Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bacchae, by Eurpides

via spacepleb
Of all of the Greek tragedies we've covered so far, I wasn't surprised to find that this seems to be the one which is most widely in production today.  I understand why and I think I should like to produce it myself.  I find myself increasingly surprised and delighted that "there is nothing new under the sun" and that the Greeks were seeking answers to the very same sorts of questions we are asking today.

I might speculate that the appeal is in the more gruesome bits, hypothetically there for the sake of the moral.  I see some similar tactics in our own culture where something horrible will be shown "for the sake of showing how horrible it is."  The fundamentalist Christian Hell Houses which are put on around Hallowe'en spring to mind.  Unless I'm completely misinterpreting, I believe Warren Ellis does a variety of that as well, a sort of moralism by showing immorality.  A very popular technique.  It panders to the Moral and Immoral alike.  Here's William Hogarth's Gin Lane which was made to depict the evils of gin by graphic depiction:
One of the problems with this form of morality in entertainment is that the culture ends up chasing the dragon as it were.  Exponential increases in the level of horrifying immorality leads to a moral callous on the population.

The action of the play is rife with chaos, but there is also sort of a harsh, Darwinian, vendetta morality to the way the events unfold.  The action of the play also, largely, takes place onstage aside from the Day of the Locust bit at the end (if you don't get the reference, don't go look it up.  Trust me.) 

Dionysus is the god of wine and theater.  His disciples are frantic, inebriated, violent madwomen.  He is my favorite god in the Greek pantheon, probably because the chaos that surrounds him reminds me of observable reality.  I feel like the worldview of Greek mythology is one of the darkest and least hopeful around (which is also, partially, why I think it is the most plausible outside of my own religious path.)  There are gods and they are not your friends, but don't you dare slight them.  If I were to provide a theme throughout the pieces I've read in this collection of Greek tragedy, that would be it.  It is one way to answer a seemingly bleak, absurd, and random universe where death, madness, and disease are on the streets around you every day.  I can relate.

 The show begins, again, with a god coming onstage and delivering the exposition to the audience.  Once again, it is also the god who is to afflict the primary character (and, once again, it is difficult to determine a protagonist in the piece.)  There is a bone of comedy thrown to the audience in the two old men (or, at least, that's how I would play their scene.)  Pentheus comes out and delivers sort of a "you kids get off of my lawn" admonition.  His soldiers arrest Dionysus.  They lock him up and he levels the palace in a great spectacle that would no doubt usher in the intermission.

Much like our "moralism" mentioned above, Pentheus has a remarkably strong interest in the doings and goings-on at a Bacchanal.  It may be my modern sensibilities, but I sense a thick streak of dark comedy through this piece.  Dionysus explains why it is necessary for Pentheus to do drag to witness the Bacchae.  They tree him and it ends badly for Pentheus.  And, for some reason, his mother.  And his grandfather now that I think of it.  Half of the production budget goes towards stage blood.  We come away off our lunch and with a healthy fear of the divine.

Our next piece offers a much lighter view of the gods, Dionysus in particular, as Dr. Eliot, in his infinite wisdom, left a comedy for the end.  After this procession of turgid and lachrymose human tragedy, opening the veins of sorrow all over the stage in front of an audience who, presumably, came in to escape their own problems, a comedic respite seems a most welcome apparition of an oasis as we traverse these shifting sands to oblivion.  Or, as the wise man said:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Let Them Eat Glass!

Laurie and I were recently lunching at the home of friends new enough to our lives to have been the occasion of our first visit to said home.  On those occasions, I am to bookshelves as a moth to a flame, and the first hour or so of my visit to someone's home for the first time is usually consumed with talking about the books that they own.

On this occasion, one of their shelves contained a book that changed the course of my life when I was a young shaver and Laurie called on me to relate the story.  The book was the autobiography of the comedic actor Harpo Marx, titled Harpo Speaks.  I think I was around 10 or 11 at the time and my father and I were at a video store (which was a sort of store in which one could rent videotapes of films for a fee.)  I don't know what I was intending on renting, but I'm sure it was some abysmal piece of childish tripe that my father was less than enthusiastic about having to be in the same house in which it was playing.  Thinking quickly, he brought me an alternative suggestion, one that I'd never heard of.  He brought me a copy of Duck Soup, which was one of the Marx Brothers' earlier films.  This was my first encounter with the Marx Brothers and I decided to give it a try.

I loved it.  My obsession with the Marx Brothers was the sort of obsession that only a 'tween is capable of maintaining, although the obsession quickly transferred as you shall see anon.

I remember going to Rizzoli's bookstore in South Coast Plaza and finding a copy of Harpo Marx's autobiography very soon after seeing the movie.  I bought the book and read it with great gusto.  I still have that copy and it is now in tatters from the number of times I read it.  My obsession transferred from the Marx Brothers to an unusual place for the obsession of a Junior Higher: Alexander Woollcott.

Alexander Woollcott was a theater critic, wit, literary personality, and social commentator in the first half of the previous century.  He held literary court at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, surrounding himself with a laundry list of luminaries of his day, including a close friendship with Harpo Marx.  I began collecting the books of Alexander Woollcott in junior high.  I still a have whole shelf devoted to him.  Several of them are signed.  Along with his more abundantly printed works, I have a rare copy of his ill-fated play which he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman called The Dark Tower, a collection of his reportage from the first World War for Stars and Stripes, and several other rarities which I must check my pride in not listing here at great length.  I have now been a collector of Woollcottalia twice as long as I was ever not one.
Woollcott was, as I mentioned, among other things, passionately interested in literature and the theater.  Those passions transferred to me.  I began to branch out and read George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham (I remember taking The Moon and Sixpence with me to a Quaker junior high camp), Dorothy Parker, and so forth, which then lead to Faulkner and Hemingway and Whitman and Poe and Twain and many many others.  I remark on this because, before I saw Duck Soup, I was not a child particularly inclined towards reading and certainly not towards reading anything serious.  A slapstick comedy from the 1930s set me on the course towards intellectualism.  Laurie asked me, earlier today when we were discussing this, what I think I would have become has it not been for that chance encounter with that film.  I answered that I probably would have been your run of the mill Comic-Con geek, playing RPGs, waiting outside a movie theater at midnight to see the latest costumed hero movie, and posting .gifs from The Big Bang Theory on my Tumblr as the closest thing I get to a creative act.

I have a more complex set of reactions to my entrance into love for compositional music, specifically contemporary experimental music.  Back in Orange County, I used to listen to KUSC, the world-class local classical music station, and specifically loved The Record Shelf which was hosted by Jim Svejda.  Listening to that show was like taking a free classical music appreciation course.  I remember Mr. Svejda, at one point, expressing his disdain for what was a ponderous, extraordinarily difficult opera about Albert Einstein on a beach.  Like so much of life, the object forbidden to me by an authority took on a special place of interest and, at the end of my teens, I became a fan of the music of Philip Glass.

I do still admire Woollcott a great deal and I still think he was wonderful (evident, no doubt, in my verbosity and circumlocution.)  As someone known in the circles in which I travel as a "book person," I am sometimes asked about, say, the Harry Potter books.  For the record, how I feel about them is that there is a whole upcoming generation who may very well have been hooked into being life-long readers from the series, far more than anything that happened to the generation that I grew up in.  This is an excellent and hopeful development.  Do I think they're great?  Not particularly.  But, I feel that people who engage with the world around them, who interact with different ideas and viewpoints, who value knowledge and art, really do make the world a better place.  I feel the world would be a better place if such values spread like wildfire, not if they are kept in a secret chamber where the people who hold the esoteric knowledge can feel smart and superior to the common rabble.  I feel that people can aspire towards higher concepts like beauty, truth, virtue, and peace; the reflection of the divine within the limited scope of our existence.  I will even go so far as to say things like that at the risk of sounding snotty and judgmental in the suggestion that there are "baser" things.

But there are.  There are low and base entertainments; there is art that reflects the highest aspirations of humankind; and there is a vast grey area of places in-between.  And we all have a lifetime in which to interact with them, communicate with them, and come to our own conclusion.  Possibly even make some of our own.  Like what you like and interact with what hooks you. 

Every time I mention Philip Glass, someone makes a denigrating joke or remark, and I'm not here to shame anyone for doing so.  I get it.  Saying Philip Glass is your favorite composer is like saying Danny Elfman is your favorite composer.  However, I would like to offer my own point of view.  If I had a young and promising relative of about 13 or 14, I would not buy them something by Arnold Schoenberg.  I would buy them Glass' Solo Piano or Hydrogen Jukebox or possibly Satyagraha.  There is nothing wrong with liking the things that you like, being where you are, and seeking to better yourself where you are.  Sure, at some point you will probably move from living on milk to meat, but there are also grapes and yogurt and rye bread and horehound candies and olives and any number of other means of sustenance, which science has known for well over a year that a healthy diet is one of variety.

Or, perhaps a more apt metaphor, the lamppost directly inside the wardrobe to Narnia is a fantastic object.  The magic draws Lucy in and is the catalyst for a great deal of adventure.  Of course, the Pevensies don't spend the rest of their lives camped out next to the lamppost.  They have a whole world to explore!  But is the lamppost any less magical than reaching Cair Paravel?  Is it any less a part of Narnia?  Do we imagine the full grown Pevensies mocking the time when they were so entranced by the lamppost, unaware of the wonders to follow?

It is my belief that there are far too many obstacles in our culture to seeking to better one's self, be they economic, peer pressure, levels of difficulty, fear of scorn.  If I can be so crassly Wagnerian, it is not the job of the Guardians of Splendor to bar the gates to keep out the riff-raff.  Our brave new world does a fine enough job of that on its own.  Rather it is ours to beat the drum as loudly as we possibly can and hope open the gates as wide as they can go.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hippolytus, by Euripides

In this life where so often we are rationed out pat little packages of worldviews, it is helpful to broaden one's self and have occasion to reevaluate what one takes for granted.  I feel that we grow closer to truth by having the truths we hold challenged, grow closer to the fellow inhabitants of this planet by trying on different worldviews, and, Borg-like, come away with useful bits gleaned.  As Solomon wrote, "Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him."

Much like genetics and pathology, variety is not only life's very spice, but the glue that holds existence together and, I would even go so far as to suggest, one of the keys to a peaceful existence. 

In college, I studied Cultural Anthropology with Professor Paul Apodaca and one of the points that has stuck with me all of these years later (along with my studies in Freud) is the concept of taboo in civilization.  I distinctly remember Professor Apodaca saying that incest is one of the only nearly universal taboos in humankind, even within cultures where other widespread taboos (like cannibalism) exist.  One could make a fairly succinct argument of the evolutionary functions for the emergence of that taboo.  There are also the psychological effects of a secure family unit (and the psychological terrors of an insecure one) as well as the customary moral, social, and religious proscriptions on transgressing taboos to the extent that most healthy individuals never even consciously dream of breaking said taboos.  This is a very good thing.

We have already established that the Greeks employed heightened emotional manipulation for the purpose of hooking the audience into the action of their dramatic works.  I would add that this is at least the second play in this series in which the subject of incest comes up, likely because it is such an efficacious emotional manipulator.

I find that taboos can be helpful to a civilization, as can morals, ethics, and manners.  Restraint in society shows a regard for others, that one sees the value of others and chooses to take that into account vis-à-vis their own behavior.  Cultures establish taboos to preserve the culture.  Taboos can be valuable and should be employed, I feel, when they promote the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (in that order) in all of the citizenship.

One of the "different set of eyes" which I have found fascinating in this series is the role of the gods in the lives of humans in the Greek worldview.  They have a built in answer for the apparent absurdity of existence.  In this piece, bad things happen to people because a goddess gets moody and feels slighted.  In other words, the tragedy unfolds because of things people didn't do.  Aphrodite is upset because Hippolytus goes hunting with Athena and is apparently asexual or, at least, pursuing interests outside of the boudoir.  This bothers Aphrodite to the point where she decides to burn his family to the ground and salt the Earth where once they grew.  Every time I've been in an automobile accident I've marveled a bit over how leaving my home a minute or two earlier or later would have averted the whole situation.  It occurs to me that this view of the gods offers some ready-made solutions in moments like that.

Aphrodite, in her rage, strikes Phaedra, Hippolytus' step-mother, with a mad crush on Hippolytus.  I was surprised to find that no one in the piece, faced with this information, says, "Well, knock that off!  That's totally inappropriate, Phaedra!"  Her nurse almost commits self-slaughter faced with the knowledge.  But, for the most part, her crush is treated like cancer.  It is unfortunate, but she can't just walk it off.  I was mystified by that part of the play.  I suppose it was an attempt to make Phaedra a sympathetic character, but I'm not entirely sure why she needed to be sympathetic or why Euripides thought that would work as a character choice.  I mean, it's like saying "Yes, I murdered my wife, but it's not my fault because I was really really angry at the time."  I had the same sort of difficulty (albeit much more strongly) when I tried to read Ayn Rand many years ago.  Yes, I see what they are trying to get me to sympathize with, but I don't!  I reject the premise because what they are talking about is evil, no matter how much they zazz it up with rhetoric - a major difference being that I never physically threw the book of Euripides across the room.

So, Phaedra hangs herself and things continue to deteriorate from there.  Hippolytus gets chased down and dragged, thanks to a water buffalo.  Theseus shoots his mouth off and, as a result, has to watch all of his loved ones die.  Artemus is, at the end, waiting to get revenge on Aphrodite and we walk out of the theater having had the embodiment of romantic love presented as the ultimate antagonist, having heard a long anti-woman tirade, having witnessed a grandfather kill his grandson because he granted his son three curses (which I'm not sure I can imagine a place in which that would be an appropriate gift.)  In my mind, this is the very model of a problem play.

I do have to say that it was an entertaining work and certainly thought provoking.  Here I am days later still mulling over exactly what I was supposed to think and why.  But I do think that there is profit in the exercise even if I come to different conclusions.  It gives me opportunity to evaluate what I believe and why, and what I don't believe and why.  Time engaged in that activity is never wasted time.

The next two pieces in this series is deal with my favorite Greek god, which is to say Dionysus.  In the next piece, heads will roll.  In the piece that follows, The Frogs, based solely on what I've experienced here, I think Dionysus is correct in choosing Aeschylus as the superior playwright to Euripides. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Antigone, by Sophocles

The shift from Aeschylus to Sophocles brings a variety of thematic differences.  There are certainly different views of women and of gods (which is not to say that they were of different beliefs, rather that they were of different points of view.  The God of Thomas Merton and the God of William F. Buckley look very different from one another, but both men were of the Roman Catholic church.)

This is the first Greek tragedy in our series in which the main character doesn't actually do anything wrong.  The tragic "heroes" of Aeschylus are people who do wrong for possibly understandable reasons and suffer the consequences.  Sophocles has Oedipus who makes a series of horrible mistakes, but for the most part they are simply tragic mistakes.  But Antigone, in fact, suffers punishment for doing right.  She buries her brother (twice actually) with no fear of consequences and is proud to admit it.  I might even mention the political undertone of what is right superseding what is law in behavior befitting a virtuous citizen.  Antigone herself is, I might argue, our first strong, good woman in our series of Greek tragedies.  She is a person of great conviction and integrity.

Also, it passes the Bechdel Test.

As an aside, there was a play by Jean Anouilh written in Nazi occupied France that was a retelling of the Antigone story, seemingly with a Nazi-style government as Creon's reign, but written ambiguously enough to pass the censors.  In college, I really wanted to mount a production of it, but, like so much of my theater stories, it never ended up happening.  In it, Antigone gives this famous rousing speech to Creon:
 "I am disgusted with your happiness! With your life that must go on, come what may. You could say you are all like dogs that lick everything they find. You with your promise of a humdrum happiness--provided a person doesn't ask much of life. I want everything of life, I do; and I want it total, complete: otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake offered for being a good little girl. I want to be sure of everything this very day; sure that everything will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl. If not, I want to die!"
It is an uncompromising vision, just as the Antigone of Sophocles.  I confess that I admire both Antigones.

The gods do not make an appearance in this piece, however I would like to point out an emerging trend that I am sensing.  There is a sense of "sin" in Greek mythology.  However, one of the key differences between sin to their gods and sin in Christianity is that their gods are not necessarily nice, fair, and certainly don't seem to have our best interests at heart.  It reminds me a bit of Shintoism in that above all one ought to do everything in one's power not to offend the gods.  There is an element of "sins of the father" in this play.

The sins of Creon seem to be two-fold.  He punishes Antigone for deeds that ought not be punished and his other major sin, I contend, is that he fails to listen to the wisdom of Tiresias.  It would seem likely to me that that would be a mortal sin in the Ancient Greek worldview.  All of his sins get jumbled in the stew, but the price that Creon pays is devastating.

It is my belief that the price that Creon pays indicates the author's belief about who was right and who was wrong in the piece.  It is also my belief that Antigone receives a really bleak sort of grey hint of a reward when her beloved and she are united in the Underworld.  I have to confess, whenever I read a Greek play, I always imagine that Hades is like it's portrayed in Sondheim's version of The Frogs.  This is probably grossly misguides my opinions.  I sing Pluto's song from that play while I'm working all the time! 

I would also confess that if I were Dionysus (and I am still waiting for my wife to paint a portrait of me as Dionysus) and I went to Hades to bring back the better playwright, I think I very well might bring Sophocles over Aeschylus.  In spite of the fashion sketches that the latter inspired.  Or maybe it's just that I find the world of Sophocles more compelling and accurate.  Aeschylus had a rigid sense of right and wrong, crime and punishment.  In Sophocles, people make horrible mistakes and good people suffer tremendously as well as the bad.  That seems more like the nature of the universe I've come to understand.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ask Paul Mathers: Are Americans interested in Sir Thomas Browne?

You can ask Paul Mathers a question about arts/literature/culture/history/etiquette by sending it to:

As mentioned, here's a link to my post on Religio Medici:

You can buy a paperback copy (the very same imprint as the one I own) of Religio Medici here:

And here you can download an eBook edition for cheap (although the misspelling of the author's name raises my eyebrow a bit):

Monday, January 9, 2012

Prometheus Bound

On Sunday, Laurie and I were talking to our friend Tim about Louis XIV.  I secretly admire Louis XIV's techniques for strengthening France and his socio-political prowess, but am careful not to say it too loudly or too often as history hasn't treated Louis favorably (I am hoping to not get ejected from Cannes.)  Tim mentioned how Louis wanted everything to flow directly from his throne, to be the dispenser of everything, to demand dependence.  Laurie mentioned that there was a temptation to do that as a parent (for example, not teach your children to cook so that they will keep needing you.)  In spite of my conviction that information should flow freely, I can totally understand this temptation.  I think it perfectly illustrates the sin of Prometheus.

One of the cardinal rules that we learned in my college play-writing courses was to "show and not tell."  You can, of course, have the "Robert Shaw talking about the sharks" monologue at some point, so long as you show the audience plenty of actual shark carnage through the rest of the show.  The Greek tragedians seem to have had no such rule.  While there is spectacle, it is often not where we would have put it.  They talk about the fall of the gods, about the chaining of Prometheus, about the storms that are to batter Prometheus on his rock, and we meet a character who, in her future history, is going to turn into a cow (extra credit opportunity: I knew the story of Io and was totally confused over whether or not she was a cow in this play.  I kept switching back and forth in my head as I read like the Ghost of Christmas Past.)  None of these are shown onstage, but a guy does come riding in on a four-footed bird.  It reminded me that while I was reading The Oresteia I thought, "I know the script has the murders take place offstage, but in my production they would sure as heck be in full bloody view of the audience!"

A point of interest about the play is that it was traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, but modern scholarship now has grave and serious doubts over the authorship.  There have been arguments over the author's meter and line structure.  One of the more compelling arguments, in my opinion, is over the discrepancy in the view of Zeus in The Oresteia and the view of Zeus in Prometheus Bound.  My personal opinion is that the arguments are compelling enough to have me refer to it as "the author of Prometheus Bound" rather than Aeschylus.  In any discussion of doubt of the authenticity of authorship of a piece of literature, I feel it is best to attempt to see through the arguments to the motivations of those arguing.  That is why, for example, I feel compelled to agree with the doubt on the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews (most of those who make the argument would have nothing but gain from an actual apostolic author) while I reject outright the questioning of Shakespeare's authorship (an argument that has always struck me as conspicuously classist.)

I chose Edith Hamilton's translation.  I think Hamilton's work will fill in most of what Robert Fagles didn't get around to translating for me as I read through the Greeks.  Like Fagles, I would read anything Edith Hamilton had anything to do with and likely would have followed her off a cliff if called upon to do so.  Edith Hamilton was one of the awesome, underrated figures in academic history, artfully building bridges from the common reader to the sublime (I almost went with "putting the ambrosia on a lower shelf," but feared it would sound like a back-handed compliment.)

As for the play itself, in spite of what I said above about action and spectacle, I think it is a wildly successful piece.  There is so much heightened emotion and the speeches are so evocative that I feel it would be a delight for any actor to perform.  The mythology is rich and potent.  We are left with a universe in which a sovereign god who hates us knows that his days are numbered.  Like Herod, Zeus' insecurity over the prophecy is leading him to effect the most atrocious outcomes on innocents.  Most of the goodness and, indeed, humanness that we enjoy in our existence was a gift from a god who is now being tortured for having given that gift.  Prometheus is clearly put forth as the protagonist and I was especially moved by his defiance in the face of threats and torture.  Aware of his own immortality, he does not care how much torture is doled out on him so long as he is being true and virtuous.  This seems to be the moral of the story from a distant culture which was convinced of the immortality of the soul.  This is what it means to live as though that were true.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Winter Fashion from The House of Atreus

If you've ever read Mortimer Adler, you'll be familiar with his almost bullying suggestion that a serious reader must have books that look a mess.  He contends that one must fully interact with a book, to wear it out with underlining, highlighting, dog-ears, margin notes, and so forth.  Having grown up with library books and being more than a little vain, I was not, in my formative years, inclined in this direction.  I found his argument compelling and, in my personal library, you can tell whether I've read a book before or after hearing Mr. Adler out.

So often I find that I want to take digging into what I am reading even further.  Much like I said in my previous posts, I not only want to consume books, but also allow them to consume me.  Most of you also know that I majored in Theater with a great deal of focus toward the production end.  Most of you also know of my intense interest in fashion. 

Laurie and I have decided to set aside a day or two each week as "Project Nights."  We've found that even when one tries to elevate the entertainment, it is still a very easy trap to come home in the evening and park one's self in front of a lighted screen.  So now, one night a week, we forbid Facebook, movies, and so forth and focus our waking hours on creative acts.  Gina even joined in and retaught herself to knit.

For Christmas, my aunt sent me an artist's sketchbook (large, blank, white pages.)  I had been wanting to get back into sketching.  I thought it might be nice to create preliminary design sketches for a production of The Oresteia which, odds are, I shall never have the real opportunity to produce.  Like so much of design, the ideas are the most engaging part and the realization is a luxury reserved for those with the astonishingly good fortune to be able to get funding for their design work.

It has been at least five years since I have sketched anything at all, so I beg your gentleness.  Great or not, it is a thing that I have accomplished.  I found it to be a charming way to interact with material that I am reading, one in which I break out of the exclusively analytical.  I will tell/warn you, I intend to do more of this sort of thing.

I began with the Furies, who I found to be some of the most compelling characters in the trilogy.  Wonky perspective and placement should reveal that the figure in the center was the first of the three which I drew.  By happy accident, the shoulders and arms came out much more masculine than I had originally intended and that early moment lead to a complete rethinking of my mind's eye production.  I had intended to mount a traditional production, but the shoulder's made me think "Of course the Furies are drag queens!"

From there I focused my efforts towards a production where the modern and the ancient blur.  I tried to create a different sort of modern feminine look for each of the three, each of which were rather harried.  The figure in the center's dress is meant to suggest skin removed with exposed muscles.  They are all, of course, dressed in blood colors.  One of the steps in the process of stage design that I used to love was the creation of a color palette for the production.  In this one, I have reds and blues to highlight the steel and blood, rage and death, and so forth.  There are some purples for royalty and whites and brights for gods.  I decided to have not a stitch of green onstage because green suggests life and growth to me.

The figure seated is Orestes.  The antechamber is open just enough to glimpse the carnage.  In spite of how your mind might wish to fill in the colors of his suit, I am thinking he ought to be exactly as drawn, in a white suit with dark blue outlines.  This is to tie him a bit with a motif I had for the gods and to something else which I'll discuss later.  His hair is bowlish and suggests a helmet. 

Apollo came out with a hint of twinkishness about him, I think, but I think it's acceptable for Apollo to have a dash of the twink.  He's the god of light after all.  He is, however, meant to be holding a lantern in the sketch and not a purse.  I sort of like the idea of playing around with the concept of an imposing figure from a variety of directions.  Perhaps this says more about my own worldview.

I have no idea why Clytemnestra ended up at a Batman villain angle.  I wanted her to be somewhat of what the contemporary colloquialism would deem "a cougar."  I also wanted for her and Aegithus to be the most indecent characters in the whole piece.  I expect the awkward intimacy of their robe lengths would be highlighted whenever they are in a scene with anyone else.  I picture Aegithus as a bit of an entitled snob, but I also wanted his wardrobe color scheme to mirror Orestes in the ever so slightest suggestion of the Oedipal.  As a side note, Laurie walked by when I was drawing Aegithus and said, "Ha!  Nice Dr. Manhattan there!" 

Athena turned out to be my personal favorite of the lot.  I cannot put my finger on which female pop musician from my childhood that she reminds me of, but I would insist that sparks actually come off of her crown.

I wanted Electra to harken the most back to Agamemnon.  I think it fitting and probably reveals my thoughts on the appropriate character choices, her motivations and so forth.  I felt like every action and probably nearly every word spoken by her character point to her super-objective of honoring her fallen father (and the anguish over the gross dishonor that has come upon him.)  She is a bit more of a child in this sketch than I would anticipate in actual casting.  I think "waif" in general is more what I would envision, but maybe more of a young woman wasting away in fury. I pictured Agamemnon as a sort of "fallen" version of Paul Heerman's bust of Winter.

There is the fruit of my evening's work.  I did not make any set design sketches, but I imagine I shall in the future (for future texts.  I think this finally marks the end of my dalliance in The House of Atreus.)  Dioramas, puppets, and incidental music to follow. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Eumenides, by Aeschylus

I have to retract one statement from my post about The Libation Bearers.  I had said that Orestes was not an authorized executor of justice in the eyes of gods nor man, which was nearly true save for one detail which proves crucial to the final installment.  Apollo, in fact, authorizes Orestes to execute justice, a decision that makes our third act a thriller juridique.

Our title characters are The Furies.  They exist to punish those who kill blood relations.  I think more than once it comes up that The Furies didn't seem to mind that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, to which they reply that they were married, not blood related.  So, that's like having an IRS agent come to your house for an audit and accidentally leaving your bong in full view.  It's not good, but they're probably not going to bust you for it.

Orestes runs to Apollo, who is firmly advocating for Orestes.  The Ghost of Clytemnestra wakes The Furies and bullies and badgers them to chase down Orestes (so, you see, death hasn't improved her at all.)  The Furies and Orestes wind up in Athens, before the court of Athena no less.  Athena agrees to hear their cases and decide.

Apollo makes a speech which is compelling within the context of the play and sexist within the context of everything else (although it is difficult to think of any way in which Clytemnestra could be a sympathetic character.)  Apollo also plays the Zeus card.  The judges' votes tie and Orestes goes free.

The Furies are left with the problem of their function.  They repeatedly refer to the shame involved in losing the case.  The end of the play got a little weird for me.  Much like Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, there is a sort of nationalism (or, in this case, a sort of metro-centrism) that, to me, seems to have come out of left field.  The play ends with Athena raising the Furies to a position of protectors (Kindly Ones) of Athens.  The script seems to suggest that the action of the play leaves the theater and Athena, the Furies, and the audience go parading through the streets of the city at the end, blessing the people of Athens.

When I was a child, I had a week long Sea Camp that I attended in Dana Point.  We spent the week learning about sea life.  At the end of the week, one of the key features of the camp was an overnight stay on a ship which is a recreation of a 1770's privateer ship.  We gathered in the science center where we had spent the week learning about plankton and whatnot and a man came in identifying himself as the first mate.  He explained that we would be "the crew" of the ship overnight and would be lifting barrels and sleeping in cots and waking up in the middle of the night to "watch" and log and so forth.  We would eat a biscuit for dinner.  Stuff like that.  Then the captain came in.  He was a man with a booming voice and really put on the hardness of a ship's captain.  He scared the bejeebers out of me.  I have an almost unhealthy capacity to suspend my disbelief.  Through the afternoon we performed little tasks on the ship and when, inevitably, we would goof off or do something wrong, the captain would bellow "Avast!" with a voice loud as thunder.

And we spent the night in the boat.  I was woken up to do my watch which probably was only about 10 minutes, but seemed like 4 hours in the freezing ocean air.  Incidentally, this is probably the week where the ocean burned deeply into my psyche.  I love the ocean and everything to do with it.  I miss it tremendously and, every year or so, get almost an ache to visit the ocean.

The next morning, the camp had a beach party planned for us kids.  We all had our towels and so forth.  We got in lines and were walked down to the beach by the counselors and here is the reason why I'm telling this story.  The guy who was the captain half stayed in character on that next day.  I distinctly remember almost 30 years later, walking down the street, coming to a stoplight, and the man bellowing out "Avast!"  I'm not sure this was intentional, but the effect was that it really blurred the lines between what was the theatrical and what was "real."

In a way, I feel like I may have been seeking to recapture that all of my life.  I think I should like to live in that grey area.  It is why I am so delighted when Groucho or Woody Allen turn to the camera and address the audience, or when the Stage Manager from Our Town acts as a priest between the audience and the characters. 

And I think that is what Aeschylus was trying to do.  He was attempting to break the characters out of the drama and, harnessing the power of theater, force the very gods to bless the city of Athens.  I think that that is one of the aims of art.  We seek to ameliorate our condition.  In a state of such absurdity, so much suffering and loneliness, we create constructs of a more beautiful world and then kick the walls down so that we might travel back and forth between the two worlds freely. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus

This drawing is an early Cliff's Notes for the first two plays.
My step-daughter recently returned from the Republic of Georgia and, somewhere in the days that followed her return, she acquired the first season of a contemporary television series.  It is called Desperate Housewives.  In the ensuing days, our television (normally off) was employed in the task of bringing Gina up through the first season of that series (to my chagrin, I am given to understand that there are about 18 more seasons.)  In passing through the room, I found myself amazed that the matter of the show was unfiltered, old-fashioned melodrama.  I was further surprised, as I was reading The Oresteia, by the similarities.  Rampant adultery, revenge plots, murder, family drama.  There are differences, of course.  The contemporary show is marked by incessant music to indicate that something funny is going on, and there is, germane to the culture from which it sprung, absolutely no reverence toward, nay, nor much in the way of mention of, the gods, save in mocking religious people who live on Wisteria (as in the name of the street.  The people on the show don't live on Wisteria like the Lotus Eaters live on Lotus.)

I do not wish to suggest, by any stretch of the imagination, that Desperate Housewives is high art and destined to rise to a throne in the halls of posterity as one of the pinnacles of our age.  However, it is important to remember that so much of what we look to in art is a connection with issues that we all deal with, the universal drama, albeit so often a heightened version.  Indeed, the dramatic tension calls for consistent heightening of the emotional hooks in order to drag the audience through the action of the piece.

When Gina had to read Hamlet for a college course a few years ago, I strongly urged her to rent a film version (although seeing it live would be even more ideal) because plays are meant to be seen.  Shakespeare is wonderful to read, wonderful to pour over those gooey, but perfectly molded lines.  But the author's intention with the piece was for you, his audience, to go into a room full of other people and see the work on a stage.  I believe that we are meant to feel the pull of sitting 20 some feet from a man kneeling at the grave of his slain, cuckolded, humiliated father and identify with the feelings of rage and vengeance, to be in the room with the tension as Orestes talks with Clytemnestra, to feel the gut revulsion at the pile of butchered human that Orestes walks over at the end.  Drama is literature made tactile.  It is a means by which an author can sweep a reader directly into his or her work.  We ought to apply the lessons gained from those experiences to our lives.  We are expected to identify with them.  If we are to get anything out of the experience, we must enter the world and glean the lessons therein.

Like so much of drama, this is also a cautionary tale.  If I were to mount a production, I would probably adopt as the theme of the trilogy that phrase often attributed to Gandhi that an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.  I almost feel as if the trilogy ought to be performed in one night as one show, rather than producing each individually.  The moment at the end of The Libation Bearers where it is awkwardly obvious to everyone, especially, it would seem, Orestes, that the tableau is the exact same one as at the end of Agamemnon (the killer stepping over two butchered bodies) sets it up for what is most likely to come (judging from the title of the third play, I have my suspicions about where this is going.)

I don't want to be flip and I am well aware that I am treading on the very thin ice of speaking about aspects of American culture which are entirely alien to me, but I was instantly reminded of the contemporary street culture practice of "pouring a 40 out on the curb for one's fallen homies."  I am assured that this is a thing that actually happens in gangster culture, which I am also assured is actually a real thing.  I've heard tell of such things and, in fact, observed a bit of it in my years in public school.  Otherwise, I am about as alien to that culture as one can get.

The parallel that sprung to my mind was that Clytemnestra sends Electra to pour wine out on the grave of Agamemnon.  Clytemnestra, it seems, is having horrible nightmares and mistakenly assumes that it is from the angry tomb of Agamemnon rather than severe guilt over murdering her husband.  Funny how projecting works.  It is not lost on us, the Chorus, nor the two children, that were the much sinned against dead able to speak, he would be much more demonstrative over Clytemnestra having killed him than interested in having a bit of a tipple.

Likewise, in the gangster cultural practice of actually physically pouring out a portion of malt liquor, one imagines that the hypothetical fallen in the territorial combat of gangs, given the opportunity to speak from beyond the grave (regardless if it holds oblivion or damnation) would more likely call for a plague on both their houses, perhaps with choice words for the structure of class which gives rise to such cultures in the worlds of those to whom opportunities to prosper are barred.  Those attempting to honor are still possessed of those effects for which the murder occurred, namely a culture revolving around guns, bitches, and bling.

Enough of that, though.  Clytemnestra shows no sign of repentance, but rather simply wants physic for the tempests in her skull.  Orestes delivers that outcome by more active means, but the play would have us understand that justice has still not been served.  Orestes now takes up the mantle of "wrong" and runs off to Delphi with it.

I wonder about the author's intent and the many places one could choose to take this material if one mounted a production.  I mentioned the "justice" theme, but I think there is also an anti-vigilante twinge.  Orestes is not, in the eyes of gods or man, an authorized executor of justice.  He is, therefore, in the wrong on a cosmic scale in attempting to deliver justice.  But what would justice really look like in this case?  In America, the police would arrest the couple, they would appear before a judge and jury of their peers, they would, most likely, be sent to death row in most states where they would, eventually, be executed.  An argument could be made that the only difference between that and what Orestes does is a matter of time, hands in the pot, and cost.  Surely, being stripped of their gains and removed from society would be entirely appropriate to the crime.

Ultimately, and I think the next play will bear me out, the thesis of Aeschylus is that justice is the domain of the gods ("Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord) and not for the hands of man.  But how far can one take that view in a universe where the gods are so quiet?

I think another possible theme is that of the great wheel of karma.  Orestes is both the reaper and sower in this case, sort of caught between the cogs of the wheel.  

Needless to say, I am enjoying these plays a great deal.