Review by S. A. Holland
When I first heard that William Considine was going to have a reading of his play, Women’s Mysteries I was more than a little intrigued.
As a classics aficionado, with a long-standing interest in ancient Greek religion, I wondered how he would be able to pull it off, given that, to this day, the Eleusinian Mysteries remain enveloped by an impenetrable shroud of secrecy that all initiates, ever, adhered to rigorously. My other reaction was a minor twinge of jealousy, as the displacement of chthonic matriarchal goddesses, has been a topic of active research for me for the past year or so. However, eventually I found out that this project has been in gestation in the writer’s mind and on paper for almost three decades. William Considine also wrote The Furies, a trilogy of verse plays, published by The Operating System, 2017, as well as the contemporary play about family dynamics, Moral Support, which was produced this year at the Medicine Show Theatre.
Prior to attending the reading, given at Polaris North, I had been advised by William Considine to revisit Plutarch’s story of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver. And indeed, that was how William Considine solves the problem of writing about the unknowable Eleusinian Mysteries – he focuses on an historical figure – Solon – who had contact with the cult initiates. He does not pretend to reconstruct or confabulate the ceremonial rites for twenty-first century eyes. Instead, he ingeniously structures scenes around the Mysteries while incorporating only certain known elements: such as the sacrifice of pigs, the execution of men who were foolish enough to stray into the sacred precincts, and the use of a barley and mint drink, the kykeon, which may or may not have included an hallucinogenic drug. Rather than risk potentially inaccurate speculation about the Mysteries, he instead shows the female characters attempting to re-establish the rites after a twenty year hiatus.
Women’s Mysteries, was performed at a staged reading Thursday night, June 20th, 2019, 7 pm, at Polaris North, 245 West 29th Street, New York, N.Y. The reading was expertly directed by Rose-Marie Brandwein, and the cast was composed of Polaris North members, most of whom took on multiple roles in the production.
Very little has come down to us about what actually occurred at these rites at Eleusis – the initiates, after days of purification and preparation, would make their way from Athens to the sanctuary building, or Telestarion, on foot, a 14 mile journey from Athens undertaken both in the spring (Lesser Mysteries) and the fall (Greater Mysteries). The initiates, who came from all classes, (even slaves), were sworn to secrecy, and nothing of what was shown in the sacred precincts is known to us. References to the experience were deemed both forbidden and unspeakable. The participants in these profound spiritual experiences , which had two stages of initiation, myesis and epopteia, seemed to have emerged from their experiences with a profound sense of personal connection to the goddesses, and henceforth lacked a fear of death. The religious experience was transformational – eventually, men were allowed to take part in the Mysteries. Socrates, Plato, and Augustus were all initiates. Despite intensive efforts to reconstruct these rites, we have only an outline and informed scholarly speculation.
As noted above, the focus of the play is on Solon. Solon lived in Archaic Greece around the time of Hesiod, a time, as the playwright puts it, which was “prior to the classical period. It’s a poor, primitive world.” Not only was this world primitive, but there were temporary restraining ordinances: talk of war was verboten, punishable by penalty of death. And yet Solon, following the dictates of the oracle of Apollo, a comparatively “new” god whose oracle at Delphi he pledged to protect, yet simultaneously viewed with deep skepticism, managed to find a way around this restriction. In the play, he risks death, pretending to be mad so that he will not be penalized, and recites an incendiary poem entitled Salamis, designed to foment war between the Athenians and Megarions.
For those who are unfamiliar with Solon, or need a quick refresher, he was an Athenian statesman, lawgiver, and poet. His life’s work prepared ancient Greece for democracy. As portrayed in Women’s Mysteries, he is boundlessly curious, eager to make money, and wants to rectify disparities between the wealthy and the poor. (Prior to his reforms, those who owed money could literally be taken off and enslaved for their debts.) He successfully restructured debt in Athenian society, and moreover was able to accomplish this in a way that the economy of Athens did not crash and burn.
According to the director, Rose-Marie Brandwein, the actors in the play all have backgrounds in Shakespearean productions, which explains the ease and aplomb with which they handled this verse play. Many of them undertook several roles, although Eric Diamond (Pisistratus), John Payne (Solon), and Carla Torgrimson (Chorus) all had solo parts. Cam Kornman was extraordinarily enthusiastic and commanding in each of her roles, as Basilinna, Python, and the Chorus.
In staging the reading, the director incorporated certain understated elements that made it simple yet extremely effective: the men, the war-fomenters, wore dark clothing, and the women wore white or light clothing, to emphasize their purity and devotion to spirituality. No masks were used in the production, which is just as well, since the actors were reading from the scripts, and the costumes were limited to wreaths and scarves for the Oracle of Pythian Apollo and the female worshippers of the Double Goddess.
As Considine writes of Demeter, goddess and mother in mourning for her daughter, Persephone, brutally abducted by Hades:
“Only Hecate, stirrer of witches, heard
A startled cry from the girl pulled to hell…
Persephone, a child, was stranded
In eternal darkness, at the side of death.”
The poetry of the play is by turns beautiful, stark, and evocative, particularly in the scenes that depict the worshippers trying to revive the cult at Eleusis, and it is in these scenes that William Considine manages to evoke the cadence and gravitas of ancient poetic funeral inscriptions found on steles at the sites of Eleusis and Delphi. There are also moments of humor and absurdity, and at times the character of Solon displays a sort of meta-consciousness about his situation and that of his companions and/or detractors. This made the reading absorbing to watch, especially in the moments when the language and acting attained a solemnity that allowed the audience an immersive experience in the ancient world of the play.
To my knowledge, there is no extant play, ancient or modern, that depicts Solon. An account of the Eleusinian Mysteries is recorded in a chapter of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and there are numerous scholarly books that painstakingly aggregate and analyze what is known about the cult, from the literary fragments, relics, and archeological remains throughout the ancient world, such as Carl Kerenyi’s Eleusis or the works of Walter Burkert. This makes William Considine’s play a novel and interesting experiment that tries to convey a sense of what was a profound religious experience for many in the ancient world, one which endured for well over two thousand years.
This is not to say that there are no issues with the play in its current form.
While the attempts of the women to revive the Eleusinian Mysteries contains some of the most moving parts of the play, its focus is nonetheless on Solon, specifically his transformation from itinerant poet and trader to an Odysseus-like schemer who devises an elaborate ruse to make war on the Megarions in order to reclaim Salamis for Athens, despite the stringent prohibitions against war talk in Athens. The transition from dreamy poet to war-monger needs somewhat more delineation, because we are never shown anything, other than Solon’s desire to follow the oracle of Apollo, that would impel him to risk his life to abet a war. We lack an understanding of the elements of his personality which would allow for the radical turnaround from ardent wandering poet to deceitful determined warrior. Further exploration by the playwright would be beneficial.
Leaving aside the character development of Solon, the women in this play are portrayed as resolute, dedicated to serving the Double Goddess, diligently working to revive the cult of the Mysteries after the too-long hiatus brought on by the disruptions of an exhausting war. They are so focused on this mission, that they tend to be mostly archetypal. The cult of the mother Goddess is disparaged by the men, as well as by the female Python, Oracle of Apollo:
“I won’t do the snake dance again.
I’m clean of the snake. It’s a goddess rite,
As old as the women’s mysteries.
It’s a lie to people of clear mind.”
Despite the machinations and maneuvers of Solon, the last word is given to a woman, in the persona of the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Queen of the Underworld. The ending is oracular and devastating. I would love to see a full scale production of this play – the verse flowed well from scene to scene, alternating smoothly between lyricism, discourse, and action and the subject matter is well-handled and inherently fascinating.
Guest reviewer, S. A. Holland lives in the Hudson Valley. She studied ancient Greek language, literature and history while at Princeton. During her time there she was the producer of Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” in ancient Greek. She worked in publishing for several years as an editor, and then began to work in the computer industry as a consultant and technical writer. Currently she writes poetry in Filip Marinovich’s writing group “Motley College” at Page Poetry Parlor in Chelsea and regularly keeps up with scholarly works on ancient Greek religion, in addition to running her own business full-time.