Friday, February 11, 2011

Listening to Penelope

Penelope "may be the best thing to happen to Homer since Joyce."
—George Wallace

It moves like a live thing in his hands
The story, his story
Bloody and sacred, truth and lie
—Ellen McLaughlin

A few years ago, a series of little novels started to appear, preceded by a book of introduction called A Short History of Myth.  The first novel in the series was The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood’s premise, “to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids,” was promising.

In Homer’s version, Odysseus, after dispatching the suitors who’d made themselves at home in his hall, commanded his son Telemachus:
And once you’ve put the entire house in order,
march the women out of the great hall—between
the roundhouse and the courtyard’s strong stockade—
and hack them with your swords, slash out all their lives—
blot out of their minds the joys of love they relished
under the suitors’ bodies, rutting on the sly!
In an act of ostensible mercy not explained, the errant maids were merely hanged:
Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets—flying in
for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them—
so the women’s heads were trapped in a line,
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one
so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death . . .
they kicked up heels for a  little—not for long.
It’s too bad Atwood’s approach didn’t work.  She did offer up some beautiful lines for the maids:
We were animal young, to be disposed of at
Sold, drowned in the well, traded, used,
  discarded when bloomless.
He was fathered; we simply appeared,
Like the crocus, the rose, the sparrows
  engendered in mud.
But Penelope’s tone at times seemed glib, as if lifted out of a book by Nora Ephron.  Consider this, in the chapter “Asphodel”:
There are of course the fields of asphodel.  You can walk around in them if you want.  It’s brighter there, and a certain amount of vapid dancing goes on, though the region sounds better than it is . . .
The central problem with Atwood’s novel was a conflict in tone that didn’t cease to jar.  Not that Atwood needed to choose between the maids’ and Penelope’s voices, but rather that the voices chosen didn’t work in the same version of the tale.

Over the course of literature, many efforts have been made to tell a protagonist’s story from the distaff or an antagonist’s point of view.  A tally of these attempts would likely yield more failures than successes, as it takes an exceptionally skilled and imaginative hand to honor and at the same time break free of the original work.

In the category of successes, I think of Anne Carson’s magical Autobiography of Red, but then, she’s certainly a special case.  This past October, I had the chance not only to see Anne Carson, but to listen to her, live.  Or rather, to listen to several people read a play about her reclusive Uncle Harry, who, she once described, lived “in the woods in northern Ontario wearing the same underwear all winter.”  (There was a reason:  “It was too cold to take it off.”)

The readers of Uncle Harry included a chorus of four Gertrude Steins.  (Before the reading, the four Steins sat at the table to test the microphones.  They recited lines of poetry, chanted nonsense syllables, or simply made random noise.  I was sorry I hadn’t the presence of mind to record it:  a marvelous web of sound floated out across the room, reminiscent of one of Derek Piotr's fascinating sound compositions.)

Carson wasn’t the main reader, but one of the four Gertrude Steins.  She wore a leather jacket, jeans, red cowboy boots, and a large red patterned tie.  The performance also included two people standing in the background folding sheets.

In lesser hands this might have come off as mannered, downright peculiar, or both.  In Carson’s hands, though, we were transported to the land of Uncle Harry:
Up at his end of the table, Harry sat peacefully lining up peas on his knife.  He filled the length of the blade with single file peas and raised it to his open mouth and shot it with a motion like a sword swallower.  Never a pea was spilled.
Though Carson would be uniquely suited to do so, she hasn’t yet given us a Penelope.  Perhaps one day she might.

Happily, we need not wait for Carson’s rendering, for there is another, and, unlike Atwood’s, this one works.  While Ellen McLaughlin’s text for her Penelope has its roots in The Odyssey, she takes us somewhere wholly new.

McLaughlin is both a playwright and an actress, best known for originating the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.  In his foreword to McLaughlin’s book, The Greek Plays,  Kushner reveals that McLaughlin’s “completely original works” have “had a tough time on contemporary American stages.”
It’s difficult for a playwright to keep writing without a welcome.  Finding a less-than-warm welcome for her writer’s voice, Ellen has flirted with silence, with leaving the stage as a writer . . . . Fortunately, for nearly a decade now, the playwright has resisted the temptation to fall silent; instead, she has enlarged and refreshed her writer’s voice by turning to the Greeks.
McLaughlin is sometimes seen to let her ideology overtake her prose, so that the result is didactic, rather than resonant.  I expected, therefore, that The Persians, which she wrote in “direct response to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003,” would fall prey to that, but it did not.

It’s essential, in good writing, for the power to come from the prose, not the point of view.  This McLaughlin achieves again and again, most particularly when she writes of the pain of those left behind.
Here a curtain is pulled back
And a pale face appears at a window.
Wife or mother
She looks once again, she can’t help it,
At the bend in the road where she last lost sight of him.
She knows she won’t see him there, rounding that curve,
His shoulders tilted at that familiar angle,
His gait unique, his alone.
Once again, he is not there.
These words are McLaughlin’s rendering of Aeschylus’s text, but in the song-cycle Penelope, McLaughlin achieves power in words that are hers alone.

The story told in McLaughlin’s Penelope is this:
a woman’s husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage.  A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn’t know who he is and she doesn’t know who he’s become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband’s memory and the terror and trauma of war.
The plain-spoken lyricism of McLaughlin’s text, its cadences and repetitions, demand to be sung, as in these lines from “Home”:
Home is where I’m going, but never coming.
Home is someplace I can’t recall,
but head for still.
Across the waste of water I search for her:
Dear blue land,
show your blessed curve,
so tiny and only mine.

No, no you can’t go home, she says, the world,
where do you think you’re going?
We’re not done with you.
No, no, you can’t go home, she says, the world,
where do you think you’re going?
We’re not done with you.
The world is never done with you.
The composer, Sarah Kirkland Snider, invests the lyrics with a waterborne motion, hypnotic in its effect.  With her lovely, dusky alto, Shara Worden, accompanied with graceful precision by the ensemble Signal, transports McLaughlin’s words into another realm:  they sink, waver, shudder, or soar, as their meaning requires.

Many before me have spoken with eloquence about this spell-binding work.  I commend to you particularly George Wallace at a fool in the forest and Jennifer Hambrick at Classical 101 FM.  I can only add my voice to theirs in encouraging you to listen, just listen, to Penelope

See a trailer for Penelope, and hear from McLaughlin, Worden, and Snider here:

Penelope, trailer from New Amsterdam Records on Vimeo.

Listen to “The Lotus-Eaters” here:

Penelope - The Lotus Eaters from New Amsterdam Records on Vimeo.

Penelope can be found at the redoubtable New Amsterdam records, and I'll take this as an opportunity to extend applause to Lawson White, who had so much to do with the sound of this and other New Amsterdam recordings.

If you’re in New York City this spring, there will be opportunities to hear excerpts from Penelope live:

Ecstatic Music Festival, March 16, 2011, Merkin Concert Hall

21c Liederabend Festival, April 9, 2011, The Kitchen

For those of you who could not get to the Ecstatic Music Festival concert (or even if you made it there, as once is not enough!), here is the audio, courtesy of WQXR's wonderful Q2 internet radio:

The quotations are from the works linked in the post. 

Photos:  Terracotta plaque (Odysseus taking hold of the wrist of dejected Penelope upon his return, Greek Melian, 450 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Ann Raia, 2006, courtesy of VRoma.  Anne Carson still from a video of excerpts of the October 6, 2010, reading at The Poetry Project.  No credit could be found for the photograph of Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel.  Sarah Kirkland Snider and Shara Worden by Murat Eyuboglu, who also created The Lotus Eaters video.  Penelope cover design by DM Stith.


  1. You're lucky to have seen the Anne Carson performance. Wish I had been there.

  2. Dear Raining Acorns,
    that is very interesting to read! And I will look up Atwood - or maybe I shouldn't.
    A very successful re-writing from another perspective is - in my eyes - Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea" (the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad wife in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre). Most others, as e.g. Tom Holt's imitation of E.F.Benson's Lucia novels, I do not like

  3. As I listened to Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope, I wondered who may have been her inspirations. At the end of the clip, I believe it is Shara Worden that mentions Samuel Barber. Whether or not SKS was motivated by his work, I would concur that it would be along his lines. By no means am I an expert in this area of music, but I do recall to this day the first time I heard and thereafter remembered a piece by Barber, that being Adagio for Strings, on the radio. Later I recognized the piece to be part of the soundtrack for Platoon. I am thrilled to be introduced to Sarah Kirkland Snider as well as the voice of Shara Worden and am motivated to hear more of Penelope. I am interested to know where you consistently find such eloquent artists and authors…outstanding that you went to see Anne Carson!

  4. You are talking to me like a person from another planet.
    American/Canadian writing, music, theatre are developing along amazingly different routes. Apart from Atwood who is read here, I hardly know of the other artists you mention.

    Which is a great pity because you are making my mouth water with this excellent article and I would dearly love to experience these riches.

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments about my lastest piece of work. Yes, the time runs out, leaving little time for visiting others at their blogs. It is always a pleasure to find you have visited, glad you enjoy my posts.Thank you for your time.

  6. Dear Raining Acorns,
    today I read in the Berliner Zeitung, that the BBVA-Foundation gave Helmut Lachenmann the 400000 Euro prize 'Frontiers of Knowledge and Culture Awards 2011' for contemporary music. Thanks to your informative articles I knew who was spoken of!

  7. Thank you all for the great comments!

    Mark: I HAD to find a way to slip that into a post (along with Derek Piotr, by the by). I did indeed feel very lucky to be able to attend.

    Britta: I say with shame face that I haven’t read "Wide Sargasso Sea," though I am aware it’s in the “success” column on this front. It's among my books somewhere, calling out to me right now! As for Atwood, she is an excellent writer, though this book just didn’t work (for me). I think the place to start with her work might be “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And as for Lachenmann! I probably never would have uncovered that news without your alert. Thank you for that.

    JMS: Very glad you’re enjoying Penelope. You’re right, it’s interesting to think about Worden’s comment about Barber in relation to it. I know you’ve now found the treasure trove at New Amsterdam Records—have fun with that, and I hope you enjoy listening to janus, too!

    Friko: It is quite interesting what is known/not known from country to country. In writing the minimalism post, I was particularly struck by this. (On the one hand, Reich, Riley, Glass; on the other Pärt, Tavener (of whom you reminded me—my The Sixteen CDs are on the way as I write!—Górecki.) Continued widening of one’s horizons is one of the many reasons it’s so fine to have made connection with you and others “across the pond.”

    Milly: Always nice to hear from you, and to see your beautiful work.

  8. I'm very fond of MA's Penelopiad. Yes, it's a bit glib at times, but the very premise of the hanged maidservants is a strong one. And she always leaves me wanting more in terms of style and pith from other writers - Hilary Mantel and even Martin Amis honourably excepted.

  9. David: Thank you for writing and sticking up for Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad. I do agree that the premise was a strong one--and, as I think on what you've written, not many writers would have gone that route, so she is certainly to be applauded for having done so! Hilary Mantel is indeed a wonderful writer, as you note--Wolf Hall stands as one of my favorite reads.


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