Penelope flips the story of The Odyssey, telling it from the perspective of Penelope, the wife who waits for her husband, Odysseus, to return home from the Trojan War. The production is a unique musical journey, but it’s not the first time artists have re-centered the women who exist as side characters in Homer’s epic.
Authors Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have each written books in which women who are sidelined in The Odyssey become the one telling the story, and in 2017, Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate the text into English.
To get further context for Penelope, below are excerpts of these three writers discussing their work, giving additional insight into The Odyssey as a story and Penelope as a character.
Margaret Atwood on The Penelopiad, a 2005 novella told from Penelope’s perspective, which was also performed as a staged reading, with Atwood in the role of Penelope.
“Homer’s Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local — a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope’s parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumors circulating about her. I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in the Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.” —from Margaret Atwood’s Foreword to The Penelopiad.
“Atwood, as usual, has set herself a thorny formal task: take this mythical dutiful doormat, and make her fly. ‘What’s to say about someone who’s merely good?’ she asks rhetorically. ‘It was the Victorian idea that a lady should never get her name into the paper, except for three times in her life: born, married, died. Other than that, you stayed out of public view and concerned yourself with the healthy home. So that was the fate of Penelope. But, as she says in the first chapter, I don’t approve of this version. There’s more to it, and to me.’ ” — The Independent
Madeline Miller on Circe, a novel about a minor goddess in Greek mythology. In The Odyssey, Odysseus lives with Circe for a time and fathers her children.
“When I look at The Odyssey, I see at one level the story of an exhausted war veteran who is desperate to get home to his family. And when he finally gets home to his family, he discovers that it’s much harder to re-enter his old life than he thought it would be. I think that’s a story that can echo down through the generations.
But I think we can even go a step further than that and say this is a story about longing for home. The Greek word for homecoming, which is what Odysseus yearns for through the whole Odyssey — is “nostos.” It’s where we get the English word “nostalgia.” It’s the pain you feel when you miss home. And I think we’ve all felt that way. We’ve all had those moments where we feel lost on the waves and surrounded by monsters and wishing for safe harbor. I just see so many universal human experiences. So it speaks down through the centuries.” — Vox
“I wanted a woman to speak her own story, and to give her the same scope that male heroes have by right. Women have traditionally been shut out of epic, but women’s lives are epic too. Which really shouldn’t be revolutionary, just standard practice!
I was inspired by the themes of the Odyssey, which is, among other things, the story of a weary man yearning for home. Circe too yearns for home, but unlike Odysseus, she doesn’t have an Ithaca waiting for her. She has to discover that home, and carve it out for herself, in defiance of a world that is hostile to her.” — Women’s Prize for Fiction Q&A with Madeline Miller
“What we see is that Circe, in the Odyssey she’s really just a cameo in Odysseus’ life. He shows up, he has an interaction with her, he leaves, and she disappears from the story.
And what I wanted to do was flip that completely and put her at the center of the story and make Odysseus the cameo. So, I wanted him to occupy the same space in her life that she occupies in his, i.e., not very much, and to really focus on sort of a woman’s life. “— PBS Q&A with Madeline Miller
Emily Wilson on her translation of The Odyssey
“ ‘If you’re going to admit that stories matter,’ Wilson told me, ‘then it matters how we tell them, and that exists on the level of microscopic word choice, as well as on the level of which story are you going to pick to start off with, and then, what exactly is that story? The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.’
Throughout her translation of the Odyssey, Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.
‘I do think that gender matters,’ Wilson said later, ‘and I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with. I’m trying to take this task and this process of responding to this text and creating this text extremely seriously, with whatever I have, linguistically, sonically, emotionally.’ ” — The New York Times