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Saturday, August 11, 2007

PROGRESS REPORT #6: AT THE THEATRE


The Theatre at Aigai where King Philip was assassinated.

These are two of the ancient theatres mentioned in the next passage of my novel.
The Dodona theatre is a newer one than when my story takes place, but still it's likely similar and probably built in the same location below the acropolis hill.

I've been writing all week. The cooler, sometimes damp weather has kept me focused at the keyboard with only a couple of breaks needed for exercise and entertainment. Progress is coming along well, and in fact I am finding myself getting a bit 'obsessed' with the writing, which is good in some ways, as it means I am deeper into the heads of the characters and story.

The part I've been working on is mostly in the child's point of view (Alexander's five year old son, Iskander). I wasn't sure if I was putting in a lot of stuff that might just end up on the scrap heap. But then I saw someone on www.pothos.org (Alexander's site on the web) had posted a question about Alexander IV (my Iskander) and I realized that, yes, not much is known about him and the point of this novel in the first place, was to write a juvenile historical about his life. So I began, after a year of research during which I found little about his short tragic life. And the story was too complicated and political to do it justice as a juvenile novel, and I started over from this more complicated multiple point of view.
I know there'll be lots to cut in the final draft, but for now I have to develop the child's character just as I have the adults in the story, for really it still is his story.

Still, I'm careful to chose 'scenes' that are going to forward the plot, not to just fill in some fluff between the fighting and plotting. The character of Thettalos is a historical person who was one of Alexander's friends, a favorite tragic actor who once undertook a dangerous diplomatic mission on Alexander's behalf and performed at his wedding in Babylon. He is introduced as a cameo part early on in the novel and now reappears. The reason is, he will be used by Olympias to carry out a plot on her behalf. (Actors were often used as political agents and spies.) In this passage there are also certain things that foreshadow the future of the child. The child's reference to Priam's palace at Troy is from Part II of the novel when they royal household stayed at the ancient site of Troy for one season while en route to Macedon.Of course it wasn't the exact ancient palace of Priam of The Iliad, however there were several palaces built on that site and some of the ruins of ancient Troy were still in evidence when Alexander passed by there on his way to the Persian campaigns.

In this scene, the child, Iskander, has been playing the palace garden with the two little Epirote princesses (neices of Olympias), Dedemeia and Troas. They've been catching frogs in the pond and the girls offer to take him to see the actor's rehearsing in the theatre.


They led him down the path from the garden, through the postern gate where a narrow trail skirted the palace walls. In the cool, dampness of the morning, the footpath was slippery from the dew. The sun glistened on the grass; the air was sweet with the fragrance of damp clay and crushed herbs. The threaded their way among the trees, listening to the chorus of birds in the laurel hedges and from beyond the theatre walls, the jangling sound of a sistrum and the trilling of a flute.

The child ran along behind the girls. The path wound down the acropolis hill through a grove . The high parados of the theatre loomed ahead. There were shrines among the oleanders and a vague odour of something being burned for an offering. A god’s image garlanded with flowers stood on a shrine at the entrance. He waited while the two girls squeezed through the shrubbery beckoning to him to follow them. Instead, he stood transfixed at the parados gate. The sound of a man’s voice drew him forward. Hesitantly, he walked under the high archway and entered.
He felt a small thrilling sensation as he remembered the modest little theatre under the dark shadow of Aigai’s walls where his grandfather had been murdered. This one was much larger, carved into the hillside below the acropolis with the tiers rising so high up he had to tilt his head to see the top. He imaged actors strutting across the wide chequered stage in bright robes reciting behind their masks.
A man stood there who might have stepped straight down from Olympus. Tall, greying curly hair, a clean-shaven face still young and gravely beautiful, he seemed from another world. Like a god, he was, dressed in a rich costume spangled with gold. The child recognized him without the wig and mask. Here was Thettalos, who Dedemeia said was one of the theatre’s greatest actors. From the centre of the stage, his voice resounded clear and loud as if echoing from the depths of a great chasm.
The child stopped in his tracks and stood gaping at him as paced the stage, running through his actor’s vocal exercises. Then suddenly he stopped, and turned, aware of the child standing there. He frowned and looked the child over as if he thought he was some village waif. The child became aware of his dirtied clothes and grubby hands. He felt ashamed to be greeting such a famous man as this with the muck of the pond soiling his good coat. Mama would give him a good thrashing for it!
“What is it?” Thettalos demanded. “Who sent you, boy?”
The child remembered his manners and bowed. “I am Al’skander.”
Thettalos looked puzzled, then alarmed. “Alexander?” He peered hard at the child. “Why, it is to be sure! I remember you from the feast. What happened, child? Are you alright? Your clothes...”
“I was catching frogs,” Iskander said, somewhat embarrassed. Thetallos’ dark melancholy eyes were fixed right on him. The child stood still, his heart thumping, too shy to speak.
“And you fell into the pond?”
“No. The frog got away.” He brightened. “But we caught lots of tadpoles and we shall watch them grow into frogs!”

Thettalos scanned the tiers to see if the child had company. “Are you alone?”
“My friends...” Iskander stammered. “Dedemeia and Troas. They...”
“They seem to have fled and abandoned you.”
The child looked around anxiously and started toward the gate.
“Wait!” Thettalos said. “Don’t run off. Would you like to see everything? The skene? You see?“ he swept out his hands. “This here is the orchestra, the stage where the actors and chorus perform. Up there in the tiers where the audience sits, there are special thrones for the King and the Priest. And behind the skene you will see the masks and other props we use for illusion.
“And the costumes?”
“Yes, those too. This robe I’m wearing is for my role of Poseidon.” He made a grand gesture and began to speak in a booming voice. “’I am Poseidon, come from the depths of the salty Aegean Sea where bands of Neirieds dance with their lovely feet.'”
He squatted down and spoke to the child at eye-level. “Have you been to the theatre before?” Do you know your father loved the theatre? He never missed a play. He liked The Myrmidons best because it was about Achilles‘ soldiers. He knew The Iliad by heart, you know. He had an amazing mind for remembering.”
“I know it too, The Iliad,” the child said. “Uncle Ptolemy gave me my father‘s book Sometimes my guardians read it to me, and I shall read it myself when I am seven and have a pedagogue.”
Thettalos seemed surprised. “Your father never let that book out of his sight. He slept with it always nearby.”
“It’s kept in a special box,” Iskander said. He had regained his courage and wanted to tell the actor everything he knew. “I made a sacrifice at Achilles’ tomb, though I don’t really remember it, except when we stayed at Priam’s palace.” The thought brought back a vague recollection of a musty room and moss-covered stone walls. “I heard the boy crying...on the wall...”
“Was it a dream?” Thettalos asked.

The child thought for a moment, searching his memory. “Yes...maybe...There was a little boy there once.”
“Long, long ago,” Thetallos said. “Astyanax, brave Hector’s son.”
“Yes, Astyanax...I like that story best.”
“Do you know the play, The Women of Troy? That’s the story about Astyanax. We are performing it here for Queen Olympias’ guests, because the royal house of Epiros is descended from Achilles and the women of Troy. It’s a pity...You could have played Astyanax to my Talthybius, herald of the Greeks. And I promise...they don’t really throw the little boy from the wall.” He stood
and struck another pose. “We actors play many roles,” he said. “This is Menelaus, who has come to get his wife Helen. Do you know the story?” He made his voice sound angry and put on a scowling face. “’ I came to Troy to get my wife and meet the man who deceived me and carried her from my house. Now that man has paid the penalty. A Greek spear has destroyed him!’”
The child listened in rapt fascination. As the actor recited his lines, he felt his skin prickle with goose-flesh.
With each character, Thettalos’ voice changed. He demonstrated his role of Talthybius, the herald, next. “This is the scene when the herald comes to take
the child away from
Andromache. “We are advised not to allow the son of a heroic father to grow up, but to hurl him from the battlements of Troy...Come, my dear, leave your poor mother’s loving embrace...’”
The child’s eyes burned and his throat swelled as he recalled the story of Astyanax, the little orphan of Troy. He knew he was going to cry, and Thettalos saw it too and stopped his oration. He patted the child’s head. “There, dear...it’s only a play...like those dreams you have. The play is by Euripides,” he explained. “He lived for a time in Pella, invited there by the old King Archelaos, your great-great-Granddad. The Macedonians love his plays. Your father knew many of them by heart. I knew your father well...since he was a little boy like you are now.” He laughed. “I rescued him from more than a few scrapes. And when he became King, like the others who knew him, I followed him to the world’s end. He need only call us, and we went. He was our golden daimon and always will be he loved and remembered.”
He lifted the sleeve of his garment and showed the child a thick bracelet of heavy Macedonian gold work with a lion’s head set with rubies as eyes. “This was his,” he said. “Alexander gave it to me at Babylon when I went there to perform for him. It is my best remembrance of him.” He slipped it off his arm and handed it to the child. In his small, damp hands the gold seemed almost to burn as if it might melt at his touch.
He handed it back to the actor.

Thettalos looked down at him gravely. “To be sure, you are your father’s son. May the gods smile on you, little Alexander.” He took the child’s hand. “Come, sweetheart. I’ll show you around. Would you like try on the masks? And I’ll show you the shield that they carry Astyanax away on. Then I’ll take you to back your mother.”


* * *

The theatre of Dodona, by the parados gate.



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2 comments:

Marie said...

Great extract. I felt as if I was there. Nice picture too.

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for visiting, Marie.
I'm quite familiar with these two theatres. Now I have figured out that the one in Dodona (the newer one which is there to this day with some restorations in Roman times) was built in around 318 BC so possibly it was the same one I have Iskander going into. At any rate, it would have been similar.