November 13, 2017

Puccini's "Girl": Three operas in one act!

Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato,
the original Minnie and Rance
Milton Berle, the famous mid-20th century practitioner and scholar of comedy, once declared that there are three basic jokes. All jokes, he maintained, were variations of one of those seminal three.

Perhaps it works that way with story-telling as well; specifically, perhaps it works that way for opera libretti. At the very least, certain characters and certain scenarios appear to pop up in the repertoire time and again:
  • wily servants outwitting their pompous masters (Thanks, commedia dell'arte!)
  • tales of vengeance in which both the avenger and his/her target come to ruin
and so on. But since Virginia Opera is currently mounting Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, I'll focus on that with a startling observation.

The formal structure of act II of Girl combines the structures of the second acts of Puccini's two previous operas: Madama Butterfly and Tosca.

That's odd, seeing as how the composer's options were limited. After all, he was more or less bound by the nature of his source material, David Belasco's 1905 Broadway play. Yet, the similarities with the other operas are clearly present. Here's what I mean.

  • Act II of Butterfly begins with Suzuki, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a Buddhist prayer with a monotonous vocal line as the orchestra toggles back and forth in whole steps.
  • Act II of Girl opens with Wowkle, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a lullaby with a monotonous vocal line that toggles back and forth in whole steps.
  • Cio-cio-san, having spotted Pinkerton's ship in the harbor, is full of joyous anticipation of his return. She and Suzuki prepare for his arrival by decorating their little house with flower petals.But when Pinkerton arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: he's married to another woman.
  • Minnie, having invited Dick Johnson to her cabin, is full of joyous anticipation. She and Wowkle prepare for his arrival by setting out cookies and cream. But when Dick arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: Minnie learns that another woman has been his lover. (She also learns that he's a criminal, but it's the revelation of Mexican harlot Nina Micheltorena that breaks her heart.)
  • In Tosca, Baron Scarpia (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Tosca, but she rejects his advances.
  • In Girl, Jack Rance (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Minnie, but she rejects his advances.
  • Scarpia physically injures Cavaradossi (Tosca's lover) by subjecting him to torture
  • Rance physically injures Johnson by shooting him.
  • Tosca attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Scarpia: she will yield her body to him in exchange for Cavaradossi's life
  • Minnie attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Rance via a game of poker. If he wins, she will yield her body to him - as well as turning over Johnson to him.
Weird, isn't it? Obviously, the question arises: was Puccini aware of these parallels? Well, he wasn't an idiot; I don't see how could have failed to make the connection. That leads to the next question: was this a deliberate ploy? In other words, did the composer think "Hey, these plot twists were dynamite in the last two shows; I think I'll recycle 'em for this one"?

That's trickier. Puccini's dead; I can't interview him to confirm his thinking. And nothing in his published letters discusses these plot connections.

Again, the entire sequence of baritone-injures-lover-leading-lady-offers-body-to-save-him is dictated by Belasco's melodrama.

This is why I believe there are certain seminal essential plots in story-telling that recur over and over. Puccini may simply have happened to re-utilize these particular elements in close proximity.

Finally, lest you think I have failed to notice it, we must differentiate one important distinction between Scarpia and Rance: Scarpia was a liar who did NOT keep his end of Tosca's bargain. Whatever we think of Sheriff Rance, he at least had enough of a code of honor to keep his promise. The result? The rare Italian operatic drama in which no one dies! O meraviglia! O gioia! Addio, California!

November 4, 2017

Puccini's Minnie: a different kind of diva

Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson:
Conflict begets immortality
As pointed out in last week's post, the Act I orchestral prelude to Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West functions as a thumbnail of the entire opera. Two contrasting themes (A and B) are heard twice each. A is meant to depict the harsh physical environment of the California wilderness; the chaos of rough-and-ready frontier justice in which men were lynched without due process; and (in general terms) sin and spiritual darkness. B, on the other hand, stands for order, hope and redemption. The prelude ends with the theme of Ramerrez.

What we're meant to infer is this: the opera's focus will be on the redemption of Ramerrez, whose "secret identity" is the American Dick Johnson, via the love of a virtuous woman, namely Minnie (the "Girl" of the title). The implied duality of the A and B themes define Ramerrez, as we shall see. The result is a curious musical imbalance in the treatment of the two main characters.

Operatic music is at its most compelling and memorable when its characters are facing some sort of adversity. They must be tortured; desperate; conflicted - THAT'S the soil from which musical immortality blossoms.

With this in mind, it's apparent that, while Minnie is in several respects a great role, the unusual nature of her character deprives her of great arias. Puccini had simply never created a character like Minnie before. (Yes, I know, she was "created" by David Belasco. I mean, of course, Minnie as a musical "creation".) Think about it:
  • Manon Lescaut was deeply conflicted between her love for a poor boy and her desire for a life of wealth and privilege. She is assigned two sure-fire applause-getting arias: "In quelle trine morbide", and her death scene, "Sola, perduta, abbandonata".
  • Mimi was dying; doomed by tuberculosis. Her beloved arias include "Mi chiamono Mimi" and "Addio senza rancor" Big ovations are standard.
  • Tosca was tormented by pathological jealousy and a hair-trigger temper. Audiences eat up her great outpouring of torment, "Vissi d'arte".
  • Cio-cio-san was rejected by her family and abandoned by her husband; even people who don't care much about opera know "Un bel di".
Minnie, on the other hand, is a big, healthy, happy American tomboy. Minnie's "as corny as Kansas in August", Minnie's "as normal as blueberry pie". And this affects her solos. 

Understand me: Minnie doesn't lack for great vocal moments or compelling dramatic moments. But her two solos are "Laggiu nel Soledad" in Act I and "Oh se sapeste" in Act II.

Ever heard of those? Unless you're a true opera maven, probably not. And these solos have no life on the concert or recital stage; they are only heard in the context of a complete production of the opera. The issue here is two-fold: 
  1. Minnie isn't conflicted. The first aria is a warm reminiscence of her parents' happy marriage; the second aria is a rhapsodic description of her happy (there's that word again...) life in the mountains with her pony and fields of flowers, etc. etc. The arias are charming; well-crafted; pleasing; even beautiful. But they are NOT the kind of material that produces gooseflesh or tears or the lump in the throat.
  2. Puccini had been studying Wagner and Richard Strauss in recent years, particularly Parsifal and Salome. Their influence is strongly heard in Girl of the Golden West. Minnie's arias are not set-pieces designed to elicit an ovation from the audience. Unlike "Vissi d'arte", they have no traditional structure like verse-refrain or ABA, providing listeners with repeated, recognizable tunes. And they lack a "button" at the end; indeed, like his German models, Puccini took care to see that all solos are immediately followed by dialogue, snuffing out the opportunity for an ovation. Minnie also seems to echo the persona of several Wagnerian heroines beginning with Senta: the "Eternal Feminine" who provides redemption to a hero. 
But don't feel sorry for this gun-totin', whiskey-drinkin' card-playin' gal. The role rises to its own kind of heights, both vocal and dramatic:
  • The love duet with Johnson in Act II is the stuff dear to a Puccini-lover's heart;
  • The end of Act II, from the wounding of Ramerrez through the poker game, calls for acting chops of Meryl Streep dimensions. Minnie cannot stand in place and warble prettily! This scene demands an actress who will commit to a roller-coaster of larger-than-life emotional states; an actress who will "go for it".
  • Finally, the Act III scene in which Minnie pleads for her lover's life is a fabulous solo with chorus that rises to an impressive climax. It's just that this material relies on the backdrop of the miners and cannot be excised out of the complete opera for concert performance.
If it's compelling, passionate solos you want, solos reflecting drama born of conflict and torment, then I refer you to our hero, Ramerrez/Dick. He's a thief, but comes to feel ashamed of his past. In addition, he embodies the racial tensions that beset Gold Rush country in the late 1840's following the end of the Mexican-American war. He has a dual identity: Mexican and American, each struggling to dominate. His passion and shame and conflicted nature is transmitted viscerally in Act I's "Quello che tacete"; his confessional monologue of Act II; and his famous aria "Ch'ella mi creda" in Act III. That aria, by the way, is often heard in recital and concert; it's a retro stand-alone show-piece.

Minnie's moments of desperation are situational and temporary; they aren't an inherent, organic element of her personality. Dick is the character who is a "hot mess"; accordingly, his are the solos that generate heat. 

Finally, take note of the opposing directions of the two character arcs:
  • Dick Johnson is on an ascending spiritual journey. As the scenes unfold, he becomes more and more virtuous;
  • Minnie, on the other hand, gradually descends from her original plateau of high moral virtue. This all-American girl, a Bible teacher who has never been kissed, hides a criminal from the posse seeking to bring him to justice. She lies to the Sheriff repeatedly to protect that criminal. And, worst of all, she cheats at cards to gain his safety, knowing that such cheating is a capital offense in her tight-knit community. She is LOSING virtue simultaneously with Dick's steady moral GAIN. 
And you and I root for her! What a girl.....

October 29, 2017

Two "Golden West" motifs; one born of the Gold Rush

Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens with a big orchestral flourish leading to a sustained chord. The chord is harmonically unstable; it doesn't establish a key. It's followed by a sequence in which that same chord crashes along in descending motion:
This passage is immediately followed by the same three bars transposed a fourth lower, further muddying any sense of tonality. The effect?


And that is precisely what the composer intends. These chaotic, tonally unhinged chords, the beginning of a seventy-second orchestral prelude, form one of the principal motifs in the opera, a motif that will be heard throughout the drama. Puccini crafted it to convey a sense of the untamed wilderness in which he set his opera: the mountainous region of the California Gold Rush.

As mentioned in last week's post, the men who came to the California territory in 1848, lured by reports of gold nuggets just waiting to be picked up out of riverbeds, faced an arduous and lonely existence. With no transcontinental railway, it could take months of perilous journeying to arrive. The recent Mexican-American War left a simmering stew of racial tensions in an uneasy society of Americans, Mexicans and Native American tribesmen. Law and order was of the rough-and-ready variety; we've all seen Westerns depicting claim-jumpers and thieves with "gold fever" (a term employed by Sheriff Jack Rance in the opera). And the weather was not the balmy paradise of Southern California; the blizzard in Puccini's second act is no exaggeration. To make things worse, once a gold miner made it to Gold Country, he was pretty much stuck there indefinitely, Fine if he had a profitable claim, tedious if he, like many, only broke even, and a likely death sentence for those who lost money.

Everything described in the paragraph above is what Puccini meant in those opening bars. In them, we hear the howling of mountain storms, the ruggedness of the terrain, the chaos of lawlessness and even the isolation and loneliness of the men. For example, the orchestra quietly murmurs the motif when Jim Larkens breaks down, sobbing that he wants to leave and go home in Act 1.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, "that's not all"!

Puccini also extends its meaning to include the spiritual chaos of the human heart. Thus, we hear it when Minnie, teaching a lesson on Psalm 51, explains to her "ragazzi" that no sinner is beyond redemption. We hear it again when, in Act II, Minnie allows Dick Johnson to be the first man to kiss her, the motif in this case describing Minnie as she gives in to the emotional "chaos" of her first romance as well as Dick's awareness that he is living a lie and thus unworthy of her.

But back to our example! In the prelude, the chaos/wilderness motif is immediately followed by another motif. This one is the opposite both in directionality and implied meaning. Ascending higher and higher, it stands for order in place of chaos and redemption in place of spiritual chaos (or, in Dick's case, his guilt and sin).

This motif, too, will be heard continually in the opera, the yang to the earlier motif's yin. Notably, Dick will sing it when making his confession to Minnie in Act II; the miners and Minnie will sing it as they capitulate to Minnie as she pleads for Dick's life in the opera's final scene.

The Prelude states both motifs in succession twice before concluding with a new idea; a jazzy latin dance rhythm:
This, it will become clear, is the theme of Dick's alter ego, the bandit Ramerrez. Thus, the Act I prelude becomes a sort of thumbnail summary of the entire work, making it clear that the focus of The Girl of the Golden West will be Johnson's redemption and the resolution of his dual nature.

As we'll observe in my next post, this will heavily shape the nature of the vocal writing in Puccini's American opera and how audiences have come to perceive the two main characters.

October 23, 2017

Puccini's "Girl": the convoluted history of a melody

In Act I of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, the miner’s poker games are interrupted by the arrival of the camp minstrel, Jake Wallace. Jake sings the opera’s first real vocal solo, a nostalgic song with chorus called “Che farrano i vecchi miei” (What will my old folks do). The miners are touched by this song, one heavy with nostalgia for family and home. Remember: going to the California Gold Rush territory was an arduous challenge. This was undeveloped wilderness accessible only by overland stage (a journey filled with dangers of many types) or by sea. Once there, gold-seekers were stuck in a harsh physical environment with few comforts. Homesickness was common, a phenomenon Jake exploits in his solo.

A member of the Zuni tribe, 1903
In it’s opening strains, one could be forgiven for assuming that Puccini had adapted a song from the Stephen Foster catalogue, Italian words notwithstanding. In fact, the David Belasco stage play on which Puccini based the opera actually did use various Foster songs, similarly nostalgic ballads like “Old Dog Tray” and “Camptown Races”. While in New York to oversee rehearsals for the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, Puccini is said to have received a lot of unsolicited advice from well-meaning Americans unfamiliar with Italian opera: “Mr. Puccini, if you want this-here opera to have an authentic American sound, you should stick in some good old American numbers like "My Old Kentucky Home" – people like that one!” I’m sure Puccini smiled as tolerantly as he could manage. Following the first performances, many critics leapt to the assumption that Jake Wallace’s song was an adaptation of Foster. It's almost understandable, given that Jake's tune has a simple, artless singability not far removed from Foster classics like "Swanee River":

The truth is that “Che farrano” has a much different origin, as was revealed by the scholar Allan W. Atlas in a 1991 article in Musical Quarterly, "Belasco and Puccini: 'Old Dog Tray' and the Zuni Indians".

Once he decided to make an opera of Belasco’s play, Puccini asked his close friend and confidante Sybil Seligman to procure a collection of authentic American Indian tunes. His previous work, Madama Butterfly (also from a Belasco play!), had successfully incorporated a number of Japanese folk tunes. The composer felt such material was vital to convey a sense of time and place to his scenarios. Seligman’s samples included a transcription of a “Festive Sun Dance” from the Zuni Indian Tribe. As notated and translated by Carlos Troyer, this is the excerpt that caught Puccini’s eye: The contour of Jake’s vocal line is clearly seen.

Puccini doubtless considered his use of an authentic Native American tune to be a gesture of respect to an alien culture. Through the prism of 21st-century values, however, our notions of respect for diverse cultures have led us to regard his gesture as problematic.

For one thing, the Zuni tribe was located in Arizona, not California; lumping all "American Indians" into an interchangeable single group without respect to geography is less than respectful. For another, the original melody has been transformed by Western harmonic procedures, adding a sophisticated European sensuousness at odds with the original. And finally, the reality is that the first performance of the opera on December 10, 1910 featured an Italian bass - in blackface! - portraying an American singing a Zuni tribal tune.

Yikes. The blackface element was soon abandoned, but the conflicting messages remained.

But 1910 was a different era, with notions of political correctness in an embryonic stage of development. Jim Crow laws were still in play, and the women’s suffrage movement would not secure the right to vote for another decade. Puccini’s transformation of a Native American hymn to the Zuni sun god is just another, if stirringly beautiful, example of the early 20th-century struggle to treat every sector of human society with equal dignity. In 2017 we need to be cautious about being too judgemental of Puccini's choices. Can we say that we've succeeded in treating every sector of human society with equal dignity?

September 19, 2017

What the ending of Samson and Delilah tells us

I know I said I was done with posts about Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, but I took a few days off, the production's opening night in Norfolk is just ten days away, our next show is not here until late November, and........

..........there's more to say.

Dagon. His temple? Rubble.
I wish to focus on the end of the opera. (SPOILER ALERT: Samson knocks down the Philistines' temple of Dagon, it crushes everyone and they all die. Including, possibly, random orchestra members.)

How do we characterize this ending? It's a bit simplistic to say that opera endings are either happy or tragic, but they tend to skew one way or the other. In fact, it will be fascinating, in coming posts, to consider the supposedly "happy" ending of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West - that happens to be a problematic ending.

But back to Samson. On the one hand, if we could interview Samson moments after he pushed those pillars, just before everything went black, he would pronounce himself highly satisfied. "Hey", he might affirm, "I atoned for my weakness, I punished that evil wench Delilah, I salvaged something from the series of bad decisions I made, and I accomplished God's will: freeing the Israelites. What's wrong with that? I'm good. Bye, now."

So - happy? Because Justice was done?

Compare this finale to that of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Like Delilah, the Don richly deserves the fate in store for him. He's a liar, a seducer and a murderer, and he's unrepentant about all of it. Cue the demons, cue the flames, drag his worthless carcass down to Hades.

BUT - that's not the end of the opera! There follows an epilogue in which the other principal characters assemble to reflect on what has happened. Now freed from Giovanni's villainy, they plan their individual futures and remind us in the audience that bad people always get what's coming to them. They say all of this happily! Da Ponte's libretto has them assert "ripetiam allegramente l'antichissima canzon" (We HAPPILY repeat this old, old song").

Never mind that Mozart's genius has screwed with us, manipulating into liking Giovanni more than we should, and making us mindful that, in spite of everything, we miss him. Officially, this epilogue firmly places the opera's ending in the hippy-hoppy-happy category.

With Mozart in mind, I find it a bit troubling that Saint-Saëns did NOT append a similar epilogue to Samson. Wouldn't it have been natural to end the opera with a scene of the now-liberated Hebrew people rejoicing at the end of their enslavement? For an opera that often sounds like an oratorio anyway, why not conclude with a joyful chorus in which everyone agrees that, while ol' Samson may have let them down in the past, he sure did step up and do the right thing in the end.

YAY, SAMSON! We're FREE! No more bad times, no more enslavement - it's MILK & HONEY, BABY!

But that doesn't happen. No epilogue to tell us that we just saw a happy ending.

And that strikes me as significant.

For one thing, consider the Israeli people. If you know anything about the Old Testament, or Jewish history, this was far from the end of hard times for God's chosen people. The saga of the Hebrews is one of pendulum swings from extremes of being in Jehovah's favor to being persecuted.

Heck, the nations surrounding modern-day Israel STILL wouldn't mind if they were wiped off the face of the earth.

So Samson's final act functions as his redemption, but it's FAR from guaranteeing his compatriots a blissful future. And, pardon me, but I find nothing intrinsically "happy" in the deaths of three thousand people (that stat is courtesy of the Book of Judges), even if they were slave masters worshiping a false idol. They were human beings.

The opera ends in violence; only the swift dropping of the curtain spares us the sight of the dead and dying. There's no one left to sing about what just happened; the Hebrew people, we gather, sneak away from Gaza to an uncertain status.

I'm calling it: the ending is tragic. Justice? Yes. Happy? No.

September 10, 2017

How my stage career nearly began as The Friendly Eagle

There, but for the grace of God....
After five posts on Samson and Delilah, I'm not quite ready to plunge into a series of essays on Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, coming to Virginia in late November. Soon, but first a short break.

In the meantime, allow me to relate a really weird performing-arts-related memory from my early days in Virginia. It's a tale of how my career on the stage nearly got off to a TRULY unlikely start.

I've been fortunate enough to be cast in some memorably great roles: Mozart's Count Almaviva; Sondheim's Sweeney Todd; Rossini's Don Magnifico; Mecham's Tartuffe; and others. But today I will describe the role that wasn't to be:

The Friendly Eagle.

It was 1976. I had just completed my Master's in piano from Indiana University's School of Music. My parents had retired from Evanston Illinois to Williamsburg, so I traveled there to spend the summer and figure out an answer to the existential question "NOW WHAT?"

The immediate problem was the matter of a summer job. Williamsburg is a tourist town, so it's not that difficult to find work in the summer months. I hit the bricks, filling out applications here and there, and working the phones as well.

One of those phone calls was to the gigantic theme park off Route 60: Busch Gardens. Spread over some 380 acres of heavily-wooded land near the James River in James City County, the park is known for spectacular roller coasters and draws up to three million visitors a year.

A return phone call brought good news: I had an interview for employment! Yay! I was given the building and room number where I was to report. I wore a freshly-pressed shirt and sharply-creased trousers and made my way to the enormous complex with a parking lot so large that shuttle busses conveyed the public from its farthest reaches to the gate.

I anticipated a typical interview en route to a job pushing a broom or making hamburgers. Arriving at the appointed place at the appointed time, I joined a group of five or six other aspiring employees, all of us unsure what was happening. Was this going to be a group interview??

Suddenly, the door burst open and in strode a man of beefy physique. Heavily tanned, he wore a Hawaiian shirt open at the chest. Heavy gold chains hung around his thick neck. He had the air of a Hollywood producer; all that was missing was a pair of sun glasses. He launched into his spiel:

"Good morning, people, how are we doing this fine sunny morning?" he boomed, all extroverted hail-fellow-well-met. With astounding energy, he continued: "Here at The Old Country (that's what the park was called back then) we're looking for real PEOPLE PERSONS. Is each of you a people person? How about you, Glenn? (He seemed to know our names.)

I allowed as to how yes, I was a people person.

"I could tell that by looking at you, Glenn, good for you. Now folks, this here audition we're about to begin..."

Audition? For a fast-food job? What?

"...this here audition will give you a chance to show your ability to think fast and really get into character."

Get into character? WHAT WAS HAPPENING?

He locked eyes with me. "Glenn, here's what I want you to do, my friend. What would it look like if you were an egg frying in a pan? Ready? Aaaaand... GO!"

Improv. We were all going to do improve to get our summer jobs.

I resisted the urge to say aloud what I was thinking, namely: "There's been a mistake. I just want to push a broom or flip burgers." But an inner voice warned against rocking the boat, so the following little scene ensued:

I lay down on the floor, flat on my back, with my arms outstretched, as if the "white" of my "egg" had spread out on the skillet that was the carpeting. Awkwardly, I began flopping around, vaguely simulating my concept of the egg bubbling over what was obviously too high a temperature for a properly-cooked egg. It lasted about ten seconds.

Ten incredibly long, incredibly lame seconds.

"Okay, GLENN!" boomed Cecil B. DeMille encouragingly. I was done. I could leave. "Oh well", I thought, "there's always McDonald's". I left the park, still not knowing what the HELL that had all been about.

The next day, the phone rang. I'd been hired! And then I learned what the job entailed. In those days, the park had costumed characters who wandered the grounds. greeting children, patting them on the head and posing for pictures. My character: the "Friendly Eagle". The photo above will give you an idea of the nature of the "role" in which I had been "cast". Wow - an ACTING GIG!

Kind of.

Did I take the job? Are you crazy? Would YOU spend an eight-hour shift wearing an eagle costume in the 100-degree heat and humidity of a southeastern Virginia summer? That's a ticket to suffering on a scale hitherto unknown to me; I'd led a pretty sheltered life.

Instead I got a job as a security guard at another tourist trap in the village of Lightfoot; a huge outdoor mall known as the Williamsburg Pottery.

Some pretty good stories about that job, actually, but not for this blog because it lacked even the tangential connection to "performing arts" that I'm pretending was found in the Friendly Eagle.

Somehow, I doubt that James Levine ever went through things like this.........

September 4, 2017

Samson: when history blurs with mythology

"Dying Hercules", by Samuel Morse
Yes, the same guy who invented Morse code!
This is hardly the platform in which to engage in religious debate, so let's don't, okay? That said, what are we to make of the Old Testament in general, and the story of Samson in the Book of Judges in particular?

Or, to get right to the point, is Samson; the leader of the Hebrews against the Philistines; the man who defeated an army by himself with a jawbone as his weapon; who killed a lion with his bare hands; who was betrayed by Delilah and taken into captivity; who destroyed the Temple of Dagon by pushing to pillars; ............ he a historical person? Was he real?

That's a broad and complex question for a single post, but I'll try to shed some light, based on research I've been doing.

First off, we must take into account that ancient biographical writings do not conform to our modern notion of a "biography"; that is, a completely accurate narration of every aspect of the subject's life, whether flattering or not, and supported by documentary evidence - letters, records, and the like.

If history could be condensed into a single year, that concept of biography would have been present only since, say, 11:50 PM on December 31. For centuries, biographies were written with agendas in mind other than a factual, warts-and-all accounting. Lives of religious figures were written to attract new believers; lives of kings, emperors and the like were created to be a glorious commemoration.  A king's biography was unlikely to mention that he beat his mistress or burned a rival at the stake without a trial.

The first example of a "modern" biography involving diligent research and documentary elements was The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, published in 1791. While more rigorous in its pursuit of honest narration, it still reflects the overall purpose of presenting its subject as a "great man". The "great man" agenda has become less prevalent as the decades have rolled on, though throwback tributary biographies still pop up. White-washed laudatory biographies of political candidates, hastily assembled and published on the cheap, are a notable example.

So - about Samson?

Samson is classified as one of the "judges" of the ancient Israelites. The term is distinct from a "king"; the monarchal era of Hebrew history began with the anointing of King David, estimated to have happened around 1055 B.C. A judge, for the purposes of the Old Testament, is not a courtroom figure, but rather a military figure; a champion to lead the Hebrews out of whatever bondage they were suffering at any given time. Samson is reckoned to have been active from 1154-1124 B.C.

It's certainly the case that no punches are pulled in the Book of Judges when it comes to including unflattering details of his life. He certainly comes across as a "bad boy": he's rash and impetuous; he's violent; he consorts with prostitutes; he gives into temptation, allowing his sacred vows to be broken; he's a hot mess.

But again, there is an agenda at work in this portrait, one which utilizes Samson's flaws to make a point. It's a point made time and time again in the Old Testament in the stories of Moses, David the shepherd boy, Jonah, and many others. And the point is this: God uses weak, imperfect and unlikely people to enact His will. Stories like Jonah the Reluctant Prophet, Moses the Inarticulate Leader, David the Underdog Giant-killer and Samson the Morally Corrupt Hero are intended to inspire readers (supposedly ordinary themselves) to realize "I, too, can accomplish great things if I have faith!"

Some Jewish scholars have argued for Samson's historical existence; others accept his story as myth. Rabbinic literature identifies him as "Bedin", indicating he was descended from the tribe of Dan. The name "Samson" appears to be symbolic, as it literally means "Sun", indicating he had a god-like status.

I learned that the Talmud contains an attempt to identify an historical Samson, providing the name of his mother and other family members. But most people of the Talmudic period are said to have though of Samson as a mythic figure. Here's why:
  • Rabbinical literature offers details not found in the Bible, including that Samson, though he had lame feet, could go from one city to another in a single stride; that his strength was such that he could lift two mountains and rub them together like two clumps of dirt; that when he was thirsty, God would cause a waterfall to spring out of his teeth; and so on.
  • Many of Samson's exploits sound suspiciously similar to Heracles, a corresponding hero of Greek Mythology (or Hercules, as he's also called). As one example, Heracles' feats also included killing a lion, apparently a required test of aspiring super-heroes.
  • Like Samson, Heracles was betrayed by a woman. In his case, it was Deianira.
  • Both Heracles and Samson may have their literary roots in the Mesopotamian figure Enkidu.
Opera lovers will possibly make the connection with Siegmund and Siegfried, the demi-gods of Norse mythology. Replace Samson's donkey jawbone with Siegmunds sword Nothung and we've got a close kinship there.

In more modern times, literary supermen are not lacking: Paul Bunyan may not be a religious figure, but his mighty axe is a fair stand-in for the jawbone. You can probably think of your own candidates, even excluding the vast galaxy of X-men, Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the rest of the cartoonish versions. Modern mythology has turned commercial, Faithful Readers!

Bottom line: in reading books of "ancient wisdom", it's important to separate "truth" from "facts". The "wisdom" of "ancient wisdom" has to do with imparting life-lessons, not teaching literal history. What does Samson teach us? Or, in the larger view, what does the Old Testament want to tell us? As mentioned above, it's that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary achievements and that "bad" people and "weak" people can be responsible for the cause of Goodness and Justice in spite of themselves.

.......Perhaps I should say "in spite of ourselves". Not a bad lesson. Thanks, Samson!