2012 has been a year of fragmentation, as I rearranged my life with a new job and new theatrical communities.
I’ve realized, too, that my artistic work has been in fragments lately:
- Since February, Megan Cohen and I have been putting together our “Build Your Own Helen Play Kit,” made of fragments of identity, narrative, history, feminism, and epic poetry. (Check it out in May 2013 at DIVAfest!)
- From June to November, The Strindberg Cycle kept me hopping among five plays that were part of a greater whole. Yes, I was astonished to discover that something so mammoth could also be fragmented.
- In August, I worked with The Collaboratory to devise a new physical-theatre piece inspired by Lorca’s Yerma. The ensemble highlighted moments and ideas that appealed to them, and I took it all home to (re)arrange the script with some measure of cohesion out of those responses.
- My play Phoebe & Theia was read last week at the SF Olympians Festival, structured around the Titans’ mythical fall to Tartarus. According to Hesiod, a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus. So the play was written in 18 fragments – and my writing process was fragmented, too, sneaking in an hour here and there between work and rehearsal for most of the last 5 months.
- This week, I am directing for the One Minute Play Festival. I’ve got 10 plays to put together and cast however I please – it’s like a mini repertory project, and so fascinating to see how the plays resonate with each other, even though their authors may never have even met. My 10 plays are part of the larger festival, presenting 70 one-minute plays in one evening of theatre. Dominic D’Andrea, OMPF’s artistic director, describes the performance as 70 “pulses” of moments, brief windows into other worlds. The festival aims to reflect what is happening in the local theatre community here and now.
And now, at the end of 2012, I am doing what many news organizations and radio stations are doing: looking back on the last 12 months/52 weeks/365 days/525,600 minutes and trying to see those fragmented moments as somehow part of a larger whole, trying to find some cohesion in the chaos. Here in the age of Twitter, Google calendar, and compartmentalization, we all have too many balls in the air, we’re taught to break a problem into smaller parts to better see its solution, and we are living fragment to fragment.
Though I didn’t set out to respond to this phenomenon, I’m pretty pleased to discover this thread running through my work. As my delightful collaborators Annie Paladino and Megan Cohen put it last night, it’s “zeitgeisty.”
Megan and I are pulling together found text for the incarnation of Helen we’ve come to call “The Face,” who speaks only in language handed down to her through the ages from epic poetry to contemporary academia. This poem is a contender for one of these found text Odes.
Helen of Troy
by Sara Teasdale, 1911
Wild flight on flight against the fading dawn
The flames’ red wings soar upward duskily.
This is the funeral pyre and Troy is dead
That sparkled so the day I saw it first,
And darkened slowly after. I am she
Who loves all beauty — yet I wither it.
Why have the high gods made me wreak their wrath –
Forever since my maidenhood to sow
Sorrow and blood about me? Lo, they keep
Their bitter care above me even now.
It was the gods who led me to this lair,
That tho’ the burning winds should make me weak,
They should not snatch the life from out my lips.
Olympus let the other women die;
They shall be quiet when the day is done
And have no care to-morrow. Yet for me
There is no rest. The gods are not so kind
To her made half immortal like themselves.
It is to you I owe the cruel gift,
Leda, my mother, and the Swan, my sire,
To you the beauty and to you the bale;
For never woman born of man and maid
Had wrought such havoc on the earth as I,
Or troubled heaven with a sea of flame
That climbed to touch the silent whirling stars
And blotted out their brightness ere the dawn.
Have I not made the world to weep enough?
Give death to me. Yet life is more than death;
How could I leave the sound of singing winds,
The strong sweet scent that breathes from off the sea,
Or shut my eyes forever to the spring?
I will not give the grave my hands to hold,
My shining hair to light oblivion.
Have those who wander through the ways of death,
The still wan fields Elysian, any love
To lift their breasts with longing, any lips
To thirst against the quiver of a kiss?
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again,
To make the people love, who hate me now.
My dreams are over, I have ceased to cry
Against the fate that made men love my mouth
And left their spirits all too deaf to hear
The little songs that echoed through my soul.
I have no anger now. The dreams are done;
Yet since the Greeks and Trojans would not see
Aught but my body’s fairness, till the end,
In all the islands set in all the seas,
And all the lands that lie beneath the sun,
Till light turn darkness, and till time shall sleep,
Men’s lives shall waste with longing after me,
For I shall be the sum of their desire,
The whole of beauty, never seen again.
And they shall stretch their arms and starting, wake
With “Helen!” on their lips, and in their eyes
The vision of me. Always I shall be
Limned on the darkness like a shaft of light
That glimmers and is gone. They shall behold
Each one his dream that fashions me anew; –
With hair like lakes that glint beneath the stars
Dark as sweet midnight, or with hair aglow
Like burnished gold that still retains the fire.
Yea, I shall haunt until the dusk of time
The heavy eyelids filled with fleeting dreams.
I wait for one who comes with sword to slay –
The king I wronged who searches for me now;
And yet he shall not slay me. I shall stand
With lifted head and look within his eyes,
Baring my breast to him and to the sun.
He shall not have the power to stain with blood
That whiteness — for the thirsty sword shall fall
And he shall cry and catch me in his arms,
Bearing me back to Sparta on his breast.
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again!
I’ve been doing some image research, looking at neo-classical representations of Helen, and today I came across this:
“According to the Roman author Pliny, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis could not find a woman beautiful enough to represent Helen of Troy, the archetype of the feminine beauty, so he picked the best features of five virgins to compose the most ideal image of beauty.” Thanks to the blog Sedef’s Corner, which hosts what seems to be the only digital image of this painting readily available on all the Internets.
WHAT! That is a lot like what Megan and I are doing, or maybe it’s the inverse of what we’re doing – constructing a new vision of Helen by drawing on five different aspects of the character and personifying them in the bodies, minds, and mouths of five real women.
Fast forward a couple of millenia to 1778, when Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman created this image of the painter Zeuxis measuring and dissecting his five models, picking apart their best features to construct his own Helen of Troy. My favorite part of Kauffman’s version is that one of the models has taken up a brush and is about to sneakily render her own version of Helen. (Take that, patriarchy!)
I’m blown away by the power of collective consciousness – it’s amazing that thousands of years ago, Zuexis could have the idea to construct an aesthetic (if objectifying) ideal out of the best parts of women, and that 234 years ago Angelica Kauffman could have the idea to comment on that construction, and that right now this minute Megan and I are having ideas about constructing a new reality out of that ancient ideal, and/or a new ideal out of reimagining Helen’s reality… I can’t wait to see what happens when we get our build-your-own Helen up on the Internet for the world to construct with us!