Timberlake Wertenbaker's *The Love of the Nightingale*
Directed and designed by Caroline Calburn
Performed by BA Drama students
UCT Drama Department 16-20 May 1995
The Little Theatre's Hiddingh Hall
University of Cape Town
Reviewed by Margaret Mezzabotta
Timberlake Wertenbaker's *The Love of the Nightingale* (first performed at Stratford-on-Avon in 1988) is a dramatic presentation of the myth of the Thracian king Tereus, his wife Procne, daughter of King Pandion of Athens, and her sister, Philomele. Sophocles dramatised the story in his lost tragedy *Tereus*, probably performed sometime between the 430's and 416 BC. The surviving fragments are collected in S. Radt *Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Vol. 4: Sophocles* [Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1977]. They have been translated and made the basis for a tentative reconstruction of the plot by A. Kiso *The Lost Sophocles* [New York: Vantage Press, 1984] and by D.F. Sutton *The Lost Sophocles* Lanham : University Press of America, 1984]. It is likely that the Roman dramatist Accius drew on Sophocles' play for his lost tragedy *Tereus* (104 BC). The Sophoclean *Tereus* was probably a source for Ovid's treatment of the story (c.AD 8)in *Metamorphoses* 6. 422-676, which offers the fullest literary treatment of the myth in antiquity.
In Ovid's version, the Thracian king Tereus routed the enemies of Athens and married Procne, daughter of king Pandion of Athens. Procne went to live in Thrace and gave birth to a son, Itys. After five years, she asked Tereus to bring her sister Philomele from Athens to visit her. Tereus duly returned to Athens, but fell in love with Philomele. He escorted her to Thrace, where he put ashore in a deserted spot, raped her and cut out her tongue when she threatened to denounce him. Leaving her incarcerated in a cottage, Tereus returned to Procne and pretended that Philomele was dead. Meanwhile, Philomele wove a tapestry depicting her rape and mutilation by Tereus and sent it to Procne, who understood its message and began to plot revenge on Tereus. Participating in the triennial rites of Dionysus she sought out Philomele's place of imprisonment and brought her back to Tereus' palace. The two sisters killed Itys, son of Procne and Tereus, and cooked his flesh. Procne then tricked Tereus into eating the dish she had prepared. At the conclusion of the meal she revealed Philomele and produced Itys's severed head. Tereus tried to kill the sisters but they were transformed into birds, a swallow and a nightingale, while he himself turned into a hoopoe.
Though Wertenbaker follows Ovid's version in outline, she departs from it in a number of details. She introduces the device of the `play within the play' into the scene where Tereus falls in love with Philomele. Tereus observes Philomele's reactions to a performance of scenes from Euripides' *Hippolytus*. As the young girl thrills to the action and yearns to experience the love that overwhelms Phaedra, Tereus is increasingly drawn to her. A further innovation occurs in the means by which Tereus's crimes are communicated to Procne. Philomele and her attendant manipulate three `naked' life-sized cloth dolls, one male and two female, to act out Tereus's brutal acts in dumb show and express her love for her sister. Finally, Wertenbaker omits the episode of cannibalism.
A gifted, well-rehearsed cast of drama students performed the play in the University's Hiddingh Hall, using minimal scenery. The floor area at one end of the hall became the stage and was covered by a large expanse of white fabric painted with blue whorls. The wooden panelling of the walls formed the unchanging backdrop. A triangular piece of white cloth, suspended from the ceiling by ropes attached to each corner of the material, provided the only moveable stage- furnishing. Depending on the level to which it was raised or lowered and the angle at which it was hoisted, it functioned by turns as awning, meadow, screen, curtain, sail, pillar, tent, shelter, wine vat or wall. The players themselves adjusted its position, each modification denoting a change of scene.
Music and pulsating drum beats announced the beginning of the play as the male chorus of five players , clothed in black cotton trousers and loose shirts, burst onto the stage, armed with staves. A narrator introduced the setting of Athens at war, while the chorus mimed battle scenes in slow motion. Against this violent background, Procne (Kira Wilkinson) and her younger sister, Philomele (Leanne Logan), wearing simple cream dresses, sat on the floor sharing their curiosity about men, sex and love. Philomele promised to visit Procne after her marriage, if her sister needed her.
In the following scene, Pandion (Jonathan Acton), gave Procne in marriage to Tereus (Iain Harris), liberator of Athens. The chorus related that five years have now passed, and that Procne has given birth to a son, Itys. The antecedents to the main plot are thus dealt with. From this point on, the scene shifts rapidly between Athens, Tereus's palace in Thrace, the ship on which Philomele and Tereus sail to Thrace, and the lonely place in Thrace where Tereus keeps Philomele captive.
In Thrace, Procne expresses her loneliness to the female chorus and her longing for her sister's company. She begs Tereus to fetch Philomele. Back in Athens, Tereus prevails upon Pandion to allow Philomele to visit Thrace. While the two men debate the issue, Philomele gazes enthralled at scenes from Euripides' *Hippolytus*, in which Aphrodite fills Phaedra with love for Hippolytus and Phaedra struggles to resist. But Philomele, all her pent- up emotions and desires stirred, cries out that love must not be denied. Tereus is increasingly drawn to her. Finally, Pandion reluctantly agrees to allow Philomele to travel to Thrace and entrusts her to Tereus's care.
The next scene takes place on board ship, with the male chorus miming the action of rowing as they describe the route northwards to Thrace. Tereus watches Philomele constantly and orders the sails to be lowered as the journey is passing too quickly for his liking. Philomele's old slave attendant, rather confusingly called Niobe, (which prompted all sorts of misleading mythological associations), was played with great maturity and insight by Nina Callaghan. Niobe maintains a careful watch over her young charge. Her long life has schooled her to accept female powerlessness in a world of male domination. A rapid succession of scenes focuses alternately on Procne's anxious waiting in Thrace and on the building up of tensions in Tereus, as he edges ever closer to Philomele. He tells Philomele that Procne is dead, and declares his love for her. When she repulses him he reminds her of her enthusiastic response to the idea of love at the theatre in Athens. Horrified, Philomele exclaims, `Oh, my careless tongue!' Tereus rapes her and cuts out her tongue to silence her screams of protest, placing the blame for this brutal action on Philomele's own conduct because she `should have kept quiet'. He then keeps her in a secluded cottage, guarded by Niobe.
Procne is told by Tereus that Philomele is dead. Five more years pass, and we see her in a family group with Tereus and Itys. Over the years she has come to terms with the loss of her sister. Then, participating in a Bacchic revel, Procne comes across a crowd watching `a dumb girl' performing a mime show with three cloth dolls that re-enacts Philomele's rape by Tereus and the hacking out of her tongue. Procne recognises Philomele and realises the truth. Reunited with each other, they join the rest of the Bacchic revellers in drinking.
They take hold of Itys and, concealed behind a wall, kill him. Two male chorus players, the one climbing on to the other's shoulders to spy on the women through a window in the wall, describe and comment on what the audience cannot see. Tereus enters and, in a moment of climactic horror, is shown his son's body.
The audience is prepared for the final scene by the female chorus, who recount the 'strange end' of the myth and the metamorphosis of Tereus, Procne and Philomele into birds. Philomele, her speech restored, runs on to the stage carrying a large painted model of a nightingale, followed by Itys and a now silent Procne holding a cut-out represention of a swallow. From the minstrels' gallery above the stage, Niobe let handfuls of brightly- coloured feathers flutter gently down. Philomele invites Itys to ask her 'some more questions', thus bringing the focus back to the theme of questioning which characterised the sisters' opening dialogue.
Caroline Calburn's expert direction brought out the best in the student actors. The choice of play was eminently suited to them, as many of the performers, in addition to their drama studies, were enrolled in Classical Culture and Ancient Mythology courses at the university. Their participation in *The Love of the Nightingale*, whether as performer or behind the scenes, showed the group the enduring capacity of mythology to illuminate contemporary human emotions and behaviour. Wertenbaker uses the Tereus/ Procne/ Philomele myth to highlight the role of language, particularly through questioning, in determining moral conduct, set against a feminist background which esposes male aggression and female helplessness. Though the ancient dramatisations no longer survive, Wertenbaker's modern version effectively communicates the continuing power of the myth to evoke an emotional response in its audience.
Margaret Mezzabotta - 1946-2000. (Margaret was a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cape Town.)