- Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses: Mythic Revision as a Ritual for Grief
If we weren’t thinking all the time in terms of persons, if we were thinking of Nature, all Nature going on and on, parts of it dying—well not dying, changing, changing is the word I want, changing into something else, all those elements that made the person changing and going back into Nature again and reappearing over and over in birds and animals and flowers—Uncle Craig doesn’t have to be Uncle Craig!—Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
When artists turn to Greek or Roman mythology as the source material for their works, they invite their audiences to contemplate themselves through a collective dream. Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, which premiered at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago in 1998, allowed audiences on the cusp of a new millennium to return to these ancient myths and consider their contemporary relevance. In a meditative, ninety-minute production, the actors performed nine of Ovid’s tales on a minimalist set dominated by the unusual presence of a twenty-seven-foot- long pool. However, when the play transferred to New York City and opened at the Second Stage Theatre shortly after September 11, 2001, the classical myths about death and loss took on greater resonances than before.1 The performances in New York moved beyond the illuminating dramatization of Ovid’s mythology that the Chicago audiences had witnessed to provide the New York spectators with an opportunity for contemplating their communal loss and grief.
Theater, when it responds to social or political events in compelling ways, can serve as a political barometer for our times. The particular confluence between a play’s performance and a moment of historical upheaval results in another text, a text that exists midway between the [End Page 149] performance and the audience who witnesses it. The best way to approach such a collaborative text is through studying the audience’s response to a theatrical performance. The affective power behind Metamorphoses comes from a synthesis of two distinct, provocative forces acting upon the audience: the spiritual associations myth possesses, combined with ritualistic theatrical devices. The production’s hermeneutic dramaturgy, which not only involves retelling myths but emphasizes the very process of “re-vising” or “re-seeing” them, prompts the audience members to rethink their own conceptual understanding of death, not as loss, but as transformation.
With its origins in reader-response theory, “spectator-oriented dramatic criticism” establishes a methodology for analyzing how a play works upon the audience. A perfect example of how an audience’s response to a play can differ from a “readerly” response appears in Una Chaudhuri’s essay “The Spectator in Drama / Drama in the Spectator.”2 Her article focuses on Peter Shaffer’s Equus and illustrates the discrepancy between the critical and popular receptions of the play. She points out how the theater critics who panned the play failed to grasp the influence of extradialogic factors upon the audience, such as the configuration of the stage into a “dissecting theater,” which permitted the audience to participate in analyzing the boy’s disturbed neurosis. In her opinion, the critics were too preoccupied with the literary merit of the piece and failed to appreciate the work’s intuitive appeal for the audience. Turning to reader-response theory, an approach that minutely describes the “dynamics of an event” and studies what the text does to a reader, Chaudhuri finds an ideal mechanism for bridging the divergent responses. As Chaudhuri focuses on the “semantic field” created during the performance of Equus and studies the “response-structure” within the audience, she creates a reading of the play that is an analysis less of its themes or dialogue and more of the effect the archetypal images and staging had upon the audience. The audience takes on a collaborative role during the performance that the theater reviewers failed to appreciate. Fortunately, for the purposes of this article, the theater reviewers of Metamorphoses judiciously took into account the mediation between the spectator and the performance, and I draw upon their reviews to substantiate my own reading of the play’s performative power, to support the...