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?"