Tuesday, December 10, 2013

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale, after spending nearly 10 years with her cousins in London returns home to the peaceful idyllic hamlet of Helstone. Her overly petted cousin Edith has been married to captain Lennox and the captain's younger brother is quick to make his feelings known to Margaret who is put off by his overt courtship. Perhaps Mr. Lennox is a little too confident in his good looks and charisma; he is only slightly abashed by her refusal and although Mr. Lennox departs from Helstone lacking the spoils he anticipated, we, the reader are certain we have not seen the last of him. Doesn't it always seem like the rejected lover always slowly woos the heroine or persistently earns her love? 

Margaret's father has been a pastor, but now, after wrestling with his faith, has turned his back on the church and has become a dissenter. He in good conscience can no longer live in the rectory and perform his duties, so he and Margaret, after much deliberation, decide to move the family north to a small mill town, Milton, recommended to them by Mr. Hale's good friend and Margaret's godfather Mr. Bell. 

After living a cosmopolitan life in London, the move back home to Helstone was a quiet reprieve from city life; Milton, on the other hand, is far from idyllic. It is a busy, bustling, dirty mill town. Margaret is shocked by the simple baseness of the place, and with a sickly mother to take care of slowly retreats into the solitude of their temporary housing. Mrs. Hale is the classic sickly mother, babied and petted by Margaret and her father...the type of character that is only good as a slow drawn out foil for the heroine to dutifully nurse. 

To earn a little extra income, Mr. Hale has become a tutor for the mercantile baron of Milton, Mr. John Thornton. Mr. Thornton is a self made man, a Silas Lapham type. When younger, his family was not of considerable wealth, but had the means to send John to school. His father, a gambler, lost the family savings and then in despair hung himself. John, a young boy, was forced to come home and support his mother and younger sister. Slowly by a life of frugality he and his mother were able to save their money and stone by stone, rebuild their family estate. Mr. Thornton is the new "american dream" type. Through hard work and perseverance he has crafted a life of success...but success in a class system is different than the idyllic success of the american dream, and while Silas Lapham was a simple minded hard working type, that knew that through enough conspicuous consumption could purchase his place in society, the idea of purchasing status would be anathema to Mr. Thornton, and instead he uses his great wealth to purchase knowledge, something that can never become valueless or be destroyed.

 The Hales, although poor, are of a good family line and in another place and different life would hardly associate with the working classes beneath them. Margaret and Mr. Thornton are at odds with each other from their first encounter. Their verbal sparring often leaves both of them frustrated and annoyed, but while Margaret's incredible beauty is enough to assuage any lasting feelings of annoyance, the same can not be said of Mr. Thornton. Margaret is not enchanted with Mr. Thornton, and her disenchantment at times borders on disgust / loathing. 

Slowly, as Margaret acclimates to their new way of life, she begins to appreciate the hard working people of Milton and becomes friends (in the most liberal sense of the word) with a working class consumptive girl named Bessy, who is constantly fainting and speaks of little besides her longing to die. Bessy's father is a worker in one of Mr. Thornton's mills and as rumors of the discontented workers begin surfacing, a strike begins to brew. Margaret takes it upon herself to become a sort of mediator and during their somewhat frequent discussions she tries to interpret the workers' desires in a more favorable way then they are apt to discuss. In a somewhat overly melodramatic scene, Margaret throws herself in front of Mr. Thornton as a mob of angry men begin to approach him threateningly and pick up stones to throw at him, shielding him with her body she begs the men to retreat and be sensible. But as she stands there, a small and delicate shield, a rock, meant for Mr. Thornton strikes her and she collapses into a dead faint. 

Quickly she is taken into Mr. Thornton's house and cared for by a less than enthusiastic mother and an almost useless sister of Mr. Thornton's. Between fits of unconsciousness, Margaret hears Mr. Thornton's sister saying that Margaret isn't good enough for her brother and that it's pretty brazen to throw yourself in front of your would-be-lover in front of angry mob of striking men just to get his attention. Margaret's pride is wounded perhaps more by a few words than any rock could have done and she musters all her strength to hobble home into the sanctity of her family's solitude. 

Mr. Thornton, who has a similar interpretation of Margaret's motives as his sister almost immediately rushes to Margaret to propose. Margaret, indignant, refuses. But Mr. Thornton being stubborn and headstrong decides that he will quietly love her from afar, but that his affections will never change. 

First Margaret's mother dies, then shortly thereafter her father dies of a sudden heart attack, leaving Margaret orphaned, isolated and without direction. She desultorily makes her way back to her cousins, having no where else to go and little purpose or desire to think for herself. Her cousins are narcissistic egoists and after about five minutes decide they have spent enough time in mourning and that they must give and attend the parties of the season leaving Margaret alone, a prisoner in another's house. She can not come and go as she pleases without their doting approval or passive aggressive denials. And then suddenly her godfather Mr. Bell dies as well leaving Margaret his vast fortune, and now as an heiress she sits and waits for the winds to carry forward some sense of purpose, which they do in an opportune visit from Mr. Thornton. 

Since we have seen him last, Mr. Thornton, again like Silas Lapham has lost everything. Because he could not be persuaded to participate in a money making scheme, he ends up losing his considerable fortune and once again picks himself up and starting from the bottom, slowly begins to work his way back to the top. Before the collapse of his fortune he has begun a somewhat socialist experiment with his men, by building them a dining hall, providing meals and occasionally sharing a meal with them he was able to discuss matters before they came to a head and resulted in a strike. He has visions of new experiments, but now sadly is unable to see them through to completion. Margaret, decides this is about exactly her cup of tea as she could find and suggests putting her fortune into his plans, restoring him to master of the mill and supporting his experiments. Mr. Thornton takes this as a proposal of affection, to which he accepts and they live happily ever after.

Gaskell brings into an otherwise predictable romance novel, the immediacy and tangibility of Victorian England. After the French Revolution, the English gentry was constantly on guard lest their lower classes revolt as well, and yet there were dramatic changes taking place that could not be ignored. Experimentation with different aspects of socialism were being discussed in salons while the working classes struggled to feed their starving children, the disconnect between theory and reality was tremendous as is often the case. What Gaskell suggests as a solution has become a sort of foundation of contemporary unions; a place to discuss problems in a sort of forum where the workers become valuable members of an organization rather than just mindless functioning automatons. Her heroine listens to the workers and values them as legitimate people and she ultimately marries someone from another world and class order from herself, a theme that became continually more popular in Victorian novels in a world where the abolition of class seemed like an attainable possibility. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins is amazing. An expert craftsman, he weaves an  intriguing mystery story and it comes as no surprise that The Woman in White has not been out of print for the last 140 years, regarded as one of the first mystery novels and one of the finest of the "sensation" genre.

While the narrative is at times somber and melancholy, Collins weaves between the lines a sense of the humorous and improbable.  One of my favorite descriptions is of Laura's governess:

"Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all."

The narrative begins with Walter Hartright. Walter is hired by the Fairlie's to be the drawing master for the two Fairlie sisters. While Laura Fairlie is light haired, delicate and the description of beauty itself; her half sister, Marian, takes the counter-point, being dark and George-Eliot-like in appearances. While Laura is the heiress of a vast fortune, Marian is impoverished, but what she lacks in pecuniary standing she more than makes up for in her undaunting intellect.

Upon his arrival, Walter is immediately impressed with Marian's manner. At ease with herself, she puts everyone else at ease. But when Walter meets Laura he is unprepared for her beauty and gentle spirit. Slowly over the course of a few months, despite his best attempts to remain professional, and because Laura is of an entirely different social class, Walter attempts to check his emotions. But when his attempts prove to be in vain Marian intervenes. Laura has been engaged all this time to the dark sinister shadow of a man named Sir Percival Glyde, and while she has never been in love with him and he is twice her age, she has promised her father on his death bed that she would marry this man. So Walter hastily makes his departure, and the narrative baton is passed to Marian.

Marian, although somewhat suspicious of Percival, is not ready to throw practicality to the wind. If this is what Laura's father requested on his death bed there must be more to Sir Percival than meets the eye. But as we soon learn, Percival's charm has only been turned on for the purpose of efficient romancing, and his other more sinister nature reveals itself as he demands a marriage contract that hands over Laura's vast estate directly to him in the event of her death; a contract the solicitor very reluctantly draws up, knowing its ominous potential.

Slowly over the course of the story we learn that Sir Percival Glyde is not what he seems, and with the help of a suspect entourage made of an immensely rotund Count Fosco and his dutiful but vapid wife, the three villains begin to spin a web of deceit that is fated to trap both Marian and Laura irrevocably.

Collins' writing keeps you guessing until the end, with false deaths and insane ringers; everything a truly memorable suspense novel should have.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Athaliah - Racine

"
"Eight years ago, an impious foreign Queen (Athaliah was half Phoenician through her mother Jezebel), usurped King David's scepter and his rights, wallowed unpunished in our princes' blood - foul murderer of the offspring of her son - and now 'gainst God raises her wicked arm."

As the play begins, the high priest Jehoiada and one of the officers of the king, Abner, discuss the strange foreboding they feel. For eight years Jehoiada has been hiding the last remnant of the line of David, a small boy named Joash who has been raised along with Jehoiada's son Zachariah, from their vicious and calculating Queen Athaliah.

Athaliah, through Machiavellian cunning has issued in an unprecedented reign of peace in Jerusalem. "No longer does the Jordan see its banks by nomad Arabs or proud Philistines laid waste..." She is the unchallenged sovereign of Judea, an expert stateswoman, choosing to remove any contesting for her throne by murdering her grandchildren in an attempt to wipe out the royal race of David.

Despite her uncontested authority, as the play begins, Athaliah, a follower of Baal and previously unmoved by remorse for her actions, is ruminating on a strange and ominous dream in which her mother Jezebel cautions her that the Jewish god is not to be taken lightly. 

"Tremble,' she said, 'who followed in my steps. The cruel Jewish God over you too prevails. You'll fall into his dreaded arms, my daughter."

As Athaliah, in her dream, reaches out to embrace her mother, she is left clutching the mangled flesh and bones that have been torn apart by ravenous dogs. As she hurries to make her offerings to Baal she sees a child clad in the clothes of a Hebrew priest.  Caught in his deadly stare she abruptly wakes, only to relive the dream again and again.  This does not bode well. 

Athaliah decides she might try to appease this Hebrew God, and as she makes her way into the temple, she sees none other than the child from her nightmare, depicted just as she dreamed in a white robe and standing beside the high priests. After she recovers from her shock, and the boy has been spirited away, she calls her advisers together to see what this waking nightmare portends. 

Abner and Mattan, an apostate high priest of Baal, have differing opinions regarding how to proceed. Abner, assures Athaliah that she has no reason to be alarmed, would she really demand another death based purely on a foreboding? Mattan, suspicious of where Abner's loyalties lie, waits for Abner to leave and then offers his opinion:

"Now I can speak out at last. And now I can reveal the full, unvarnished truth. Some budding monster in this temple lurks. Ah! Queen, wait not until this storm cloud bursts..." 

Athaliah decides to have the child brought to her and see if he can shed any light on her suspicions himself. But as she prods Joash with questions about his paternity an enemy unanticipated storms the buttresses of her heart: pity.  She asks what he's been doing living in the temple all these years, and in answer Joash begins to recite the law: 

"God wishes to be loved. Blasphemy of His name He will avenge. He is father to the fatherless, withstands the proud, and smites the murderer." 

Athaliah is not deterred by their verbal sparring, and defends herself and her infamous deeds:

"Yes, my just fury - I am proud of it - Avenged my parents on my progeny.
 I saw my father and brother slain, down from the palace heights my mother hurled, and in one day slaughtered at one fell blow (A sight of horror) four score sons of kings. 
And why? Some obscure prophets to avenge, whose wild and lawless ravings she had curbed.
And I, unfeeling daughter, craven queen, slave of a coward's fitful pity, I, should I not have returned to this blind rage, at least murder for murder, crime for crime, and treat all your David's issue, even as you did Ahab's poor, ill-starred remains? 
Where would I be, had I not steeled myself and stifled my maternal tenderness; and if my hand shedding my own son's blood, had not put down your plots by one bold stroke?
And thus, in short, your God, implacable, between our houses broke all amity.
Yes, I loathe David's line; and that king's sons, though of my blood, are yet no kin of mine." 

Athaliah, up until this point has cast aside the roles and expectations of her gender, marching arrogantly, "with head erect" into the porch in the temple reserved only for men/priests. No rules apply to her and she has disdained this God of the Hebrews and his endless laws and restrictions. But as she takes leave of this strange, well read little boy, her reckless pride has been shattered. 

Athaliah's adviser, Mattan, a weaselly, conniving serpent of a man, is shocked by the slow change that has begun to creep over his Queen. She has quite obviously not been herself for the last couple days; "She is no more that bold, clear-sighted Queen, towering above her timorous woman's sex, who fell upon her startled enemies and never let a crucial moment pass..." While she hems and haws about what the best approach is, the Levites have begun to assemble an army in the temple, preparing and awaiting an attack.  

Jehoiada decides that now is the time for Joash's identity to be revealed and for him to be crowned King. Joash seems to take the revelation of his paternity in stride and quickly assures Jehoiada that he will do his best to fear the Lord, keep Him ever before his eyes, His precepts, judgments and laws and refrain from making his brothers sweat beneath a heavy burden. 

Athaliah is persuaded to come into the temple alone to see the treasure that Jehoiada has kept hidden all these years, when she realizes that the treasure is the boy, Joash, that her dreams foretold, she recognizes her defeat and raises her eyes to see herself surrounded by the Levites.

A Levite: "The sword has purged the horror of her life. Jerusalem, that long had borne her rage, at last delivered from her odious yoke, rejoices as she lies steeped in her blood.

Jehoiada: "From the grim end, the sanction of her crimes, learn and do not forget, King of the Jews, Kings have a judge in heaven, virtue a shield, and there's a father to the fatherless.

Racine ends the play with an admonition for those in power to follow God's ways, though they are unlikely to do so.  As we know, despite Joash's ambitions to live uprightly, thirty years later after abandoning himself to flatterers will defile himself by the murder of Zachariah, the son and successor of the high priest. In Racine's view there are no just men, only those whom God chooses to justify. All heroes are sinners, deeply involved in the lusts of the flesh and destined to struggle against corruption. Ultimately the protagonist of this play is God. His name has been blasphemed and his people have been destroyed by Athaliah and he will exact his vengeance. And while the throne and power can be poison, a just character will struggle against their demons, like Phaedra, yet will never give in to their temptations.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Phaedra - Racine

Voltaire considered Racine's Phaedra a  "masterpiece of the human mind"...I was a little skeptical at first of such high praise considering this play is just a revision of the Greek tragedies written by Seneca and Euripides (Hippolytus.) How could a revision be better than the original? But from the first moments, the first sentences, there was a stark and penetrating difference.

Euripides opens his play with a monologue given by Venus describing her annoyance with Hippolytus at his choosing a life of chastity and devotion to Artemis. She is resolved to destroy him and those closest to him will get swept up in the maelstrom of her rage. Next comes Hippolytus swooning over his love for Artemis and almost vindicating Venus' wrath. Euripides creates caricatures of his subjects, they are one dimensional beings, each wrestling with the concept of love and agency in a world dictated by those in another realm. When we finally meet Phaedra she is overcome by the poison of love, shot by the deadly and forever penetrating arrow of Cupid and contemplates the best way to kill herself.

Racine's play opens with Hippolytus, presuming his father is dead, deciding to make his way home despite being banished by his father's wife, his step-mother Phaedra.

Hippolytus: It is resolved, Theramenes. I go. I will depart from Troezen's pleasant land. Torn by uncertainty about the King, I am ashamed of standing idly by. For over half a year I have not heard of my dear father Theseus' destiny nor even by what far sky he is concealed. (1-7)

As he discusses his plans with Theramenes, we learn that although he has previously disdained love and has chosen a life of austere chastity...he has without reason or inclination, found himself overcome by Aricia, the daughter of his father's mortal enemy. Theseus, although allowing her to live, has forbade her to ever marry, decreeing that her brother's line will end with her, and condemning her to a life of chastity. Hippolytus is trapped between one woman who seems to hate him and another whom he must learn to hate in turn. Cautiously, Theramenes questions Hippolytus' motive for his sudden desire to leave the Troezan plains:

Theramenes: My lord, may I explain your sudden flight? Are you no more the man you once were, relentless foe of all the laws of love and of a yoke Theseus himself has borne? Will Venus whom you haughtily disdained vindicate Theseus after all these years by forcing you to worship with the throng of ordinary mortals at her shrine? Are you in love? (57-65)

Hippolytus is somewhat shocked by how bluntly Theramenes has distilled his emotions into one singular cause. Love. Must he disavow the feeling of a proud contemptuous heart? Must he no longer worship at the shrine of Artemis, but now like all men before him be compulsorily felled by Venus and her minion Cupid? As much as Hippolytus respects his father for the legendary warrior that he is, he also has a reputation as an unashamed womanizer, in fact even the hasty elopement with Phaedra left a weeping jilted Ariadne in their wake.


Hippolytus: And am I to be vanquished in my turn? And can the gods have humbled me so far? In base defeat the more despicable since the countless exploits plead of his behalf, Whereas no monsters overcome by me have given me the right to err like him. And, even if I were fated to succumb, should I have chosen to love Aricia? (95-103)

Hippolytus, unable to deny that he loves Aricia, wonders about the motivation behind these feelings. Is he defying his harsh and endlessly controlling father? Is this just a foolish passion launched by his youth? Theramenes, consolingly tells Hippolytus that even Hercules was subdued by Venus, and if it wasn't for Antiope (his mother) giving in to her love for Theseus, Hippolytus wouldn't exist...but no matter how diligently one seeks to ascertain the rationale behind matters of the heart, Hippolytus is decidedly in love.

Hippolytus decides the only course of action is to seek out his father. If he is truly dead, the bans against Aricia will be recanted and if he still lives...perhaps he can persuade his father, the romantic at heart, of his feelings for this hapless princess.

As Hippolyus makes his way to his step-mother's palace he is met by her nurse Oenone who cautions that Phaedra is almost at her "destined end." Struck with an indecipherable malady, begging for death, "eternal discord reigning in her mind." Hippolytus knows that he has the propensity to bring out the worst in his step-mother so he hastily leaves we are introduced to the heroine of the play.

Phaedra is racked with guilt, and palpable angst. Caught in a never ending battle and the perpetual uncertainty of what the future holds. She is incredibly self aware. If only she had never laid eyes on Hippolytus, but alas, almost from the moment of her marriage as her husband-to-be led her from the shores of Crete, she had seen Hippolytus and been forever cursed,

Although she had Hippolytus banished almost immediately and is innocent of any premeditated sin, in her heart she has been guilty of the gravest of sins since the moment she saw him and now wears the mantle of an incestuous adulterer; whether or not her sins become substantiated is almost irrelevant. She has harbored an ill favored love in her heart and of that she is guilty and deserving of death. But unlike the Phaedra of Euripides who immediately begins deciding which form of suicide would be the most advantageous, the heroine of Racine is much more pragmatic. What will happen to her children if she is gone? Their claim to the throne without Theseus to vouch for them becomes tenuous. Already Aricia, Hippolytus and perhaps many others stand in line to present their due claim...so she can not in good conscience leave her children motherless.

Instead she bemoans the destruction Venus has left in her wake, on a whim toying with people's hearts and destroying their lives.

Phaedra: O hate of Venus! Anger laden doom! Into what dark abyss love hurled my mother!"

Pasiphae, Phaedra's mother, overcome with a monstrous passion for a bull, subsequently gave birth to the Minotaur, a half man half bull monster. Her sister Ariadne led Theseus through the Minotaur's labyrinth only to then be deserted on a barren shore while Theseus eloped with Phaedra. And now this. This inexplicable, festering malady of love...

After Pheadra finishes speaking, her nurse, echoing Thermamenes, asks her lady "Are you in love?" (258)

Phaedra, choking on her words, quietly cries: "Love's furies rage in me..."

Unfortunately, Hippoluytus is everything is father is not. Unerringly chaste to his father's blatant and endless amorous pursuits. Despite her erecting temples and shrines to Venus in the hopes her love will be palliated, her demonstrances have gone unnoticed and unacknowledged. Yet even while she prayed and invoked the goddess' name...she was really thinking of him. She has deified him and he in turn has become inescapable.   

Phaedra: Venus in all her might is on her prey. I have a fitting horror for my crime; I hate this passion and I loathe my life. (305-308)  \

And then in Act 1- Scene 4 we learn that Theseus is dead! Verifiably so, (which in the tradition of Greek tragedy means they are actually still alive.) "In some amorous escapade the waters closed over his faithless head" (382) and now everything has changed. Oenone, rejoicing, tells her mistress "the king is dead and you must take his place!" (342) "Live then no longer tortured by reproach, your love becomes like any other love!" (350) Now that Theseus is dead, Phaedra's love for Hippolytus is slightly less abhorrent...and Oenone persuades Phaedra to lay her cards on the table. What's the worst that can happen? Everyone knows Hippolytus spurns love of any kind. So Phaedra will tell him of her love and he will give her the "it's not you it's me" speech... and hopefully she will be able to purge the knotty tendrils of love from her heart. 

Act 2- Scene 2: Hippotyus learning of his fathers death pardons Aricia leaving her free. (375) Since Hippolytus' mother was an Amazon, his claim to the throne is annulled; either his stepbrother becomes king or Aricia is returned the scepter given to her ancestors. (494)  Theseus defended and enlarged the bounds of Athens, which proclaimed him king and left Aricia's brothers in oblivion. (500) Hippolytus concocts a plan that will give him reign of Troezan, Crete will go to his step-brother and Aricia will rightfully regain rule over Attica. Now that the pragmatics are out of the way, let the wooing begin! Hippolytus admits to Aricia that he's a novice in the matters of love and although he has spent his life in proud rebellion of love, mocking those captive sufferers...he has now found himself somewhat helplessly in love. (530)  Aricia, like any warm blooded woman approached by the paramount eligible bachelor would, accepts Hippolytus' offer of love and generous gifts (i.e. re-installing her claim to the Attican throne) and Hippolytus departs for his intercession with the queen. 

But things don't go according to plan. As Hippolytus attempts to convince Phaedra to divvy up her sons estate, and Pheadra reveals her soul crushing love (much to Hippolytus' disgust and abhorrence, which the women expected considering his renowned profession of celibacy and take in stride...) when lo and behold, Theseus turns up not dead...and now that the cats out of the bag, his return is met with a somber attitude rather than celebratory.  Phaedra realizing Hippolytus has left his sword during their confrontation, realizes this could prove efficacious, and Oenone fabricates a lie on her behalf; Hippolytus has engaged in amorous pursuits of his own while Theseus was away...with his step-mother. Despite the lacking veracity of this story, Theseus is apoplectic, and immediately calls down a curse from Neptune dooming Hippolytus to an imminent and painful death. 

Theseus: Go seek out friends who in their viciousness applaud adultery and incest. These villains and ingrates, lawless, honourless, will shelter evildoers such as you. (1145-1148)

Phaedra, about to defend Hippolytus, listens to an enraged Theseus tell of his sons abhorrence, and to make matters worse, he says, Hippolytus has gone and fallen in love with the one person in the world I have sworn to a bitter life of solitude and chastity, that dang Aricia. Now it is Phaedra's turn to be apoplectic. So Hippolytus does love women. Just not her. Sickened with anger and unrequited love she contemplates what to do.

Phaedra: Alas, my sad heart never enjoyed the fruits of crimes whose dark shame follows me. Dogged by misfortune to my dying breath, I end upon the rack a life of pain.

Oenone: Ah, Queen! Dismiss these unbecoming fears, and of your error take a different view. You are in love. We cannot change our fate. (1291-1298)

Hippolytus secretly decides to meet Aricia at a holy shrine where they will pledge themselves to each other and then go into banishment together, but he never arrives to the rendezvous point. His horses, which he has raised from colts, no longer listen to his voice and Neptune calls forth a monster from the sea to terrify them. They, terrified, overturn the chariot and drag Hippolytus, in a frenzy toward the shrine. Aricia arrives and finds her dismembered lover, while she begs the gods to take her life, her nurse Ismene, summons her back to life, a life of pain and heartbreak. 

At this point, Oenone has killed herself, being a sort of scapegoat for Phaedra's rage. While Phaedra has had to live through every second of her life, waging a secret war, it wasn't until Oenone defamed Hippolytus that things really came to a head. Now sickened with life and no longer able to face the hideousness of what she has become, Phaedra ingests a poison that will give her just enough time to tell Theseus how wrong he was. As the poison sinks deeper into her veins, Theseus, disgusted leaves her alone to die and he rushes off to embrace his cherished son's remains and "expiate my mad atrocious wish, rending him the honors he deserves and to appease the anger of his shade, let his beloved, despite her brother's crime. be as a daughter to me from this day" (1650-1654)

In Euripides version, Artemis at the end, walks through the carnage of dead bodies and tells Theseus that although his son was innocent all along, the gods don't interfere with each other's predilections. Racine's version is so much sadder. Having Phaedra be the one to admit to Theseus that everything was a huge misunderstanding hinging on her much hoped for but ultimately imagined infidelity, to take responsibility for her guilt, not sheltering behind the gods that are responsible for her infatuation, only to be then left to die, abandoned and alone, surrounded by only her guilt and shame. 

While Seneca treats Phaedra as a wanton woman, and Euripides casts her as the incidental victim of the gods' whims, Racine wrestles with predestination. How much agency are mortals truly granted? And while Phaedra is fated to suffer an endless temptation, she is ultimately virtuous and expresses her free will in engaging her temptation and battling with it to the death. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Girl from Samos - Menander

The extravagant, phantasmagorical comedy of Aristophanes and the climate of the early 400's BC has slowly been replaced by the narrowed scope and limited range of domestic issues in the comedy of Menander. "Athens had first of all been defeated by Sparta, and then taken over by Macedon. Alexander the Great died just about the time Menander started writing, and struggles between and with the subsequent succors of Alexander dominated Athenian politics most of the playwrights life." (Norma Miller, 1987)

Athens, no longer mistress of her own city, was covered by a cloud of political uncertainty and domestic turmoil. Politics were no longer a suitable subject for comedy and to try to make them such could be perilous for the writer. So comedy made a transition from the fantastic and improbable, such as a band of marauding women successfully taking over the government and creating a liberated utopia in the Assemblywomen, to the more realistic and complex comedy of The Girl from Samos, where the heroes are no longer gods and demi-gods or taken from the echelons of society, but instead the heroes are on the fringes of a citizen society grappling with issues like the substance of the family unit and legitimacy. 

In an era steeped in hardship, Menander has been accused of escapism. Providing a safe heaven in the midst of the worlds he created for the middle class, but arguably the issues that faced the middle class were now mercurial and intimate and citizens were more concerned with the intricacies of life than of the sovereign, democratic city-state of fifth century Athens.

The Girl from Samos opens with Moschion, the adopted son of Demeas, bringing the audience up to speed on his life. He has always been taken care of by his father, and has had all that he ever wanted. Thanks to his father, he has become a civilized human being and in return for his father's kindness has behaved himself. All except for one tiny incident...

"I'll tell you about us at one go, I've nothing else to do -  then Father fell for a girl from Samos. Well, it could have happened to anyone. He tried to keep it quiet, being a bit embarrassed. But I found out, for all precautions, and I reckoned that if he didn't establish himself as the girl's protector, he'd have trouble with younger rivals for her favors..." 

And so the fulcrum on which the play rests. Demeas has fallen in love with a younger woman and despite himself, there will always be in the back of his mind the suspicions of an old lover envying the young. 

Moschion, for his part, is in love with their neighbor's daughter Plangon. And when both fathers leave for a quick business trip, the girl from Samos, Chrysis, and Plangon both realize they are pregnant. Perhaps Demeas is aware of Chrysis' pregnancy, but twenty or so lines are missing leaving a little opacity for the reader. 

Before the fathers return from their trip, Chrysis has her baby and the infant unfortunately dies. When Plangon gives birth to her child, Moschion and Plangon agree it will be less incriminating if they give their child to Chrysis. They would like to obtain consent to marry and believe a child out of wedlock may not work in their favor. Upon the return of the fathers Demeas confronts Chrysis while Moschion stands in her defence: 

Demeas: I thought I had a mistress, but it seems I have acquired a wife.
Moschion: A wife? What do you mean? I don't understand.
Demeas: I seem to have become - quite without my knowledge and consent - the father of a son. Well she can take him and get out of the house - to the Devil, for all I care.
Moschion: Oh, no!
Demeas: Why not? Do you expect me to bring up a bastard in my house, to humor someone else? That's not my line at all.
Moschion: For Heaven's sake! What's legitimacy or illegitimacy? We're all human aren't we?
Demeas: You must be joking.
Moschion: By God I'm not, I'm perfectly serious. I don't think birth means anything. If you look at the thing properly, a good man's legitimate, a bad man's both a bastard and a slave.

Moschion eventually persuades his father to keep the child, and moves on to the matter of his marriage. He would like to marry Plangon as soon as possible, to which both fathers agree. As the wedding preparations are in full force, Demeas overhears a servant mention that Moschion is the poor baby's father, and at once Demeas suspects his son of the worst treachery.

The rest of the play is spent trying to untangle the web of errors. While it is true the baby is Moschion's, like his outraged father accuses...the mother is Plangon, not Chrysis. Demeas runs about ranting about the trollop that like Helen has started a war, albeit a small one. When he comes upon Chrysis and the baby he screams at her to get out, she bewildered asks where she should go only to have Demeas shout "to hell! this minute!" Chrysis, without thought to defend herself, leaves and is momentarily housed at the neighbors', until the neighbors witness Plangon nursing her baby and eventually come to the realization that Chrysis is innocent in this particular affair.

Moschion, offended that his father thought the worst of him, decides to play a little prank; He will dress up as if leaving for battle and make his father apologize and beg for forgiveness. His father quickly sees through his play acting to his real motive and quickly admonishes him for trying to publicly humiliate him. While Demeas was in the wrong, he was privately so and that fundamentally is the moral of the play. No matter what happens behind closed doors, it is the family's job, despite the sometimes vague interpretation of family, to keep private matters private.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hippolytus - Euripides

Euripides entered his play Hippolytus into the drama competition of 428 B.C. and won first prize; since then the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra has gone through many reiterations by many playwrights including Sophocles, Seneca, Racine, O'Neill in his Desire under the Elms and Jeffers in his Cawdor.

The story is as follows: Theseus, King of Athens has an illegitimate son by an Amazonian woman, named Hippolytus, who is sworn by his love for Artemis to a life of chastity. Some time later Theseus takes a Cretan wife named Phaedra, and it is not long before Phaedra, under the unfortunate spell of Aphrodite, is struck with Cupid's arrow and overcome with heartsickness over her unrequited love for Hippolytus. Although she recognizes the perfidy of this feeling of love, she is unable to continue living with the hopelessness of misplaced affection.

According to David Grene (1942) unlike other traditions, such as the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, where the woman figures only as a one-dimensional temptress, "Euripides has gone with great sympathy into the feelings of Phaedra, a helpless victim of her passions (Aphrodite) whose mind clings despite all its integrity. Hippolytus too has his ideals. His seraphic love for the unattainable Artemis displays at the same time his admiration for beauty and his dislike of sex. But the quarrel between sacred and profane love, represented by Artemis and Aphrodite, thwarts the good purpose of the human persons and wrecks both lives."

The play opens with a prologue by Aphrodite:

"I am called the Goddess Cypris: I am mighty among men and they honor me by many names...Such as worship my power in all humility, I exalt in honor. But those whose pride is stiff-necked against me I lay by the heels..."

Hippolytus would fall in the "stiff-necked" category. Not only does he reserve no honor for her, but he actually goes so far as to blaspheme her, counting her "vilest of the Gods in Heaven." Rather than love and romance etc. he would rather spend his days with Artemis, the Maiden Goddess, hunting and running through the green, "mortal and immortal in companionship." Many things about this particular relationship infuriates Aphrodite, so she make it her personal goal to destroy him. But not only destroy him, Aphrodite would like to have as much carnage as possible in the wake of Hippolytus' destruction, so she includes a few curses into the mix of her cocktail of misery.

First, Phaedra, the unsuspecting victim and step-mother will be stricken with the bitterness of love for her stepson. "The goads of love" will prick her cruelly and continuously until she kills herself. And second, Theseus, not believing his sons innocence will "slay the son with curses" before realizing they have all been hopelessly caught in the snare of an angry fouler.

As the prologue ends, Aphrodite spits her last bitter lines, the abhorrence dripping from every word:

"Look, here is the son of Theseus, Hippolytus! He has just left his hunting. I must go away. See the great crowd that throngs upon his heels and shouts praise of Artemis in hymns?! He does not know that the doors of death are open for him, that he is looking at his last sun."

Enter Hippolytus, singing platonic love songs to his best friend/goddess Artemis. "Maiden Goddess most beautiful of all the Heavenly Host that live in Olympus..." You can almost see Aphrodite becoming more and more apoplectic. Peppered throughout his ode to Artemis, Hippolytus is sure to include stanzas devoted to his chastity. His love for Artemis is pure and unsullied by the degrading physical act of love.

Scene II. We are introduced to Phaedra's misery as her nurse tries to comfort her with such uplifting tidbits like the misery and hopelessness of childbirth and the suspicious mercurial nature of love:

Nurse: "...The life of a man entire is misery: he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity. But something other dearer still than life the darkness hides and mist encompasses; we are proved luckless lovers of this thing that glitters in the underworld: no man can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding what is, and what is not: we know nothing of it. Idly we drift, on idle stories carried."

While Phaedra, in agony, her spirit crushed by the weight of her unfortunate love, her nurse again cautions: "Love must not touch the marrow of the soul. Our affections must be breakable chains that we can cast off or tighten them." But the chains of Cupid are less tensile than ordinary love and uneasily cast off.

Finally as Phaedra wastes away, ("the tides of love, at its full surge are not withstandable") the nurse concocts a terrible scheme, but the only one she hopes will save her mistress. She will go to Hippolytus and try to persuade him to carry out the only deed certain to save Phaedra's life. Hippolytus, as expected is offended and disgusted. He has promised not to reveal his stepmother's shameful secret, but that's the only compliance he makes and as he turns to leave the nurse grabs a hold of his robe, an interesting parallel to the Joseph story.

At last, Phaedra has no other option than to kill herself, but she takes the time to write a note for Theseus to find, accusing Hippolytus of raping her and setting in motion the avalanche that will lead to the consummation of Aphrodite's curse.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Naked Masks - Luigi Pirandello (Part 1: Liola)

According to Eric Bently (1952) Liola is a dream play. It takes place in an imagined vacuum, isolated from the horrors of a world war, presenting at the surface, a discussion about paternity; but between the lines is an ontological query into how and what we perceive as truth and the impact this has on our philosophy of life.

"Pirandello has dreamed himself away from the problems of Agrigento in 1916 it is back into the Agrigento of another day. The breath of happy paganism is felt in his play, which is the last Sicilian pastoral."(Bently, 1952) Pirandello's greatest creation is the character of Liola, a joyful, passionate, idealist and perhaps the only morally positive (ie being an agent rather than victim to fate) character Pirandello breathed life into.

To say Liola is a bit of a ladies man would be an understatement, it seems like he can't sashay into a room without impregnating all women in his path. He is a free spirit, whistling a tune wherever he goes, unshackled to societal demands or expectations. He pursues love, but has no interest in commitment and as the play opens, his three little sons, each from a different mother sit helping their grandmother shell almonds.

Ostensibly the play is about Tuzzu's  attempt to take revenge on Mita, who has been blessed with both a rich husband (Uncle Simone), and the gallant lover (Liola.) Tuzza of course is ignoring the constant abuse Mita must endure from Simon for her inability to produce an heir and overlooking the fact that while Mita might be enjoying the attentions from Liola that she wishes were hers, the only reason Liola is pursuing Mita is because she is practically speaking unavailable.

Tuzza's plan, now that she has become pregnant, is to claim that the father is Uncle Simone. Simone, so desperate for an heir will publicly acknowledge the child as his own and then Mita will be cast off leaving all the wealth, power and glamour for Tuzza alone. All goes according to plan and Tuzza, steeping in the bitterness of unrequited love eases her heartache with a little guile.

As Liola comes waltzing into the scene, a tune on his lips, a trails of maidens in his wake, he's asked if this is how he intends to find his queen, his flagrant disregard for conventional romance being overlooked. His response and the fulcrum on which the play hinges is:

"Who says I haven't found her already and she simply doesn't know why I laugh and sing this way? Pretending is a virtue. 'If you can't pretend, you can't be king.'"

Liola is the expert pretender. The only moment of transparency comes when he dutifully goes to Tuzza's mother to ask for her hand in marriage, knowing that yet another son is destined to be born and unaware of her sinister plot.

"...I can't live caged up, Aunt Crice, I'm a bird that must fly - here today, there tomorrow, in the sun, the water, the wind. I sing and am drunk - on song and sun - I hardly know which affects me more. Far all that, here I am: clipping my wings and have come to shut myself in a cage of my own making. I am asking for your daughter Tuzza's hand."

Tuzza refuses to have anything to do with him. What good is a nomadic idealist when she can have wealth and stability. Love is just a feeling destined to ruin all in its path.

After a few impassioned speeches between Liola and Tuzza's mother, Liola professing the enormity of his love for his young sons and assuring Tuzza's mother he will provide for Tuzza and her child, Tuzza's mother tells him that Tuzza doesn't want him, which Liola demands that Tuzza, herself proclaim, in the presence of Uncle Simone.

Liola says he wouldn't want to commit an outrage, but he also wouldn't like others to commit an outrage and make use of him, which is exactly what Tuzza has planned. She has successfully turned Simone against Mita, and now Mita has nowhere to turn, floating precariously on the flotsam of uncertainty.

Liola has a plan. Since he's given Tuzza a child destined to take over Simone's estate...why not give Mita one as well? At first outraged by this plan, Mita soon realizes that this is her only hope and after a short time she reclaims her place in her husbands house, pregnant with another mans child. Simone is only too happy to have an heir and despite the subterfuge, chooses to believe the child is his despite his record of impotence.

Act II ends with Uncle Simone muttering under his breath: "In the country when it is dark, a man is easily deceived!" Thinking he had seen someone creeping into the house (Liola) that Mita is staying at, but quickly reassuring himself that he was just seeing things. Again, belief is what you choose it to be. It is not a fundamental, universal fact, but rather, like Proteus, an amorphous, shape shifting water demon.

As the play comes to an end, one deceit piled high upon another, Simone has renounced Tuzza's child and happily accepts Mita's in its stead. While love between a man and a woman can be tempestuous and opaque, the love Liola has for his son is transparent and constant. Despite his many flaws, Pirandello presents Liola as an archetype for fatherhood.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Helen - Euripides

Unlike the widely accepted legend of Helen making her single-handedly responsible for the woe and misery of the Trojan War, Euripides presents us with Helen's own version of how things actually happened.

First Helen brings up the matter of her birth, one day her mother was courted unsuspectingly by a swan, and 9 months later a little demi-god is born in the form of Helen...

"...a legend tells how Zeus winged his way to my mothers Leda's breast, in the semblance of a bird, even a swan, and thus as he fled from an eagle's pursuit, achieved by guile his amorous purpose..."

Her beauty is unsurpassed and legendary. She is wed to Menelaus and all goes smoothly until three goddesses, Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena put together a beauty pageant and challenge Paris to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Aphrodite, says that if Paris will choose her, then he can have Helen as his bride; so of course Paris chooses Aphrodite as the most beautiful of all the goddesses, and leaving his sheep and the shores of Ida makes his way to Sparta to claim his prize.

"But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, brought to naught my marriage with Paris, and gave to Priam's princely son not Helen, but a phantom endowed with life, that she made in my image out of the breath of heaven..."

So that's basically Helen's excuse. While she sat by, a victim to this mercurial world, a phantom went in her place and caused 10 years of bloodshed, while Hermes caught her up in the "embracing air" and set her down far away, in the Egyptian house of Proteus. Proteus, being virtuous, respected her marriage to Menelaus, so she has remained faithful to him these past 17 years.

As the play opens, Proteus has died, leaving Theoclymenus in his stead. Theo, is a little less "respectful" of Helen's claim to a previous marriage and plans on marrying Helen as soon as possible. Helen, alone more than ever sees only a hopeless future. The world hates her and curses her for the countless lives lost, the countless mothers, wives and daughters grieving all because of her alleged harlotry.

"Woe is thee, unhappy Troy! Thou through deeds not done by thee art ruined, and hast suffered direst woe; for the gift that Aphrodite gave to me, hath caused a sea of blood to flow and many an eye to weep, with grief on grief and tear on tear."

After a brief encounter with the exiled Teucer who claims that Menelaus is dead, Helen ponders the most honorable way to kill herself. What to do. If only Menelaus were here, in Egypt, with her, instead of dead on the far from glorious field of battle.

Enter Menelaus. A little worse for wear. These past 17 years have not been kind to him and at present he looks like a shipwrecked beggar. After a few moments of confusion, they finally recognize each other and after the momentary joy of being reunited, Menelaus is quick to ask about her fidelity, which she assures him is intact. The next order of business is how to escape, when a wedding is impending and Theo has a particular distaste for Spartans...

The first scheme is a gruesome Romeo and Juliet type. If they can not escape...Menelaus will slaughter his wife, laying her body upon an alter and then climb up and kill himself as well. After a little consideration they come up with a better scheme where they both get to live.

They will tell Theo that Menelaus' body has been found. Helen the faithful wife, now widowed, must perform the customary Spartan burial, which will involve Theo giving them a ship, a crew to sail and basic provision to that Helen can take his body to its watery grave. If Theo complies, Helen will be the most respectful and dutiful future wife, and the wedding can take place the moment she returns. Theo, decides that a compliant wife is better than a sullen and brooding wife, so he approves their plan and they sail out to sea, and begin their journey home.

 "What mortal claims, by searching to the utmost limit, to have found out the nature of God, or of his opposite, or of that which comes between, seeing as he does this world of man tossed to and fro by waves of contradiction and strange vicissitudes?...That which gods pronounce have I found true."

A Hand Full of Dust - Evelyn Waugh

"I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust"

T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland


Reading this book was like watching a car wreck in slow motion, just when you think everything has hit rock bottom, the bottom drops out into an entirely new level of hell reserved for jaded cuckolds and their promiscuous counterparts.

Tony and Brenda Last have a modest estate in the country, a quiet repose that they share with their little boy John Andrew. Life is calm and predictable, until one day they have a guest, a Mr. John Beaver, and their life of solitude is forever changed.

Brenda is left to entertain Mr. Beaver, an uninteresting-non-entity of a man who still lives with his mother, has no income to speak of and is of little interest to anyone; whether it is the change of pace, or just having the taste of something different, Brenda, who is at first nonplussed, decides maybe there is something fascinating about this Mr. Beaver after all, and so begins a nose-dive into a midlife crisis.

Quickly she decides to take up economics as a pretext for staying in London, a flat is rented and she finds herself untethered from the chains of domesticity. Tony is left alone at the estate with their son, as Brenda's visits home become less and less frequent.  As a proper English gentlemen, Tony never doubts his wife's character and as her affair becomes more and more flagrant, he dutifully puts on his rose colored glasses.

Days turn into weeks, and while Brenda flits from one high society gathering to the next, with the vapid Mr. Beaver on her arm, life at the estate remains virtually unchanged, until their son, going out on his first fox hunt is kicked off his horse by an unruly mare and instantly killed. When Brenda hears the news her first response is "Thank God." The last bastion of domesticity has been surmounted and she is now free to pursue her quest of John Beaver's personality wholeheartedly. In her note to her husband, offering condolences for their loss, she simultaneously requests a divorce, saying she has been in love with Mr. Beaver and there is now no reason to pretend otherwise; although divorces can be unpleasant and unsightly, she promises for her part to end things as amicably as possible. Yet within a nano-second she is nonchalantly challenging Tony for an income he could never pay, as the victim of his fictitious infidelity.

Tony, compliant and gentlemanly as ever goes along with the plan. He hires a woman to go away with him to the sea side to build evidence of his alleged infidelities, but when Brenda's solicitors demand that he sell his estate to provide for his wife's income, he for once musters a bit of a spine and puts his foot down.  Quickly writing up a new will and setting his affairs in order he leaves for Brazil with a certain Dr. Messenger of somewhat reputable character.

Brenda, cut off from an income, becomes less and less of an interest for Mr. Beaver, if in fact she ever was; when his mother suggest they go to America, he quickly and without hesitation decides to join her, leaving Brenda alone, without income, family or society; she no longer has the means to afford the level of conspicuous consumption demanded.

As Tony's adventure begins well, slowly things begin to become dire. Stranded without guides, in search of an obscure city, with their rations quickly depleting; Tony becomes ill. Racked with fever, he is incapable of journeying on, and while the rations are quickly disappearing Dr. Messenger sets out to find help, only to disappear in the rapids.

Tony somehow manages to deliriously make his way through the jungle to a small village, where he is found and looked after by Mr. Todd, a kindly old man, who dabbles in herbal remedies. As Tony is nursed back to health, Mr. Todd's turpitude is quietly uncovered, and as he requests that Tony read a few chapters in Dickens, it is not long before Tony realizes he is a captive, destined to live out the rest of his days stranded somewhere in the middle of Brazil with Mr. Todd and Charles Dickens.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cyclops - Euripides

A satyr-play, not divorced from tragedy, but in a considerably lighter tone, The Cyclops is perhaps the closest thing to a comedy we have from Euripides. The playwright elaborates a story well known to contemporary Greeks from the ninth book of the Odyssey.  While not straying too far from the story-line, Euripides adds the somewhat reprehensible character of Silenus.   

The Trojan War has finally ended, and on their way home, Odysseus and his men stop in Sicily to scavenge for food. Unfortunately they have stopped before the great cave of the Cyclops, at the foot of Mt. Aetna, where the Cyclops has in his service a poor captive, who plays the jester and comedic relief, Silenus. The play opens with Silenus bemoaning his woesome life:

"Polyphemus they call him whom we serve; and instead of Bacchic revelry we are herding a godless Cyclops's flocks; and so it is my children, striplings as the are, tend the young thereof on the edge of the downs; while my appointed task is to stay here and fill the troughs and sweep out the cave, or wait upon the ungodly Cyclops at his impious feast."

As Odysseus and his men find Silenus at the mouth of the cave, bedraggled and estranged, they beg him for food and water. Silenus, not used to visitors, begins sparring with his guests. When Odysseus tells him his name, Silenus replies: "I know him for a prating knave, one of Sisyphus' shrewd offspring." Odysseus, in good humor or pacified by hunger, ignores this slur. When Odysseus says they have unintentionally sailed here "From Illium and the toils of Troy," Silenus asks him how he could get lost on his way home. Looking about themselves, they ask what there is to eat. Silenus, tells them there is little besides sheep. That doesn't sound too bad to the weary voyagers. They ask if the residents of this cave are hospitable to strangers. Silenus, always the provocateur, replies "Strangers, they say, supply the daintiest meat." 

Odysseus, again ignoring this rather poor etiquette from a host, says his ship ran into some tempestuous wind, and they have arrived ashore with little besides a great deal of wine, which he would like to barter for food, they will take their chances with the cannibalistic Cyclops. 

Silenus, as it turns out, has quite the predilection for alcohol. As he hastily agrees to their every demand, bringing out cheeses and lambs he proclaims:

"I will do so, with small thought of any master. For let me have a single cup of that and I would turn madman, giving in exchange for it the flocks of every Cyclops and then throwing myself into the sea from the Leucadian rock, once I have been well drunk and smoothed out my wrinkled brow. For if a man rejoice not in his drinking, he is mad;  for in drinking it's possible for this to stand up straight, and then to fondle breasts, and to caress well tended locks, and there is dancing withal, and oblivion of woe. Shall I not then purchase such a rare drink, bidding the senseless Cyclops and his central eye go hang?"

As Odysseus and his men enjoy their feast, their happiness is short lived, for along comes the Cyclops, wondering who has been eating his food, but more to the point, who these tasty strangers might be. Somehow, in a feat of strength, surprising for someone disabled with such a narrow field of vision, the Cyclops manages to drive Odysseus and his men into the cave and to their certain death. 

Thankfully, the blood and gore happens off stage, but we are told that the Cyclops has begun to roast some of Odysseus' men over an open fire, choosing a pair "on whom the flesh was fattest and in best condition," all the while being egged on by Silenus, who has quickly changed his tune from the vigorous speech previously given; in fact he suggests the Cyclops eat out the tongue of Odysseus and thereby glean the gift of clever speech, after of course he eats the rest of him, being sure not to spare a morsel. 

As cruel as Silenus seems, he's really just an alcoholic, and will stop at nothing to get a drink.

Odysseus concocts a plan to get the Cyclops drunk and then blind him with a molten iron rod. As Odysseus convinces the Cyclops not to share his bountiful wine supply, they catch Silenus taking little sips. 

Cyclops (to Odysseus): I will feast of thee last, after all thy comrades.
Odysseus: Fair indeed the honor thou bestowest on thy guest, sir Cyclops!
Cyclops (turning suddenly to Silenus): Ho! Sirrah! What art thou about? taking a stealthy pull at the wine?
Silenus: No, but it kissed me for my good looks.
Cyclops: Thou shalt smart, if thou kiss the wine when it kisses not thee.
Silenus: Oh! but it did, for it says it is in love with my handsome face. 

This excuse seems plausible enough, and the Cyclops goes back to getting totally sloshed. Silenus does not technically get away with his turncoat / alcoholism without a bit of a penalty, and while the drunk Cyclops looks around for an amorous playmate, he decides Silenus will have to do for the time being, and Silenus is dragged into the cave a Ganymede to the Cyclops' Zeus.

The moment has come for a valiant warrior to now volunteer to sneak into the cave and brand the Cyclops. The men quickly back away from the honor, one has just recently developed a lameness, another seems to have dust or ashes in his eye, another openly admits he is a coward; so Odysseus, being the truly brave and fearless warrior that he is sneaks into the cave and burns the Cyclops with the blazing bar, rendering him sightless and non-threateningly disabled.   

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Badenheim 1939 - Appelfeld

Badenheim 1939 takes place during the intermission between the quiet reality of prewar Vienna and the unimaginable horror about to be unleashed by WWII. The story unfolds throughout a series of character studies and vignettes, each moment a pause filled with anticipation and the anxiety that comes with endless waiting.

It is spring in Badenheim, a quiet little summer resort community. As the town hurries and bustles about readying itself for a new season, there is the low ominous rumblings that all is not right. The only ones able to pick up the slight seismic shifts of a new impending world order and identify the poisoned and diseased world for what it is, are the chronically ill. Trude and Martin, together run the town's pharmacy, but since Trude developed a nervous disorder, all she can do is stand by the window uttering vague and cryptic prophecies of the days to come, as her illness seeps into Martin's soul drop by drop.

Slowly, one by one, guests arrive, bringing with them the "moist breath of the big city and the smell of excitement and anxiety." This year, the highly anticipated summer festival is destined to amaze, and as the organizers organize, and the porters unload luggage and musical instruments; the musicians stand by the gate "like tame birds on a stick" waiting for orders and a season of frenzied practice and preparation.  

As more participants make their way to Badenheim, a strange quiet monster in the guise of the Sanitation Department, begins setting up a camp of its own. It is a quiet, initially unobtrusive behemoth, with rules, obligations and creeping demands. First, all those of Jewish origins must register with the sanitation department, although the Jewish inhabitants seem beleaguered  by yet another census, they are not distrustful.

"A strange night descended on Badenheim. The cafes were deserted and the people walked the streets silently. There was something unthinking about their movements, as if they were being led. It was as if some alien spirit had descended on the town."

After everyone has complied with the obligatory registration, one by one the town amenities begin to become more and more restricted. The water is turned off and the city pool is eventually emptied. The post office no longer delivers mail. A sentry is posted at the entrance to the town, and while people still wander in, no one is allowed out. Food becomes scarce and the people quietly wait for their fate.

They are told that they must all go to Poland. Those from Polish descent are overjoyed and quickly begin to create an esparanto of sorts from the smattering of Polish words they remember from their youth. The others, nervous about assimilating into a new country are regaled with the national pride and glorious past from its lost citizens.  All pack. And in a moment all are ready and waiting for the journey to begin. But as the civic noose gets tighter and tighter, they are left in limbo, to wait and worry.

Slowly the endless waiting and monotony begins to gnaw at the souls of the citizens. Some go insane; others, that seemed steeped in insanity become lucid. There is fighting and bickering. Although they share a common ancestry, they are a palimpsest of diversity. Yet all, despite wealth or birthright they have one thing in common, and that is the shared belief in humanity and a naive hope that all will turn out well.  One red flag after another is forcibly overlooked and explained away until they are led by guards to an empty train station to await their fate. As the train pulls up with its cattle cars Dr. Pappenheim remarks:

"If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Philoctetes - Sophocles

Philoctetes centers around two interrelated themes; first, to what extent does an individual owe his society? Despite being jaded, neglected or abused is the individual responsible for the life and happiness of his fellow citizens? Second, to what extent do the ends justify the means? Does the harm of one outweigh the benefit of saving many?

During the height of the Trojan War, while guiding his fellow chieftains to a particular altar along their way to Troy, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake which leaves him crippled and repugnant to those around him who must continually be subjected to his festering and noxious wound. While the chieftains attempt to prepare their sacrifices and pay homage to the gods, none can concentrate with the perpetual cries of anguish coming from Philoctetes, a soundtrack that does not create an atmosphere of confidence and victory.

At last, Odysseus can no longer handle the constant barrage of screams, and the never ending foul smell and he maroons Philoctetes on the deserted island of Lemnos, where Philoctetes is left to live in a cave for ten years, with only the bow of Heracles as a companion. His lot is truly dire, and as he sits in his little cave, his snake bitten heal isn't the only thing that festers; his heart has become a cesspool of hate which he nourishes with a monologue of  bitterness.

And then the Greeks receive an oracle that the only way Troy can be taken is with the help of Philoctetes and his bow, so Odysseus (who Philoctetes hates more than anyone else) and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles are sent to fetch the castaway. This is problematic, because as mentioned above, Philoctetes hates Odysseus...so how than can they convince him to let bygones be bygones and come along to save a country that has abandoned him? Odysseus believes the only way to convince Philoctetes to either come along or give up his weapons is to be cunning with a touch of guile and he debates with Neoptolemus who would rather be upfront and let the art of persuasion work its magic. Neoptolemus, the son of a hero, who has grown up listening to tales of his fathers chivalry, must now, as his first assignment, cheat a helpless cripple. And as he embarks on his mission, he is nervous and conscious stricken.  

As Neoptolemus slowly makes his way along the beachy shore of Lemnos, he ruminates over his recent debate with Odysseus.

Neoptolemus: When counsels pain my ear, son of Laertes, then I abhor to aid them with my hand. It is not in my nature to compass anything by evil arts, nor was it, as men say, in my sire's. But I am ready to take a man by force, not by fraud; having the use of one foot only he cannot prevail in fight against us who are so many. And yet, having been sent to act with you, I am loth to be called traitor. But my wish, O King, is to do right and miss my aim rather than succeed by evil ways.
Odysseus: Son of brave sire, time was when I too, in my youth, had a slow tongue and a ready hand; but now, when I come forth to the proof, I see that words, not deeds, are ever the masters among men.
Neoptolemus: What then is your command? What but that I should lie?
Odysseus: I say that you are to take Philoctetes by guile.

So Neoptolemus crafts a story of betrayal and as he finds the crippled Philoctetes he begins his narrative. He too has been deceived by Odysseus and he has fled the Greeks. Philoctetes does not need much encouragement, after being alone for ten years anyone speaking Greek within a proximity of five miles is destined to be his new BFF. After listening to his new friend's tale of betrayal and woe, Philoctetes says it is a story remarkably similar to his own, mentioning "well I know that (Odysseus) would lend his tongue to any base pretext, to any villainy, if thereby he could hope to compass some dishonest end." This last barb hits a little too close to home...isn't this exactly what Neoptolemus is in the process of doing? And in a moment, after fully gaining the trust of Philoctetes, while he is in a paroxysm of pain, Philoctetes hands his bow to Neoptolemus who now find himself in possession of the only thing that has kept this helpless cripple alive and his only belonging besides his rags and festering wounds that he can call his own.

He is about to run back to the ship that is quietly waiting along the coast for him and the bow of Heracles, when he is overcome by the suffering and heartache of Philoctetes. He instead tells him of the plot against him and after a bit of hesitation gives the bow back and tries to persuade Philoctetes to come with him to Troy where his victory has already been prophesied, but to no avail. Philoctetes is enraged by the audacity of a further betrayal, by taking his bow Neoptolemus has despoiled him of life and its return is only the merest salve on a gaping wound.

Odysseus eventually shows up and tries to persuade Philoctetes to put this recent betrayal behind him and return with them to Troy where he will "be the peer of the bravest, with whom you are destined to take Troy by storm and raze it to dust"...but the flattery and promises of grandeur do little to assuage his cosmic black hole of bitterness.

At the last minute Heracles shows up and convinces Philoctetes to go where mythic tradition requires him to go.

Heracles:...You shall go with yonder man to the Trojan city, where, first, you shall be healed of your sore malady. Then chosen out as foremost in prowess of the host, with my bow you shall slay Paris, the author of these ills. You shall sack Troy; you shall carry the spoils to your home, for the joy of Poeas your sire, even to your own Oetaean heights. And whatever spoils you receive from the host, take from them a thank offering for my bow to my pyre...

Heracles makes a compelling argument/ he's a god and no one can really argue with him, so Philoctetes, being persuaded,  puts his bitterness aside and makes his way to Troy for his glory and vindication.

According to Simon Goldhill, in his essay "The Language of Tragedy: rhetoric and communication" (The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by P.E. Easterling) Goldhill says "Deception, persuasion, and the morality of how language is to be used are constant subjects of discussion in the play: it is a key sign of how men interrelate. Significantly, Philoctete's first delight in meeting Neoptolemus after many years of solitude is 'to hear a Greek voice again': that this voice should be a lure in a deceptive plot is typical of the ironies, powers and deception of language..."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Women of Trachis - Sophocles

"There is a saying among men, put forth long ago, that you cannot rightly judge whether a mortal's lot is good or evil before he dies. But I know, even before I have passed to the world of death, that my life is sorrowful and bitter..."
- Deianeira

Heracles opens with Deianeira bemoaning her lot as an unloved and routinely abandoned wife. While Heracles is off completing his labors and winning fame and glory, Deianeira sits at home and thinks about her other suitor, the river-god Achelous. Would her life have been different if she had swallowed her repulsion at the chimerical wooer, constantly changing shape between a bull, a serpent with shiny coils, and a man with the face of an ox...at least he would be a more constant presence. Instead, while Deianeira's praying that she might die rather than have to face a marriage bed with Achelous, along comes the glorious son of Zeus and Alcmena and challenges the dreaded Achelous for her hand.  

What a moment! One second you're thinking "crap...looks like I'm going to marry a water serpent." And the next second along comes the exemplar hero, all rugged and immortal. Yet, for Deianeira, married life did not go as she had planned.

"Since I have been joined to Heracles as his chosen bride fear after fear has haunted me on his account; one night brings trouble, and the next night in turn, drives it out. And then children were born to us, whom he has only seen as the farmer sees his distant field, which he visits at seedtime and once again at harvest. Such was the life that kept him journeying to and fro, in the service of a certain master."

Deianeira is referring,of course, to Eruystheus, who spent twelve years coming up with twelve virtually impossible tasks for Heracles to perform; these tasks being ordained by the priestess of Apollo and when completed would obtain for Heracles immortality. So, Heracles has a lot on his plate and parenting isn't really a priority. And while he runs around, becoming a legend, Deianeira is left to parent, alone and isolated. 

"For Deianeira, as I hear, hath ever an aching heart; she, the battle prize of old, is now like some bird lorn of its mate; she can never lull her yearning nor stay her tears; haunted by a sleepless fear for her absent lord, she pines on her anxious, widowed couch, miserable in her foreboding of mischance."

What Deianeira does not know is that Hera has had it out for Heracles from the beginning. Classic Zeus, had to run around and get beautiful, but mortal Alcmena knocked up. Hera, obviously annoyed by Zeus' constant, exhaustive infidelities decides she will destroy Heracles and she eventually smites him with temporary madness, during which he kills his wife Megara and his three children.  

After Heracles wins the hand of Deianeira, they head back to Tiryns and on their way must cross the river Evenus; at the rivers edge they happen upon the centaur Nessus, who offers to carry Deianeira upon his back. Midway across the river, Nessus gets a little frisky and Deianeira shrieks; Heracles immediately turns and shoots a feathered arrow that had been dipped in the poison of Hydra. In his last breaths the centaur tells Deianeira to gather some of his blood as a potion that would be efficacious in preventing Heracles from loving another woman. Thinking nothing of it and obviously not remembering the ancient proverb: "The gifts of enemies are no gifts and bring no good," Deianeira keeps the potion hidden for the unfortunate day when she may have need of it.

Now, completing his last labor, Heracles has made a pact that if he has not returned in fifteen months he would either be dead or return to uninterrupted peace. The fifteen months are up and Deianeira is anxious and worried not knowing what to expect.

As she ruminates about her luckless, neglected heart, a messenger approaches telling her that none other than Heracles is on his way home! And he is sending along a war bride, princess Iole...this does not bode well for Deianeira. The years have been unkind to her and here, before her, is a fair maiden that Heracles declared war for when he was unable to woo her into being his paramour. Now after conquering her country and killing her father, she has been dragged back to Tiryns to wait for the return of Heracles alongside Deianeira.

Deianeira, distraught, remembers the secret potion, and after quickly dousing one of Heracles' cloaks liberally with the stuff, sends it away with the messenger saying it is a token of her love for Heracles and a gift for his joyous return. Feeling nervous about the potency of the secret concoction, Deianeira oscillates between feeling joy that Heracles is finally, unalterably hers...and a growing unease and foreboding. She cautions the choir "do not act with zeal if you act without light" and waits for her husband to return.

Meanwhile, Heracles, after being given Deianeira's gift he is slowly being suffocated/flayed to death by the poisonous cloak. His only thought is revenge and with each agonizing step he demands that Deianeira be brought to him so that he can embrace her and she too can taste the agony she has wrought. But after hearing that her suspicions were confirmed and that she has essentially murdered her husband, Deianeira kills herself, unable to cope with the misery she has inflicted.

"So I do not know, unlucky me, where to turn my thoughts; I only see that I have done a fearful deed. Why or wherefore should the monster, in his death-throes, have shown good will to me, on whose account he was dying? Impossible! No, he was cajoling me, in order to slay the man who had smitten him; and I know this too late, when it is of no help." 

Like Ajax, impaling himself on the sword of his enemy, Heracles is killed by an enemy of the past, and as he realizes that his death is in accordance with a prophecy, he quickly insists that he be carried up a hill and burned on a pyre. His last demand that his son, Hyllus, marry Iole, his lover and ignorant accomplice to his death. Hyllus complies, only because she is insanely beautiful. As the mortal part of Heracles is burned away, he gains immortality, ascending to Oylmpus, there to be reconciled with Hera and to marry her daughter, the slender-ankled Hebe.

As the play ends, Hyllus chants to the chorus: "No man forsees the future; but the present is fraught with mourning for us, and with shame for the powers above, and verily with anguish beyond compare for him who endures this doom. Maidens, come ye also, nor linger at the house; ye who have lately seen a dread death, with sorrows manifold and strange. In all there is naught but Zeus."

The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield

I'm going to do something a little different this month, I recently took a short course on Critical Reading and one of our projec...