At times of transition, art looks to its roots. This spring, a new theater opened and an established theater director left by paying homage to the dawn of Western theater — that is, Greek drama.
The Shed, the new performance space in New York, offered an adaptation of Euripides’s play “Helen” by Anne Carson, the rock star of poet-classicists; called “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” it presented Marilyn Monroe as a latter-day Helen of Troy, a famed object of beauty and desire. And at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Kahn’s final production after 33 years as artistic director was a new rendering of Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” trilogy, spare and strong, by the playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin.
Two works from the heart of the Western canon — and yet two contemporary works by women.
As a classical music critic, watching my own field struggle with issues of diversity and with a canon that’s perceived as the province of dead white males, I find it fascinating to see another quintessentially white-male tradition — ancient Greek literature — flooded with new energy and new voices. The past few years have seen an outpouring of new adaptations, capped with Emily Wilson’s “The Odyssey” in 2017, the first published English translation of Homer by a woman. Translations aren’t the only avenue for exploring this canon. In the past decade alone, I count at least six significant literary retellings of Homer’s “Iliad” in novels and poems, including Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” and “The Silence of the Girls,” told from the perspective of the enslaved woman Briseis, by the award-winning British novelist Pat Barker. As for “The Oresteia,” there’s Colm Tóibín’s 2017 novel “The House of Names,” as well as McLaughlin’s work, one of a long string of reworked Greek dramas she’s produced. Neither writer actually reads ancient Greek.
In short: Although the ancient Greek canon is even more restrictive than that of classical music — only a shelf of texts have survived, many as tantalizing fragments — it, and the new art that it’s inspiring, seems more alive than ever.
And in all of the critical responses to books such as “The Song of Achilles” or “The Silence of the Girls,” positive or negative, I have yet to hear the objection that neither novel is the masterpiece that the “Iliad” is. This stands out to me because in my field, which is also preoccupied with continual explorations into the past, I often hear new works dismissed on the grounds that they are inferior to Beethoven, so why should we even bother to listen?
In music, the stranglehold of the canon, and its continual misuse as a benchmark, is a tremendous obstacle to many female musicians and musicians of color. In literature, the canon appears to represent an exciting challenge. Indeed, the very limitations of the texts, and the overwhelming maleness of the tradition, have become sources of inspiration. Greek drama, like opera, offers a wealth of memorable heroines, written (and originally performed) by men. Yet writers including McLaughlin are acutely aware of the ways that women are effectively silenced in many of the texts, whether because the story is told from the man’s point of view (Penelope in “The Odyssey”) or because the woman is literally muted (Iphigenia, sacrificed for the sake of a fair wind in “The Oresteia”). This silencing has become a starting point for many female writers looking to give these characters voices of their own. Margaret Atwood, for example, took Penelope’s point of view in “The Penelopiad,” commissioned as part of a series of novella-length myth retellings by Canongate in the early 2000s.
Literature also seems mercifully free of the idea, so prevalent among music-lovers and opera fans, that reinterpretation poses some kind of threat to the original text. You could say it’s because rewriting and retelling myths was part of the tradition of Greek epic and Greek drama, which spawned countless versions of the Trojan War saga, for instance, over the centuries. (Euripides’s “Helen” incorporates the wacky idea that Helen of Troy never made it to Troy at all, but was spirited off to Egypt while the gods replaced her in Troy with a simulacrum for everyone to fight over.) Yet classical music in the 18th and early 19th centuries was also a field of constant improvisation and borrowings — but it’s hardened, even atrophied, into the sequence of monolithic inviolable works we are presented with today. In music, textual fidelity is seen as some kind of inherent artistic good — even though some of the most interesting and lively performances result from engaging more actively and creatively with the material.
In literature, however, new books and plays are generally received as an enrichment of tradition, rather than a countervention of it. Anne Carson has become a literary star with her quirky approach to retooling stories and text fragments — starting with the bits of Sappho’s poetry that still exist — into distinctive new works.
Wilson has encountered some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of translation — partly because of, she thinks, the introduction and translator’s note included in the book. “I want to make the process of translation visible,” she says, “engage people in thinking about the choices I made. But it’s dangerous because people think, ‘Oh, she made choices; that’s not legitimate.’ ” Many evidently don’t understand that every translation is an act of interpretation. This, at least, is an area in which music does a little better: understanding what’s involved in interpretation, and how each one is different.
One reason there’s less tut-tutting about new tellings of Greek myths than to, say, reinterpretations of Beethoven may be that there’s a greater divide between classical scholars and creative writers than there is between musicologists and musicians. Although a few noted writers, such as Carson and Wilson, are also classics professors, classical scholars may still tend to regard all of this literary activity not only as slightly less serious than what they’re doing, but as existing in a different realm entirely. Musicology and musical performance are more closely linked — musicians often work with musicologists to refine and unveil new critical editions of composers’ scores, for instance. This may well contribute to the current emphasis on textual fidelity — which is effectively prioritized, in many cases, over the things people actually want and need to say.
All too prevalent in both fields is the idea that because we need more women’s voices, women are writing in response to that need. Creativity tends to be born of much more personal responses. “I don’t think people are turning back to the past to correct the scholarly record,” Wilson says. “It’s about connecting with our culture in a broader way.” She certainly didn’t set out to translate “The Odyssey” because she thought a woman needed to do it.
She also offers a reminder that the ancient world was less white and less Western than we may often remember.
“The narrative that ‘We need these stories because they justify our narratives about ourselves, we’ve always been powerful white people at the edge of Europe,’ that’s a really bogus, ahistorical narrative,” she says. “Part of the attraction of the ancient world in general, which includes the ancient Near East, ancient China, ancient Greece, involves these very distant cultures which at the same time have these recognizable human forms of storytelling accessible to us through art that survives. The remaking of these ancient myths to show that they’re telling stories very different from our stories and at the same time stories that we need to tell now.”
There’s another key difference between music and literature: For most people, music exists in performance, while literature exists on the page. This difference was illuminated in Katie Mitchell’s production of “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” which ended up obfuscating a text that, while dense, remains eminently elegant. In performance, despite two strong actors — Ben Whishaw, transforming himself into Monroe, and Renée Fleming, playing a dowdy secretary and making supportive musical sounds that hovered at the edge of speech — there was a constant and no doubt intentional sense of trying to reach past the obstacles to make out what was meant.
Between her creative treatment of Euripedes’s crazy play and her short exegeses on individual Greek words and their meanings — “image,” “slavery,” “barbarian” — Carson compressed pithily, into an hour-long performance, a tome’s worth of thoughts on translation and adaptation, women and their role in myth, the uneasy interference patterns that result from overlaying past and present. The play, it turns out, is all about women dealing with the canon and its challenges. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising, for all the progress that we’ve made, that very few people seemed to get it.