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Stage Notes: Confronting Hypermasculinity in "The Odyssey"

My mask teacher, a pleasant soft-spoken man about 50, sat cross-legged on his patio mid-thought. In his hand was an intricately emblazoned dance mask which was used in numerous productions of The Mahabharata which he had hand-carved and painted. At least a dozen others were all nailed to the walls of his spacious, yet cluttered studio. He was reflecting, on his career, but mostly on The Mahabharata and its partner epic, The Ramayana (think The Iliad’s Odyssey) as well as numerous other myths and stories he built for. Finally, with a laugh, he says – as if he himself is realizing the thought in the same moment: “Maybe there wouldn’t be all of these tragedies had men simply learned to respect women.”

When I got the greenlight for The Odyssey, I knew I was going to do Emily Wilson’s new translation since it was simply, unequivocally, the best. Its clarity, its frankness, yet gorgeous artistry and muscular verbiage made it ripe for staging. But among the many reasons why it was the perfect choice was that it was also uncensored in its depiction of gender, sexuality, and status.

At the end of the poem, Odysseus, having slaughtered all the suitors, turns to his old nanny – whom Wilson interchangeably regards as “slave” and “nanny,” and says to her: “…Tell me now about the household women. Which ones dishonor me? And which are pure?” To which she replies: “In this house we have fifty female slaves. Twelve stepped away from honor.”

Enraged, the wanderer commands: “Call the women who made those treasonous plots while I was gone,” and in a death sequence far more morbid than the slaughter of the suitors, the slave girls are made to wash the blood from the halls and bury the corpses before the slave girls are, as Odysseus orders it “[hacked] at with long swords, [to] eradicate all life from them.” Together with his son, who takes the lead on the sequence, the women are hung from the banners of the rotunda.

This is the major moment of violence against women in the epic, though, arguably, all throughout the poem are smatters of misogyny. Wilson herself describes the moment Telemachus silences his mother the “first time in the western canon a man has told a woman to be quiet.”

What is an adapter to do in this moment? One is given a maximum of two hours to stage the entirety of The Odyssey. What is cut? What remains? What is elevated?

I did not include the murder of the slave girls, though I kept the numerous references to household slaves throughout the poem. I felt that further demonstration of brutality against women would no longer reinforce my own thesis of the poem, that is following the golden rule – to treat others the way one desires to be treated. Of course, academics would argue that the murder of the girls is in fact following that rule: it is retribution for their abuses towards Telemachus and Penelope. They did, after all break their loyalty, and demonstrated cruelty to them. But even so, in a poem where the role of masculinity – or rather the role of the hero, which in the ancient definition is masculine – is so core to its spine, I felt it needless to further expound upon what masculinity was at the expense of dangling legs for a stage picture.

In objectivity, a male adapting The Odyssey to be less sexist is a sexist act. To censor the deed is to be complicit in its role, and to show it is to bring life to its picture. There was no way around the sheer misogyny of the show, and so my focus in adaptation and staging was exploring why and how masculinity forced Odysseus to become the man he was, and what his journey did to him and who he was after his journey reached Ithaca.

From the beginning, I worked with my actor, Harrison, on knowing Odysseus’ arc like a family-history. The hero would begin as a brilliant, yet egotistical strategist for the Greek army whose hubris and confidence would be his undoing. The intrusion into the lair of the cyclops demonstrated Odysseus’ flawed understanding of xenia, and his subsequent skewering of the monster’s eye as well as his bragging would set in motion the ultimate transformation of the man. Furthermore, though not all of this made it on stage, Odysseus’ sexual encounters (the hypocrisy of loyalty), his gloating, and his irresponsibility would also all aggregate into the subsequent loss of his men, his pride, and his way home.

Thus, The Odyssey, for me, was not a celebration of manliness or the greatness of heroes. It was the opposite, it was a warning: to be a man is to be alone. Odysseus, from the moment he left Troy, desired fame and riches and glory. His soldiering was the epitome of manliness, his exploits had won him a place among pantheons across the seas. His reluctant isolation, then, was a testament to the loneliness of heroism and how tragic it is to be a man.

Athena, which Wilson in conversation describes as “genderfluid,” is the companion who remains with Odysseus. She guides him, and I even think she really loves him. Odysseus, then, cannot reach home without the help of women. In fact, as my brilliant dramaturg, Noa Gelb, noted, whenever Odysseus arrives in a new location and meets a man, the encounter is instantly hostile. But if he is first greeted by a woman, then it can be cordial, respectful, and oftentimes, sexual. This latter mark is mainly between Calypso and Circe, though some scholars argue the same of Nausicaa. For me, she is too young, but she is certainly interested. The Odyssey does indeed make it convenient that it is the women strangers who save Odysseus ultimately, and that to be masculine (e.g., a hero) is folly.

This thesis, however, complicates things. Odysseus tells Telemachus at the end of the poem, just before the second great conflict with the suitors’ relatives, “Now, son, soon you will have experience of fighting in battle, the true test of worth. You must not shame your father’s family; for years we have been known across the world for courage and manliness.” To which Telemachus replies: “Just watch me, Father, if you want to see my spirit. I will bring no shame onto your family. You should not speak of shame.”

Telemachus’ immediate subversion to his father, and the use of a possessive noun – “your family,” not “our” family – is alarming because it contradicts the efforts of the reunion and love the father and son shared whilst they worked together to win Odysseus’ place back. Furthermore, Odysseus, who had endured his suffering because of his “manliness” seemed to retreat back into his old tendencies.

The choice to cut these lines was not because I could not find a place in the play for them, but rather because the lines were not necessarily hypermasculine depending on the way the actor would play them. Odysseus, for instance, could say: “We have been known across the world for courage and manliness” in total jest – it would not be contradictory to the moment. Furthermore, there is a belief that manhood and adulthood are the same in this world. If that were the case, then it would be impossible to strip masculinity away easily because children are taught from the beginning to desire to grow into adulthood.

Athena tells Telemachus at the beginning of the poem: “You must not stick to childhood; you are no longer just a little boy… I see how big and tall you are. Be brave and win yourself a lasting name.” She also says of Telemachus at the end of the poem: “He looks like a man.”

If womanhood is adulthood and manhood is adulthood, then gender’s place in Odysseus’ statement about his clan’s “manliness” being known far and wide, is arbitrary. It could be interpreted as glorious, respected, tough, ferocious, and brave, traits that all adults should possess, not necessarily men. Thus, in that regard, the line felt repetitive to me.

What is interesting, however, are the roles of masculine fathers. I describe The Odyssey as a coming-of-age-tale-regardless-of-age because two characters are majorly transformed – Telemachus and Odysseus. Telemachus’ transformation is obvious – the meek daydreamer whose determination earns him a seat before the greatest war general of the land and a rightful place in Ithaca, just might be the reason Horatio Alger exists. But his growth is marked by the absence of his father – though there is one other figure present who is constantly regarded as a father-figure to the boy, Athena.

“Dear guest, you were so kind to give me this fatherly advice. I will remember,” is what Telemachus says to Athena when she was in disguise as Mentes (whom I cut and simply combined with the character “Mentor”). She galvanizes Telemachus, guides him to bravery, sets him out to sea, and pushes him to his capabilities.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is estranged from his father because of his wanderings. I chose to cut Laertes because Athena’s role as father instantly became far more interesting to this play as a triangulation between Odysseus and Telemachus. Furthermore, it affirmed her own role in the quest: Odysseus cannot possibly return home unless Telemachus aids him. Telemachus cannot aid him unless his maturation engendered bravery and drive.

I also enjoy the idea of Athena, then, playing numerous roles in Odysseus’ life: he is father-in-absentia so she is father-in-standing; she is mentor to Telemachus, she is guide to Odysseus, she is a family friend, a wise goddess, a passionate lover, and cunning strategist. I love that each of these archetypes are gendered too, but Athena traverses them smoothly. She is truly beyond gender. She is the ultimate being.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the suitors, who were one of the most entertaining parts of the rehearsal process. Their presence in the room evolved quite radically: from pristine gentleman to berserk fraternity brothers. In fact, the suitors were among my favorite parts of the play, especially given the nature of our cast. Our ensemble, which was mostly women, had numerous suitor tracks. At the beginning of the play, the actors arrive on stage clutching their clothes like blankets. They don them and stand in a tableau of some character archetype, signifying the on-stage transformation.

I chose, in lieu of an actual fight sequence, that in the death of the suitors, the same image would be repeated but in reverse. Rather than a death, the death was metaphorical (though, in the theatre, aren’t they all really?) Each suitor was given a spotlight and when their final blow came, the suitor would remove his or her jacket and hold it as if they were holding a body of a lover and lay it down gently on the floor. This return to the state of neutrality – or rather the unmasking, signified both death and life: the suitor is gone, but in his stead stands the performer.

In this way, the physical depiction of an act of violence on a female body, even if it were a female body playing a man, would be avoided, and there would be proper acknowledgement of the power of the performer. I also think in a way, that all my cast members channeled a bit of Athena here – that there was this superfluous notion of gender which could be worn like a sarong or a mask.

This is not to negate any struggle of gender identity in psychology. In theatre, gender is inherently fluid – men and women bend sexuality and sex constantly. Some characters I wanted specifically to be men, like Antinous and Menelaos, since their entire drive was in proving their masculinity. Others I was far more lenient on: the cyclops, the King Alcinous (and truly, Phaecia always felt a little queer to me), and Tiresias.

The greatest joy in The Odyssey has been the delight in working with the actors to explore the complexities of sexuality and gender. I feel the story is so important because it is about families reuniting, the importance of growth, and being kind to strangers; but above all, it has reaffirmed my belief in love of theatre: that dressing up and playing make believe is not a form of escapism, but really who you are. To don the mask of femininity or masculinity is not an act of hiding, but rather, an act of resurrection.

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