Tereus, Philomele, and Procne
Bibliographic Information (see Variations below)
Running time: 12 minutes, approx.
Philomele: Nightingale [symbol of the connection between love and death]
Procne: Swallow [sign of malevolent fortunes, ranging anywhere from severe and life-
long illness to the possibility of murder]
Tereus: Hoopoe [symbolic of war and death]
Itys (son of Procne and Tereus) [in some variants/translations of Ovid is turned into a
Audience: Adult (NOT for under 18)
I chose to tell this story because, well, I knew that it would be difficult. I'm by nature a goofball, and something like this, even though it's a Greek Myth (well, legend, really), deserves a level of seriousness that I would like to cultivate or at least attempt. I decided not to make it a "sob story", but rather keep the tale serious and focus on some of the more universal messages that are found within the story and its variations (exertion of power over others, exploitation, making sacrifices in the name of love and obligation).
Aristophanes' The Birds
Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus
of Sophocles' Tereus
(Dana F. Sutton, The Lost Sophocles.
University Press of
Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale (1989; rpt.
and Faber, 1991)
Ovid's version, Tereus, king of
The Birds uses Ovid and references it
quite a bit, but the variations are hilarious rather than disturbing. His play tells the story of two
Athenians, Peisthetaerus and Euelpides,
who are seeking to escape Athens, a place overwhelmed by corrupt politicians,
choked law courts, and a long war. After finding Tereus,
the same one from Ovid (now in bird form), they ask him to summon all of the
birds in the forest and then, after a bit of conflict, form a pact with the
birds to build Cloudcuckooland. From here on, eighteen new characters
appear between now and the end of the play, but we don't see Eulepides or the hoopoe anymore. The first group of
characters consists of people concerned in different ways with the founding of Cloudcuckooland: a priest, a lyric poet, an oracle-monger,
the mathematician and astronomer Meton, and finally
an "inspector" and a "decree-seller" from
Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus uses Ovid's story as well and references it several times within the play's text, but embellishes on it a bit and, utterly unlike Aristophanes, makes Ovid's tale more disturbing. Lavinia, daughter of the great Roman general Titus Andronicus, is the Philomele character, but she is set up and raped as a means of revenge (the wicked Goth queen Tamora plots with Aaron, the moor, and her lusty sons to use Lavnia as a way of hurting Titus). Also, Lavinia has two assailants, Tamora's sons, and they not only cut out her tongue but also cut off her hands. Lavinia is discovered by her uncle and greeted with very strange, almost love poetry. No tapestry is used to communicate the crime (Lavinia is without hands, remember), so she uses a staff to scrawl the names of her attackers in the dust. Parent-child cannibalism is present (this time between Tamora and her sons with Titus as the angry chef), however unlike Ovid's version no one is transformed: everyone just dies.
Though Wertenbaker also follows Ovid's version, she departs from it in a number of ways. She introduces the device of the "play within the play," used frequently in Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, to name a few), into the scene where Tereus falls "in love" with Philomela (Wertenbaker's version of "Philomele"). After the victory of Athens/Thrace over the barbarian invasion, Tereus watches a production of Medea and discusses with Pandion the use of love as a justification for violence. He later uses this line of reasoning to rationalize raping Philomela. Additionally, the means by which Tereus's crimes are communicated to Procne are also altered. Philomela and her attendant (a nurse who has accompanied her from Athens) manipulate three "naked" life-sized cloth dolls, one male and two female (something used in modern-day rape crisis centers as a non-invasive technique for communicating the crime), to act out Tereus's brutality. Finally, Wertenbaker keeps the Procne-Itys murder, however omits the father/son cannibalism. Instead, Itys' body is presented to Tereus by both Procne and Philomela, the three of them are turned into birds, and Itys is transformed back into an innocent child. Philomela, now a nightingale, sings Itys a song, and Itys asks Philomela "What is right?" Philomela cannot answer him, so he asks (the final line in the play), "didn't you want me to ask questions?" This line brings to mind what to me is the point of the story- that one should question the violence inherent in man and the perpetuation of violence with regard to revenge.