Of Bodies Changed – Metamorphoses

NiobeThis play was first performed at Brechtbautheater Tübingen in 2007 and once more at the “Kulturnacht 2008” in Tübingen.

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“I’ll be your mirror” – this is what love-struck Echo offers to Narcissus in my version of Ovid’s story, and her statement is somewhat programmatic. All the stories told the play seem to whisper to each other “I’ll be your mirror”: there are many parallels between those seven at first seemingly unconnected tales.

The most obvious parallel runs probably between the stories of Arachne and Ovid, or more generally, between the stories of Arachne, Niobe and Ovid: Niobe’s and Arachne’s pride and fall are mirrored by Ovid’s own hubris and degradation. But especially the story of Arachne (and all the more so in this modern version with authors instead of weavers) seems to parallel Ovid’s own life-story. The only difference is that the supreme being which Ovid angered was mortal – but nevertheless called divine: Augustus, the Roman emperor. And just as the Ovidian gods punish and torture at the slightest provocation, so Augustus banished the poet for apparently trivial reasons. And just as the spider’s web is a fragile creation that is easily destroyed by thoughtless humans, so an artist’s work is always prone to destructive forces, e.g. of censorship.

Two other stories that mirror each other are those of Daphne/Apollo and Echo/Narcissus. In the first, the man desires the woman – in vain. In the second, the girl desires the boy – even more futilely. But while in the story of Daphne and Apollo the god’s love is supplanted by his admiration (and utilisation) of the laurel tree, Echo’s love stays unrequited in all respects, just as does that of Narcissus. Even after their earthly forms have perished, these two stay caught in their impossible loves.Echo and Narcissus

The idea of a love that outlasts death connects their story to the tale of Alcyone and Ceyx, which, even though it also ends with death, is a much happier one, since the enduring (and reciprocated) love of the two is so strong that even after their transformation into birds they continue as a loving couple. Love as a redeeming power is a theme which, on the other hand, connects the story of Alcyone and Ceyx to that of Cupid and Psyche.

The tales of Daphne, Arachne, Echo, Niobe and Alcyone – why those five out of approximately 250 tales included in the whole epos? One reason was that they all feature women as their central characters – important for a theatre group always short of male actors. Furthermore, they were chosen for their variety of transformations – a bird, a tree, a stone, a spider and a voice. This is a good representation of the repertoire of the 5 storiesmetamorphoses – although there are of course many other possibilities: mammals reptilians, flowers, rivers and many more. (We tried to allude to the last category by including a mirror on the stage which was alternately a river, a pool or the sea – and, who knows, maybe it is some Ovidian character whose transformation has taken place before our play started?)

One tale that may strike an audience as different from the rest is the story of Niobe. Indeed, in its relatively stark brutality, it stands apart from the rest, where death and suffering are no strangers either but do not occur in such quantities. However, I chose to include Niobe because I think her tale is representative of many stories in the Metamorphoses , where human vices, especially pride or negligence towards the gods, are punished in the direst ways. The death of Niobe’s children is cruel but it is only one instance of bloody slaughter – in other tales people are skinned alive, tongues are cut out, children are cooked and served for dinner and this is by no means the complete list of atrocities. In fact, the Metamorphoses appear soaked in blood – only one doesn’t notice this so much in reading them, as they are told in a light, amusing tone. Niobe, therefore, is the representative of this other, darker side of the Metamorphoses .

Ovid offers no solution to the brutality in his stories – he is just a teller of tales, no matter if uplifting or gruesome. But in the face of so much misery, I started to look for stories with happier endings in order to strike a balance. However, those are hard to come by in Ovid’s Metamorphoses . This was one reason why I included the story of Cupid and Psyche, even though this is not one of Ovid’s tales. (And even though there is no easily discernible transformation – apart from that of Cupid changing from impertinent know-it-all narrator to a sometimes rather foolish and vulnerable character in his own story). But the story of Cupid and Psyche is taken from a book titled Metamorphoses, too (also known as The Golden Ass), written by Lucius Apuleius about 150 years after Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Ovid

Ovid’s own life story is of course no part of the Metamorphoses either. However, I found that it has dramatic qualities as well, and, as Cupid puts it, “it would make a good story”. In fact, it has already been used as the basis for fiction before. For instance in Christoph Ransmayer’s novel Die letzte Welt (1988). Apart from its general drama, there is also a kind of transformation in Ovid’s life story: the much-loved society poet turned into a sad expatriate who until his death hoped to be pardoned by the emperor.

So these were the reasons which guided my choice of stories. Of course, many many more stories worthy of telling can be found in the Metamorphoses, and they are being told, e.g in the award-winning dramatic adaptation by Mary Zimmerman from 2002. But that’s a completely different story.