Sunday 27 March 2016

An Odyssey without the Darkness

Happy World Theatre Day, celebrated on March 27, which this year coincides with Western Easter.  At this time of year, when the sailing season started, the ancient Athenians celebrated the BCE equivalent—the international festival of Dionysus, complete with bull and piglet sacrifices, on the south side of the Acropolis.

I marked it by cheering on my friend Sian Thomas, one of the funniest and most skilled actors around, in Welcome Home, Captain Fox, a hilarious new version of Jean Anouilh's 1937 Le Voyageur sans bagage / Traveller without Luggage at the Donmar Warehouse.

Anouilh was fascinated by Greek literature. Besides his world-famous Antigone, his plays include a Medea, an Oedipus and a Eurydice. Traveller without Luggage owes much to the Odyssey (even the key recognition token is a scar) and to the mistaken identity plot-type which Sophocles realised so darkly in Oedipus.

Odysseus' nurse recognises his scar
Anouilh’s play explores the Odyssean theme of the late-returning soldier whose identity is in question and whose own accounts of his past are unreliable. Homer gives Odysseus and his alternative persona as the Cretan beggar many different—and conflicting—memories. Can we really believe him when he says he has visited the Underworld?  Could he actually, as his beggar-self reports, have been kidnapped by pirates and enslaved?

The 'returning mariner’s tale' is primordial. It goes back many centuries before Homer to an Egyptian Middle Kingdom prose story called The Shipwrecked Sailor (c. 2050 BCE). But Anouilh was also inspired by the real-life tragedy of a traumatised and amnesiac French soldier sent back from German captivity and found wandering in Lyon in 1918. He thought his name was something like ‘Anthelme Mangin’: I first learned about him from Jean-Yves Le Naour's fine book The Living Unknown Soldier in 2005.

The Real 'Captain Fox': No Laughing Matter
'Mangin' suffered much, moving between asylums. He died in one, hungry and forgotten, in 1942. But the bereaved of France were suffering too: no fewer than 300,000 of their men had disappeared without trace from the trenches. When ‘Mangin’s' photograph was published, hundreds claimed to be his wife or mother, desperate to have ‘their’ beloved lost man returned to them.  

Sian Thomas glows as Captain Fox's Horrible Mother
Anouilh’s play has been updated by Anthony Weigh, who transplants it to the Long Island bourgeoisie in 1959 and makes it both more ‘feelgood’ and far less profound. Not that I have anything against high comedy, and the performances, especially Thomas’s ghastly √úbersnob Mrs Fox, are outstanding. The stellar reviews are richly deserved. 

But both the Odyssey and Anouilh’s original poignantly convey the psychological agony as well as the absurd comedy involved in delayed postwar reunions and compromised memories. My quest for a London theatre with anything really serious to say goes on.

Friday 18 March 2016


Reconstruction of Homo Neanderthalensis
Having over the years suffered three bad bouts of depression, the worst of which was postnatal, I was fascinated by an article in Scientist. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have found a correlation between depression and DNA inherited from the Neanderthal males with whom female Homo Sapiens mated 50,000 years ago. [Perhaps surprisingly, it was  that way round:  no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA has been found in modern humans].

Rhein Valley 

Reconstructions of Neanderthal Man’s appearance from a cluster of archaeological sites in the Rhineland bear an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump (whose grandfather, purely coincidentally of course, happens to have come from Kallstadt in the Rhineland).

Since the DNA of all modern humans can contain between 0% (all sub-Saharan Africans) and an estimated 4% Neanderthal elements, could the potential US president lie at the upper end of the spectrum? After all, a New Scientist article states that Neanderthal behaviour would seen 'dogmatic and xenophobic' to most humans today. 

Here is my evidence so far:

The Neanderthal diet was mostly animal protein: Trump’s favourite foods are meatloaf and steak.

Neanderthals loved hunting: Trump goes hunting with his son.  

The Neanderthal language was primitive: a recent linguistic analysis shows Trump uses grammar at the level of the average American 8-year-old. 

 Neanderthals were more robust than humans in the upper body: Trump is an obsessive golfer. 

 Neanderthals mysteriously collected small spherical stones: could they have enjoyed pushing them into holes in the ground with sticks, in an early form of golf? 

Neanderthal men often lived in a cave with three females: Trump has had three wives.  

Donald Trump & (below) ancestor?
·    Neanderthals lived horrifyingly violent lives and even their infants’ skeletons show signs of shocking trauma: last Friday Trump lamented to a rally in St. Louis that ‘nobody wants to hurt each other any more’. In February he promised another mutinous crowd that he would protect them if they protected him: ‘If you see someone getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise.’

Some may object that I am being unfair to Neanderthals. The Neanderthal reputation for moronic barbarism was challenged by William Golding’s great novel The Inheritors (1955), where it is Homo Sapiens who is the bad guy, driving the muscular, nature-loving Noble Savage into extinction. I would ask such objectors simply to look at the most recent archaeological evidence for the average Neanderthal’s life-cycle. Nasty, brutish and short doesn’t even begin to describe it. And someone should tell Trump that dogmatism and xenophobia are demonstrably linked with species extinction.

Friday 11 March 2016

Open Classics on Pots and Online

With Head of  Classics Prof  Hugh Bowden at King's "Oscars"
An exciting week for my project Classics and Class (nominated last term as the only Arts & Humanities research venture for the King’s College ‘project of the year’ prize). Co-author Henry Stead and I heard that the anonymous peer reviews Routledge received for our Big Book proposal, Classics and Class in Britain, were enthusiastic.

Victorian  vase made in Samuel Alcock's factory 
Even better, Routledge have accepted it under their Gold Open Access scheme. Once published (winter 2017/18), it will be available both in book form and completely free of charge, in its entirety, online—as is only appropriate for a study of the historic exclusion of most Britons from elite culture, and how they succeeded in getting access to the Greeks and Romans anyway.  

Alexia, Wedgwood Brand Director Leigh Taylor & Josiah Wedgwood

Then I went north-west with esteemed colleague Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis to the capital of the British ceramic industry, Stoke-on-Trent. Many vases and figurines produced there from the late 18th century onwards copied or adapted Greek and Roman artworks. Although some skilled painters and modellers were middle-class, the design classes at Mechanics' Institutes and, later, local art schools created jobs for children, of any class, with a flair for drawing. One was the 13-year-old Eliza Smallwood, whose apprenticeship contract with Minton's factory (shown below) was drawn up in 1878. And the tens of thousands of workers employed in the 150+ factories operating in the 19th century must have been well informed about classical gods and heroes..
Eliza Smallwood's Apprenticeship Contract

In 1839 Charles Shaw, the seven-year-old son of a pottery painter, began working fourteen-hour days. His 1903 memoir When I was a Child, by ‘An Old Potter’ contains horrifying descriptions of the hunger, brutality, dangerous conditions and degradation suffered by the work force in the Potteries, as well as first-hand accounts of the Chartist riots.

But he picked up information about mythology, read Charles Rollin's Ancient History at Sunday school, learned Greek, and became a Methodist minister. The classical figures produced by the companies for whom he worked lingered in his imagination. He described a ruthless local magistrate as one who ‘ruled as the Jove of the pottery district.’ The first Jove (aka Zeus/Jupiter) on which Charles will ever have laid eyes was probably this angry, thunderbolt-wielding figurine, produced by his first employer, Enoch Wood & Sons.

A classical bust & vase drawn by kiln firer
My pulse raced when we were shown the Firing Records from the 1790s by Gaye Blake Roberts, Wedgwood Museum Curator. The labourers who put the ceramics in the ovens—hot, backbreaking and dangerous work—used to draw the pots and figures in miniature in the margins of their often mis-spelt inventories. I can’t wait to write the ‘Potters’ chapter in the Big Book now.

Enoch Wood's Factory in Burslem, Staffordshiore

Saturday 5 March 2016

Aristophanes in Illinois: Spike Lee's CHI-RAQ

Lee, Willmott  & John Cusack (who plays radical priest Father Mike)
What do South and West Chicago today and Athens in spring 411 BCE have in common? Film Director Spike Lee thinks there are vivid parallels. He’s made a film updating Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to CHI-RAQ, ‘Chi-[cago/I]raq’, the killing fields where teenage members of African American gangs run riot with firearms. I met Mr Lee this week, just after his non-appearance at the whiter-than-white Oscars, during a public screening and discussion masterminded by Professor Sara Monoson, Head of Political Science at Northwestern University north of Chicago.

Just about to kick off with Sara Monoson
Eighteen months before the first production of Lysistrata, the Athenians failed to conquer Sicily and suffered their worst ever fatalities there, losing many thousands. Athens was crammed with widows and grieving mothers; Aristophanes' comedy imagines the Athenian women organising a sex-strike alongside the women of the ‘enemy’ city, Sparta, and a takeover of the Acropolis, until the men on each side agree to lay down their arms and make peace.

In the calendar year 2015, there were 5011 shooting victims in Chicago. There have already been over 500 in the first two months of 2016. Poor black neighbourhoods are crammed with widows and grieving mothers: Lee and his screenwriter Kevin Wilmott imagine the women of two gangs (Spartans and Trojans) denying their men sex and occupying the state armoury. CHI-RAQ ends with an armistice and promises of full employment and local investment. 

The new film is magnificently Aristophanic in that it is both a political satire and musical theatre (Lysistrata’s lover is a rapper). There are colourful dance sequences by the 60-strong female army, absurdist episodes featuring enormous cannons and sex toys, and punchy versified dialogue in sometimes (to me) near-incomprehensible but clearly bracing slang. It is rib-achingly funny and sexually uninhibited. The cast are very beautiful and visual puns or surprises pop up round every corner. But its message is deadly serious and has proved controversial ever since the Mayor of Chicago tried to get the title changed, so concerned was he about the frightening picture of Chicago street life a name including the four letters IRAQ paints.

But the eye-opener for me on Wednesday night was the passionate intensity of the questions put by the (largely student) audience to Lee, and the forcefulness of his responses. The film is undoubtedly courageous in facing up to the black-on-black nature of the violence, and the problematic hyper-masculinity endorsed by some street gangs.  But there were plenty of black feminists attacking Lee, with open disrespect, for his sexualisation of African American women; he had a stock of rude quips in response. One carping voice asked Lee to justify the praise he has received from some white people for the film; the convoluted point seemed to be that if he had succeeded in getting his message across to The Enemy, he must be some kind of race traitor.

Girls and Girls go out to Play
None of this debate was edifying: I had walked straight into the heart not of the politics of the deprived black gangland underclass but the racial, gender and identity politics, the maelstrom of the ideological wars being waged on privileged American campuses. But it was educative, and increased my admiration for Mr Lee’s work. He may be irritable and egotistical but he does put his head above the parapet and address an extreme contemporary emergency through his unprecedented re-energising of an ancient play. 

He is committed to doing something constructive about the plight of young, under-educated gang members, often from broken families and with criminal records by the age of 10. He brought two with him. They are now adult and campaigning for decent schools on the south side and reform of the gun laws. They both spoke with devastating conviction and palpable personal pain. I am sure that Aristophanes would have been proud of the entire project.