As a young person growing up in middle, Mid-America, the tragic flaw was always hubris. Don’t get above yourself. Don’t think you’re different than the rest of us. You’re not. Don’t be pride-full. Do a job you can be proud of, but don’t have too much pride.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve studied the Greek tragedies more. I’ve seen a fair few and actually directed a couple of them. I’m less convinced that Aristotle’s hamartia is hubris. Rather, I’ve come to lean toward thinking the “tragic flaw” for a tragic character is not knowing who you really are. What does it mean to be me? Who am I really?
In the same vein that Socrates learned to doubt the gods from watching tragedies, particularly the good old plays of Aeschylus; Plato learned from watching tragedies to opine, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Or, it would seem so while recently watching The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, the Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck film of Captain Marvel, and Katrina Lenk’s performance as Dina in The Band’s Visit. Each work rotates around an essential question of identity for the woman at the center of each story.
The most obvious tie to ancient Greek culture, of course, can be seen in Pulley and Buttonhole Theatre Company’s production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.[i] Written as a novella and workshopped in a theatrical version both in 2005, The Penelopiad proceeds in the form of a kind of pre-Aeschylean tragedy. As we understand that Thespis stepped out of the Chorus, The Penelopiad demands bravura work from one woman who plays Penelope, while a Chorus of twelve women serve as choral interlocuters and suppliers of endless cameo appearances.
Atwood shows us Penelope from birth as the daughter of a water goddess to her marriage to the Greek king and general Ulysses, and through the events as Homer reports them in The Odyssey. The difference of this story from Homer’s, though, is that this time Atwood provides us the perspective of these events from Penelope’s personal experience.
And it ain’t pretty.
Women were not treated well as a matter of course in ancient Greek culture, and this is continually on display through the length of The Penelopiad. Women are, at best, an afterthought, and certainly not worth the full attention of the men.
Director Bridget Reilly Beauchamp utilizes contemporary memes in showing us important contrasts among the characters. For example, the considerable talents and charms of Tasha Holmes in the title role are necessary to carry us through a long evening of Atwood’s writerly and sometimes poetic prose. Holmes, a woman of color, as Penelope is forced to watch her cousin, Helen, get more attention – simply because she’s blonde. What does it mean to be a strong woman while the culture you’re in ignores you for someone else just because she’s blonde, or meets some conventional values of appearance?
As in Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope’s loyalty is put to the test. Ulysses, as played by Lauren Salvo, seems to provide genuine moments of tenderness in the early times of their arranged marriage. The husband, however, swiftly is carried off to the Trojan War for the sake of Helen and is absent from Ithaca for ten years of war.
At the war’s end, Penelope rightly expects the return of her husband, but instead he goes on to several years of adventures at sea – including an affair with Circe, the sorceress.
While Beauchamp works her materials well throughout the production, it is in the well-known territory of Penelope waiting for her husband that Beauchamp’s creativity with materials comes through. We see Penelope and the Chorus as a group of maids work in a highly choreographed dance in which they weave ropes, and then spend the night un-doing the day’s work. The Chorus switches between being the maids who assist Penelope and the men who are in Ithaca as suitors who will marry her and take over as king.
Special comment must be made of the puppet and puppetry that allow us to see the continuing frustration of Telemachus, the son of Penelope of and Ulysses. Penelope never includes Telemachus in an explanation of her plans to put off the suitors, allowing her son to be worried, angry, concerned, puzzled, and afraid. Michelle Yeager’s two Telemachus puppets attach to Chorus member, Jessica Heller. Heller gives movement and voice to the child and then the teen-aged Telemachus. Swiftly, as with all good puppet work, the puppet becomes the focus of the audience as a viable character in a story.
The play ends, as it must, with blood and death. Ulysses finally returns to Ithaca. He has become a bit of an enigma. But he is able to kill the false suitors with arrows shot from his mighty bow.
Then, the maids who helped Penelope in secret are ordered executed as well. Here Beauchamp pulls off a coup de theatre – in a non-theatrical space, twelve nooses swing down for each Chorus member to insert her head. In a play in which we’ve seen various acts of violence done against women, this shows the literal finality of the average woman’s place in a patriarchal society. Working women who had helped our heroes in secret were executed in public.
What does it mean to be a woman? Certainly, in considering the “nameless” Chorus, who are these women?
Anyone who has paid the least attention to social media is probably aware of some of the controversy that surrounded the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Captain Marvel.
Self-professed fans of the Marvel Universe were apoplectic about various parts of the Captain Marvel project. There were objections about the casting of Brie Larson in the title role. There were objections that Larson smiled too much or not enough in the trailers and teasers provided the public in advance of the film. There were squawks about Larson being a “social-justice-warrior” deriving from a fairly straight-forward comment about the prevalence of white men covering film in the media. And there were howls from some corners reacting to a comment from producer Kevin Feige about Captain Marvel’s power level.
All of this before the movie was actually able to be judged on its own merits. First world problems – the plight of social media chatter about a “popcorn” movie.
Regardless of whatever else one might think about Captain Marvel, it is structured in a very conventional Aristotelian fashion. (I think it’s a lovely action movie. And, despite a couple of bad words, the movie provides appropriate inspiration for young girls like my daughter.)
In The Poetics, Aristotle notes that the most successful tragedies center on the “man-in-the-middle” who is neither too good nor too bad. A complex plot is better than the simple plot. The complex plot is one that has either recognition or reversal or both. Aristotle points to Sophocles’ Oedipus as a prime example of a successful complex plot.
In Oedipus, the main character has a hamartia that causes his downfall, or the change of his fortunes from good to poor. Oedipus is unaware of his true identity as the son of Laius and Jocasta. If he knew who he was, he never would have killed the man in the chariot (Laius) or married the widowed queen of Thebes (Jocasta) – thus killing his father and marrying his mother, the fate he had worked hard to avoid.
In Oedipus the disgusting acts happened at some remove in the past. The young Oedipus killed the man in the chariot some time ago before he even came to Thebes. And Oedipus had been married to Jocasta long enough to have fathered several children with her.
The tragedy kicked in only when Oedipus had the recognition of who he truly was. This recognition turned his universe upside-down. The recognition that he indeed was the man who killed his father and married his mother was also the moment of reversal in which his fortune immediately changed from good to poor. The transformation from great king to the most disgusting of wretches happened in an instant of realization.
Although Carol Danvers doesn’t experience a lasting tragedy in Captain Marvel, the structure is similar to that of Sophocles’ masterpiece. (Spoilers ahoy.)
The character of Carol Danvers got her own comic book back in the mid-1970s titled Ms. Marvel. All Marvel characters had some quirk – Captain America was a hero ripped from his own time period, Tony Stark had shrapnel near his heart, Dr. Strange was a surgeon with ruined hands, Daredevil was blind, etc. Ms. Marvel was given to Gerry Conway (assisted by his wife, Carla Conway) and artist John Buscema. Ms. Marvel’s original quirk was amnesia. Carol Danvers wasn’t quite sure what happened during the moments of blackout, and Ms. Marvel wasn’t quite sure where she came from.[ii]
The filmmakers utilized a version of this quirk.
While we suspect something is up, we’re not sure what until we get to the bottom of the second act. Then we’re given a version of Aristotle’s complex plot. “Veers,” the Kree warrior woman we’ve been following through the film, discovers that she is, in fact, Carol Danvers, an Earth woman. This realization leads to a reversal in her allegiance from her Kree military leader, Yon-Rogg, to saving a group of Skrull refugees.
At first the Kree overlords utilize this realization and reversal in an attempt to crush Carol Danvers as a warrior. It is then that she (and us) become aware of her heroic powers that enable her to ultimately win the battle at hand and progress toward her goal of saving a refugee family.
Of interest, the story appears to hinge on the central woman character being unclear about her identity for the front part of the story.
Katrina Lenk rightly won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Dina in The Band’s Visit on Broadway. She shows us a mature, sensual woman who learns more about herself through the unplanned visit of an Egyptian band – and its bandleader – to her little Israeli town.
David Yazbek and Itamar Moses adapt the stage musical from a film screenplay by Eran Kolirin. The plot is fairly straight-forward. Due to a miscommunication a group of musicians from the Alexandria Police Band winds up in a nowhere Israeli town with no hotels and no more bus service today. The owner of little restaurant/store and her friends put the members of the band up for the night. Dina hosts the bandleader, Tewfiq, and Haled, a band-member that Tewfiq trusts least.
For the majority of the story we see Dina and Tewfiq together as Dina shows her guest about the little town. She takes Tewfiq to a place to get food where she reminisces about hearing and seeing broadcasts from Egypt as a little girl (“Omar Sharif”). In this scene we witness Dina as a mature woman. She sensuously describes the words and songs from Omar Sharif movies coming on a “jasmine wind.” In the scene we also discover that her husband is gone and that she has an occasional lover who is married to another woman.
Dina and Tewfiq ultimately travel to a park – or an open area meant to serve the function of a park – where they sit on a bench and chat. We find out that Tewfiq was married, but that his marriage had not ended well.
As the evening wears on, we see that Dina is attracted to this enigmatic man. In spending time with him and talking about their lives, Dina begins to see her life in a slightly different focus.
However, by the time they return to Dina’s apartment, Tewfiq finds his way to his sleep while Dina finds romance with Haled, who has had his own series of adventures earlier in the evening.
Lenk’s performance is complex. We see a woman comfortable in herself. Lenk shows a complete lack of strain as an actress. And her Dina is a woman who thought she knew what her life was and what could be possible in this dusty, nowhere town. But after an evening with Tewfiq, she learns that she might want and deserve more. But it’s also more complicated than that. It’s not simply of having a romance with this bandleader. Instead she has a romance with a younger guy she barely has had contact with. Has she learned something of herself? Or, has she not? Who is this woman?
In the end, Penelope, Carol Danvers, and Dina are amazingly complex characters portrayed on stage and screen by talented women who show us many sides of women in their doubts, power, fears, intelligence, complexity, strength, and sexuality – and more.
That is to say, more simply, women.
[i] Full disclosure – two of my alumni, Jessica Heller and Rachel Penny were members of the cast.
[ii] Lee, Stan. The Superhero Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.