Trying to take a mythical, long view

Titian Europa
Titian, The Rape of Europa (1562)

Like the rape of Helen by Paris, this is an act of sexual coercion with historically portentous consequences: Europa’s rape will literally give rise to Europe. From her union with Jupiter, Minos will be born, and the most ancient of European civilizations on the island of Crete. Her brother Cadmus, the inventor of writing, will search for her, and found the great ancient city of Thebes. The painting records no less than the birth of civilization.
(Stephen J. Campbell)

I am reflecting on the result of the EU referendum. Whatever the motives of the individuals who voted to leave the EU (and I don’t share the view of some on the left that the “leave” vote will deliver opportunities to chip away at the global neoliberal hegemony), the rhetoric of the official campaign unapologetically exploited a spectrum from xenophobia to racism. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I want to start washing that out with some thoughts about myth and the British mind.

The “natural” [English-language] national myth ought to have been Arthurian – as Malory, Milton, Tennyson or T. H. White variously supposed. Did, for Britain, the major Christian legends and typologies not lie to hand as they did on the Continent of Europe? What Faustus after Marlowe in English literature is there to be set beside Valéry’s or Bulgakov’s or Thomas Mann’s? What Don Juan except Byron’s? No, it is to Achilles and Odysseus, to the “topless towers of Ilium” and the shores of Ithaka, it is to “deep-browed Homer” that English-language sensibility turns and returns, incessantly, as if striving to appropriate to itself, to the native genius, material already, by some destined or elective affinity, its own.
(George Steiner, ‘Homer in English’)

Steiner notes the same lack of a native mythology that Tolkien wanted to address, but if we have appropriated the Greek, do we need another? (England, of course, never embraced the Celts.) Our mythology is Greek, our early literature is Scandinavian, and our longest-established religion is from the Eastern Mediterranean. But it seems this cultural openness has always been accompanied by suspicion, see Horace, who, in the first century BC, described Britons as hostile to strangers (Ode 3.4, a trait recently discussed by Edith Hall). This mind-body dualism finds its political analogue in the forty-eight/fifty-two per cent split of the referendum vote.

One of the uses of myth is to shore up social or national identity, and the global mythology of our literature is countered by the folk figures of John Bull, Britannia, and a recently deified Churchill. But these figures seem fixed in the public imagination: unlike mythical beings, their stories do not admit change and metamorphosis. Marina Warner surveyed the development of Britannia as a national figure and finds a peculiar, and still recognizable paradox in James Thomson’s ‘Rule Britannia!’: ‘The rhetoric exposes the tension between the Britannia who upholds the freedom of democracy […] and the Britannia who herself brings nations under subjection’ (Monuments and Maidens, 46).

But a living mythology should not be stuck and backward-looking, it should ease transition. In fifth-century Athens, Aeschylus had Orestes speak a charter for a new political arrangement: pledging the military assistance of Argos alongside Athens (Eumenides, 762-77). It’s a pledge of union, of unity after monstrous bloodshed. Alas, like the EU, the union is destructively imperfect: if the ideal of the EU is, in part at least, to keep peace within the union, the Oresteian parallel of plenty of war beyond the borders (Eumenides 858-66) is also revoltingly apposite.

In seeking the strength to combat fascist propaganda, why not look to the apocalypse? (apokaluptein is, literally, ‘to uncover’.) Myths of the apocalypse invariably culminate in a rebirth, reminding us of the circularity of existence. What seems dismal now is not eternal. This is the aftermath of Ragnarök (in a rather selective translation from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, by C. Fee and D. A. Leeming):

The earth will rise from the deeps again one day, green and blossoming, and crops will flourish where none were planted. A new sun will take the place of her mother, and a number of gods will return to the ancient ruins of Asgard, led now by Baldr. Lif and Lifthrasir will survive to renew the race of men: they will have hidden themselves securely in Yggdrasill’s embrace, and the fire of Surt will not scorch them: they will survive on the morning dew, and keep watch through the branches above them for the new sun rising. And thus, through its death, the world will be born again.

 

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Tony Harrison’s Oresteia

The Oresteia (Tony Harrison), BFI, 23 June 2012

This was a showing of the television recording of Tony Harrison’s famous Oresteia, directed by Peter Hall for the National Theatre in 1981, with music by Harrison Birtwistle. It was broadcast in its entirety on Channel 4 (UK) one Sunday evening in 1983. Take a moment to imagine that. My comments are interspersed with the recording as available on YouTube.

 

Agamemnon part 1

 

Agamemnon part 2

 

The Chorus’s masks are essentially identical, so at once the sense of collectivity predominates over individual psychology. One exception to the effacement of the individual is apparent to the modern viewer, as Tony Robinson’s Baldrick voice occasionally marks his lines out from the Chorus. Throughout the trilogy, in the close ups, it is clear that the actors’ lip movements behind the masks were rarely synchronised with the soundtrack. The film was assembled from three different performances, and it would seem that they kept a single soundtrack and matched the visuals separately. This was no distraction; I found that the Chorus members’ gesticulations, and the different angles of viewing the masks gave a surprising variety of expression in such static pieces. The camera also very effectively responded to Harrison Birtwistle’s score, often cutting to the rhythm.

Philip Donaghy’s Clytemnestra was certainly the most thrilling part: her scene with Agamemnon is a particularly gripping portrayal of shifting power dynamics. She is, of course, the only character to appear across all three plays, and in the first two is accompanied by a sinister leitmotif when she appears at the palace doors: when I noticed the repetition of this in Choephori, I was pathetically delighted. Although Donaghy’s voice was hardly feminine, he found a way to present Clytemnestra that I found totally convincing; at other times, however, the all-male cast’s playing of female characters could be incongruous. John Normington as Cassandra, though, hissed the traumatised and mantic words otototoi popoi da to great effect.

One thing that struck me particularly, especially after the previous week’s Agamemnon at the BFI (see below), was the Chorus’s uncertainty after Agamemnon’s death: this did not appear funny at all here. Harrison’s rhyming couplets gave the scene a pace which spoke of confusion, disarray, and perhaps impotent paralysis in the face of intimidation. And then Clytemnestra appears at the door once more with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.

 

Choephori

At the BFI presentation, there were two short intervals to separate the plays, and I’m not sure what has happened to my memory of the second play: perhaps because the first half of it is so static — a lot of talk between Orestes, Electra and the Chorus — it is easily overpowered by the other two.

 

Eumenides

So, the Eumenides: the Erinyes themselves surprised me: they were not at all horrifying, but immaculately white-faced, red-haired, black-clad punks. There was something quite attractive about them, with their hairy, blokeish legs. For the only time in the whole trilogy, did the male cast slip into what could be regarded as parodic female voices, when they chanted ‘Night! Night! Mother Night!’

At the temple of Athena (doubling as the Areopagus, site of the concluding court scene), there was both Athena’s statue, and then Athena herself. Her statue was huge and geometric, and Athena’s own costume designed along the same lines. The strange female-male position of Athena was signalled by the combination of her warrior’s garb and the stylised indication of breasts on her breastplate, like a Dalek.

There were a few chuckles in the NFT audience when the Erinyes began to accept Athena’s terms for peaceful incorporation into Athenian life: ‘What kind of shrine did you say I’d possess?’ It underscores the difficulty of presenting the conversion from pure spirits of vengeance to kindly, yet malevolent protectors of the city-state. Harrison and Hall’s conclusion redeemed any doubts. Athena’s processional escort covered the Erinyes’ fish-net outfits with noble red robes, and then turned to the National Theatre’s 1980s audience, telling them, ‘Stand and be silent while the Kind Ones pass’, before they made their way up the aisle. Sitting a little further away in space and time (from the NT in 1981 to the NFT in 2012), this was appropriately moving, especially after more than four hours in dark auditorium.