Pyrrha’s Original

Published August 23, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

As promised, now that I’ve posted my version, I’m going to talk about the 18th century original play.  I’ve mentioned it before, a bit, but I’m going to go into more detail now.  The title of the opera was “Achilles in Petticoats“, and it was performed in 1774 at Covent Garden, at the Theatre Royal.  The copy of the libretto I have is a .pdf of a microfiche–microfilm?–something?–of the original souvenir booklet from the time, or something.  So it has the cast list–all listed as “Mr. So-n-so” or “Miss Such-n-such”–and those horrible “long s” letters that look like “f”s and everything’s blurry like a bad old photocopy, and there’s dirt and obstructions, so sometimes it’s very hard to read.

Anyway, the interlibrary loan data on the front page of the .pdf provides the full data on the composer as the “author”, so I have his full info–Arne, Thomas Augustine, 1710-1778–but all I have on the lyricist is the “Mr. Gay” provided in the libretto itself.  Oh, no, wait, it’s here in The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s (by Jane Davidson Reid) which first told me about this opera in the first place:  “John Gay, 1685-1732, Achilles. Ballad opera (4 tunes attributed to Arcangelo Corelli).  Libretto, composer.  First performed 10 Feb 1733, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.”  So Arne had altered (and presumably expanded) Gay’s original libretto, as well as changing the title.

Now, the most obvious changes in my version, apparent right from the start, are that I went with all-Greek names.  The 18th century preferred Roman names.  The cast list literally has “Ulysses” on it.  (Seriously.  Except it looks like it says “Ulyffes.)  So “Ulysses” and “Ajax” regained their dignity as Odysseus and Aias.  And I changed a few spellings while I was at it, preferring the Greek -os to Roman -us.  (The -eus ending actually is Greek, however.  Which is why it’s Odysseus, and not Odysseos.  In case anyone was wondering about that.)

Next major change, just in the cast list, is that I replaced the queen’s nephew with Patroclos.  In the course of “Achilles in Petticoats,” the queen engineers an engagement between her nephew and Pyrrha, and a jealous Ajax challenges her nephew to a duel over that engagement (which is fought entirely off-stage), yet her nephew, intent on sailing off to the war at Troy, has zero interest in Pyrrha.  (He is, in fact, about the only character in the play immune to Achilles’ charms.)  That doesn’t make sense and isn’t interesting or entertaining.  So I thought that if the nephew was replaced with Patroclos, then we could restore the bisexuality of the original myths, and give all those events some meaning and impact because all parties involved are actually interested.  Plus I thought that Patroclos is one of the few people who would stand a chance of surviving a duel with Aias for more than three seconds.  Also, as my favorite Achaian, I’m always eager to include him.  (May as well be honest, right?)

The final cast list change is the addition of Polyphonos, an aid to Lycomedes.  (Well, also there’s the nurse Eurycleia, but…she’s a minor character, just a servant.  And I removed Diomedes, who arrived at the end with “Ulysses,” but there was no need of him.  It had just become the traditional view that Diomedes had gone with Odysseus to fetch Achilles from Scyros, but it was hardly a task requiring two, and there wasn’t dialog enough to justify the addition of another character there.)  Polyphonos is mostly used as an aid to the death of Theseus sub-plot I introduced, but he’s also a good advisor to off-set the panderer imported from the original play.

Let’s talk about that sub-plot now, as we veer off into the changes I made to the plot.  My main goals in changing the story of the play were two-fold:  restore mythical accuracy (somewhat) and reduce sexism as much as possible (within the confines of the ancient Greek world it’s set in, at any rate).  I still kept various story angles added to the myth in “Achilles in Petticoats,” such as Lycomedes and Ajax falling in love with Pyrrha, and the jealous queen trying to marry Pyrrha off to get her out of the way, and the scene where Lycomedes tries to “ravish” Pyrrha.  (Little knowing that “Pyrrha” is actually a demi-god, and could have snapped him in half if he’d chosen.)

Anyway, so why did I introduce the death of Theseus sub-plot, you may ask?  It’s not in any of the myths about Achilles’ time on Scyros as Pyrrha, nor does tie in to any of the stories of Odysseus going to Scyros to fetch Neoptolemos.  True.  But in the versions where Achilles conquered Scyros and fathered Neoptolemos that way, one of the reasons given for the conquest is that his father sent him to avenge Theseus.  So while tenuous, the connection isn’t entirely without ancient precedent, and Lycomedes truly is generally held responsible for having killed Theseus.  (Uh, in versions where Heracles was allowed to rescue him from Hades, that is.  There are versions where Theseus, like Pirithoos, was never allowed to leave after attempting to steal Persephone.)  Despite that Lycomedes generally plays little to no role in the Trojan War myths, whether as the father of Deidameia or as the grandfather of Neoptolemos, and what little role he does play is either clueless or appropriate to his station, I’ve always rather hated him as the cowardly and treacherous murderer of Theseus.  (Even though by the time of his death Theseus, as the late middle-aged abductor of an under-aged Helen, and the would-be abductor of a married goddess, was far from the noble hero the Athenians would have liked him to be.  That’s still no excuse for pushing him off a cliff when he came in peace looking for shelter after finding his kingdom had been conquered during his absence.)  So I wanted to see Lycomedes get his for being a murderous host, and since he was already a would-be adulterer and an attempted rapist in the play I was adapting, I figured adding a sub-plot about him having a “Tell-Tale Heart”-style fixation on the sons of Theseus coming to avenge their father would be perfect.  And having him succumb to a fit on learning that his eldest daughter has been impregnated by the “girl” he planned to have an affair with (and, indeed, tried to rape) seemed like poetic justice all around.  Just probably not the kind of poetic justice you would actually find in a Greek myth, given that there’s no violence involved, and part of his sin is against women (well, one woman and one perceived woman) and therefore likely to go unpunished.

Some major changes to the plot involve character behavior and motivation.  For one thing, in “Achilles in Petticoats,” Lycomedes immediately gives up on Pyrrha after “she” nearly kills him in rebuffing his attempted ravishment.  Okay, full points for realism, I suppose, but not very funny or very interesting.  And in the novel Tom Jones, written about the same time period, Lord Feldemar does not give up on Sophia Western just because she resists his attempts to rape her, not even after her father rescues her at gunpoint!  Why would Lycomedes be any more reasonable, when he’s a king who’s gotten away with murdering a demi-god?  (In this version, at least, Theseus was indeed the son of Poseidon.)  Furthermore, in “Achilles in Petticoats,” Achilles does not seem to have been in Scyros very long–in fact, in the opening scene, they’re talking about his mother having just left–so the relations between himself and Deidamia are not going to have been long-standing (Neoptolemos will not have been in the oven long), which just makes Lycomedes’ behavior towards Pyrrha all the more abominable, in that he’s decided he wants to have her after such a brief meeting.  And Diphilos coming to the conclusion that Pyrrha was a “coquette” and that her mother wanted her to seduce Lycomedes comes directly out of the original, I might add.  In both the 18th century original and my own version, Achilles is largely being swept along by the machinations of others, but I think I’ve managed to give him more of a hand in controlling his own destiny than the Gay/Arne original did.  At least he’s trying to find out what’s going on, talking to Aias and Patroclos to find out the situation, learn about the war (though in the original he already knew all about it, as Aias had been on Scyros already for some time), and I have him attempting to decide on the best course of action to protect himself and his reputation (the most important thing to Achilles, after all, is his own reputation) while also trying not to defy his mother (the second most important thing to him…since he hasn’t fallen in love with Patroclos yet) and her reasons for hiding him.

But I think the biggest change is the ending, from a story perspective.  After the big reveal, you have the final scene of the opera, which I will now quote in its entirety:

Theas.  My daughter, sir, I hope, hath put confidence in a man of honour.

Ach.  My word, madam, is as sacred as the most religious ceremony.–Yet (though we are already solemnly betroth’d to each other) ’tis my request, madam, that before I leave the court the priest may confirm the marriage.

Lycom.  May you be happy ! the priest shall join your hands immediately, and the marriage being then confirm’d, we will proceed before the departure of Achilles to celebrate the festival.

Theas.  And let her marriage to Achilles make us forget every thing past.



Hark, hark ! drums and trumpets call forth to the fields
Quit, quit thy disguise for the sword and the shield !
Thy prowess and valour shall vanquish the foe,
The tow’rs of proud Troy shall be laid low,
Thy honour in arms, like thy constancy prove,
Victorious in battle, as faithful in love.

Ajax.  But, harkee young fellow ! this is the old soldier’s play ; for we seldom leave quarters, but the landlord’s daughter is the better for us, hah !

Ulys.  Thanks to the gods, the hero cou’d not be conceal’d; the presence of Achilles shall now animate the war.  There he will act in his proper sphere.  We may, for a while, put on a feign’d character, but nature will shew itself at last.–‘Tis to the armour we owe Achilles.


Nature breaks forth at the moment unguarded ;
Through all disguise she herself must betray.
Heav’n with success hath our labours rewarded ;
Let’s with Achilles our genius obey.


The big reveal that the “girl” over which all the action has been swirling is really a boy who’s been sleeping around with the eldest princess is all casually and gleefully forgotten with a royal wedding and a “have fun storming the castle!”  Seriously?  Earlier in the play, Lycomedes tried to rape him, and yet Achilles volunteers to have the guy for a father-in-law?  Who would do that?!  Yes, obviously Lycomedes–in an 18th century version–would have stopped trying to rape him if he’d gotten under the skirt and seen what was there (unlike in actual ancient Greece, where he probably would have just been like “oh, I see, different play book, same rules”) but that doesn’t change the fact that he still made that attempt, regardless of the fact that it was foredoomed to failure, and would have been so even if Achilles hadn’t been possessed of supernatural strength due to his mother’s divine nature.  Not to mention, why the heck isn’t Lycomedes steaming mad about the fact that Achilles a) is a boy, and b) has deflowered his eldest daughter?  You would expect some anger there, but is is the first we see of the king and queen being acquainted with Achilles’ true nature.  (Lycomedes is not on stage for the big reveal.)  Because of the time period in which it was written, the earlier scenes which could have become a gender reversed Twelfth Night turned into this pat muck.  The disguised boy is stripped of his petticoats, marries the deflowered maiden, and sails off to die in battle, as a proper boy should.  Ugh.  And this they call “nature.”  Thing is, while not terribly popular in ancient Greece itself–though we know that at least Euripides did write about it–the story of Achilles’ time in drag on Scyros was very popular in the Roman era, and especially popular in Pompeii.  (In part, perhaps, because it was a way for them to insult the Greeks, but…let’s face it, the Romans were probably more into transvestism than the Greeks were.)

As to my own ending, I admit that it still needs a lot of work.  The whole exchange between Achilles and Patroclos after the disguise is shed is way too on the nose, especially all the “did you mean any of that” stuff.  And really awkward when you think about the fact that the ancient Greeks did not have underwear, so Achilles is standing there stark naked, except for that shield (lol, “heroic” nudity), so when Patroclos tries to kiss him, that’s all kinds of weird.  (And yet it also conveys my point so well that there’s no way I’m going to remove it, ever, period.)  And having them all scarper while Lycomedes is off having his heart attack or whatever (possibly even dying) in some adjoining chamber is certainly less than heroic, and perhaps isn’t the right way to end the play, either.  But I’m not quite sure what is.  (Endings are not my strong suit, alas!)  What I thought was important, though, was to have every character who had been deeply taken in by Achilles’ disguise react to the reveal in some way.  So Lycomedes is outraged, and although we don’t see her reaction you know the queen’s just relieved to be rid of Pyrrha one way or the other, Patroclos is conflicted about still being attracted to him (after all, he’s the prince Patroclos is supposed to be serving!), and Aias promptly comes to the conclusion that it was mistaken familiarity and the call of shared blood.  (His attraction to “her” in “Achilles in Petticoats” is entirely ignored, you’ll have noticed in that quoted final scene.  As, for that matter, was Lycomedes’ own attraction to “her.”)  Because if you think about it, what would a real person do if he thought he was falling for a girl only to learn that girl was really a guy?  He’d have to have a reaction of some sort!  He couldn’t just brush it off and ignore it, surely!  That’s illogical and improbable.  But the other Achaians are going to have to fight alongside Achilles for twenty years (ten years before the war, and ten years of the war) so they can’t have a really huge reaction, but they still have to have some reaction.

So…what else is there to say at this juncture?  Well, I want to compare a few of my own lines with lines directly out of the original.  One line in particular, on page 20, in the first scene where Achilles and Deidamia are alone, after the queen has already forced the engagement between her nephew Periphas and “Pyrrha”:

Ach.  For heaven’s sake, Deidamia, if you regard my love, give me quiet.

This line struck me right away as I was reading as so typically masculine, by 20th century standards.  The whole “shut up and let me think, woman!” mentality.  Which is odd, actually, because 18th century masculinity had different standards, and the brutish ways were not as in vogue at the time.  (Going back to Tom Jones for a moment, Squire Allworthy was the ideal, and Squire Western was everything a man should avoid being.  This line of Achilles’ is more in line with the latter than the former.)  Anyway, I included similar line in my own play:

Pyrrha: If you have any love for me at all, then let me have some peace! I need to think!

Of course, the situation was different–this was in Scene 6, when Aias and Patroclos had only just arrived, and Achilles didn’t even know who they were yet or why they had come, and he was worried who they were and why they were there, and if they were the reason his mother had hidden him on the island or not–and because I hadn’t explained why he was worried (or even that he was, in fact, a he) I had to spell out the “I need to think” part, which actually I probably didn’t need to spell out, come to think of it.  I could probably have deleted that just fine.  (Well, it is a rough draft!)

Hmm.  I think I had other lines I wanted to compare, but now I’ve forgotten what they were.  (I’ve been working on this post on and off for about a week now.  I started work on this line-comparison section this morning before dashing off to the museum, but I got so caught up in working on this that I was late, and so the hurried dash out the door seems to have robbed me of my train of thought.  Well, I can always come back to it later if I remember.)

Anyway, so I guess I’ve summed up the major stuff now.  If anyone has any thoughts or questions or anything, please speak up, ’cause I’d love to hear them!  It’s still a very rough draft, and I know the language in the early scenes is still annoyingly old-fashioned, so that part doesn’t need to be pointed out, but anything else,  please let me know.  Particularly, let me know if it was a mistake to try hiding the fact that “Pyrrha” was really Achilles the whole time.  It seemed to me that this part of the myth is not well known among most non-enthusiasts–certainly when I was telling people about it in class last year, most people seemed ignorant of it, even the professor–so I thought it would be better to build up the mystery rather than make the entire rest of the cast look like total morons.  But maybe that was the wrong way to go?  Given the fact that I wanted Patroclos not to lose his interest on learning the truth, should I have been playing up Achilles’ dilemma as a young man in disguise as a woman, to play up the bisexual/transvestite angle?  (Or is it just unsalvageable, and I should just give up?)

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