Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space?
Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?
Dear Miss Hamilton,
Where are you? In 1957, 90 years old, you are berthed in The Delphi Suite of the Greek luxury liner the S.S. Queen Frederika at sea en route to Athens where your translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound will be performed at the Herodes Atticus beneath the Acropolis. You are expecting Blanche Yurka, the actor cast as Io, who will broach the delicate subject of abbreviating the play before the performance. I know you will say Cut! All the geography can go. You amaze me. That, you, the author, well, you are not the author, Aeschylus is of course the author, the translator then, you the translator would so severely cut her words astonishes me. This description of a city, a town, this mountain range here, all of it was long ago local color, parochial interest. You would cut all of it!
Miss Yurka played a cow, a cow in such a classic theatrical production. Such stock livestock is always a result of fallout between Zeus who desires, it seems, anyone and everyone and Hera the constantly betrayed and vengeful wife. Hera was known as the ”Cow-eyed One” so perhaps being a bovine was not that bad? But the speeches are only mooing travelogues of the cow’s flight to Asia, the gadfly stinging her on. It reads almost like modern advertising. “Be sure to stop at this sacred grove.” “This water nymph is standing by to help you.” “That temple is open late.” No, these bits and pieces were all expendable.
Prometheus Bound is the actors’ worst nightmare, the director’s dead end. There is no action! It is like this letter to you there in the Delphi Suite on the SS Queen Frederika. Out to sea, indeed. Nothing going on but making speeches about speeches. Where is the action to act in that? The play is merely a bundle of recitations—don’t get me wrong these speeches contain some of the most magnificent poetry ever written and its themes are universal, timeless—with little drama. Prometheus, is shackled to a mountain right from the start—very hard to act when wrapped in chains—though I bet those new method actors would want to give it a go with their eyebrows alone. Miss Yurka will have a rough enough time engaging the audience with a stock-still cow decked out in horns just trying to keep her balance on buskin hooves and mooing out a pretty speech.
You must have been flattered, moved that this translation will be performed there at the Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis, but I am surprised that this was the play chosen. Think, this play was written twenty-five hundred years ago and translated by this 90-year-old woman from, of all places, Indiana, about as far away from Acadia as one could get.
But there, in a place called Fort Wayne, you read ancient Greek and Latin, Hebrew and even a little Sanskrit in your father’s library. Rustic? Bucolic? You bet. No schools to speak of then. It was after the war, yes, the Civil War, in the shadow of all those depressions, economic, emotional. And yes, there were cows, like Dame Io, roaming the downtown streets, the front yards. And you put on your own plays, with your sisters and brother, your own actors and audience.
Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space? Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?
And there you were, there in the Delphi suite, looking back into the past, looking forward to Athens and this grand performance you cut down to size.
You will be led to the stage. The king of Greece will give you some sort of cross. The Stoa above the theater, the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus will be flooded with lights for the first time. And you will be made a Citizen of Athens. A Citizen of Athens, of the city you have for so long loved as much as your own country. A piece of paper from the mayor. It will be “the proudest moment of your life” or some such. Another speech. Speeches are only speech we must remember. But we also will never forget the stages, the places the speech is given. The context. The where. The where where.
[This is the very first post in the very new series, Letters to Dead Authors.]
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the author of several books, including Four for a Quarter, Michael Martone, and The Blue Guide to Indiana. He’s happy that, now, his computer actually counts the number of words allotted (he has been given 75) to tell his life story, like robotic Fates, measuring out the length of line, there, at the bottom of window frame, cutting him off at the exact
Describing her Ft. Wayne, Indiana childhood, Edith Hamilton said, “My father was well-to-do, but he wasn’t interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds.” And so he taught her the classics. In 1958 Life magazine called Edith Hamilton the “greatest living woman classicist.” Famous for her translations of Greek myths, she became an honorary citizen of Athens in 1957 at the age of 90.