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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 3, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
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Howard Richler
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Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:


Even the cursory exposure to Greek drama usually experienced by college students reveals a curious preponderance of themes about women. After a brief peek at the early origins of drama via the Choral Dithyramb (a song sung by about 50 boys) and its evolution by Thespis, the first ‘actor’ according to Aristotle, students will usually plunge into Aeschylus – the early tragedian.

In his masterpiece trilogy The Orestia, the playwright instantly digs into women’s issues. In the first play Agamemnon, we see Clytemnestra Queen of Argos impressing the male chorus against their will because, as a woman, she is the first person in town to discover and declare the news that the Trojan War has ended. She then quickly steals the thunder of male victory celebrations by launching into a long diatribe telling of the myriad sacrifices women must make when their men go off to war: maintenance of family support and stability, fending off political challenges from wannabes, and keeping the citizenry ordered and peaceful. She is the strongest character in the play and easily outmaneuvers her misogynistic husband King Agamemnon. He has brought a captured girl-friend home from Troy and shamelessly paraded her in front of the townspeople; his wife craftily bides her time and soon fixes his wagon.

In the last play of The Orestia -- Eumenides -- Aeschylus writes of the goddess Athena and female deities – Erinyes – who enter into a deeply philosophical debate about the nature of justice. Turning to an infamous issue in The Suppliant Women, he addresses the universal problem of arranged marriages – an institution that is still a problem for women in some societies.

The playwright Sophocles chooses a woman – Antigone -- to fight for the rights of private conscience over the dictates of monolithic rule and she becomes his model for heroic civil disobedience and inspiration for the movement against tyranny. The unwavering, tenacious Antigone defies King Creon who has ordered dishonour for her brother’s corpse. After defeating his authority with powerful rhetoric usually uttered by men, she proudly walks off stage to face his order of death rather than succumb to his edict violating her belief.

Euripides’ Medea becomes a fabled symbol of victimization. She has sacrificed every possible resource she has for her husband Jason who leaves her for a younger woman. Throughout the play in magnificent speeches, Medea reviews the fate of womanhood at the hands of male dominance and can exact revenge against her philandering husband only by resorting to unimaginable violence.

In his tragi-comic play Alcestis, Euripides again examines female issues. In this play, he celebrates one of the great heroines of mythology in Alcestis who unselfishly sacrifices her own life to save her husband from a premature death. Apollo had once persuaded the fates to grant King Admetus the privilege of living past his allotted time of death as recompense for the hospitality the king had shown him during his exile from Olympus. However, there is a catch: the king must find a substitute. After fruitless search, he ignominiously consents to let his wife Alcestis die instead of him. This courageous, unselfish woman shows herself as another great heroine in Greek drama. She agrees to die because she doesn’t want to leave her children fatherless. The playwright has such regard for his heroine that he has Heracles bring her back from the dead and celebrate her virtue with a happy ending reuniting her with husband and children.

Aristophanes, the chief architect of Greek comedy, routinely employs female characters to advance political issues and satirize many foibles in Greek society. In Lysistrata , Spartan and Athenian women, fed up with the Peloponnesian war, decide to go on a sex strike until the men quit fighting. Scenes of eminent warriors in their proud battle attire reduced to helpless fools begging for sex are hysterically funny. However, in addition to the farce, Aristophanes glorifies the intellectual and political idealism of women when Lysistrata debates a hawkish magistrate and demonizes the age-old male propensity for war to solve disputes.

A play with the unlikely title Thesmophoriazusae (sometimes called The Poet and the Women) focuses on the subversive role of women in a male-dominated society. Here Aristophanes has the women of Athens summoning Euripides to account for the misogynistic portrayal they receive in some plays. The play comically deals with sexual stereotyping -- an issue forgotten for a couple of thousand years until modern-day women’s groups once again raised its banner.

Near the end of his life around 392 B.C.E., Aristophanes wrote a play dubbed Ecclesiazusae (now called The Assembly Women or Women in Parliament). It was written after the loss of the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.E.) during the time that Plato was composing The Republic. By this time, the high blown triumph of Athenian democracy had fallen and been replaced by various oligarchies, tyrannies and brief dictatorships. Public officials and philosophers alike were once again searching for an ideal government; thus Plato’s famous treatise.

With tongue-in-cheek but a once again crafty portrait of male failure, Aristophanes has the wise Praxagora leading a group of women into the assembly and, with the support of some men, gaining control of the Athenian government. The strong, organized women in the play are contrasted with the ineffectual men which is the playwright’s comment on the dissolute state of Athenian politics.

This last play has an ominous foreshadowing for present day politics. In record numbers, women are declaring for office prior to American mid-term elections. Several have already won primaries in traditional male-dominated districts. The well-publicized misogynistic antics of celebrity males in media, business and politics have roused large segments of the female population in a dramatic call to action.

For those searching for historical precedents of this notable insurrection, a perusal of important feminine issues initially put forth by Greek playwrights ages ago may yield fodder for the struggle women are presently undertaking.


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Henry Steiner
Point beautifully taken Professor Catalano. You have conjured feminine protests from ages past and set them marching on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wonder what ideas these women characters would have brought forth had they been spared the assistance of male "midwives!" What would Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Medea, Antigone, and Lysistrata have sounded like in the hands of a woman?

By Nick Catalano:
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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