Lunedi Lunacy

Often these days I feel a bit like Marcel Proust – no I don’t mean all languid and lavender – but that a sentence, even a word, a smell, a visual will trigger a memory of things past.  More than likely it will be some mundane event that has no meaning to anyone but me.

Freddie the Freeloader (Red Skelton) as lined by Al Hirschfeld.

Someone mentioned Red Skelton in a conversation the other day and even as they said the word a memory picture came flooding back.  The living room of the MacGregor house across the road and a few houses down from my childhood home on Beta Street.  Almost every Tuesday night I would babysit young Ray.  If I remember correctly his father worked evening shift at the Goodyear factory and his mom had some sort of community club she went to that night.  So I would head over, make sure Ray was doing his homework and turn on the TV to the Red Skelton Show.

Red was one of those entertainers who had learned and honed his craft from an early age.  At 10 he joined a medicine show, progressed to working on a showboat, then burlesque, vaudeville and by 1940 he was under contract to MGM.  But radio and television were to be media that made him a household word.  However much of his material came from those early stage days and they were the most requested routines when he was on tour or recording TV specials.  One of his earliest classics praised the virtues(?) of “Guzzler’s Gin”.

At the end of every hour Red would perform a pantomime sketch – perhaps as Freddie the Freeloader, Junior the Mean Widdle Kid, Clem Kaddlehoffer, or as one of the many anonymous people he had observed over the years.  In many of his sketches and pantomimes a hat was the only prop he used – he once said that was because in the early years he used as few props as necessary so he could make a quick getaway if the act went badly.

One of the joys of watching him perform was the enjoyment he seemed to get in performing and how he would often  laugh at his own material – and on those Tuesday nights I laughed right along with him.

On this day in 1843: The News of the World tabloid begins publication in London.

As Flies to Wanton Boys

In reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, Stephen Fry’s Mythos, the Old Testament or Eastern mythology it becomes apparent that the “gods”, be they Nordic, Greek, Abrahamic, or Oriental are a capricious lot.  Their impulses can be startlingly human and their revenges as petty as any mortals.  And often their actions are mean-spirited jokes on those they consider lesser than themselves.

Earlier in the week I referred to the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus – a tale redolent of  the whims of the Immortals.  In fact immortality is at the centre of what could be considered a cautionary tale for gods and mortals alike.

Eos cradling the body of her slain son Memnon.
Circa 490-480 BC – signed by Douris (painter) and Kalliades (potter)

Eos (Dawn) was one of the race of Titans who ruled the earth before the advent of the Olympian gods.  Along with her sister Selene (Moon) and brother Helios (Sun) she was the off-spring of  the Titans Hyperion and his sister Theia.  Each morning dressed in her saffron robes  Eos, the “rosy-fingered one” would open the Great Gates  in the East and Helios would begin his journey across the sky as Selene drove her chariot into Oceanus, the sea the encircled the earth.

Beautiful and gentle, Eos was none-the-less a hot-blooded creature with a fondness for young, handsome, well-favoured mortal men.  But each relationship was to be doomed by a curse.  A curse that she knew nothing about.

As flies to wanton boys,
are we to the gods;
they kill us for their sport.

William Shakespeare

It appears that Aphrodite, who was so willing to help Sappho in matters of the heart, was not so kind that she could overlook someone having an affair with her lover Ares, the God of War.  It was fine that Aphrodite herself was married to Hephaestus at the time, she never liked him,  but Zeus help the Goddess, Titaness or mortal who had doings with her man.  Now Eos was not alone in consorting with the God of War  (the list suggests an extreme lack of fidelity on his part) but she suffered mightily from Aphrodite’s jealousy.  The goddess silently vowed that the little minx with the rosy-fingers would never find lasting happiness in the realm she ruled – love.

Eos suffered the loss of several lovers before she happened about a mortal she knew she would love forever: Tithonus.

In some versions of the myth Eos could no longer bear the inarticulate cries of her lover. She could not understand them but she knew he begged for death and release from the lot she had so lovingly, if unknowingly, had placed up him.  Though she could not grant his wish she had the power to transform him. Tearfully she willed his withered body to take the shape of a cicada.  He left their hearth but she could still hear the plaintive chirping of his voice in the night and with it the puzzling sound of cruel distant laughter.  The laughter of the vengeful Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

On this day in 1928: Alexander Fleming notices a bacteria-killing mold growing in his laboratory, discovering what later became known as penicillin.

Mercoledi Musicale

A scrap of papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus trove bearing the text of a Sapphic poem.

Yesterday I spoke of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite (Stin Aphroditi) until 2004 the only complete poem by the Lesbian poet known to be in existence.  An invocation to the Goddess of Love for assistance with unrequited love, it was a lyric poem meant to be recited to the plucking of the strings of a lyre.  The text is Aeolic Greek and is written in what we know as Sapphic stanza:  three long lines of identical metre followed by a shorter fourth.

There are seven stanzas: the first three invoke the Goddess in the appropriately flowery terms of a supplicant.  In the next three Aphrodite appears to Sappho, hears her complaint against the woman she loves, and the Goddess assures her that things will soon change. The poem ends with the poet imploring  the Goddess to always aid her in matters of love.

Unfortunately the récitante and lyre player on this recording are uncredited which is a shame as the music of both her voice and the instrument are true lyric poetry.

The best known translation of Sappho’s work is by the American classicist Elizabeth Vandiver.  The following link with take you to her translation, notes and metrical explanation: Ode to Aphrodite .

On this day in 1687: The Parthenon in Athens is partially destroyed during the Morean War.

Sapphic Thoughts

No I’m not planning a change of orientation (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!*)

Back in the summer of 2008 the Greek courts entertained a request from three residents of the island of Lesbos.  They wanted to ban the use of the word lesbian to describe gay women as they felt it compromised their identity as “true” Lesbians. During the hearing one resident, sporting a badge declaring “My name is Paul and I’m a Lesbian”, unfurled a banner declaring: If you are not from Lesbos, you are not a Lesbian. On the other side  a defense witness, rather reasonably citing tradition and finance said, “The term has been used worldwide for centuries and has even helped the island, boosting tourism.”  He further stated,  “My daughter has no problem being called a Lesbian, even though she’s not a lesbian”.  Which must have confused the court just a bit without benefit of the written differentiation.

This 1474 woodcut from a German incunable of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris** sums up the Medieval view of Sappho: a highly educated woman of musical and poetic accomplishment.

Taking less than the two or three months they felt they might need the Court ruled the word did not define the identity of the residents of the island, and so it could be validly used by gay groups in Greece and abroad.  Paul can proclaim his Lesbianism to the blue seas of the Aegean and no one should question his sexuality or his nationality.

The title for her 2017 book comes from her iconic line in Carry on Screaming.

So why this sudden interest in what is after all old news?  Well to be honest it was the death the past week of the British actress Fanella Fielding.  And?  She was a Lesbian? Well no and neither to the best of my knowledge was she a lesbian. However I was reminded that Laurent saw her back in 2015 in a reading of Euripides’ Alexandros by the Actors of Dionysus (AOD).  I recall being rather startled and amused by her being cast as Hekuba in a reconstruction of a play long thought lost that was written as part of a trilogy back in 415.  My memories where of a smokey voiced vamp in the Doctor and Carry On movies and a bit of a cult figure of British theatre and cinema.  Laurent assured me that her performance was a powerful one and I notice that almost every obituary referred to a performance she gave in Hedda Gabler as being one of the great moments in British theatre.  She continued working until several weeks before she died at the age of 91 in early September.

That’s all very well and good but what has that to do with Lesbos?  Beginning in 2012 she worked extensively with the AOD in their efforts to expand the knowledge and performance of ancient Greek drama.  And that brings us to the Sapphic connection: one of the projects was a recording of 15 of the fragments of the Lesbian (note the capital L) poet’s works.  It is thought that Sappho wrote over 10,000 lines of lyric poetry (meant to be sung to instrumental accompaniment); of those 10,000 only 600 to 700 have survived. Until recently the only complete poem was the Ode to Aphrodite which gives evidence that the poetess’s preference was for her own sex but that has been long a matter of debate.  The little excerpt from the recording I was able to find appears to be a new translation of lines from what is called the Tithonus poem – the poet’s thoughts on old age discovered in 2004.   Strangely this translation leaves out the central passage linking the advance of old age to the sad myth of Eos and Tithonus that gives the fragment its title.

There is  a sweet almost mocking acceptance of aging in the words of the poet; and it is echoed in this performance by the 87 year old actress some 2500 years later.

And it was a search for information about Sappho and her poetry that turned up the story that began this whole ramble.  Such is the wonder of the Internet and the vagaries of my own aging mind.

*Full points to anyone who get’s the reference.

**Concerning Famous Women is a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women written by Boccaccio in 1361-62. It is the first collection devoted exclusively to biographies of women in Western literature.

On this day in 1690: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, the first newspaper to appear in the Americas, is published for the first and only time.