Friday, January 17, 2014

The Goddess Phoebe in Manhattan

the rewrite

The following essay does NOT contain any spoilers beyond a throw-away joke at the beginning of a play.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to live in NY and only went to see plays when visitors came in from out of town and forced me to go. One such occassion involved a very distant friend (1) who bought us tickets to see the play Communicating Doors (1994) by Alan Ayckbourne. This would have been about 1998.

To avoid spoilers, I must tell only a very minimum version of this joke.

An attractive young woman in an outrageous skin-tight leather outfit is invited to a hotel room in London. She is a "specialist" she says, a dominatrix, no sex. Her nickname is "Poopay" which is not an appropriate stage name for her specialization so she is looking for a more dignified name, perhaps "Severa". This name should connote the idea of a goddess and inspire awe and fear in her customers.

Our Goddess in human form from the San Francisco Production

Another character, a respectable older woman, asks her what her real name is. "Phoebe", she replies, in total disgust at the outrageous fortune that has assigned her such a wimpy first name.

The whole audience laughs.  What's so funny, I thought. Why is everybody laughing?

Then I remembered my classical mythology and realized, of course, Phoebe is the name of a Goddess. Well, OK, technically she is a Titan, one of the sets of children of Uranus and Gaia, and traditionally associated with the moon. But I think that from this distance a Titan can be considered to be goddess for all theatrical purposes.

I was entertained by the notion that the playwright would write a throw-away joke that required knowledge of Greek mythology/religion (4) and expect the audience to get it.  And of course, I thought it was amusing that in fact the audience in NY did in fact get it.  I would not expect that to be the case in most of the country, but hey, maybe I am wrong.  Maybe on the East coast this kind of knowledge of classical civilization is part of the standard kit of people who go to the theatre. 

Out here in Hollywood, I do not think we would make this kind of assumption.   No one would be assumed to know Greek religion/mythology unless it happened to be featured in a recent graphic novel. Perhaps if some underage pop star or ingenue called herself "Phoebe the Goddess" on television or the internet only then could one be expected to know this bit of cultural information.

It is this understanding and appreciation of the American audience and, by extension, the world audience, that makes American films so popular and approachable, I think.  (3) In other words, we dumb it down or in some cases, don't bother to hire writers that would know this kind of stuff to begin with.  That is the best way: ignorance is good for commerce.   


1. Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.

2. By prompting I mean, there was nothing that would indicate a reference to Greek religion was about to occur. Had this been a performance of a play by Euripides, for example, then that would be a different matter.

3. How do we know for certain that American films are the best? By that one key attribute by which all American cultural works are judged: the amount of money it generates, possibly adjusted for inflation and exchange rate. That one criteria above all else condenses all the vague and subjective qualities of a creative work into a single, objective index of excellence. And it is the genius of our culture and civilization to recognize this and put all our energies and resources into this one overarching goal: make more money.

4. Greek religion was always presented to me as "mythology" which implied some sort of fictional folk belief.  Actually, what we call mythology is a form of deprecation, the Greek's thought of it as religion and were quite devout about it judging from some of the votive deposits that have been found and described in literature.   So where you see the term "mythology" applied to the Greeks, just substitute "religion" and you will be much closer to the reality.


See also:

Communicating Doors (1994)
David McCallum's Notes on Communicating Doors

Phoebe on Wikipedia

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