Argonautika from Myth to Stage
Mary Zimmerman and the Art of Target Practice
Interview by Lila Neugebauer
Lila Neugebauer: What first drew you to mythology?
Mary Zimmerman: As a child, myths always felt to me like grown-up fairy tales. Like fairy tales, they contained adventures and supernatural elements. Misfortunes were passed through and triumphed over, epic journeys, impossible tasks. But I always sensed that there was a serious and darker layer to them. I sensed a symbolic content; there was something taboo or transgressive about reading these myths. I knew the Edith Hamilton book [Mythology] on my mother’s shelf was an adult book —yet I read it obsessively, over and over. They moved and fascinated me in some way that hasn’t stopped.
These stories are quite mysterious. They don’t usually end happily, and the world changes or shifts because of the adventures in them. The contemporary or immediate relevance of this story for me is the futility of war, the futility of the conquest mission. Once the Argonauts have the fleece, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. The conquering—of this Asian or Middle Eastern country—ultimately just brings destruction, and so much is lost. The whole mission is just a pretext—one man’s way of getting rid of his nephew, who he’s afraid is going to kill him. It’s important to remember that there’s a great futility to the entire heroic, idealized venture.
LN: It’s no stretch to feel the relevance of that point, but are there particular challenges you encounter when adapting such ancient material for contemporary audiences?
MZ: These stories have proven their relevance and worth by sticking around. It’s not just a conspiracy of literature teachers—that wouldn’t last thousands of years. If they didn’t have something to say to us about the condition of being a person, of facing loss and diminishment, they would be obscure and forgotten.
The challenging part of adapting anything that wasn’t written for the stage is that the stage does not naturally or easily accommodate the events of the original. How do you do a fleet of boats? Or 50 men on board? Or sea monsters or gods flying around? Compress time and space, elongate certain moments? Converting all narration to dialogue might seem the natural move in dramatization for the theater, but it would actually expand the text to an intolerable degree. You have to ask: what are you going to prioritize in your adaptation? The task is to find the essence through compression.
In both of the original epics, there’s something like a hundred Argonauts on board. But they don’t coalesce into a band of brothers in the way that you want them to; an Argonaut will appear for a scene and then you never see him again. They don’t have full arcs. To create some of those arcs I incorporated stories about various Argonauts from the larger body of Greek myth. For instance, I have Hercules making reference to his mighty deeds in infancy, and I bring Meleager’s and others’ ends into the play. You know, one aspect I particularly adore is that Hercules and Hylas are clearly boyfriends, and it has no moral value one way or another. It doesn’t diminish Hercules’ masculinity an iota. In fact, it enhances it. Hercules’ anguish at losing Hylas is one of the great romances of the story.
LN: Let’s talk about the Jason legend—what was your source material?
MZ: I’ve known the Jason story in the same way I’ve known fairy tales and the other myths since I was little—from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, on which I’ve based my entire career. The classic version of this tale is the Apollonious of Rhodes epic, and I chose the Peter Green translation, which is basically the standard. But in researching various translations, I came across another version of the Argonautika, written in Latin (as opposed to Greek), a couple of centuries later by a Roman poet named Gaius Valerius Flaccus. Combining these two texts is like doing Homer’s Odyssey and then his cousin Fred’s Odyssey—it might seem an odd choice, but I think it’s in keeping with the oral tradition of constant combining and revising of stories. There are many beautiful things in Flaccus. There’s a section in the adaptation where Jason’s parents, upon hearing that their fate is sealed—that they’re doomed—kill themselves, which is really Roman. That would only come from the Latin version, because the Greeks didn’t celebrate suicide like that at all. In fact they had quite a negative feeling about it. So it’s not just two different translations; it’s two different original authors. I was drawn to the story in its spirit of rollicking adventure—there’s tremendous humor in it, as well as humanity.
LN: You’ve discussed elsewhere Medea’s role in the story—and Jason’s markedly unheroic tendencies. What kind of a leading man is Jason?
MZ: He definitely acts unheroically towards Medea at the very end of the play, although the Apollonius version doesn’t include that part of the tale; it ends with the arrival back home. Among other things, this story is, of course, a prequel to the Medea tragedy.
One of my earliest images for the production was of a girl with an arrow struck through her—once she’s shot, that she would have this arrow stuck in her. That’s how you feel it when you read it; the metaphor is so solid. I imagined we would see her white dress get bloodier and bloodier from that very painful love. The depiction of love or lust in this show is dark, destructive. It renders someone helpless. It really bloodies her up, turning her into a kind of monster. In terms of the Medea myth, it’s important to be reminded that she was a virgin girl—just a maiden minding her own business—and the gods used her to help Jason on his mission by shooting her full of love for him. In our play, she tries and tries to pull the arrow out of her chest, and she can’t. It’s nothing she wants, nothing she asks for. She’s absolutely tormented by what it’s prompting her to do. But it’s the gods: she has no power over it and she can’t escape it.
In terms of Jason, bear in mind that for the Ancient Greeks being heroic had more to do with having survived and gone through a lot, as opposed to inherent qualities of virtue. Jason is a reluctant hero as all epic heroes are—from Frodo Baggins, who doesn’t want to go, to Odysseus, who didn’t want to go either and is only trying to get home. E.T. is trying to get home. Dorothy is trying to get home. They’re not trying to get out. It’s the getting back that they’re looking forward to.
LN: This idea of the reluctant journeyer…What do you think that’s about?
MZ: [Joseph] Campbell might say that the hero’s journey is one of self-actualization, and that’s not necessarily a painless, pleasant thing. Leaving our childhood is not something that we necessarily do willingly. One of my all-time favorite lines in The Odyssey is when Athena says to Telemachus, the son, “Your childhood is over.” She says you have to do this—you have to be a man—with this beautiful, emphatic line, “You cannot go on clinging to your childhood. You are not of an age to do that.” And it’s always like that, the goddess—generally goddess, not god—announces, you have to go, you have to do this thing. And it’s very onerous for the person who has to do it.
LN: How does your work as an adapter play out in the rehearsal room?
MZ: I’m the director and I’m the writer; those things go hand in hand for me. So when I’m thinking about what episode to use of something that’s multi-episodic, the choice often depends on what parts I have visual ideas for staging—and what will benefit from being staged. I start with no script. I write it bit by bit in the hours off from rehearsal, bring it in and it builds everyday. I’m inspired by the physical capabilities and talents in the cast. I have to make certain major decisions before we start, in terms of sets and costumes, but once we begin on that first day, it’s a kind of free-fall. I’m under the clock; I use a normal rehearsal period of about four weeks.
My process reflects my belief in the unconscious: by putting myself under such pressure, I lose self-consciousness, and I open up to the voice of the text. There’s really not much choice. I have crazy impulses and I don’t have time to get scared or shy or second-guess them. They’re not the polite choices, nor often the considered choices – though they do get more considered and revised once the show is in previews and I can sit back and see what we’ve done. But initially, it is as though we are playing in the backyard.
The great Charles Ludlam said that in the superlative theater, you shoot an arrow and then draw a circle around it. You make it the perfect thing; you make the choice right with the circumstances you have. Rather than aiming for the target, you shoot and then you make it.
This article is courtesy of our co-producer, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.