Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.42

Elisa Rizo, Madeleine M. Henry (ed.), Receptions of the Classics in the African Diaspora of the Hispanophone and Lusophone Worlds: Atlantis Otherwise. Black diasporic worlds: origins and evolutions from New World slaving.   Lanham; Boulder; New York; London:  Lexington Books, 2016.  Pp. viii, 121.  ISBN 9781498530200.  $75.00.  


Reviewed by Tom Hawkins, Ohio State University (hawkins.312@osu.edu)

Preview
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Atlantis Otherwise joins the growing list of volumes on the reception of classical culture. Beyond the specific issues raised in each chapter, editors Elisa Rizo and Madeleine Henry smartly differentiate their project on three points. First, as the cumbersome title makes clear, national and regional boundaries give way to shared language traditions. Their focus on Spanish and Portuguese receptions permits papers to stand together that might otherwise seem unrelated. Second, Atlantis Otherwise stresses the movement of classical influences. Classical learning, texts and adaptations all circulate in accord with wider patterns of cultural change (colonialism, revolution, economic development, etc.), and the chapters in this volume address this mobility in creative ways. Finally, the editors emphasize the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration for a project that spans continents, language groups, and cultures. Of the seven contributors, four are classicists, and the others are a human rights lawyer (Baldi), a professor of Spanish and African-American Studies (Maddox) and a professor of Hispanic Studies (Rizo). This multi-disciplinary dialogue promotes the refreshing presence of many theorists too rarely seen in classical scholarship (e.g. Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. du Bois).

Collected volumes regularly aim at spurring further research, and they are always open to nitpicking about balance and coverage. In spirit of the former, therefore, I will note that the latter might have been improved here. For a volume that emphasizes language, rather than national, boundaries, one might hope for a Lusophone reception from a country other than Brazil, and the focus on the same Columbian author in two of the three chapters on Hispanophone topics feels similarly restricted. Two of the chapters (2 and 5) are also much shorter than the other four, and although these briefer engagements are effective in analyzing the primary texts they examine, neither achieves the wider scope of analysis that I found so appealing in the longer chapters.

In Chapter 1, “From Cultural Appropriation to Historical Emendation: Two Case Studies of Receptions of the Classical Tradition in Brazil,” Andrea Kouklanakis offers a provocative, contrasting analysis of the role of classical material in the writings of a folklorist and a modernist poet. Her commendable attention to a non-literary text reminds us that reception studies (often too focused on theater history) should be open to a wide array of materials. Luís da Câmara Cascudo’s Meleagro (1951) is an ethnography that uses the myth of Meleager as the point of reference for interpreting the catimbó , a Brazilian religious ceremony in which spirits are summoned to interact with the living. Cascudo builds a case that the sympathetic magic at play in catimbó derives primarily from Greco-Roman magical practices and specifically from the death of Meleager, who is undone by the firebrand which has power over his own vitality. Paradoxically, Cascudo championed the idea that Afro-Brazilian culture was a topic worthy of serious investigation, yet he claimed that much of the presumed African influence really derived from Greece and Rome. Surprisingly, it is the irrational and seemingly exotic aspect of catimbó that turns out to be built upon a Eurocentric narrative of classical mythology.

With Cascudo’s academic prose, Kouklanakis pairs Domício Proença Filho’s Dionísio esfacelado: Quilombo do Palmares (1984). She describes Dionysus Dismembered (esfacelado) as an “epic history of black life” (17) composed in a fragmented, disjointed and impressionistic style, which offers a layered articulation of the black experience in Brazil as an ongoing process of cultural disintegration that leads to new forms of hybrid identities. Unlike Cascudo, Proença Filho emphasizes the African at every turn, most importantly, through the figure of King Zumbi, the last leader of the quilombo (a maroon settlement that existed in opposition to European colonial power) of Palmares. Dismembered via beheading in 1695, Zumbi stands as the human counterpart to the dismembered god Dionysus. I felt that certain ideas deserved to be pushed further here, as with Proença Filho’s description of Palmares as a “black Troy,” which suggests a reversal of the standard Eurocentric script such that valorization of Troy becomes an act of resistance to colonial impositions. Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves and Guilherme Gontijo Flores work together in the second chapter, “Black Angel: Classical Myth, Race, and Desire in a Brazilian Modernist Play.” This short piece consists mostly of an analytic summary of Nelson Rodrigues’ play Black Angel (1948). As the introduction to Atlantis Otherwise explains, this play was controversial, in part because it featured a black actor rather relying on the contemporary Brazilian performance habit of using white actors in black-face. Yet its plot and themes must have generated plenty of controversy on their own. The story follows a black man and a white woman, whose attempts to negotiate their marriage and racial biases lead to transgressive sex and serial infanticide. Gonçalves and Flores tease out motifs drawn from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Euripides’ Medea, and in the last paragraphs they open an analysis of the psychoanalytic role of desire in Black Angel. This desire—for whiteness, for taboo blackness, for violent lust, for wholeness—could have been unpacked in much more detail, yet the basic point emerges clearly enough. Rodrigues’ play stages a family drama that lays bare the febrile tensions in Brazilian racial norms. The themes drawn from classical Athenian tragedy warn the audience of the chaotic and violent possibilities built into those tensions.

In the final chapter focusing on Brazil, “Decolonizing Greek Theatre: Black Experimental Theatre,” César Augusto Baldi examines two plays that derive from do Nascimento’s Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), which existed from 1944-67. This project sought to promote black theater in Brazil and to put forward a vision of Afro-Brazilian culture that could provide a path away from the nation’s strict and hierarchical divisions between black and white. Nascimento’s idea of quilombismo, an egalitarian vision rooted in the political inclusivity of the quilombos, offers a version of nationalism that celebrates creolization and hybridity while calling for an ecological ethic that brings this sort of national, cultural identity into dialogue with a sustainable global future. Baldi’s analysis of the plays is smart and valuable, but it is this broader intellectual perspective that makes this chapter so rewarding.

Baldi discusses two plays created under the auspices of the TEN: Agostinho Alavo’s Beyond the River (1957) and do Nascimento’s own Sortilege, which was written in 1951, staged in 1957 and radically revised in 1977. Both deal with characters who initially seek to deny their African origins and blackness by assimilating to white culture. This goal is shown to be impossible and undesirable as the characters rediscover their African roots amid violent conclusions. Beyond the River is an overt adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, in which the Medea character comes to Brazil via the slave trade and falls in love with a slaver named Jason. The Euripidean plot plays out in the racialized idiom of Brazilian culture, with Medea reclaiming her African identity amid her murderous revenge. Baldi does not present Sortilege as an adaptation of any particular Greek drama but stresses its formal affiliations with tragedy and the importance of replacing a Greek-style chorus with a group of Filhas de Santo (“daughters of the saint”) who speak from and for the perspective of Afro-Brazilian candomblé. As in Beyond the River, the main character in Sortilege, a black man trying to whiten himself by becoming a lawyer and marrying a white woman, comes to recognize the system of racialized hierarchies that always thwarts efforts to deny one’s blackness. Baldi’s title “Decolonizing Greek Theatre” emerges through the ambivalence of the initial gerund. Both Alavo and do Nascimento work to decolonize Greek drama by infusing canonical European theatrical models with Afro-Brazilian elements, but the plays also contribute to the decolonization of Brazilian culture through their updated ethical messages. This two-way street is typical of many moments of classical reception, but Baldi’s theoretical framework brings this to the fore. Greek drama is both one tool in the colonial apparatus that creates, naturalizes and sustains hierarchical difference, and a medium through which resistance and transformation can be leveraged.

Chapter 4, “Changó el Gran Putas: A Drama of Memory”, moves from Brazil to Colombia as John Maddox takes on Manuel Zapata Olivella’s masterpiece, first published in 1983. Among other virtues, this essay excels at setting out some of the basic historical information that many readers will want. We learn, for example, that Zapata’s father forced him to memorize Homer’s Odyssey, which provides a foundation for approaching the classical influences in this modernist, sprawling, stylistically hybrid history of the black experience in the Western Hemisphere. Maddox also provides a careful discussion of his generic approach to Zapata’s novel, which he analyzes as a “drama-based narratological model of historical fiction” (68). This complex formulation fits the hybrid style of Zapata’s text, which is itself a form of Dionysiac and carnivalesque intervention in the history of Spanish literature. Changó reveals the influence of the tragic models of both Aristotle and Fritz Fanon, and Maddox applies this lens to two scenes. From the novel’s opening section, Benkos Bioho, the seventeenth-century leader of a slave revolt who set up the maroon community of San Basilio de Palenque, emerges as an Oedipal figure who provides a heroic tragico-historical model for Afro-Colombians. Maddox concludes by describing Zapata’s account of the Haitian revolution as a layered reception of C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, which itself is structured as a form of Aeschylean tragedy.

In Chapter 5, “Resurrection of the Dead: Manuel Zapata Olivella’s Caronte Liberado,” Henry reveals the classical influences in Zapata’s one-act play Caronte Liberado (Charon Freed), which was written at some point in the 1960s. The play deliberately avoids contemporary points of reference and uses classical motifs to provide “an imaginary past” (82) for the characters, a group of prisoners held in a subterranean cell and overseen by Caronte/Charon. Henry analyzes the classical connections activated on various levels. Evocations of specific passages of classical literature will resonate differently with each reader. I, for example, found Archilochus (83) less plausible than Euripides’ Alcestis (84). The claim that some of the grim humor of the play is Lucianic (85) felt apt, whereas the idea that Zapata’s Caronte evokes Egyptian predecessors of the Greek Charon was left undeveloped. More broadly, Henry shows that Zapata’s play follows Aristotelian patterns of Greek tragedy, finding, for example, both a metabolê and a peripeteia (a “change of thinking” and a “plot reversal”) that structure the narrative (85). This dramaturgical architecture supports Henry’s idea that the play also avoids historical specificities in favor of archetypal dilemmas (e.g. should I resist authoritarian power or acquiesce to it?) reminiscent of Greek tragedy. Finally, Henry profitably dissects the classical resonances of many names used in the play.

In the final chapter, “Glocalizing Democracy through a Reception of the Classics in Equatorial Guinean Theatre,” Rizo studies the “glocal” dynamics activated by Trinidad Morgades’ Antígona (1991). This is the only primary text authored by a woman studied in Atlantis Otherwise, and the only text composed in Africa. In some ways, the analysis of Antígona is predictable, as this most frequently adapted of Greek tragedies is reconfigured to speak to the cultural and political particularities of Equatorial Guinea in the early 1990s. But Rizo provides rich and rewarding layers of historical contextualization, such as drawing Morgades herself as an Antigone figure. Perhaps most interesting in this respect is the manner in which Equatorial Guinea’s two post-colonial authoritarian presidents have sought to limit and undermine the authority of Western political philosophy, rooted in the idealization of Athenian democracy. Morgades’ play, therefore, positions itself at a “glocal” moment when classical politics is globally celebrated and locally rejected and Antigone’s classical storyline is globally recognized as a call to resistance while being locally pitched as a celebration of the infusion of Equatoguinean elements, especially through drums and dancing.

In sum, Atlantis Otherwise offers a valuable contribution to the field of reception studies both in bringing new texts and cultural traditions into the discussion and in its methodological innovations.

Authors and Titles

Andrea Kouklanakis, From Cultural Appropriation to Historical Emendation: Two Case Studies of Receptions of the Classical Tradition in Brazil (9-30)
Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves and Guilherme Gontijo Flores, Black Angel: Classical Myth, Race, and Desire in a Brazilian Modernist Play (31-42)
César Augusto Baldi, Decolonizing Greek Theatre: Black Experimental Theatre (43-60)
John Maddox, Changó el Gran Putas: A Drama of Memory (61-80)
Madeline Henry, Resurrection of the Dead: Manuel Zapata Olivella's Caronte Liberado (81-90)
Elisa Rizo, Glocalizing Democracy through Reception of the Classics in Equatorial Guinean Theatre: The Case of Morgades' Antígona
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