chapter  1
Sophisticated or seditious? Broadway, Gilbert Seldes, and Pablo Picasso (1930)
Pages 20

The embattled story of Gilbert Seldes’ relationship with Lysistrata includes many different rivals and many isolated conflicts. Sometimes serious and sometimes ridiculous, the challenges that befell the show frequently made newspaper headlines in the early 1930s. In order to bring his adaptation to life on the stage Seldes endured multiple slashes to his script and the arrest of his entire cast. Actors and dancers were frequently injured in production. The show’s primary financial backer died unexpectedly two weeks before opening night. Even Aristophanes, himself, was named as a person of interest in a Los Angeles police warrant issued against Seldes’ nationally touring show. As the target of vice squads across the country, Seldes’ adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy was constantly under siege. Yet, Seldes’ persistence rendered him one of the key players responsible for popularizing Aristophanes’ bawdy comedy in the US. In spite of the play’s explicit sexual humor, Seldes’ 1930 adaptation-the first English version to reach Broadway-won over critics and censors alike. His reputation for artistic discernment helped him ease a raunchy war-themed sex farce into the public imaginary. Moreover, by preserving the play’s carnal humor, Seldes’ adaptation pushed audiences to consider the corporeal connections between sexual love and war and their complex relationship to the power of words in this text. Though politically and sexually tame compared to some twenty-first century

versions, Seldes’ Lysistrata takes up questions of whose voices are privileged in the shaping of war histories and how notions of women’s citizenship are reconfigured according to shifting wartime gender roles. The female anti-war protagonist in Seldes’ Lysistrata, for example, is depicted as “not a real woman,” but a dangerous “intellectual” and “a woman who’s been disappointed in love and is trying to get even with the men” (91-2). While Seldes aimed to reimagine Aristophanes’ comedy in ways that would speak to Depression-era audiences, the adaptation tends to deal more with lingering social questions from the

previous decade than with the much newer economic anxieties of 1930. As one reviewer put it, “the bawdy nonsense of the play tickled the public funny bone because […] it was of the end of a prohibition era which baited sex as a lure for legit entertainment” (Billboard). The roar of the 1920s is most audible in the moments when Seldes’ characters wrestle with women’s changing roles in the public sphere and the effects of a distant war on domestic life. Seldes’ adaptation also grapples with one of the central tensions of Aristophanes’ text: how comedy (and blue humor, in particular) both reveals and obscures some of the most somatic, physical, and violent atrocities of war. Seldes’ provocative Broadway production opened in June 1930. After initial

censorship concerns were allayed by the placement of police officers assigned to “listening posts” in the auditorium, the show ran successfully for seven months in New York’s Forty-Fourth Street Theatre. Evidently, the play’s lewd nature was enough to attract the interest of authorities, but as theatre historian Ethan Mordden suggests, the notional sophistication of classical Greek theatre outweighed its potential for indecency. “Sophisticated wasn’t seditious-it was naughty. Lysistrata seduced-better, neutralized-suspicious cops. Entranced by the opportunity to Get One’s Culture In while enjoying a burlesque show, the public kept Lysistrata running” (129). In 1934 when Seldes published his successful adaptation alongside illustrations by his longtime friend, Pablo Picasso, this same friction re-emerged. Potential buyers of one edition were reassured that Picasso’s sketches exemplified the best of modernist representation and that only the uncultivated eye would find them “rotten” or “infantile” (Sandglass). While Seldes’ script reveals nuanced Depression-era anxieties about women’s changing roles and the costs of war, the unmitigated sexuality of Picasso’s simple line drawings offer a provocative visual backdrop against which Seldes’ rich text performs. Ultimately, the publication, like the play itself, stirred up questions about the middle space between elite and illicit cultural forms. It forced readers to reconcile their highbrow taste for classical theatre with the unadulterated persistence of Picasso’s erotic bodies on the page. It is this tension between the high and low that structures Seldes’ relationship

to Aristophanes’ text. The dire seriousness of war and the frivolities of sex are the carnal polarities that undergird the play’s plot, and onto these poles we can map some of the contradictions that made Seldes such an interesting textual interpreter. “I took good care that I injected nothing into the play,” he wrote, “because an old dead man named Aristophanes had put into that play more than enough for one play to carry. He said something of vital importance about a war and something interesting about sex. He had chosen the two subjects on which nearly all the world is either too prejudiced or too sentimental to think clearly, and he had thought clearly” (Kammen 168). Seldes’ yearning for the democratization of culture combined with his deep entrenchment in the bourgeois art world made him a paradoxical public figure. His desire to make popular art for the common man operated in complex relation to his calls for a more socially conscious theatre.