We’re roughly at the halfway point for the NaNoWriMo writing challenge. I’m a bit behind on word count (only about 11,000 out of 50,000 words), though not critically so. I’m not too worried because I will go through at least one bipolar cycle between now and the end and on the up cycle I can average 5,000+ words per day.
In my last post I mentioned that, instead of writing a novel, I wanted to write some essays on moral philosophy. I have a couple of first drafts done, but I don’t want to post them until I’ve rewritten them a couple times. Have no fear, though, they’re coming. In the meantime, I do have something that is ready: The following will be packaged as bonus features for a webcomic that I am creating. Please imagine that it is contained in multiple tabs on a sidebar under a menu button called “About”. Have the visual? Good.
Oh, if you want to see a preview of Poison Fruit, the webcomic, you can click here for the first half-dozen pages. Keep in mind, though, that this is still early days and I may decide to change things before I go live.
A Little Background
Poison Fruit was meant to be a movie. Ever since, several years ago now, I first read Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, I have wanted to create an adaptation that would make it accessible to 21st century audiences, while still maintaining the atmosphere and pathos of the original. If possible, I also wanted it to be set in space. Those were the two things I knew for sure, all of the other details fluctuated as I kept the project on the back burners of my mind. I considered different media: live action, stop motion, marionettes. Different formats: a feature, an OVA, a streaming television show. Different scopes: would it be just Duchess, or would I bring in material from other Jacobean plays? I also thought about the world itself. For a year or more I was decided to make all the characters extraterrestrials. If there were any humans at all, they would be in strictly supporting roles. But as I explored the concept, I realized that if I wanted to make them relatable, I would need to make them fairly human. And, as much as I love Star Trek, we don’t need any more green-painted women or otherwise human characters with bumpy foreheads. If I was going to have aliens, I wanted to make them alien, but Poison Fruit is a human story.
Around the time I had a pretty good conception of the project, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make it work on video. To tell the story wanted, I would need, at the minimum, a full season TV show. My production company is, for the most part, a one-man-band operation. Animated productions typically employee dozens, if not hundreds, of specialists. Even if I could somehow raise the money to hire them all, and find a place for all of them to work, I have neither the experience not the administrative support structure to show-run that size production, which meant I would have to give up a lot of control to someone else.
I was a bit stuck until the webcomic idea occurred to me. I like to joke that a comic is just an animated movie with an extremely low frame rate. In a comic, as compared to a movie, I can dispense with all of the animation between keyframes, all of the audio and accompanying lip-sync, and most of the editing. By going with more of a manga aesthetic I could use simpler backgrounds. By doing it mostly in grayscale I could eliminate most of the color design work and all of the color grading, while significantly simplifying my texture and lighting work. And besides, the manga is almost always better than the movie, so why not just make the manga?
So there you have Poison Fruit, a movie adaptation of a play expressed as a web comic.
The Lure of Italy
The period that we think of as the Renaissance was fleeting–sightly less than 200 years, depending on which start and end dates you choose. Many historians consider it to have begun in the second half of the 1300’s, when Italian literature and art began breaking away from the medieval conventions which had circumscribed them for centuries. It was winding down by the mid 1500’s, under the influences of the Spanish occupation and the counter-reformation, events which quashed the violence and vice, and the chaos and corruption of Italy at the expense of her creative and economic energy. Hardly any Englishmen had anything to do with the renaissance, and few of the famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were even alive when it happened. [There is a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics that seems apropos, though I am likely quoting it incorrectly: “The renaissance was just a bunch of Italians poncing around that the English didn’t hear about until 100 years later.”] And yet, Renaissance Italy exercised an incredibly pervasive influence on early modern English popular culture. We know that translations of Italian books, especially the trashy ones like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, from which Webster adapted Duchess, were Elizabethan best sellers. In Shakespeare’s comedies references to Italy and her cities can usually be interpreted as “a generically exotic foreign locale”, and he travels there frequently. While some of his greatest tragedies are set elsewhere, even he can see that Italy is the natural background for Othello’s crimes of passion and betrayal, and Romeo and Juliet’s feuding noble families and semi-accidental double suicide. By the reign of James I Italy was the preferred setting for the most horrific tragedies: Gothic murder-fests like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, or sordid tales of incest, mental illness, and more murder, like Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. These plays must have sold seats, because they kept writing them.
What exactly was the English’s fascination with Renaissance Italy? Vernon Lee, in her essay “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists” in her book Euphorion offers some insight:
The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the philosopher and the ethical judgement of the Puritan. To these men, ardent and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian civilization the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically fascinating.
Since it is now in the public domain, I have gone ahead and placed a copy of the essay here. The full book is available from Project Gutenberg. The author’s thesis is that since both the immorality and grandeur of Renaissance Italy so far surpassed anything to be found in England, the stories of them provided fuel to launch English literature to height never before (and perhaps never since?) attained.
And so, we have two Italies. One is the real Italy of the mid 1300’s through mid 1500’s. We can never know exactly what it was like, since we weren’t there, but history and archaeology can give us a general idea. The other is the Italy of the early modern English popular imagination, with it’s every crime and aberration sensationalized and blown out of proportion, loaded with casual anachronisms and, for all relevant purposes, eternal. These two Italies have some character names and geography in common, but they are not in the same world.
And to these two I add a third. Just as those old Elizabethan and Jacobean writers took their inspiration from the real Italy to create a world for their imagination, I have used the Jacobean Italy to create an Italy in the outer solar system, which I call Poison Fruit.
There, now that I have the really meta part out if the way, I can go into specifics. That is, I’ll be as specific as I think I can be without dropping spoilers.
The World of Poison Fruit
No one knows who invented space travel. It must be ancient, though, because spaceships are mentioned in Homer and the Bible. They were cruder things than modern ships, though; just look at all the trouble that Ulysses and Jonah had.
Throughout history, great empires have risen, conquering large segments of the solar system. At its apex the Roman Empire ruled everything from orbit of Mars to the moons of Saturn. Not only did they enlarge existing orbital habitats and build new ones, but it is sometimes even claimed that they had the technology to land on planets and take off again. No one entirely believes that last part, though, since it is well-known that entering such a large gravity well is simply a flashy way to commit suicide.
Alas, the Empire succumbed to internal stresses and waves of barbarian invaders from the outer system. A dark age began in which most people focused on subsistence, and it was too dangerous and expensive to stray too far from home. Rome itself, one of the oldest and largest habitats and the seat of the Church, lost much of its population and much of its influence, except within its own immediate vicinity in the asteroid belt. At one point the French even forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon! Other Italian habitats, or individual cities within habitats, did better, especially those like Venice and Genoa who managed to maintain their fleets and keep up a steady, albeit local, trade.
In recent generations, though, Italy has grown wealthy again. Her popes, bankers, mercenaries, and merchant princes bring the treasure of all of Christendom to her coffers. Her artists and engineers are the envy of the system. Granted, there are still threats to this prosperity. The recent conquest of the habitat of Naples by France has shown that the European powers have grown strong enough to be a threat. Piracy is rife everywhere. The Turks, though humbled by their defeat a few years ago at Lepanto, are still a powerful force. And, worst of all, Italy herself is plagued by constant small wars between individual cities and factions. Lucky is the habitat that doesn’t have at least one war going on between its cities at any given time. Lucky is the ruler of a city who can keep the local nobles from slaughtering each other in vendettas. Overall, though, things are going well and Italy is once again, for the first time in centuries, the center of the Christian universe.
Families and Factions
House Aragon is one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Not only do they control a newly unified Spain with recently established colonies in recently explored parts of the system, but the have extensive holdings in the rest of Europe, as well as a marriage connection with the current Holy Roman Emperor. The head the family is King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, but he isn’t in this story. The Aragons in this story are his second cousins, former members of the royal family of Naples, before its conquest by France. Now they are mere vassals of the French viceroy. Granted, they still control the Duchies of Calabria and Amalfi, as well as a cardinalship in Rome, but these honors hardly compare with the rule of an entire country. They seek to mend their fortunes, remembering better days and more prosperous relatives.
House Orsini is an ancient patrician house of Rome, able to trace their roots to the founding of the city. At least, that’s what they say. What is known for sure is that since the dark ages Orsini have been involved in Roman politics. The other thing they are known for is their recurring feuds with House Colonna, another ancient Roman family. What some people have not realized, at least until it was too late, is that the Orsini and the Colloni are quite capable of joining forces against any third-party that tries to muscle into their turf. Between the two of them they control the majority of the eternal city’s military assets, as well as numerous men in key positions of authority, both secular and religious.
The senior Orsini are adept at walking the line between suave, cultured nobles and gangster bosses. Not that they see any conflict between the two. Their current “Prince” is Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, near Rome. Besides their seat at Bracciano, a junior branch of the family holds the County of Pitigliano, also near Rome.
House Medici is by far the wealthiest family in Italy, as well as the absolute rulers of the Tuscany Habitat and its capital city, Florence. The current head of the family is Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici. He was a highly successful condottiere, or mercenary general until the main branch of the family died out and he inherited the throne.
Rumors of crimes of brutality and lust attach to the Medicis as they have done to no house since the fall of the Borgias, over a generation ago. Most of these stories seem to have been spread by jealous rivals. On the other hand, it is well-known that Cosimo does what he wants, without reference to the laws of God or man.
While smaller habitats exist, built on different patterns, the majority of people in the solar system live in what, in another universe, are called Stanford Toruses. They are gigantic (tens of thousands of square miles of surface area) doughnut shaped objects that spin to produce artificial gravity. A system of mirrors transmits light more or less evenly onto the surface, while most harmful radiation is absorbed by the outer rim. The terrain inside every habitat varies, with each having its own combination of coasts, mountains, rivers and other landforms.
No one knows who originally built the habitats. While the commoners believe it was the Romans, it seems more likely that they just repaired and expanded what was already there. Whoever the builders were, they believed in massive redundancy, generous factors of safety, and minimizing the number of moving parts—which is probably why so many habitats are still livable.
The microgravity hub area of each major habitat contains vast manufacturing and storage spaces, most of which are only partially explored. There are probably large areas where no man has entered since ancient times. No one alive knows what most of the equipment does or how to use it. However, there are certain common items that any spacefarer knows how to recognize and put to use, like life support and thruster modules. The ancients left generous stockpiles of the most common sizes, which can easily be bolted onto contemporary hulls (built of wood, wrought iron, canvas and other mundane materials) to create functional space ships.
One process that has not been lost is the art of making very thin, strong solar sails….though the actual machines and the technique of using them is a closely guarded guild secret. All ships that sail out of sight of a habitat carry solar sails in addition to thrusters because thrusters are not only expensive, but they sometimes fail and, when they do, no one knows how to repair them. Also, thrusters burn phlogiston (a.k.a. hydrogen) which, while it is cheap and available at the space port of any habitat, takes up space that could otherwise be used for cargo. For these reasons long-distance freighters and cruisers rely on solar sails for their primary means of propulsion.
Guns and gunpowder have been around for two and a half centuries, and cannon have long since replaced catapults and ballistas as artillery, both within habitats and in space. Black powder weapons work in a vacuum as long as a high oxidizer powder is used. “Space powder” is less powerful than that used in atmosphere, but the lack of air resistance makes up for the reduced muzzle velocities at all but the shortest ranges.
Matchlock arquebuses, though they can be a bit aggravating, are common infantry weapons. Wheellock weapons are also available and are more reliable and don’t require walking around with a burning match. However they are also several times as expensive, and never issued to common soldiers. There are also still plenty of bows and crossbows around. They take more practice to master than guns but they tend to be more accurate and reliable. Also, sailors and marines dislike matchlocks for the simple reason that they live next to large tanks of highly flammable phlogiston.
Poison Fruit is its own world, with its own history. For those who would like to know more about the worlds that inspire it, though, the works below are good starting points. Many of these are available for free download at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org).
Plays About Italy
The major plot arcs in Poison Fruit are adapted from these plays so, while I recommend them highly, you might want to wait until the manga is done before reading them, to avoid spoilers:
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi.
Webster, John. The White Devil.
These three tragedies have a similar atmosphere to the Webster plays and are set in what I think of as the same world. They were inspirational for Poison Fruit but did not directly affect the plot:
Ford, John. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (a.k.a. Giuliano and Annabella).
Shakespeare, William. Othello.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
For those who still haven’t had enough, here is a further sampling of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays set in Italy:
Jonson, Ben. Volpone or The Fox.
Marston, John. Antonio and Mellida (Parts I and II).
Marston, John. The Malcontent.
Massinger, Phillip. The Great Duke of Florence.
Massinger, Phillip. The Maid of Honor.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The Palace of Pleasure was one of the most popular sources of story ideas for the playwrights. It is an anthology of early modern English translations of Italian and French stories, referred to as “novells” (though, by 21st century standards, most of them are closer to short story length). The plot of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is taken directly from Volume 3, Novell 23. While it is purportedly a true story, it’s unlikely that the original author did any fact checking.
Painter, William. (1566). The Palace of Pleasure (3 Volumes).
Stendahl’s book is a translation of an eyewitness account of the events that inspired The White Devil. Webster himself probably got the story from another (now lost) novell.
Stendahl. (1837). Vittoria Accoramboni.
In addition, anyone who really wants to get a feel for the era would do well to read anything by Boccaccio, Dante, and Machiavelli. Dante and Boccacio wrote at the beginning of, or just before the renaissance and their books remained best sellers right up to the end. Machiavelli wrote at the end of the period. His books are the quintessential summation of Renaissance thought, right at the turning point into what we think of as the “modern” age. The three most important works are:
Boccaccio, Giovanni. (c. 1350). The Decameron.
Alighieri, Dante. (1320). The Divine Comedy.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. (1532). The Prince.
There are far too many books on Renaissance Italy and early modern drama for me to try listing them all. A few that I’ve found particularly useful are:
Durant, Will. (1953). The Renaissance. Simon and Schuster.
Hill, Wayne F. & Örrchen, Cynthia J. (1991). Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Witt. Mainsail Press.
“The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists”. In Lee, Vernon. (1882). Euphorion (Volume I).
Norway, Arthur H. (1901). Naples, Past and Present.
Staley, Edgcumbe. (1900). The Tragedies of the Medici.
Today this blog returns to the Greek theater with the works of Aristophanes. Aristophanes is the only writer of the Greek genre known as “Old Comedy” for whom complete plays have survived. Comedy, which tends to rely on pop culture references and current events, is often an ephemeral genre. The fact that Aristophanes’ plays still get laughs 2400 years after their first performance is the main reason they have survived so long. Like Shakespeare and Molière, he is one of an exclusive group of comedians whose work is timeless.The earliest extant Aristophanes play is The Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE when he was about 20 years old. Acharnia is a rural region of Attica which was particularly devastated by the Spartans’ annual raids during the Peloponnesian War, forcing its inhabitants to live as refugees within the walls of Athens. The Acharnians trivializes the Athenians’ reasons for going to war and criticizes the state for not making peace. The main character, Dicaeopolis, is an Athenian farmer who manages to negotiate a personal peace with Sparta, allowing him to live a comfortably hedonistic life, free from the hardships of war. Cameo characters of Euripides and Lamachus (whom we met in Thucydides as one of the generals of the Sicilian expedition) make appearances as Dicaeopolis’ next-door neighbors. In the final scene we see Dicaeopolis packing a food basket and preparing for a drinking party while Lamachus packs his arms and prepares to repel a Spartan attack (Euripides has long sense retired to an attic to bury himself in his poetry). At the close of the play Lamachus is carried back on stage, having been injured in battle, while a tipsy Dicaepolis wobbles in supported by two flute girls. It is simply incredible that a young playwright was allowed to ridicule state policy in time of war, and even make fun of a popular general. This is even more exceptional in that the play was performed in the Dionysian theater during one of the most important religious festivals of the year. It would be as if, at the height of World War II, the Church of England sponsored Benny Hill to write a play, put on in Westminster Abbey as part of the Christmas program, in which the main character mocked the government and made a personal peace with the Nazis. This would never have happened, even in England.
Admittedly, Aristophanes frequently ended up in hot water for his criticism of Cleon, but Cleon’s revenge took the form of private lawsuits, and he was never effective at shutting the playwright up. If anything, Cleon’s response seems to have inspired Aristophanes to greater heights of polemic. For example the next play we have, The Knights, is one long personal attack on Cleon.
Donald Kagan, in his open Yale lecture series, makes the point that the right to free of speech is one of the main factors that set the Athenian democracy apart from other Hellenistic governments. The Athenians considered it one of the most critical aspects to a functioning democracy. This is interesting, because when we think of the Athenian democracy, we tend to think of the Assembly. In fact, however, nearly every Greek city had an assembly, normally made up of all citizens of the Hopelite class and above. Only Athens had complete freedom of speech–in the assembly, on stage, and everywhere else. Contrast this to Sparta, where an Assembly vote was required to ratify declarations of war and some treaties. In these meetings the regular Spartans, who may have been mustered in ranks, were not allowed to speak. The council offered them a yes or no question and they voted by banging on their shields, with the louder side carrying the vote. In fact, Spartans did not even enjoy freedom of speech in private; Sparta was known for having one of the most efficient and ruthless secret police forces in the ancient world.
The United States today is more like Athens than Sparta. The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, and there is effectively no censorship of the theater. Even the the censors of broadcast media tend to be more concerned about obscenity than politics. This is a fairly recent state of events, though, particularly in war time. At any point from the Civil War to at least the end of the 1960’s a public performance criticizing the government during war would have landed the writer in federal prison. It was only with the backlash against McCarthyism, followed by the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s, that Americans began to take back their First Amendment rights.
Today, as in Classical Athens, freedom of speech is essential to Democracy. I have written in the past that Democracy, as a political system, seems to be on the wane. Once artists no longer have freedom of political speech, we will know for certain that it is finally gone.
Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war. Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted. Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty. None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift. Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.
Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history. “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics. He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids. Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.
Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human. He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich. The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles. Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander. When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death. There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,
[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.
His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern. Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics. He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,
“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “
Many are unconvinced. For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.
We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often. From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica. He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.
One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is. The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society. Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis. Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere. Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war. He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born. Alcibiades served only Alcibiades. He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them. In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.
One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished. Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble. He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently. But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings. Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.