Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Trojan Women by Euripides.

Cassandra
by Evelyn de Morgan (1898).
Since April of this year I've been focusing on the plays of Euripides and I've now reached the tenth (out of nineteen) - The Trojan Women (Τρῳάδες) which was first performed in 415 B.C. This is now one of my favourites.

It's set in the aftermath of the Trojan War and focuses on three women - Cassandra, Hecuba, and Andromache, all of whom are familiar characters for me: Cassandra was the enslaved lover of Agamemnon, both of whom were killed by Agamemnon's wife Clytaemnestra (as told in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, 458 B.C.), Hecuba was the wife of Priam whose sons were all killed in the Trojan War, and too the mother of Polyxena, her daughter who was sacrificed (told in Hecuba by Euripides, 424 B.C.) and Cassandra, and finally Andromache, the wife of Hector (killed by Achilles) who was enslaved by Neoptolemus (told in Andromache by Euripides, 428 - 425 B.C. and also Racine's Andromaque, 1667, which I'm planning on reading very soon). In Euripides' The Trojan Women he begins immediately after the Fall of Troy (just two days after), described by Poseidon (who had helped build the walls of Troy) and Athena who is furious after Ajax the Lesser (not to be confused with the famous Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War who later killed himself, as told in Sophocles' Ajax, 450 - 4350 B.C.) dragged Cassandra from Athena's temple, possibly raping her, without punishment, an insult to Athena who had been instrumental in the winning of the Trojan War. They decide to punish the Greeks by destroying the fleet on their way home.

The play switches to the Trojan women, firstly Hecuba who is told she is to be the slave of Odysseus and her daughter Cassandra to be the concubine of Agamemnon. Cassandra, whose stability has been greatly undermined with the stress of the situation, foresees her own death at the hand of Clytaemnestra. Finally Andromache, the wife of Hecuba's son Hector, is to be the concubine of Neoptolemus, and she prays she may be allowed to keep her son Astyanax. She is told by the Greek herald Talthybius however that Astyanax will be thrown from the wall of Troy for fear that he will grow up and seek to avenge his father's death, and she is further warned that if she curses the ships her son will not be buried. So, instead, she curses Helen as Hecuba did before her, blaming her for the war. 

Helen of Troy
by Evelyn de Morgan (1898).
There is no hope for the women: Hecuba will become the slave of Odysseus, Cassandra will be taken by Agamemnon and later murdered, and Andromache's baby is indeed killed. Helen is seen; her husband Menelaus plans to take her back to Greece and kill her but she begs for her life and claims she was bewitched by the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite), a claim which Hecuba warns Menelaus is false (the Greek audience knows, however, Menelaus will not ultimately kill her).

The ships begin to leave. Andromache had wished to bury her son but her ship had already sailed, and so it is left to Hecuba who, after the burial, attempts suicide but is stopped by the soldiers and she too sets sail for Greece. Cassandra has already been taken by this stage.

The Trojan Women is a brutal play that depicts the horrors of war, specifically the aftermath: even when the war is won, even after the deaths of many soldiers, the pain and the injustice continue. The Trojan women - Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen are all very different from each other (though Hecuba, Cassandra, and Andromache are all related either by blood or marriage) yet they each suffer. This is clearly not one of Euripides' patriotic plays, like The Suppliants (423 B.C.) or The Heracleidae (429 B.C.). It does feel a rather chaotic read, but that's very appropriate given its subject matter. I've read it's not a favourite of Euripides' fans for the perceived lack of cohesion but I thought it was an astonishingly forceful play and, as I said at the beginning, now one of my favourites, perhaps even usurping Medea! I look forward to reading it again!

And so I am now over half-way through reading Euripides' plays. What's left:
  • Iphigenia in Tauris (414 B.C.)
  • Ion (414 B.C.)
  • Helen (412 B.C.)
  • Phoenician Women (410 B.C.)
  • Orestes (408 B.C.)
  • Cyclops (408 B.C.)
  • Bacchae (405 B.C.)
  • Iphigenia at Aulis (405 B.C.)
  • Rhesus (date unknown)

I'm most looking forward to Orestes because I love that myth and Bacchae as I've heard it said it's his absolute greatest. Next week however - Iphigenia in Tauris.

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge written in 1797 - 1798 and first published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and William Wordsworth. It's actually the first Coleridge poem I've read - I have somewhat of an aversion to the Romantic poets, not because I don't like them but because I can never seem to quite get to grips with them!

The poem, divided into seven parts, begins at a wedding reception. A young man is stopped by an old sailor, the ancient mariner, who begins to tell a young man his story, and in the beginning the young man doesn't actually want to hear it:
He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he. 
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will. 
The Mariner continues and tells him of how he sailed to the Antarctic, the journey initially appearing to be an easy passage turns dangerous as a storm arrives,
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.  
The ship struggles, but from the skies appears an Albatross (one of the largest sea birds with a wing span of 12 feet) -
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name. 
Nevertheless by the end of Part I, the Mariner kills the bird - "With my cross-bow / I shot the ALBATROSS". Part II sees the crew understandably furious with the Mariner, believing the bird had brought them good luck, and indeed the Mariner himself regrets it:
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow! 
But the weather stays fine and the Mariner is soon forgiven. However things take a turn for the worse, the weather in fact is so calm the ship is unable to move:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean. 
The sailors blame the Mariner, believing he has brought bad luck by killing the bird and so they make him wear it around his neck as penance - "Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung".

Their curse continues: the ship by another ship captained by Death and the "Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH":
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold. 
The deadly pair play dice for the men's souls: Death wins the men's souls and thus kills them, and 'Nightmare Life-in-Death' wins the Mariner.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one. 
Part IV sees the Mariner live this nightmare, surrounded by death and "the rotting sea". Eventually however the curse begins to lift and:
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea. 
The dead men rise and the ship begins to move again:
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew. 
He then tells the wedding guest the men had not come back to life but had been possessed by spirits, "a troop of spirits blest". In a daze the Mariner then hears two spirits discussing his fate, deciding "'The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do.'" Eventually the Mariner sees his homeland and a hermit who sees his ship approaching sails out to meet it. He climbs aboard the hermit's boat and the ship is sunk in a whirlpool. The boat reaches land and the Mariner, still cursed, leaves and is forced to wander alone telling people his tale. The wedding guest is left "A sadder and a wiser man".

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a strange tale indeed and though I enjoyed reading it I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. It has echoes of The Odyssey and the Aeneid, and it seems to warn or tell of violating nature's own laws and the inevitable retribution that will follow, as well as ideas of retribution, impulsiveness, guilt, and loneliness. And it has the hallmarks of the Romantics - the supernatural and the themes of nature. I really did love it, but it's a tough one!

That was my twenty-second title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - What Pleases the Ladies by Voltaire.


Friday, 27 May 2016

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.

Lark Rise to Candleford is a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson: Lark Rise was first published in 1939, Over the Candleford in 1941, and Candleford Green in 1943, and then the complete / combined edition in 1945. I liked it a lot, but I must admit it was a rather curious reading experience.

It begins with a portrait of rural life in the late 19th Century in the hamlet of Lark Rise, based upon Juniper Hill on  the Oxfordshire / Buckinghamshire border where Thompson grew up. Here she writes about rural poverty in the Home Counties but it is far from bleak - it's from a child's perspective, a child who knows no better or worse circumstances and who accepts the life and had learned to find the beauty and pleasure when and where it is available. It's a peaceful community and a time when life was in keeping with the changes of the season, a time which has now died out and, even in Thompson's day was on the decline (for this there's an air of Thomas Hardy in her writing; the early, less gloomy Hardy that is). There's always a promise in Lark Rise that Laura and her family may visit the neighbouring town Candleford (based on Bicester, again in Oxfordshire, and Buckingham, Brackley and Banbury in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire respectively), which they eventually do (after years of promises), and finally, as a young adult, Laura leaves the hamlet of Lark Rise and goes to live and work in the post office in Candleford Green, a small village based on Fringford.

Illustration by Helen Allingham for
Lark Rise to Candleford.
It is a nostalgic book, published during the Second World War when England faced not only the upheaval of the war but the great social change associated with it. The late 19th century when Queen Victoria reigned represented a period of stability which had begun to noticeably fracture. Flora Thompson closely observes these details of country life and weaves them into her fictional account, but it doesn't read like a traditional novel, more of a description of a way of life and of growing up which she writes about beautifully, almost like an odyssey, her literal passage with her brother, her walk from Lark Rise to Candleford. It yearns for simpler times in her childhood and young adulthood; Flora's brother Edwin (her favourite brother) was killed near Ypres in 1916. But the same time the difficulties she and her family faced in such impoverished circumstances is not shied away from.

It's a beautiful book, sweet at times, great characters, and wonderfully detailed: her powers of observation and memory are keen and we learn not only about Flora Thompson but the ways, the life, the rituals and celebrations of a time gone by. I loved reading it once I'd settled into it's rather curious style. 

*******
Further Reading

Thursday, 26 May 2016

La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret by Émile Zola.

The Swedish front cover of Ábbe Mouret's
Felsteg
(La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret) by Émile Zola,

designed by Arthur Sjögren and published by
Fröléen & Co. (1911).
La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, known also as The Sin of Abbé Mouret and Abbé Mouret's Transgression, is the fifth novel in Émile Zola's 'Rougon Macquart' series (following The Conquest of Plassans) and was first published in 1875.

Zola's two main intentions for each of the Rougon Macquart novels was to write about each of the Rougon Macquart family and to write about that character in the context of the Second French Empire (1852 - 1870). In La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret Zola writes about Serge Mouret, whose family tree is a little complicated: he is the son of François and Marthe Mouret (cousins who married - François is the son of Ursule Mouret, daughter of Macquart and Adélaïde Rougon, and Marthe is the daughter of Pierre and Félicité Rougon; Pierre is the son of Rougon and Adélaïde Rougon). Serge was first introduced in The Conquest of Plassans as a minor character and he is the brother of Octave Mouret (the main character of Pot Luck, 1882, and The Ladies' Paradise, 1883) and Désirée Mouret (who, again, we first met in The Conquest of Plassans). The novel is set in around 1866 (largely in the month of May, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary), about the same time as The Ladies' Paradise (and Money come to that, but let's not further complicate matters!).

That was a rather complicated introduction! I do apologise, but when one of Zola's intentions was to write about the laws of heredity it is, for the overall context of his Rougon Macquart novels, important to have a little background. His words, in the preface of The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), were -
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. 
This is one of the things he does, and the other, to write about Catholicism both as a general concept and within the Second French Empire. He wrote in 1868 his plans for this novel -
I shall address... the great struggle between nature and religion. The love-smitten priest has never, I believe, been studied humanly, There's a great dramatic subject there, especially if one gave heredity influences full play.
A cartoon of Émile Zola by Albert Robida for
la Vie Parisienne (August 1888).
Serge Mouret, the "love-smitten priest", at the end of The Conquest of Plassans has taken his orders and become a priest, and at the beginning of La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret we see him in the small village of Artauds which is largely uninterested in religion, and we see a very enthusiastic sermon preached to an almost empty church interrupted in the end by his sister Désirée celebrating some newly-hatched chicks. He later meets his uncle Pascal Rougon (who features in the final novel Doctor Pascal, 1893) and together they go to attend Jeanbernat who, the night before, had a stroke. There Serge meets his daughter Albine, with whom Serge will soon have an affair.

It is, as Zola wrote in his notes,
The story of a man neutered by his early education who recovers his manhood at twenty-five through the solicitations of nature but fatally sinks back into an impotent state.
The Catholic Church is portrayed at an unnatural and unhealthy institution; Albine, its opposite and indeed nemesis, represents a natural almost wild and pagan state. By straying or rejecting the doctrine of Catholicism Serge is able to live a healthy life. As a contrast with the physical church building there is the garden where Albine and Serge conduct their affair, full of flowers and animals, a wild and natural state in which they unwittingly act out the Garden of Eden myth, Serge as Adam and Albine as Eve. Another contrast is with Serge is with his brother Octave: Frederick Brown writes in his Zola: A Life (1995) that both Zola and Paul Cézanne were very impressed by the myth of Hercules at a crossroads trying to decide whether to follow the path of virtue or pleasure (told in  Xenophon's Memorabilia (4th Century B.C.). Octave chooses pleasure, and ultimately Serge chooses virtue.

I think La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret is one of Zola's greatest works, certainly one of his greatest earlier works. I read the translation by Vizetelly and usually don't shy off denouncing his translations, but in this instance I really did enjoy it. Even so Zola scholars do warn that it is full of errors and omissions (both generally and within Abbé Mouret's Transgression). It is "intoxicating" (as Hippolyte Taine wrote), full of mysticism, religious and pagan imagery, and a stunning description of flowers and their scent. Underneath it all it is a unabashed criticism of Catholicism where Serge Mouret must decide between nature and religion.

John Collier's painting (1895) inspired by Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret. For more information on the painting,
which contains spoilers for Zola's novel, click here.
*******
Further Reading

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger (and a note on Betsy Baker).

1904 edition of A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

It's a long-term goal of mine to read more English Renaissance plays. So far I've read The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker (1599), A Woman Killed With Kindness by Thomas Heywood (1603), two Christopher Marlowe plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage (1586) and Edward II (1592), Kynge Johan by John Bale (1561) and now A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger (1625).

Philip Massinger was an English dramatist born in Wiltshire in 1583-84 and eventually making his way to London in around 1606 having left Oxford University without a degree (presumably because his father died in 1603 and he was without financial assistance). Little is known about these early days, but it's thought he was in prison in 1613 for debt and bailed out by Philip Henslowe, who he later described as "a true, loving friend". Massinger's first play was a collaboration with John Fletcher - Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1619) and his first solo play was The Maid of Honour (1621). A New Way to Pay Old Debts came four years and seven plays later. As for his other plays - now, here's a story (which would make a rather good play in itself): there was a man called John Warburton who (in the 18th Century) enjoyed collecting old books and manuscripts. Problem was he was a careless chap and amassed many of them in his kitchen. One day he went to his kitchen to retrieve the manuscripts and discovered his cook, Betsy Baker, had used them all for lighting fires and lining baking tins. Over a dozen Massinger plays were lost, a Marlowe play too (The Maiden's Holiday), two Shakespeares (Duke Humphrey and Henry I), Greene, Davenport, Rowley, Dekker... some of the biggest names of English Renaissance Drama, in short and at least fifty manuscripts of this period were lost (a complete list can be found here). Warburton said of the travesty,
After I had been many years collecting these manuscript plays, through my own carelessness and the ignorance of my servant, in whose hands I lodged them, they was unluckily burnt or put under pie bottoms.
Only three plays survived: The Second Maiden's Tragedy (George Chapman or Thomas Middleton), The Queen of Corsica by Francis Jaques, and The Bugbears by John Jeffere.

Portrait of Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach (1818).
Back to A New Way to Pay Old Debts: it is set in rural Nottinghamshire and concerns the misfortunes of Frank Welborn who, at the beginning of the play, is forcibly ejected from his local tavern by the host and hostess Tapwell and Froth. Tom Allworth arrives during the argument between the three, and we learn that both Allworth and Welborn are victims of one of the greatest villains of all time (after Betsy Baker, I mean) - the avariocious Sir Giles Overreach, a "cruel extortioner" as he is described in the dramatis personae, and his men Jack Marall and Justice Greedy. To him Welborn has lost his estate and Allworth has been forced to work as a page to Lord Lovell. His mother, however (a widow) has retained her country home and is frequently visited by suitors including Overreach. Welborn visits her and asks a favour, reminding her of his friendship with his late husband. She consents to this favour (said in a whisper - all we know at this point is that it is not a request for a loan; we later learn it is simply to be received into her company as a gentleman) and he leaves.

Meanwhile Overreach has plans to marry off his daughter Margaret to Lord Lovell, however she is in love with Allworth (Lovell is aware of his and has promised to assist the lovers), and, to complicate things, Overreach has seen Welborn leave the company of Lady Allworth and assumes he is her suitor. Were he to marry Lady Allworth, Overreach would, he believes, he able to extort even more money out of him, and so, to help him in his 'quest' he gives Welborn £1,000. Marall, a contractor and one of Overreach's associates, sees this so-called impending marriage in a different light and decides he would be much better off being friends with Welborn over Overreach so he drops Overreach.

When it is revealed that Margaret and Allworth have married (through tricking her father into supplying a note of consent to the clergyman) Overreach flies into a rage, and he demands that Welborn return the £1,000. Welborn, now with the great advantage of not only having the aforementioned sum but also Marall as an ally, refuses and demands all his land back. Overreach eventually goes mad and is institutionalised, Lady Allworth and Lord Lovell marry, and they all agree to return use the money from Overreach's estate to make reparations to all of his former victims.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts is good fun, not easy but then Renaissance Comedy is my nemesis, but it does have an edge of seriousness to it in Massinger's absolute hatred of the likes of Overreach and his ilk. Overreach himself was said to be based on Giles Mompesson, a member of parliament and fellow-Wiltshire man, who was imprisoned for corruption around the time Massinger wrote his play. Sir Giles Overreach was, at the time, a remarkable character - not a corrupt king or cruel god, but a man who could cross paths with us at any given time, with some of his chilling observations such as,
... 'tis enough I keep
Greedy [his associate] at my devotion: so he serve
My purposes, let him hang or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.
This is one of the many reasons why he was regarded as one of the greatest villains in literature.

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