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-Footnotes on Sophocles
Remember that you have to count backward when dealing with B.C. (Before Christ) dates. Sophocles is thought to have written "Electra" as an old man, in 410 B.C. He had been born in 495 B.C. about a mile northwest of Athens. Subtracting 410 from 495 gives you 85. Now THAT's a silverfox!
The son of a wealthy merchant, he would grow up to become one of the great playwrights of the Golden Age of Greek drama. His father's wealth and high position enabled him to enjoy all the comforts of the thriving Greek empire. He studied all of the arts. By the age of sixteen, he was already known for his beauty and grace and was chosen to lead a choir of boys at a celebration of the victory of Salamis.
Twelve years later, his studies complete, he was ready to compete in the City Dionysia---a festival held every year at the Theatre of Dionysus in which new plays were presented.
In his first competition, Sophocles took first prize--defeating none other than the great Aeschylus himself. More than 120 plays were to follow. He would go on to win eighteen first prizes, and he would never fail to take at least second.
An accomplished actor, Sophocles performed in many of his own plays. In "The Women Washing Clothes," he performed a juggling act that so fascinated his audience it was the talk of Athens for many years. However, the young Athenian's voice was comparatively weak, and eventually he would give up his acting career to pursue other ventures.
One of the great innovators of the theatre, he abolished the trilogic form. Aeschylus, for example, had used three tragedies to tell a single story. Sophocles chose to make each tragedy a complete entity in itself---as a result, he had to pack all of his action into the shorter form, and this clearly offered greater dramatic possibilities. Many authorities also credit him with the invention of scene-painting.
Of Sophocles' more than 120 plays, only seven have survived in their entirety. His greatest character drama is probably "Electra." When another playwright, Aeschylus, treated this story, he was concerned primarily with the ethical issues of the blood feud. Sophocles dismisses the ethical question and addresses himself to the problem of character. What kind of woman was Electra that she would want so desperately to murder her own mother?
In 405, five years after the production of "Electra," Sophocles passed away. The deaths of three great dramatists of that era---Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, all of whom were contemporaries---brought an end to the first great age of tragic drama. In his younger days, Sophocles appears to have been somewhat over-fond of women and wine, and this he himself admits in one of his sayings recorded by Plato: "I thank old age for delivering me from the tyranny of my appetites."
I like to think that, being Greek after all, the tyranny from which old age released him was the need to "perform" with women. Thus, he could relax from the exhausting charge of sexual tension and better enjoy the undemanding solicitude of the men, young and old, who must have adored him like a god.
Yes, we were there, too, and no one appreciates an old man, or can make him feel as loved without obliging him to raise an erection, as one of his own same sex.
My recent presentations on the list are not meant to educate, but to entertain, as in telling stories around the campfire while toasting marshmallows and wienies. Ah, yes! The wienies! I have my own way of toasting THEM! Campfire not required.
Please do not hold me to high standards of historical accuracy or authenticity. Expect from me only what you get---a well-spun tale in a setting that smacks of the truth. I could give you my research notes just as they are, but they would bore your sox off. Or I can embellish them the way I do, and joke around, and dramatize a scene so it comes to life and leaves the dead past behind.
Greek theater is a case in point. Plays were performed in the daytime. In those huge open-air amphitheaters they needed lots of light. There was no night baseball in those times, guys! The annual drama competitions in Athens took most of the day, and were spread out over several days.
Major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre (in Attica) and the Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, which could seat 17,000 people. During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators. The words theatre and amphitheatre(er) derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides. Similarly, the word orchestra is derived from the Greek word for a platform between the raised stage and the audience on which the chorus was situated.
In the early era of Greek drama, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later on, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage. In the beginning, when drama was an extension or rite of the Dionysiac religion, there were no actors. Thespis was the poet who imported the first hypocrit (actor), Aeschylos the second and Sophocles the third one. Besides these actors, who were playing the leading parts, there were also some other persons playing "dumb" roles (the "extras").
The actors were always men, even if they were playing female roles. We're not talking about drag queens or female impersonators as we think of them today, but theatrical professionals, highly skilled and trained. The same applied to Shaespearean drama in Elizabethan England. Have you seen "Shakespeare in Love"? And to Kabuki and Noh drama in Japan, where the same principle still holds true today except that women often now appear in Noh. Kabuki actors, in particular, train for years to flawlessly impersonate women as "onnagata," and most are reportedly not gay.
Women in all of those societies were, relatively speaking, little more than household fixtures with almost no public life.
Greek actors dressed in long robes with vertical stripes. Sounds like prison garb to me, and, in a way, it was. Greek drama, like Kabuki and Noh, was so stylized that acting in it was an art form in itself. Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead, they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions. They also wore leather boots laced up to the knees. Sounds rather boring, and a bit scary, to me.
My personal belief is that were I to have written about Sophocles' "Electra" in literal Greek theatrical terms, using a male Electra holding a goofy wooden mask in front of his face while he stomps about in leather boots or "cothornous" (wooden shoes with high heels) in a robe with prison stripes, wearing a "prosternida" before his chest to give the illusion of tits, you would have laughed me off the Acropolis and quickly pressed DELETE (which probably 80 percent of you did anyway). You would most assuredly have missed the point of the play.
There is precedent for my approach in modern times. Women are used in the female roles onscreen and onstage in Greek drama today. What would the 1971 filmed version of Euripides' "The Trojan Women" have been like with Humphrey Bogart instead of Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba? Damn silly, I would say. Or "Medea" in its operatic version with a tenor like Pavarotti in the title role instead of dramatic soprano Maria Callas?
Perahaps Dustin Hoffman as Tootise or Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire could have done Electra to meet the requirements of Greek theatrical tradidion. Why not? After all, the play's the thing!
So much of the story of Orestes and Pylades has depended upon the oracle at Delphi (Pythian oracle at the Temple of Apollo) that I thought you might enjoy some background on it. Any treatment of ancient Greek or Roman themes is better understood if we know more about the mysterious force of prophecy, which has given impetus to so many notable events.
The prophesying of the Greek oracle of Apollo at Delphi was as much gospel in its time as pronouncements from the Pope at Rome are to devout Roman Catholics today, but with even wider effect. The oracles directed the flow of Greek and Roman history for more than ten centuries.
The Delphic Oracle was located on Mount Parnassus. There the virgin priestesses, called Pythia, uttered ecstatic prophecies during an elaborate ritual that included chewing the leaf of a sacred bay tree and drinking from the holy fountain Kassotis that flowed from Omphalos, "the navel of the earth."
The Pythia sat on a tripod over a fissure in the cavern Adyton, and breathed the vapors arising from the abyss. The fumes induced a trance in them, and they proceeded to pronounce (or more often mumble incoherently) messages that were interpreted by attendant priests, who conveyed their translations to the supplicants.
Socrates wrote that "Such prophecy...is a madness which is the special gift of heaven, and the source of the chiefest blessings among men."
The Oracle at Delphi was enriched with gifts from grateful supplicants who worshipped and propitiated Apollo and his oracle with beautiful temples and fountains, a theater and stadium, thousands of marble, bronze and gold statues, and many other gifts of exquisite workmanship.
While most of its advice was given in ambiguous terms, the Delphic oracle also gave exact answers on occasion.
A case in point is the remarkable story of the immensely wealthy King Croesus (CREEsus) who lived 200 years before Sophocles wrote "Electra" and whose name survives in common usage when we speak of someone's being "as rich as Croesus," a term often used to describe late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
Croesus worried about the threat to his kingdom posed by Cyrus the Elder, King of Persia and Babylon. He set up a test question to send around to various popular oracles to see which would give the right answer, whereby he could gauge which to believe when they answered the questions that truly mattered.
Test question: "What am I, Croesus, doing right now (at a given time) on this hundredth day after my envoys left Sardis with this question for you to answer?"
The Delphic oracle sent back word that it smelled tortoise and lamb being prepared while he waited for his dinner. Turtle soup and lamb curry were on Croesus' menu that night. Delphi was the only one of the six major oracles in the Greek world that he tested who get it right. He then made a huge sacrificial offering to Apollo and presented the oracle with numerous priceless gifts. The other oracles got a "thanks, but no thanks."
The Delphic oracle's perfect score signified that they were probably right in the answers offered to the more important questions Croesus sent.
Croesus: "Should I march against the Persians?"
Oracle: "After crossing the river Halys, Croesus will destroy a great empire."
Croesus: "Will I have a long reign?"
Oracle: "When a mule becomes King of the Medes, flee...and stay not, nor feel shame to be a coward." (This answer pissed him off, but since it seemed impossible for a mule to be king, he did not worry about it.)
Croesus: "Will I ever hear my deaf-mute son speak?"
Oracle: "Croesus, prince of fools, do not desire to hear the voice long prayed for of a son speaking. He will speak first on a day that is not favorable to you."
The last answer disappointed Croesus, but encouraged by the first, he formed an alliance with Sparta and mounted an army against Cyrus the Great. Croesus crossed the river Halys to invade Persia, but withdrew to his own capital at Sardis after a fierce battle. Croesus then disbanded his army, but Cyrus followed him with the Persian army and besieged Sardis, which soon fell.
The oracle's prophecies soon became clear. Croesus did destroy a great empire---his own. And a "mule" did become monarch of the Medes in the arcane sense that Cyrus, the Persian, was born of mixed parentage, as are mules; his mother was a princess of Media, and his father was a Persian.
The third prophecy was fulfilled when a Persian soldier attacked Croesus without recognizing him. Croesus' deaf-mute son suddenly cried out, "Man, do not kill Croesus!" The soldier captured the king instead, but Croesus, unable to bear the loss of his kingdom to the "mule," threw himself, according to the historian Herodotus, into a burning funeral pyre and died. The oracle had been right again. That was not a favorable day.
A thousand years after Orestes, Nero, who became Emperor of Rome in 54 AD, killed his mother, then went vacationing in Greece a few years later. Like Orestes, he visited the oracle at Delphi, but when he appeared before the Pythia, she shouted angrily: "Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!"
The outrage shifted to Nero. He was so furious that he had the virgin Pythia buried alive in the sacred cavern, along with the bodies of the temple priests after their hands and feet had been chopped off.
The prophecy of his downfall he thought applied to his age at death, but he was only in his 20s. That was a long way from 73. He dismissed it as bogus.
Nero, who is mostly remembered today as the chub emperor who "fiddled while Rome burnt," had a troubled reign, perhaps as much from his vicious disposition and flawed character as from the perilous times in which he lived. In 64 A.D. half of Rome was destroyed in the famous fire. Legend has it that Nero, who fancied himself a great composer and singer, strummed a stringed instrument, probably a lyre, and sang a sad song composed for the occasion.
In retaliation for rumors that he had set the fire himself, he blamed it on the new religious fanatics called "Christians" and began their first official persecution by throwing many to the lions or having them crucified.
Nero was hated by the people of Rome, who revoled against him until they finally ran him out of town. He killed himself In a field outside the city by falling on a sword held by a member of his bodyguard, who may have been a lover as many stories abound concerning Nero's sexual proclivities. His last words were, “What an artist the world is losing in me!”
Nero was replaced on the throne by an old man named Galba. His age? Remember the Pythia? She had prophesied it to Nero before he had her buried alive: "The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!" Nero was only 37 at the time of his death. Galba was 73.
I could say that the moral of Nero's story is "Don't fuck with a virgin priestess," but that would be crass. As they say in "Perry Mason" (Raymond Burr being one of our own good ol' boys), "strike that from the record!"
Another one of our good ol' boys whom you have met in one of our "little histories"--- as the silverfox lover of beautiful Antinous who became a Roman, Greek and Egyptian god---is the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Before Hadrian came to rule the Roman Empire, he visited the Delphic oracle and drank from the sacred fountain Kassotis. Thus he learned firsthand of his destiny. After he reached the throne, Hadrian ordered the fountain to be plugged up to prevent anyone else from getting the same idea from the same source. Well, he wouldn't share Antinous, either!
Emperor Julian had the blockage removed during his reign more than 200 years after Hadrian because he believed it should be available to everyone. He said: "Through the Oracles of Apollo, the greater part of civilization had come into being because they had revealed the will of the gods in the sphere of politics, as well as religion, which they regulated wisely for those who kept their advice."
The Delphic oracle endured until 390 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius closed the temple after being baptized a Christian ten years before.
His successor, Arcadius, a weak man dominated by a German-born wife, Eudoxia, demolished it around 400 A.D. Eudoxia, a Christian, had trouble with her husband over the palace eunuch Eutropius whom Arcadius greatly favored by exalting him to high rank. She was later instrumental in the eunuch's downfall and death.
Likewise, the coming of the Christian era led to the downfall and death of the Greco-Roman gods and their oracles, and an attempt to repudiate their acceptance of same-sex attraction as a positive force. The Christians did manage temporarily (a mere 2000 years!) to reverse our former glory to shame, BUT.....
We're still here, and we're proud of our history because it is who we are. Long live the Gay Gene!
The following piece was edited off the Web as a resource for my story of ancient Greek gay lovers, Orestes and Pylades. It was treated in at least two plays by two of the three major poets/playwrights of the Greek golden age of dama---Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles---and probably more. I offer it as a footnote to that story as a final, finishing touch.
The theme of the "Electra" of Sophocles is the same as that of the "Mourning Women" of Aeschylus, but with a marked difference of treatment. Electra, and not Orestes, is the chief character, and for her Sophocles claims all our sympathies.
A comparison between the "Mourning Women" of Aeschylus and the "Electra" of Sophocles shows that Aeschylus dealt with the sombre and terrible side of the story, especially in its relations to those dark divinities which were so large a feature in his theology. Sophocles, on the other hand, while elaborating the details, represents the whole story in a milder and less terrible form, by concentrating our sympathies on Electra, on her constancy in adhering to her own deep convictions, and on the heroism she displays in suffering.
What especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles is the divine innocence existing amid such terrible surroundings, the fresh bloom of life and youth which pervades the whole. Apollo, the bright sun god, at whose bidding the deed was done, seems to shed his brightness throughout; even the daybreak with which the play opens is full of meaning. The world of graves and shadows is kept aloof; what in Aeschylus is inspired by the soul of the murdered Agamemnon comes here from the heart of the living Electra, who lends herself to love and hate with equal strength.
Sophocles gives Orestes a more consistent individuality than does Aeschylus; neither before nor after the deed does he show any hesitation or qualms of conscience. He is altogether harder and sterner, as witness the terrible dramatic trick played upon Aegisthus with Clytemnestra's body, and the shameful death to which Aegisthus is led at the close.
Clytemnestra's dream offers perhaps the best means of comparing the poets' treatment. It is in both alike appropriate, significant and suggestive; that of Aeschylus is more awe-inspiring and more terrible, that of Sophocles the more majestic in its horror.
Closing the book now on Orestes and Pylades.
End of silverfoxesclub-digest V1 #209