The Rape of the Sabine Women

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This is a poem I wrote in tenth grade after reading Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. The style is old fashioned, but I think this is the first thing I wrote of which I’m proud. Yet this isn’t how I’d approach the subject matter if I wrote it now.

Sing through me, Muse, of bloody deeds born out in ancient times

before the Ides of March and ere sweet Virgil penned his rhymes.

Exhibit shepherds’ lowly huts where now the Forum lies,

bear back this song to that old time ere Rome’s triumphant rise.

Tell of the plot of Romulus, who as a god is hailed,

to see more women with the scarlet wedding gown be veiled.

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Upon an early gloaming when the sun god left his keep

and ushered in the stars that bulging mists of nighttime sweep

a train of Sabine pilgrims marched into the Latin land,

faint stellar rays illuminating that unhurried band.

These Sabine men and women came to Rome once every year

to celebrate festivities when harvest time drew near.

As bees in spring emerging from an arctic winter’s hive

in wagons all the Sabine men began their kin to drive

to Rome, the site of seven bluffs set on the Tiber’s curve,

the village whose inhabitants surmount the Titans’ nerve.

 

Soon spying the migration of the faithful from a hill

the King summoned his brethren the high senate house to fill.

“Soldiers!” now he cried, “Know this, its truth I swear by Saturn:

that our Latin city is endangered by its pattern

of stalwart fighting men who boldly sacrifice their lives

to Rome without replacements for our city’s dearth of wives.

A man becomes a corpse without a son to take his place,

so is it any wonder numbers dwindle in our race?

Perhaps our Sabine visitors can their young ladies lend,

for women they have plenty, and on women futures pend.”

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While the Romans plotted on the slopes of Palatine

the Sabine crowd, all unaware, scaled the Capitoline.

Their hoary king bore on his back his daughter just of eight,

the princess Calpurnia, worried that they might be late.

Her brother road beside the girl upon his regal mare

promising the eager child that they would soon be there.

And soon the pinewood gates of Rome drew back to meet the crowd.

The Roman king now met the crowd and grinned before he bowed.

“Friends!” he cried, “Now enter, do not hesitate or falter,

pray collect your loved ones and come worship at our altar.”

In droves they came and packed the marshy slopes of Rome’s wet Forum

sitting down to dinner and behaving with decorum.

 

By now the pulpous evening clouds had just begun to fuse

though were it dusk or twilight weary eyes could hardly choose.

In time platters of food were brought, of venison and hog.

Soft hymns were sung to Neptune oer the sacramental log.

While celebrating rituals no Sabine man took note

of signals from the Roman king or of his sudden gloat.

The men of Rome now suddenly threw down their wooden chairs,

rushing toward the tables, disregarding pious airs.

Unsure whether to call it jest or something more perverse

some men just laughed, while others fumed when they suspected worse.

Befuddled and appalled, the hapless Sabines tried to fight

though struggle was futile in the darkness of that night.

As when a wave reaches a shore and forces with it foam

thus did the Romans drive the men beneath the heaven’s dome.

The Sabine men were in despair as clouds drooping and thick

forbid them to mark out their wives or their daughters to pick.

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By now the pure Calpurnia had lost her father’s gaze

and strove to meet her brother’s eyes within the writhing maze.

The cries of the poor princess were all futile as they flew,

for every girl cried “Father!”, to distinguish no one knew.

Then suddenly a sodden grip grasped at the royal arm,

the Sabine princess fleeing its acerb designs of harm.

So terrorized by visions of her family made slaves

the tragic Calpurnia plunged into the Tiber’s waves.

“Spare me this dishonor, old man river, bear me home!

Deliver me from violence upon these hills of Rome.”

Thus did she cry before her mouth was silenced by the fall,

her corpse interred by Tiber, sympathetic to her call.

 

But by now every Sabine had been driven from the hill,

each eye was moist and beard was wet as tears began to spill.

The fathers and the husbands could all barely keep their gaze

upon their shrieking women in the early evening haze.

And then the screams of women were soon muffled in the night

as wooly hands pressed down on mouths and throats were closed in fright.

The Forum marsh was tainted by blood pouring down in drips

from shredded mouths of women biting down on ashen lips.

Now from the jaws of Romulus rose one triumphant shout

as women were abducted and their men were driven out.

Well aided by the darkness of a night without a moon

a silence soon descended with the final woman’s swoon.

And in the huts of mud, the brides now borne across the porch,

bloody hair and broken limbs replace the wedding torch.

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Yet Father Time will dry away the tears from ruddy cheeks

and mouths become complacent with the passing of the weeks.

As love affairs soon flower and as bellies start to grow,

a yearning for their homeland Sabine women do not show.

Thus at least the Romans took their wives’ abiding silence,

for what man knows the difference between sorrow and compliance?

For each brocade the Triple Fates to mortals choose to give

provides mankind one of two paths: to suffer or to live.

 

But now the frauded Sabine men return allied to fight

with heathen mercenaries in revenge for that rough night.

They tramped in packs, the soggy lands were springing with their stomp;

the Furies smiled upon their cause and on the martial pomp.

The men of Rome all saw the march upon their lofty towers

aware their nation’s life would hinge upon the coming hours.

King Romulus passed out new swords to adolescent troops

as older men rode ordering the great throng into groups.

And when the Sabine trumpets echoed through the hills of Rome

the soldiers rushed to bar the gates to shelter gods and home.

 

Yet even as the men of Rome all rushed to Sabines catch

Tarpeia, daughter to the warden of the portal’s latch,

set her gaze upon a Gallic shield’s golden bubble,

thirsting for its sleeted face and heedless of the trouble.

Succumbing to desire of the most outrageous sort

her eyes glistened as Sabines with their trinkets paid her court,

and promised to receive the shields’ bounty as her pay

the girl unbolted all the gates and showed the men the way.

The Sabines, now reminded that they should complete the deal

all soon allowed Tarpeia their gilded bucklers to feel.

Rushing at her, though a child, they crushed her brittle bones

beneath the weight of golden shields, heedless of her moans,

and as her shattered lungs both strove to draw a final breath

Tarpeia’s ruptured figure with a quake succumbed to death.

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Cried the king of Sabines, “Is this not the Roman rule,

to twist the words of bargains and play allies for the fool?”

Yet as the Sabines cleaved the skull and threw it from the hill

the Roman troops had all arrived, and swords were drawn to kill.

Alert of Roman enemies, the Sabine king did try

to scream to his great lines of men a fitting battle cry.

Proclaimed the king of Sabines “For Calpurnia we fight,

My daughter seized by unripe Death upon that awful night!”

Screamed the king of Romans, “For posterity we battle,

For if we halt or falter, we’ll become but Sabine cattle!”

As when two bulls lock horns or when two waves meet with a crash

the men fly at each other and their heavy bucklers smash.

Fists are raised and talons blanch as they press down on swords:

Roman and Sabine now prepare to carve through vocal chords.

 

When suddenly an angry shriek rose up above the din

as women pressed between the men and warned them of their sin.

“Shameless Roman, see your fault and in shame look away

for the sake of godless deeds performed upon this hateful day!

Was it not enough that you should seize us on that eve

that now our frauded kindred must you force our gaze to leave?

Did your thoughts turn to us when you marched consumed by hate

to leave us without gods or homes to bear a widow’s fate?”

With so much said, the women turned their eyes to their old nation

all seething with sincere despair and with unbound frustration.

“And as for you pretenders who think us your kindred blood,

what did you on that night when we were sullied in the mud?

You fought like cowards when it might have mattered still to fight.

And now you come to slaughter, without asking if it’s right.

The greatest fault on all your parts lies in your estimation

of women as a helpless lot consigned to please their nation.

Now Jove alone may judgment pass and us the verdict loan:

say which is worse, to seize a wife, or live with hearts of stone?”

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With this impassioned caution every warrior did freeze

and even grim king Romulus sensed shaking in his knees.

Weapons fell and oaths were pledged as holy Phoebus set

and bloodless hands were pressed as if a promise to forget.

 

Now Sabines quit the battlefield, now all march off to Rome,

to that city of glory which the gods will call their home.

And grasping the repentant arm of every Roman male

the modest Sabine women beamed as they retold the tale.

Thus was the ancient city saved and thus did she survive

with allies strengthening her walls and aiding her to thrive.

The ghosts of all the slaughtered to Elysium now rise

safely dead and buried and so hidden from our eyes.

They leave the sleeping poet to look forward to the day

when Sovereign Rome shall triumph, all the world in her sway.

 

(And who’s to say what constitutes a virtue or a sin

when all the epic poems are written by the men who win.)

 

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Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.