Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale is a classic tale for contemporary audiences. (Read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the classical inspiration.)
Philomele is a young Athenian princess, desperate for knowledge, feeling and passion. She has an older sister, Procne, who is married to Tereus, the conquering King of Thrace. Before she leaves for the far away kingdom, Procne makes Philomele promise that she will come to her if she asks.
When Procne wants her sister with her, she sends her husband to fetch her, not caring that it is a long voyage and that he will be gone for months.
The Love of the Nightingale is set up like a Greek tragedy, with a chorus and the prophesied doom so common in Greek verse. But it has contemporary resonance made all the more palpable by the moment when the chorus goes from commenting on the action to questioning outside the world of the play.
IRIS: To some questions there are no answers. We might ask you now: why does the Vulture eat Prometheus’s liver? He brought men intelligence.
ECHO: Why did God want them stupid?
IRIS: We can ask: why did Medea kill her children?
JUNE: Why do countries make war?
HELEN: Why are races exterminated?
HERO: Why do white people cut off the words of blacks?
IRIS: Why do people disappear? The ultimate silence.
ECHO: Not even death recorded.
HELEN: Why are little girls raped and murdered in the car parks of dark cities?
IRIS: What makes the torturer smile?
HERO: We can ask. Words will grope and probably not find.
Wertenbaker has written a beautiful play, which is much more than a simple retelling of a myth. She even plays with the word ‘myth’: the male chorus ponder its origins and reveal that the original Greek meaning of myth is “simply what is delivered by word of mouth”: that a myth is both speech and the “content of the speech”.
As with Our Country’s Good, there is a play within the play, this time the story of Phaedra, which Philomele’s father uses to try to decipher whether or not he should let his young daughter travel to her sister.
KING PANDION: I find plays help me think. You catch a phrase, recognize a character. Perhaps this play will help us come to a decision.
Later, his wife remarks: “Listen to the chorus. The playwright always speaks through the chorus.” And so we listen closely to the chorus and know for certain that if Philomele goes with Tereus things will end in tragedy, as they do and as they must.
Tereus becomes blinded by lust for his wife’s sister on the voyage back to Thrace and has her escort murdered. He tells Philomele that her sister is dead and then demands to have her.
PHILOMELE: I have to consent.
TEREUS: It would be better, but no, you do not have to. Does the god ask permission?
PHILOMELE: Help. Help me. Someone. Niobe!
TEREUS: So, you are afraid. I know fear well. Fear is consent. You see the god and you accept.
TEREUS: I will have you in your fear. Trembling limbs to my fire.
He rapes her and when she threatens to tell, he cuts out her tongue. But women without voices can still make themselves heard and Philomele gets to take her revenge before turning into a nightingale.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 8F, 7M, 1 boy (contains some doubling)