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

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