Hell Yard in Križanke
In adapting her novella into a drama structure, Margaret Atwood noted that her play The Penelopiad 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 novella The Penelopiad.
Atwood’s novella 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.