Commentary for “The May Poles and Their Queen” Essay
Commentary for “The May Poles and Their Queen”
When reading the Greek myth Orpheus, I was immediately struck by the heroism of the central character. Orpheus is the classic male hero, overcoming all obstacles to bring back his beloved Eurydice, only to be eventually thwarted by something even more powerful than his heroism: his own love. Because of the essentially classical, romanticized nature of Orpheus, I felt it would be an ideal source text for a modern-day interpretation.
In order to gain a better understanding of the text, I initially adopted, in Stuart Hall’s terms, the ‘preferred’ reading; that is, how the audience are ‘meant’ to read a text, who they are expected to empathise with and what conclusions they are meant to draw. Applying Greimas’s structuralist scheme, I found it easy to identify Orpheus as the ‘subject’ or, according to Propp’s ‘spheres of influence’, the ‘hero’. Orpheus can also be identified as Propp’s ‘donor’ figure through his extraordinary skill at playing the lyre, which provides him with apparently limitless power when it comes to charming the gods of the underworld.
The ‘sender’ would be Eurydice, for dying and subsequently ‘sending’ Orpheus on his quest to the underworld. The ‘villain’ could be Aristaeus for chasing Eurydice, or any of the creatures of the underworld for opposing Orpheus. Alternatively, and perhaps more interestingly, the ‘villain’ could be Orpheus’s own love, which is so strong it forces him to look back, and lose his wife forever. Eurydice can also be identified as Greimas’s ‘object’ or Propp’s ‘princess’: the ‘object’ of Orpheus’s quest, whose only ‘skill’ is to be desired by the ‘subject’, Orpheus.
I also applied Tzvetan Tordorov’s theory that there is a similar narrative framework to all stories. For Todorov, a story usually begins with a state of peace and harmony, an ‘equilibrium’: Orpheus has his love, his music and is happy. This then evolves into ‘disruption’: Eurydice dies and Orpheus must journey to the underworld to bring her back. Then Orpheus attempts to repair the ‘disequilibrium’, by charming the creatures of the underworld. Next, according to Todorov, a ‘new equilibrium’ is often found. However, in Orpheus, this is not the case. Eurydice is left in the underworld and Orpheus’s head is left singing alone in the upper world, still crying out for his lost love, unable to find his ‘new equilibrium’ by being denied even unity in death.
Applying these structuralist theories, I found, only served to emphasize the essentially patriarchal nature of the myth. The literary theorist Terry Eagleton talks of how “[a text’s] blindnesses, what it does not say and how it does not say it… [is] maybe as important as what it articulates” (Eagleton, 1996) i.e. the ‘untold’ story, the ‘gaps’ in the original tale, can allow for additional perspectives other than the conventional, ‘preferred’ reading. In reference to Orpheus, I felt that the character of Eurydice, and her account of events, was a very important ‘blindness’, which had been largely ignored by Greek mythology. Because of this, I decided to adopt a more ‘oppositional reading’, as Hall would characterise it, and subsequently, a more ‘feminist’ approach, making Eurydice the classic hero.
This opened up a variety of possibilities to me concerning the other roles. Could Orpheus (or Christian in my re-working) now become the ‘villain’, his ‘quest’, from her perspective, becoming more akin to a ‘hunting down’? The ‘object’ could now become Edie’s desire to be recognised and appreciated. Could Christian’s ‘underworld’ not be Edie’s ‘new equilibrium’? I also thought it would be interesting to strip Christian of his ‘donor’ role by making his musical talent all a faï¿½ade. I felt that it was a perfectly reasonable reading of the original text to believe that the reason Orpheus ‘required’ Eurydice was simply to act as his ‘muse’ and inspire him to create beautiful music. By interpreting Orpheus’ need for Eurydice on a more literal level, I could make Edie the one who was the true musician. This makes Christian’s need for her all the more desperate as, without Edie, Christian feels he can no longer be a successful musician, as is the case in the original text.
I also felt that the tale of Orpheus had almost become too romanticized and was subsequently open to a parody. Consequently, I tried to create a carnivalesque interpretation, that is, exaggerate some of the key aspects of the characters until they almost become ‘grotesque’, in order to evoke humour. I decided to make my target audience aged 14-18, as I felt that they would feel comfortable with the modern-day, often egotistical, music culture, and also be open to, and appreciate, the attempt to invert the original tale’s gender stereotyping. As I wanted to create a visually dynamic as well as linguistically comical piece, I chose the genre of a television drama: a genre likely to appeal to my target audience. This also allows the piece to suddenly break out of realism in order to give the drama a distinctly surreal edge, for example, the impromptu arrival of the snake. I felt the addition of this element of ‘magical realism’ to the piece would add to the farcical nature and heighten the comedy.
The opening few scenes are key to establishing the tone of the piece, and also the characters’ relationships. The opening scene of a “rock band” performing on stage is designed to grab the viewer’s attention, whilst also appealing to my target audience. Christian uses the informal register of the archetypal ‘rock star’: “We’ve been Christian and the May Poles! Goodnight!” This type of lexis has connotations of arrogance and vanity, which is designed to contrast with the stupidity of Orpheus’s kilt and also the band name ‘Christian and the May Poles’, a pun on the original ‘Maenads’.
By having Edie backstage, providing the real musical talent, she initially appears a relatively oppressed, marginalised character: always forced to stay in the background: “Yeah. Well, I ain’t ‘Christian’, am I?” There is a sense that Edie has accepted the belief imposed upon her by Christian: that she is simply an accessory to his success. I gave her a distinct Northern accent in order to appear more ‘down to earth’ than her ‘rock star’ counterpart, and also to appeal more to the audience as the ‘under-dog’.
Throughout, Christian is portrayed as the archetypal, vain, male ‘rock star’. I attempted to emphasize this vanity linguistically, through his self-obsessed use of language – “You’ve already got flowers. My flowers. Flowers handpicked by moi” – and also through his obsession with his eyebrows. I felt that by giving this conventionally ‘effeminate’ concern to both Christian and Al, I could further parody the ‘strong’ male stereotype associated with Greek myths.
One of the key changes that I made to the original text was that in my drama, Edie runs away from Christian as opposed to “Aristaeus”. She is also willingly ‘bitten’ by the snake. By having Edie willingly leave Christian for the ‘underworld’, this is in keeping with my overall ‘feminist’ angle of approach, as it now becomes Edie’s ‘quest’ to find her role as a performer.
Instead of making the characters of my ‘underworld’ subtly linked to the characters in the original myth, I decided on overstating their most obvious physical features in order to provide an out and out carnivalesque adaptation. Because of this, I decided that a theatre would be an ideal setting, and, by drawing inspiration from the character of the serpent, introduced the idea of a pantomime production of the Bible in the hope that this would generate further humour.
Deliberately playing with the notion of stereotypes, that is foregrounding the whole issue, was also a comic device. Just as Christian is the ‘stereotypical rock star’, so all the characters of the underworld are stereotypical actors, as I felt this would add a new angle to these conventionally frightening characters. The use of ‘stock’ figures and the language associated with them, – such as the ‘wise’ Yorkshiremen – would also speed up audience recognition and mean the characters would not need to be individually introduced.
In earlier drafts, I had attempted to give the beginning a more serious edge, in order to contrast with the absurdity of the underworld. I had incorporated monologues, in the style of Jim Cartwright’s Road, in an attempt to provide greater character insight. However, these monologues seemed to ‘jar’ with the other scenes and make the beginning appear ‘flat’, without really adding to the piece. Although they established the characters, they did so in a rather bland, pedestrian way, so these scenes were reworked.
However, I still felt I had to emphasize the difference between the characters of the ‘upper world’ and those of the ‘underworld’ and one of the main ways I did this was through my choice of language. Because my chosen setting was a theatre, I wanted to give the language of the ‘underworld’ a distinct theatrical edge. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was through my use of “luvvies'” discourse, for example, the Serpent’s line “How marvellous!”, an indication of the affected register of language associated with the theatre. This inflated speech is in immediate contrast to both Christian and Edie’s more ‘down to earth’, Northern dialect and I tried to emphasize this contrast by having the two types of speech juxtaposed in order that they might ‘break against’ each other and subsequently, generate humour: “Greetings Child/Who the hell are you?”
Another theatrical device which I made use of was the ‘one liner’ – a device associated with pantomime – in the hope that this would make the piece feel like a “pantomime production of Orpheus” as it were. For example the serpent’s ‘one-liner’ “I’m playing the serpent incidentally” attempts to add humour by overstatement, as I interpreted this character on a literal level and made my serpent, an actor “wearing a giant green snake costume”. This line also refers to both the pantomime production of the Bible and the original Greek myth. It will inform viewers already familiar with the myth that the ‘descent into the underworld’ is about to begin, and provide a ‘sneak preview’ into future events.
The ‘wise men’, Rod, Bob and Todd were added to act as a Cerebus figure. I gave them each a pint of beer in order that they might ‘foam at the mouth’ as Cerebus was famed for doing, and made them “drunk and… quite menacing” in order to, like Cerebus, be perceived as ‘vicious’. Through their physical similarity and the syntactical correspondency of their language, they are designed to appear like a ‘club-act’, finishing off each other’s sentences in an almost ‘pantomime patter’ style, in order to ‘gang up’ on Christian: “We are wise men./The wise men of Yorkshire”. I also made them speak simultaneously, in order to appear as though they are ‘one being with three heads’: “We know!”
I transformed the original mythological character of Charon into another actor, Little Ron. I combined many of the traditional aspects of Charon such as the hood and cape, with sunglasses in order to contrast with Charon’s ‘blazing eyes’ motif. I also made him exceptionally short in order to dismiss any preconceptions which the audience may have of Charon being ‘spooky’ and ‘all powerful’. As opposed to Orpheus paying Charon ‘one silver coin’ to descend in the underworld, Christian instead gives Little Ron a cigarette. I felt this fitted in with my modern-day outlook and also would add a comical element by effectively having “God” smoking.
One of the most dramatic changes I made to the original tale was that in my version, Edie chooses to stay in the ‘underworld’, and it is she, as opposed to Des/Hades, who sends Christian back to the ‘upper world’ with the dismissive remark “I’m an actress, Chris”. By changing the original ending, Edie has found her real existence in the underworld, and to her, it is the upper world which is full of misery. Christian, however becomes a classic picture of male melancholy: “homeless and unable to even strum his guitar.” He is an allusion to the current crisis in masculinity, a phenomenon often voiced in the media, his ‘traditional role’ as the performer taken over by his female counterpart: abandoned for “Keith Harris”. Because of this, Christian feels his masculinity has been threatened. This is then made ironic by his final effeminate cry of “My tweezers!”
In the final scene, I had Edie “smiling sadistically” as she plucks her eyebrows, indicative of her mocking of Christian, a reversal of the original patriarchal tale. For whereas in the original text, it is the ‘hero’ Orpheus who ‘goes on his quest and fails’, in my transformation it is the ‘heroine’ Edie, who not only sets off on her ‘quest’ but also succeeds and ultimately, it is she who ‘comes out on top’.
Philip, Neil. The Illustrated Book of Myths, (DK, 2000)
Hughes, Ted. Ted Hughes’ Collected Plays for Children, (Faber, 2001)
Widdicombe, Rupert. The Sunday Times, (4 September 1994, CINEMA, pages 10-11)
Ross, Alison and Greatrex, Jen. A2 English Language and Literature, (Heinemann, 2001)
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory, An Introduction (Blackwell, 1996)
Machery, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production (Routlege and Kegan Paul. 1978)
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths:1 (Penguin, 1955)
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
(Michael Wiese Productions, 1998)
Cartwright, Jim. Road (Samuel French, 1989)
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 14 September 2017
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