With all the hype and praise heaped so consistently upon it, with laudatory criticism enough to swell the head of even a recipient of that MacArthur Foundation grant so modestly dubbed the “genius award,” it is tempting indeed to look at Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses currently on display at Circle in the Square on Broadway and mutter with a critic of an earlier Ovidian adaptation:
A play there is my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious; for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted.
If only as a vaccine against hubris, one would like to shout that the Empress has no clothes, but damned if she isn’t wearing ermine robes and a crown of gold. Zimmerman’s retelling of selected tales from Ovid’s first century poetic compendium of myths and tales deserves every standing ovation it gets.
There is an elegant symbolism, if not irony, in her choice of the Metamorphoses as a text for metamorphosis. Metamorphosis, after all, is what she has always been about: her reputation has been made by taking older non-dramatic texts, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, The Odyssey, and transforming them into unique theatrical experiences; metamorphosis, not adaptation. Masterpiece theatre adapts. Mary Zimmerman transforms. She culls from her source a dramatic essence and moulds it for the contemporary world. A mythos which relies on vengeful gods meddling wantonly in the lives of unwary humanity--cut down my sacred tree, I’ll show you--would resonate weakly for modern audiences. On the other hand a swaggering braggart too arrogant to admit of the possibility of a power higher than his own is a myth for the twenty first century.
This transformation is clearly indicated by presenting two takes on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. First there is a more or less traditional version: Orpheus, unable to resist, looks back and loses his love. The second, using the text of a poem by Rilke, posits an Eurydice who, even as she follows behind is losing all memory of Orpheus, so that when she is told that he has turned, can only ask, with a modern nihilism: “Who?” Phaeton is a spoiled rich boy in therapy. Myrrha is a pampered, head strong teenager. Midas is a corporate executive with no time for his daughter. These may be archetypal figures but they are archetypes that live in the apartment house around the corner.
Their tales run the gamut from comedy to romance to tragedy. They are stories embedded in stories. They are fleeting moments of awareness. A young woman comes out kneels down and opens a box. A puff of smoke escapes. They are told with tongue in cheek. Bacchus tells Midas that would be a “really, really bad idea.” They are told with a moving simplicity, as when Baucis and Philomen discover that they have been entertaining the gods. There is variety enough for every taste.
Zimmerman not only transforms the characters and their stories, she transforms the stage itself. A large pool of water (some thirty foot) is built out into the audience, a few feet deep, downstage, shallower, upstage. There is a door and sky replete with a platform for the gods upstage and a chandelier hanging over the pool. All the central action takes place in the pool and around the deck. Midas sits on a chair in the pool. Phaeton floats on an air mattress. Sexy and his ship are wrecked in a storm of swirling waters. A thrust stage has metamorphosed into a thrust pool, and it is a transformation that dominates the theatre. Like the elephant in the living room, it demands attention.
Why a pool of water? Zimmerman has said that the whole project began with her desire to do something with water. Water, with all its archetypal symbolism--life, death, rebirth, eternity, and so on-- is the beginning. Even before Ovid there was the water, and it was from the depths of the water that the poet’s mythic tales must have emerged as the stuff of drama. From the depths of the ocean to the depths of the collective unconscious is a basic leap of Jungian metaphor. Like a sunken treasure ship, Ovid’s tales are submerged in our psyches--playwright and audience alike--waiting to be drawn up into the light of consciousness.
Water is transformative. From the emergence of life out of the sea to baptismal rebirth, water is the agent of metamorphosis. The river between Orpheus and Eurydice marks the change from life to death. Narcissus gazes into the waters and is transformed by what he sees. Midas is told that he can undo the effects of his golden touch by drinking water from a pool of stars. Even the audience seated at poolside is treated to a symbolic baptismal spray when gods and mortals thrash violently through storms of nature and storms of passion, so that even if they are not emotionally affected by the experience of the play, they are at least physically altered. Although there is something ironic about theatregoers ducking and covering to protect themselves from the source of life and redemption.
Water becomes the Jungian “primordial image” central to the creation of great art:
Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm if the ever-enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in all of us those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night (Jung, 1971: 818).
This may well explain why so many critics have found Zimmerman’s play a healing experience after the September attack on the World Trade Center.
If the pool is the dominant image, Zimmerman and her cast manage to create quite a few others that reverberate in the memory: the daughter of Midas rigidified in a splash of golden light; Orpheus and Eurydice reaching out for each other over and over again, Erysichthon, hunger clamped on his back like a vice, making ready to dine on his own leg. The production is visually eloquent. Bodies twine ritually as vines around trees, sensually as woman around her love, figuratively as compulsion around man. They move with the grace of dance, the power of Gods, the doddering of age. The cast is a true ensemble skilled in the use of their physical instruments, adapt at transformation from character to character, precise and detailed in performance.
If there is a caveat, it is this. After ninety minutes it is over. And there are still so many tales to tell.
Opened on Broadway March 4, 2002 - see www.metamorphosesonbroadway.com
Jung, Carl Gustac. ‘On the Relation of Analytical Phsychology to Poetry’, Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1971.
Jack Goodstein, Professor Emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, has published criticism, fiction and satire in Theatre Journal, College English, Eclectica and other journals in print and on line. His one page play, Last Night has been produced in Chicago as part of Collaboraction’s Sketchbook 2002. firstname.lastname@example.org