Zeus is a new play I’m developing, first commissioned by the San Francisco Olympians Festival which produced a staged reading on December 20th, 2012.
In this piece, the ruler of the universe travels the Earth knocking up women and seeking existential redemption, using a mélange of texts from Sophocles and Top 40 pop songs.
When I started writing, I only knew two things would be in the play– one was an certain answer, and one was a open question. One: Zeus looked like Helen Mirren. If you could transform and take any shape you wanted, what would you want to look like? Helen Mirren. Obviously. So that’s what Zeus looks like. Answer. Certain. Two: What’s the story with Zeus’s amorous feelings for humanity? A question. Unclear. Unexplained. From his vantage point in the clouds, the humans down on Earth must seem like tiny, meaningless ants. So, why is Zeus always swooping down to get his game on with some human woman? What’s sexy about an ant?
I started thinking about what (if anything) makes humanity wonderful… and you know what explains it a little? Sophocles’ beautiful choral poem, the “Ode to Man,” from Antigone. It is (in part) about how humanity is wonderful because we’re scrappy, independent, and punk. We’re the only race that doesn’t depend on the Gods for survival– in fact, humanity “wears away the oldest of the Gods” by plowing the Earth to make our farms and cities. We were given forests and lakes and everything, but we said “This isn’t really right for us, we’re gonna want fire and tools and language and a postal service and nail salons– so, thanks for all this, Gods, but we’ll do what we want.”
The Gods give us nature… and we destroy nature, tear everything apart, and use the raw materials to build a new human world, one that’s more to our liking. Of course, we don’t rule over nature completely– we still die– but boy, do we put up a good fight.
We’re clever and rude and arrogant, yet vulnerable and mortal– like James Dean. No wonder Zeus found us pretty sexy.
I started seeing Sophocles’ beautiful choral poem as a spine for the piece. I looked at several translations of the Ode to Man, started making my own, and then realized that wouldn’t be enough– screwing around with the Sophocles made me immediately see this would be a remix play.
If the most wonderful and terrible thing about humans is that we destroy what the Gods give us, that we dismantle the given world and rebuild it to our liking… then the best (only?) way to tell that story is in a play that ruthlessly destroys and remakes everything in its path, dismantling and rebuilding human culture; a re-imagining of found texts, ancient to contemporary, highbrow and lowbrow.
Suddenly, canto after canto came bursting forward– the dominant voices of young women in our time whispered into my ear and came out of my mouth– the Ke$ha section, the Britney Spears section– and the play was seriously cooking.
I thought it would be fun to gather source materials and inspirations here, as a way of paying tribute to the originals and as a way of sharing my process.
“Ode to Man” performed in the original language:
There’s also a Google group where some nerds after my own heart are collecting different translations of the Ode to Man:
Here are four pretty cool translations of the Ode to Man.
Then there’s the Anne Carson version of the Ode to Man, which is a whole other bag of radness.
Then, there are the pop songs:
“Tik-Tok” by Ke$ha:
“Tik-Tok” cover by Ally, in American Sign Language (I LOVE this):
“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, original version:
“Call Me Maybe” cover by President Barack Obama:
A bunch of National Public Radio hosts & reporters even did a spoken word version of Call Me Maybe, which you can listen to online.
Then there’s a live “Call Me Maybe” cover with Jepsen and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon singing, and The Roots on toy instruments, which went viral just as the song’s ubiquity was starting to wane:
“… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears:
“…Baby One More Time” cover by the Scottish band Travis. The lead singer has said they first covered the song “for a laugh” but “as we played it, the irony slipped from my smile.” Their heartfelt, downtempo cover became something of a signature:
Our gods are no longer Zeus and Hera. Now that we’ve remade the earth, taken it away from nature and created it anew as a manufactured landscape of civilizations, a non-natural place, we must remake it again into a world where we (who are still natural creatures) can survive and connect. To me, that means joyfully taking a plow to the sacred commercial mainstream and planting something new.
I love the way that artists like Neal Medlyn and the rest of the Our Hit Parade crew in NYC manage to take what can feel like the most synthetic, manufactured aspects of pop culture and infuse those “texts” with sincere emotion, with genuine experience. Have you ever watched people falling in real love on a real date at a McDonalds? It happens every day. You can see this everywhere– this human tenacity, this ability to make real life happen in a plastic landscape. This is, to me, part of what Sophocles is talking about when he talks about what humans do– we yoke the beasts to carry our burdens, we flip the bird at the gods, and we take any landscape and make it into what we need. To do this, we must have come from the powerful Gods who made the world in the first place– we must have some of the strength of Zeus running in our veins. My play is the story of how he gave us that strength.