Posts Tagged ‘Ovid’

The magic of Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019

Together again (on the balcony): The wandering Silenus (Rodney Gardiner) is reunited with Bacchus (Benjamin Ismail) at last. All photos by Kevin Berne for Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Photos don’t do it justice. Never did. Award-winning Metamorphoses came to Berkeley again, under the Tony award-winning direction of the playwright Mary Zimmerman at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I attended one of the early productions in New York City, a decade or two ago. Broadway, or off-Broadway … I can’t recall which anymore. But I do remember that it was mind-shaking and soul-stirring – just as you always want theater to be, though it rarely is. Well, it’s based tales from Ovid‘s epic, so it’s built on a sound foundation. Years later at Stanford, Zimmerman signed my copy of the published script – and sketched two little seabirds above her signature. Ceyx and Alcyone perhaps, those passionate drowned lovers, who are transformed into birds.

Alcyone (Louise Lamson) searches for her lost love.

When I heard it was coming back, I hesitated. Could it possibly match the first performance? Or would it be a big fat flop? Especially since I would be hauling a millennial daughter and son-in-law along with me (not to mention ticket prices), I didn’t want to take chances. I waited and I waited … reviews weren’t prompt. The show was extended and then extended again. The San Francisco Chronicle rave review finally appeared, and the the little man was out of his chair clapping.

A good sign. But it’s easy to imagine how a play that centers on a big pool of water in the middle of the stage could flop. Check out the videos on Youtube to see what I mean. It’s a play that needs crackerjack timing and professionalism, but also a lot of resources to manage the pool that can turn skin to parchment and rust curtain clips.

The three of us caught the final weekend of the show, and we’re glad we did. Although this production was slow to get started, the second half picked up an irreversible momentum with Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, and others.

Yes, yes, I know that Eros and Psyche aren’t in Ovid; she included them anyway.

“I’ll tell you what drew me to it – and what continues to draw me to it – is that the word Psyche, in Greek, means ‘the soul,'” Zimmerman explains in the theater program. “There’s this element to the story which is fairy-tale-like, and there’s this injunction that Psyche must not look directly on love. That love is very dangerous or forbidden. It’s mysterious to me. I’ve been with this show for a while. For decades. I’m still not to the bottom of that mystery.”

“Let me die the moment my love dies,” say the cast members in the finale. “Let me not outlive my own capacity to love.”

I wondered if the bereaved and hysterical Alcyone would be as good as I remembered. I had my doubts when actress Louise Lamson was barely audible in the first scene (all performers have multiple roles). Yet in her doomed search for Ceyx, she seemed exactly as I remembered. And so it was: I checked the program, and Lamson played in both the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, all those years ago.

Phaeton (Rodney Gardiner) talks to his therapist. (Photo: Berkeley Rep/Berne)

Steven Epp as Morpheus

Happy birthday to the bad boy of Roman poetry!

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

tim120More birthday greetings from our correspondent, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. This time the occasion is the birthday of Ovid. Tim has offered occasional salutations to Virgil, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, George Frideric Handel, Christina Rosetti, William Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith. And we have written about Ovid here and here and here and here and here.

But the years roll round again relentlessly offering us another occasion to celebrate the author of Metamorphoses – and Tristia, too.

This Sunday marks the birthday of Ovid, the bad boy of Roman poetry. Born in 43 BCE, he reports in his Tristia that versing came naturally to him even as a child. His masterpiece, “Metamorphoses,” is a tour de force that knits together, by the recurring motif of transformation, myths and legends from the origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. Though Ovid did not invent the stories, he recounted them with unforgettable psychological vividness and gave them their definitive form. No other poem has had a greater influence on subsequent art. Sculptors, painters, composers, novelists, and poets have drawn on it for centuries.

narcissusIn his own day, Ovid was immensely popular, but, unluckily, the emperor Augustus was not a fan. A libertine in youth, he metamorphosed as a ruler into a priggish defender of public morals, and he detested Ovid’s poems, which breezily treat sex and seduction and which parody conventional Roman pieties. In 8 CE he banned Ovid’s work from the state libraries and banished the poet himself to Tomis, an imperial outpost on the Black Sea notorious for its bandits and bad weather. Ovid died there in 17 CE.

Many anecdotes survive about Ovid’s genius and vanity. The Elder Seneca reports one of them in his Controversies (2.2.12): “[Ovid] was aware of his faults—and liked them. This is clear from an incident when he was asked by his friends to get rid of three of his verses; in exchange he asked that he should be allowed to make an exception of three verses which they could not touch. This seemed a fair condition. They wrote down privately the ones they wanted damned: he wrote down the ones he wanted saved. Both sheets contained the same verses. … From [this] it is clear that this talented man lacked the will rather than the taste to restrain the license of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was all the more beautiful for a mole” (trans. Michael Winterbottom).

At right is a rendering of the Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses executed by the great bad boy of Italian painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.


Another bad boy

Postscript: A gentle reader wrote to ask … Isn’t Catullus the bad boy of Roman poetry? Tim replies:

“That’s a good question. Catullus is revolutionary in his sexual candor. However, his epigrams and lyrics are often bitterly realistic, and he is sometimes excruciating on the subject of his obsessive relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. His ultimate disillusionment with his passion for her is the opposite, it seems to me, of licentious. (Catullus was also very well-born and a friend of Caesar’s, who evidently admired his work.)

“Ovid, on the other hand, really is naughty. The Art of Love is virtually a vade mecum for adulterers. And in theMetamorphoses he presents (with great relish) the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as pathologically vindictive, sensual, or deceptive. This isn’t to say Ovid can’t be poignant and moving, as in the tale of Baucis and Philemon or Pythagoras‘s powerful speech in favor or vegetarianism near the end of the poem.”

And then, courteous gentleman that he is, Tim thanked the reader for raising the point.

Children’s books: memory, magic, lullaby, and how now is now.

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I don’t think much about children’s literature. I haven’t read much …. oh, since I was a child. I’m not one of those people who gets all misty-eyed about childhood, but I recently ran across this lovely passage, at the very end of Laura Ingall Wilder‘s Little House in the Big Woods, and I wondered if I missed something on first reading, decades ago:


It’s still now now.

“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

LB. Easter Egg Roll.

Mary Pope Osborne and her husband at the White House, 2007.

One more reason to reconsider: I recently became acquainted with Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House series, which has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 30 languages – success by any standards, but there’s more. The popularity of the series surpassed that of Harry Potter as #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006 (and I’ve never read Harry Potter, either). The series has been awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers Association, and she also received the Ludington Memorial Award from the Educational Paperback Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Random House Sales Force.

Here’s what enchanted me in the video a friend sent me above. She based a children’s book on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and the sad story of the Alcyone, daughter of the god of the wind, and her drowned husband Ceyx. Alcyone returns to the sea each day, waiting for his return, and Aphrodite, at last taking pity on her, sends the divine messenger Iris to the house of Sleep (a.k.a. Morpheus) to arranges a nighttime visitation, to convince the grief-stricken queen her cause is lost. In Mary’s rendering, in her 1989 A Visit to Sleep’s House, the story turns a sort of lullaby, where “drowsy Sleep lives in a cloud-covered house.” All is quiet as “you walk up Sleep’s pathway” where “no owl calls out, ‘Who?’ / and no dog barks under the moon.” Wild animals, geese, cows, are similarly soundless. At last she sees Sleep, a shadowed figure wearing a nightcap, “lying on an old wooden bed” beside yours, and you fall asleep listening to the river that “whispers, Good night, good night.” The mini-reading begins around 34.00.

zimmermanSomewhere in my messy house, I have a big fat edition of Ovid, but I can’t find it. But I recalled that the sad story of Alcyone inspired another Mary – Mary Zimmerman, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow – in her remarkable play Metamorphosis. While looking for the fat Ovid, I found instead my slim paperback of the play, in which Iris calls Sleep “Mildest of all the gods, soother of souls, and healer of wearied and pain-wracked bodies and minds.” As a result, the inconsolable Alcyone gets a nighttime visit from the shrouded ghost of her husband. As he retreats to the sea, “She began to run to him; but as she ran, crying, a strange thing happened.” Then, in an Ovidian turn, the gods have mercy – she becomes a bird, and so does he:

For the dead body was changing, restored to life,
and renewed as another seabird.
Together they still fly, just over the water’s surface,
and mate and rear their young, and for seven days each winter
Alcyone broods on her next that floats on the gentled water –
for Aeolus, her father, then keeps the winds short reined
and every year gives seven days of calm upon the ocean –
the days we call the halcyon days.

And that is how Mary Zimmerman signed my book at Stanford, with two birds over the sea.

And now to bed.

Quoting Diane Middlebrook

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

Quotable (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Brendan Boyle has written a review of Diane Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid for the Wall Street Journal here, in a piece titled “Love and Other Crimes.” (And I’ve written about the book here and here.) My attention was immediately drawn to it because it leads with a line from my obituary for the celebrated biographer – here. The quote was taken from the unpublished bits of an interview I did with her in 2003, for my Stanford Magazine interview here.  Since obituaries typically aren’t chatty and first person-y, I didn’t mention my 2003 interview, and simply quoted her.

Here is the whole passage:

When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.

But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”

Why is there no attribution? Presumably Boyle picked it up from Wikipedia, which didn’t attribute the source, either. Nor did it credit me with this quotation from her obituary: “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”



In my ham-fisted way, I’ve corrected the Wikipedia listings. Honestly, what is the point of doing interviews, trying hard to make the quotations accurate, transcribing recordings, which takes hours and hours … if people are going to treat what you’ve written as if it popped out of thin air? Boyle writes, “It’s the second half of the response that’s worrisome and surely can’t have been meant in earnest.” Well, of course it wasn’t. If he had gone to the article that included it, he would have seen that it was said with “characteristic breeziness.” She was being flippant. But he couldn’t. Because he was using Wikipedia, which didn’t list a source.

In any case, Boyle didn’t think much of the book, apparently, and what she said to me about “making it up” sealed her doom in his eyes, since he refers to that remark a lot. “The fictionalized interludes that Middlebrook herself writes do not add much and often have that florid, overripe air that descends upon so much writing about the ancient world.” He repeatedly makes it clear that “there is already a very fine account of Ovid’s life in Peter Green’s 1982 introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s erotic poems.”  After recounting its virtues, he concludes, “All of this, and far more, is available in Mr. Green’s introduction, and no one looking for a sophisticated, compendious account of the poet’s life should search elsewhere.” Then why review this book at all?

“I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love”: Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid; Djerassi’s last public appearance

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

Last wishes fulfilled. (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Carl Djerassi had a way of stealing the show, and last week may prove, in retrospect, to have been no exception. The January 22 occasion was the launch of biographer Diane Middlebrook‘s posthumous book, Young Ovid: A Life Recreated (Counterpoint Press) a book that has taken seven years since the author’s death to find its way into book form. Last week’s event, at the fabulous Djerassi digs atop Russian Hill, will be known equally as Carl’s last public appearance. The eminent chemist who has been called “father of the pill” (surely a contradiction in terms) – and also an author, playwright, and founder of an artists’ colony – died yesterday of cancer at 91. It’s certainly appropriate that his final public appearance was a last salute to his late wife, who died of cancer in 2007.

According to Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, the posthumous book would not have come out with him. “He kept her alive and kept her distracted,” she recalled. She had reached a lowpoint in her long illness when she realized she would not be able to finish her book. Carl suggested a “Young Ovid” biography, and that gave her new life. She discussed the manuscript with Carl to the last days of her life. A pleasure as well as a duty, for Ovid was her lifelong passion. “Reading a page and a half will convince you her voice is still present with us,” said her daughter.

I bought a copy, available at the event courtesy Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and though I’ve only had a chance to cast a casual eye over it, it’s impressive, perhaps some of her best work. “It is Diane’s prose. It is Diane’s writing,” said Leah. It wasn’t easy. Middlebrook had continued writing until a month before her death. She conveyed to a circle of insiders her plans and intentions for the finished book. The execution finally rested in the hands of others – and the search of a publisher was a labor of its own. The New Yorker has already named it as one of their “Books to Watch Out For” here.

At the event last week, however, tribulations were forgotten amid plenty of champagne, plenty of brie, plenty of dolmas, and plenty of little bits of goat cheese wrapped in strips of fried zucchini, against the backdrop of what must be one of the most stunning views in a city full of them. I described it a dozen years ago (here) this way:

“The couple’s art interests are evident in their home, surely one of the most fabulous apartments in San Francisco. It occupies the entire 15th floor (they gradually absorbed four apartments) of an art-deco building on Green Street, atop Russian Hill. The elevator from the lobby opens onto blue walls meant to suggest a night sky, with poetry by Ovid, Paul Klee, Wallace Stevens, Basho, Hughes and others written across it in different scripts and languages and illustrated with zodiacal signs. To the left are living quarters; to the right, offices and the salon area, where the couple entertains. They enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

(Photo: Isabella Gregor)

He liked this one. (Photo: I. Gregor)

“Middlebrook’s office features Eurodesign cabinets and built-in bookcases, with a computer desk and round work table. As in the hotel room, all is very neat, very well-organized—a Middlebrook cardinal virtue. A painted baroque ceiling, with blue, gray and plum-colored swirls, gives the impression the sky is right above you.

“Works of art by Klee, usually on the walls in the salon area, are currently on loan to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, keeping company with the permanent Klee collection Djerassi donated. The couple has one of the world’s most significant private Klee collections.”

Much of the evening buzz over hors d’oeuvres was about Carl’s health – whispers that this would be his last public appearance, and so it was. (I still can’t believe that he won’t email me tomorrow with the photo he’d rather have me use for this farewell post – but the one I’m including is the one he preferred last time, so here it is again.) When Carl finally appeared and was helped to a chair at the front of the gathering he was startlingly thin, exceedingly frail, but erect and dignified, surprisingly present, altogether there. “Can you hear me back there? All of you back there?” he called. “I’m losing my voice, and I am losing my voice because I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love.”

He had a slender, old-fashioned paperback – 1930s, Europe – on the small table next to his side as he spoke, and told his story about fleeing Austria with his mother in 1938 to escape the Nazis. “What would you take as a refugee? No furniture of any size, nothing heavy,” he recalled. Just clothing, pictures, and some books – and one of the books was this one – naturally, a book of Ovid. Heavy going for a teenager who had only four years of Latin, he admitted, but the relic from his past traveled with him to New York; Newark, New Jersey; the Midwest; Mexico; and California. It’s still with him. If he were writing a book, it would be framed as a prefiguration of the woman he would find towards the end of a journey – a woman whose lifelong passion was Ovid – and the book that would connect them at the end of both their lives.

middlebrook1“Diane, I want to tell you how important that book was to me that you finally finished,” he said.

Let the last words be hers, however. Her close friend Marilyn Yalom read, if not a page and a half, at least this part from the introduction to the book, turning on Ovid’s own words: “Throughout all ages,/if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live.”

“To a biographer, Ovid’s declaration ‘I shall live’ can feel like a glove slapping a cheek across twenty centuries. Quite aside from its embarrassingly self-promotional aspect, the phrase can be dismissed as empty convention: Ovid’s most celebrated contemporaries incorporated lines like this in work of their own they most admired. But what if Ovid meant it? What could support a writer’s belief that works of poetry could be immortal and that his own was destined for this rare elevation?

“Biography is a medium for working out solutions to such puzzles. Yet Ovid is not an obvious candidate for biography; there is almost no documentation of Ovid’s life outside his poetry. The evidence inside his poetry is all we have to go on. But it is enough, for Ovid was an unusually autobiographical writer for his time. His voice comes toward us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millenia, partly because he made frequent use of an effective rhetorical strategy: accosting us readers as if we were present in the room with him. At one point he even calls us, his heirs, by name: ‘Who is this I you read … ?/You want to know, posterity? Then attend” (Tristia 4.10.1-2).


Ovid: Middlebrook’s last passion comes to light

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Mama’s boy.

When the legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007, she left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Roman poet who had been her lifelong passion. Had death not halted her progress, Ovid: A Biography would almost certainly be in print by now.

In her last months, she tried to radically revamp her book into a study of Ovid’s early years, Young Ovid. Finally she had to abandon the project altogether, leaving as her completed legacy Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992), Suits Me: The Double Life of Billie Tipton (1999), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2003).

Her executors, her daughter Leah Middlebrook and literary scholar Nancy K. Miller, are working to publish the completed sections of the book. The first of their efforts has been published in the current edition of Feminist Studies as “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid is Born.”

Her work cut short.

The piece describes childbirth practices in ancient Rome as well as the role of Ovid’s family – particularly his mother – in his writing and his life.

“Was it in childhood that Ovid’s imagination was captivated by what went on among women sitting together over their spindles and their looms?” Middlebrook asks. “If Ovid’s poetry is original in its treatment of fathers, it is unique in ancient literature in its representation of the social world that women created for themselves within the household, a world largely concealed from the attention of men. Women of all ages and kinds appear and interact with one another in Ovid’s tales, enriching the world of the poem and broadening its emotional and social reach. If an unwelcome man should arrive on the scene, interrupting the women, this world would immediately fold itself up and away out of sight. A male child of less than 7 years, however, might have been a tolerated exception.”

Stanford colleague and friend Terry Castle said of the article (which can be ordered online here), “It’s a lovely memorial to Diane, but also a marvelously interesting essay on Ovid and the nature of childbirth in ancient Rome: a feminist topic if ever there were one.”

(By the by, I just discovered Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 lecture on Ovid online here.)