Monday, February 20, 2017

From Page to Stage: On the Origins of Caeneus and Poseidon

by Bridgette Dutta Portman (Playwright and Coproducer)

Caeneus and Poseidon originated as a one-act play written for the 2012 San Francisco Olympians Festival, an annual festival of staged readings of new plays inspired by mythological figures. My subject was Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses, and so I set about reading the various stories surrounding this figure and came across the myth of Caeneus.
One gift for all: she said; and while she spoke,
A stern, majestick, manly tone she took.
A man she was: and as the Godhead swore,
To Caeneus turn'd, who Caenis was before.

-- Ovid, Metamorphoses
According to myth, Caeneus was a powerful Lapith warrior in ancient Thessaly who began life as Caenis, assigned female at birth. (I am going to refer to mythological Caenis using gender-neutral pronouns, as it is unclear from the original myth how they identified prior to their transformation.) One day while Caenis was walking along the beach, the sea-god Poseidon saw them, was overcome by lust, and -- as the Greek gods were wont to do -- raped them. Poseidon then apparently felt remorseful and offered Caenis a wish. They wished to be transformed into a man, and Caenis thus became Caeneus, and lived the rest of his life as a mighty warrior until the Centaurs, mortal enemies of the Lapiths, defeated him at the wedding of Hippodamia and Pirithous. As Caeneus was invulnerable to weapons, the Centaurs piled tree trunks upon him, forcing him down into the earth until he transformed into a golden bird and flew off.

This play was inspired by the myth, but as you'll see, it doesn't follow it exactly -- and there are ways in which it departs from it quite a bit, particularly the ending. I see the myth as a starting sketch, not as a mold.  I was fascinated by the myth of Caeneus because it’s a lesser-known story that features a different kind of hero from what which we typically see in classical mythology, and because I felt it was a story whose themes could be highly socially relevant today. The play is set in a rigidly patriarchal society in the ancient world. I intend, though, for audiences to come away thinking about gender norms in our own world, and the ways in which people are stigmatized for defying expectations about how women and men ‘ought’ to look and behave.  The play is primarily about a man with a gender identity that does not match his assigned sex at birth, but it is also about the way in which all people face consequences for challenging socially-delineated gender roles, and about how moving beyond a binary and anatomically-based notion of gender is necessary for a more tolerant, compassionate and free society. Ultimately, this play is a story of triumph -- the tale of a man who braves great odds to find self-confidence, love, and acceptance in a society unwilling to see him for who he is and has always been. As a cisgender person aware of the limits of my own life experience, I am deeply grateful to the transgender and nonbinary actors and artists who have read and offered feedback on this script.

I hope you'll join us in March for 
Caeneus and Poseidon!

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