The Love of the Nightingale
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Kirsten Brandt

February 9-12, 1994
University of California, San Diego, CA, USA.

March 12, 1994
Copley Theater in Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald,
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, U.S.A.

Timberlake Wertenbaker has written a play based on Sophocles' lost tragedy Tereus, called The Love of the Nightingale. The myth comes to us mainly from two ancient versions by Sophocles and Ovid (Metamorphoses 6. 587ff), and these versions are selectively used by Wertenbaker and expanded with original additions which make the modern relevance explicit. The able director Kirsten Brandt adds a further variation in her production. The myth used by Sophocles tells the story of King Pandion of Athens giving his daughter Procne in marriage to the Thracian king, Tereus, who was his successful ally in a war. Procne has a child, Itys, but is lonesome for her sister, Philomela. Tereus is sent to bring her, but lusts for her, rapes her and hides her away, tearing out her tongue so that she cannot reveal what had happened. She gets a message to Procne, by weaving the facts into a robe, which she has delivered to her sister. Procne kills Itys and serves him to Tereus. Tereus in his rage chases the two sisters, and all three are turned into birds, Philomela into a swallow, Procne into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe. Ovid has a different version. He has Philomela changed into the nightingale, and Procne into the swallow, and the two sisters meet at a festival for Dionysus. It is the latter version that Wertenbaker follows. She also eliminates the robe/message, and the gruesome banquet that led to a horrendous pun in Ovid: after Tereus has eaten Itys, he asks, 'Where is Itys?' Procne answers, 'Inside' (Intus habes quem poscis). By eliminating this violent sequence, Wertenbaker increases sympathy for Procne and Philomele (her variation of Philomela); her feminist reading is writ large. Her feminist sensitivity is revealed in other ways, such as the queen having to cede to King Pandion on every issue; in fact, she is not even consulted in the plans made for Philomele. In Wertenbaker's text the king is named and the queen is unnamed. This was also typical of Athenian practice, in which a woman is not named in legal proceedings, except in a derogatory fashion, and on grave stelae she is identified by her relation to the immediate male who has power over her. This play shows us the imperialism of the private (men over women) and the imperialism of the public (territories seized, slaves created).

The set is simple, with suggestive pillars, sheets and scaffolding. The costumes suggest the clothing of ancient statues: the actors show antiquity come to life. Brandt prefaces the play with women reading and peacefully enjoying each other's company, but they are scattered by soldiers who rush on stage in a killing frenzy. In Wertenbaker, the play begins with the soldiers alone. War and peace, men and women, and violence from the public sphere invading the private: Brandt shows us the major themes in the first minutes. Her direction sharpens the messages of the play. A gifted cast engage us in the emotional unfolding, with Elizabeth O'Hara as Philomele, Lakeri Patankar as Procne and Christopher Gottschalk as Tereus.

Wertenbaker has Tereus claim Procne as the reward he wants for being Pandion's ally. She has Tereus see Euripides' Hippolytus acted in Pandion's court: it is there he hears about the overwhelming effect of passion. He condemns the loose morality and reveals himself as the barbarian vs. the sophisticated Athenian. This play within a play is as ominous as Hamlet's enacting his father's murder to catch the conscience of the king. Here the play seems to dispel conscience and abet Tereus in his subsequent violence, illustrating Girard's theory of mimetic desire.

We see the close bond between Philomele and Procne and a promise is exchanged that Philomele will come if Procne sends for her. Indeed, the message comes and Tereus brings Philomele back to Thrace by ship. As his desire increases, he delays the return more and more. Philomele is attracted to the ship's captain, who is slain by Tereus as he embraces Philomele, following her coquettish suggestion. Tereus tells Philomele her sister is dead. The mousetrap snaps shut, and the rape occurs. The violence is enacted offstage true to the conventions of Greek tragedy, but the screams are shattering. The nurse says she foresaw it all, and she advocates compliance. She is one of the colonized who has learned her lesson, 'Power is something you can't resist. That I know. My island bowed its head. I came to Athens'.

Philomele voices not only her protests, but threats of revealing Tereus' crime, with suggestions of sexual fallibility: 'And if, women of Thrace, he wants to force himself on you, trying to stretch his puny manhood to your intimacies, you call that high spirits? And you soldiers, you'll follow into a battle a man who lies, a man of tiny spirit and shriveled courage?' The sexual imagery crosses into the political; private invades the public. Again the inevitable (we regard the myth as the inevitable): Philomele's tongue is cut out and she is kept in a type of prison, guarded by the nurse. But like Athenian women, she is let out for religious festivals. Tereus is still interested in her, as most imperialists develop sentimental interest in the colonized.

A festival of Dionysus is in progress and it is during this festival that Philomele gets word to her sister. Instead of weaving the message, Wertenbaker has Philomele manipulate dolls (reminiscent of dolls used in cases of the sexual abuse of minors to illustrate what happened in a non-threatening way). Wertenbaker's action is both tragic and comic, comic because Philomele must escape her nurse, still loyal to Tereus, who chases her as she relates the story. The nurse is dismayed that Philomele has been successful in meeting her sister. Brandt stages this scene with dancers who play the dolls and dance the drama. In her version, the nurse does not interfere, and this increases the tragedy. The dancers, Jennifer Bennett, Brittany Brown and Matthew Crosby, bind the audience in the spell of their dance; the rape and mutilation are branded in our memories through the icon of their movement.

A festival of Dionysus is appropriate for what follows. Itys is tempted by the guards to spy on the women, la Pentheus in the Bacchae. He sees Philomele handling his sword, so he invades the women's sanctuary, and like Pentheus, he is sacrificed by his mother. This passionate sacrifice of a child by a mother who is angry and thereby punishing the father we know from the Medea, and Sophocles' play may have been written shortly after, or before Euripides' (431 B.C.). It has to be written before 414 B.C., the date of Aristophanes' Birds, where Tereus as hoopoe has a big part.

Ethics, politics, and feminism inform the text. This is a play about speech and silence, who speaks, for whom, and who is silenced. It is also about imperialism and oppression at the same time as individual passion. The chorus asks, 'Why did Medea kill her children? Why do countries make war? Why are races exterminated? Why do white people cut off the words of blacks? Why do people disappear?' It is obvious at this point in the play that the present has invaded the past. In the epilogue, Philomele bursts into song in response to Itys' question: 'What is right?' Itys then asks, 'Didn't you want me to ask questions?' So does our drama ask questions, but Philomele's song, like Wertenbaker's art, is perhaps the best answer for that which cannot be answered.

Here we see the disastrous consequences of passion that follow if human beings do not exercise restraint. Although the barbaric Thracian is opposed to the civilized Athenian (Greek), nevertheless the revenge of the Greeks is equally barbaric. As one fragment of Sophocles' play says roughly, 'One was foolish, but the others more so, if the remedy is worse then the disease' (589R). Man's use of rape to establish dominance, silencing the victim, and the cycle of violence and revenge are all illustrated here. The barbarism of man's inhumanity to man, as we see daily in the world today, is the substance of ancient tragedies. The messages still apply. The return of all the large issues to a personal frame of reference allows us to connect with them more effectively.

The program quotes from the play, 'Myth is the oblique image of an unwanted truth reverberating through time.' This myth is about human nature, and things about ourselves that we would probably like to forget. Mythos means word, and it is speech that is stolen from Philomele. Through its revival of the myth, these truths will not be silenced, and Greek tragedy is one of the last places where we can still hear the truth spoken and sung.


  • Akiko Kiso, The Lost Sophocles. New York: Vantage Press, 1984

  • Dana F. Sutton, The Lost Sophocles. New York: University Press of America, 1984

  • Timberlake Wertenbaker, The Love of the Nightingale and The Grace of Mary Traverse. 1989; rpt. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1991.

    Marianne McDonald