From its opening lines, the first-century Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses proves to be as mercurial as its shape-shifting subjects. The poem begins in the familiar rhythm of Ovid’s earlier poetry — the lilting, rising-falling meters of elegy, a common form of Roman love lyric — but a surprise awaits its Latin readers in the second line when the poem reveals that it’s not going to be in elegiac couplets after all, but in the grand epic hexameters of the Iliad and the Aeneid. In two manuscript variants, Ovid even seems to crack a joke about the metric switch-up at the exact moment it takes place: “Gods, breathe on my beginnings (for you’ve changed those, too)” (“nam vos mutastis et illa” (I.2)). But the surprises don’t stop there – the Metamorphoses boldly announces a break from poetic traditions by remixing old myths and genres. While the poet’s ambition to tell stories from “the earliest origins of the world to my times” aims for history-making on an epic scale, his invocation to the gods to help him “spin a song” suggests the finely spun and resolutely anti-epic aesthetic of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus. Slippery contradictions and abrupt changes are thus woven into the very fabric of the Metamorphoses itself.
But while the theme of transformation wasn’t new to Ovid, who finished the poem five centuries after the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s well-known aphorism “everything changes,” his poem’s particular brand of metamorphoses reached dangerous new extremes. Thwarting classical distinctions between human and beast, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as one critic writes, “exults in the body’s seemingly endless subjection to physical change and continually finds new metaphors and situations that intensify rather than allay anxiety.” Slick, witty, and urbane, Ovid’s stories are also notoriously full of trauma and violence, most often committed by gods against women. In the first two books alone, three girls are raped by Zeus while a fourth is nearly raped by Apollo before being mercifully turned into a tree; meanwhile, the gods wipe out the race of men, and the son of the Sun streaks through the sky, his flesh consumed by flames. Bodies are transformed left and right: girls turn into cows and bears, gods disguise themselves as bulls, grieving sisters take root in the earth and ooze tears of amber. It’s as if unable to erase these acts of violence, the universe of the Metamorphoses tries to contain them by changing both perpetrators and victims into forms beyond human recognition.
Throughout the centuries, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has functioned as an unlikely cultural barometer, with various stories, motifs, and themes falling in and out of favor depending on prevailing moods. If every period reimagines Ovid’s tales as their own, then the Ovidian remakes of the last century – ranging from the explicit, such as Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, to the oblique, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and every vampire, zombie, superhero, and shape-shifting monster-of-the-week in between – have seemed especially obsessed with the dark eruptions of violence in Ovid’s myths. (What’s the sex-switching killer Marty from Season 1 of the X Files than an Amish-alien update of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus? Or Battlestar’s gorgeous Cylons but a race of deadly Galateas?) The editors of the volume of poems After Ovid tellingly highlighted the Metamorphoses’s “affinities” with twentieth-century terrors and anxieties, including “holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-beating, depression and intoxication.” It’s all a far cry from the anonymous fourteenth-century French author of Ovide moralisé, who insisted that the tale of incest between Myrrha and her father Cinyras was an allegory of love between the Virgin Mary and her Heavenly Father!
Interestingly, however, one of the most beloved Ovidian adaptations of the last several years – MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning production Metamorphoses, featuring a shifting, shimmering pool of water at its center – has taken a sharp turn away from the contemporary focus on violence in Ovid’s work. The acclaimed director, playwright, and professor often mentions in interviews that she’d always been drawn to Greek and Roman myths (beginning with a childhood encounter with Edith Hamilton’s popular 1942 volume Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes) because of their frightening, bloody and sexual content, and it’s true that the myths Zimmerman uses in her play correspond to some of the most disturbing stories in Ovid’s work that feature, among other horrors, self-cannibalism, blood sacrifice, rape, and genocide. Through a tragic twist of history, Zimmerman’s play itself has been intimately linked to trauma, attaining symbolic status as public therapy for grief after it was performed off-Broadway a few weeks after 9/11. “For New Yorkers today who encounter the same recorded visions of terrorist destruction whenever they turn on their televisions,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote at the time, “Ms. Zimmerman’s portrayal of tragic scenes repeated has an anxious and immediate familiarity…[It] is speaking with a dreamlike hush directly to New Yorkers’ souls.”
What makes all of this ironic, however, is that Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses isn’t really about trauma and violence at all, but about the redemptive power of love. Not that these themes are incompatible, or course, or that the play abandons the former entirely. But what struck me as I watched the revival of the original 1998 production of the Metamorphoses at the Lookingglass Theatre this past January was how often – and how resolutely – Zimmerman’s work swerved away from violence: the darker elements of Ovid’s myths were repeatedly swapped out for more heart-warming renditions, and one of the most romantic stories, the tale of Eros and Psyche, was imported from another source (the second-century author Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses) to underscore the play’s central theme of love. During these episodes, I couldn’t help feeling that something was lost in the sentimentalizing. (I’m not alone in this view – classicist Justine McConnell described aspects of the play as “almost cloying,” and Brantley suggested that in another context, it could register as “too precious…too arts-and-crafts.”) Instead, for me the most powerful moments in Zimmerman’s visually ravishing production took place when the mythic narratives confronted horror head-on, and these moments were most effective when they were closed off in ways that were most Ovidian, through a sudden shift in genre or tone, a breaking of a frame, or a silent dissolve into nothingness.
. . .
Zimmerman’s warming art
Zimmerman’s style has been described as an “original and warming art,” with the “ability to transform an audience into willing (and often weeping) children.” Evidence of this can be seen right from the start of her play, which begins with the story of King Midas. Like Ovid’s version, Zimmerman’s Midas is a foolish and greedy king (updated as a self-absorbed tycoon) who reluctantly rescues the god Bacchus’s companion Silenus from his drunken wanderings around the neighborhood. When the grateful Bacchus grants Midas one wish, the king famously prays that everything he touches turns into gold. (“That’s a really, really bad idea,” Bacchus says, dryly.) Still, Midas gets his wish, and as he races around the pool he becomes giddier by the second as each touch yields more riches. Then, an inevitable tragedy happens: Midas’s young daughter leaps into his arms and is transformed into gold. Grief-stricken, the king begs Bacchus to reverse the magic, but the god refuses. Bacchus does hold out a glimmer of hope, however – if Midas journeys to the end of the world, he will find a pool of water that reflects the stars; once Midas washes his hands in it, everything will be restored. And indeed it is, as the contrite Midas and his daughter are happily reunited at the end of the show.
As it happens, the story of Midas’s daughter isn’t found in Ovid’s poem but in an 1852 children’s collection of myths called A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys by none other than the author of the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Charmingly, he gives Midas’s daughter the very nineteenth-century name of Marygold.) While Zimmerman’s borrowing of this plot element from a children’s book (another kind of moralized Ovid, as it were) reflects her own nostalgic childhood encounters with classical myths, it also reveals something deeper about the pattern of editorial changes throughout her work, where the very adult motifs of desire are often transformed into far more innocent and romanticized notions about love.
A striking example is Zimmerman’s comic retelling of the story of Pomona and Vertumnus – a nymph who prefers gardening over boys, and a strapping young god who’s desperate for her love. In this episode of the play, the hapless Vertumnus dons disguise after disguise to get ever closer to his beloved, and in an old woman’s garb, he tells Pomona the tragic story of Myrrha, a young girl who scorned love and was in turn cursed by Aphrodite to fall in love with her father Cinyras. While “this story got Vertumnus nowhere,” as the deadpan narrator informs the audience, Pomona suddenly turns to him and orders him to peel off his old woman’s clothes one by one. Startled by her boldness, Vertumnus obeys, and the tale ends happily with young love fulfilled: “When at last the god revealed himself just as he was, much to his surprise, he had no need of words. Little Pomona was happy with what she saw, unadorned and undisguised. Soon enough, the vine was clinging to the tree.”
Ovid’s version, however, is a bit less idyllic. As the final “love” story in the closing book of the Metamorphoses, the Roman tale of Pomona and Vertumnus completes the arc from the first “love” story of the river nymph Daphne and the god Apollo in Book I, which isn’t a love story at all, but a story about attempted rape. As if the parallels are too obvious, Ovid simply hints at rape in the later story, stating obliquely that Vertumnus is “prepared to use force” (“vimque parat,” XIV.770). Fortunately for everyone, Pomona is instantly taken with the god’s naked beauty and the hinted act never takes place (instead, sex occurs naturally and consensually within the idyllic boundaries of the garden walls), but the troubling specter of sexual violence hovers over the supposed happy ending and closes Ovid’s entire work with an ambivalent commentary on the ever-fraught relations between women and men.
In contrast with Ovid, Zimmerman’s take on the theme of love throughout her play repeatedly veers towards idealized clichés. The hushed call-and-response narration at the end of her adaptation of Apuleius’s story of Eros (“love”) and Psyche (“soul”) sums it up neatly: “It’s just inevitable,” says one narrator. “The soul wanders in the dark, until it finds love. And so, wherever our love goes, there we find our soul.”
Such optimism – Zimmerman’s “warming” effect – carries over even into stories that have little to do with romantic love. In the tales of Phaethon and Erysichthon, for instance, the traumas at their core are substituted or softened with more agreeable, audience-friendly details. In Zimmerman, the tragic myth of Phaethon is turned into a droll exchange between a spoiled rich brat and his therapist. Stretched out on a floating raft in the pool, the whiny Phaethon confesses the anxieties and insecurities of a son who once craved the attention of his absent father – the sun god Helios – and begged his dad to prove his paternity by (what else?) handing over the keys to his car. Starkly missing from Zimmerman’s story is the terror of Phaethon’s epic fall from the sky, the smell of his burning flesh, the wails of agony from the scorched earth, and the murderous justice of Zeus. When a few such details are briefly mentioned in passing, their mythic, cosmic force is diminished in the comic treatment, replaced instead by a comfortably familiar Freudian family drama.
A darker psychosexual subtext is eliminated entirely in Zimmerman’s retelling of the story of Erysichthon, a king who scorns the gods and chops down the goddess Ceres’s sacred tree. To punish Erysichthon, Ceres summons Hunger to inhabit Erysichthon’s stomach so that his appetite becomes insatiable. In his desperate search for food, Erisychthon pawns off his possessions one by one; finally, with nothing left, he turns to sell a member of his family.
In Ovid’s legend, Erysichthon ends up prostituting his daughter, who in a chilling prayer begs the god Neptune to rescue her: “Save me lord, you who stole my virginity!” Her former rapist does in fact hear her prayer and instantly transforms her into a fisherman. When Erysichthon learns about his daughter’s new shape-shifting abilities, he eagerly sells her off again and again; each time she changes into another form – a mare, a bird, a deer – and successfully escapes her captor. The sordidness of the irony lies in the parallel between the rapist who becomes the girl’s protector, and the supposed protector – the girl’s father – who becomes her pimp. (That is, until Erysichthon ends up eating himself alive.)
In Zimmerman’s production, Erysichthon’s daughter is startlingly replaced by his elderly mother, whose relationship to Neptune and resulting transformation is vastly different in tone: “From the briny deep, Poseidon heard her prayer, pulled her into the water, and changed her back into the little girl who used to play along his shores. The salty water licked the years away, until she emerged: the one who gave him praise in childhood, shouting as she ran among the waves. This is the kind of sweet, unbidden praise the gods adore and do not forget.” While this brief, charming scene – featuring an adorably doddering performance by the actress playing the mother – provided welcome relief from the desperate, rangy hunger of Erysichthon, embodying the childlike aesthetic of wonder that Zimmerman strives for in her work, I couldn’t help thinking that if Zimmerman had kept the story of the daughter intact, it would have strengthened a key thematic arc of her own play, reinforcing the motif of daughters and bad fathers who are also terrible kings (Midas, Erysichthon, and Cinyras). Together, the three tales would have constituted a powerful overarching narrative about the downfall of rulers who violate the rules of family, sex, and nature and are in turn violently consumed by their own lusts.
. . .
Of course, there were a few tales that I felt Zimmerman’s production got right. Among them was the tumultuous sea-borne tragedy of Ceyx and Alcyone, whom Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare had all championed as an ideal embodiment of married love, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – to whom modern Ovidians have tended to give short shrift. It was wonderful to see this story get the operatic staging that it deserved, with the pool of water employed with powerful dramatic effect. After the opening sequence of the Midas myth, which ended too abruptly – while the image of Midas’s daughter freezing into position was shocking, we weren’t given time to absorb the tragedy of her transformation – the long, drawn-out narration of the story of Ceyx and Alcyone felt well paced, with all of the hybrid elements of the story slowly coming together and building up an unbearable degree of tension until the terror-stricken Alcyone came face to face in a dream with the ghost of her drowned husband.
Also moving were the tales of Orpheus/Eurydice and Myrrha/Cinyras, whose emotional force was heightened in relief against the comic tales that framed them. I especially loved Zimmerman’s beautifully rendered two-part narration (and in some parts, a literal pas de deux) of Orpheus and Eurydice. While Part One was a faithful adaptation of the famous version in Ovid, in which Orpheus leads his dead bride out of the Underworld but loses her forever when he glances back to see if she’s still there, in Part Two — based on the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1908 poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” — the perspective shifted to Eurydice, who slowly lost all memory of her human self as she retreated further and further into death. It was here, at the dead center of the play, that life and love lost all meaning, and death absorbed Eurydice – and all the audience with her – into a strange state of peace and oblivion.
Critics often mention that the visceral power of Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses lies in its images, which haunt the memory long after they disappear. (The most-cited images, tellingly, are the ones where figures are frozen or caught acrobatically mid-air in postures of grief or death.) My own heart stopped when Myrrha melted away into the water, disappearing underneath the edge of the pool, as the story suddenly shifted back to the sparkling comedy of Vertumnus and Pomona. I felt like I was watching the incest drive literally plunge into the unconscious and lurk there, hidden, as the next few stories continued to riff on lighter psychodramatic themes.
As a result, however, this unresolved dark current made the final sequence – the story of Baucis and Philemon, rounded out with the reunion between Midas and his daughter – seem too pat an ending in comparison. I admit that in many ways, the story of Baucis and Philemon was the perfect coda to Zimmerman’s play, a tale of faithful love in old age, with the poor elderly wife and husband rewarded by the gods for welcoming them (Zeus and Hermes disguised as weary travelers) into their home and, unlike Midas, asking for a wish rooted in love rather than greed. (Their wish: to die at the same moment. The gods’ gift: to give them a grand new home, and to turn them into trees at the moment of their death.) The show concluded in a magical, softly lit tableau, with the entire company kneeling in the pool, arrayed around the transformed Baucis and Philemon and surrounded by bowls of glowing candles, whispering to the audience, “Let me die still loving, and so, never die.” When the lights went out, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
However, there’s more to the story in Ovid — a whole lot more. While it’s still about the love between an old couple and their selfless generosity towards strangers, even including light touches of rustic humor, with the gods chuckling as they watch the old couple huffing and puffing as they chase their goose around to catch and cook it for supper, there’s also a holocaust, where Zeus and Hermes wipe out an entire country in a massive flood to punish people for their lack of hospitality. In a heartbreaking scene, the grieving Baucis and Philemon weep for the death of their fellow neighbors and mourn the destruction of their homeland. All this, compounded with the fact that the gods destroy the couple’s lifelong and beloved cottage with its cozy hearth, only to replace it with a cold marble temple and install the old couple – who agree less from desire than fear – as its servants.
In Ovid, in other words, there is no heartfelt sense of closure. There is only the wrath of the gods, the stiffening of bodies into bark, and a desperate whisper — “Farewell.”
. . .
Of course, there’s nothing more Ovidian than altering Ovid and, in the process, creating new stories with transformed new meanings (the Latin word “auctor” in the classical and medieval periods meant both “author” and “one who adds” to already existing material — both of which Ovid was a master), and Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is supremely Ovidian in the breadth of its emotional range and the sudden shifts in tone, genre, and perspective within its various tales. But despite the complexity of the interwoven narratives and their near-flawless and moving execution in performance, Zimmerman’s work raises many questions about what, and how, these classical myths are supposed to mean for modern audiences. Should they feel “universal,” like so many critics praised about Zimmerman’s retellings, transcending time and place and revealing an unchanging commonality about human experience? Should they be “redemptive,” uniting everyone in the end through love and repentance? If so, then Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses succeeds, not least of all by creating a sacred space where the audience could share in the experience of marveling at these direct transactions between humans and gods.
However, in Ovid’s myths, the gods aren’t just, and these ancient archetypes aren’t supposed to be empathetic or “relatable.” By skirting the darker elements of these myths and bringing the various threads together in an emotionally satisfying coda, Zimmerman’s work avoids the difficult question of dealing with aspects of myth that remain stubbornly beyond understanding, full of random terror, violence, and mystery. Based on the rapturous reception that the show has received since its debut, however, it seems — for better or worse — that Zimmerman’s humanized Ovid has become “our” Ovid, a luminous and comforting balm for our times.
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5.19.13 — As always, Daniel Mendelsohn says it best, this time re: a new staging of Euripides’s Herakles in a new article in NYRB.
6.15.13 — Fascinating: a very honest and eye-opening critique of Zimmerman’s handling of non-Western material, posted this week by Jamil Khoury, founding artistic director of Silk Road Rising. A few days later, Zimmerman responded in a mutually gracious meeting and interview (facilitated by the Goodman Theatre) with Khoury and Silk Road co-founder Malik Gillani, here.
 This moment in the Metamorphoses reverses the charming “surprise” of Ovid’s earlier erotic work, the Amores, when Ovid is thwarted in his Virgil-like attempt to write about “arms and wars” when Cupid swoops in from out of the blue and steals away a metric foot, turning Ovid’s would-be epic into elegy.
 Charles Segal, “Ovid’s Metamorphic Bodies: Art, Gender, and Violence in the ‘Metamorphoses,’” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 5.3 (1998), pp. 9-41.
 Cf. Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphoses of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (London: Duckworth, 1999).
 Michael Hofman and James Lasdun, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996), xi.
 For quotes from the play, I use Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses: A Play, Based on David R. Slavitt’s Translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (Evanton, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002). While Zimmerman based the language of her text on Slavitt’s free-verse but otherwise faithful translation of Ovid’s work, the narrative changes she makes in her play are her own.
 Richard Goehner Zoglin and Amy Lennard, “Gods in the Wading Pool,” Time 158.24 (2001): 72.
 In Ovid’s version, the story of tragic love that Vertumnus narrates is not that of Myrrha and Cinyras, but Iphis and Anaxarete.
 The earnestness of these words, spoken like mantras, is very different in style and tone from Apuleius’s own attitude towards his story; as Edith Hamilton wryly notes, “It is a prettily told tale, after the manner of Ovid. The writer is entertained by what he writes; he believes none of it” (Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1969), 92).
 As Zimmerman explained in a PBS interview, “Willa Cather said I’ll never be the artist I was as a child. And I really love that idea that like when you’re a child and you don’t have much, you’re so purely imaginative. And I like the idea of going back to that aesthetic, you know, to like just making things up and making do.”
 To be fair, Cinyras was tricked into sleeping with Myrrha, but then again, what good father would willingly have sex with a girl who was described as “shy,” “afraid,” and “your daughter’s age”?