John Banville’s Love in the Wars after Kleist’s Penthesilea at Bard Summerscape

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Chris Stack (Achilles) and Birgit Huppuch (Penthesilea) in  Love in the Wars. Photo Cory Weaver.

Chris Stack (Achilles) and Birgit Huppuch (Penthesilea) in
Love in the Wars. Photo Cory Weaver.

Love in the Wars
A Version of Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea
by John Banville

Ken Rus Schmoll – Director
Marsha Ginsberg – Set Designer
Oana Botez – Costume Designer
Tyler Micoleau – Lighting Designer
Dave Bova – Hair and Makeup Designer
Leah Gelpe – Sound Designer
Thomas Schall – Fight Director

Birgit Huppuch – Penthesilea
Chris Stack – Achilles
Jeffrey Binder – Odysseus
Chad Goodridge – Diomedes
KeiLyn Jones – Agamemnon
Karen Kandel – High Priestess
Karen Pittman – Prothoe
Michael Schant – Antilochus
Stacey Yen – Asteria
Harrison Beer ’14 – Greek
Antonio Irizarry ’16 – Greek
Hannah Mitchell ’13 – Amazon
Claire Thompson ’14 – Amazon

If one has read one’s Classics, or has acquired a passion for ancient literature later in life and has read, say, Homer and the tragic poets with some attention, or, perhaps I should say, is older than fifty, one, in some human situation, whether intimate, passionate, urgent, or trivial, will occasionally get an uncanny feeling that one is living out Greek myth—that under one’s skin Achilles, Hermes, or Thetis are making us act and speak from within, as if we twenty-first century humans were nothing more than costumes for some drama of great antiquity that plays itself out continuously over millennia in strands intertwined with other narratives. Is this fate, or archetype, or merely common or garden human nature, observed as keenly by Homer, Pindar, and Euripides as by Dickens, Nietzsche, or Proust?

Heinrich von Kleist’s knowledge of ancient Greek and its literature came early (1788) and ended early, but he studied privately, as a son of military nobility would, with a distinguished Greek scholar, the Huguenot preacher and theologian, Samuel Heinrich Catel, who was later endowed with a professorship in Greek language. In his teens Kleist was trained as a soldier, in the tradition of his family. When he left the military and sought his own education, he studied science, briefly, inspired by a youthful Schwärmerei for Kant, which soon led to bitter disillusionment. Convinced that German drama should be a fusion of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean “burlesque,” he acquainted himself with both through translations. Kleist wrote two of his plays, Amphitryon and Penthesilea, with characters and plots drawn from Greek mythology, and at least one of his plays about the German world, the comedy Der zerbrochene Krug, is pervasively informed by Sophoclean example. In Penthesilea, his heavy-handed use of Homeric epithet and diction and his idiosyncratic way with similes are enough to show that his understanding of his models was at best highly “mediated” through the translations he is supposed to have used, but his studies with Catel and his known gift for languages, especially French, stood him in good stead. It has been said that he drew his subject from Benjamin Hederich’s Gründliches mythologisches Lexikon (Leipzig 1770), but Hederich fails to mention the Homeric cyclical epic, the Aethiopis, in which the Amazons arrived to help the Trojans and that Achilles slew Penthesilea, their queen and how Thersites, taunted Achilles for having fallen in love with her, whereupon Achilles killed him. (The reason for this was Hederich’s concentration on his immediate sources, which quote the Aethiopis. The importance of this work of the Homeric Cycle was mainly a twentieth century discovery.)

In any case, Kleist got all he needed from the Greek classics to achieve what he wanted for his own eccentric purposes. Likewise, he seems not to have perceived the ancient heroes and gods within himself, but to have infused them with his own intimate demons. Greek myth is full of self-destructive behavior, most often through uncontrolled human urges to overstep boundaries which are part of the world-order—whether as an Icarus, a Tantalus, an Oedipus, or Clytemnestra—Hades is too overpopulated to list even a small sample. None of Kleist’s intertextual strands—the Iliad, Sophocles’ Ajax, Euripides’ Hercules Furens, show anything like the wild, wolf-like destructiveness towards others and oneself as his Penthesilea. Kleist probably also looked at Aristophanes’ Ekklesiazousai and Lysistrata for all-female societies and to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida for its sour depiction of life in wartime. The wolf, which Kleist used in similes especially to characterize Penthesilea, occurs seldom in Homer, most notably twice in Book XVI, in similes which are among the most gory and terrifying in the epic. Kleist embodies the ferocity of these similes in his depiction of Achilles’ mutilation and death by Penthesilea and her dogs. But to return to Kleist’s personal inhabitation of the play and its characters—his suicide and murder of his soulmate, Henriette Vogel, was only the last of several attempts at ending his own life in the company of a sympathetic lady, suggesting that he expressed this urge to self-annihilation in Penthesilea. Throughout much of his life, he felt there was no place for him on this earth. He was not like the rest of us. Indeed, he attracted the attention of Krafft-Ebing, who said in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1893) that Kleist, “brilliant but doubtless not mentally normal,” created “a frightful, premeditated, consummate female sadism.” Some years ago Hans Neuenfels created an altered production of Penthesilea (TRIGGER WARNING: REGIETHEATER!), stressing its personal elements to the point of presenting it as autobiography.

In Kleist’s Penthesilea much of the action unfolds as description by an observer, either as a report or an observation from afar—one of the characteristics which has earned the play its reputation as unstageable. In Homer such indirect narratives take place as the observations by characters out of the fighting, who see the action from the walls of Troy. In Greek, such passages are referred to as teichoskopia, “watching from the walls.” These are often as violent and vivid as Homer’s direct narrative. Kleist, however, has little interest in Homer’s gory detail. He most often characterizes action by its swiftness, and there is constant movement in his descriptions. His Greeks and Amazons are also magnificently dressed, in gold-trimmed armor and helmets, often studded with precious jewels. Kleist seems fascinated by this splendor, and his narrative seem more to be ekphraseis of the elegant paintings, many no larger than cabinet size, mostly by Netherlandish and German artists, which may well have been plentiful in his ancestral home. Kleist, who entered the army at fifteen, saw battle at the Siege of Mainz, but also knew the military tradition and the splendid uniforms of Prussian officers. There is a portrait of his father, dressed in the late eighteenth-century Frack of the Prussian courtier. but with an ornate steel breastplate as a waistcoat. Kleist knew the magnificence of the soldier’s life, along with its brutality, which he detested.

The Irish novelist John Banville has been fascinated by Kleist since he first read Kleist’s important essay on marionette theater many years ago. It came directly to fruition in three adaptations Banville wrote for the purpose of making Kleist’s plays accessible to English-speaking audiences—perhaps predominantly Irish, since The Broken Jug and God’s Gift (after Amphtryon) were transposed to Irish settings. leaving only Penthesilea, under the title, Love in the Wars, in its original setting before the walls of Ilium. Both the classical and the Kleistian Amphtryon bubble away below the surface in his 2009 novel, The Infinities, which provides a telling context for Love in the Wars. The title immediately recalls to my mind a Restoration air, as in Dryden’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, All for Love, and I wonder if there isn’t some rather similar relation to its model, a certain Restoration-like elegance, and it is easy enough to realize how we today might perceive Kleist as readers of the Restoration and beyond saw Shakespeare—as a rough, primitive genius, just as many saw Kleist in his own time, most typically Goethe. For Banville these plays are too difficult to translate, too idiosyncratic in dramaturgy, too quirky in their slips between tragic and comic, and too subtle and strange in psychology to reach theater audiences in straight translation; and he wants to create an audience for the plays, not provide a text for comparative literature students. The way in which he has captured the essence of Penthesilea is an impressive tour de force. It seems equally possible that someone else might adapt the play successfully in some other way. One could disagree about which passages are funny and which grand, ominous, or tragic, but the characters and the basic thrust of the play are true to what Kleist wanted to project—or at least the core of it, as we would understand it today. (We mustn’t forget that black, cynical Prussian sense of humor!)

Even though Banville’s Love in the Wars has never been produced until now, it seems to have had considerable influence in Irish theater through its 2005 publication by Gallery Books. Enda Walsh’s Penelope (2010) seems to me to owe a great deal to it, even to the point of being a sort of réplique. Whilst the conclusion of Love in the Wars (entirely different from Kleist’s ending) is very bleak indeed, mitigated only by Odysseus’ survivor’s desire to live, Walsh gives the final speech to young Burns, who speaks from a certain naïve idealism, which resonates—feebly—with Penelope’s absolutes, only to perish in the final conflagration. Of course Burns’s speech is deeply undercut by the irony of his situation. In this play Walsh represents the suitors as four mostly ordinary men awaiting a decision and attempting to influence through rhetoric a powerful female personality, Odysseus’ faithful wife. It is difficult to say which play is more pessimistic, although Walsh teases us with some hope of a better humanity before destroying it all in Odysseus’ implacable revenge that is coming to all his wife’s suitors. Penelope, I should add, was commissioned by Ruhr 2010, when the region was a European Capital of Culture, as one of six plays by six playwrights from six different EU countries, which comprised Odyssee Europa, a retelling of the Homeric epic at the Theater Oberhausen. There were also initiatives on Prometheus and, most interestingly, Kontinent Kleist, in which five of Kleist’s plays were performed, including Penthesilea. The relevance of this depends on how thoroughly Mr. Walsh considered the context of his play in the festival. However the organizers of this impressive festival appear to have been überfleißig in its organization, and it seems reasonable to assume that he was aware of the other Hellenic and Kleistian projects.

Although Love in the Wars reads very much like a faithful, if condensed and personal treatment of Kleist’s Penthesilea, we have already begun to consider it as work of Irish theater. One of the all-important threads in the history of Irish literature is the efforts of Irish writers to take a place as European artists, outside the shadow cast by the English across their nation. Joyce and Beckett found it necessary to live on the Continent to assert this. Their heir, John Banville, lives in Dublin, but he is even more the Irish writer who can claim a place as a European, even a cosmopolitan. His affinities for Kleist, as well as the Czech photographer Josef Sudek, show how Banville has achieved this after generations of effort. What he calls his “Banville novels” are rich in layered precedent, but then he writes in other guises as well—first Kleist and now Benjamin Black, crime novelist in the tradition of Georges Simenon’s “romans durs,” that is, those without Inspector Maigret, superb work in the traditions of Maupassant and Zola. He has most recently, as Benjamin Black, created a fine hommage to Raymond Chandler, in his The Blonde with the Black Eyes. Those of us who love the melodious Vergilian lyricism of the Banville novels, are likely to be surprised, but equally delighted by the lean prose of Black. Kleist provided Banville with yet another voice, not really Kleist’s own, but a sharply edged iambic pentameter which bristles with monosyllables.

I can easily imagine how an Irish cast would soften and lyricize the stark lines Banville has written for this tragedy of disaster. The actors brought together and rehearsed for six weeks (!) for a partial two-week run, ten performances, seemed to have devoured Banville’s verses raw in their American mouths, making the language as hard and edgy as possible—with great success to my mind. I was only disturbed mildly by the inconsistent pronunciation of some of the Greek names, which Kleist himself varied for scansion and in imitation of his Homeric sources. Banville’s version can sit magnificently with American accents, aggressively heightened in this production, although the actors’ effort was not by any means invisible or inaudible. Their consonants and vowels hit hard, and it was an energizing (not masochistic, heaven forbid!) pleasure to hear them.

Karen Kandell. Stacey Yen, Claire Thompson, Birgit Huppuch, Chris Stack (kneeling), and Hannah Mitchell in Love in the Wars. Photo Cory Weaver.

Karen Kandell. Stacey Yen, Claire Thompson, Birgit Huppuch, Chris Stack (kneeling), and Hannah Mitchell in Love in the Wars. Photo Cory Weaver.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll led the actors into a fast-paced (75-80 minutes) hurtle from warlike bravado into something clearly described by both Kleist and Banville as something beyond savagery. (“I mean that animal that was our queen!”), which in itself dissolves Penthesilea’s right to rule the Amazons, even to live. Costume designer Oana Botez has not clad Amazons or Greeks in pelts or anything primitive, although Banville’s text leaves many options available. The Greeks wear suits, and the Amazons wear cocktail dresses and high heels, as men and women do today for social occasions, but the way they wear them is different. Odysseus is appropriately dressed in a slick, silvery sharkskin suit—no tie, as you might see in a Wall Street bar when work gets out. The tight dresses or the Amazons do not strike one as feminine in any appealing way, and this is stressed when Penthesilea puts on a dressing robe and mules to look feminine for Achilles’ benefit. She is still not all that convincing as a seductress. Schmoll sidesteps obvious strategies to great effect, as in this case, and in Penthesilea’s final conversation with her sister Prothoe. As loud, tough, and exciting as this production is, there is quite a lot of understatement in it, and this sophistication serves Kleist and Banville well. The only kind, loving words spoken in this play occur in Prothoe’s blandishments to her sister, and, in Kleist’s original, the homoerotic, incestuous tone of them is strong. Banville has chosen to cut that back a little, and Schmoll and his Prothoe, Karen Pittman, restrained it further—an understandable economy in a version which stresses the war between the sexes over the bonds within them.

The difference between Penthesilea and Achilles is clear, both according to Kleist and to Banville. Penthesilea is a queen among her people, leading them in their anomalous life brought about by nomos rather than physis through the abuse her female ancestors suffered at the hands of invaders. As an enforcer of convention, she must upload the letter of the law, which she strives to do, until her passion for Achilles drives her mad and deprives her not only of her authority, but of her basic humanity. (Kleist understood Sophocles well.) Achilles by contrast is both a creature of natural aggression and military training. He is little more than a murderous brute, cordially detested by his comrades. For Banville much of the pathos of this tragedy lies in Penthesilea’s love for a despicable specimen of manhood. Chris Stack’s bland good looks—resembling somewhat the most renowned Achilles of all, Brad Pitt—helped him considerably in his portrayal of this shallow, petulant hero.

In the play the Amazons and Greeks have only militarily limited contact with one another—with the notable exception of the Festival of Roses, the ritual occasion through which the Amazons procreate. (The rule is they must defeat and capture the male they desire.) In Schmoll’s production, the two separate groups share the stage most of the time. One may watch as the others argue amongst themselves or reach decisions. This creates an anti-realistic sense of theatrical community, as the actors work together to recreate this thorny, unfamiliar import from early Romantic Germany. There was also a great coup de théatre, as a thunderstorm and falling rain accompany the dénouement.

The cast was consistently outstanding. Americans are as strong ensemble actors as anyone on the planet. It seems invidious to single actors out, but I especially enjoyed Jeffrey Binder’s dry, understated Odysseus. Binder is one of those actors who can make us laugh by just standing on stage, doing nothing, although the did a great deal in his important role. Karen Kandell was a stately, resonant High Priestess of rolling authority. I have already praised Chris Black’s viperous Achilles. Birgit Huppuch, however, delivered an unforgettable Penthesilea, full of energy, power, and aggression. Her Penthesilea behaves almost as nastily as Achilles towards her subjects, but we forgive her somewhat, because she is confused by love, and he simply uses his command to act out against his inferiors. Her concentration and energy throughout the play, as brief as it was, was amazing, but there was far more to her expression and indwelling of the character than that. Her performance went beyond strong rhetoric and emotions projected from the stage to a sort of direct connection which creates an intimate bond between the individual viewer and her character, so that when she is on stage one can experience the action seemingly from within Penthesilea’s own consciousness, even in her more violent and alienating moments. While never upstaging any of her colleagues, Birgit Huppuch gave a classic turn, which I’ll not forget any time soon.

Bard summer drama has been consistently of the highest order over the years. Only last year’s stage version of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita disappointed me, because its three hours left out too many important parts of the novel, above all Pontius Pilate. It seemed like a nostalgic review of favorite scenes for M and M fan creatures. As successful as other actors were, the actress chosen for Margarita, moreover, was too old for the part, and basically mediocre in her characterization. This year, however, Bard more than remedied last year’s slip.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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