By Dennis Polkow
“If Aristophanes were alive today,” says an elderly but still twinkling Bernard Sahlins, “he would be on cable television.” It may a seem a long way from the satirical ancient Greek playwright to the Second City some two-and-a-half millennia later, but Sahlins, a founder of Chicago’s legendary comedy troupe who is directing a production of “Lysistrata” this weekend, puts the timeframe in perspective: “Long before Second City, when I was directing ‘straight’ plays, including the Greek tragedies, Claudia Cassidy [then Chicago Tribune critic] wrote that I had directed the worst production in 2,000 years.” Well, she ought to know.
Sahlins says that he has always been interested in Greek drama, a love that was in part fostered by his time studying the classics at the University of Chicago, where he graduated in 1943. “A University of Chicago education was once described as ‘Casting imaginary pearls before real swine.’ But don’t use that.
“You know, the high point of Greek drama only lasted for about eighty-six years. The period of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes passed quickly and then there was nothing except street theater until the Middle Ages and the development of church plays. The era of the playwright, the individual dramatist, did not emerge again until the Renaissance and the phenomenon of the playwright as we think of it is a fairly modern phenomenon that really fully came about in the nineteenth century.”
It was at the Playwrights Theatre Club, a professional theater group formed by University of Chicago alumni, that Sahlins cut his directing teeth and also began producing plays as well. He also went on to direct and produce plays at the-then-abandoned Studebaker Theatre bringing many important plays to Chicago for the first time, including the first-ever Chicago performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
It wasn’t until the McCarthy era that Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk collectively hatched the idea of launching a stage-based comedy troupe that they would call the Second City, self-mockingly spotlighting a pejorative phrase that had been used in the New Yorker to describe Chicago at that time.
“It was a repressed era,” Sahlins recalls, “and any time you have repression, you need comedy of behavior as an antidote.” Comedy of behavior? “Most comedy at that time was stand-up, one performer talking directly to an audience that is joke-telling for its own sake, which I still cannot get into. It is so in the audience’s face, does not engage their direct participation and is so manipulative, the lowest common denominator, if you will, of comedy that goes for the cheap laugh and then moves quickly on to the next one. Then there is comedy of comment, one step up from that, such as Monty Python where it’s, ‘Let’s send up the Queen.’ ”
The highest form of comedy for Sahlins, however, is “stage comedy,” or “comedy of behavior” which “has the audience identify with the characters and come to what is funny by experiencing the humor through that identification.” It is this kind of comedy that Aristophanes pioneered in ancient Athens, and Sahlins says it is that kind of comedy that is more relevant than ever. “The situations, the characters, the vulgarity, it is as if it were written yesterday. The golden rule of behavior comedy is: respect the audience.”
Indeed, the literary references in Aristophanes reveal a playwright and an Athens public that were keenly and culturally aware, something that was also true of the original Second City creators and audience, primarily University of Chicago alumni. It is a credo that Sahlins never forgot and also applied to Second City Toronto, which he opened in 1973 and the SCTV television series, which he co-produced. Among the unknown talent that Sahlins is credited with hiring in Canada and back in Chicago were John and Jim Belushi, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray.
Sahlins shrugs his shoulders at the thought of having lived long enough to be considered an iconic comedy guru, although he admits that he was “walking on air” throughout the recent celebration of the Second City fiftieth anniversary that lauded his pioneering work. Still, he notes that the principles of what makes something funny really have not changed since the time of Aristophanes, whose play “Lysistrata” he is directing in a “staged reading” for the Poetry Foundation this week.
“We will have a few basic props and a couple of costumes, but in Aristophanes, it is the words that matter. The translation is by my friend Nicholas Rudall, a University of Chicago classicist that made these works very contemporary. They say that the average shelf-life of a translation is about ten to fifteen years, but in this case, [Rudall] did his work well enough it has lasted a bit longer, though we have taken bits and pieces of other translations as well and adapted a bit here and there to keep everything fresh.”
The scenario of “Lysistrata” is the twentieth year of the bloody Peloponnesian War and the women of Athens, led by Lysistrata, are so fed up that they decide to deny sexual relations to their husbands until they end the war, once and for all. That prohibition ends up having unforeseen and comic consequences for both sides in a battle of the sexes over who can hold out the longest, and along the way phallic imagery and coarse language help express the repression on both sides.
“How it all enfolds is so amazing and clever,” says Sahlins, “because of course, it is funny, it is crude, as you would expect. But for Aristophanes to make the women the heroes of the play within such a man-centered culture was so daring and forward-looking. It tells a modern audience that when it comes to equality of the sexes, it may be taking millennia, but at least we are on the right track.”
The Poetry Foundation‘s “Lysistrata” will be performed at 7:30pm February 21 and 22 at the Victory Gardens Studio, 2433 N. Lincoln, (773)871-3000. $10-$20.