The Chicago Literary Club/The Fortnightly of Chicago
4 March 2005
One Thing Leads to Another
Our theme tonight suggests a journey. It may be through time or across distances, it may be from one genre to another, or from one format to another. Or, in my case, all of the above. Ordinarily it would spoil the dramatic tension of a story to disclose at the outset both the beginning and the end, but in this case I doubt even the most brilliant and well-read among you will be able to fill in the blanks and connect the dots, at least for a while, and so here is where we start, and where we will end.
The story begins in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Now we know it all too well as Iraq, but in the second millennium B.C., it was known as Mesopotamia, and that part of it along the Euphrates was Babylonia. Although the Akkadian language of that time and place had a cuneiform written version (the first written laws the Code of Hammurabi came down to us in that form), it is largely through archeological finds and oral traditions, only later preserved in written form in other languages, that we know much about Babylonian life. From that oral tradition comes our story, probably dating to the latter second or early first millennium B.C., of a young couple, a beautiful girl and a handsome boy, who fall in love, of their feuding fathers, who try to forbid that love, and of the dusty wall between their gardens, separating them until tragedy strikes.
This ancient legend surely among the oldest and most familiar tales in all literature may also, tonight, lead us to one of the most popular network television shows of the turn of the twenty-first century. How does a three thousand year old legend lead to a television series? You haven't guessed? Let me lead you along the twisting path.
The Babylonian folk tale perhaps the first urban legend was told and re-told by generations of story-tellers in the great bardic tradition. After Babylonia fell to Persia in 539 B.C., the story became popular in Greece, and half a millennium later, around the time of Christ's birth, it was, as far as we know, written down for the first time. It was transcribed by Publius Ovidius Naso, born in 43 B.C., just a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Better known as Ovid, by the time he was banished from Rome by Caesar Augustus in 9 A.D., he had included the story in his collection of Greek and Roman folk tales and myths, written, of course, in Latin, in lovely dactylic hexameter, and known as Metamorphoses. It begins this way.
Pyramus et Thisbe, juvenum pulcherimus alter,
Altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelta puellis,
Contiguas tenuere domos, ubi dictur altam
Coctilibus muris cinxesse Semiramus urbem.
No more Latin, I promise, but I wanted you to hear the meter the music of it.
Ovid's Metamorphoses survived many years in Latin manuscript and codex form. Because he was a pagan writer, and often, as in his Art of Love, an explicitly sexual one, the popularity of Ovid and the Metamorphoses went into a six century long decline or at least went underground after the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity in the early fourth century A.D. Interest in Ovid revived, however, in the eleventh century, as poets studying in the cathedral schools learned of him from the monks who had kept the Metamorphoses on their illicit reading and copying lists for hundreds of years. This led to the practice of "moralization," begun perhaps in the fourteenth century, as the way the late medieval and early Renaissance scholarly world legitimized secular, pagan classical works. Ovide Moralise, a French work by Pierre Bersuire completed in 1340, did this for the Metamorphoses, and Bersuire's moralization of Ovid in turn influenced Chaucer, who drew on many of its stories for his Canterbury Tales. During the Renaissance the Metamorphoses was translated from the Latin into Dutch, French, German, and finally, in 1567, into English, by Arthur Golding. 1567 was three years after the birth of William Shakespeare. Although his friend, contemporary and rival Ben Jonson said famously that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek," Jonson himself was an extremely learned man, and his view of what was "small Latin" probably differs greatly from ours. In fact, Shakespeare seems to have attended a grammar school where Latin was the core of the curriculum, and Shakespeare's plays borrow heavily from the Latin texts taught in such schools. Of these texts, it is to Ovid's Metamorphoses that Shakespeare turned most often for plot and character.
Whether Shakespeare drew on Ovid's Latin text, or on Golding's 1567 translation, or both, we do not know. We do know that he was fascinated by the ancient Babylonian tale of the star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Around the year 1595 he wrote two plays which, in profoundly different ways, draw on the story of young lovers who face first the opposition of their families, and then tragic death resulting from confusion and mistake. The first, of course, is Romeo and Juliet, too well known to be rehearsed here, but telling of a boy and a girl, forbidden by their fathers to see each other, who communicate secretly and who die because one mistakes the simulated death of the other to be real.
This is in fact exactly the story of Pyramus and Thisbe told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. Forbidden by their fathers in ancient Babylonia to marry, they communicate through a chink in the wall between their houses, and resolve to meet one night. Thisbe arrives first, but, frightened by a lioness dripping the fresh blood of recently killed cows, Thisbe drops her scarf as she runs to hide. The lioness picks up the scarf and bloodies it before dropping it, mangled, on the ground. Pyramus, arriving later finds the bloody veil and the lion tracks, and concludes that Thisbe herself has been killed. In grief, he stabs himself and dies. Thisbe comes out of hiding, sees her dead lover, his sword, and the bloody scarf, understands all, and kills herself.
But Romeo and Juliet's retelling of this story was neither the only nor the most direct use Shakespeare made of the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe. About the same time he also wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy, rather than a tragedy, containing one of Shakespeare's uses of his famous "play-within-the-play" device. Here, as entertainment at the weddings of Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius, a group of crude artisans perform a theatrical version of the Pyramus and Thisbe story, complete with young lovers, angry fathers, wall, and lion. The ending here though, must be happy, and so Shakespeare turns Romeo and Juliet inside out, and Pyramus and Thisbe as well, for in a A Midsummer Night's Dream, the tragic lovers rise from the dead at the end of their unconvincing performance. Although their audience of newlyweds eager to move on with other nuptual practices declines to hear an epilogue, they agree to have the "actors" who played Pyramus and Thisbe perform a rustic dance.
After Arthur Golding's translation of Metamorphoses in 1567, and Shakespeare's use of the story in his twin tellings about 1595, there were many other versions of the Babylonian story of Pyramus and Thisbe, as retold by Ovid, in many languages. The Metamorphoses is one of the great resources of classical literature, scholarship and mythology. More than a hundred years after Golding translated it into English, so did John Dryden, among others. However, after the period known as the "long eighteenth century," about 1680 to 1820, Romanticism flourished, and the Metamorphoses and Pyramus and Thisbe became a less prominent feature of the literary-educational-cultural menu. As in all things though, what once was old became new again, and a revival of interest in classical studies encouraged by or reflected in such things as the Loeb Classical Library series of translations from Harvard University has kept Ovid, in Latin and English, before us throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
In 1955 the distinguished American poet and translator Rolfe Humphries, unknown, I am afraid, to many of you but well worth knowing, issued the first of what we could call a "modern" English edition of the Metamorphoses. Humphries was the perfect choice. His father, a graduate of Cornell, was the first member of Phi Beta Kappa to play major league professional baseball, for the New York Giants, in the 1880s. Humphries himself was a scholar and an athlete, not unlike Ovid, who was as well something of a rake and libertine. In fact, Ovid's banishment by Augustus from Rome to a miserable town on the Black Sea coincided with Augustus' banishment of his own daughter Julia, and legend has it that the two exiles were linked, although we will never know. Humphries too, at least in his youth, was something of a rake, and moved, during the 1920s and 1930s, in a fast crowd, like Ovid's, consisting of other writers the "Bohemians" including Edna St. Vincent Milay and the "beautiful people" of the Jazz Age. This was a society attracted to concepts of relaxed morality, not without its own antecedents in Ovid's work and life.
Turning to the Metamorphoses in 1954 Humphries found that well, here is what he wrote about its musical lines in hexameter:
. . . there was fun enough in the original, variety and richness enough, for all the metrical sameness, so that to perform feats of virtuosity would have been an intolerable license on the part of the translator, a chopping-up of the texture, an insult. In his different way, Ovid commands as much respect as Virgil does; his dactylic hexameters . . . do not sound at all like Virgil's, but they are not material to do stunts with, either; the translator had better, I concluded, use the nearest approximation; the loose ten-beat line, unrhymed, seemed the least obtrusive medium.
Of course you remember my Latin reading of Ovid's first lines about Pyramus and Thisbe it seems like hours but was actually only moments ago. Here is how Humphries' translation begins:
Next door to each other, in the brick walled city
Built by Semiramis, lived a boy and a girl,
Pyramus, a handsome fellow, Thisbe,
Loveliest of all those Eastern girls. Their nearness
Made them acquainted, and love grew, in time,
So that they would have married, but their parents
Forbade it. But their parents could not keep them
From being in love: their nods and gestures showed it
You know how fire suppressed burns all the fiercer.
There was a chink in the wall between the houses,
A flaw the careless builder had never noticed,
Nor anyone else, for many years, detected
But the lovers found it love is a finder, always
Used it to talk through, and the loving whispers
Went back and forth in safety. . . .
So there it is, thousands of years and ten thousand miles, and from an oral legend to a printed page, the lovers, their fathers, the wall. . . . One thing leads to another.
Let us step back a moment from Humphries' 1954 translation to the "Gay '90s," the 1890s, that is, when "gay" meant something like "happy." In Paris the French dramatist Edmond Rostand decided to do a spoof of the Pyramus and Thisbe story as told in Romeo and Juliet, making the fathers conspire to fake a feud in order to bring their children together by forbidding them to see each other. Rostand whom you may know as the author of Cyrano de Bergerac called his 1894 version Les Romanesques. This play, in verse like Shakespeare's version, was then translated back into English by a woman using the pseudonym George Fleming, and it was produced with a new name I'll give it to you in a minute in London in 1909. There it was directed by one B. Iden Payne.
This same Mr. Payne went on to become a professor of drama at the University of Texas. A few decades later, while teaching there, he had among his students two, named Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. He introduced them to Les Romanesques and its 1909 English version. Then, in 1960, in a very small theater off-Broadway in New York, opened a small American musical play. It had book and lyrics by Tom Jones, with music by Harvey Schmidt. It ran until January of 2002, a total of 17,162 performances. Nothing else has ever come close. You probably all know it. Schmidt and Jones used the name adopted for the 1909 London version, The Fantasticks.
Pyramus and Thisbe thus lived again, on the stage, in 1909 in London and then in 1960 in New York. While Schmidt and Jones may not have had Pyramus and Thisbe immediately in mind in their off-Broadway telling of the story, it was indeed Rostand's version that led them to it, and it was Rostand's version, which, in French, had transferred from tragedy to comedy the Romeo and Juliet take on our old Babylonian story. Two fathers, who forbid the beautiful daughter and the handsome son to see each other, know, in Les Romanesques and in The Fantasticks, just as Rolfe Humphries had put it in his translation of Ovid, that "fire suppressed burns all the fiercer." In The Fantasticks that notion leads to the song, "Never Say No," in which, as in many of the lyrics, you can hear the original Ovidian hexameter, or at least the "loose ten-beat line" version of Ovid's metrical pattern that Rolfe Humphries adopted.
The Fantasticks of course is not the end of the path. Ovid's Metamorphoses got a fresh new translation from David Slavitt in 1994, and another although partial version from Ted Hughes in 1997. Slavitt's version was the basis for another stage adaptation, by Chicago's own Mary Zimmerman for the Lookingglass Theater in 1998, a production that subsequently moved to Broadway where it was nominated for Tony Awards in the Best Play and Best Director categories. In fact, it won the director's award for Northwestern's Prof. Zimmerman. Unfortunately, for our chain of events, while it retold ten of Ovid's tales, Prof. Zimmerman's version did not include the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and so this little step has really taken us slightly off our path. Back to it.
Now our story has already led us from Babylonia to Rome, from Rome to London, from London to Paris, from Paris back to London, then from London to Texas and on to New York. It has been transformed from a story kept alive in the oral telling, to a codex in Latin, to a printed book, and then to the stage, first in English, then in French, then back to English, both on stage and in print. How though, and where, does it lead to the airwaves, to that television series I hinted at when I began? Well, I admit that this hint of the ultimate step in our journey was a red herring. But it strikes me as an amusing finish for our travels, and I hope you find it worth a smile.
The television program which itself has led to progeny of its own begins with words you may all recognize:
In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
Of course, the television program is "Law and Order." How, you wonder, can I get the Babylonian Pyramus and Thisbe to metamorphose into excuse me, I mean lead to "Law and Order"? Remember, I confessed to that step being something of a red herring. Ovid tells his story through a narrator. Even Shakespeare has a narrator introduce the play-within-the-play Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And a narrator called The Narrator tells the story of The Fantasticks. "Law and Order" featured a droll and charming portrayal of one of the main characters, Detective Lenny Briscoe. And who played Lenny Briscoe? Jerry Orbach. And who played the droll and charming Narrator in The Fantasticks when it opened in New York in 1960, more than 3000 years after Pyramus and Thisbe first fell in love? Jerry Orbach. And that is how, with one giant leap at the end, one thing led to another.
© 2005 Paul T. Ruxin