Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Proserpina's infinite wisdom

Orpheus' dramatic arrival in the underworld might well have resulted in utter failure... at the outset. What if he had descended this enormous depth and failed in his quest for Eurydice entirely? There was no guarantee, when he set out, that he would persuade Pluto and Proserpina to let Eurydice go back.

The first phase of the journey involved the unlikelihood that the singer could even persuade the Powers of Death to relinquish the newlywed bride back into his custody, her plaintive groom. I know of no recorded attempts before Orpheus'. His victory over Hades and Persephone marks him as the first to succeed in that realm. Surely every lover would fain the attempt. Yet, the greatest singer's greatest song was unprecedented.

What made the moment of Orpheus' appeal succeed where others might have failed? Stephen Mitchell imagines that Proserpina's shrewd reasoning made all the difference. Mitchell's brief parable traces intimately the queen's thoughts and then concludes: "She turns to the king. 'Yes, darling,' she says, 'Let them go.'"

Mitchell's vignette sets itself apart from the thronging Orpheus narratives by thinking through what  motivated Hades to break the bands of immortality and relinquish Eurydice's shade to live again on earth. As men might, Pluto seems not to weigh the ramifications of Orpheus' song. The narrative opens with his favorable reaction to a "beautiful ... ah, beautiful" performance.  Mitchell's most provocative contribution to this myth is his formulation of Proserpina''s desire to liberate the young bride from those Orphic ties. 

Proserpina has not always been so perceptive. She came to the world of the dead against her will. A child "birde". "She has ripened." "Now she can see clearly..." Perhaps most poignantly, Ceres's daughter came here once wholly against her will, but having grown accustomed to this place, she has learned the risk of retrospection. Wiser now, if she used to, she won't be looking back again. 

Mitchell's wise young queen scrutinizes the attitude of Orpheus. She sizes up his readiness "to be in harmony with a woman." She regards Orpheus' presence in her realm, lyre in hand, as a manifestation of "fear protected by longing." So, thanks to Mitchell, our comfortable praise for Orpheus' loving heroism is turned on its ear. The champion of rhetorical longing is really a frightened poser. "No wonder Eurydice took the serpent's way out." 

Mitchell's dive into the female psyche achieves new depths with this suggestion that Eurydice has entered the Underworld by calculated choice. The dramatic moment conceived by Mitchell omits Eurydice herself. This is all about Orpheus and his judges. Two men and one woman articulate opinions about Eurydice's immediate fate; all three are figments of one man's (Mitchell's) imagination. Only one of them forms a rational reaction to the matter at hand. For, Orpheus is singing his heart out in longing, hoping to reset the world, and Pluto responds naturally to the most passionate song anyone has ever heard. It is all about the greatest lovesong ever sung and the divinities' reception of it. As automatic as the male response was, so insightful is the queen's anticipation that Orpheus will only learn from Eurydice's loss, if he will "lose his lover again and again." And that loss, she sees, must be gut-wrenching ("precipitous") and incessant. The parable has a structure to it: Pluto spoke briefly at first, and Proserpina speaks briefly at last. She has the final word, really. Accordingly, fresh ideas from the gods imparted and the queen's take on the whole event intimated, Mitchell gives Proserpina voice: "'Yes, darling,' she says. 'Let them go.'"

Classical mythology provides narrative frames in which marvels like Mitchell's vignette germinate.
Where will the next really deep consideration of Eurydice's predicament lead?

Stephen Mitchell, "Orpheus" in Parables and Portraits. HarperPerennial, 1994; reprinted in Nina Kossman, ed., Gods and Mortals: poems on classical myths (Oxford University Press 2001), 106 (OGCMA0797NOTOrpheusEurydice_Mitchell).


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Actaeon again

Early in the Fall semester I made an OGCMA slide for Gary Moira's brilliant film short, "Metamorphosis." It is a 3-minute film made to promote the British National Gallery's Titian exhibit during the Olympiad hype last summer. If you remember the film, you'll want to watch it again. Here's the YouTube link.

Maybe you'll be happy merely to revisit the (left) vignette that captures the mythological usage in one frame. That's Anna Friel hosting a dinner. She never utters a word in the film. No one does. But Gary Moira, the director, has put Friel beneath Titian's "Diana and Actaeon" for dramatic effect. If you've seen the film, you'll know a) what she's eating and b) why we can see her over that empty chair in our foreground.

Titian's painting narratesgraphically the story that Ovid tells in his Metamorphoses. Actaeon stumbles upon Diana and her nymphs one day while hunting. The chilly stare with which Titian has Diana pierce Actaeon deserves close attention. Poor old Actaeon. He is soon torn apart by his own dogs.

In Gary Moira's short film, Friel plays the role of Diana with calculating coolness. When today's Actaeon sees her at the bath, he has actually sought her out. There is no mistake on his part. But his miscalculation is fatal. She seems (to me) not at all surprised that he has come to gaze. (below)

One reason why this film is on my mind is I'm bidding farewell this week to thinking about Downton Abbey for the next several months. The young man who plays the Actaeon role in this short film is unknown to me, except for a part he played in this last season, James.  Recognizing the actor immediately, I began hoping for Julian Fellowes to craft a great usage of Actaeon or build another  mythological usage, like his Perseus. He didn't.

Ed Speleers plays Actaeon in Moira's "Metamorphosis"

I'll close with the gaze of Moira's Actaeon (left).  As this handsome victim eyes his quarry, he has no idea that he's as good as toasted already. Great irony. So, watch the film.

Moira brashly turns the Actaeon story inside out. This man willfully steps into the trap laid for him, quite unlike Ovid's (ergo also Titian's) Actaeon. No surprise. No withdrawl, til it's way too late.

Ovid takes a moment at the end of his tale of Actaeon/Diana and says that the gods are still quibbling over whether the punishment meted upon poor Actaeon's head was too harsh. (Ovid Met. 3.251ff.) Did she justly defend her chastity against the mistaken intrusion of a wayward hunter? Did she overstep the line between justice and rage?

You might well think differently about the myth after you watch Moira's little film... or really consider Titian's painting.

Again, if you've seen Moira's film, you'll note that I show the images above in reverse order.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Downton Withdrawl

In the early days of their relationship, Lady Mary Grantham and Matthew Crawley had a momentary flirtatious brush shorthanded with the Perseus and Andromeda myth. Go back and watch for Episode 2 of the 2011 season (Season 1) of "Downton Abbey".

Romantic sparring between the then presumptive heir of Downton and Lady Mary led him into a ripe classical mythological allusion.

Begun in a formal dinning-room conversation, the allusion was continued in at least one subsequent interchange between Mathew and Mary later in the same episode. Bear in mind that in Season 1, Mary and Matthew were hardly affectionate toward one another, though Julian Fellows was supercharging their relationship:
Mary: “I’ve been studying the story of Andromeda. Do you know it?”
Matthew: “Why?”
Mary: “Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock-“
The Dowager Violet: (laughs) “Really, Mary, we’ll all need our smelling salts in a minute.”
Matthew: “But the sea monster didn’t get her, did he?”
Mary: “No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father’s problems, she was rescued.”
Matthew: “By Perseus.”
Mary: (surprised) “That’s right. Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn’t you say?”
Matthew: “Well, that depends. I’d have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.”
— "Downton Abbey", Episode Two
I call this mythological allusion OGCMA0883NOTPerseusAndromeda_Downton

As with any mythological usage, the fun part is spotting that the usage is overt. The greater fun, though, comes from analysis, explaining the why.

It is interesting to me that Lady Mary's version of the Andromeda story includes the self-referential detail that Andromeda is 'the eldest daughter' of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Frankly, I've never considered whether "classical" Cepheus and Cassiopeia had any other children. Maybe, indeed, Andromeda was in the same family-spot as Lady Mary.

Within the context of this allusion, it is noteworthy that the episode does bring a very handsome and dangerous seducer into the relationship of Mary and Matthew. Downtonists who came in later may not recall the Turkish ambassador whose sudden death in Mary's bed caused no small shock waves and threatened to bring the most vile scandal upon the House. Matthew does indeed learn more 'about the princess and sea monster in question" as the episode unfolds.

Which of Mary's male interests, Matthew or the Turkish ambassador, fits the mythological allusion as
the Cetus, which the Perseus?

Not wanting to call sour grapes on the working of Downton, I will say that I was hoping for a good deal more classical mythological shorthand as the story went on. In fact, I can only recall a couple of moments in the collective series (now at the end of another season) where classical mythology came into play. I had hoped for more from Julian Fellows. (See my recent post on Julian Fellows' usage of Neleus in Mary Poppins.)


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Neleus will get you thinking...

Neleus has troubled me for years. When my wife and I saw the West-End production of Mary Poppins in 2004, I thought I was hearing in the theatre that the statue in the park was one of Peleus. I puzzled on that through the entire play... It made no sense. When I learned that it was NELEUS, I was really stumped. Who's ever built that myth into another narrative? What good does it do a narrative? What kind of mythological shorthand comes of it?

I had to go digging for answers. I didn't find much!

Now that Mary Poppins is touring several North American venues this Spring, I'll put out some feelers and see whether anybody in my massive readership has better answers than I have!

Mythologically, Neleus is hardly a central figure. Twin of Pelias, sons of Poseidon and Tyro whom the god seduced in the likeness of a the river-god Enipeus, Neleus is exposed with his brother as infants but saved by a kindly mare (sent by Poseidon) who suckles them. Pelias becomes father of Alcestis and figures significantly in the Argo story, and Neleus founds Pylos and fathers Nestor and Periclymenos. At sandy Pylos, Neleus refuses to purify Heracles and later suffers the hero's spiteful retaliation. (See Apollodorus Libr., 1.9.8 and 2.6.2-3.)

P.L. Travers, illustrations by Mary Shepard and Agnes
Sims, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (Harcourt:
San Diego, 1997; reprint of 1943 original), 101.
P.L. Travers chose to embed the Neleus story into the story Mary Poppins: Opens the Door (1943). It's easiest to crib the plot summary from the TP-verso: "Mary Poppins returns to the Banks family in a rocket and involves the Banks children in more magical adventures, including those with Peppermint Horses, the Marble Boy, and the Cat That Looked at the King." OK. Chapter Four, "The Marble Boy," involves the Banks children in a relationship with the animated statue of Neleus they meet in the park one fine day.

In real life, near Hyde Park Corner, in the area known as the Rose Garden, stands a marble sculpture with functionally precise likeness to that depicted in the Shepard/Sims illustration. The Hyde Park marble boy, though, is not named. It would seem not totally far-fetched to suppose that Travers knew the anonymous sculpture in the Rose Garden but herself asserted a telling name and crafted a mythological reference around it.

The sculpture from Mary Poppins' "The Marble Boy" and its animation figure prominently in the West End-to-Broadway musical Mary Poppins (2004: R and R Shermans' 1964 Disney music and lyrics augmented by G. Stiles and A. Drewe; book by Julian Fellowes [Mr. Downton Abbey... for you youngsters].)

So, what about that sculpture in Travers' park? The boy on the pedastal is clearly connectable to Poseidon, since he stands there beside the dolphin and the crashing wave. In the narrative of the book, no particular allusion to the Poseidon/Neleus myth seems forthcoming. In the play, as I remember it now 9 years back, there was the spectre of fleeting youth. Sort of the way Sherman/Sherman make George Banks learn to fly kites, the Stiles/Drewe/Fellowes script seems to feel Mr. Banks' need to get out of the bank and into his children's life. Neleus may remind us of that: an abandoned boy whose divine father still finds a way to succor him by way of a kindly mare.

One of my students in 2008 proposed that Neleus in the musical becomes a "thinking tool for the importance of charity." (Liz Sands) I wonder whether perhaps Neleus is an artifact of abiding youth: loquacious Nestorian old-age (like what confines Mr. Banks in a premature senility) was preceded once and evermore by a youthful sprite. Insofar as the marble boy can coax that playfulness out of the Banks children — and maybe get their dad to join in — there may yet be hope for both father and son.

If you see the play this Spring and have thoughts about Travers Marble Boy, let me know.

—   This content is taken almost entirely from my slide, which has links to the chapter in Travers' book and to several other key details. Go have a look: OGCMA0000NOTNeleus_Travers
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