27 December 2009 5 Comments

New/Old Ideas.

I’ve been thinking for a bit — okay, I’ve been thinking it for a while — that I might want to write a piece that’s styled after the ancient Greek and Roman tragedies. Hmm. Am I crazy? Potentially. But Sophocles and Euripides have stuck around for a reason. They’re the reason we have dramatic structure; plus, their stories are super sad, and they use the most amazing lyrical poetry to tell those stories. Did Sappho ever write plays, I wonder? Her poetry is something else. But I digress.

It’s not like it’s a new idea. Greek-ness has managed to permeate Western culture since, well, Western culture was ancient Greece. I know the mythology incredibly well because I was obsessed with it when I was younger; I know all the gods and goddesses and their petty grievance with each other and humankind. Such tempers! No one holds a grudge like an Olympian. No wonder the Greeks took so well to theatre; their religion, so much a part of everyday living, was incredibly dramatic.

Contemporary writers have messed with the Greeks before, naturally. Thorton Wilder wrote a Greek drama cycle, complete with a satyr play: The Alcestiad, based on the myth of Alcestis. I don’t know that it gets done a lot (do people even know Wilder wrote plays other than Our Town?) but I think it’s a nice piece, and I’m impressed that he took this particular goal to the next level. Speaking of gorgeous poetry — Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is a retelling of the Orpheus myth. But it’s not necessarily Greek in its presentation. Charles Mee has a trilogy of Greek tragedies re-imagined; like Wilder’s, they feel authentic, appearing on the page in verse. On study abroad, I was lucky enough to see the whole of John Barton’s fantastic Tantalus, an all-day event that felt both ancient and modern all at the same time. The last time I was in London my sister and I saw Helen Edmundson’s adaptation Orestes, wherein the story was the same, but the setting was edging on contemporary. All of these, though, do have modern spins on the ancient stories. With the exception of the Wilder, which seems to attempt to create an authentic tragic cycle. Is that what I want to do? Tell the story or recreate an entire day’s worth of Greek drama? Tantalus was amazing, but good golly… It was fantastic, but it made me tired, and I was in the audience; I can’t imagine what it was like for the cast and crew. I suppose what I want to do falls somewhere in between creating a new piece and re-creating an old one. The thing is, I’ve never known what story to tell. Do I want to attack a familiar myth? Or spin a new one, attempting to make it meld into the canon in such a way that no one can tell the difference? Or am I just interested in the style?

One story that I found particularly intriguing has Romans in it, but isn’t a Roman story. Ha. I’ve always been fascinated by the warrior queen Boudicca, who fought back against the tyranny of Rome. That’s the first place I went, because Boudicca had a crap hand dealt to her — upon her husband’s death, the Roman magistrate took over her lands and ordered her whipped and her daughters gang-raped. So Boudicca built up an army and gave the Romans a run for their money. She won quite a few battles before the Romans were able to reach back into their seemingly bottomless supply of reinforcements; when defeat seemed imminent, she committed suicide to avoid capture. What an awesome story! What an awesome lady! But I’ve never been quite able to get past the idea stage with that one. Where do I begin? The difficulty with Boudicca’s story is that so much of it is on the battlefield, and violence didn’t happen on the Greek stage. Humph.
So the poor warrior queen has been festering on my back burner.

More recently I came across another story, ironically also involving a woman standing up to the Roman machine. Thinking on it now, maybe I should have started off with a spiel about Roman mythology; but so many Greek stories simply were absorbed into the Roman ones… Is there really that much of a difference other than the names of the gods? I think not. Even Roman theatre is almost completely borrowed from the Greek, down to the “adaptations” of classical comedies and tragedies.

Oy, it’s so easy to go off on a tangent… Typing and thinking at the same time — a dangerous combination. And yet it’s the way I do everything. Ha…

ANYWAY. I bought a book years ago and only recently read it. It’s a slim paperback entitled Perpetua’s Passion. Perpetua was a young Roman woman who converted to Christianity and basically asked to be martyred for her beliefs. Her father was a wealthy pagan, and he tried to convince her to renounce her new faith, but she would not. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and she died in the arena very soon after giving birth to her baby, spending a good portion of her confinement in prison.

The scene in the arena is just — Wow. Perpetua is in there with some mean and wily animals, who torment her for some time, but don’t kill her (maybe they had had their fill of humans already that day, who knows?). I can’t even imagine. So a gladiator is sent in to speed things up. But he has a pang of conscience and can’t go through with it; his sword hand trembles when it nears her. Perpetua encourages him, guiding his blade to her own throat. Wow.

Yes, the Christians were persecuted, but that’s not to say that they all sought torture, death, and martyrdom; like us, the mostly wanted to go on living. Perpetua was one of the exceptions to that rule; she was willing to shout her faith proudly from the rooftops and die for it.

Perpetua’s story seems much more readily adaptable to the Greco-Roman style than Boudicca’s, though I admit I want to include the “violence” of the final moments of Perpetua’s life — how can I not? — while a more traditional take might end with her leaving the stage to face her death in the arena. I just don’t think I can give up that moment with the gladiator.

The story strikes chords with me — maybe it’s the Joan of Arc thing, but I actually think it’s got a lot in common with Antigone. You can ask who is right, or you can ask who is more right? The fact that Perpetua’s family was there during her ordeal and trying to coax her into abjuration is just — that’s dramatic gold. Definite similarities between her father and King Creon. She is breaking the law, but is it a good law to begin with?

We have Perpetua’s story because she kept a diary in prison. That just lends itself to a chorus, doesn’t it? I don’t know. It seems like a good idea now, but I might just get over it tomorrow. At the moment it seems like a grand, ironic epic — to tell the story of a Christian martyr in classical, pagan style. Or it could just be pretentious. Egad. I think bed sounds like a nice choice.

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  • I vote yes. Any of the above. If anyone can pull it off, you can.

  • Alison Anderson

    Technically isn’t everything we write basically a re-telling of another story even if it’s “original”? My vote is that you spin off a story, but have it be in a contemporary setting. That Perpetua story sounds pretty awesome though I don’t know how you’d make it contemporary.

    Anyway your idea reminds me of the book I just wrote an essay on for my class called The Hours by Michael Cunningham. He basically follows the plot of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf only he has 3 characters in 3 different time periods (one is Virginia herself) and he narrates their thoughts as they go through one day. It’s rather pretentious in its focus on gay/lesbian culture and celebrity references, which I think gave it prestige enough to get Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Juliane Moore to film a movie based off the book. So if you’re looking for this new play to “stick around”, going with a cool spin off something canonized has good potential. But I’m sure that, unlike Cunningham, you’ll be able to write your tragic Greek-styled play and not come off being pretentious.

    Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m sure whatever you decide will be awesome. And if you know a lot about the Greek/Roman myths, I say definitely go for it.

  • Thumbs Up.

  • DL

    See also The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. A retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

  • As a lover of Greek theater (although I haven’t written in that style necessarily, I have written on Greek subject matter), and a lover of historical plays, I heartily would love to see you tackle the subject matter, especially the stories you mentioned… they sound fascinating.