Actéon and Glory Denied
The story of Actéon’s meeting with Diana has been told by many. In addition to the classical Latin poet Ovid’s version of the myth in his fifteen-part books of poems Metamorphoses upon which Charpentier drew his libretto, this tale has been told by, amongst others, Palaephatus around 400 BCE, Apollodorus of Athens around 160 BC. and depicted by painters like Titian, Corot, and Gainsborough. The conclusion can, therefore, be that this is an important story dealing with an essential facet of the human experience. It can be condensed into the following facts: Two groups are separately out hunting. They are all hunters, but one group is female and non-human I.E. goddesses, and the other is male (humans). They share the same activity - hunting, and the same circumstances - a hot day in the forest. Both groups need shade and rest and retreat to secluded places in the forest to refresh themselves.
Both central characters, Actéon and Diana, joined by their groups, express the pleasurable freedom they experience due to the choice of a life of comradeship and hunting, excluding romantic relationships and domestic life.
But, crucially, they are divided by their fundamental difference of male - female, or human - goddess. When Actéon happens to see Diana and her huntresses bathing in a shaded pool, a line is crossed. He becomes a trespasser and an aggressor in the eyes of the huntresses. Whether his intentions are innocent or not is a central question with no clear answer. Think of being a woman safely bathing, discarding your weapons and clothing, and suddenly having a man standing there, fully dressed, probably armed, and knowing what frequently happens in these situations. Whether you are a goddess or not, the possibility of rape is enough to explain the rapid judgment of Diana. And so, Diana punishes Actéon with the only weapon at hand: the water from the spring and her powers to cast transformation spells.
Was the punishment appropriate and just? Here is another, even more central question this story is offering us.
Actéon is transformed from human to non-human, neither male nor female: a deer. From hunter he becomes prey. He becomes Other to both groups, and most significantly loses his voice. How would it feel to have your voice silenced? Actéon no longer has the power and control that he had previously possessed. It is completely wiped away. This “loss of voice,” however, is not only present in Ovid’s work. Throughout the course of time, there have been segments of our population that have felt their self-worth stripped away. In the present day this myth can be viewed as a political text relating to the loss of speech and the stigma of being an outsider in the eyes of the group. Having one's narrative defined for them is an experience relatable to those affected by different laws and policies in the world today. The loss of voice results in the loss of one’s identity – in Metamorphoses - throughout history, and today. And losing your voice means becoming unrecognizable, a prey to your own. Ultimately, losing your identity and your voice means losing your life.
Charpentier’s opera offers us a glimmer of redemption and a door to a less brutal future: the realization of our responsibility, of our loss, and the inescapable need for an open, sensitive heart,
Glory Denied can be seen as a story about the recent past in American history. I prefer, however to see it as a universal story about the cost of war. We can see the scars in generations upon generations in Palestine, Israel, Iran, America, Korea, Japan, Germany… the list is global and includes almost every nationality, every culture, and by extension every family, every child growing up with the invisible shadow of trauma present in the family. The rhetoric of war is about winning and losing, potential gains weighed against imagined losses. Yet the losses concern all involved parties and continue for generations.
This opera is also a deeply personal biography of a family. Tom Cipullo wrote the libretto and composed this opera based on the oral history about Jim and his family created by Tom Philpott. Philpott interviewed Jim, Alyce, the children, and many military personnel that Jim had worked with or been imprisoned with. What emerges is the agonizing distance between people with different experiences trying to find closeness and intimacy. How to express years of loneliness, years of never hearing anyone speaking your language or saying your name? How to convey the suffocating reality of caring alone for four children - the monotony, the feeling of losing your identity, your mind, your life? How to share what torture does to you? Pain does not necessarily make us more empathetic and capable of seeing each other’s prisons.
Healing can start with being seen and heard, yet society wants to forget in order to move on. Domestic labor is seen as a privilege. Heroes become nameless burdens.
This story doesn’t have a happy end. It doesn’t have an end at all. Yet if we allow ourselves to be touched by it, new beginnings can be chosen, small steps can be taken in new directions. That is what art can do, if we are willing.