'Penelopiad' by Margaret Atwood directed by Frederique Michel. Courtesy City Garage Theatre.

‘The Penelopiad’ @ City Garage Theatre

November 26, 2022

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood at City Garage Theatre (directed by Frédérique Michel) presents us a comparative storyline to the Greek Heroic Epic Poem The Illiad by Homer – the poet which Plato referred to as the Teacher of the Greeks. It is in this heritage or inheritance of the story which Ms. Atwood provides a healthy counterpoint – one from the honest perspective of Penelope – of there being two sides to humanity.


This seems self-evident. Yet the availability for the “fairer sex” to have a self-reliant artistic expression has only been possible over the last several centuries. Indeed, narrative has been propitiated by the male sex due to their necessary presence on the political stage. And this is seen emphatically in the recounting of the mythical epic by Penelope’s spirit as she remembers the reality she inhabited. One where there is glory in robbing other people.


‘The Penelopiad’ by City Garage Theatre. From front to back: Melanthos (Marissa Ruiz), Young Penelope (Celendine), Penelope (Peggy Flood), Klytie (Emily Asher Kellis), Alecto (Angela Beyer), Narcissa (Lea De Darmo), unknown, Selene (Courtney Brechemin)

This brute fact of the conquest of Troy and the wonderfully all-female ensemble’s authentic representation of staying home while the men dream of being remembered by their future city-state is what is openly confronted by the play. There is terrific nuance in balancing what might otherwise have been an acerbic, pouty, 20th century feminist screed which is completely absent from the thespian action – and with great relief! By avoiding ineffective tepid, pitiful, self-reflectance, we have the wonderful demonstration of human strength in female form to ponder: what is being a virtuous person in womanly flesh?


‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood and directed by Frédérique Michel. from left to right Penelope (Peggy Flood) and Odysseus (Emily Asher Kellis).


The inner principles of The Illiad provide us with an emphasis on what is otherwise known as temperance – that idyllic self-control over the body; in male form through the perseverance of Odysseus returning home, and with Penelope’s womanly reluctance to marry anew. It is with this idea of virtue which is, again, not dismissed, only elaborated. For with The Penelopiad we have a richer understanding of justice being beyond the ideas of the male psyche. To paraphrase Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias: it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.


And so, the ancient society is exposed for its warranted blemishes in treating the female form. In its, as Herr Frederick Nietzsche would judge, Dionysian affirmation of a frenzied male willpower which affirms might as righteous, we have the physical injuries to the womanly body depicted in the play – with the quite riveting portrayal of rape. I am reluctant to consider the slow animation directed by Mr. Michel as beautiful, for that word ought to be reserved for harmonious deeds – directorially brilliant is closer to the mark. And most of these injuries are suffered by women who are slaves.


‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood and directed by Frédérique Michel. Courtesy of City Garage Theatre.


It is in this awareness of rank in physical power which the Grecian women experience as “natural” when it is appropriately unjust and therefore counter-natural when appropriately judged from a longer historical time-scale. And it is here where we can appreciate the distillation of spirit being beyond flesh in enduring the obdurate struggles and physical harm of the lustful zeal which is cultivated in men in the primacy of the ancient Greek city-state with this poem. Beyond reason, but with a hearty passion for extension, for flexion, for willing life. It is in this cost of acquiring cultivation, of advancing in cultural form, where we can begin to appreciate world civilizations like Christianity which create avenues for women to leave bondage.


Penelope herself in the netherworld has the staunch reflection of a form of bondage, in that what choice did she have in her cosmic fate but to marry a King? It is in this lack of self-reliability which we can now find to be disappointing approximately 2,700 years after the original poem was recited. But, once more, there is a strong appeal toward justice rather than pity. This is not a lachrymose play in the slightest. We are instead teleported to antiquity with exquisite staging of the maids as a quasi-“chorus with character” in great authenticity to experience the brutal reality of needing to hang the serving women of the city enslaved by the patriots who desired to gain the inheritance of Kingship through marrying Penelope.


For what purpose? We have again that concept of inheritance which is used in the play. It is in the free gift from one family’s generation to the next, as it runs through the male blood-line, specifically pertaining to rule. Does just rule, however, need glorious self-satisfaction? No! This is the resonant chime of one of the most advanced original works of literature the human race has ever produced, e.g. Tao Te Jing. This is where we can understand the unrefinement in proto-Grecian civilization, something again Herr Nietzsche fawned over in his The Birth of Tragedy instead of the lassitude of stifling city-life which causes a rigor mortis which needs a free spirit such as Socrates to break free.


And yet, to the victor goes the spoils. Under a more natural state of man there is this more natural ordering of social rank – and it is under this natural tension that ends up forming such inebriated desires for pillage. The will to survive in the human society arrives at such relaxed elevated heights that it needs to experience distinct forms of resistance which comprise the idea of heroism; obstacles; challenges to one’s free desires; as a form of human growth.


And yet, so much of this growth is through the cultivation of man’s ability to reason. To find necessary agreement with others, as opposed to brazen hostility to their own rights to inherit good things. This is where the judgment of kings can be flawed. This is where there is appropriate evaluation of the unfairness of being born enslaved, having to experience the whiplashes of entities with superior physical power determining one’s fate unfortunately. This is where the maiden spirits in their pseudo-limbo have a self-similarly styled passionate zest for good things. Not for the pettiness of vengeance, but of fairness in being born fated for such a terminal ruin by the decisions of their masters. Would Penelope consider herself the same? In her constancy for Odysseus, is she doing so out of her conscience or out of her heart? If divine justice is to be sentenced, would it not cause her to freely desire a higher man, one that acts with a truer understanding of nobility, which leads with compassion and not with fury in glorifying his realm?


Such is the boon of human knowledge then! Of scientific discovery! Of the ability to liberate women from needing to rely on men for their daily bread! And yet isn’t it strange that these advancements come from a culture which has such acquisitive zealotry in its bedrock? One which affirms the animated contest of living, which is in the struggle to grow which involves overpowering others? So much so that the Greeks end up developing the desire to know, which is rooted in the confidence to master human life? And with this wisdom of human nature, we can better understand the natural order of things without the need for physical encroachments. Self-seeking glory, then, is a temporary motivation. Natural Justice is unchanging and therefore eternal. The former is designed to enslave, the latter is designed to liberate.


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