An obnoxious interview with Mike the Spike’s author, Stella Tarakson

Mike the Spike, the new for juniors (7-9 year olds) novel by the prolific Stella Tarakson is being launched on Friday, 26th September at Kogarah Municipal Library. Being one of Stella Tarakson’s camp followers, you can imagine my excitement. True to her style, the plot sails along with incidents breaking over incidents and incidences regaled with laughter. Having had the privilege of reading the ms early during the creative process has given me the confidence to ask some pretty, obnoxious questions of the author.

Stella Taraksn

Stella Tarakson

1. Have you ever had a spike ( even if it was in the 80s ) ?

I don’t know what you’re talking about :)

2. What about the nits?

Oh yes. Several times. Not when I was a kid – but I had them when my children were in primary school. It was awful and has left me permanently scarred, hence the book.

3. Are you Mike?


4. The range of books you have written covers educational books, self-help, legal, science fiction, YA, Tweens non-fiction , junior novels etc. How does writing comedy differ in the creative process from the more serious forms of writing you’ve had published? ( Or, have you ever laughed yourself so senseless as you’ve frantically tapped down the inspiration that you’ve left out the punch line ?)

Writing is all about voice. The hardest part of any project I’ve attempted is getting the voice right – once I’ve got it, the rest flows. I’ve written books about the law, about dealing with death, about euthanasia, terrorism, obesity and on and on! They’re all totally different voices, but other than that, the writing process is similar. My workshop students often ask me how they can find their own writing voice. It’s a hard question to answer. The only way really is to experiment and see what works. I remind them that we all have different voices for different occasions. We speak one way to our parents, another to our friends, another to our workmates/clients and so on. When I write, I think about who I’m writing for – and why. I love writing comedy for kids. It’s one of the most satisfying ways of connecting with the audience!

Mike the Spke

Mike the Spike

5. Is Mike obnoxious? Why? Please explain.

Little Mikey? No! How could you even think that?

6. How important is it that you like your main character?

For me, it’s crucial. I’ve read a few kids’ books where the main character is obnoxious and unlikeable. Maybe kids are expected to like them, but I don’t see how they could either! If I’m going to spend time inside a character’s head, I’ve got to like what I find there.

7. Plot or Character?

Plot. And character. Character and plot. One bounces off the other and it’s all mixed together. I start with an incident or problem, then think about the sort of character that would be most affected by it. For instance – nits. Par for the course for most girls, who tend to get them regularly. But a vain little boy, whose pride and joy is his spiky hair? Disaster! Then I think of ways the character can try to solve that problem, and the obstacles s/he will face. That’s how the plot takes shape in my mind. I like to have a fairly good idea of both before I start writing the story. Then I show it to someone like your good self – who is great at offering reader feedback! Thanks for your role in Mike’s success :)

It was my pleasure.

Mike the Spike is being launched at Kogarah Municipal Library on Friday, 26th September. Both Stella Tarakson and the illustrator of the book’s very funny drawings, Ben Johnston, will be there reading from the book and drawing, on-the-spot, for their young audience. There will be drawing and nit-making craft for the kids as well.

Book now at Eventbrite!


Bookshelf Tag

It’s time for tag or tips or to be most accurate, build-up, bookshelf tips or tag. So I’m in, thanks to Stella Tarakson who has also tip-tagged 4 more. Now pay attention cause you might just get caught. The rules are:

“Answer the following questions about books on your bookshelf and then tag five other bloggers. You can answer the questions any way you want, whether it’s on your blog, in a video, or a combination of the two. Then remember to let whoever tagged you know when your post is up so they can read it.”

1. Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A friend told me that Tolstoy wrote it after he realised that he had fallen in love with his wife. The idea of it fascinated me. How would the romance differ? How would the love differ? I assumed that his personal realisation would inform the relationships in the novel. I purchased it soon after and it has sat unread on my bookshelf ever since.

2. Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

I never owned this book. Nor the dozens of books of its ilk that I began illicitly removing from my mother’s off-limits bookshelf when I was twelve. It was my initiation into the soft-porn/romance, historical novel genre. That libidinous book was Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

3. Find a book that you want to reread.

I don’t tend to re-read many books, just the good bits!

Except Shakespeare, the Bible, poetry and rhyming picture books. If I had to pick just one it would be, The Taming of the Shrew.

4. Is there a book series you’ve read but wish that you hadn’t?

George R.R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). Don’t misunderstand my meaning. I’m engrossed by it. The problem is that each book is 900 plus pages of small print and he is still producing books in the series! I’ve finished the second book only recently – spoiler alert – and am in a mire that I won’t be able to escape until Mr Martin finishes his tale. If I continue reading the series, I won’t read anything else but if I don’t read the third book Tyrion Lannister will suffer the wounds of battle eternally. Only by reading on will his life find its new equilibrium. His life depends on me reading on .Crazy? Good fiction does this to me.

5. If your house was burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

Orthodox Spirituality by a Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Devotions, Prayers and Spiritual Wisdom of Hildegard of Bingen would also fit in the same grasp.

6. Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Rod Clement’s, Olga the Brolga. This is my favourite picture book. Not recommended for nighttime reading. For the first several weeks after I bought it, I read it every night to the kids. The characters steadily grew. They each had a unique voice and the rhythm of the story added to their characterisation. The kids loved it and soon knew most of it by heart.. That’s when they started jumping out of bed and joining in the telling and not falling asleep. It’s given me some wonderful memories. There have been other books not recommended for children’s sleep hygiene in my household like Pamela Allen’s, Mary Elizabeth’s Monster and her Mr Gee series and Julia Donaldson’s, Gruffalo.

7. Find a book that has inspired you the most!

Charlton Ogburn Jr’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare

8. Do you have any autographed books?

Stella Tarakson’s, Mike the Spike. A very funny story.

9. Find the book that you have owned the longest.

Gideon’s New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs

10. Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

Charlton Ogburn Jr’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. I so wanted to hate this book. This guy needed to get a life! As if Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him! I was determined to ridicule his claims, reduce his arguments and demolish the premises on which they were built. With a soft 4B pencil in hand – the type that leaves an imprint after it’s been rubbed out – I was determined to record my objections all through it’s 900 plus margins. Nine hundred and something pages to tear down a reputation and replace it with that of an obscure Elizabethan poet. If he could incense me more, I’d take a texta to the dust cover and make a Spaniard of him.

Then I opened the cover and started reading. Ogburn was logical, methodical, deeply researched, comprehensive and well written. His 900 plus pages are a faster read than George R.R. Martin’s. I soon pulled out a notepad and used the trusty 4B to raise my questions there. Thus began a course of inquiry that I stilI traverse today. I couldn’t agree with all of Ogburn’s claims but in the main he is very convincing.

All done. Now for the hard part. Who do I tag? Obviously, people I follow – tag is about following afterall. But who? It’s like I have been left with that old hypothetical question that goes something like, “You are hosting a dinner party for 5 people from the annals of history, who will you invite?”

The ones whose blog headers make me smile before I’ve opened their post. I hope you can play, no offence taken if you can’t. Let me know if you do.

Artlark – blogging on arts and fine arts, informative and inspiring

If it happened yesterday, it’s history – this is just one of Robert Horvat’s history blogs It’s broad and accessible. HIs other is The History of the Byzantine Empire

Mikeaztec – generous, academic research and writing on medieval and late roman history

Richard’s Food for Thought – “I am about being a Husband, Father, Minister, Theologian, High-Church, Low-Church, Bald, Bespectacled, Blessed, Methodist, Grateful Human Being….” and He writes poetry too!

 and last but definitely not least, if I can take the liberty of bending the rules and ask for the bookshelf to be a movie shelf, I’d like to tag movie blogger

Christina Wehner – blogging on movies, musicals, books and the american songbook

Instances in Istanbul

“Mum, look!”
“I am,” I replied, gratified to hear the enthusiasm in the kids’ voices. We were in a taxi speeding away from Ataturk International Airport and in towards Taksim Square.
“Look, Mum!”
“I am. I am.”
Could these old walls really be those built for Emperor Justinian back in the 4th Century?
Surely too much of them have survived.
“I’m looking, I’m looking!”
Shouldn’t they be all marble? Interpolated arrays of overlapping terracotta bricks and larger off-white ones made up the wall we were coasting by. Pretty. Picturesque. Quaint, almost. For how many kms could they maintain the pattern?
“Mum, you’re NOT looking!”
“Of course I am! It’s incredible.”
On which section did the Virgin Mary appear? Did she really help the Constantinopolitans defend their city here? The image of her throwing stones. . .

Walls of Constantinople

Walls of Constantinople

“Here! Look HERE!”
“See! I bet you’ve never seen that before!” They weren’t looking at the Walls. They weren’t even looking out of the taxi window, but at it. Then at the door. “Look!” There was a handle with a knob on the end of it. It was protruding from behind the panel. Behind the panel there must have been some sort of winch because when they turned the handle one way, the window wound up. In the opposite direction, it came down again. Wasn’t it amazing? No buttons. No batteries. No electronic impulse! Manually operated car door windows!

Verfremdungseffekt! (Kind of.This is a blog about theatre afterall!) Istanbul was going to be full of such, “defamiliarising” or more precisely, refamiliarizing, curious instances!

The next one came when the kids spotted their first ever telephone box. They were so excited to see a real, live tardis! When my husband pointed out an operational police, phone-help box the subtlety was lost on them. Then a warp in the space-time continuum occurred on the Bosphorus. We boarded the Manly ferry! If you are of a certain age and had made a Sydney Harbour crossing way back when those old green ferries unzipped their way through Port Jackson then you may remember them. I don’t remember them being replaced but when my husband pointed it out, I felt the loss of them from our harbour to the Maramara Sea. But adventure was ahead as we cruised to the largest of the Prince’s Islands. We were off to Buyukada. Once the home to three exiled Byzantine Empresses, Irene, Zoe and Anna Dalassena, it is now a car-free, tourist destination offering beaches, history, bicycles and phaeton rides. The kids enjoyed the phaeton ride and the swim but if there were any traces of its Byzantine history they were well hidden and off the island’s horse-clapped circuit..


Empress Theodora

Irene, Zoe and Anna weren’t the principal Byzantine princesses I wanted to find in Istanbul. No, I wanted Theodora. Not Theodora the Empress, but Theodora the actress, the dancer, the mime, who captivated the heart of the Emperor. I wanted to see the Hippodrome. I wanted to imagine her in its midst. I wanted to place myself on the platform where she moved. Did she have her own stage? Was she raised on a podium for all to see and envy? Or did she run in and out of the hippodrome floor like a circus performer? What was it about the way she moved that set her apart from the other performers?

I had to find the Hippodrome. It wasn’t as easy as it would seem. It is featured in a number of tourist brochures but with no accompanying photographs. It is marked in three different tourist maps that I picked up – but in three slightly different places. It was an ancient circus, serving the equivalent purpose of the Colusseum in Rome. It was big, It’s archaeological remnants could be scattered all around Sultanahmet, I reasoned. With all three tourist maps on hand we set off from Hagia Sophia and walked south-west towards the Blue Mosque asking questions of the cruise hawkers who kept approaching us – Would we like to cruise on the Bosphorus? No. We would like to find the Hippodrome. Could they show us? Over there, they would point in a offhand, non-descript manner. So we walked in that general direction. The children’s playgroud? The street markets? We asked a security guard on duty at the street markets. Here, he indicated. No, we don’t want to go shopping. We want to see the Hippodrome we tried to relate. Here, he indicated again, but this time gesturing the area around us and through and behind the street market. We were standing in the Hippodrome, or more correctly where the Hippodrome once stood. All that remains are three of the columns that the chariots raced around.They wouldn’t reveal the secrets of Theodora’s dance. Nor could the vendors in the markets, nor the children in the playground nor was it revealed in the prayers over the loudspeaker reverberating through Sultanahmet. If only those figures around the base of the Theoosius Column could talk!

The base of Theodosius Column or Obelisk of Thutmose III, dating to c 1490 BCE, According to one tourist brochure it was taken from its original site in Egypt and left outside the Walls of Conctantinople until Emperor Theodosius had it erected in the Hippodrome in the 4th Century CE.


The Base of Theodosius Column

Walls of Constatinople

Photo credit: brewbooks / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Larissa’s Skene amongst fashion & frappe

Skene is a funny word. My Greek leaves a lot to be desired but in my convoluted Aussie-gringlish understanding of the word it has a few meanings. It’s a tent, a shadow screen, perhaps a rope and definitely the building before which Ancient Greek dramas were performed.

It seems as though every Ancient Greek polis had its own amphitheatre. Distinctive by the semi-circular shape of their open air auditoriums, they are preserved all over the Greek world. What is uncommonly rare about the amphitheatre in Larissa is the state of preservation of its Skene.
We can see very clearly the three entrances that the actors would have used. To each, a retiring room opens onto its entranceway. Props and costumes may also have been stored here. The saving grace of the Deus ex machina would be hidden behind the Skene, ready to fly in an Olympian god to save the day.

When we imagine the plays of the 3 great tragedians and the great comic dramatist, Aristophanes we imagine them taking place in a stone amphitheatre. However, their amphitheatres were wooden. It was in Menander’s day that amphitheatres were made of stone. When we read his O Dyskolos or the works of Plautus and Terence, the Greek origins of their staging has to be imagined before this stone building with three doors.

Like many of the Ancient Greek archaeological sites, the theatre of Larissa is found in the centre of the CBD. Situated just below street level it competes for attention with fashion stores and eateries.

For someone who has grown up in Australia, it’s hard to get my head around the wanton wayside tolerance of history in modern Greek metropolis’. In Greece, history doesn’t move forward but bogs down progress.

The city has grown organically for thousands of years. Ten thousand, thousand yesterday’s have left their mark in Larissa. It may look like casual abandon but the remains of the Byzantine Agora over the underground carpark a few blocks away from the theatre, have actually been carefully preserved, removed and restored for the carpark to be built. Gratifying for a lover of history, frustrating for the entrepreneur wanting to make a profit. Progress is marred by such inertia.

Larissa is only one of many such cities in Greece. A casual stroll through these cities will offer you fashion, frappe, yeeros and yesterday. If only you have time.

Tea with Cavafy and a Brontosaurus called Bard

I never had you, nor do I suppose will I ever have you.
A few words, an approach,
As in the bar yesterday, and nothing more.
It is undeniably a pity
But we who serve Art sometimes with the mind’s intensity can create pleasure which is almost physical.
But, of course, only for a short time . . .

extract from the poem, Half an Hour* by C.P.Cavafy

Cavafy’s poem, Half an Hour, spoke to me in my twenties more than any other poem. It summed up my yearning for and unrequited love. It was powerful. It was self aware. The poet knew that he was entertaining a fantasy. His muse knew how he felt and allowed him his fantasy, but no more. Instantaneously I felt that this was my poem. Incredibly I knew that somehow, Cavafy wrote it for me and about me. Immediately I felt that we shared a common experience. Reading the poem in its entirety, I all but understood that all of his sentiments I had experienced. Almost all. But I knew that Cavafy was a gay man. He was a gay man, a Greek man, an Orthodox Christian living in Egyptian Alexandria in the early 20th Century. This added other levels of meaning to his words, hidden meanings that once unearthed subsumed the meaning the poem had for me. I stopped empathising and sympathised instead.

I couldn’t ignore his biography. It wasn’t just the state of my mind but there was a physical barrier when I tried to access his poetry as well. At the time, to read Cavafy in English I had to look for him in anthologies of gay poetry. A special section in some bookstores. His writing although not explicitly gay was relegated to a marginalised audience because of his biography. Was that necessary?

When considering somone’s art, is their life story really necessary? When emotions are communicated from an anonymous pen don’t we have a freer license to feel? To feel without prejudging? Doesn’t the power of art assert itself in its ability to break us out of our existential prisons and deliver us into the arms of abstract, communal experience?

A Tunisian Sepulchre with a marked resemblence to  the architecture of the earliest Renaissance stage in Italy (15th C.)

A Tunisian Sepulchre with a marked resemblence to a 1490’s staging of Terence in Italy

When I consider Shakespeare as a man and as an actor, poet, playwright, poacher, pennypincher, theatre entrepreneur, grain merchant, gentrified farmer, father, I’m pleased. His is a skeletal biography, a structure without flesh, a structure indicative not particular. Not quite anonymous, but almost. Regardless, the bones of his story indicate that he had his faults and his virtues. The good outweighs the bad. Reading his works and enjoying them on stage and screen has given me a lot of pleasure, as it does for many people, past and present. I can ignore some big inconsistencies in his biography. History is full of inconsistencies. They drive further enquiry. But then there’s this:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten:
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all of the breather’s of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen),
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Sonnet 81, by Shakespeare

The sonnet is telling us something. It seems the great poet was great via the work of another. This other’s penmanship will be forgotten once his contemporaries have passed away. He is resigned to it. There is a lot of yearning in this poem. He yearns for it to be another way.

It’s eerie too. The, “eyes not yet created, ” that’s us. He is off-loading on us. It almost feels like a challenge. Will we see through the fascade? He is too defeated to even hope.

So what are we going to do? This poet who gave the English language and stage pride and credibilty is languishing, entombed in obscurity or infamy. Do we do anything? Do we owe him anything? The poet is dead. Does it matter? What about the truth? Should it be pursued when the status quo is easier? If we uncover the poet’s secrets, unmask his real identity, will we lose the potency of his words? Should the emotional truth that spirals up from his pages, concertina down again to serve a historical, biographical interpretation? What if he or she has done something we couldn’t equate with our expectations for our literary hero? What if we find behind the mask an adulterer or a paedophile or a matron or a Catholic, bricklayer, bisexual, spy or a tyrant?

Biographies complicate matters. How much should we expect the life to reflect the art?

In looking through Shakespeare’s skelton closet will we find another Brontosaurus ? Have the specialists known about its existence and for how long ? Is it taboo? Could there be a reason for history to carefully guard this burial? Are we not approaching history’s sepulchre attired in the correct robes? When this metaphoric tomb is opened what will lie there? Will the hand that held Shakespeare’s pen disappoint us?

A recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s plays is the importance of honour. It’s a virtue more read about these days than upheld. Reading Shakespeare has nostalgia value. His world is one of honour, chivalry and grace, antiquated notions today. Embarrassing even. How do we honour the poet if we ignore this plea? Are we beyond chivalry, honour and grace?

* The translation of Cavafy’s poem is from the murky depths of my memory. Cavafy draws inspiration from personal moments in the lives of Byzantine personalities. 

Photo Credit – Sepulchre in Tunisia


My Very Earnest Mother Just Swept Up Nine . . . Brontosaurus’!

There are certain truths I remember from my schooling whose certainty has been compromised. Pluto was the ninth planet of the Solar System. The Brontosaurus was a most elegant dinosaur. Christopher Columbus proved that the world wasn’t flat. Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright. Were they facts? Opinions? Cultural prejudices? It seems rock hard facts can be weathered away and lost, grains in the winds of time.

Shakespeare Statue

Shakepeare, the World’s Greatest Playwright?

What makes a fact, a fact ? That Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright I could tell even then was subjective. I loved his plays and still do. Wrapped up in this notion of his greatness is not just the essence of his plays, his ideas and how his plots serve to illustrate them while they entertain, but that he achieved it with poetry. As a poet, I much preferred Pope. Pope was more accessible and didn’t need a concordance to be understood. So Shakespeare’s greatness was diminished by his degraded ability to make himself understood. Time will continue to erode him in this respect. The debasement of his genius only applies to those of us who have not studied English literature, nor will in the future. So then it seems, a fact, knowledge, can be subjective serving the person who holds it true.

Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) skeleton

Apatosaurus skeleton in its scafford

Does a fact become a fact because someone has convinced us of it? Because it has become universally accepted? What if its report has served someone’s personal agenda? Take the Brontosaurus. The paleontological community has known since 1903 that the Brontosaurus was a hoax, a product of a Bone War between two leading paleontologists of the 19th Century in their race for academic supremacy. In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh discovered the partial skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaur without a head. He named it Apatosaurus. In putting the skeleton together he took the skull of another dinosaur and placed it on the Apatosaurus. The representaion was incorrect. He may have supplemented more of the missing skeleton with other, “spare parts”. The name held. There was no reason to question it. Some years later members of his team uncovered a complete specimen of an Apatosaurus. They needed to give it a name. It was a new dinosaur. It didn’t look exactly like Marsh’s Apatosaurus. It was called the Brontosaurus. In 1903 scientists discovered the ruse. The second skeleton came to be known as an Apatosaurus. Why Apatosaurus and not Brontosaurus? Who knows? But nothing was done about the name until 1970. In the 1980s schools were still teaching the pre-existence of the Brontosaurus. It seems that knowledge is as persistant as human foibles and failings but may not last the distance when professional reputations are at stake. Knowledge is then a socially perscribed grace.

Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

Christ as Ruler of the World, Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

Is a fact still a fact when looked at from the perspctive of a different culture? Today the presidence of the English language for interpreting and disseminating knowledge has a muddling sidekick. That of a prejudiced perspective. As English speakers have the greatest access to this universal language of Planet Earth, their assumed knowledge is referred to again and again in the dissemination of facts. As someone who loves history but grew up in a Commonwealth country, the history that I was exposed to was the history of the Western consciousness. As a student of both Ancient and Modern History in highschool I was taught the history of Mesapotamia until Egypt, Egypt until Greece, Greece until Rome, Rome to the Medieval West, the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the Renaissance. From the Renaissance we jumped to Captian Cook and the narrative of British occupation of Australia, her nationhood and world history in the 20th Century. The Middle East, Egypt, Italy, Greece all disappeared in their centuries BC. Except for Italy which made her way briefly back into our books in the Rennaissance, these cultures and their worlds of experience and knowledge dissppeared to reemerge as names in the modern theatre’s of war, No wonder then, that it was taught that Columbus proved that the world was’t flat. The West may not have in its consciousness images of the round earth before 1492, but Columbus was certain to have had. In 547CE, the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna was consecrated. Within this church is the mosaic image of Jesus as the Ruler of the Earth. He is sitting on a sphere, or giant orb if you like. It is not the only Byzantine image of a triumphant ruler of the world in possession of an orb, just the most impressive. Columbus would have had at least verbal tradition telling him that the world was not flat. This in no way diminished his great feat but puts it into perspective. No, he was not a sado-maschist who risked the lives of his crew on a whimsy. It seems a fact, particularly a historical fact, is bound to the perpective of its interpreter and the broadness of that interpreters experience.

01 The Solar System PIA10231, mod02

The Solar System of my childhood

Does a fact have a better chance of persevering the servings of time, cultural perpective and academic politics if it is a fibre in a thread of a fabric of the cosmos? Take poor Pluto. Once a planet, now a Dwarf Planet, a mere planetoid, and not the largest planetoid nor the closest to the Sun. It seems, having discovered larger heavenly bodies, but not too large to be called planets, the astronomical community needed a more stringent classification. A planet must be in orbit around the Sun, be large, be spherical and have enough clout to clear all celestial objects from its orbit. So in 2006, with five planetoids weighing on their diaphragms, they blew away one of the sallies of my scientific schooling. My very Earnest Mother could no longer Just Sweep Up Nine Pins. It seems a fact is only a fact until more facts are brought into the orbit of knowledge. Knowledge is corralled by what we don’t know. For those with the imagination, a leap over the fence frees the way for possibilities to enter the corral of knowledge. It seems science fiction may be truer than science.

Have you seen Crafty Theatre’s Unflat World board on Pinterest?



Statue of Shakespeare

Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus)

Photo credit: The Field Museum Library / FoterNo known copyright restrictions

Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

Photo credit: sjmcdonough / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Solar System model

Photo credit: Image Editor / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Deconstructing Phaedra


The Minotaur in his Labyrinth

The dashing prince slashes clear a path through a thicket of brambles. He pauses over the threshold of the prison before him –  long enough only to draw out a ball of twine from his leathern pouch. He bounds ahead into the maze of subterranean passageways that encloses captive the helpless, royal beauty. Her empty sobs tear away over cold distances, twisting their resolve through the labyrinthine passages of despair and hope, wending a confusion for the prince’s ear. He stops. He strains. Is she to his left or his right? A pause too long. The beast cocks his head. He inhales. This is his lair. Who challenges him? He charges. Deftly leaping through corridors, confusing to others, his clamouring gait is a crescendo of war-cries to his foe. With the stranger in sight he doesn’t slow. He leaps. The prince, edgy with anticipation, swoops low his sword and thrusts high. With the skill and strength of a gymnast, the prince tackles his opponent.

The prince slays the bovine beast, frees the damsel . . . and marries her sister! Almost Disney but not quite there. Such is the story of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur. The sister was of course, Phaedra, and the Minotaur, half-man half-bull, was her half-brother, her mother having forsaken her royal bed for the beastly, bestial pleasures of a bull.

Chivalry and romance don’t feature prominently in Ancient Greek tragedy. Desire, eros, duty, honour, obsession, yes, but not romantic love. When Achilles offers to save Iphigenia from the sacrificial alter, battling any or all of the Greek Trojan-heroes-in-the-making, it isn’t out of romantic love or sexual desire – he may as well be risking his life for a comrade-in-arms. Romantic love, tied up as it is with concepts of chivalry came later in history, in the Middle Ages. How should we, who have been inundated with mythologies of romantic love, understand the tale of Phaedra then? And how do we bring across its meaning on the stage?

Fedra i Hipòlit, mosaic del museu d'Ismailia

Phaedra, Eros, Trophoe, Hyppolytus ad two others whose names have not survived in this mosaic

After Theseus slew the Minotaur he eloped with Ariadne. She however was already married to the god, Dionysius. Theseus, disappointed in Ariadne, abandoned her to face the wrath of the gods alone. And then took her sister. When Phaedra married Theseus he was a mature man. He had been married to the Queen of the Amazons and had a son by her. Hippolytus was a handsome youth with the athletic physique of a hunter. Phaedra on seeing him was smitten. Endeavouring to be a dutiful wife, she bore Theseus children. But her attraction to her step-son was never sated. It grew by abstinence. She was obsessed with him. She had him exiled from Athens in her attempts to quell her own desires. When Theseus was reported dead, Phaedra professed her love for Hippolytus –  to his disgust. When Theseus returned from his hunting trip alive, Phaedra in fear for what his son may tell him, accused Hippolytus of seducing her. In a rage, Theseus cursed Hippolytus. Poseidon hearing his plea, drove the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot mad. They took him over a cliff to his death. Out of grief? guilt? self loathing? Phaedra poisoned herself. Such is Greek tragedy.

Viena-Wien. Leopold Museum. Exposició temporal Nackte Männer. Joseph-Désiré Court, La mort d'Hipòlit, 1828

The Death of Hippolytus by Joseph-Desire Court in tghe Leopold Museum, Vienna

The events that transpired leading Hippolytas to his death differ according to whose retelling of the myth. The tale is told by Euripides, in his play entitled Hippolytus. In this version of the myth Hippolytus brings the wrath of the gods down on his own head by refusing to worship Aphrodite. Instead he makes supplications to Artemis, the goddess of Hunting. He pledges himself to a life of chastity and the chase. In Racine’s version of the tale, told in the 17th Century, Hippolytus himself is denying an obsession with another woman. Both versions have very different messages. Where it can be argued that Euripides is preaching in favour of living a well-balanced life, Racine’s is a watertight exploration into desire, unrequited love, suppressed emotions and obsession. Racine’s play is a product of the Age of Enlghtenment. He leaves no questions as to why his characters act, everything is explained. Euripides on the other hand leaves us with many questions.

In my previous post, Staging the Classics, I advocated deconstruction as a way of extracting the meaning of historic texts and bringing them closer to us. Gods, curses, the importance of reputation, taboos of an ancient culture, all  have to be felt today by a theatre audience to give this play a similar resonance. What if Hippolytus is portrayed as an Olympic swimmer? He is a demi-god to the mere citizens of the nation state. He has sacrificed so much of his life for his sport that his life is not balanced. Could it lead to his mind becoming unbalanced? What if the closeted life that women lead in Ancient Greek society were called to mind by a Phaedra wearing a muslim, hijab scarf. The chorus of judgmental, observers, keeping the order of society would be a bevy of bloggers commenting and enlarging on the action. The private world of Phaedra’s mind would be guarded by a military commando unit. Inside her room images of our demi-god would cover the wall in a style of decor more suitable to a star struck teenager. Theseus, of course, would be the millionaire playboy, so privileged he hasn’t a doubt in his head over the order of society. The walls around the acting space would be hung with byzantine-styled icons telling the backstories –  of Phaedra’s mother and the bull, of Theseus and Hippolyta, his first wife, of the Labyrinth. Phaedra’s story is part of a religious storytelling tradition that cannot be ignored, afterall. Living statues of Artemis, Aphrodite and Poseidon would rearrange each scene and express their reactions to the action in studied poses from pedestals throughout the acting space.

With all of this abstraction, the playwright’s meaning is meant to be brought closer. We have not walked away from the text. The trap in using this method of story telling is bringing new meaning, modern resonances, that may muddy the waters. When Euripides tells us that Phaedra has gone and tried Hippolytus outdoor pursuits, I would be tempted to give her floaties. Phaedra can’t succeed in embracing Hippolytus’ pastimes. I could be perceived as making an anachronistic comment on the need for muslim children to learn to swim. It is an issue that is discussed in society but has nothing to do with Euripides text. Once allegorical connections are made, the meaning taken from the performance becomes more diverse. The risk is in the hands of the director and his/her motives. If s/he retains the integrity of the playwright without wandering off completely, the audience can only benefit. If the director abstracts to the point that the play isn’t recognizable, disappointment may be the result. Better rename the performance than risk disappointing expectations.


Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Mosaic of Phaedra and Hippolytus

Photo credit: Sebastià Giralt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Death of Hippolytus

Photo credit: Pilar Torres / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Here’s an idea

crafty theatre:

Interested in Roman theatre and its influence over English Renaissance theatre? Fascinated by the Shakespeare Authorship Question and intrigued with the foremost claimant, Edward Oxenford ( aka De Vere)? What possibilities emerge in attempting to unravel the influence of the Roman stage over the Elizabethan one when accepting the Earl of Oxford ( aka Oxenford, aka De Vere) as Shakespeare?

A new conversation in the making at Politicworm with Stephanie Hopkins Hughes, a towering Oxfordian. Please consider.

Originally posted on politicworm:

Taking a break from my normal writing schedule, I just got a book from the library on a subject that I need to know more about, the Roman Stage.  It’s called The Roman Theatre and its Audience, by Richard C. Beacham.  Published in 1992 by Harvard U Press, it’s available from Amazon in paperback for $21, but doubtless is also freely available through local libraries (Interlibrary loan) in the original hardback edition.  Written in a comfortable and accessible style by an expert in the field of theater design, Beacham can help answer questions about Oxford’s knowledge of the Roman Stage and its playwrights.

If three or more of you are interested, perhaps we could have a sort of online reading group.  We could set a deadline for finishing the book, and then begin a series of discussions here––much like the comments that follow one of my blogs, only this time…

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Staging the Classics

“Death, robbing my eyes of light,

Give back to the world it’s untarnished purity!”

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea

Racine’s words through Phaedra’s lips could be the coda for Ancient Greek tragedy. Through the death of the tragic hero, the world of the play is cleansed and the audience having, “ridden the waves of a ship at sea in a hurricane” is returned safely to shore. When done right, the audience shares the emotional journey of the main characters. They, too, are purged and catharsis is served across the divide.

For the Ancient Greek theatre-goer attending the Festival was a religious experience. They went there to be entertained, to be instructed and to be cleansed. The plots, lifted from their religious histories were parables to be learnt from. The Gods, ever close, were powerful onlookers in the drama. They held fate in their palms. They could be outraged or appeased through curses cast, supplications entreated and taboos broken

Magic and superstition are used in the plots like weapons of war.The heroes may refuse to worship a particular god. They may break a taboo. They may entreat the intervention of the Gods in an act of revenge. Their aim is to influence their own or another character’s destiny. In so doing they empower themselves to walk amongst the immortals. The gods hear their echoing hubris and they act swiftly to silence the cacophony.

Ancient Greece was a deterministic, patriarchal society that was suspicious, at best, of foreigners. Its stage reflects this.

Again and again the great tragedians preach against pride but not in a modern sense. The hero must never place him/herself above his/her humanly station. They must wear their  dignity without coddling themselves in ego. Not an easy labour when you consider that the hero was a public figure. His/her decisions were speculated upon in a voyeuristic society. . Personal honour and reputation modulated the hero’s behaviour. The chorus’ judgments were tweeted away as the hero came to terms with his/her crisis. Tweeted is perhaps an understatement, (but I hope my analogy works.) Ancient Greece was a more discerning society than our own. It wouldn’t settle for the modern adage, ” All publicity is good publicity.”

There is a lot of assumed knowledge in a classic text, whether it is Racine or Euripides. Having endured the test of time these plays come to us in print together with pages of end notes, modern translations and dense introductions that reveal their contexts. A theatre-goer should never leave the theatre feeling puzzled as to the intent of the production. So how do we make a play written beyond the barricade of history speak to us today?

A director looking to stage a classic will be drawn to a text that strikes a cord. From the Ancient Greek repertoire, Euripides’ call is clearest heard.

Then to informing today’s audience about the erks of Ancient Greek society, religion and mythology without handing them a history book before the lights go dim. This is wrapped up with the interpretation of the script. Does the director present a historically accurate adaptation complete with masks and chorus or modernize it with a more naturalistic approach? What about deconstructing the text? To deconstruct the text assumes a deep and thorough understanding of the text, its problems and the intention of the playwright. When done well, the original ideas become clearer.

I like deconstruction, it’s used across the board of theatrical arts. When an actor prepares s/he deconstructs the meaning of her/his lines. Her/his emotional memory is called forth to experience the necessary empathy. When the production designer visualizes the performance space s/he has taken the themes of the drama and created a physical metaphor.The risk of choosing deconstruction is the ease in which personal responses to the plot can suffocate the original intention of the playwright. How far should a text be deconstructed – all the way to abstraction?

The next hurdle is deciding how to deal with the chorus. Get rid of it altogether? Allot personalities to lines and cast them as definite characters? Employ a choreographer or orchestrate movement techniques to keep it relevant within the flow of the narrative? Dealing with a chorus can be complex and time consuming. Each actor must have a relevant role to fulfill to add value to the effectiveness of the group and there can be long periods of silent stage time for an individual chorus member. If one chorus member becomes disengaged, it can upstage the reality of the whole.

Finally, the pivotal decision the director is called to make is how real to make his production. By real I mean relevant. Sometimes abstracting provides the most real experience. But not always. Sometimes the most traditional rendering is the most powerful. So long as the playwright’s concern is still relevant today.

I had the pleasure of attending Aim Dramatic Arts school’s performance of Hell Hath No Fury, on the weekend. It was a retelling of the myths of Medea, Elektra and Phaedra. Each myth was handled differently with varying success. The performances were experiences in: a more or less traditional interpretation; a very clever deconstruction; and abstraction. The performances are the inspiration behind his post and the next as well. I wish the students of the school opportunity, serendipity and many more performances.


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Holy Passion, Divine Tragedy

The first time that I attended the service of the Twelve Gospels I had just finished studying Ancient Greek drama at uni. When my head stopped taking notes on the similarities between this form of storytelling and that of Ancient Greek tragedies, my heart was being moved. I shed involuntary tears.


Passion Play

In the Orthodox Church, the Passion of Christ is chanted in anticipation. The sun sets on what we would consider the eve of Good Friday before the service begins. The service, typical of the services of Holy Week is a mix of Old Testament prophecies heralding in the life of Christ and Gospel readings beginning with Jesus presaging his own death and ending with the guard at his tomb. Inbetween there are supplicating litanies, chanted hymns, blessings given and returned and the familiar prayers of the Sunday liturgy. In all that it is, it is a very full service.

But there is something else as well. I see Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

These three great tragedians provided drama through both monologues and dialogues. Their action was commented on by their choruses and there is implicit in their texts a variety in delivery for their actors. Their tragedies were also a part of a religious festival that began with a street procession and culminated in dramatic performance at the amphitheatre. Like the paschal services, their action occurred offstage and was retold after the events.

In the Holy Thursday evening service I shut my eyes and see with my mind’s eye an ancient messenger delivering his monologue. I imagine him addressing the audience at the amphitheatre as easily as the naos of the church.The chorus of chanters responds to him in a similar way that an ancient chorus tries to make sense of the often senseless actions of its pagan protagonists.

Exhibition "Ancient Drama"

Ancient Chorus

In the celebration/performance the interaction between chorus and priest/ actor and congregation/ audience picks up the emotional story between the lines of the historic prose of the Gospels and the narrative of the ancient myth. The irony in the drama is extolled with adjectives, imagery and personification through the choral odes.

“When the lawless people nailed the Lord of glory to the Cross, then the veil of the temple was rent, and the sun went dark, unable to endure the spectacle of God blasphemed . . .”( from the 10th Antiphon, chanted in the 6th Tone)

The sun was unable to see Jesus suffering or come to terms with it! The Gods and nature personified are mortified by mortal actions and respond in “signs”. In this way the paschal service has an ancient resonance and power.

These paschal odes chanted in between the Gospel readings are delivered in a Byzantine tradition that dates back to the 9th Century. Described as colourless, the aim of the somber delivery is to heighten the emotional impact and bring clarity to the meaning of the words. Musically, it comes from a lower register. In practice, if not in intent, it often sounds like a drone.Sobering, it inspires reflection.

Byzantine chanting in its original form is far removed from the ethereal choirs of angels of the West.The musical notation describing it, is not Western either. It doesn’t use scales and its tones are more correctly, “echoes”. It is said by Stanley Takis in his, Understanding the Byzantine Musical System Using Western Notation and Theory or Name That Tone! to have grown out of the music of the Synagogues and that of secular Greek and Syrian music. It would follow then that a better understanding of Byzantine chanting can garner an insight into the elusive qualities required to deliver an ancient chorus in performance. Conversely, could the story of the Passion of Christ be delivered in the form of an Ancient Greek tragedy complete with a chanting chorus?

Passion Play

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Greek Chorus

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