Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dwayne Johnson as Hercules is not at all bad.

The first 5 minutes of Brett Ratner's 2014 Hercules (I) conveys a remarkable point succinctly: This is not an entirely conventional Heracles narrative. A handful of divergences begin to flow quickly by. The Radical Comics graphic novel by Steve Moore clearly deserves closer inspection. Where the screenplay diverges from Moore's creation will reward analysis; in this quick blogpost I focus on details in the screenplay by Ryan Condal and Even Spiliotopoulos directed by Ratner.

OGCMA0551NOTHeracles_Ratner: Hercules (aka son of Zeus) is flanked
by Iolaus and Atalanta.
     The Maecedonian Coast in 358 B.C. is an extraordinary time — if not also place — to set a mythic narrative. The year 358 B.C. is well within the frame of history, half a century after the demise of the Athenian Empire and well within the period of Maecdonia's meteoric rise under Philip. It is hardly the period one might assign, if one had to, to the time when a demigod roved upon the earth.

The film opens with a partial explication of the Heracles' canonical labors. Three alone are needed to get Ratner's narrative under way. And the three are told in a rather inverted sequence with dramatic crescendo: Lernean Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, and the Nemean Lion. Typically, in Classical mythology, the Lion that roves the hills above Tiryns near Nemea comes first, the Hydra bred in the swamp of Lerna comes second, and the Boar on Mt Erymanthus is the fourth canonical Labor. 

We soon learn that the three labors are being narrated by a young captive, who is presently afflicted with a bit of hero worship and the vicious designs of his captors. This narrator will turn out to be none other than Iolaus, a nephew of Heracles who canonically helps Heracles slay the Hydra (but not here).

Before Iolaus' identity is learned, though, the most remarkable element of Ratner's Heracles narrative comes clean: this brawny hero is accompanied by a cast of super-heroic sidekicks. The team is a remarkable hybridization from the myths that deal with the generation before the Trojan War.

Autolycos — played with deft comic timing by Ian McShane, Autolycus is mythologically the maternal grandfather of Odysseus; by some later accounts he is the son of Hermes; in Homer he outstrips all mortals in "thievery and (ambiguous) swearing" (Od. 19.394ff) and one perpetrated a memorable theft (Il. 10.367).

Atalanta — brings a strong female to Heracles' supporting team, Atalanta is mythologically a veteran of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the defender of her chastity against the advances of centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus whom she slew, and sworn to perpetual virginity as hunting companion of Artemis. If I have seen Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in a previous film, I have not notice her.

Amphiaraus — a participant in the Seven Against Thebes expedition, Amphiaraus is a rather shadowy character in classical mythology. He was bribed by Polynices with the necklace of Harmonia to march against Eteocles' Thebean defenders; other myths have him killed by Zeus' thunderbolt and swallowed with his chariot into the gaping earth. Since Rufus Sewell plays him in this film, people will notice him closely.

Tydeus — a berzerker with a menacing headwound, in this film, and a propensity for dog-like behavior, Tydeus also — as the others here — technically antedates the Trojan War. The father of Diomedes in myth (not overtly in this film), Tydeus is so bloodthirsty that he slew Ismene (Aesch. Septem 377ff.) and impiously devoured the brains of Melanippus. Aksel Hennie plays this character with convincingly crazed demeanor.

and Iolaus — the boy here who strives to be like Hercules is in mythology the nephew of Heracles who assists in one Labor (the Hydra) but forebears from assistance when Eurystheus disqualifies any of Heracles' tasks that include assistance. Reece Ritchie is amusing in this part.

Why the side-kicks are so intriguing to me may be summed up in one particular observation pertaining to Heracles' canonically assigned Second Labor, the slaying of the Lernean Hydra. According to Apollodoros Libr. 2.5.2, "Eurystheus ordered Heracles to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a water creature bred in the swamp of Lerna, which invaded dry land destroying livestock and ravaging fields." Though heroically successful in "overcoming the growing heads, then cutting off the immortal one", Heracles' effort was disqualified by Eurystheus who said that Heracles "had not conquered the Hydra alone but with the help of Iolaus." From that moment forth, Heracles always acted as a soloist. In classical mythology it is typically the far inferior hero Jason who assembles a dream-team of helpers to foster his great quest.

So, where does this leave me? I'm at the "that" part of my consideration of this compelling film. It's clear that the narrative belonging to Moore, Spiliotopoulos, Condal, and Ratner is aware of classical mythological ancestry. The development of a hero-with-sidekicks narrative seems right for the comic-book age. I need to turn the corner and explain now the "why" of all this remarkable alteration. And especially intriguing will be answering why Hercules now in a sceptical post-9/11 age needs helpers and why these helpers especially come to the fore.

—— RTM

Monday, March 30, 2015

CAMWS scholars present numerous papers on mythological usages

The CAMWS (Classical Association of the Middle-West and South) annual meeting 2015 took place this last weekend in Boulder. Four full sessions on the first day of papers treated the reception of classics kept me busy for a very instructive day. The next day featured two further sessions, nearly four more hours!, in the afternoon. While not all paper-topics in these sessions pertain to the reception of classical mythology, every one taught me something new. The papers that fit into the scope of the MythMatters blog receive here some commentary, even if they deserve much more. The abstracts for the papers are published at camws.org.

Meredith E. Safran (Trinity College) talked about “The Heraklean and Promethean Protagonists of Supernatural (2005-2015).” I learned from Safran to regard Supernatural as a “post 9/11 narrative”. Having watched a grand total of one episode of the CW series, I could still follow Safran’s detailed explication of how characterization of the one Winchester brother manifests systematic allusion to the traits of Heracles from Greek mythographical sources. The classical Heracles’ famously voracious appetites for food and sex play subtly into the character of the monster-slaying protagonist. Numerous details were presented in Safran’s compelling treatment. All the way from his near-miss brush with death in the cradle to his consumption of ginormous sandwiches, according to Safran, the character is drawn with intentional similarity to Heracles. Prometheus got somewhat shorter schrift; but, I quite enjoyed learning about the numerous characters in Supernatural whose attributes involve the great Titan’s willful recalcitrance.  Even though she presented less information about the one episode of Supernatural I know — I watched “Remember the Titans” (season 10, ep. 13) for its Prometheus content, because current myth student Danielle Orrock’s spectacular paper— Safran dealt with this particular episode in Q&A.

Polly Hoover (Wright College) read a paper about “Theo Angelopoulous’ The Traveling Players and the Transformation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” This is a film I have never seen, but its usage of the Orestes myth was presented in an engaging way. The play-within-the film, a traveling production of a drama called “Gorgo the Shepherdess”, brings together several elements of an oresteia, and the film’s narrative frame has only one character named after the mythological Tantalids. Others assume roles like unto Aegisthus, Agamemnon and so forth.

Yasuko Taoka (Southern Illinois University) treated compelling questions of mythological reception in her paper “Reception and Pastiche in Peter Milligan’s Greek Street.” Taoka showed that the creator of the graphic novel Greek Street raises matters of reception in a rather sophisticated way. As gritty and off-putting as Milligan’s unpleasant style may be, the narrative includes characters who know their classical mythology. And Taoka left the audience reconsidering whether a low-brow façade can front a useful mythological reception. One wonders whether the reader to whom the cartoon’s sleaze and gore will appeal most is going to care about the high-brow ideas Taoka introduced today. I think she is raising serious question about the groundrules for reception studies. Whether I will dig deeper into the Greek Street narratives, I have to admit that today’s paper made me think.

Summer Trentin (Metropolitan State University of Denver) walked us through Raphael’s fresco cycle on Cupid and Psyche in the Chigi Villa Farnesina. “Apuleius and Intellectualism in Raphael’s Loggia of Psyche” was a well illustrated talk. Even if Trentin’s pictures were primarily available in public domain online, it was still delightful to walk virtually through the Psyche cycle with a trained expert. Q&A brought out some detail pertaining to the specifically named Neo-Platonism that the presenter had grouped into the rubric of “intellectualism” during the paper.

      I regret that another commitment kept me from hearing Sarah G. Titus (University of Washington) discuss “Socrates, Fénelon, and Kauffman: negotiating identity through common experience”.  It was reported as a very fine paper.  
       The 1699 didactic prose work Les avantures de Télémaque by François de Salignac De La Mothe-Fénelon was tremendously influential in the 18th Century in Europe and then secondarily in 19th-century America. It is a myth built neo-classically into the narrative space Homer and the classical tragedians left wide open, namely the experiences of Telmachus after the Odyssey’s conclusion. Familiar faces from Homer are there: Idomeneus, Nestor (again), Athena (though called Minerva, of course), the Sirens, and many others are all here.

         The panel on recent literary reception of the classics capped the afternoon quite nicely, with a session of five good papers. Catherine M. Schlegel (University of Notre Dame) explicated “Auden’s Homer: ‘The Shield of Achilles.’” Sarah H. Nooter (University of Chicago) read “The Loss of telos: the Oresteia of Athol Fugard.” This paper left me thinking that I will have to examine connections between Fugard’s play and Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu, which I addressed in an earlier Mythmatters blogpost. Though Sarah Ahbel Rappe (University of Michigan) was unable to attend, her paper was read in absentia: “Teaching ‘Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition’ as a Course in the State Prison System” is a personal experience of Rappe’s reading classical tragic texts with convicted felons in the Michigan penal system. Remarkably, many of these women have experienced first-hand the very unspeakable crimes that the classical tragedians narrate. Especially because a student in my myth course last week told me that Medea-like crimes “statistically never happen,” Rappe’s account was personally moving for me.
Finally, the afternoon’s most passionate paper was delivered by Carolin Hahnemann (Kenyon College): “Translucent Transplants: on the sublime similes in Alice Oswald’s Memorial.” Hahnemann demonstrated intimate familiarity with the formidable 2012 poem. Because Oswald’s poem focuses on the mythological elements of Homer’s Iliad, the poem deserves to be included in the OGCMA’s next edition. Hahnemann has been lecturing much on Oswald’s rather innovative reception of Homer and the Troy War myth. Let’s call it OGCMA1047NOTTrojanWar_Oswald.

On Friday, an entire session treated classical reception in music. And the topics were broadly divergent. Byron Stayskal (Western Washington University) presented on “Innovation and Tradition: Charon in the Libretto of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo.” Robyn M. Rocklein (Ringling College of Art and Design) treated “Distortions of Dejanira: visions of female virtue in Handel’s Hercules (1745). And David T. Hewett (University of Virginia) introduced me to the remarkable mythological depth of the band Genesis during the 1970s especially: “Forever to Be Joined as One: Genesis’ ‘The Fountain of Salamacis’ and Ovid.” Other songs by the band in their formative years manifest classical mythological sophistication. Educated schoolboys knew their myths and worked them into their albums and stage shows.

Friday’s session of papers on reception in film had a surprisingly small audience, perhaps because the springtime weather was so fine. Chris Ann Matteo (Fairfax County Public Schools) argued from an anthropological interpretation that Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of Orpheus reenacts the Dionysiac sparagmos (ritual dismemberment of the poet). In “Dissecting Orpheus in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!” Dr. Matteo considers the songs of the film’s soundtrack as artistic dismemberments of their originals, wrenched from their original contexts and significantly altered in style or intent.

In another paper Scott A. Barnard (Rutgers University) sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the filmmakers, who have been for a decade now the target of narrow-minded classicists’ pedantry. The author looked for and provided evidence of truly Homeric details in “Authentic Inauthenticity: Homeric resonance in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004).”

O Brother, Where Art Thou has taken on new meaning for me, because of the paper by Ryan C. Platte (Washington University in St. Louis) called “Scholarly Feedback: homeric studies and American song culture in Coen Brothers Films.” He argues that that film narrates the musical event called the first folkmusic revival. Homer’s historical bearing, at the transition between oral and written culture, makes his Odyssey narrative especially apt for the vehicle for telling it. Likewise, in another Coen Brothers film, matters of folk music are addressed and, again, the Odyssey is the narrative frame. Platte’s paper now has me looking for all manner of electrical innovations that populate the visual landscape of Coen Brothers’ sophisticated film. But his interpretation of the “stringing the bow” episode is for me the most persuasive part of Platte’s paper.
Rocki Wentzel (Augustana College) offered commentary on a less-than-obvious mythological paradigm in one of my favorite mythological films in “Beyond Pygmalion: the writer as Narcissus in Ruby Sparks.”

And in “Politics and Violence in Jorge Alí Triana’s Edipo Alcalde,” by Prof. Annette M. Baertschi (Bryn Mawr College) the remarkable Chilean film was analyzed in a sensitive treatment of the film’s violence. The paper was more about Creon, perhaps, than about Jocasta’s incest. [The Mythmatters reader(s) may recall my blogpost about Edipo Alcalde’s gut-wrenching Jocasta narrative.] For me the most valuable part of Baertschi’s paper, the detail I will anticipate most eagerly prior to publication, is her documenttion of Nobel-laureate screenwriter Garcia Marquéz’ preoccupation with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex throughout his career and correspondence. The film is absolutely worth further study, and Baertschi’s interpretation will play an important role in classicsists’ understanding it.

Finally, the conference ended on a reception high-note, when George Frederic Franko (Hollins University) offered a paper that seemed to me more about Shakespeare than about Ovid. “Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe: lamentable new comedy,” was a highlight of the conference for me, especially because Franko has clear control of the Sahkespearean context as well as the Ovidian text. Because I was presiding as the session where he spoke, I was able to tell Prof. Franko how much I enjoyed his insightful paper. in the blogpost, I can only encourage the reader(s) to go and consult Franko’s abstract, and all the many others, at camws.org.

—— RTM, 29 March 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hermione's statue in Winter's Tale: is Leontes Pygmalion or not?

Shakespeare's Winter's Tale concludes a stunning scene of transformation in its final act. Queen Hermione was reported to have died in the most abject circumstances some sixteen years earlier (WT 3.2.3). Over the years her memory has been kept alive by a sculpted likeness by her husband's Leontes. In the play's finale a remarkable denouement occurs to the amazement of the on-stage characters (as well as the audience, to be sure). Some critics see the transformation of the statue into a living Hermione (WT 5.3.11) as a a parallel to Pygmalion's creation in the classical myth (Ov. Met. 10.243-98).

Engraving by Robert Thew of Wm Hamilton, R.A.,
"Statue of Hermione".
Jane Davidson Reid's Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts lists the statue of Hermione as a usage in the Pygmalion article (p. 956). Corroborative scholarship includes Carroll (1985) 213ff. and Barkan 1986 283-87.

The MythMatters blog's reader(s) know(s) of my reticence to allow Shakespeare's Hamlet to be listed as a usage of the Orestes myth. Nutshelled: Hamlet clearly references Neoptolemus' murder of Priam and imposes the mythic paradigm of that narrative upon the events raging in Elsinore and in Hamlet's tormented mind; overt reference to Orestes' plight is wholly lacking in the bard's masterpiece. When Shakespeare alludes to a classical myth, in my opinion, he knows how to do so, and he tends to let his audience know it.

The Winter's Tale's application of a classical myth is somewhat problematic for my narrow definitions of what is allowable in Shakespearean myth-use criticism. For, I see no overt reference to Pygmalion and his ivory girl (aka Galatea in post-classical parlance). Criticism perhaps ought to pause at the threshold of treating this "parallel" — i.e. Leontes:Pygmalion::Hermione:"Galatea" —and settle merely to observe that the scene merely seems to draw upon the Ovidian forebear. Yet, that positively-spun Pygmalionism infuses Leontes' dedication to his lost wife, who after years of separation comes back to him. Presumably all the work that Pygmalion had put into prayers to Venus and into masterful craftsmanship has been expended by Leontes in the interim since Hermione's unfortunate demise. (The play's text itself states that not Leontes himself but one Giulio Romano had sculpted Hermione's likeness for the widowed king.)

Shakespeare clearly knew Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Pygmalion myth comes into Western literature through no other way than through the text that the bard is known to have read, at least in Claxton's translation if not in Latin, in his school days. Reid offers as "classical sources" for Pygmalion "Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.243-98. Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.14.3." However, that latter passage includes no tale of an animated sculpture: "οὕτος [Κινύρας] ἐν Κύπρῳ, παραγενόμενος σὺν λαῷ, ἔκιστε Πάφον, γήμας δὲ ἐκεῖ Μεθάρμην, κόρην Πυγμαλίωνος Κυπρίων βασιλέως..." (Cinyras migrated to Cyprus with a people, founded Paphos, and married there Metharme the daughter of Pygmalion the king of the Cypriots). Ovid alone gets the provocative sculptor into our literary tradition.

Was Shakespeare working with the Pygmalion story as he received it in Ovid's Metamorphoses/ The motif of a statue-made-flesh was certainly available to him. But does Leontes become a Pgymalion in the Winters Tale? I'm leaving the jury out a bit longer.

BYU's dramatic production of WT in late March 2015 may give me a chance to watch the play and sharpen my judgement.


MIT's Shakespeare project text: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/winters_tale/full.html
J. Miller, "Some Versions of Pygmalion: in C. Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: metamorphosis and the pursuit of paganism (New Haven, 1986).
William C. Carroll, The Metamorphosis of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton, 1985).


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jean-Luc Godard's elegy for Penelope: Le Mépris (Contempt)

Le Mépris (Contempt) dir. by Jean-Luc Godard 1963

Godard's Contempt is nearly as old as I am. But, where has this film been all my life? I watched it last night and don't plan very soon to stop thinking about it. It's a game-changer for married adults. And it's an extremely provocative treatment of Penelope (and, oh yes, Odysseus). This highly intriguing film is clearly about film-making. The opening credits make that clear by deconstructing the process of filming a tracking shot, while a disembodied voice reads audibly the details of director, producer, cinematographer, etc. And this dialogue with film-making recurs all throughout the film.

Blonde-bombshell Bridget Bardot plays a tragically
Penelopean figure in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.
But Contempt is also about deeply human relationships. In the guise of an Odyssey adaptation, Godard tells the tragically tender failure of a marriage. The skeletal narrative treats an international production of the filming of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.  An insufferably boorish American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) has tired of the German director’s  (Fritz Lang, ipse) waning attempts to construct a film a deeply hormonal American simpleton male can understand. Accordingly, the producer has summoned a new French screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) to the ragged backlot of Cinecittà for a consult. The screenwriter’s wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is clearly a Penlope, but here she is drawn away from her failing Odysseus by the questionable attractions of the American in a red Alfa Romeo droptop. Every time the actor-qua-Odysseus appears on the set, Paul's progressive failure as husband becomes increasingly apparent. The film-within-a-film is an artsy Odyssey, but it is structured enough and sufficiently recurrent to provide the subtext and framework upon which the couple’s agonizing failure can be hung and dried.  One critic calls Contempt “Godard’s richest study of human relations, and a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love.”
         Prokosch promotes from the start his thesis that Penelope is unfaithful to Odysseus. Lang and Paul see the fault as Odysseus’ and his specifically criticize his apparent eagerness to stay away for 10 years beyond what he could have achieved. 
         Bardot in 1963 was at the height of her sex-appeal. Godard was pressured by his actual producers to prostitute her famous physique and her attendant attitude made legendary in Et Dieu ... créa la femme (And God Created Woman) (1956) and other films. While Godard's camera features
Bardot never assumes this pose in
the Godard film. The poster-maker
exploits the star's physique in ways
the film-maker overtly avoids.
Bardot's famous backside in several scenes from beginning to end in Contempt, the sexuality of the starlet actually declines precipitously through the narrative. The patriotically red-white-and-blue filtered nude-scene at the film's outset is the rare moment of tenderness between Camille and Paul, the chaste height from which the couple's relationship plummets. Paul falls out of love with his sizzling wife as the film progresses. She vice-versa. So, when late in the film Camille plunges (off-camera) into the spectacular waters off Capri and swims (unclothed and on-camera) away from Paul and out to sea, it is the last time they are seen together in one shot;  they could not have grown farther apart. 
        The American producer — acting a part that has autobiographical significance for Godard's own marital mishaps — has come between Camille and Paul in a way that Homer's Odysseus never really allowed.
            I assign the film to OGCMA-Penelope rather than to the perhaps more obvious choice of "Odysseus-Return of Odysseus". The film is a loving elegy to Penelope. Casting the hottest French cinematic commodity (Bardot) in the female lead indicates Godard's belief in the importance of the role. Piccoli did acquire considerable fame for his part. But the critical performance is Bardot's Camille. She is the one who responds to the failures of her capable husband; she is the one who must consider the advances of Prokosch. While caught between her Odysseus' negligence and the primitive testosteronic advances of her Suitor, Camille is willing to sublimate her inherent Bardotesque sexuality (her hyper-famous blonde mane) beneath a brunette bobbed wig. Paul's failure to see this cry of submissiveness leads to the Camille's open rejection of his later feeble attempts to recover her for his pride's sake. 
    Godard's Contempt belongs among the most provocative Penelope receptions we'll see.


The Criterion Collection has done a tremendous service by overdubbing the film (reissued 2002 as Criterion Collection #171) with a provocative audio commentary by Robert Stam.

A fine essay by Phillip Lopate, “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically” (copyright 1998, available excerpted on the Criterion’s website) is very useful  (click here). — He calls Palance’s Prokosch “vilely virile”.

Joanna Paul, "Homer and Cinema: translation and adaptation in Le Mépris," in A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, edd., Translation and the Classic: identity as change in the history of culture, Classical Presences (OUP 2008), 148 - 65.

Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey, edd., Godard’s Contempt: essays from the London Consortium, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Brief contextualization in the short overview of “The French New Wave (1959 – 1964)” in Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art: an introduction 475 – 77.

Godard's film is itself an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia originally entitled Il Disprezzo which was variously translated: A Ghost at Noon, trans. Angus Davidson (London: Secker & Warburg, 1954) and Contempt (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999). 
— characters in the Moravia novel are named Riccardo and Emilia Molteni, Rheingold (=Lang), and Battista (=Prokosch).

Valuable for its contributions by Godard himself:
Histoire(s) du cinéma — DVD St. Charles, Ill.: Olive Films, 2011, 2 videodiscs (266 min.): sd., col.; 4 3/4 in., French DVD 7246 pt.1 Floor 4–S, HBLL Media Center Desk —Description
"An extraordinary look at motion pictures as seen through the eyes of the reknowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who transformed the face of cinema with his prolific, influential, and revolutionary body of work, which includes such classics as Breathless, Weekend, and Contempt. Consisting of eight episodes made over a period of ten years, the series covers a wide range of topics, from the birth of cinema to Italian neo-realism to Hollywood and beyond."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Simon Stone's Medea, toneelgroepamsterdam (review)

Medea and Jason have changed their names to Anna and Lucas.  Simon Stone’s stimulating adaptation of Euripides’ familiar classic is titled Medea and it clearly follows the plot line so closely that nobody can be surprised by the outcome. Anna is a pharmaceuticals researcher. Lucas is attracted to the much younger daughter of his own boss — Clara's name is a fine translation of Euripides' Glauke, and Christopher here is the new name for her father, Creon.

Marieke Heebink plays the lead in
Simon Stone's
Medea at Amsterdam's
Stadsschouwburg thru March 7.
A fortunate airline misfortune stranded me in Amsterdam for a choice opportunity to see this new adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Open seating allowed me to arrive a few minutes before curtain and still get the best single seat in the house, precise center of row 5. The box office clerk asked whether I would be OK with a play in Dutch. Since I have read Euripides’ play few times, I felt confident that I would be able to follow it. And I am glad I took the chance. The Stadsschouwburg will feature the Toneelgroepamsterdam through the middle of March in this extraordinarily provocative production.

The boys have personalities. They are personalized with names, even. Stagecrafting in this production puts the boys on the empty stage for at least 10 minutes before the play starts. One plays on his laptop, as the other clad in a hoodie leans idly against a wall. This dramaturgical gesture shifts the focus of the tragedy more from Medea’s solitary plight to her murder of the children themselves. During the play, the boys’ pranks involve catching Mom and Dad in bed, offstage but with video camera rolling. Mom’s far more amused than Dad to be caught in flagrante with his estranged wife. And the prank becomes a critical plot element far beyond what Euripides conceived. The kids interact with their future stepmother both before and during the delivery of Medea’s auspicious gift. Anna/Medea has been slipping into an alcoholic emotional abyss since it was clear she would not regain her husband's heart. Here, too, Stone’s script probes new depths that Euripides overlooked.

Stone has plied rather deftly his adaptor’s tool in this new play. Rather than opening with the original’s ominous fears of the Nurse — “Would that the Argo had never penetrated the Symplegades…” The play opens with Anna and Lucas in dialogue softly and face-to-face, but separated by at least 20 feet. Later, the nurse's role will be filled by a social worker who comes in on assignment to supervise Anna’s increasingly frightening activities. Anna is a 40-something mother whose self-confidence is clearly shattered by her husband’s pursuit of a girl with long legs and a powerful father. Euripides' Jason had harbored similar motives, of course, but the circumstances are naturally modernized.

The only mythological allusion I caught was an overt reference to Ovid's Philomela and Itys, with citation overtly pointed out within the text of the Metamorphoses. Anachronism such as this cannot stall pedants who want to enjoy this 21st-century adaptation, for it can't matter that Euripides' 5th-century masterpiece is explained by way of a Roman narrative. Can it?

Some technological razzmattaz draws the audience into the most intimate proximity to the actors on stage. A large screen above the stage displays projected images from a wide variety of angles throughout. When the estranged couple explicates their rift in the opening scene, an offstage camera zooms in on Medea’s face then Jason’s, and the audience can simultaneously see their distance and fading lustre of Medea’s hair, the crows feet in her saddened eyes. A stunning shot late in the play gazes down directly down, 90-degrees from the rafters high above the stage in one of the most etherial views. Is the director showing us the vantage point of Medea’s divine grandfather, the only savior for this horrific mother?

Simon Stone’s play is not especially preachy. And in its most chilling moments Medea’s unthinkable crime becomes somehow plausible. The program notes chronicle briefly the horrific parricide of the Kansas physician Debora Green who in 1995 began poisoning her estranged husband, Michael Farrar, and then burned down the family home killing two of their three children. The sensationalism of Green’s murder is the subject of Ann Rule’s book Bitter Harvest: a woman’s fury, a mother’s sacrifice (2014). Mrs. Green is serving two consecutive 40-year death sentences incarcerated in federal penitentiary. While Ann Rule’s reviewers compare Green to Medea more readily than the author herself seems to, clearly Simon Stone has knitted a mythological layer over the top of Rule’s recent NYT Bestseller.

Stone produces the plot with a good deal of verve. The play’s second half is physically dominated by ash. The first phases bring a contstant falling column of black ash that falls into a heap in the middle of the stage, thematically visualizing the ruins of Medea’s ruined marriage. Then, when the rift is final and there is no going back, the column stops but the ash heap comes into play. It is tampled. It is scattered. The actors frollick through it and grieve in it and grovel in the most telling ways. A stark-white set that is otherwise utterly void of props becomes a gutwrenching backdrop to the blackened ash of a once smoldering love affair.

 — OGCMA0643ANCIENTMedea_EuripidesStone 
—— RTM
For the toneelgroepamsterdam website: http://www.tga.nl/en/productions/medea (click)

For Simon Stone:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cassandra and her name: a modern woman and her classical namesake


My purpose in the Mythmatters Blog is to explore the reception history of classical myths. It is known to the Follower(s) of the Blog that my primary interest is the narrative gain accruing to artists in their usage of classical mythological allusions. What goes through an artist’s consideration to allude to a myth? This post is the first to engage a new usage type, the naming of a real person. Maybe sometime I’ll turn to Ulysses S. Grant or Penelope Cruz or some other child of a classical-mythological name dropper.
     I have a terrifically attentive TA this semester. She has been helping me also with research in the OGCMA project for about a year. Her mother named her Cassandra, and I quipped a few weeks ago what the narrative gain of that name might have been back on the day when Cassandra was named. Did her mother know what she was getting into when she selected the name of Priam’s daughter, the most tragic of the Trojan victims, yet the most noble of her generation?
Cassandra marks Apollo's
unwelcome approach in Aesch.

  Cassandra — The Other Cassandra — of course, was Trojan princess who prophesied nothing but truth and was never believed. This gift and this curse befell Cassandra when she refused the advances of Apollo, the prophetic god. The curse’s pain was realized in the fall of Troy. Disbelieved, or at least misunderstood, by her family and townsmen, Cassandra took refuge at the foot of the cult statue of Athena, but she was brutally removed by the lesser Ajax. It is one of the most abiding images of Greek violence run amok in the sack of Troy. Then, intensifying the tragic demise of the prophetess, Agamemnon claimed Cassandra as his personal prize and led her to her final demise back in Mycenae a bloody victim in Clytemnestra’s lex talionis. Classical literature could never quite achieve the pathos of Cassandra’s final prophetic drama outside the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia: “I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all, and now he will extort me as his due. A seer for the Seer. … The cleaver streams with my life blood, the first blood drawn for the king’s last rites.” (Ag. 1291 – 99 Fagles) Indeed, it has been hard to beat Aeschylus’ Cassandra (458 BC) for sheer tragic nobility.
     My Cassandra’s mother wrote a personal account to her in October 2014, answering the question about how she had come to be called after the Trojan prophetess. Baby Cassie was spending the first days of her mortality in the Neonatal ICU.
I knew in NICU nurses would be taking care of you, and I wanted them to call you by your name-- not just refer to you as generic "Baby Girl". … [Y]our dad and I talked about one of the names we had considered, which was Cassandra. … I liked the name Cassandra, I thought it was pretty, it went well with our one syllable last name, and I mostly liked the meaning-- a Greek prophetess. I wasn't that well versed on Greek Mythology, but I decided to tie "prophetess" into a gospel meaning. … All of your brothers also have names that tie into the gospel. I wanted you to have a name with great meaning, but not be so obvious as are a lot of religious girl names.
     I always have thought that the name fits you very well, and I have never had a moment's doubt about it being the right name for you. I have always thought you were a unique and special girl. You had interests that were unusual for your age. And of course, when you were 4, I bought a book about Greek and Roman mythology, and you just ate it up. You carried it around for weeks. 
     Hecuba and Priam named their daughter either Cassandra or Alexandra, whom Homer calls (Il. 13.365) the loveliest of their many daughters. She is the first (Il. 24.699ff.) to see Priam returning with the ransomed body of her brother Hector. Homer, however, makes no mention of her prophetic abilities. These come first in Proclus’ Cypria. Later authors (e.g. Verg. Aen. 2.246) have her sternly warn against the Trojan Horse’s entrance into the city. Euripides’ Troiades has Cassandra foresee Odysseus’ trials and death. Aeschylus cannonized the traditional curse of the girl’s Apollonian “gift”; although Antikleides would have Apollo’s gift bestowed upon her as a
sleeping child when she and her brother Helenus had their ears licked by the god’s sacred serpents. Years prior to the Trojan War, therefore, Cassandra was endowed with the prophetic
Cassandra vainly seeks sanctuary where she
ought to receive it during the Sack of Troy — from
Pompeii, House of Menander
foresight that identified her brother Paris — aka Alexander — as a threat to the city and anticipated generations of historical mishaps for both Trojans and Greeks. (Lycophron Alexandra, 2nd Century BC)

     Classical Cassandra passed nobly into literary reception with Boccaccio’s treatement in De claris mulieribus and thence into Chaucer, Shakespeare, and beyond. Christa Wolf’s remarkable Cassandra follows an important development in German literature from Schiller’s ballad (1802) to her own 1983 novella that has the princess mindfully approach her imminent demise with a retrospective monologue that liberates her heroically from masculine militance. Cassandra’s “emphatic and persistent” gains in importance during the 20th Century, according to Seidensticker, are due to our age’s “rediscovery of the dark side of antiquity, and especially the great wars and crises [that] endowed the unheeded prophet of impending calamity with new timeliness. ... It remains to be seen, however, whether in the long run this development will result in [Cassandra's] once again becoming more than a mere metonymic cipher for the foreteller of disaster.” (in Grafton’s The Classical Tradition, s.v. “Cassandra”)

     Because of my own personal insistence in recovering authorial intent, I am very pleased that Cassandra’s mother was willing to share this account of her daughter’s naming. Because Priam’s Cassandra achieves such great dignity in her prophetic finale she remains an especially noble namesake after whom so many Sandys and Cassies and Cassandras have been named.

— RTM with permission of CB

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Orestes in San Diego: My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done

Matricides are creepy. Let me just throw that out there. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (dir. W. Herzog; screenplay H. Golder and W. Herzog, 2009) is as disturbing a treatment of the Orestes-impulse as cinema can generate. That David Lynch, purveyor of cinematic wierdos, executive-produces this film may have significance for some readers.
Grace Zabriskie, Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny deal with pending
matricide over a disgusting gelatin dessert. A still from the film.
But those who allow an event so tragic may incur society’s frustrated scorn, even when they allowed matricide through mere passivity. For, we are no doubt programmed to blame anybody who permitted the impulse that makes a son murder his mother in cold blood? But why didn’t anybody stop it from happening? This film worries about the development of that impulse and about the stultifying failure of the murderer's associates before the most inexplicable crime. 
Three principal characters surrounding matricide Brad Macallam (Michael Shannon) cannot fathom the “strangeness” that overwhelms the man’s darkening existence. Mrs. Macallam (Grace Zibriskie) seems unable to quite figure out that she is in dire trouble. She also hasn’t figured out that her mismanagement of jello deserts and her son’s personal life have gotten her to this unfortunate place. His girlfriend Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) does as little to check his stifling weirdness as, perhaps, a real person in such real circumstances might really, neither cajoling nor altering his onset tendency to enact the role of Orestes. And the disturbing passivity of Lee Meyers (Udo Keir), a black-box theater director utterly incapacitated by such clearly worded foreshadowing offered by the matricide himself as “A bird was the largest animal I ever killed, until I killed my mother.” Meyers makes note of that alarming confession several weeks after hearing it, and an hour or so after Mrs. Macallam has been killed by her son. Nobody saw this coming?
The murderer is clearly and patently crazy. Most of what we learn about him through the cinematic narrative comes through flashbacks. Macallam invents pseudo-scriptural commentary on the vile ostrich, quoting the Book of Job on the subject. He gives away all his possessions to a millennial frisbee player in Balboa Park. And he sets up his basketball in a sapling for some future NBA star who might someday come along. But he is first and foremost the brooding actor rehearsing the role of Orestes in a play-within-a-film. We meet this play throughout the film’s central exposition. Flashbacks take us to rehearsals of the play where Macallam’s failure to dissociate acting from role-playing foreshadow, for us, the horrific deed of matricide. We also meet the play in a workshop where the director explains the family curse of the House of Atreus, informing the cast that the mythological Tantalid curse is actually an explanation of the human condition. It affects us all. And a third vignette from that same play shows us a moment when Macallam and his mother together are in the audience of another production and he cannot keep from reciting Orestes’ lines. So deeply has he internalized the need to murder his mother. In the moment, his mother shyly smiles at her future killer’s quirkiness, and the audience judges him with their eyes alone. Why does nobody deal with his psychosis, his patently dangerous wierdness? That must be the point of this odd tale. Mental illness can lead to dangerous consequences, and these might be preventable if somebody does only intervenes.
Macallam’s role as Orestes is acted out literally in a performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Critics of the film have missed this fine point. Reviews accessible through imdb.com seem to generalize the play-within-the-film as some Greek tragedy of Orestes, “the one where he kills his mother.”  None identifies Oresteia. The low point for me has been the Netflix description that says “Brad McCullum [sic] begins to have visions that make him believe he’s living in a Sophocles [!] play in this psychological thriller inspired by true events.” But, there are several less obvious identifiers to assure the viewer that the internal performance is certainly Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In his workshop, director Lee Myers mentions “this trilogy”. The lines rehearsed then performed in the vignettes within the film allign with passages in Choephori then Eumenides. And paracinematic material on the DVD, a dual interview with the co-screenwriters, reveals that Aeschylus was clearly in mind both during the writing of the screenplay and, more essentially, within the real-life events upon which this narrative is based.
A vignetted flashback to one rehearsal presents a chorus chanting ominously about “the cruel bitch of female passion,” of “the sword cutting deep, straight through the lungs,” and of a “child brought to the house to avenge the curse.” This sort of language impels a classicist-viewer to look toward Aeschylus and the Choephori (Libation Bearers) especially. And at Choe. 909 – 916 a little scrutiny shows that sure enough, the chorus is rehearsing Aeschylus. The arrival of the Libation Bearers in the film seal the fates, as it were, of Mrs. Macallam and her brooding son. The scene plays on, even though Macallam is unable to maintain a straightforward rehearsal — the ostensible reason for replaying this flashback.
Knowing the Aeschylean source text helps analysis. For, as that same vignetted rehearsal continues, Macallam misplays Orestes and skips “a hundred lines”. The director objects, walks onto the rehearsal stage and observes the gaffe. Much is wrong. “It makes more sense this way. It does,” says Macallam. What he skips, ever so blithely, is the onset of the Erinyes as acted in those omitted lines from Choerphori. A critical viewer may note that Macallam’s psychotic energy is allowing him to skip gently from the moment of matricide to the heroism of vindicated patriarchy, oresteian quid pro quo venegeance (Clytemnestra for Agamemnon) without those nasty retaliations. Clearly, the director fails to understand what is going on in his actor’s head. He just knows the play’s set narrative is being changed. Then, to compound a non sequitur onto the psychotic chaos, the actor indulges himself in a random anecdote about once shooting and missing a half-court basketball shot that failed.  The director, perplexed, shrugs it all off, and in a moment they are back at the rehearsal of the same scene, the rehearsed chorus chanting about bitches and swordsmiths of destiny and all that.
The director recalls in a police interview having once heard Macallam say, a month or more before the matricide, “A bird was the largest animal I ever killed before I killed my mother.” The vignette enters the cinematic narrative as one of the film’s flashbacks to the Aeschylaean context. In another, the director is workshopping the dramatic text with his cast and crew. 
Lee: [In workshop lecture.] Let me warn you straight out. These ancient Greeks were not just a bunch of philosophers and aesthetes pussy-footing around. They were into the real thing. So as I was saying before, we are dealing here with a trilogy. You know that the king comes home from Troy only to be killed by his wife. Then the son returns home to avenge him, to take his mother’s life. But there’s a history to this curse. The killing goes on for generations. Orestes is just the last link in a bloody chain. It all starts with Tantalus, the one who spends his eternity in Hell chained to a rock by the gods, starving for grapes just beyond his reach. He is the source of our word “tantalize.” He is at the root of our own curse, lusting for something we want but cannot have. He challenged the gods, this Tantalus. He challenged the gods, to see if they were real. So, he invited them for dinner. And just as a test, he served up his son in a stew. The gods puked up his flesh so he could still father more cannibals and killers. Like his own son Atreus who cooked the sons of his brother and then invited him for a feast. I’m saying: to understand Orestes and the curse you must feel the whole weight of this god-forsaken Tantalus house, a dynasty of ruthless kings and diabolical queens who eat each others flesh and ***** [seduce] each others’ wives century after century, generation after generation and only Orestes can lift that curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it. [Eye contact with Brad.] So, he is damned if he does; he is damned if he doesn’t. And doubly damned if he wavers."

Brad: “That’s it! Razzle Dazzle. Razzle them. Dazzle them."

Lee: “I’m the director, Brad. You do what I tell you.” // Brad: “Lee, some people act a role. Others play a part. [Brad grabs the sword. Lee swallows hard.] [Cut back to film's main time.] “You know one thing I could never get out of my mind. He clutched his sword and he said to me: ‘A bird was the largest animal I ever killed until I killed my mother. ‘”

Real-life matricide, Mark Yavorsky’s 1979 slaying of his own mother during the production of the Oresteia  (reported in the San Diego and national press), captured the creative attention of Boston University classics professor Herbert Golder. A press clipping from 12 June 1979 reported “The Elements of a Greek Tragedy? Brilliant UCSD Student Held in Slaying of Mother. Apparently the production was called “Orestes, Orestes”. Yavorsky played the role of the murderous son. At some point, Yavorsky walked out of the world of the play and killed his mother. The bitter irony of this tragic confluence, myth and reality merging, was not lost on a forensic psychologist who pointed Golder at the source narrative that was Yavorsky’s tragedy. Golder later worked with innovative cinematic director Werner Herzog to create a cinematic work with artistic tendencies of its own. In the creation of the screenplay, both Golder and Herzog concern, they were “not interested in making a documentary,” but striving to create a narrative based on fact, and poetically reinvented and stylized, true to both “the poetic core and the original context”.  (This information is shared in “Behind the Madness” interviews with Werner Herzog and  Herbert Golder on the DVD.)
Golder avers in his paracinematic interview that the impulse for MSMSWHYD is akin to Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion, a narrative of an actress playing Medea (Ellen Burstyn) coming to know a woman (Melina Mercouri) who murdered her own children.  “I was a student of the classics at the time I saw [A Dream of Passion]. It was the most powerful representation. I always had it in the back of my head,” before and during the creation of
            The formula for fascinating cinematic mythological reception is perfectly poised for brilliance in MSMSWHYD. A mythological narrative, real-life events, a quirky film — all elements deliver that brilliance to an arguable degree. Does it meet muster for consideration as an overt usage of classical mythology and (of real importance) further study? Absolutely.


Transcriptions from the film. Presumably the uncredited translations of Aeschylus are provided by Prof. Golder.
 rehearsal text of Aesch. Choe. 585 – 651 greatly truncated
Chorus of Libation Bearers:

Earth breeds many things,
begetting pain, terror and
horrors of suffering and
the depths of the sea teem
with murderous monsters.
And flaming comets stab down
through the sky and blast
creatures that fly. And creatures
that crawl. And things more
horrid still like the cradles of storms,
cradle of stoms, cradle of storms.
But who can describe the audacity
of man or the daring and passion
of women that stop
at nothing and lead to mortal ruin?
The cruel bitch of female passion
can break apart the yoke that
joins a pair and force apart
the dark embrace of beasts
and man alike. (585 – 600)
This sword cuts deep.
Straight through the lungs.
And justice is flouted and
stomped in the ground.
And the sword smith of destiny
hammers the weapon.
A child is brought to this house
to avenge to lift the seeping stain of
ancient blood. Brought by her, we
shudder to name the dark, brooding fury. (639 – 651)

πολλὰ μὲν γᾶ τρέφει
δεινὰ καὶ δειμάτων ἄχη,
πόντιαί τ᾽ ἀγκάλαι κνωδάλων
ἀνταίων βρύουσι:
πλάθουσι βλαστοῦσι καὶ πεδαίχμιοι
λαμπάδες πεδάοροι,
πτανά τε καὶ πεδοβά-
μονα κἀνεμοέντ᾽ ἂν
αἰγίδων φράσαι κότον.
ἀλλ᾽ ὑπέρτολμον ἀν-
δρὸς φρόνημα τίς λέγοι
καὶ γυναικῶν φρεσὶν τλαμόνων καὶ
παντόλμους ἔρωτας
ἄταισι συννόμους βροτῶν;
ξυζύγους δ᾽ ὁμαυλίας
θηλυκρατὴς ἀπέρω-
τος ἔρως παρανικᾷ
κνωδάλων τε καὶ βροτῶν.
... [omit strophe B thru antistrophe C]
τὸ δ᾽ ἄγχι πλευμόνων ξίφος
διανταίαν ὀξυπευκὲς οὐτᾷ
διαὶ Δίκας.
τὸ μὴ θέμις γὰρ οὖν
λὰξ πέδοι πατούμενον, τὸ πᾶν Διὸς
σέβας παρεκβάντος οὐ θεμιστῶς.
Δίκας δ᾽ ἐρείδεται πυθμήν:
προχαλκεύει δ᾽ Αἶσα φασγανουργός:
τέκνον δ᾽ ἐπεισφέρει δόμοισιν
αἱμάτων παλαιτέρων τίνειν μύσος
χρόνῳ κλυτὰ βυσσόφρων Ἐρινύς.[1]

A Canadian production performance of Eumenides 245 ff. and then 588 ff. — when he’s in the audience with his uncomfortable mother. Udo comes and asks him to be quiet.

Leader and Furies: Like the hound on the trail of a wounded deer, we will track him down by the drip of blood.
I snort. Lungs bursting from long man-slaughtering toil ranging over every corner of this earth.
In pursuit without wings I have flown over oceans,
and now that this man is here,
somewhere, cowering.
The scent of human blood grins wide for me.
Look. Look. Look. Look. Look. Look. Everywhere.
Cast your eyes in every direction. Don’t let this mother-killer get away unscathed. (245 – 57)

Macallam joins in from audience, reciting with in unison with the actor onstage the following dialogue. His mother is clearly disturbed.
Orestes/Macallam: I now stand here. Made glad. Made mad with the blood, exulting, wailing, I slew her. (Eum. 594, sort of; it’s actually a telescopic reduction of lines 588 to 600)
I deny no word, heroes. Hear me, woven web that slew my father. This robe. She dyed it in the blood that ran around her lover’s sword.

Furies: Yes, you must tell the manner of your deed.
Orestes/Macallam: Drawn sword in hand, I lopped her head.
Furies: Who, and by craft of who, did urge you on? (607)
Orestes/Macallam: Fate and Necessity made me do it!
Lee intervenes, placing his hand on Macallam’s shoulder. His mother tries to grin in the withering embarrassment.
Lee: Brad don’t participate. You’re disturbing the play. Just be quiet.
Leader [on stage]: … and long dead draw from their killer’s blood to answer blood. 

Brad Macallam — Michael Shannon
Detective Havenhurst — Willem DaFoe
Ingrid Gudmundson — Chloe Sevigny
Lee Meyers [the director with the German accent] — Udo Kier
Mrs. Macallam — Grace Zabriskie

[1] The Greek text is the edition of H.W. Smyth, downloaded from Perseus: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0085.tlg006.perseus-grc1:646-652 [accessed 24 Oct 2014].
[2]  Again, here the text is taken from H.W. Smyth, ed., Eumenides as included on Perseus: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0085.tlg007.perseus-grc1:254-275