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The Penelopiad: Listen to The Maids

By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Jan. 11, 2019

Over the past few years, the novels of Margaret Atwood have entered into our current zeitgeist with a vengeance. As Trump and Pence took over the White House in 2017, the television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was released, and the image of the Handmaids transcended literature and television to become an emblem of the current women’s rights protests.

These protests are arguably largely a response to an era of politics that align with the beliefs of Vice President Mike Pence, who throughout his career has associated himself with anti women’s rights and anti-LGBTQ2 religious and political groups.

Then following quickly behind “The Handmaid’s Tale” was Sara Polley’s 2017 miniseries adaptation of Atwood’s “Alias Grace”, the story of a young female prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary in the mid-1800s.

Indeed our current social-political climate has once again stirred half-speculations that Margaret Atwood might be some kind of oracle in predicting the future. It was after all Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lecture and Book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth” in which she seemed to predict the coming economic rescission.

But back before the television adaptations, and protestors dressed as Handmaids, there was another adaption of an Atwood book, “The Penelopiad” as a play, an adaptation penned by Atwood herself. It is easy to see parallels between the choruses of marginalized women that appear in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Alias Grace” and “The Penelopiad.” Each work is set in a distinct world and period. Alias Grace is set in the repressed Victorian nineteenth century Ontario. “The Penelopiad” is set in Greek mythology. And “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in the futurist fundamentalist totalitarian state of Gilead. But the dynamics of how these women are treated and subjugated in each of these contexts remains similar.

Parallels with Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood has chillingly said that everything that happens in “The Handmaid’s Tales” has occurred before at some point in history and so it makes sense that one sees parallels with Gilead in Atwood’s historical depictions. If you visually compare in the respective television adaptations the female inmates in “Alias Grace” and the Handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale” you will see similarities in their movements, their groupings, their dress, and in the systematic control and violence that is inflicted on them.

Now add to that a comparison of The Maids in “The Penelopiad”. These are the Maids who attend to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. While Odysseus is away fighting in the Trojan War, Penelope is constantly wooed by a group of disgusting (at least in how Atwood depicts them) suitors who try to convince her that Odysseus is dead. Penelope states she will not marry another man until she finishes weaving her mourning shroud. Penelope then calls on twelve of her maids to come each night to her chamber and help her unweave the work done on the shroud during the day. As such the shroud would never be completed and Penelope could never remarry.

It is a smart plan on Penelope’s part and all seems good for the maids as well. The unweaving sessions are a lot of fun for the maids and Penelope. Penelope tells them that they are now all friends, they eat and talk while unweaving. In the way Atwood depicts these sessions they are a safe space for the women. But that is not the reality during the day, when the suitors harass and molest The Maids, as The Maids are trying to keep the suitors away from Penelope.

Things get worse for The Maids when Odysseus finally returns home. Upon Odysseus’ return he meets his teenage son Telemachus. Odysseus and Telemachus hatch a plot where Odysseus murders all the suitors. After the suitors are murdered, Odysseus has the twelve Maids hung till they are dead. This aspect of the myth is troubling and for Atwood unjustified.

In Atwood’s version Odysseus believes the maids have been made impure by the suitors. He does not believe The Maids were helping Penelope and keeping the suitors at bay; he believes they were willingly engaging with the suitors. This belief is supported by the eldest maid (and one of the maids who survives) Eurycleia, a character who arguably has similarities to Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She is the one who tells Odysseus that he should kill “The youngest ones. The disloyal ones. The impertinent ones. The prettiest ones.” Eurycleia later states that she had to single out some maids, so that the others could live. Central to this play is a group of women who are not believed and who are killed because of it.

In the play The Maids say:
“we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
the same face”

The Maids in their society are seen as a unit, as one. Identity is homogenous, and that is a tool to marginalize the maids. So as it is in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace” it is also the case in “The Penelopiad”. Atwood depicts woman marginalized, stripped of their individuality and viewed with curiosity and mistrust by the male gaze. However this is not a play about victimhood. There is something unique about the telling of “The Penelopiad,” it is a story reclaimed.

The Maids haunt Odysseus for his crimes

Atwood made up the word Penelopiad as a play-on the epic poem titles such as The Iliad or The Aeneid. The character of Penelope and her Maids is usually a footnote in the story of Odysseus, but in “The Penelopiad” the play is performed and told from the perspective of Penelope and the twelve Maids. They are all in the underworld and now are able to speak freely and be heard. They play all the roles of the other characters in the story. An interesting dynamic is that there is conflict in the underworld between The Maids and Penelope. Penelope says that Maids rarely talk to her and they haunt Odysseus for his crimes. So while The Maids and Penelope tell the story together, we can infer that there is conflict over their interpretation of events.

Because The Maids play all the roles, the play is a distinctly feminine space. It means that in the way the roles are performed there is an editorial element. Not only are we seeing these characters of Greek antiquity performed, but we are also seeing the Maid’s comment on these characters through their performances. When I saw Nightwood Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad, Kelli Fox played Odysseus brilliantly in a performance that satirized uber-masculinity. In the Grand’s production, Odysseus is played by a man (Preneet Akilla), a first for this play as far as I am aware. I am curious to see how the presence of one male in an otherwise female space affects the play.

As I have just alluded to “The Penelopiad” has a significant performance history in Canada and an important place in our country’s theatrical canon. The play premiered in 2007 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon with a Canadian and British ensemble. It was a co-production with the National Arts Centre English Theatre, one of a slew of bold commissions and productions that Peter Hinton initiated when he was the artistic director there. The production played the National Arts Centre in September of that year. Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, Canada’s leading feminist theatre, produced a hit production of the play which played in 2012 and was remounted in 2013, for an impressive six-week run which was largely sold out. The Nightwood production featured Megan Follows as Penelope, and Follows directs the production at the Grand Theatre. Philippa Domville who performed in the original RSC/NAC production is also working on the Grand’s production as the choreographer. It is significant to note with the Grand’s production that there are artists who are bringing experiences and knowledges of the play gained all the way back to its premiere.

The ensemble is a remarkable group of some of Canada’s top women actors, led by Seana McKenna as Penelope. McKenna in recent years has played roles from Shakespeare’s canon traditionally performed by men, including Richard III, Jacques, Lear and Julius Caesar. It is an interesting progression for McKenna to now get to play a classical character in a play that presents the rarely seen female perspective of a classical story.

It is still the exception rather than the rule, to have plays that feature so many women, whereas it is easy to count up a number of all male (or almost all male) plays that are in frequent repertory. So the Grand’s largely diverse programming this year deserves applause. Just as The Maids within the play need to be listened to, theatres still need to make more space for women playwrights to be heard.

Details, Details:
The Penelopiad
The Grand Theatre
Jan. 22 – Feb. 9
Purchase Tickets Online
Box office: 519-672- 8800

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The Penelopiad: Listen to The Maids

Keith Tomasek
11 January 2019
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