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THE STAGE WAS SET BY Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined where Stephen Fry says, “Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Catherine, Sue Ellen and J.R.—the doomed lovers we knew all owe a great debt to the tragic Greek tradition that preceded them.”
The Classic Greek Tale. “In Babylon, then,” Fry recounts, “lived two families who had been feuding, no one quite remembers why, for generations. Their great palaces stood next to each other on the main street of the city, but the children of each household were raised as enemies, forbidden so much as to speak, write, or sign to one another.”
Well you can see where this is going.
Fry continues, “One of the families had a son called PYRAMUS and the other a daughter called THISBE who somehow fell in love with each other despite the obstacles in their way.”
A Chink in the Wall. As fate (and good stories) would have it: “They had discovered a small hole in a shared wall between their adjoining homes. Through this aperture they whispered, swapping views of life, poetry, and music until they found themselves falling very deeply in love.”
No touching, you understand, but an evident “ardent passion… breathed from one mouth to another through that benevolent chink, intensified by the forbidden nature of their feelings and their thrilling unbridgeable proximity.”
Fry sure knows his youthful romances.
Sneaking Out. “And so,” Fry says, “the following evening, the nimble and quickwitted Thisbe … is soon beyond the city walls, built all those years ago by her ancestor, Queen Semiramis.”
Encountering a Savage Lion. “When she reaches the trysting-place, Thisbe encounters not her lover Pyramus, but a savage lion whose jaws drip with the blood of its recent prey, an ox. Thisbe runs from the cemetery. In the hurry and panic of her flight, she drops her veil.”
The Errant Veil. “The lion approaches the veil, snuffles it, takes it between its jaws… staining it with some of the oxblood on its muzzle before letting it fall back on the ground, giving one last roar, and padding off into the night.”
Pyramus’s Death. Fry describes the inevitable: “A little later Pyramus arrives on the scene and sets himself to wait for his beloved under a tall mulberry tree loaded with its heavy summer burden of snow-white fruit.”
Again, you know what’s coming: “A shaft of moonlight shoots between the tree’s branches and illuminates Thisbe’s veil… Blood, paw prints, the family crest, the unmistakable scent of Thisbe herself…. With a cry of despair Pyramus draws his sword and stabs himself…. Blood spurts up from him like a fountain, dyeing the white mulberries purple.”
As these berries remain to this day.
Thisbe’s Return. “She sees Pyramus’s sword,” Fry recounts. “It is still hot and wet with his blood. She throws herself upon it, plunging it deep into her belly with a cry of triumph and ecstasy in one of the most Freudian suicides ever.”
A Tale with Legs. Wikipedia notes, “Ovid’s is the oldest surviving version of the story, published in 8 A.D., but he adapted an existing aetiological myth.”
Also, the story recurred in Boccaccio’s Decameron, c. 1350, and in Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, composed in the late 14th century, as Wikipedia notes, when Queen Anne of England was in power and “feminism was much a hot button issue.”
Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, 1597, ultimately arose from Ovid’s story, though details of motivation and locale differ. The Bard copped the classic Pyramus and Thisbe tale as a comedy bit in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1605.
In Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of the Shakespeare classic, James Cagney and Joe E. Brown were mechanicals (i.e., simple folks) portraying Pyramus and Thisbe respectively.
The Beatles Too. Probably the zaniest rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe appeared in a 1964 television special Around the Beatles.
Paul McCarthy portrayed Pyramus; John Lennon, Thisbe; George Harrison, Moonshine and the Mulberry Tree; and Ringo Starr, the Lion. British actor Trevor Peacock played Quince, the narrator; I’m unsure of the all-important Wall’s portrayer.
All in good fun.
By the way, have a Joyous and Peaceful New Year. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023