Achilles in Petticoats

All posts tagged Achilles in Petticoats

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.)

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So I’ve written a play. Now what?

Published January 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Seriously, what do I do with a play?  A book I can self-publish.  A movie script I can chuck in the rubbish bin.  But a play?  If I knew any amateur theatrical groups, maybe I could see if they were interested (though admittedly it’s still only on the second draft, and probably still needs a lot of work) but I don’t know any.

Plus I’m not sure if anyone would be interested.  The play is called “Pyrrha” and it’s based on the 1773 opera “Achilles in Petticoats.”  (Though from looking at the libretto, it’s not what we would currently consider “opera,” as there’s a lot more talking than there is singing.)

Of course, I changed up more than just the dialog and the character names.  (No Roman names when I’m involved!)

The big change was that I removed the made-up nephew of the queen, and replaced him with Patroclos.  (Who I then made into the queen’s nephew…which is surprisingly easy to do, since we know jack-all about his mother.  And the surviving texts never mention Lycomedes’ wife, so I was free to make the two of them sisters.)  So the play has a stronger homoerotic quotient than the original, as Patroclos does not lose his interest in Pyrrha when he learns that “she” is actually Achilles.  But I left it fairly subtle, so I don’t know if an LGBT-oriented theatre troop would want it.

I guess, in the end, I’ll probably end up self-publishing it, too, but a play that’s never performed feels sad and lonely, y’know?

Then again, so do I, so maybe that’s appropriate.

Someday I will learn.

Published December 12, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

I need to figure out the right way to handle academic writing.  I’m sitting there, surrounded by books (not to mention my iPad, which is stuffed with journal articles and scanned-in book extracts), and every time I need to make a quote or cite a particular point, I have to grind to a halt and search through as many as half a dozen texts to figure out which one is the one I’m looking for.

It’s not such a problem if I’m, say, trying to decide which translation of the Iliad to quote, or just looking for the right passage from Statius or “Achilles in Petticoats”.  On the other hand, it is massively frustrating to go through the five or six different books and articles I’ve read on the history of homosexuality this semester, trying to remember which one had exactly the point I’m trying to make about the raids on “molly houses” in the eighteenth century.  Or trying to look through more than a half a dozen sources to try and remember which one described Achilles’ histrionic grief over Patroclos’ death as being like “a good classical widow”.

But what I really want to know is this:  how did it get to be Friday already?!

I have less than a week to finish this paper and get it all polished up!  And after two and a half days of solid writing, I’m only barely at the start of Section II.  (And on top of everything else, I feel like I’ve left out at least half of what needs to be in there.) If I really have to write Section III and Section IV as well….ugh.  No way I’ll be able to polish.  In fact, I think I’d be lucky to finish at all.

I definitely bit off more than I can chew with this paper.

But I e-mailed the professor and asked him if it’s okay to only do one or two of the sections, so hopefully I can still pull this off.


Ulrich von Lichtenstein

Published December 6, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

I had no idea there was really a person by that name.  (Or using it as a pen name?)  But there was.  He wrote a (probably fictional) autobiography in verse that was largely about him courting ladies and jousting, sometimes in a dress.  (Seriously!)  Apparently, he lived in the early-to-mid 13th century.

Sounds like his autobiography hasn’t seen much publication in modern times:  the book listed a German one in 1812 (he was from Styria, a place in Austria) and a “condensed” English one in 1969.

If I had more time, I would look to see if I could find a copy.  I bet it’s a really interesting read.

(Speaking of interesting reads, I was disappointed by the ending of “Achilles in Petticoats.”  After Odysseus reveals Achilles’ secret, there’s no “wait, that’s a guy I was hitting on?!” moment for any of his admirers, just an “oh, so that’s why ‘she’ was so close to Deidamia!” moment, followed by the promise of an o’er-hasty marriage prior to his departure for Troy.  Very dull when compared to the comedy that preceded it.  I am totally writing an updated version, only mine is going to add Patroclos, and hopefully maintain the same tone throughout.  (To assert that it will be funny throughout would be overweening confidence, I fear…)  But I’ll keep some of the narrative devices that were not a feature of the classical myth, like Lycomedes developing a passion for the “girl” left in his care…)

Complications, as always.

Published December 5, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

So–as I should have posted last night, if I hadn’t been too flippered by the fog–my final paper for my class (and thus my Master’s Thesis beyond it) has suddenly changed.  Instead of addressing sexuality, now it’s addressing gender.  To a certain extent, that doesn’t change too much, because after people re-discovered Homer and started seeing the homoerotic quality of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, their sexuality affected the way they were portrayed in terms of gender.  In other words, whether they were portrayed as masculine or effeminate, or somewhere in the middle.  (Though usually it’s been one or the other.)

The odd part, to me, is the fact that sometimes gender has been re-written in the same text over time.  In order to have more information about Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, I ended up checking the same volume of it out of the library that I had checked out earlier in the semester.  (Which feels absurd, considering that as a graduate student I get to hold onto library books for five months.  But it was by far the most recent edition they had.)  Anyway, reading through the introduction, I got to the part that detailed how the play had been performed in the twentieth century.  (Technically, it also described all known earlier performances, but there were only a handful of them.)  The shocking thing is that although Shakespeare definitely portrays Achilles and Patroclus as being sexually involved, neither one is presented as in any way effeminate, and yet in some of the performances in the latter half of the twentieth centuries, they (and especially Achilles) became decidedly so.  (Giving Achilles effeminate costumes and mannerisms in that play makes no sense to me, considering that the text itself portrays him as close to “macho meathead” as Shakespeare can get.  Well, no:  its portrayal of “Ajax” (God, I hate the Roman spelling!) is as close to “macho meathead” as Shakespeare can get, with Achilles running him a close second.)  That performance detail actually tells us a lot more about the twentieth century’s attitudes towards homosexuality than it does about Shakespeare’s!  (Especially since Achilles, at least, is not homosexual in the play, as he’s also in love with Polyxena, as per Dares, making him bisexual.)

Anyway, getting back to the whole changed topic thing, that means I came back from campus last night with seven more library books, Troilus and Cressida being only one of them, and the simplest to deal with.  The others are on gender and masculinity.  I’m not sure any of them really have what I need, though.  It’s hard to know what to type into the library catalog search to get a good historical overview of changing historical perceptions of gender image over time.  A lot of titles looked like they were about that kind of thing, only then I would look at their table of contents, and they’d actually only be about the changes to gender roles in “modern” America.  (Modern in quotes because naturally the books are at least ten years old, if not older, so in addition to everything else, they’re out of date.)  This complicates things enormously.

But on the other hand, it’s going to give me a lot more lee-way to play around with interesting stuff that didn’t necessarily fit in the old thesis.  Particularly the stuff about Achilles’ time in drag on Scyros.  There’s a lot of really fascinating portrayals of that period, and one of the really remarkable things about it is how many of the paintings from the 17th century (and there are a huge number of them on Wikimedia Commons from the 17th century) depict him as being entirely indistinguishable from the actual girls.  As opposed to one I found from the 19th century, where he wasn’t even trying to look like a girl.

And then there’s the libretto that inter-library loan managed to get for me!  It’s a .pdf of a microfilm (or was it microfiche?) of the booklet that was being handed out at the initial production of “Achilles in Petticoats” in 1773.  It’s more than a little hard to read because the letters weren’t too well inked before being pressed onto the page, and of course they use those “long s”s that look like “f”s, which makes it hard to read, too.  (It’s easy enough to guess that there was never a word “paffion” but when half the other letters in a word are nearly indistinguishable, that just makes it that much harder to read.)  However!  It is totally worth the effort!  Because oh-my-god is it funny!  It starts out with a scene between Lycomedes and one of his courtiers, and the courtier says that he can tell that Lycomedes has fallen in love with that girl Pyrrha who was left behind by her mother, and that he’s sure she’ll respond favorably, because why else would her mother have left her there but to become the king’s lover, and besides the girl has so much of the coquette about her and so forth and so on.  None of which would be funny, naturally, if one didn’t know that Pyrrha was actually Achilles in a dress.  Then we learn that Lycomedes’ wife is jealous of Pyrrha, and when Lycomedes learns that Pyrrha spurned the advance he sent through his courtier/procurer he tries to force himself on “her” only to get the crap beaten out of him, and when his wife hears about that she just becomes more convinced that Pyrrha is a threat (apparently thinking the violent rejection was only for show?) and determines to marry “her” off to her nephew.  Only after the queen has told Pyrrha about the match she proposes with her nephew are we left alone with Achilles and Deidamia, when he starts lamenting his fate as the most miserable man in the world, though she of course counters that her own position is far worse than his.  Not that he listens to her:  he’s being stereotypically “masculine” in his dealings with her, so far, by telling her (though not in these words) to shut up and let him think.  It gets worse, of course.  Where I last left off reading, “Ajax” (presumably meaning Telamonian Aias, rather than Locrian) had challenged the queen’s nephew to a duel over Pyrrha.  Someone’s not going to be happy when he learns the truth, methinks.  LOL!  I totally want to re-write this play into a slightly less mythically mangled (and definitely less misogynistic) version.  The whole concept of having Achilles be so convincing at pretending to be a girl that men are fighting over him is just too funny!  (And yet, Patroclos isn’t on the dramatis personae at the beginning!)

And on an amazingly related note, I want to talk about the book I got from today.  It’s the first shipment of the stuff I ordered on Black Friday (none of which actually turned out to be on a Black Friday sale, go figure) and the shipment consisted of a video game (which I had ordered for myself, not as a gift for someone else) and a book compiling all known Sophocles fragments.  As soon as the package was opened, I set the game aside, and pounced on the book.  (This is probably abnormal.)  Seriously, I sat down and went through the entire book, reading every fragment of any play that looked like it was going to have even a slight impact on my thesis, and a number of fragments that didn’t.  (Including “The Searchers” which is a large chunk of a satyr play about Apollo trying to get his cattle back from the infant Hermes.  Nothing to do with my paper, but it’s most of a satyr play!  How could I not read it?)  Anyway, one of the plays ties into my paper–and the libretto I was just talking about–deliciously.

It’s called “Achilleos Erastai” or “The Lovers of Achilles” and although the actual fragments themselves (having been quoted in various other works) are rather tame, it’s enough that the scholars are pretty sure that it was a satyr play, and the satyrs were all trying to make Achilles into their eromenos.  (Though this would likely have been set during his boyhood with Cheiron on Mt. Pelion, so it’s not quite as freaky as you might think.  Although satyrs trying to make any human boy their eromenos is freaky in and of itself.  (Have you seen the size of the equipment they have on Attic vases?  Yikes!))  Apparently, there was a play in a later era in which Heracles “had that role” (not sure if the book meant he was trying to make Achilles into his eromenos, or actually succeeded) so the book theorized that he might theoretically have been in it as well (being commonly involved in satyr plays) but not necessarily, and based on Plato’s famous assertion in the Symposium that Patroclos was the erastes of the relationship, he might also have been in it.  Man, it would be awesome if that play had survived!  I bet it was hilarious!

That reminds me, though.  I want to go to the Perseus Project and see if they have that other play, the one with Heracles….

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