No future in Athens’ dreaming: the discourse of kingship ancient and modern

The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, released in 1977 as commentary on the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, offered a powerful warning of the dangers of political nostalgia. The message was reinforced by Jamie Reid’s powerful image of a familiar portrait of the queen with her features obliterated by the ransom-note rendering of the song title and group name.

God save the queen

We mean it man

There’s no future

In England’s dreaming

The song’s lyrics assess the consequences of monarchy as an element of the political imaginary, the shared ideas and images with which a community thinks about its political institutions and practices, the queen isn’t a ‘human being’ but is nonetheless loved (see music and culture website Louder than War for a detailed analysis).

'God Save the Queen' single sleeve
‘God Save the Queen’ single sleeve from 1977, designed by Jamie Reid.

As Jon Savage showed in his cultural history of the punk years, England’s Dreaming, nostalgia for an imaginary past was part of the culture of English decline to which punk’s ideology emerged as a response; when England dreams, it looks to the past. Savage opens his survey of punk with the observation that ‘first we need the location, the vacant space where, like the buddleia on the still plentiful bombsites, these flowers can bloom’.

In identifying this void, Savage tapped into a broader critique of democratic culture. The problem of sovereignty for republican democracy is that there is no figurehead. But even in a democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the institution of monarchy operates as much as part of the political imaginary as it does as a real institution. Witness, for example, speculation about the queen’s feelings about Brexit and parliament, as in this Guardian article about her blue and yellow hat.

Classical Athens handled the problem of the democratic void in a distinctive way, as cultural historians have shown. In the same year as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols released their single, the French ancient historian Nicole Loraux completed her doctoral thesis, ‘Athènes imaginaire. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre athénienne et de sa fonction dans la cité classique’, which would be published in book form a few years later as The Invention of Athens, and which remains one of the most powerful explorations of the democratic Athenian political imaginary. The synchronism is not coincidental – this was a time when cultural theorists drew on new insights to explore societies ancient and modern. Loraux’s exploration of Athens was focused on a specific location – the public funeral speeches held to commemorate the war dead – in which Athenian politicians shaped the city’s political imaginary.

But location within Athens where some of the most visible work was done, as Cornelius Castoriadis, theorist of the political imaginary, noted, was the tragic stage. Athenian tragedy peoples the political imaginary and fills the democratic void, the lack of an identifiable individual holder of sovereignty. The citizens perform their politeia to themselves and the wider audience, but the Athens on stage is quite different from the Athens of the present. Athenian tragedy thus presents an intriguing anachronism, in the figure of the democratic king, who personifies Athenian virtues in his speech and actions. The Athenians’ self-image revolved around their support for those who asked for help, and tragedies such as Euripides’ Suppliant Women and Children of Heracles show Athenian kings, Theseus and Demophon, delivering that in person.

However, the figure of the tragic king is not entirely politically innocent. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written during the final stages of the Peloponnesian War when Athenian democracy was severely weakened, shows Athens at the point when it was newly united into a single political entity, with Theseus as its king. The citizens of Colonus are unsure of how to operate in this new environment, or how they should receive the problematic suppliant Oedipus. It falls to the king to assert the wishes of the unified centre, receive the suppliant and ensure the divine favour his cult will bring to the city. But, as the recent production of this play as the 2019 Cambridge Greek Play showed, the articulation of Theseus to the democracy is not entirely explicit in Sophocles’ play. This production opted to set the intricacies of Athenian political debate to one side, and to focus on the powerful story of Oedipus’ rejection of Thebes and of the successors fighting for control of it. Oedipus’ grant of support to Theseus and his successors asserts a continuity of Athenian rule from the king himself to the democratic archons who performed the religious role of the king in the democracy of Sophocles’ time.

Theseus (on the right, posed like a tyrannicide) and the Crommyonian Sow (on the left): red-figure vase painting
Theseus and the Crommyonian Sow: detail from a red-figured kylix showing the deeds of Theseus, attributed to the Codrus Painter, c 440-30 BCE, British Museum.

In The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece, I explore the developing role of the image of the king in critical discussions of Athenian Democracy. Theseus was, in democratic Athens, as much of an iconographic presence as Queen Elizabeth II is in the contemporary United Kingdom. His statue appeared on temple pediments, his deeds were illustrated on temple friezes, as did paintings in public buildings. The labours he performed on behalf of the city were often depicted on painted pottery; he was often presented in similar clothing and poses to the tyrannicides, his clothing used to connect him to the iconography of democracy, rather like the queen’s hat. Like the Sex Pistols’ queen, Theseus could be a beloved monarch of Athens without being a human being, a living presence in the city. And Athenian nostalgia for the imaginary political past was often invoked and manipulated during times of civil strife, as is its contemporary British equivalent.

References

  • Atack, C. (2020) The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece (London: Routledge).
  • Castoriadis, C. (1987) [1975], The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Easterling, P.E. (1985), ‘Anachronism in Greek Tragedy’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 105, 1–10.
  • Lefort, C. (1988) [1986], Democracy and Political Theory, trans. D. Macey (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Loraux, N. (1986) [1981] The Invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city, trans. A. Sheridan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Savage, J. (1991) England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and punk rock (London: Faber).
  • Worley, M. (2017) No Future: punk, politics and British youth culture, 1976-1984 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

 

 

Performing ancient epic: Shikandi’s anachronistic revenge

Until the Lions

Roundhouse, London January 11-17

Akram Khan Company

screenshot 2019-01-17 11.58.46In my previous post, I considered how a recent performance of Memorial, Alice Oswald’s retelling of the Iliad, creatively negotiated dynamics of temporality and how it represented the suffering of those about whom the poem remains silent. This post takes a lateral step, considering these interleaving issues in light of a performance of Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015) a retelling of the ancient Indian epic. The poem is attributed to the sage Vyasa and tells the story of the world-shaking struggle between two branches of a single family. A narrative that dwells on and in violence, intimate and epic, the Mahabharata is thought to have such perlocutionary force that it is customarily kept out of Hindu households to ward off the possibility of inviting in such familial strife. Comparative study of the poetics of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) with Homeric epics is by no means a new scholarly activity. If one of the main advantages of reception studies is the ability to approach traditions critically, then comparison of the contemporary performance reception of these poetic traditions might be a way of circumventing the worst orientalist impulses that were historically part and parcel of the comparative method.

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Akram Khan has toured his soaring, visceral dance adaptation of Until the Lions around the world and brought it back to London for a limited run. Khan is one of the foremost choreographers and performers of his generation: he innovatively marries his early training in the classical north Indian Kathak tradition with the forms of contemporary choreography. His style is arresting and thrillingly kinetic. A raised stage intentionally recalled a cross-section of a felled tree with its concentric circles, across which Khan himself as Bheeshma, Ching-Yien Chien as Shikandi and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Amba work out this slice of the Mahabharata in the frequently non-mimetic idiom of contemporary dance. Unlike Brink productions’ of Memorial in which singers and performing chorus of hundreds were physically separate, here the three dancers and the five musicians interacted, telling the story together, whorling around the tree-trunk stage or using the stage as an enormous percussive instrument in its own right.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.32.05

 

A central observation for Nair and Oswald is that power operates at the core of ancient epic narrative. Moreover both writers share a concern with radically revising the structure of the epic poems in their creative responses. In this interview, Nair demurs from a direct comparison with Oswald, citing not only her lack of direct access to the Vedic Sanskrit (where Oswald could get inside the Homeric Greek) but also the difference in their creative methods. If Oswald seeks a kind of ‘poetic archaeology’, Nair insists that her retelling of the Mahabharata is a process of ‘refracting’ the ancient material. This difference of method emerges in the way that Oswald preserves the omniscience of the narrator, where Nair fractures the narrative into eighteen different voices. As Nair says in an interview with Tishani Doshi : “My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices.”

Khan deals with the anxiety about kaleidoscoping voice by choosing one narrative on which to focus: the story of Bheeshma and Amba. As Madhavi Menon reminds us (2018:117-9), this narrative tangles up desires multiple and celibate, temporalities elastic and ruptured. Bheeshma was a warrior who undertook a vow of celibacy (Bheeshma means ‘he of the terrible oath’) in return for which he was granted the boon of choosing the moment of his death. In the course of the war, he took Amba as a ‘spear won bride’ to give to a male relative, to use a euphemism straight out of the Homeric primer. On discovering that she was in love with someone else, Bheeshma attempted to release her back to her beloved but failed because Amba was now ‘soiled goods’ because of her contact with Bheeshma. Unwanted and unloved, Amba undertook severe penances and threatened to throw the whole cosmic order into disarray with her grief (not unlike the scale of Demeter’s grief for Persephone). Shiva therefore intervened and granted her the boon of killing Bheeshma in her next life. Amba became Shikandi, who though born a woman is eventually transformed Tiresias-like into a man on a mission to revenge himself on Bheeshma. They met on the battlefield where Bheeshma recognized his enemy as Amba/Shikandi – he laid down his weapons and allowed Shikandi to take vengeance, though invoking his boon, he delays the actual moment of his death till after the war.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.36.52

This is how Nair imagines Shikandi’s mother (an unnamed woman in the original epic) dreaming of her child’s sex-change and unnaturally over-long desire to kill:

In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.

Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.

For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.

Nair’s methodological ‘fretting about chronology’ point us towards looking at how time is organized, particularly around the figure of Amba/Shikandi. In the passage cited above, we see that fretting has morphed into the existential terror of a mother struggling to understand her dream-child, a malevolent figure whose motivating rage extends beyond a single human life. No wonder she asks: ‘Is that past or future’? The figure of Shikandi is rage as embodied anachronism, unsettling the normative accounting of human life in time or in flesh. This puts me in mind of the conversation between Solon and Croesus (Hdt 1.29-33), an episode that we on the Anachronism and Antiquity project read as a crucible of anachronism. It is not at the end of a life that Shikandi and Bheeshma get their respective satisfactions. Rather happiness is forestalled, long after the allotted moments of their biological death, thus causing creating complexity for how we think humans experience time – memories are carried over into differently gendered bodies, hearts hum with ancient misery, arrows pierce a hero made invulnerable by his celibacy.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.29

Watching this adaption of Until the Lions made specifically for the Roundhouse’s circular performance space, I was struck by how these conflicts in desire and temporality were distilled in the staging and the physical space of the performance. For the entire performance until Bheeshma’s death, a cast of a severed head is mounted on a pole as a memento mori governing the action, placed there by Shikandi at the start. At the moment of the climactic encounter between Bheeshma and Shikandi, the seemingly solid ground gives way. Amba has previously drawn attention to this deep crack in the earth in her desperate clawing at it, an attempt to hide her shame and rage under the ground perhaps. As Bheeshma realizes, Hector-like, that the gig is up and the scales have always been divinely tipped agains him, he turns and walks slowly to the mounted severed head. As he moves, the stages rises in uneven pieces, Shikandi standing triumphantly on the highest jagged outcrop. The lighting and smoke from below give the sense of Shikandi standing on top of a lavafield, or in the smouldering aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The normal sequence of time has been disrupted by Shikandi’s triumph, and so the orderly rings of the tree stage which fitted neatly together, have given way under the pressure of the cosmic proportions of one person’s despair and revenge.

 

References:

  • Nair, K. (2015) Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins India)
  • Menon, M. (2018) Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger Books)
  • Udumudi, S. (2017) Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview with Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

Images from http://www.akramkhancompany.net/productions/until-the-lions/  and http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2019/until-the-lions/

 

 

 

“Memorial” and Anachronism

Brink Productions debuted Memorial at the Adelaide Festival for performances from 1-6 March 2018. The production came to the Barbican, London, 27-30 September 2018.

 

In 1940 Simone Weil declared that ‘The true hero, the true subject of the Iliad, is force’ (Weil, Besplaoff, McCarthy 2005), directing us to interpret the poem’s protagonist as mēnis (rage). The power of Weil’s reading is to strip away the focus on character and urge us to appreciate the poem’s structuring and destructive tendencies. Alice Oswald takes up the baton from Weil in Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (2011), her poetic to the Iliad. Oswald turns away from the thundering and galloping and raging and squabbling of the main Greek and Trojan heroes. In an extraordinary formal experiment, Memorial asks with Simone Weil, “what would it look like to read the Iliad without Achilles?”

Oswald’s answer is altogether less austere and relentlessly form-focused than Weil’s. Memorial seeks to commemorate the nameless and the barely mentioned, the 215 fallen men that Homer skims by and whose sole claim to posthumous fame might lie at the business end of Diomedes’ spear, or an inglorious spew of brains on that windy Trojan plain through which Achilles stomps, or the barely logical narrative hook from which hangs an abundant Homeric simile. Oswald describes her processing of the Iliad as ‘an attempt to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, to take away its narrative, as you might rip the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping’ (Oswald, 2011, ix). She is also highly aware that junking most of the plot and the focus on the main heroes constitutes ‘a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’ (Oswald, 2011, x). Oswald’s poetic sensibility is both tender and rock-and-roll, eyeing up eternity and the bright immediate now – in other words, anachronistic.

Oswald’s insistence on the humanity of each individual that she can recoup from the Homeric poem radically reshapes the kind of poem she offers as a response to the Iliad. It also reshapes the form of the Brink Productions recent performance of Memorial. Demurring from merely cataloguing the dead, in the manner that Homer gathers ships, or Hesiod women, Oswald toggles between creating biography and simile for each man and his death, a ‘bi-polar’ mode. Her invented biographical details are agonizingly specific: see for example, ‘Polydorus… who loved running/ now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ looking for his favourite son’ (Oswald, 2011, 64). And make no mistake, Oswald is an excellent reader of Homer – I snorted out loud at the epithet “neurotic” for Cassandra.

Particularity is precisely what is squeezed out of the Iliad for these men – there simply is no room for such mass of detail in a narrative in which the hot and heavy stirrings of the Hero (capital H)’s heart must be carefully tracked. Oswald’s procedure has a paradoxical effect – to individualize and restore humanity to hundreds of men, but in doing so, rendering the crowd of soldiers the protagonist of the poem. In this production, a non-professional group of volunteer men, women, and children form the chorus, drawn from local London community choirs and theatre groups. This chorus plays out the destruction of the city, the men who die, and even the Trojan plain itself – the play starts in darkness with a field of bodies peeling themselves up from the floor. Later, the chorus forms the din of battle (not unlike the stock footage of city streets that accompanies news reports on television, or murmurations of starlings, with clear internal logic and patterns that can only be appreciated by an onlooker). Homer’s similes do a lot of work to imagine worlds full of sympathetic and sensuous connections – it is quite another thing to see a river of bodies literalized as the Scamander, or a crowd of two hundred people gather round and form the walls of Troy.

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Oswald does not entirely eschew the Iliadic plot – there are obvious moments that re-create episodes such as Odysseus and Diomedes’ (textually and ethically dubious) night time raid on the camp of Rhesus in Iliad Book Ten. Not focusing on Achilles’ rage or the politicking of the Greek kings or the Trojan princes means that Oswald is able to lay bare their brutality, stripping back the presentation of Agamemnon to a commander who showed no mercy to a defenseless and naked young man who begged for his life.

This production chooses to linger on Hector’s death, as Memorial does, with significant change from the final books of the Iliad. Instead of the formality of ransoming of Hector’s body and the citywide mourning for the hero’s final journey home, the last we see of him in this production is (a character that we can assume is) Andromache, awkwardly dragging her husband’s much larger body off stage. It is a quietly powerful rebuttal to the endgame of Achilles’ rage, produced by the radical de-centering of character and plot.

 Helen Morse, grande dame of the Australian stage, performed the only speaking role, a modern rhapsode who was capable of communicating each soldier’s brief moment in the spotlight with gravitas and empathy. An older female Homeric narrator on stage, in the long tradition of contesting Homer’s gender (see Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897) as well as in the more recent controversy caused by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (2017), was a canny move in the context of Oswald’s investigation of the conceptual motor of the Iliad.

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Morse’s tremendous performance compelled Memorial on, keeping compassion fatigue at bay and interest high – she spoke continuously for nearly two hours, tracing lives that flashed for a moment, lamenting and making each grief anew. (Not rendering lament monotonous is a feat in itself – I remember feeling numb at Juliette Binoche’s relentless Antigone, performed at the same theatre a few years ago). It is astonishing to hear the powerful roll call of the dead, carefully named, each death mourned as an individual loss.

Oswald’s memorializing procedure is passionately humanizing – to that end, it feels as though it could be a memorial for all time, or for every moment that we need reminding that war is the worst manifestation of human power. The gloss of the eternal has the potential to reduce Oswald’s poem to a solemn exercise in commemoration. Brink Productions opted for two particularizing strategies that chip away at this sense of timelessness, to drag Memorial into historical and geographical specificity.

The first is Jocelyn Pook’s achingly beautiful score, using mainly two singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, along with oboe, clarinets, brass and shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument. Director Chris Drummond at one point called this production of Memorial an “oratorio” – the evocative blend of word and song was distilled in the geographical and cultural specificity of using Balkan women’s lamenting voices.

If this production of Memorial pinned itself down in place to great effect, its temporal unpinning worked well too. About two thirds of the way through, soldiers dressed in World War One uniforms appear, dotted through the crowd, conspicuous in khaki among the chorus dressed in light, contemporary style, loose clothes. It was just a moment and more heavy-handed direction would have visually emphasized the connection between the mythological and historical wars. The point of not doing this, I take it, is not to bewail the pity of war in a facile way. Rather, Brink Productions’ handling of their commission to contribute to WWI commemorations layers over the universal significance of Memorial with the gentle insistence that that those who died in between 1914 and 1918 will fade from living memory too, their specific contours will blur, and they too will need commemorations that seek particularity. Faced with the anachronistic community of the war dead for just a moment, Brink Productions showed us a glimpse of the un/timeliness, as well as the deep compassion, that moves under memory.

 

References:

  • Butler, S. (1897) The Authoress of the Odyssey (London &c.)
  • Oswald, A., (2011) Memorial (London: Faber)
  • Weil, S.,  Bespaloff, S. (2005) [1945, 1947] War and the Iliad translated by Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books).
  • Wilson, E. R. (trans.) (2018) The Odyssey (New York: W.W. Norton)