the world for the Athenians, too, because in a very real sense, it was. Lysistrata is first shown in 411 BC. The Peloponnesian War's been going on for the better part of 20 years. Athens has just suffered a demoralizing defeat in Sicily. The Persians are coming to the aid of Sparta. Athenian democracy itself is threatened. It's the end of the world as they know it. And in the midst of all that, there's this play that offers an impossible, hilarious solution to end the war, and it's full of a rather poignant combination of grief and hope. It's a little hard to spot when you're being hit in the face with that much sex, but it's there.”

I look down at my tray. It turns out I've been rebuilding Athens' Long Walls of Megara out of McDonalds french fries. Piraeus is a tiny cup of ketchup, Athens, a chicken mc nugget.

“In a few short years, Athens is going to lose the Peloponnesian War.” I can feel myself starting to frown absently at my edible diagram as I pontificate. Ed allows it. I dip a fry of the Long Walls into Ketchup Piraeus and eat it. “In 1969, within an even shorter span of years, the Vietnam War will end in failure for the United States, and leave lasting scars on a generation. It wasn't enough to put on a play, get everyone laughing, bring the soldiers home in joy and peace and call it done. But in the optimism of the attempt, there's a kind of triumph. And the effects of that optimism have come down to us through 2,400 turbulent years of human history, and we still perform this play today, all around the world, with the same not-so-secret hope.”

“In short,” Ed says expansively, raising his coffee cup for an ironic toast, “the world is ending. Let's put on a show!”

I snort into my now-cold coffee, toast him back, and sign on for another labor of love.

-Jaki Demarest