Making The Old Feel New

Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack, at center) performs “Get Down” in SIX, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Photo: Liz Lauren

We make the oldest stories new when we succeed, and we are trapped by the old stories when we fail. –Greil Marcus

It’s a long standing theme on Slow Muse: Storytelling is powerful, and getting in front of a narrative to tell it your way is worth fighting for. Griel Marcus, music critic and the author of a seminal book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, has much to say about how music, culture and storytelling evolve. In researching the sources of a number of 20th century avant garde movements, Marcus found that many of the key influences are actually furtive and uncharted, operating in a kind of stealth mode well outside the traditional channels. His model is the opposite of a well manicured French garden and more like Renzo Piano‘s green roof for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco: Whatever native plants find their footing are welcome to stay.

Marcus is describing an approach that is wild and wooly compared to Harold Bloom’s famous theory of poetry. Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” focuses primarily on the creative evolution that takes place in the personal and psychological struggle between an individual artist and a prior towering figure. Needless to say, most of Bloom’s examples are white males confronting other white males. Battle of the Titans. Yes, there has been critical merit in viewing this essentially male centric, patricidal view of achieving poetic mastery. But it doesn’t speak to me or to a whole lot of others who don’t fit in that rarefied, elitist scenario.

Like Marcus, I am more interested in the view of creativity that is messy, untamed and unpredictable. And it is in that uncharted field that we can do as Marcus suggests—succeed when we can make the oldest stories new.  Revisionism is a perennial feature of how the stories are told, giving voice to those who didn’t write the master narrative. And right now the revisionism that is most prevalent is coming from women and people who are neither white nor Western.

Consider some recent additions to the field of classical studies, the sine qua non keeper of the oldest stories. A new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson has been a revelation for me (for an in depth discussion of Wilson’s approach, here is a great summary.) I was also enchanted by reading the reimagined novels based on mythology by Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles and Circe.

Revision is a perpetual feature of historical research, but recent dismantlings of the canonical versions of United States history have been significant. Howard Zinn and Jill Lepore have shifted how we view our history, and the New York Times’ ambitious 1619 Project is a fundamental and essential rewriting of our national storyline around race.

Novels are also embracing more inclusive narrative forms. Lisa Halliday‘s multi-voiced debut novel Asymmetry stunned critics and readers with its range and depth. Several recent novels—Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff) and Fleishman Is In Trouble (Taffy Broddesser-Akner) among others—explore the complexity of marital relationships by including a dueling narrative from each partner. It creates a Rashomon moment—just like life—when truth and blame are not easily assigned.

Art history is also seeing revisionism, refreshingly. In her history of art in New York in the 1940 and 50s. Mary Gabriel‘s Ninth Street Women features the contributions of six significant female artists who have previously been treated like a women’s auxiliary. Although perhaps it is too little too late, a number of octogenerian female artists have finally being given their well deserved retrospective due.

Geena Davis’ new documentary film about equity for women in Hollywood, This Changes Everything, is a compelling history of how women have been shut out of the old boys club for directing and writing. In many ways filmmaking is the collective consciousness of a culture, and being locked out of the storytelling skews everything for those disenfranchised by a white male bias. Davis’ film is both a historical accounting and a reminder that things don’t change out of a sense of what is fair. It takes will, muscle, and legal enforcement.

Theater is going through a particularly rich period of revisionistic verve. In New York recently Phyllida Lloyd directed a trilogy of Shakespeare plays all performed by only women. A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath explores the female point of view in Ibsen’s 19th century classic. Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton is a genre-busting retelling of the American Revolution with no old white guys. It is also a much needed reframing of Jeffersonianism in its sympathetic portrait of a founding father (and Jefferson adversary) who was never given his own monument in Washington DC.

A number of recent productions in Boston have also reconsidered old stories and introduced another narrative. Many of them are referenced in essays here on Slow Muse: A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, American Moor, by Keith Hamilton Cobb, The Dragon Lady trilogy, by Sara Porkalob, and Endlings, by Celine Song.

Time to add a new one to that list: SIX, currently being performed at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge under the aegis of American Repertory Theater.

SIX is a high wattage musical review about the wives of Henry VIII (remembered by English school children with the mnemonic refrain of  “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.”) In addition to being a well deserved history of six extraordinary queens that leaves the noisome Henry mute, SIX is also a great example of theater designed for and by younger people.

Written on a lark by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss for the 2017 Fringe in Edinburgh while they were still students in Cambridge, SIX was too clever and too engaging to not take on a life of its own. After a run in London’s West End and a North American debut in Chicago at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, SIX will eventually make its way to Broadway next year.

With a substantial social media following and footage from the production posted online by previous audiences, SIX came to Cambridge with a passionate fan base that you feel the minute you enter the theater. Envisioned as a music concert/singing competition, the production positions each of the six queens as versions of popular singers including Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Adele, and Sia.

These are formidable artists to emulate, but this isn’t just a vapid send up of popular culture. History–or more appropriately, herstory—is made accessible (a nod to Hamilton) as well as giving full voice to a set of stories that we have not heard before. Moss has written about how she and Marlow “wrote a ‘manifesto,’ our SIX Six Point Plan—of what we were setting out to do. One component was about writing great parts for women. Another was to highlight the parallels we saw between the Queens’ experiences with those of women today.”

SIX gives voice to six women whose stories were dismissed as secondary for over 500 years. In this explosive rebuttal to that silencing, no men are ever on stage. (Even the band is all women.) All six of these queens are dazzlingly unique, cast in a full variety of colors and shapes. Each back story is compelling and told with a hip updated groove. Thank you Marlow and Moss, I will never confuse these six again. I’ve got this one down now, ready for the quiz!

High fives to American Rep for bringing the production to Cambridge. And kudos to Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon,) Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn,) Abby Mueller (Jane Seymour,) Brittney Mack (Anna of Cleves,) Courtney Mack (Katherine Howard,) and Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr.)

SIX is running through September 29 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.

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