“Roman Satire by way of the Pulp Adventure story” may seem an odd mash-up of genres, and it’s possible this blog will simply solidify in your minds what may very well be as crazy as it sounds. Still, I'll try to give you a little background on why I swear this makes sense. A True History takes its basic premise from “True History,” a 2nd century, vaguely narrative philosophical treatise by an all but forgotten satirist named Lucianof Samosata, with no real characters and a plethora of impossibilities. So of course it would make a great play, right?
In fact, the narrative that unfolds in “True History” (the essay) is considered by some to be the first example of Science Fiction in Western Literature. That is to say, it features a series of supernatural events that include, but is not limited to, an all out cosmic space battle between two warring planets, with soldiers made up of a whole host of alien weirdos who would finds themselves right at home with Figrin D’an, Kardue’sai’Malloc and Snaggletooth at the Mos Eisley Cantina (I am a nerd).
Adapting a text like that for the theatre should be easy, right? No. Unlike our last show, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated and "electrically flamboyant" Cyclops: A Rock Opera that, according to Charles McNulty at the LA Times "galvanized" audiences in LA and New York (if you want a hook, it’s “Glam Rock Band meets Ancient Greek Satyr Play”), this new play doesn’t take its inspiration from an actual theatrical text. Euripides and Percy ByssheShelley had our backs last time, plus we had kick ass music from Jayson Landon Marcus and Benjamin Sherman – this time we just had…Lucian.
But Lucian’s cool! We like Lucian! Lucian is like MarkTwain, Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, and Christopher Hitchens morphed into one awesome, toga-wearing Semite. Though Lucian lived in Rome, he was ethnically Syrian and actually from the eastern province of Samosata (now Turkey) and mainly wrote and taught in Greek. So he was an outsider, a plucky intellectual who spoke truth to power and wasn’t afraid to tell it like he saw it. And what did he see? Well, aside from “True History,” Lucian’s writings include some of the first Pagan writings on the strange new cult known as Christianity, his attempts at unmasking the charlatanry of a faux-Roman Snake Deity named Glycon (who turned out to be a sock puppet), and the original story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, later made famous by Goethe and WaltDisney.
Since Lucian’s essay doesn’t have characters, we’ve added a few of our own. First, there’s Justin. Justin is loosely based on a historical figure from around Lucian’s time named Justin Martyr. As his name implies, things didn’t end so well for Justin. Still, he was an incredibly important figure in a time when the new Christian religion was barely 100 years old and trying desperately to get a foothold, and its followers were desperately attempting to avoid becoming a lion’s dinner. His writings are passionate, pragmatic, intelligent, and honestly, quite beautiful. In our play, he joins Lucian on his journey, just as he’s beginning to wrestle with what Faith really means.
Next up is Eva. Eva is Lucian’s student. Eva is exotic and out of place in Rome. She’s from a strange, recently colonized land called New Troy, or Londinium, or what today we’d call England. While Lucian is an Atheist, Eva believes in all sorts of strange things, like sorcerers and giants and dancing brooms. There’s a reference in Alan Moore’s (who professes to worshipGlycon from his home in Northhampton) Leagueof Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series (a series that attempts to collate all of world literature into one gigantic fictional universe) to Lucian’s “True History” adventures, and to his having an apprentice, of sorts and so I took that as inspiration for Eva.
Finally, our fantastic four would not be complete without Scinatharus. Scinatharus does, in fact, come from Lucian’s essay, though I’ve switched his role around a bit. In the essay, he is the old man Lucian meets in the belly of the whale. In the play, the old man character is a kind of MichaelMoorcock-esque Eternal Champion who at various points refers to himself as Jonah, Jason of the Argonauts, and Gilgamesh, characters Joseph Campbell connects in his Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the play, Scintharus is the captain of the Medes, a merchant galley of the akatos class (according to Lucian). The name is a roundabout reference to one of my favorite novels, Moby-Dick. In the novel, it’s revealed that Ahab’s ship the Pequod took its name from the Pequot Indian tribe, a tribe that was completely destroyed after American settlers arrived in New England, and who are “now extinct as the ancient Medes”. The Medes (or Media) were an ancient Iranian people who were wiped out during the early 1st millennium BC. Apparently, I’m not the only one to borrow the name for a ship – the great China Miéville named the boat in his 2012 metafictional, Moby-Dick homage Railsea the Medes as well. Scintharus is a veteran of the Roman incursions in Britain. He's large, likes to drink, and sees Gods. He is a man of his time. And this was a time when people claimed to see Gods as often as they saw their neighbors and who believed their brains were in their livers.
Along the way, they encounter the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (author of Meditations, supposedly President Bill Clinton’s favorite book), the footprints of the Greek God Dionysus and Demigod Heracles, one of World-Literature’s first Moon-eyed lovers, Endymion (now Emperor of the Moon in Lucian’s essay), Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ (maybe), an insane a Jonah-come-Jason-come-Gilgamesh amalgamation, and the godfather of storytelling himself, Homer.
A True History is a play about faith, politics, myth, science, and storytelling, but told in a style that I hope won’t seem outrageous to fans of both the Classical canon, as well as to those (like me) who will always hold a soft spot in their hearts for the witty planetary romances of Leigh Brackett, the weirdness of Doctor Who, and the archetypal familiarity of Star Wars.
Our experimental staged reading features 10 actors, a band, some puppets, and a few dancers and happens December 19th at 4pm at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. Louis Butelli is directing it (won the NYMF Award for Excellence, nominated for an LA Weekly Award for his work on Cyclops, if you'll recall), David Paarlberg, Graham Galatro and Jim Bertini provide the music and promise the bring "the reverb and the analog delay and the space echo and such." I'll be in the back, taking notes and probably saying nervous and awkward things to you as you enter the theater. We hope you’ll join us!
- Chas LiBretto, December 13, 2012