Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sisyphus' motives, Condie's Reached

Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy obtained its third element last month, with the publication of Reached. An earlier post on this blog found me sort of apologizing for liking so much a novel that features a 17-year-old female protagonist. But, I like Matched and then Crossed so much that I don't apologize for my excitement over reading Reached along with Condie's national fan-base. The novelist's marvelous usage of the Sisyphus myth has brought me back again and, now, again.


The new novel's two-page prologue, "The Story of the Pilot," foregrounds the Sisyphus myth even more centrally than its usage in the trilogy's two earlier installments. "A man pushed a rock up a hill," it opens. The story of the Pilot narrates briefly a dialogue between the man and a curious child. "I am making something," says the Sisyphus figure. And, although the child doesn't first fully understand the meaning of the man's stated purpose, she soon understands than in fact his incessant rolling of the stone has resulted in a particular creation: "The child saw that the man had been right."

Readers of Crossed, the second installment, knew already from the start that the river that marked the wilderness was named after Sisyphus. That much detail had capped the first novel, Matched, and the myth of Sisyphus had played in that novel's narrative since we first learned about Ky's father's dissidence. So, when the trilogy's third novel opens with allusion to Sisyphus, there is no surprise.

What is exciting is Condie's brilliant contribution to the Sisyphus tradition, the imputation of motive to Sisyphus' timeless, epic punishment. Nowhere before, I believe, has the Sisyphean torture actually made something.

Homer's Odysseus, of course, sees Sisyphus in the world of the dead, Book 11, along with the great disgracers from classical myth. If Odysseus knew why Sisyphus was there, rolling and re-rolling the massive boulder, he didn't tell Alcinous. Rather, Homer only says that the exercise occurred; and the emphasis in the narrative is as much on the rock's incessant return to the plain of its origin.

Reasons why Sisyphus was required to push the rock are variously given in classical sources. Pherecydes wrote that Zeus punished him for revealing to Aegina's father that Zeus had abducted the girl. Hyginus states that Sisyphus seduced his niece, Tyro, out of fraternal spite toward her father; the impiety resulted in his eternal punishment.

I'll admit that in October, while reading Matched, I was hoping that Condie was working with the Sisyphus tradition that, classically, makes the disgracer a cunning trickster who gains the upper hand on Death himself and kept all mortals from dying until Ares liberated Death (Thanatos) and forced Sisyphus into Death's thralldom. The tragedians all seem to have known this myth. And I was wondering whether Condie's Cassia and her grandfather were "guilty" of recalcitrant cheating death against the Society's policy-driven timing of individuals' mortality.

I determined that I was wrong, that Condie was not working with that aspect of Sisyphean recalcitrance. But, I might be proved wrong when I dig into the third novel.

Crossed overtly uses the Sisyphus myth. Indeed, we learn in that novel that Sisyphean persistence had eventually worn a deep trough into the mountainside where his punishment occurred. The Sisyphus River was carved by the timeless rolling of the rock.

Since Homer crafted his epic in the 8th Century BC, the emphasis in Sisyphean narratives has always, I think, been on the futility of the effort. What's exciting me now about this narrative is that Ally Condie has imagined for me a situation where Sisyphus consciously engaged the boulder for purposeful creation.

More will follow.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Calypso on a Nokia phone

The designers at Givori named a cell-phone case they designed after Calypso, "the Greek nymph of the sea." Whatever.
I guess the fish scales traced in gold and mother of pearl are the connection? We had a cat named Calypso when we were first married. She was a scratcher.

Thanks to for the photo and to my friend Shelby for keeping an eye out for such mythological allusions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hamlet: to Reid or not to Reid

Corny post title notwithstanding, I remain recalcitrant about Reid's inclusion of Hamlet in the OGCMA's Orestes article. Had Shakespeare chosen to allude to the tragedy of Orestes, he would have made overt allusion to the myth in his great play. The overt usage of "Aeneas' tale to Dido" and the Player's infusion of Priam and Hecuba and Neoptolemus into the Danish court show that Shakespeare does use classical mythology very powerfully within the play. And scholars would be better advised to probe those depths rather than try to piece together evasive proof that the Bard knew the Oresteia.  Had he mentioned the myth of Orestes within the play, Shakespeare's Hamlet ought to be included in the Orestes tradition.

Students in ClCv241 would be well advised to avoid writing on Orestes in Hamlet. The connection fails, in my judgment, on the grounds of insufficient corroborating evidence. 

Much more promising is analysis of Shakespeare's usage of Priam's death in Hamlet. That usage has everything going for it: overt allusion, thematic cohesion, secondary scholarship to underpin it. Sample Paper. Approve: OGCMA1050TrojanWarTroyFall_Shakespeare

Reid's inclusion of Hamlet in the Orestes article is problematic. As an appellate judge, I overrule Reid's choice, allowing comparisons of Hamlet's plight (and plot) to Orestes' on archetypal levels, but not as usage.

Reid is not at all alone in her inclusion of Hamlet into the Orestes tradition. Here is a statement by Erich Segal, to which I feel some resistance. Interjecting commentary in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, Segal elucidates Orin's murder of Brant thus:  
The avenger has accomplished his traditional task. His father’s murder lies dead. Now it’s at this point that the Orestes myth was open to some variation, for of course the murderous queen still lives. Christine Mannon sits quietly at home. In the Odyssey Homer is reticent about it. In fact, he nearly ducks the issue, merely noting that after her lover was killed, Clytemnestra died,  … of grief perhaps. But in the Aeschylus trilogy,  matricide becomes the central moral issue. Orestes hesitates momentarily before killing his mother,  but does so when he is reminded that it is his sacred duty.  Armed with a sense of divine justice, he doesn’t even stop when Clytemnestra bears her breast to him in a plea for mercy.  Later heroes have their doubts. Hamlet is in torment as he heads for the chamber of his adulterous mother, “Let me speak daggers, but use none,” he says,  almost as a prayer. But here is where O’Neill completely abandoned every trace of tradition.  The Oedipal ambivalence at which Shakespeare strongly hints is here let loose from the prison of the unconscious. ...”

—— E. Segal, “Afterword [to episode III, or DVD disc 2, chapter 9]” on Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, dir. by Nick Havinga (Thirteen/WNET New York, Great Performances, 1978; distributed 2001 by Image Entertainment Corp.

My objection in using the Hamlet to elucidate the Oresteia is that Shakespeare's revenge tragedy is not actually a usage of the classical myth. Narrative and structural parallels notwithstanding, I do not consider Hamlet part of this tradition. 

Circumstantial only...
L. Schleiner, "Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare's Writing of Hamlet," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 29 - 48 ... despite its fine scholarship....
Nicholas Rowe in 1709 (N. Rowe, Life of Shakespeare (1709), in CR 1:30-1)  saw similarities btwn Orestes and Hamlet: “Hamlet is founded upon much the same Tale with Electra of Sophocles.” (ref. in M. de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambride UP 2007) p. 11), but Shakespeare’s avenger manifests greater decorum re: “the rules of manner proper to Persons.” de Grazia recounts the “debate over the Orestes/Hamlet parallel” that began with Rowe’s observation and extended through the 18th century
J.G. Herder saw Hamlet as a “thoughtful Orestes” (ref. in M. de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambride UP 2007) p. 20): see H. H. Furness, ed., Hamlet Variorum edn. 2 vols. 1877 (Dover facsimile edition of 1963), II.276-78.
Schlegel discussed Hamlet/Orestes to illustrate the classical/romantic binarism (ref. in M. de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambride UP 2007) p. 20: see H. Eichner, Friedrich Schlegel (New York: Twayne, 1970), 25

Against this I offer G. Murray, "Hamlet and Orestes," in The Classical Tradition in Poetry, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Harvard 1930): 205 - 40. OGCMA0763_ShakespeareMurray
Gilbert Murray argues, as a classicst would, that Shakespeare's unfamiliarity with Greek literature prevented him from linking the tale of Hamlet to the myth of Orestes. 

Just thinking.

Mourning is the Mannon metier

Robert Benchley's review of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra was published in The New Yorker on 7 November 1931.
He was clearly taken by the monumental play, and called it "a masterpiece" outright. Clearly, though, he was also wearied by the six-hour production.
"The final scene of all, in which Electra, or Lavinia, closes herself up in the great New England Greek temple for the rest of her unhappy life, content that mourning is her métier, made up for [all the discomfort]." 

The word métier is derived from the Latin ministerium. The sentence above means, prosaically, that Vinnie's calling in the end is to mourn.
That is the end to which she was born. Benchley's assessment of Lavinia's character, the central figure in the play, of course, has me thinking about the elegance of O'Neill's title.

I walked from class this evening musing over what O'Neill might have called the play, had he not come upon the title he chose. What if his title had feet of clay?

Mourning is Lavinia's métier
Gosh, Vinnie, I really like you in color
Good-bye Flying Trades
The Mannon she was always meant to be
Being Mannon

This exercise is sort of silly. I'm engaging it therapeutically.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Eugene O'Neill's 1931 masterpiece, Mourning Becomes Electra, overtly works with thematic and structural elements of Aeschylus' Oresteia. Paradoxically, perhaps, students in the ClCv 241 course are not allowed to write Reception Papers about the trilogy. This is because all students in the class are expected to learn about O'Neill's usage.

O'Neill's career was such that, as a contemporary critic observed, each play seemed to eclipse all predecessors. MBE is followed in his opera only by 1945's The Iceman Cometh. And it may well be that MBE is the greatest surviving work of his entire output. It certainly manifests the author's attempt to equal what is arguably greatest monument of the Athenian tragic stage.

Aeschylus' 458 BC tragic trilogy assumed "universe as its stage" (Lesky), grappling before the audience with matters of blood-guilt, epic grandeur. human limitations against divine intervention, and big-J Justice. How could Apollo have ordered Orestes to matricide? How could Athena condone the murder? Who could settle after eons of gutwrenching duty the Erinyes, whose birth from the castration of Ouranos antedated the creation of humans? At Aeschylus' hands, the oresteia becomes much more than a story of human revenge. It is thrust into the central spotlight of humanity: settlement of blood-guilt by Athena's divine intervention.

O'Neill took on the themes inherent in Orestes's plight, but brought the situation into more plausible context. A 1931 audience could still look back to the return of an Ezra Mannon circa 1865, either in their own or their parents' immediate experience. And transporting the intrigue of the Argive murderess, Clytemnestra, to the Yankee seaboard in the form of Christine Mannon, or the sniveling Aegisthus into Adam Brandt, O'Neill cretes a play that really works in historical reality. Much more, his brilliant retention of the Oresteia's central them — deposing vengeance — becomes more accessible in a localized context.

Critics were aware of MBE's monumentality. O'Neill's own diaries admit to the overt undertaking.
Nearly a century later, readers and audiences ought still to consider the success of the dramatic project.

For links to contemporary reviews and secondary scholarship, click OGCMA0768Orestes_ONeill.htm

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wedgwood: The Portland Vase

Portland Vase,
British Museum
Josiah Wedgwood seems to have fallen in love with the Portland Vase as deeply as everybody else.  The infatuation has less to do with the mythological scenes on the vase. (Scholars remain divided over the interpretation: Is it the courtship of Peleus and Thetis, or, as E. Simon argues and I believe, the narrative of Attia's conception by Apollo, as told in the ancient birth myth of Octavian?)

Sir William Hamilton bought the Portland Vase, perhaps most famous surviving Roman artwork, for £1,000 in 1783 and sold it the next year to the Dowager Duchess of Portland. It is said that Wedgwood cut a deal with the 3rd Duke of Portland: he would not drive up the bidding price, if the Duke would allow him to take it on loan for copying. By 1786, the work was underway. The first edition Portland vase appeared in 1790.

Since its first offering, the Wedgwood firm has produced at least one dozen distinct runs of the Portland vase in various sizes and colors. Some of the finest examples are museum pieces in their own right.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wedgwood was already manufacturing his famous Jasperware since 1775. Once perfected Wedgwood's refined stoneware became the most commercially "successful and enduring range of ornamental ware and gift ware ever manufactured." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper").

The  similarities between the Portland Vase and Wedgwood's characteristic relief work are actually coincidental. Wedgwood and his partners were copying the appearance of ancient cameos several years before. The iconic Wedgwood style of white reliefs on a normally blue ground was being developed broadly by the firm in the 1770's. Cameos, medallions, and tablets in white-on-blue-were already popular before the newly acquired Portland Vase came into Josiah's plans. Artistic partner John Flaxman gets credit for introducing the idea. "I wish you may soon come to town to see Wm Hamilton's Vase, it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavoring to bring your bisque & jasper." (J. Flaxman, Feb 1785, cited in Reilly s.v. "Portland vase".)

"Wedgwood's greatest achievement in jasper was undoubtedly the Portland vase, produced after four years of trials, in 1790, but he personally considered the Homeric vase [the Apotheosis of Homer] to be his finest." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper")

"It is one of the great virtues of jasper, but also one of the perennial problems of marketing it, that it is associated so closely with neo-classical ornament." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper")

Source: Robin Reilly, Wedgwood: the new illustrated dictionary (Suffolk, 1995), s.v. "Portland Vase".

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wedgwood's Iphigenia is ... a guy?


"The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" (1795) jasperware plaque is misnamed. (top, right)  It is actually Wedgwood's version of Camillo Pacetti's "Achilles in Scyros among the daughters of Lycomedes".

It is the moment when Odysseus discerns the young Achilles in hiding and outs him by offering a mixture of attractions for girls and for boys. Disclosed, Achilles is pressed into service at Troy, where the Greeks know prophetically they cannot conquer without him. (Ov. Met. 13.162-70)

Pacetti was employed by Wedgwood in Rome from 1787. Between 1788 and 1790, he created a 5-panel narrative of "The Whole Life of Achilles". Pacetti adapted the figures from the Luna marble puteal given to the Capitoline Museum by Pope Benedict XIV. Later he added "Priam Kneeling before Achilles". Only the Achilles on Scyros and Achilles receiving Priam were executed by the firm.

A handful of Wedgwood plaques are done with designs from Pacetti. Some of his designs are incorporated into vases. (R. Reilly, Wedgwood: a new illustrated dictionary, s.v. "Pacetti, Camillo")

OGCMA lists Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Cf. M.R. Scherer, The Legends of Troy in Art and Literature. New York: Phaidon, 1963. P. 250.] It is unknown how many of these plaques are in existence.

This is the only piece listed for Wedgwood by Reid in OGCMA.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

3 usages: The Browning Versions of Agamemnon

The Browning Version adapts the myth of Agamemnon’s murder, placing that epic disaster in the approachable details of a life that could actually be mine or yours.

British 20th-century playwrite Terence Rattigan crafted a brief but moving drama of a nearly washed-up classics teacher in a fully dysfunctional marriage. Its title refers to Robert Browning’s 1877 English translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Arguably the greatest drama among Greek tragedies, the Agamemnon sets thematic background for this modern play; but Aeschylus’ poetic text operates within the play quite effectively. Crocker-Harris teaches his pupils to read the great classic. His most malleable student, Taplow, receives unanticipated mentorship in a tutorial where we learn just how intimately the Greek text has grown into the mentor’s emotional fibres. Taplow manifests philia late in the play, when he procures a precious copy of the Browning Agamemnon translation as a retirement gift.

Two particular passages from Aeschylus function: Taplow’s recitation of Ag. 1400 against “the Crock’s” corrections, and then the maturing pupil’s tender fly-leaf inscription of Ag. 951-52.

The retiring schoolmaster becomes an Agamemnon himself: academic heroism in the past, awards and accomplishments no longer coming. He is murdered figuratively by a treacherous wife, her eyes and heart given actively to a junior member of the faculty. Long has the husband known her adultery, but she hasn’t assassinated his character until a bitter moment at the heart of this play.

Nicholas Farrell plays Mr. Crocker-Harris in Rattigan's
The Browning Version
, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2012
The Browning Version premiered in 1948 and has enjoyed moderate theatrical success over the years. London’s 2012 season enjoyed a production at the Harold Pinter Theatre starring Nicholas Farrell and Anna Chancelor as Mr. and Mrs. Crocker-Harris. Aside from a handful of BYU myth students and my daughter, I was by far the youngest member of the audience; yet all, I dare say, came away quite moved. Reviews are linked on the OGCMA slide

Taplow faces "the Himmler of the Lower Fifth" in Asquith's
adaptation The Browning Version.
Anthony Asquith adapted The Browning Version into a feature-length film (Javelin Films, 1951; re-released Criterion 2005) doubling its length by adding a handful of scenes that frame and augment. Its success is due not solely to a brilliant performance by the inimitable Michael Redgrave. One invention ensconces the evanescent Crocker-Harris in a pedagogical empire, a schoolroom where he habitually dresses down his disinterested young scholars. This is his last day on the job. Nobody cares — save, perhaps, the viewer — that teaching in this room ceased long ago. On the chalkboard the Crock has written in Greek Ag. 414-19, a highly poetic lament over the enervation of a once great man: “And, through desire of one across the main, / A ghost will seem within the house to reign. / And hateful to the husband is the grace / Of well-shaped statues; for — in place of eyes / Those blanks — all Aphrodite dies.” (Browning) On the wall near the classroom window Nike fastens her sandal. Even she, one of Athens’ most familiar but most shapely icons, seems to have lost all allure for the dusty classicist.

M. Figgis, dir.;
Paramount 1994
As gracefully as Asquith incorporates Aeschylus’ text into his Browning Version’s added scene, with commensurate awkwardness Mike Figgis’s 1994 Paramount remake of Asquith’s film misses its mark. Crocker-Harris's replacement, played by Julian Sands, paces between the schoolboys and a chalkboard upon which the teacher has abandoned some notes on an unrelated lecture on the Peloponnesian War .  Unrelated to the plot? Likely yes.  Such questionable shortcomings notwithstanding, Figgis’s film is a keeper. Finney is nothing short of remarkable as Crocker-Harris. And the lovely Greta Scacchi delivers a gorgeously repulsive performance as Mrs. Crocker-Harris. The film’s R-rating makes it rather less accessible than Rattigan’s play, even if the adultery that underpins Millie’s character could be considered naturally at home in a film. In 1951 Asquith was willing to leave some things unseen and unheard.

Julian Sands as Tom Gilbert observes Crocker Harris in Figgis'
Browning Version
    Rattigan's play: 2012 production
    Asquith's film: 1951
    Figgis' film: 1994

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eurydice wants back

The American playwright Sarah Ruhl explores the psychology of Eurydice's "rescue" from among the dead. You might just love this play's questions and answers.

Sarah Ruhl is a MacArthur Fellow. Read her bio at
What if Eurydice found herself perfectly content, among the dead, to be reunited there with deceased father? What if Eurydice were learning anew, there, like a newcomer how to communicate with the man who had loved her first? What if the associations that matter are not only those between husbands and wives? What if Orpheus' motives and needs are imposed upon Eurydice's?

Young Vic (London) advert, Spr 2012
I saw the play in 2010, having bumped into it through a student's Reception Paper a few years earlier. Why don't you follow the links on the OGCMA slide and start researching your next Reception Paper on this interesting piece? Many reviews of numerous productions constitute secondary scholarship. The script is available online, and the play is currently topical (related to our Orpheus Film Festival).

If you think the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is capable of sustaining yet one more provocative transformation, look into this moving play. Ruhl introduces lots of new insight, along the lines of the best stuff offered by Gluck who (I think) first asked the question from Eurydice's perspective: "What's in this rescue for me?"

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Orpheus and Eurydice send their greetings from the shore of the Außenalster in Hamburg.
Ursula Querner's "Orpheus und Eurydike" (2010) Alsterpark, Hamburg   — photo by Macfarlane

A bronze guy holding a harp, extending his hand to a bronze woman nearby (she with her dress up over her head as a sign of her death and burial)... It couldn't possibly be anybody but Orpheus and Eurydice. An annoyance about this sculpture group is that the label identifying the artist, title, year, etc., which was once on the block below Orpheus' left foot, is now gone. (See the photo at wikipedia commons for a hi-res picture with the label in it.)

Who is/was Ursula Querner? Why did she put Orpheus and Eurydice here? Does she often sculpt mythological persons? Is there some reason why we should note this particular myth here? What is Querner's narrative gain?

In 2011, Eurydice was stolen and part of her was cut up with a saw. The thieves hoped to sell the bronze. An article in the Hamburger Abendblat reported the story.  The article says little about the work itself, only that it's been in the park for nearly 50 years.

Why not explore this mythological usage for your next paper?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

a pair of Penelopes


If you're reading through the last books of the Odyssey and growing increasingly peeved regarding the misbehavior of the Suitors, you may like dipping into Enda Walsh's play Penelope (2010). I haven't seen it, but I'm intrigued by the reviews. (See the OGCMA slide for links.) It's advantageous that the face for the play's adverts is the grey-eyed model in the swimcap — presumably Penelope — and NOT the "four untoned [Suitors] of varying ages killing time in bathrobes and Speedos"! Reportedly, the play features a lot of grilling. You know, cooking over the Weber. That kind of barbie. And the metaphor of "dead meat" in the anticipation of an Odyssean nostos ripens throughout the play; perhaps something like Waiting for Odysseus?  —— With Enda [sic: he's a guy] Walsh's interview and a couple of published reviews, the OGCMA slide ought to give anybody interested in writing about this apparently interesting adaptation of the Penelope myth a headstart down the path of research.

Surely Ellen McLaughlin's play of the same name, which premiered last Spring (april 2012), is going to make a different sort of point altogether. In an interview, McLaughlin admits that her approach to Odysseus-and-Penelope is formed by the modern phenomenon of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. Such considerations intensify that drama that threatens to bring Odysseus' return to failure — for, what if after all the years, Penelope refuses to take her vagrant husband back?
   Indeed, a woman in my own class last year, herself the wife of an Afghanistan veteran, told me that when the husband goes away for military service, he is truly a different man upon his return.He comes back as a "stranger with the face of the man I loved."
   So, with the materials offered by the Triangle Arts organization, one can begin exploring this intriguing new treatment of the Penelope myth. Perhaps the OGCMA slide can help, also.

Students planning to write a Reception Paper will, of course, wish to treat only one or the other of these plays as topic. The prompt calls for you to "identify a [single] modern usage of a classical myth". Consider what it is that Walsh or McLaughlin gains by treating the story of Penelope in such clearly modern situations.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Usage: Condie's Sisyphus


OK. Ally Condie didn't write her novel Matched for my demographic. And I felt a little self-conscious reading the book with its dustjacket on yesterday on the plane. By the time I turned page 100, though, I didn't mind the fact that I was reading a book where the narrator is a 17-year old girl who is experiencing the conflicts of love and infatuation and her first kiss and all that. If that's what this book were about, I couldn't have moved so far so fast.

I'm having a great read.

Joelle Keliiliki is the reason why I came to read the book in the first place. Joelle is writing a very good paper about an intriguing thematic usage of the Sisyphus myth that lies at the heart of Matched. Since I know the author and like Joelle's analysis of the usage, I went and bought the book and started in.

Without disclosing details of Condie's usage of the Sisyphus myth — that would undermine Joelle's work! — I will say that to my eye the mythological usage is sophisticated.

Condie develops one of her protagonist's most moving characteristics upon her reaction to Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." It is a counter-cultural statement that has been repressed and accepted as illegal within the suffocating dictates of The Society where Cassia and Xander and Ky are trying to live. That world is not many years in our future.  Through effective social engineering, Society Officials have so effectively improved humanity's condition that no hardships need affect anyone, as long as they comply willingly. Raging, raging against the dying of the light will be futile. Cassia, though, is learning otherwise.

The situation is perfectly laid by this novelist, then, to introduce precisely mid-way through, a theme from classical mythology. Condie achieves it with masterful adeptness. Ky mis-tells the myth of Sisyphus. At least we can say that there are details in Ky's futuristic account that couldn't be found in Homer's or Alcaeus's. Still, the result is the same. There's a hill and a rock and an eternity of futility. "He went on pushing the rock to the top. He went on pushing forever." (Matched 235) But, the telling of the myth is foreshadowed by a mention of it several pages earlier. (187) Condie allows the reference to settle into the reader's conscious awareness and fertilize it for a few pages.

So, the situation set, Condie introduces into this tale of "raging against the dying of the light" the spectre of humanity's greatest Disgracers. Finding himself in the World of the Dead, Odysseus had no need to tell his audience what Sisyphus was doing there. (Hom. Od. 11.593-600) They all knew the myth already. We, however, can scarcely recall what Sisyphus did wrong. A young woman, like Cassia, needs to be told. We, too, need to know, because Ky's father was clearly Sisyphaean. Thus, Condie has Ky tell the tale. Coming from the mouth of an Aberration, the son of an outlaw, the tale of futile climbing toward light dawns with thematic significance.

Condie's narrative is a page-turner. I'm looking forward to my schedule's next clearing so that I can learn what happens when Ky and Cassia get tired of climbing that hill. I'm also eager to learn just how far Condie will work this intriguingly rich mythological simile.

Keep turnin'.

      Added 19 Oct 2013: Look at one of my follow-up postings from Dec 2012, click here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

an ancient usage: Alexander as Heracles

Alexander the Great was presented as Heracles in many images minted onto coins. The image below shows a silver tetradrachm struck at Amphipolis in the Kingdom of Macedon around 320-319 BC. That date occurs a few years after Alexander's death. The coin's reverse shows Zeus of the Phidian type holding an eagle in his right hand.
Alexander III ‘the Great’ (336-323 BC), silver tetradrachm, "Amphipolis" mint, Kingdom of Macedon
Head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin / AΛΕΞΑΝΔΡOΥ, Zeus Aëtophoros seated left; monogram in the left field. ‘Amphipolis’ mint. Struck under Antipater or Polyperchon, circa 320-319 BC. 25mm, 16.9 grams; Troxell, Studies, Group I2.
 The head of the Nemean Lion, which protects the crown of Alexander's head, is essential iconography for Heracles; the face of Alexander is unmistakable for its type. The merging of mythical and historical personae is a striking 4th-century usage of classical myth.

What does Alexander gain by casting himself as humanity's greatest hero?
What does Antiper (or Polyperchon) gain by minting a coin with Alexander's likeness on it?
Does the coin overtly connect the facing images, Heracles and the majestic Zeus?

Students in ClCv241 may NOT treat this mythological usage for Reception Papers. The prompt calls for students to treat modern usages of classical myths. The spirit of this usage, however, shows the very sort of usage that can become a topic for a good paper in this class.

Students might, rather, write about the first 2-euro coin minted by Greece (2002) which depicts the Rape of Europa: click.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Usages to think about

Several days having passed since my most recent blogpost, I'll simply toss out here a handful of topics I might be inclined to pursue as usages. Further fleshing-out of these topics could lead me (or any student in the class) to a reasonably good reception paper.

  •     The new film, "Argo", seems to have no overlying connection to classical mythology. It seems to be about a moment in American/Iranian history, when the American embassy to Tehran was overrun and American hostages taken. The subsequent events are narrated in this new film. Reviews are pretty favorable all around. Having NOT seen the film myself, I don't know what the connection to the mythological ship, the Argo, is; but, I'm intrigued.
        The sailing of the Argo is, in classical mythology, a moment of water-shed importance. The sailing of the Argo was the first moment in Greece's interaction with the distant East. Historians sometimes look to the sailing of the Argo as a more-than-mythological narrative, a narrative of commercial interaction between East and West. In myth, though, Jason builds the Argo under divine supervision, fills it with the best heroes of the age, and sails it to Colchis to recover the Golden Fleece. The episode comes before the Trojan War; for Peleus and Thetis, Achilles' parents, meet during the Argonautica.
        If I were to view this film, I would watch for some overt reference to the mythological ship. Why is the film named after the Argo?

  • Any mastery image, any film in the Orpheus Film Festival, any piece of art dated after 1300 AD in Morford and Lenardon's mythology book could be taken on as a fair-game topic. Some from this last set (ML) will be more engaging than others.  

    From the page of Morford and Lenardon, I am drawn to 
  •     Joyce Carol Oates, Angel of Light, a 1981 novel offering "an American version of the Oresteia". Since the course turns toward Oresteia after Odyssey, this would be a timely topic.
  •    Barry Unsworth, The Song of Songs, a 2003 novel offering "a revisionist retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a key element in both the narrative of the Trojan War and also in the fate of Agamemnon (i.e. the Oresteia). This topic would prepare you for material coming soon in the course.
  • Harry Partch's Revelation in the Courthouse Park, a modern reworking of the Bacchae by Euripides.  I've never seen this, but I've read about it for years in ML's text. I think I'd like to actually see it and then write about it. Partch himself discusses the usage himself in an essay excerpted by ML on p. 320 (text box).
       I don't know Partch's music, but the HBLL has all the works mentioned by ML in p. 320 fn. 8 and p. 333. This one seems straightforward and easy.
  • George Friedrich Handel's Semele. This opera is about Jupiter's seduction of Semele. Having seen it in 1999 on a stage, I am still moved by the lengthy aria by Semele, whose anticipation of her association with Jupiter is partly erotic and partly ecstatic. She sings of her association with Jupiter in almost religious terms of an acolyte encountering the sky god. Handel worked with several mythological narratives in his operas and oratorios. This seems to me one of the most engaging.

Stumped for a topic?
   Consider the database of slides at fm/OGCMA or stick your nose into Reid's OGCMA.
   Feel free to float ideas past the TAs or Macfarlane.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Usage: Elysian Fields

An NPR discussion between Scott Simon and classicist Elain Fantham informed me years ago about an American baseball park of historical and mythological significance. The Elysian Fields near Hoboken, NJ continues a placename from classical mythology. It's a good topic for a Reception Paper.
If I were reading a Reception Paper on this topic, I would look for these elements.
  • Has the author sought to inform herself about the mythological background? Did she check Reid, the acknowledged authoritative source.
  • Does the paper have a clearly stated thesis, one that drives the paper and guides the reader?
  • Has the author looked into the usage itself so as to determine whether the original usage of the myth expressed overt awareness of the mythological connection? (Here: Did the guy who named the place after Elysium know what he was doing?)
  • Does the author try to convince me, the reader, that he knows why the classical myth is invoked?
  • Does the author show that she has looked for evidence that supports her thesis?
    • And is this evidence gathered from authoritative sources? [These days: Is the internet used appropriately for gathering evidence, or does the author rely on easy-peasy cheap searches only?]
NB: I choose this one, because finding it in Reid was going to be challenging. However, the name of the baseball grounds after the classical Elysian Fields is so clearly overt, that I know there's going to be material for writing a good paper.
  The OGCMA reference would be OGCMA0486NOTHades(2)_Hoboken [but, when I learn who named the place, I'll change the "artist's" name in the listing.]

INVITATION: Have at it. Go write this paper for me. Please.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Slamming Perseus

Slam poetry was one thing I didn't know about when I woke up yesterday morning. I had never heard of Corinna Bain either. What I experienced, when a former student sent me a YouTube link for Bain's 2010 performance of "... and her severed head said to Perseus," might prompt me to investigate and write.
Watching and analyzing the slam itself isn't enough for a Reception Paper. Scholarly inquiry would necessitate reading the artist's own webpage and digging for any critical analysis of the poet's work. But Bain's recitation is sufficiently provocative, leading me to think that her treatment of the Perseus/Medusa myth — and her infusion of Perseus/Andromeda — will reward close scrutiny.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Usage: Rubens' "Peace and War"


If I were under the gun and needed to analyze a usage of classical mythology in short order, I'd probably go with Peter Paul Rubens' 1629 masterpiece "Minerva Protects Pax from Mars" which is also known as "Peace and War".
Peter Paul Rubens painted Minerva into the background of the foreground's idyllic scene. Mars is no match for her.

What makes it a compelling piece:
  • Rubens is a principal painter of the Northern Baroque (so, there is much scholarship about him, his biography, and his craft);
  • The National Gallery's website offers starting points for research, as does Reid's listing of sources ... and an updated (25 sept) OGCMA slide now offers some bibliography;
  • The painting's iconography articulates clearly the important differences between Ares and Athena;
  • The painting has a contextual history that is easy to understand within Rubens' career and its own historical backdrop;
  • That little girl looking out of the painting invites me to step in and get involved. (Don't you agree?)
 Rubens has something to say. He likes saying things with mythological allusions. Athena shows up in many of his allegories. Scholarly sources can be brought to bear in a short research project on this fascinating painting.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Q&A about topic

Maybe this edited email exchange below will help you find a suitable paper topic. — M

Q: Hello, ... So I currently have two ideas for my reception paper and I want to know if either (or neither) of these would work.
1. I heard that the word "Cuckold" originated from the Actaeon myth because people also say "wearing the horns" and in some countries people even make a horn sign with their fingers when referring to a cuckold. 
2. There is a very popular children's book series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians and it's about children who are demi-gods. With this idea I would want to talk about the way the myths are portrayed in this series (or maybe just the first book) and what effect that has on the children who read it (what they learn or get our of mythology from it).

 A:  Dear ______, Sorry to be slow in response.
The cuckold/Actaeon idea is not as easy as an individual item from a Percy Jackson book, but it's likely more interesting.

If you choose PJ, make sure you choose one character, one defining episode, and document by specific references on the pages of the book(s). It's MUCH easier to work on a book than it is a film, in my opinion. In a book, you can find a page number and consider it carefully. Films are harder to document. Riordin conducted many interviews about his motives in creating the series. You can find him talking about his own motives and so forth. Use such statements and reviewers' analysis to underpin your research. I've read a dozen reviews about the PJ books. A published review, of course, counts as a secondary source. A PJ paper takes some work, but writing one is sort of like painting by numbers. I'd recommend it for a first timer.

Actaeon/cuckold is a big theme.  Too big for a short paper. You'd need to find ONE instance of its use, such as the little laughing boy in Hogarth's 'Marriage a la Mode' (OGCMA0022NOTActaeon_Hogarth) There's plenty of support for research, lots to find, if you do Hogarth's use of Actaeon. Or some other artist's treatment of Actaeon.

If somebody were compelling me to write on the Actaeon myth, I think I'd take on a painting by Jean-Leon Gerôme (OGCMA0024NOTActaeon_Gérôme). Gérôme is a remarkable artist. I'd like to know more about him. Why don't you take this painting on?

BTW: That film we watched (OGCMA0025NOTActaeon_Moira) did not make Actaeon a cuckold, though. It's not always a facet of an Actaeon narrative.

Reminder: A 2-pager gives too little space to treat the Actaeon/cuckold theme per se appropriately.

Hope this helps.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Researching some myths and reception

For a limited time — saying that makes me feel like a huckster! — a valuable research tool is available to myth students at BYU. The Oxford Bibliography for Classics/Mythology provides some useful listings you might want to consider for your study of some myths.

The listings for "individual heroic figures" include Narcissus, Oedipus, Perseus, Remus, Helen, Heracles, Medea, Orpheus, and Theseus.

The section on "Later Tradition in European Cultures (Literature, Art, Music)" has this opening statement:
The tradition of classical mythology in European cultures, needless to say, is so massive that it has become a subfield of classical studies and has generated an immense literature. This list of citations is therefore very selective. There are two subsections: first, some important basic reference works, and second, titles that treat specific topics, such as the tradition in film or in music....
Mayerson 1971 is still very useful and informative, but for more serious research it needs to be supplemented with updated bibliographical references, such as the excellent Walther 2003. Both are good as quick reference works. Reid 1993 is the most complete and best-organized guide. Kreuz, et al. 2008 is a bibliography that may be overwhelming to the nonspecialist. Chance 1994–2000 provides a superb treatment of classical myths and their interpretation in the Middle Ages, for scholars.
Maybe there's something here for your own interests.

Access the Oxford Bibliography online through Once there type "Oxford Bibliographies" in the databases box (lower left of the homepage) and then click "Classics" from the resulting homepage listing. Within the very very deep pool of information in the Classics Bibliography, you can find the Mythology bibliography and then scroll through to the sections on Medea, and Orpheus, and so forth.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Usage: Brecht's Antigone

1942. Bertold Brecht published his Antigonelegende. He subtitled it "a tragedy in a modern setting."
Brecht "showed Creon overtly as Hitler, along with his aggressive son Megareus, who continues to fight and finally brings defeat on Thebes, an allusion to modern Germany. He succeeds in his Verfremdungseffekt (alientation effect), distancing us from all the characters, including Antigone. This alienation is a technique for distancing the audience members so that they can make an objective assessment of the action they are seeing and come up with a moral judgment. Brecht wants to enlist minds over emotions, but he does not always succeed. Brecht objected to what he saw as Antigone's pacifism. He thought she did a disservice to the memory of the German partisans who fought against the Nazis." M. McDonald,  The Living Art of Greek Tragedy (Bloomington, 2003), 81.
Brecht introduced enough changes to the play that it was no longer simply Sophocles' play; rather, it became Brecht's own commentary on his contemporary situation. Whether or not Sophocles was speaking thus in his own day is less pertinent in the context of 1942 Germany.

This is a paper topic with lots of potential.

If I were able to research this more deeply, I would start with the premise of McDonald's observation on Brecht's motives. I would dig into contemporary reactions. Much scholarship has been done on Brecht, even in English. So, I wouldn't have a hard time finding secondary sources to guide my research into Brecht's usage of Antigone. And I'm reasonably confident that I could find interesting stuff without blowing my time-budget.

Not a usage: Abuladze's *Repentance*

A 1999 article by M. Colakis argues that Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 film, Repentance draws on the Antigone myth to teach contemporary audiences of the problems with Soviet tyranny. Abuladze, according to Colakis, critiques Soviet tyranny through intertextual application of the Antigone myth. While narrative similarities give one food for thought, Abuladze seems unaware of the connections to Antigone. 

Archetypal considerations underpin Colakis' analysis. In my opinion, the film does not qualify as a "usage" of classical myth.

If Abuladze’s narrative is derived from Antigone, he appears to have left no documentation to that effect. Colakis: “While no direct influence can be proven, it is not farfetched to see Abuladze as drawing on the Antigone.” (p. 73) There is no smoking gun. Nevertheless, Colakis argues in the conclusion that “Repentance draws on [the] myth,” and that “As the new political leaders of the former Soviet Union looked to the West for political/economic models, so did one of its new cinematic leaders look to an important Western myth to speak to a culture in transition.”

The “rules” of reception include “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable work”. (Hutcheon, Adaptation, 8; my emphasis) For Abuladze’s narrative to stand as a usage of the Antigone myth, fewer divergences from the myth’s essential narrative strands and more convincing admission of authorial awareness ought to be manifest. 

Because Colakis' article is compelling, the film has a OGCMA reference number. The index allows me to place the discussion. My slide OGCMA0109NOTAntigone_Abuladze offers a link to Colakis' article in .pdf and to other pertinent items.

Colakis, M. "A Glasnost Antigone: Tengiz Abuladze's Repentance." Classical and Modern Literature 19 (1999), 173 - 78.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Usage: Manship's Actaeon

Paul Manship's "Actaeon #2" (1923, Smithsonian) articulates a disoriented man's confused anguish. Mary Grant said it better:
“The American sculptor, Paul Manship, has a bronze group of Actaeon and his dogs, in which he has skillfully shown the psychology of the metamorphosis — the animal 'change' in Actaeon’s features with the sprouting of horns on his head. Late Classical writers, playing with such themes, were often interested in more than the physical transformation. Ovid is a conspicuous example."
Manship uses classical mythology to illustrate.

Manship's usage is lasting, but succinct and unmistakeable. I call it a "usage" because
  • the work mentions the myth in the title
  • the work depends upon essential identifiers — horned man, dogs
  • the work omits elements that can reasonably be extrapolated by one who knows the myth (e.g. Artemis, Actaeon's error).
Not every deer in the headlights is an Actaeon.
What ARE the essential identifiers for an Actaeon narrative? Is it the dogs? Is it a man-stag? Will antlers alone do it?  If one of these were missing, could Manship's bronze still be identifiable as Actaeon? Somewhere in the process, Manship's sculpture became a treatment of the Actaeon myth.
Mary Grant, trans., The Myth of Hyginus, University of Kansas Humanistic Studies 34 (Lawrence 1960). (notes)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Usage: Juno orbits Jupiter (NASA)

Usage: the engineers at NASA work the myth of Io into their exploration of the planet Jupiter.
LEGO figurines are on board before the 2011 launch of the spacecraft Juno. Jupiter has his thunderbolt, Juno has her spyglass because she wants to go in for a closer look on the cloudy planet (maybe she'll find Io there with Jupiter!), and Gallileo holds a miniature model of the Jovian planet.

See my slide: OGCMA0598NOTIo_NASA

The classical usage in Hamlet

Hamlet receives the Players at Elsinore in the middle of the play named after him.

He importunes the chief to recite a stirring rendition of "Aeneas' tale to Dido" about the sack of Troy. Hamlet had heard this at least once before, and indeed demonstrates that he has committed much of the speech to memory. He has internalized the narrative.

The myth, as the Player tells it, offers useful models for action within the confines of the play. Gertrude can learn from Hecuba how a queen ought to lament her husband's death. Hamlet can learn from Pyrrhus how to decide and act. The onlookers can learn that the death of Hamlet Senior seems to be an epically earth-shattering event for young Hamlet.

It cannot escape anybody's notice that the myth of Hecuba and Priam occurs within the Hamlet. Once noted, a scholar is obligated to consider Shakespeare's narrative gain, the reason why the author inserts the mythological allusion, why here, why thus, etc.

That's an overt usage of a myth. Shakespeare is holding a smoking gun. He is caught using classical myth.

Some students of Shakespeare's Hamlet have worked with the observation that Hamlet is similar to the Oresteia. The two narratives have the ghostly supernatural, and adulterous new king, a troubled son, a tragic ending. What Hamlet really lacks, though, is an overt reference to the Orestes story.

Without an overt reference, we are only discussing archetypal similarities between the two narratives.

Bluntly: Hecuba in Hamlet is a good paper choice, Orestes in Hamlet is questionable.
     Hamlet manifests a USAGE of the Hecuba/Priam/Pyrrhus/Aeneas myth.
     Hamlet's likeness to the oresteia is a narrative similarity and NOT a usage.

Don't read this, if you are unclear about what I said above. It will only confuse, unless the above is clear.
Extraneous complicators: Reid cites Hamlet in her OGCMA, but I think she wrong to do so. (And she cites Gilbert Highet, who agrees with me.) The Player's narrative of Aeneas' tale to Dido isn't really taken very clearly from Vergil's Aeneid.

Orpheus Film Festival: Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers

This opera is the home of the Can-Can.  

Eurydice in Offenbach's treatment is none too content with her bridegroom's negligence, even yielding to the advances of Aristaeus. Audiences who like the way Wicked turned The Wizard of Oz inside out will appreciate that Offenbach's opera reverses ALL our expectations — the Olympians in the Underworld, burlesque carrying on where one might have expected solemnity, and the comic intervention of Public Opinion on the stage.

A person can appreciate this comic operatic romp in its own right; but, recognizing a few riffs from Gluck's Orfeo makes the experience more enjoyable. These allusions to Gluck drive home the point that Offenbach was commenting on the need for reforming his peers' approach to opera.


Orpheus Film Festival: Black Orpheus

Marcel Camus, a French cinemaste, created a remarkable film from Vinicius de Moraes's play Orfeu Negro 1959. It won the Cannes Gold Palm and the Oscar, as well as many other awards, and has been a staple of international cinema ever since.

International cinema begins for many here.
I disliked the film the first couple of times I watched it. This is no longer true.

One thing I failed to appreciate earlier was Camus' introduction of Bassa Nova music. That was revolutionary, a first for artistic expression outside Brazil.

Another thing I missed was the creativity of Camus' narrative. Because I used to consider the storyline of Black Orpheus to be a simplistic application of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth — a rehearsal of the myth without divergence, I thought —the frowned on the way mythological characters were pressed into real-life roles: Orpheus as tram-driver, Hades as coroner, Aristaeus as masked celebrant at Carnival in Rio, etc.

In case you care, I see these things differently now. The music is actually pretty amazing, and the inflection of the myth into the favellas above Rio has provoked me to reconsider. The clincher, I think, has been that moment very late in the film when a new Orpheus picks up a guitar and causes the sun to rise over a new day.

My dad used to tell us kids, when we were faced with some new gross-out food or other, that we didn't need to like it, but we did need to try it. You might feel the same when you find your way into Orfeu NegroOGCMA0795OrpheusEurydice_Camus

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Moulin Rouge!

The "smoking gun" principle is illustrated nowhere more effectively than in the Moulin Rouge! by Baz Luhrmann. The film feels remotely like a version of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth if you pay attention to the story line (and don't get caught up in the cleverness of all the pop covers from The Sound of Music right through to Roxanne and Elton John's Your Song).

When Christian goes "back to the Moulin Rouge" to recover his lost girl, allusions to Orpheus's descent into the Underworld start to become more obvious. When he loses her a second time by looking back, the connection to Orpheus seems sure.

Monica Cyrino showed the narrative similarities quite convincingly in an article in Classical and Modern Literature28 (2009). I come from that article still feeling that we're looking at archetypal similarities in the film, like Luhrmann would have shown his hand somewhere. The hellish nature of Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge notwithstanding and in spite of Cyrino's skillful explication of the moment of Christian's orphic retrospection, I still harbored doubts that the director was purposefully dealing with the myth of Orpheus per se. I didn't see smoking-gun proof that Luhrmann knew he was doing the Orpheus/Eurydice narrative. And the characters felt like an "Orpheus figure" and a "Eurydice figure" and so forth.

An article called "The First Tango in Paris", however, changed my mind. The piece included an interview with the director/creator and included a fair disclosure that Luhrmann knowingly worked with the Orpheus myth in the film:
Upon completion of a major project, Baz Luhrmann goes on a backpacking trip around the world to recharge his creative batteries. After Romeo + Juliet, he trekked to Marrakech, Cairo, Alexandria, and Paris, and came back with the inspiration for Moulin Rouge: the myth of Orpheus, the Greek lyre player who went into the underworld to save his lady love but failed. ''The myth is about the moment you realize there are things you cannot control,'' Luhrmann says later in his cramped office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot.
This is what I call a "smoking gun." It's proof that the artist is aware that the creation works with the classical myth. In such a moment of disclosure, the creation passes from archetype to usage. The applied myth becomes overt.  The topic becomes fairgame for treatment in a Reception Paper.

Monica Cyrino, "To Love and Toulouse: The Orpheus and Eurydice Theme in Marcel Camus' Orfeu Negro (1959) and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001)," Classical and Modern Literature 28 (2009)
Jeff Jensen, "The First Tango in Paris," 25 May 2001 [click here].
For other starting bibliography, see my slide OGCMA0796NOTOrpheusEurydice_Luhrmann

Monday, September 10, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Gluck's Orfeo

Gluck's Orfeo effected a reform of opera in the late 18th Century. The composer likely engaged for this reform the myth of the mankind's greatest musician, Orpheus, for the purpose of returning to music's roots. But, Gluck and the librettist, Calzabigi, use the opera to articulate the Enlightenment's most sincere expressions of human emotions. Patricia Howard calls Gluck's Orfeo "in every sense a child of its time."

Orfeo's most engaging narrative move, in my opinion, is Gluck/Calzabigi's decision to equip Eurydice with emotions and impulses. Ovid and Vergil, who had told the story classically, focused on Orpheus's heroism and failure. Gluck's Eurydice encounters in her heroic husband a perplexing inability to communicate, one who refuses to answer her questions. This Orpheus is a man whose heroism is insufficient to retain his bride a second time. She begs for communication and willingly terminates her rejoinders, when she surmises that life with Orpheus will mean an existence of adled communication.

Other narratives work with the same awkwardness in Orpheus. Offenbach's self-important musician is as much to blame as is Eurydice herself, she of the wandering eye — and Orpheus can try as he will, but he won't easily recover his bride. Sarah Ruhl's masterpiece has Eurydice perplexed when Orpheus arrives and assumes his bride will be ecstatic to return to his world, a place where she is beginning to fear alienation long before he arrives. Indeed, Ruhl's Eurydice meets her deceased father in the Underworld and hopes to renew communication with him on new terms. Then Orpheus intervenes.

Harry Kupfer's production of Gluck's Orfeo was produced at the English National Opera, Covent Garden in 1991. Jochen Kowalski's virtuosity notwithstanding, newcomers to this opera may be surprised at what comes out when the male alto opens his mouth. The bold staging of this production realizes an entirely new interpretation of the mythological scene. The musical hero's journey to recover his bride is, here, the emotional depression of a bereaved lover trying to recover in a psychiatric hospital. The Italian libretto is performed on a very modern stage (for 1991), complete with close-circuit television cameras, a rotating set, and a Fender guitar.

P. Howard, ed., C.W. Gluck, Orfeo, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Vertigo

Hitchcock's Vertigo is an adaptation of Boileau-Narcejac's gumshoe novel, D'Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead; also titled Froides Sueurs Cold Sweat). The opening credits of Vertigo acknowledge this, and the development of the screenplay is well documented.

The French novel narrates a thematically engrained usage of the Orpheus myth: Flaviers calls his girlfriend "mon petite Eurydice" and a cigarette lighter inscribed with that name plays a key role in the plot's denouement.

When you watch the film, you may be struck by the similarities between Scottie Ferguson and Orpheus — his brooding melancholy, his involvement in the realm of the dead, his retrospective moment that leads to final loss. And you might conclude that Hitchcock liked the Orpheus myth for its archetypal qualities. Royal Brown astutely noted these similarities in 1986.

I wonder about Hitchcock's process of removing the overt references to the Orpheus myth. In the process from source-novel to screenplay and then subsequent drafts of that, Hitchcock systematically removed these and replaced them with less obvious, i.e. merely similar, narrative similarities to the Orpheus myth. Does the film still "count" as a usage of the Orpheus myth?

Select Bibliography for starters:
Brown, Royal S. "Vertigo as Orphic Tragedy," Literature/Film Quarterly 14 (1986): 32-43 = Rprt. in Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock, edited by David Boyd (NY: GKHall 1995) 112-27.
Krohn, Bill. Hitchcock at Work. London: Phaidon 2000. Pages184 - 94.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire, a brilliant film in its own right, intrigues me enormously for Danny Boyle's usage of the Orpheus myth.

Frieda Pinto plays Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. The lovestory of Jamal and Latika is different in Danny Boyle's film than it is in the source-novel by Vikas Swarup. Swarup's novel works with the Taj Mahal and the Mugal lovestory behind the building of the Taj. Boyle introduces classical mythology in a remarkable way.

The story of Jamal and Latika is Orpheus/Eurydice-like.
   Boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, etc.
Boyle's inclusion of one scene nails the story as THE Orpheus myth, and not just an archetypal resemblance.

One evening, Jamal and other thieves are stealing purses from an audience that is watching an operatic performance. Jamal takes a moment to watch the tenor singing his lament on stage. But just a moment. Danny Boyle cuts quickly from the operatic scene to a fleeting glimpse of Latika and then to the gameshow set, where Jamal must answer the next question on his way to 1-billion rupees.

Watch the clip. (A link is on my slide: OGCMA0797NOTOrpheusEurydice_Boyle. Click the "chapter 12" link right sidebar.

Did you catch the song the operatic tenor was singing? It's the moment in Gluck's Orfeo where Orpheus has just lost the love of his life, Eurydice.

Danny Boyle worked with Vikas Swarup's novel, Q & A (now retitled after the film Slumdog Millionaire), and introduced the element of Orpheus into the plot. Indeed, there is nothing of Orpheus/Eurydice except archetypal similarities in the novel itself. The insertion of overt Orpheus elements into the film is entirely the genius of Danny Boyle.

Swarup's lovestory has archetypal resemblance to Orpheus. Boyle's lovestory uses the Orpheus myth to add depth and new meaning to the narrative. The myth works like allusory shorthand.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Orpheus Film Festival: Cocteau's Orphée

When International Cinema screens Cocteau's cinematic landmark, it's perhaps the easiest item in the Orpheus Film Festival to take in.

Jean Marais plays Orpheus in Cocteau's film. The mirror is Cocteau's portal between the world of the living and the world of immortals. Orpheus, mythically, longs for and ascertains the way across and back, when his bride perishes. But, is he in love with her or with the idea of that portal? Click the YouTube link for the French trailer.

Jean Cocteau was an artist of difficult categorization. He was more than a cinemaste, yet he developed the artform; and he was not merely a poet, for he called his films "poems". With numerous murals and sketches and films and stage-plays dealing with Orpheus, Cocteau was deeply involved with the development of the myth throughout his life.

The 1950 film is at once easy to watch and challenging to comprehend. The viewer will readily trace the story of Orpheus from his preoccupation with his craft — decoding messages from an oracular source — to his neglect of his bride, to his pursuit of his departed wife into another existence. If the challenge of Orpheus is to transition from the world of living into the world of departed spirits, then Cocteau's Orpheus meets the challenge in a remarkable way. True to the elements of the myth, once Orpheus returns from the other side with Eurydice, he faces anew the problem of finding the time and attention required to sustain his love for her. Just as C.W. Gluck played with the challenge of retaining a recovered love, Cocteau shows us in Orpheus a lover of epic drive but mundane recollection.

Watch the film and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Orpheus Film Festival: Pushing Daisies

The next few posts will deal with the individual constituents of the "Orpheus Film Festival." A handful of great cinematic (or sort-of-cinematic) narratives has been chosen to get students thinking about the Orpheus myth. The film festival is also designed to spark some thinking about the complexities and complications of mythological reception.

Lee Pace and Anna Friel play at the narrative of Orpheus Eurydice in Pushing Daisies (Bryan Fuller, creator; ABC 2007-2009) OGCMA0796NOTOrpheusEurydice_Fuller
Bryan Fuller's biography leads from one successful screenwrite to another — several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies. The last two involve remarkable treatments of death and life-after-death. To my eye, though, Fuller's first engagement with narrative material from a classical source is Pushing Daisies.

The premise for the entirety of Pushing Daisies is uncannily similar to the fundamentals of the Orpheus myth. Ned is a artist who deals in pie. Somewhere in his life he acquired a gift that allows him to revive the dead with a simple touch. If he touches that person a second time, the person dies a second death and may not be revived.

Ned's gift equips him to make the most remarkable pie. In a later episode we see him revive some moldy strawberries. Put those in a pie.

Compare Orpheus. He is not merely a great lover. He is the greatest singer the world has ever known. The ability to animate the landscape and charm living things comes by birth to him, the son of Calliope. Thus empowered, Orpheus proceeds to the Underworld to recover the soul of his fatally snakebit bride, Eurydice.

Anna Friel's Charlotte "Chuck" in PD was the childhood crush of Lee Pace's Ned. Some 20 years after their first and only kiss, she shows up murdered in the mortuary, when Ned comes to call. Knowing that his kiss will revive her, he indulges, reanimates the body, and begins the challenging task of never touching her ever again.

I worry about reception. For me, it makes a difference whether PD's narrative premise is actually (i.e. purposefully, knowingly, overtly, etc.) based upon the Orpheus myth or whether the two premises are merely related archetypes. Linda Hutcheons' "rules" of adaptation help me worry about such things. If Bryan Fuller ever tips his hand and shows me that he "knows" he is using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, then I will say I've caught him holding a smoking gun. Then I'll know that the many similarities in the series's narrative are intentional, that the show's creator did not merely stumble upon a narrative that was "like" that tale of Orpheus and Eurydice; rather, I'll be able to say that Ned is an Orpheus and Chuck in a Eurydice.

I owe the original observation for this connection between PD and Orpheus/Eurydice to a former MA student, Chris Haney, who developed the thesis in a great paper he read at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Haney observes a slew of narrative similarities and tries to catch Fuller holding that smoking gun, the evidence that shows he knew he was dealing with Orpheus/Eurydice per se (and not merely a familiar old plot line). I don't think Haney would ever say he caught Fuller.

I found today a contemporary review of Pushing Daisies from 3 October 2007, the day the PD pilot aired on ABC. Dozens such reviews are archived in internet resources. The review by Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times (3 Oct 2007) is the only published piece that articulates agreement with Haney's thesis. Lloyd:

Fairy tales have been told to children for years, but they weren’t ‘made’ for them the way, say, ‘The Backyardigans’ of ‘Hannah Montana’ are. They’re shared currency, the myth and yarns of our world, and the charge they carry flows across borders and time and age brackets. There’s an old story at the back of ‘Pushing Daisies’ — the one about Orpheus fetching Eurydice from the underworld. Forbidden to look back at her as they trudge Earthward, he does anyway, and she’s dead again. Whatever that is supposed to tell you about having your cake and eating it too or listening when teacher talks, the tragedy of losing again what you managed extraordinarily to regain is clear and powerful enough. click link here

The issue that will continue to keep me awake is this: Just because Haney and Lloyd (and Macfarlane) believe there PD is built on Orphic mythological material, Bryan Fuller doesn't necessarily admit to it. ... And does it matter whether Fuller does or not.

The Orpheus Film Festival includes one episode from Pushing Daisies, the opening episode of season two, and episode called "Bzzzzzzzzz!" And here's what I think clinches it as a narrative with undeniable connections to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the opening spot where Chuck revives her hive of bees by pouring their dead corpses over Ned's shoulders, which brings them back to life.

In Vergil's Georgics, a beekeeper named Aristaeus suffers the devastating loss of all his hive. He prays to his mother, the nymph Arethusa, and asks how his livelihood could be taken from him in a feel blow. Aristaeus learns after much inquiry and effort that he is personally responsible for the loss of his bees, for when he pursued the lovely Eurydice he unwittingly effected her death as she stepped upon a snake and died from the bite. Aristaeus receives instruction that allows him to appease the disturbed gods and bring his hive back from death. No small part of Aristaeus's instruction has to do with learning the details of Orpheus's recovery of Eurydice from the world of the dead.

Vergil's account of Orpheus and Eurydice abides still, alongside the slightly later version in Ovid's Metamorphoses as the classical narrative of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.

I wonder whether PD season two, episode one reveals enough of the bee matter that I might be able to surmise from it that Fuller knows Orpheus in a classical, esoteric way. Sometimes when I watch this episode, I think I've finally got him! Sometimes, I think I'm fantasizing.

Watch it and see for yourself.

Other films in the Orpheus Film Festival are shown to enrolled class members only, via a streaming feed that emanates from BYU College of Humanities Digital Lab. This one, however, is unique in my offering merely a link to the Warner Brothers website, where the entire episode is available for free viewing. Go have a look. Feel free to respond in the comments below.

posted by RTM