Friday 31 October 2014

Childbirth, Rhubarb and Ancient Papyri

It's not your drama, Robbie!
I have never been a fan of singer Robbie Williams. But I will never forgive his self-publicising performance this week while his poor wife struggled to push out their child. He sang the execrable ‘Candy’, which reduces women to ‘mad mare’ status,[i] while she writhed and screamed, psychologically alone.

No mention of rhubarb!

Previously, the worst ‘insensitive husband of parturient woman’ story I had ever heard was this. One day in 1959, Walter Burkert (aka the world expert on ancient religion) told Hugh Lloyd-Jones (about-to-be Regius Prof. of Greek at Oxford) and Reinhold Merkelbach (Prof. at Erlangen) that he couldn’t attend their textual-critical summit on an (absolutely hilarious) newly discovered papyrus text of the ancient Greek comedian Menander about a grumpy misanthrope.  Burkert’s reason was that he was about to become a father, and vaguely felt he should remain at home near his wife. Lloyd-Jones later recalled, in print:  "‘All right,’ said Merkelbach, ‘then we meet in your house!’, and we did meet there and finished the play, poor Frau Burkert sustaining us with an agreeable dish of rhubarb.”

A Wife's True Duty

Did Frau Burkert actually give birth while they deciphered the papyrus under her roof and then COOK RHUBARB FOR THEM? I like to think that she later took revenge by throwing rhubarb, baby and indeed Papyrus Bodmer IV (i.e. the fourth chunk of ancient paper purchased by a man called Martin Bodmer, which resembles this other Bodmer bit of Menander)  at her learned husband.
No rhubarb on this page

As a much-needed antidote to Robbie Williams, and Professor Burkert's rhubarb pie, this week I chaired an inspirational debate at the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, a research outfit I co-founded in 1996. The event opposed Professor Peter Parsons (who knows more about texts preserved on ancient papyri than anyone, ever, in history), and  the omniscient Professor Richard Hunter from Cambridge. The topic was an amusing farce discovered on a papyrus in a rubbish dump in the Greek city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. It involves sex, violence and cooking. It was performed perhaps in the fifth century AD, when Christian sensibilities are incorrectly supposed to have had theatre banned centuries before. 

Progress has been made since 1959. I don’t know how they feel about rhubarb, but Profs. Parsons and Hunter are nice to women and also incredibly funny. Prof. Parsons illustrated his talk with classic ‘biff!’ 'pow!' cartoon violence, while Prof. Hunter discussed Australian-rules show wrestlers. Both are true gentlemen who would never, ever try to upstage a poor woman in labour. Robbie W. take note!

[i] I was there to witness
Candice's in her business
She wants the boys to notice
Her rainbows, and her ponies
She was educated but could not count to ten
Now she got lots of different horses
By lots of different men

Friday 24 October 2014

Working-Class & other Tragic Heroes Again

"I can fall from Higher Estate than you!"
What a week for 'heroes' and ‘heroism’! Sophocles couldn’t have surpassed the plot enacting the tragic death of Reeva Steenkampf, caused by just being in the ambit of an extraordinarily high-achieving man with a temper and a firearm. And was I the only one to feel uncomfortable at the extended applause in the Canadian parliament marking the untimely deaths of two young men?

South African athletes or Canadian security guards: who is really the hero, tragic or otherwise? Nearly a year ago I used this blog to crowd-source suggestions for a tragic hero who, unlike Aristotle’s definition of the proper tragic hero in his Poetics, was not ‘the sort of man who has great fame and prosperity, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and the distinguished men who come from that kind of family line’.

The suggestions that rolled in made my winter. Thanks, everyone! My DVD player introduced me to Greek tragic heroes transferred to Bolivian villages and Senecan psychopaths in East End pubs. But my life was changed by Shane Meadows’ utterly devastating movie This is England (2008). I say with all confidence that Sophocles would have been proud of this one.

Directed by Herzog
In the end I discovered that the first truly working-class tragedy in the world dramatic repertoire was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck of 1837. Franz Woyzeck is a soldier of the lowest rank, oppressed almost beyond endurance by his Captain. Woyzeck achieves some kind of affirmation of his human autonomy only by savagely murdering Marie, the unfaithful mother of his little son. She has betrayed Woyzeck with a soldier of Officer rank. Büchner shows how the tragic suffering of Woyzeck and Marie, and their small child, left orphaned at the conclusion, is inseparable from their poverty and low social status.

The real-life Woyzeck, theatrically executed
Büchner based his play, loosely, on the real-life tragedy of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a poor Leipzig wigmaker. In 1821 he murdered the widow with whom he had been living. He was convicted and publicly executed. Some of Büchner’s scenes are Sophoclean; others are informed by Shakespeare’s archetypal tragedy of sexual jealousy in Othello. If anyone wants a copy of the article I managed to write with everyone’s help, then there is a 'pre-print' online or for an offprint email me with a postal address It is otherwise hidden behind an expensive pay wall which Oedipus (as wealthy Tyrant of Thebes) could have paid his way through, but J.C. Woyzeck, Wigmaker of Leipzig, certainly could not.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Abducting Girls and Manuscripts

Both Hades and Persephone have enormous HANDS
So the stunning mosaic unearthed in the Macedonian tomb at Amphipolis shows Hermes escorting a chariot driven by Hades, who is abducting Persephone to the Underworld. This myth depresses me. However empowering the response of Persephone’s mother Demeter, who held the universe to ransom until she forced Hades and his brother Zeus to allow her yearly access to her daughter, this is fundamentally just another male-organised rape + forced marriage narrative. Persephone got the minor compensation of being made Underworld Queen, with a role in the judgement of the dead and the power to send ghosts on missions. But she never did get much say in her own destiny.

The story of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) helped the ancients to think about death. It was not a physical resurrection story like that at the heart of Christianity. But the Mysteries of Persephone and Demeter offered initiates hope of a blissful afterlife. Persephone may look understandably panicky on the mosaic, but the family of the deceased who commissioned it will have taken comfort from the image. They knew that she did become adjusted to her new ‘life’, retained ties with her mother, and could even visit the upper world from time to time.

Leighton's Pastel Persephone
Persephone's story was eerily reflected in the sensational adventures undergone by the oldest Greek version we can read, the exquisite Homeric Hymn to DemeterNo copy survived to the Renaissance. Or so it was thought until 1777, when the world was stunned by a discovery as exciting as that of the Amphipolis tomb. An ambitious German scholar of Greek named Christian Friedrich Matthaei, teaching in a Moscow school, mysteriously came into possession of some manuscripts. One, which he called the Codex Mosquensis ('Moscow Book', now in Leiden), contained the long-lost Hymn.

Matthaei’s ‘finds’ made his name and career. The Hymn was soon published in several languages, including English. It made the story one of the most popular themes in 19th-century literature and art including Frederic Leighton's famous 'Return of Persephone' (1891).

Holy Synod, Moscow: "Give us Back our Codex"?
But Matthaei’s story surely deserves a Name of the Rose­-style detective novel/movie. He may simply have stolen the codex from the library of the Holy Synod; he claimed, however, that it had been found neglected on the floor of a stable 'where, for many years, it had lain concealed among the chickens and pigs.' This would be appropriate enough in the case of agricultural goddesses to whom piglets were sacrificed, but it stretches credulity to breaking point. I would enjoy the controversy if the Holy Synod asked for it back one day.

Saturday 11 October 2014

The Other Lord Elgin's Marbles

So the lawyer Amal Alamuddin is to advise Greek PM Antonis Samaras on recovering the Parthenon marbles. I am interested in the Earls of Elgin because they live in Broomhall House, Fife, Scotland, near my parents. Reclusive, reactionary, Etonian, a leading freemason—the current, ninety-year-old 11th Lord Elgin (aka Andrew Bruce) still has a few bits of the Parthenon secreted at Broomhall. I feel Alamuddin should know.

Andrew Bruce, the Current Lord Elgin (the one with a pink face)
It was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl Elgin, who brought the marbles to Britain. He had a reasonable fortune from the labours of industrial workers on the Broomhall estates (in lime kilns, coal mines, iron foundries). But he was ambitious to become nationally famous. The plan to abduct half of the acropolis developed when he married the richest heiress in Scotland and felt financially equipped to turn his ancestral seat into the flashiest Greek revival building in existence.

Lime Kilns Owned by  7th Lord Elgin
Elgin wanted to house the marbles at Broomhall. He got several architects to draw up plans for turning it into a grand Caledonian Parthenon. He commissioned expensive Doric columns which never got installed; instead they grace Perth Sheriff Court. Tom Bruce’s wife left him, he ran out of money, and in 1816 persuaded the government to buy his loot.

Perth Sheriff Court's Doric Portico
Despite the gushings of every artist and culture-vulture in the land, there was substantial opposition to his £35,000 payout. Many Britons were outraged. Most of them did not have the vote, let alone a say in the Report of the Select Committee which recommended the purchase. There was a catastrophic harvest in 1816 and many were starving.  The radical Whig M.P. for Coventry, Peter Moore, said he would demand the money for his constituents, rather than give such a sum ‘to look at broken legs, arms, and shoulders.’ My favourite artistic response to the Elgin marbles is not by Keats or Canova, but this cartoon by George Cruikshank, The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread.

Cruikshank depicts the Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Castlereagh, as a sinister salesman trying to entice John Bull, the archetypal sensible Briton, to buy some broken statues. Castlereagh says, ‘Here's a Bargain for you Johnny! Only £35,000!! I have bought them on purpose for you! Never think of Bread when you can have Stones so wonderous Cheap!!’  

Bull, in patched clothes, is surrounded by his emaciated children. Mrs. Bull’s baby is sucking a meatless bone. Other children shout ‘Don't buy them Daddy! we don't want Stones. Give us Bread! Give us Bread! Give us Bread!’

Broomhall; still houses some bits of the acropolis
Perhaps Alamuddin could supplement the Greek government’s case with the claim that the purchase of the marbles, authorised by a non-democratic government, was itself invalid?  I like the idea of Alamuddin and Samaras in a musical set at Broomhall, just west of the Forth Road Bridge, with a transhistorical backing chorus of contemporary Greeks and hungry Georgian Britons. Their first song should be this brilliant passage of Childe Harold by another, very different British aristocrat with a Scottish house, Lord Byron (2:12)

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

Friday 3 October 2014

Funny Females Ancient and Modern

Aphrodite Practises Stand-Up Routine
‘A woman that always laughs is everybody’s wife’. So claims a Chinese proverb. Medieval German conduct books equated a laughing woman’s mouth with the opening of her other orifice. The Greek goddess whose epithet was ‘laughter-loving’ was of course Aphrodite, in charge of all things erotic.  

Surely it is the groundless drawing of an inevitable connection between female laughter and female sexual accessibility which has meant funny women have had and are still given such a hard time?

Gloomy Thalia
What we need is a new symbol of the funny woman. Those grim statues of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, are enough to depress anyone. There were comic actresses in late antiquity but the roles they performed all directed the jokes against women—as ugly, old, drunk, lewd, or cruel.

Myth offers one ancient Greek stand-up comedian, Iambe (pronounced I-am-bee). She gave her name to the metre, the iambic, in which mocking poems were composed. Her jokes cheered up the goddess Demeter enough, when her daughter Persephone had been abducted, to get back on her celestial bike and demand that the male gods do a deal. But Iambe, sadly, seems to have kept her jokes for female-only contexts and was not allowed to perform in the company of men.

Laugh-a-Minute Spartans
The ancient Greek god of laughter, GELŌS, or RISUS in Latin, was worshipped by the militaristic Spartans, famous for their gallows humour. But Gelōs/Risus was  male.  Another city in central Greece held a festival for him which I intend to revive when we have found a female comedy-hero to add to his cult. It was described by the man-turned-into-an-ass in Apuleius’ Golden Ass:

‘Of the thousands of people milling about, there was not a single one who was not splitting his sides with laughter… Some cackled in paroxysms of mirth, others pressed their hands to their stomachs to relieve the pain. In one way or another the entire audience was overcome with hilarity.’ 

Ball with favourite co-star Vivian Vance
I want to be there! And at the festival we could celebrate as demigod the first and greatest funny woman to achieve global fame, Lucille Ball, reruns of whose uplifting 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy are still playing. If you are feeling blue, enjoy the comic masterclass constituted by the final sequence of Lucy Wants a Career, in which she tries to film a TV advert for a breakfast cereal called Wakey Flakies after taking a sleeping pill.

Both Lucille and the character she played were attractive, monogamous, maternal and absolutely hilarious. She could do physical comedy better than Buster Keaton and verbal repartee like the Marx brothers. This week I was lucky enough to tell her story, along with her now nonagenarian friend Carole Cook and the broadcaster Matthew Parris, on the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives series. You can hear it until Tuesday here. And in Lucille’s honour I’m definitively rewriting that Chinese proverb: ‘A woman who always laughs is the woman everyone wants as a wife.’