The play was originally performed at either the Dionysia or a smaller Festival of Dionysus, called the Lenaia festival. A different comedy by Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria, was also produced that year, and it is not clear which play was produced at which festival.
Lysistrata is the first completely positive female leader portrayed in drama (who was a mortal and not a goddess). While Lysistrata has great difficulty holding the women together, she never falters in her role as a General and through the play is a model of feminine rationality. Professor Elizabeth Scharffenberger (Columbia Classics) points out Lysistrata, "releaser of war," sounds remarkably similar to an important priestess in Athens at that time whose name, Lysimache, meant "releaser of the battle." The connection would have encouraged the association of Lysistrata with sacred Athena - a model of male-like rationality. Athena was, after all, born from the head of Zeus.
The play addresses the contributions women could make to society and to policy making and readers are left to decide for themselves if the play is a proto-feminist dialogue, or not. The play as a work of art can be staged effectively as a misogynist lampooning of women (as it was in Greece in the 1960s) or as a feminist argument for the need for more female participation in civic life. The play would have been highly comic to Aristophanes' contemporaries, because female power played out as a real possibility, would have been ludicrous. The "women" would have been played by men, and their inability to deal with the lack of sex and their addiction to alcohol fed into the dark, funny, stereotypes about women. But Aristophanes clearly has a feeling for the hardships that women faced and wrote too much compelling dialogue for the female characters who dominate the story for the play to not be recognized as a pro-female work. A central metaphor of the play is weaving. The idea that woman are better at going hither and thither and pulling together the strands of society positions women as essential to "weaving the fabric of a nation." The idea of a domestic skill being core to uniting a war-torn nation may seem ludicrous, but in fact it may have been taken seriously in ancient Athens. Weaving was at the center of Athenian life. The central mystery of the Great Panathenaea Festival and the mystery suggested in the central frieze on the South Pediment of the Parthenon (which involves the handing over of a piece of fabric, probably a Peplos) supports the idea that weaving was at the center Athenian culture.
Lysistrata touches upon the poignancy of young women left with no eligible young men to marry because of deaths in the wars: "Nay, but it isn't the same with a man/Grey though he be when he comes from the battlefield/still if he wishes to marry he can/Brief is the spring and the flower of our womanhood/once let slip, and it comes not again/Sit as we may with our spells and our auguries/never a husband shall marry us then."
As with all Greek comedies, the actors portraying male characters wore phalluses, but since audiences of the day were accustomed to this convention, there would be little shock-humor in seeing a comic phallus. Aristophanes' innovation seems to be in making the usually floppy huge comic phalluses stiff and erect. The Athenians had a penchant for sexual jokes and modern productions such as the sexy staging done for PBS in 2007, tend to emphasize the erotic and play down the more explicit references to genitals. According to Jeffrey Henderson, laws against profanity in the United States prevented honest translations before 1960. Henderson's recent translation has shocked many scholars and theater goers who thought they knew the play.
In 1961, the play served as the basis for the musical The Happiest Girl in the World. The play was revived in the National Theatre's 1992-93 season, transferring successfully from the South Bank to Wyndham's Theatre.
Feminist director Mai Zetterling made a radical 1968 film Flickorna (released in English as The Girls), starring three reigning Swedish film beauties of the time, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom, who are depicted playing roles in Lysistrata.
Ludo Mich adapted the play for a 1976 film in which all the actors and actresses were naked throughout.
An updated version of the play, which was made into a Mozart-like opera in the 1960s, was published in 1979. The opera was to be performed at Detroit's Wayne State University in 1968, but was canceled when the tenor was drafted into the army 4 days before the performance. The opera director got cold feet about its anti-Vietnam war protest libretto, and used the tenor's draft notice as an excuse to perform the opera in a small room with a new unrehearsed tenor, but no room for a normal-sized audience. The composer regarded that action as unacceptable censorship and then withdrew the opera.
In 2004, a 100 person version of show called Lysistrata 100 was performed in Brooklyn, New York. The new adaptation was written by Edward Einhorn and performed in a former warehouse which had been converted to a pub. The play was set at the Dionysia, much like the original may have been.
Another operatic version of the play was created by composer Mark Adamo. Adamo's opera Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in March 2005. In summer 2005, an adaptation set in present-day New York City written by Jason Tyne premiered in Central Park. Lucy and her fellow New Yorkers Cleo and Cookie called all of the wives, girlfriends, and lovers of the men in control of the most powerful countries in the world to inflict their sex boycott on them.
A present-day Lysistrata played out in the town of Pereira, Colombia, in September 2006 when a group of gangsters' wives and girlfriends declared a sex strike to force their partners to participate in a disarmament program.
In 2007, the play was staged for PBS and directed by James Thomas as part of a series on "Female Power & Democracy" that explored how female participation in civic life is moving from comedy to reality.
In 2008 SUU put on another modern twist of this play. They focused more on the duties a wife provides her huband to be withheld, as well as sex, in order to stop the war.
In the M*A*S*H episode, "Edwina" a variation on the main theme of Lysistrata was presented when all the nurses withheld sex from their partners until one of the men would date a clumsy nurse on staff.
In the Little Mosque on the Prairie episode, "The Barrier" Sarah uses this theme to convince her husband Yasir to remove the barrier in the Mosque. Later in the episode, the play is mentioned by name in reference to this strategy in a conversation between Sarah and Mayor Popowicz.