The Tragedy of Orpheus and the Maenads
By David Lane.
Arouca Press, 2023.
Paperback, 118 pages, $14.95.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bittner.
David Lane’s latest work, The Tragedy of Orpheus and the Maenads, is a masterful retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Mr. Lane describes his endeavor as a poetical essay in literary criticism, wherein this tragic love story is used to address Imagism, the literary movement of the twentieth century. This movement relied not on rational modes of poetic discourse, as those found in Romanticism, but rather on stark images formulated in succinct language. It will be much appreciated by the layperson that Lane does so without relying upon the reader’s familiarity of Imagism as a literary mode. This play is a delight to read, in part due to the subject matter itself, but also largely due to Lane’s prodigious talent with traditional language and blank verse. The author’s skill elevates the action of the play and lends appropriate gravity to his version of Orpheus.
When we meet Orpheus, he has abandoned city and society in order to grieve his deceased wife, Eurydice. His determination upon grief is total and unyielding. Once a renowned poet, beloved by the gods, whose words uplifted and inspired, bestowed meaning and knowledge, while promoting harmony, Orpheus now claims his transcendent purpose to be tears for Eurydice. His own mother, a muse, and even Apollo himself, are unsuccessful in their bid to draw Orpheus back to Thrace. His grief is buttressed by defensive indignation that rejects any suggestion of a cessation to his agony. “For lavishing / Of tears upon her tomb, his dazzled eyne / Have made the world around, or living minds / Or deeds, a swimming unreality / By him to blank oblivion consigned.” Grief is his god; solitude his only desire.
In placing sentiment above reason, Orpheus assumes a distorted sense of importance regarding his poetic ability. He believes his craft to be beyond assailment. This arrogance leads him to underestimate the dangers posed by Dionysius, the young god of wine, and his drunken sycophants, the maenads. As Orpheus refuses the kindhearted entreaties of the muses, so too does he spurn the invitation of the maenads. He has relinquished the post of the poet and no longer strives for the bold or transcendent. He has, in short, made himself a fool, so much so that even the blind sage Tiresias can clearly see it. “Play not the rash-brained dunce, but act the sage,” the old man warns the wayward bard, “Or wend thee home or join their happy race.” The choice before Orpheus is clear: Thrace and the company of the living, or the maenads with their ruin-bent ecstasies. Tiresias reveals the common thread between Orpheus and the maenads: “Ye love sensation. Thrills of sadness thou / Wilt chase; ‘tis ecstasies ‘neath reason they / Will madly drive to ground.” Lest Orpheus think himself far above Dionysius’ minions, he is as guilty as they of placing sensation above right reason. He laments the loss of sanity around him, but fails to see how he has vacated reason for mere mood. The ghost of Eurydice has become larger than life for him, the image distorting the reality.
Orpheus claims he has ‘dragonized’ his heart. In using such a powerful word, Lane aptly describes how Orpheus has become a fortress of stone against which others are dashed in their attempts to steal him from his grief. Even the prospect of a gory death at the hands of the maenads does not deter him. Such is the power of feeling unchecked by human interaction and higher purpose. The maenads, unable to befriend Orpheus, are enraged and offended. Dionysius, unperturbed, visits Dis, the god of the Underworld. Offering him wine, Dionysius secures the release of Eurydice and gives her over to the company of the maenads. Plied with the unfamiliar nectar of wine offered by her new companions, Eurydice imbibes to her own misfortune, as well as the demise of her long-lamenting love. Torn asunder at the hands of the crazed band, Orpheus cries out to his wife, “I love thee still, I love thee still.” Lane uses this gruesome death by dismemberment as a metaphor for the lack of harmony and coherence found in Imagism.
Immoderate enjoyment of wine has led to destruction as surely as the immoderate indulgence of grief. Had Orpheus minded the admonitions of the muses, Apollo, or Tiresias, he would not have fallen afoul of the maenads. Had the maenads not succumbed to the allurements of Dionysius and his wine, they would have kept themselves from murder. However, as Lane told us from the beginning, this is a tragic love story. One characteristic of tragedy is that the tragic action is magnified and unstoppable, rushing headlong to its bitter end. Apollo then addresses the maenads: “Suggestion loves to shroud her darkling; much / She lowers at the poet recreant / Would try the cerements of her nemesis, / Bright clarity, she’d keep interred.” He continues: “In arrogance thou dared’st say within / Thy heart, ‘Be banished thought and story both; / Come eremitic image, emblem of / My state of sadness; furl discursion and / The story till I make an image bold.’” The dimming of clarity and the banishment of thought join to form the tragic current running through the action of this play. The ‘image bold’ becomes a god to Orpheus and the maenads both.
This story of Orpheus reveals the immense value of the role of the poet in society. Of this role, Lane has Apollo state at the beginning of the play that, “Man craves to know / There’s more than shearing soil and sything corn, / Than vend and buy i’ the mart.” It is the poet, through his offerings, that gives the mundane meaning and purpose. Without him, the city suffers, as it surely did in Orpheus’s absence. Orpheus believes himself righteous in following his sorrow wherever it may lead, but his neglect of reason has woeful consequences. Lane employs Orpheus’s tragic end to expose the dangers of untoward emotion on the individual level, but also to affirm the importance of rational poetic discourse and traditional language on a wider, cultural level. Something beautiful, enduring, and important is lost when feeling is permitted to ride rampant over order, reason, and narrative. Lane himself is an active participant in preserving and promulgating traditional poetry. His blog, Tradition Restored, seeks to rekindle interest in the twentieth-century writers who upheld traditional forms in poetry and prose, such as Gilbert Murray and Irving Babbitt. Lane maintains that by preserving and encouraging familiarity with these writings, the collapse of Western Civilization may be averted. It certainly is worth the utmost effort.
Lane is ever renewed in his mission by keeping before him the words of fellow classic scholar Gilbert Murray: “The magic of Memory [is] at work … the ‘waker of longing,’ the enchantress who turns the common to the heavenly and fills men’s eyes with tears because the things that are now past were so beautiful.” May the power of Memory continue to inspire and encourage the lovers of tradition everywhere.
Elizabeth Bittner holds a B.A. in Political Science from Thomas More College and a Masters in Humanities from the University of Dallas. She resides in Northern California with her husband and three young children.
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