January 26, 2014

Jacki O, Lady Mary, and Ariadne

Jackie: America's Ariadne
What's that you say? Stop mumbling and speak up. You say you aren't very interested in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos because the title makes it sound dry and academic?

Oh, I see. I get it. Greek mythology is a big yawn, right? You barely remember your high school unit on the subject. You cobbled together a paper using Cliff's Notes, crammed for the final exam the night before and promptly forgot whatever you managed to learn soon after.

Greek mythology: a bunch of stories about some war that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago and a bunch of lame gods and goddesses. Snore-time. Who cares?

Actually, those who dive head-first into the lore of mythology quickly learn that it's pretty juicy stuff: blood-lust, vengeance, sex, gory battle scenes -

But for Americans hooked on Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and other examples of contemporary epic storytelling, Ariadne probably isn't a very alluring figure. Let me see if I can kindle your interest and tempt you to get to know this lady.

But the truth is - you already know her. You may even be her.

There's a reason that Ariadne has been the subject of hundreds of art works, including multiple operas, ballets, paintings, and so on. As the curtain rises on Strauss's depiction, Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover Theseus. She is unable to recover from her grief, spending all her days weeping and praying for death. But upon the arrival of Bacchus, the god of revelry, she finds herself reborn with new love.

There are two fundamental aspects of Ariadne's story that connect her to every living person.

1) She is the embodiment of grief and lost love; the overwhelming grief that can paralyze us and render us unable to get on with our lives. And

2) She experiences the transformative experience of being rescued from her paralysis by a new love; of becoming a new creature..

Bacchus, a.k.a. Aristotle Onassis
Librettist Hugo von Hofsmannsthal used the term "allomatic transformation" to describe Ariadne's encounter with the god Bacchus. Now there's a term you don't hear every day. I recommend that you work it into
a conversation at your next swanky cocktail party or staff meeting; it'll make you sound WAY erudite. Never mind that "allomatic" sounds like some handy kitchen device

The gist of an allomatic transformation is that it does not arise from anything you do yourself; you remain passive, being transformed by another party. For example, say you lose 60 pounds by cutting out sweets and running four miles a day: well, you did that yourself. Not allomatic. But if Jenny Craig herself shows up at your front door, throws away your stash of chocolate bars and chains you to a treadmill, NOW we're talking allomatic. Plus a lawsuit, probably; there are laws against chaining people to things.

But you'll be surprised by how many Ariadnes you've seen in literature and film, as well as examples from real life you'll also find familiar. Really, we all know this character. Here are two examples that make pretty good modern versions:

  • Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. To the dismay of many fans, Mary's husband Matthew was killed off at the end of Season Three. As you know if you're a regular viewer, Season Four began with Mary floating around the family mansion like the walking dead (oops - wrong TV show...). Wallowing in grief to the point of detaching from life itself, it took a verbal slap in the face from Carson the butler to force her to wake up and think of the future again. But from recent history, there's an even better example:
  • Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Jackie almost makes a better Ariadne than Ariadne herself. JFK is cast in the role of the Theseus who abandoned her. With television news cameras rolling, the entire world bore witness as she became the most famous grieving widow in history. The remarkable, almost mythological development was her allomatic transformation into the glamorous jet-set trophy wife of billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Her own private Greek God! Why in the world has no one ever made an opera out of Jackie's life?!
Here are a few other examples of fictional Ariadnes, including one who does NOT fit the bill, lest you mistakenly assume to the contrary:
  • George Bailey, grieving over his percieved failures, is transformed by Clarence the Angel in It's a Wonderful Life.
  • Mr. Banks is transformed into a loving father by Mary Poppins.
  • Eliza Doolittle is transformed from the paralysis of poverty into an elegant lady by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.
  • The Beast is transformed from a paralyzing curse by the love of Beauty.
  • Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are each transformed from living corpses (Hello, Lady Mary!) by kisses from their respective handsome princes.
  • In the wonderful film Driving Miss Daisy, the title heroine is transformed by her friendship with Hoke.
  • Susan Walker, the little girl played by Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street is transformed from an affectless little robot into a happy child by Kris Kringle.
  • And for one more example from real life, consider Helen Keller's transformation from the paralysis of her physical limitations into an educated, functioning woman by Annie Sullivan.
  • And who is the "UN-Ariadne"? That would be Cio-Cio-san of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Yes, she is abandoned by Lt. Pinkerton, but she does not grieve for him. She obstinately believes he'll return despite all evidence to the contrary. And unlike Ariadne, she really does find death rather than transformational love.
See? You're an EXPERT on the subject of Ariadne, and you didn't even know it.

And perhaps... just perhaps... you yourself have suffered loss, be it the loss of a friend or a lover or spouse or family member or career; anything that left you unable to function. By a certain age, most of us have dealt with our losses. And most of us found our way out, as the gods intend for us. More power to us if we find the strength within ourselves to manufacture our own personal transformations. Greek gods? They're like taxi cabs - you can't always find one when you need one.

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