13. "Xena", season 1: "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards"

Athens City Academy

This brings us to "The Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," featuring Euripides himself as a key player. He's depicted here as a pretentious young man who takes things just a little too seriously. He's eager to feel deeply about his stories, but lacks perspective, and this makes his words so full of self-importance that he can hardly be understood. Where did the writers get their inspiration for this kind of depiction? Steve Sears, who co-wrote the episode, said it was based on Euripides' pompous style, but depending on which translations we read, Euripides doesn't come across any more self-important than other Greek writers. I've read a number of commentaries on Euripides, but I don't recall any description of his style as pompous. I assume the writers don't read ancient Greek, so how did they get this impression? They can only have gotten it from one source: his arch-rival, Aristophanes, who poked relentless fun at him. One play in particular stands out: "The Frogs," about a contest in Tartarus among the greatest deceased playwrights: Dionysus will sit in judgment, and bring the winner back to life, if it can be proven he is the best.

That play is likely the basis for this episode. We have four playwrights, one of which is Stallonus, the comedy relief: this corresponds to the three tragedies/one satyr play pattern of the Festival of Dionysus. Xena is not featured--she's off dealing with a cyclops, signalling to us that Euripides will be influential here, and the theme of blindness will be important; Gabrielle is the lead instead, fulfilling her dream of attending the academy of performing bards, but in a way, she's going to battle her own share of cyclopes, metaphorically speaking. She doesn't really attend classes as planned, though; she soon discovers she's already too experienced for them, having made the leap into first-hand observation, and the story will focus instead on the life-lessons she has for these budding storytellers. Always pay close attention whenever a character with creative power discusses the power of creation, such as a writer talking about writing, because that's often where you'll get some idea of the author's attitude towards his own craft.

Gabrielle meets a young man named Orion whose overbearing father won't let him tell his stories the way he used to enjoy doing it. Now it's all about the competition, and meaningless rules and rituals that must take the place of actually enjoying the process of storytelling: "My dad wants me to be able to adjust my story if I see the slightest hint of boredom or distraction. When I was little, I didn't look at anybody, I just used to close my eyes and try to see the story take place. I didn't care whether the audience liked it. Only whether I liked it." In lines like these we can glimpse the frustration of the ten years between "Crimewave" and "Xena". The name of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert's production company, Renaissance Pictures, indicates a grand ambition: to revive the old way of entertaining an audience by listening to one's instincts, rather than keep one worried eye on a restless audience. "I'll bet your father misses the good stories you use to tell as much as you do." The father is the Hollywood studio that wants to recapture the old magic, but has forgotten how. The artist, therefore, needs to show, not tell, how this is done.

As the students tell their stories, we get more of a glimpse of the producers' thinking: clips from a Steve Reeves movie illustrate one; that's the style the producers rejected for their "Hercules": all action, no point. "What's the moral?", Gabrielle wonders. Orion's first story is about the Titan Atlas, which just so happens to be featured on the final "Hercules" episode! This may not be a coincidence: according to chapter 134, note 8 in "The Greek Myths", Atlas was considered in some versions to be the last of Hercules' labors. Euripides begins to tell the story of Xena, the evil warrior princess, in harsh, scolding terms, but he's interrupted by Gabrielle, who tells him about her desire to change her ways. Euripides is moved by this, and can barely find the words to thank her. Like the real Euripides, he's not afraid to learn firsthand, from the bacchae herself! We're seeing here, according to the "Xena scrolls," the true, lost influence of the female world on Euripides that will express itself later on in his plays, and like Gabrielle, he will also become a chronicler of Xena's adventures, although under different names, of course. He'll stand by Gabrielle, when the headmaster tries to throw her out of the competition: "Then we shall all join the army of the dispossessed. The Muse's call shall not play lord over my soul's higher self." In real life, as we know, he would choose exile over fame when it came time to leave Athens. There even seems to be a nod to "Black Orpheus," when Euripides declares: "Twelve: the blessing of the Zodiac. It bodes well." There's a scene in the movie when Orpheus shows Eurydice a blanket with the designs of the zodiac, a foreshadowing of the cyclical nature of their relationship: it's eternal and repeating. This line foreshadows season three of "Xena", where we'll see the zodiac used to make this very same point.

Orion's choice for a story that will satisfy himself as well as the audience is one that's already been used on "Xena" and "Hercules": "Spartacus". The scene he chooses to tell (with clips from the film) show Spartacus on the cross, seeing his son being taken from the city to his freedom, by his wife. Here we glimpse the last episode of "Xena,", and it shouldn't surprise us that Orion, who gives away the endings of both shows, is in fact Homer. According to Graves, Homer told exciting stories of the men who conquered Troy, but in fact, was sympathetic to the sea goddess-worshipping Trojans01. Gabrielle is therefore an influence on Homer, and associated with the sea goddess, a pattern throughout the show, and made explicit in episodes like "Married With Fishsticks". The very last line of Graves' books reflect something unspoken in this episode, though Rob Tapert spoke of it in interviews: the idea of having Gabrielle the true author of "The Odyssey." This was explored by Graves, and it makes sense that she's seen leaving the academy to rejoin Xena, whose story is based in part on Ulysses. This is one of many hints that Gabrielle is the author of "The Odyssey," and Xena its star, whether the point is made explicit or not.

We're not told why Homer chooses Orion for a nom de plume in this episode: he wants a heroic-sounding name, and we first think of Orion the hunter. Once again we must consult Graves and find the real subtext: Orion was a hunter who fell in love with Merope, the daughter of Dionysus's son, Oenopion, who refused to give her up in marriage..."One night Orion, in disgust, drank a skinful of Oenopion's wine, which so inflamed him that he broke into Merope's bedroom, and forced her to lie with him. When dawn came, Oenopion invoked his father, Dionysus, who sent satyrs to ply Orion with still more wine, until he fell fast asleep; whereupon Oenopion put out both his eyes and flung him on the seashore."02 Orion eventually regained his sight after visiting the cyclop's lair, selected a guide and travelled to the farthest Ocean, where the Dawn fell in love with him and restored his sight. We see the influence of Dionysus, the wine and the cyclops, and the motif of losing one's sight. This is adapted to this episode in several ways: the father has lost his creative vision and is blinding his son's; Homer must regain it by seeking what he loves, and he does this by closing his eyes, a kind of willful blindness that's necessary for creativity by allowing a deeper kind of inner sight.

Euripides

Euripides is a secondary character here, but that does not reflect his true status: his comic treatment here is both inspired by Aristophanes, and is an inside joke, given his actual influence. Going back to the question of where the writers got their concept of him, we need to ask how they came up with his distinctive dialogue: it's fancy, but not apparently from any actual quotes from his plays, at least, not in recognizable form. So what sort of English is he speaking, anyway? As it turns out, he's speaking a theatrical form of Victorian English, and it can only come from a turn-of-the-century translation of Aristophanes' plays, done by an anonymous translator03. Looking at those plays, we can see where the inspiration for his silly lines come from. For example, this line: "The cadence of your words played havoc with the fallen visage of my yearning spirit," shows Aristophanes' use of the word "cadence" to mock Euripides, or any kind of fancy talk. Often he'll pack tons of words like this in a single line, just to press the point. In "The Thesmophorozusae," he has Euripides declare: "In this way, when Aether separated the elements and bore the animals that were moving in her bosom, she wished to endow them with sight, and so made the eye round like the sun's disc, and bored ears in the form of a funnel." In "The Frogs," the inspiration for this episode, he has Dionysus himself mock Euripides by quoting from him derisively: "Aye, creative, who dares to risk 'the ethereal dwellings of Zeus', or 'the wing of Time,' or 'a heart that is above swearing by the sacred emblems,' and 'a tongue that takes an oath, while yet the soul is unpledged.' Hercules listens to this and dissuades him from choosing Euripides as chief playwright: "But such things are simply idiotic, you feel it yourself."

There are other possible revelations if we listen closely to Euripides in this episode. Most interesting is this quote by the young playwright, when telling Gabrielle he'll miss her if she leaves the competition: “Your farewell is not reciprocated. The morning dew must not touch the curvature of your fleeing souls." That last line leapt out at me, after reading "The Bacchae". To be more specific, after reading E.R. Dodds' annotated edition of "The Bacchae," which I believe may have been consulted for the show, since Dodds is considered the chief authority on this play, and is referred to many times by both Graves and Eliade. It's an odd line, and it's not clear how a writer would come up with it without any kind of source to play off of. It doesn't really make sense, but it's not completely nonsensical, either. It sounds like a mangled version of another line. Which line? Perhaps this one, when the messenger describes the superhuman strength of Dionysus:

"And then the Stranger
Performed some wondrous deeds -
He reached to the top branch of a
Fir tree as tall as the sky and pulled it
downward, down, down till it touched the
Black earth and it formed half a circle
Like a bow drawn back or the wheel-curve
That's traced by the taut end
Of a pegged string. That is, with his bare hands
The Stranger bent the mountain fir in a way
No mortal could."


The part that stands out is: "the wheel-curve that's traced by the taut end of a pegged string." In Dodd's notes, he explains that the image of a tree being bent down to the earth like a bow is compared by Euripides to the tracing of a path by a string tied to a peg...in other words, in a circular fashion, as a carpenter would measure out a wheel. The words are changed a bit for "Xena": "trace" becomes "touch", "wheel-curve" becomes "curvature". That the line still doesn't make much sense indicates that not enough time was spent on it to fully adapt it to the point Euripides intended to make, but so as long as it sounded fancy and obscure, the writer's work was done and he left it at that. If this is indeed the source, that leads us to ask another question: why did this line from "The Bacchae" stand out for them? The answer is obvious when we read its context: its describing an action sequence, wherein Dionysus (in disguise as the Stranger) uses a tree as a catapult to fling Penthius into the air. We'll see this same action on "Xena", much later on in the last season, in "Dangerous Prey". Indeed, according to the writer of the teleplay for "Dangerous Prey", Joel Metzger, it was Rob Tapert who suggested the catapult scene:

"Rob Tapert is always throwing things in like, 'Let's put a forest fire in,' or, 'Let's have Xena do a catapult out of a tree and throw a girl two miles in the air!', and you're thinking, 'How can they shoot that?' As a writer you're not used to producers who are responsible for shooting the shows actually coming up with these kinds of crazy ideas!"04

We can be sure, then, that this sequence had been filed away for reference from the very beginning, by the show's creator who has already explained how he kept track of the mythic references in Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. Since he held this particular reference until nearly the end, this is a strong indication that such references were used throughout as a unifying, organizing principle, and were not merely an early--or later--part of the show's evolution.

This episode imports into "Xena" an idea introduced on "Hercules": the band of young people who must find some way to fill the shoes of their elders. We saw it a year before in the "Hercules" episode, "Ares," where the god of war was an evil mentor to children. Where did this pattern arise from? Probably from the same movie that gave birth to "Xena": "The Bride With White Hair." We know this film was crucial to the show's vision, but its sequel was just as important. In "The Bride With White Hair 2," the Bride has eliminated the clans that opposed her, leaving only their students. They must help each other to use their skills to confront the vengeful Bride, with only one remaining teacher, an old woman, to guide them on their path. A number of episodes drew on this film for inspiration, and eventually it would lead to one spin-off, "Young Hercules," and in an indirect way, to another, "Cleopatra 2525."



01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 163: note 2
02The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves,, ch. 41, section b
03"The Eleven Comedies", by Aristophanes, published by Athenian Society in 1912, translator unknown
04Xena Magazine #22 - Interview with writer Joel Metzger

Previous/Next

The Types and Patterns of All Things Xena  > Free To Be Euripides: Chapter Index

Back to Home menu