29. may 2022
in the Hell’s Courtyard
In adapting her novel into a drama structure, Margaret Atwood (1939) noted that her play The Penelopiad (2007) is, first of all, a reflection or echo of the Trojan War, then of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, as well as of the many post-Homeric derivations of the story (by Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, James Joyce and many others), and of course her own novel The Penelopiad.
Atwood’s novel, written in 2005, is much more than a straightforward adaptation of the Odyssey. The narrative foregrounds the story of Penelope and her twelve maids, who were hanged by Odysseus’s order on his return (for their alleged betrayal and relationships with suitors). The voices of Penelope and the maids, forming a tragic Greek chorus, are set by Atwood in the Greek underworld, in the afterlife, where they divulge with humour and irony the hidden and suppressed events of the Odyssey. All the characters from the Odyssey are demythologised and presented as people with their own flaws and failings, they are both good and evil, and by no means the absolute heroes that Homer portrays them to be.
Homer’s Penelope, a faithful and patient wife who has been held up for centuries as a model and an instructive example of the subjugation of women, is given an ingenious twist by Atwood. Penelope’s confession is responded to by the hanged maids, posing two key questions: why had Odysseus had them murdered so cruelly, and what role did Penelope play in it? The staging concept follows the posthumous reflection of the events and the intimate unfolding of her story, which Penelope, now that she is dead and »others have run out of breath« can tell with reckless abandon, without fear or censorship, without thinking of the happy ending that is »best reached by leaving the right door locked and sleeping during the rampage«. The key role is played by the maids who are, like an ancient chorus, finally able to sing and testify as well as comment and perform their own story. Most importantly, they constantly refute Penelope’s testimony, which in turn reveals the hitherto hidden mechanisms of the »official version« of the Odyssey. The performance thus interweaves three basic levels of narrative.
In a society in which we continue to witness outrageous violence against women, the rape and murder of women, their exploitation, inequality and subordination, every courageous confession, as the one in The Penelopiad, is put on trial, before an arbiter who is supposed to determine who is lying, who is right and who is more powerful.
Where does the lie end and the truth reveal itself? How long will Penelope continue to weave her burial or wedding shroud? Has she succeeded in weaving a new myth of herself out of this yarn? Is she lying to us or telling us the truth? In Margaret Atwood’s interpretation, Penelope is, significantly, a bold and resourceful woman who is not only aware of her role, but also extremely cunning in hiding it, while constructing her image from fragments of her own memories and reminding us that truth is a constant construction and deconstruction of history. It does not exist either in personal confession or in myths, but somewhere in between. For Penelope, remembering and performing memories is the only way of liberation. She must look back in order to move forward. It seems that only through this testimony she can finally free herself from the prison of the imposed history in which she has been trapped and weave a new story out of her past actions. Ultimately, like so many women before her, she has nothing to lose but her chains.
Margaret Atwood, born in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) in 1939, is considered one of the most successful writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. In her early and later works alike, she deals with gendered “power politics”, dystopian “speculative fiction” and the reinterpretation of mythical stories from the perspective of silenced women. Margaret Atwood’s poetry and novels are often journeys through the unconscious of her characters, and a key characteristic of her “heroines” is that they consciously refuse to play the imposed role of victims. As Barbara Dell’Abate-Çelebi noted, in The Penelopiad Atwood reinterpreted “archetypes of female passivity and victimisation, using contemporary ideas of justice and a variety of genres.” Generally speaking, Atwood often uses fantastic, futuristic and fairy-tale techniques to examine feminist ideologies and women’s biological, domestic and social experiences.
At the very beginning of the canon of Western literature, Penelope reigns supreme, faithfully awaiting the return of her husband Odysseus from his campaign on Troy; she guards the throne for him, warding off her suitors, raising their son alone, and allows nothing to shatter their marriage and power. In Atwood’s reinterpretation of the Penelope myth, however, first in the novel The Penelopiad (2005, translated into Slovenian as Penelope’s Yarn, 2005) and later in the eponymous stage adaptation (premiering in 2007), Penelope, long considered the archetype of the abandoned, faithful, subservient and passive wife, becomes a central, strong, determined and liberated female icon who, from a modern perspective, subverts the prejudices of the Western canon and transpires to be a much more complex character than the one presented in the Homeric epic.
The Penelopiad has been described as a “fictional autobiography”, a “hybrid of several genres”, a “mythographic metafiction” or a “parody”. In an interview, Atwood called it a “cabaret” inspired by ancient Greek tragedy and satire. The notion of parody is evoked by the title itself, since epics are usually descriptions of the deeds of male heroes and warriors or of the glorious deeds of a nation (Aeneid, The Lusiads, Henriad, etc.). Atwood has consistently refused to label her work “feminist”, if the term refers only to the fact that her central characters are women. Moreover, she questions the simplistic equation of women and feminism and resists direct identification with feminism or any other critical movement. Her “feminist” stance is best characterised by the statement in the introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale in response to the question of whether it is a feminist novel: “If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.” This explains why antagonisms between female characters and the questioning of the possibility of a so-called “universal sisterhood of women” is a frequent theme in her literature.
Atwood gave voice not only to Penelope, “silenced” by Homer, but also to the twelve murdered maidens, who in antiquity belonged to the slave class without any rights. They represented “mindless tools” in the hands of the elites of the time; their murder is only fleetingly mentioned in Homer’s epic. In the posthumous trial of Odysseus in The Penelopiad, the hanged maidens blame both Odysseus and Penelope for their death, thus examining the authenticity of the entire Penelope’s tale, while at the same time the outcome of the trial is a reflection on contemporary crimes, injustices and conspiracies regarding the abuse, oppression and killing of women. Atwood thus de-mythicizes history written by “winners” and warns of the danger of indiscriminately believing any story that claims to be the definitive truth.
Tibor Hrs Pandur