In the introduction of The Penelopiad, the author notes that this story is an “echo of an echo of an echo.” Each time we revisit and retell a classical story (or any story that has been told before), it’s important to take a look at where our story comes from, and find out what makes this new telling different–where are our departures are, and we cling to, from the past.
Recently, I got to talk to the cast about the underlying, foundational concepts of Ancient Greek society on which The Penelopiad is based. Many questions revolved around the sexual agency of women and the role of women in society in Ancient Greek culture. In order to get an understanding of the role of women, there are a couple foundational concepts about Ancient Greek society which are important to consider. These concepts remain mostly consistent between the echoes of the Penelope story: the “historic” time of the Trojan War (about 1200 BCE), the era of the writing of Homer’s Odyssey (about 800 BCE) and the flourishing of Greek Theatre (500-400 BCE).Ancient Greek culture is defined as “shame culture,” meaning that you are defined both personally and publically by what others think of you. Identities in shame culture often emerge as singular and non-dynamic, which meant you were defined singularly and were not a multi-dimensional character in the eye of the public.
Men’s identities are entirely defined by the way people talk about them. In turn, men are public beings who need to betalked about in order to have an identity. This fame/glory talk is called kleos. Women have the dual-task of being both invisible (which is favorable) and non-agents. Women’s lives are defined by their life at home (oikos, or domestic sphere), invisible to the outside world, and not active in it. Women of the higher class likePenelope have the double
standard of needing to be talked ABOUT by others (in the right way) but also must be incapable of (or looked down upon by) talking about themselves. A woman who talked about herself or others in any public way was a gossip. A woman who was TOO PUBLIC at ALL was looked down upon as being immodest. This extends even into the “public”quarters of the house where men might gather.
These concepts of both invisibility and non-agency complicate the questions of sexual agency of women in Ancient Greek literature and myth. Sexual agency of women is a modern concept and relatively inapplicable in Ancient Greek culture and literature.
As you can imagine, lower class women had NO sexual agency. Rape as we talk about it is a more modern construct that implies the ability to have consent to give–or that someone ELSE believes there was consent to be had. A sexual attack was considered a wrongdoing against a woman’s husband or father, not to her. Example: the theft of Helen (or her going willingly with Paris) which started the Trojan War is a crime against her husband Menelaus and an offense to Greek culture.
It’s important to remember that female voices in Ancient Greek culture, including literature and theatre, were presented by male storytellers/bards, writers, and male actors, later presented for an exclusively male audience (women were not allowed in the Greek theatre). So the idea of women telling their own stories today-even appearing on stage, in public, and speaking their experience–runs in direct contrast to the cultural norms on which their characters are based. I’m looking forward to the exciting journey our actresses take as they rework the concepts of agency and identity of women in the ancient world!
Sarah Sapperstein holds a dual degree in musical theatre and Classical and Near Eastern language, literature, and archaeology from the Univ. of Redlands in southern California, and a Masters in Liberal Arts from the University of Chicago. Since 2005, she has been a part of over 40 theatre, musical theatre, and opera projects and premieres throughout Chicagoland, including a number of classical tellings, retellings, and adaptations.