part one: penelope

J.W. Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891.

The first image I had for I sat and waited but you were gone too long was of Penelope. She was sitting in the middle of a room absolutely filled with cloth, her fingers bleeding into the fabric as she stitched. The white cloth gradually filled with her blood as she wore her fingers down to their bones.

The Odyssey is an ancient epic poem fundamental to the modern Western canon. When I had this first image I had never read it. When I did, I realised the image I had of Penelope was not unfounded – there is a particularly breathtaking craft to Homer’s production of Penelope’s servitude.

Many scholars believe Homer’s composition was focused towards an oral tradition – his words were intended to be heard rather than read. To achieve this, he used a great deal of repetition in his writing (the easier for the epic poet/singer to remember what he [it was of course unlikely that these positions would have ever been filled by women] was singing).

The auburn-haired Menelaus –

The cunning Odysseus –

The bright-eyed Athene –

And so on – every character is identified by their own personal epithet, and great swathes of speech and description are repeated word-for-word throughout the 10000 line poem.

Personality is distinguished by speech that is not repeated. That is, an individual is marked by unique text, by what is stated only once. Individual speech marks individuality. It is here that Homer’s craft kicks in – Penelope’s individual speech is negligible. She is a patchwork rug of repetition. We have no sense of her own voice – her fears, her failures, her desires and her joy. She does not speak, except for oft-repeated moaning about her grief and longing for Odysseus to return. Realising this, I decided to create a response to The Odyssey that would emancipate her from this patchwork narrative.

This emancipation would be wrought by The Sirens, set on revenge against a man who listened to their music and did not die. They would free her and thus condemn Odysseus to meaningless wandering. Penelope is his home – his return to Ithaca is a return to her – and without her his twenty-year journey would instead be shown for what it was, a self-interested circumnavigation as hollow as a shell. 

As the idea for this work evolved, however, it came to depend upon Homer’s misogyny less and less. What had been a reaction against a language that denied female selfhood has become something else (something hopefully more interesting, for it seems obvious in our current times that Penelope should/would not wait). Despite this, the trace of these key female figures – the waiting woman, the song-girl – can be seen in the two women of I sat and waited.

Here is the Prologue from an earlier version of the show, a version that still depended on The Odyssey for its framework.


The Woman’s origin story. This is to incorporated into the production somehow, although not as a Prologue and probably not in its current form.

After ten years’ worth of war, the cunning Odysseus could sail home. The courage of his fellow soldiers had condemned them to heroic deaths. Odysseus was a more mortal man though. Perhaps not so noble, but a survivor in his lack of nobility.

Odysseus knew his beautiful wife Penelope was waiting for him with their young son Telemachus in Ithaca, their island home. What Odysseus did not know was that Ithaca thought him dead already, killed on the shores of Troy.

In Odysseus’ absence the men of Ithaca clamoured for Penelope’s hand. Like fat geese, they called for her answer. She never said yes. She never said no. Instead, she wove a funeral shroud for Odysseus’ elderly father Laertes. She promised her commitment to one of them once it was finished. She forestalled this promise by undoing her daily work each night. A trick.

Odysseus had no such scruples. Whilst Penelope was wearing the flesh off her fingers he spent eight years in the bed of the goddess Calypso, and another twelvemonth with Circe the witch.

His desire for pleasure was only matched by his desire to live. This was proved when his ship sailed by those treacherous rocks over which the Siren reigned. Half-woman, half-bird, she cast her sweet nets of song to entangle sailors. Blind to their impending doom, these starlight-driven men would only recover as they heard their shipwood splinter and felt the cold dark sea rush in at their feet.

But the cunning one, Odysseus, was stubborn. He knew how he could hear this monstrous temptation and live. He ordered his men to bind him to the mainmast of their ship with arm-thick rope, and then to steer toward the cliffs.

As they set their course for those treacherous rocks, a great battering of wings filled the air and the birdwoman swooped towards them. Her song was deep and full, a maple-dew-filled well. The sailors did not let their ship be cast about by the vicious sea though. The cunning ship captain had filled their ears with a soft honey-wax that was immune to sound. It was Odysseus alone that sank under the Siren’s death-sweet net as her feathered breast soared above him.

As she sang, he saw his waiting wife, the beautiful Penelope. 

He saw the courage of his comrades falling for their brothers.

He saw himself alone, tied to a cold shipmast that would not absorb the sun.

The Siren quickly realised his trick and beat her breast in fury, spraying bloodied feathers about the boat. She let out a great cry like an eagle-mother when her chicks have been taken from her nest.

But her grief was held in check. She could see something new in the captain’s eye. Her song had filled his throat with longing for his home and an end to his wanderings.

Once gone, the sailors unplugged their ears and untied their master. 

“I am tired of wandering. I wish for no more goddesses to feed me, or to hear this Siren-song. I want only to hold the hand of my wife, the beautiful Penelope.”

But Odysseus had been gone too long. Penelope had been betrayed and The Suitors had found out her trick. They had cried out ‘Choose, or we will lay waste to Ithaca and all you hold dear.’

But she would not say yes and she would not say no.

Odysseus’ return across the great and terrible sea was to an Ithaca of cobwebs and ghosts. The Suitors had disappeared. His people were silent. His son Telemachus was alone. Penelope’s bedchamber was empty, save for a half-finished shroud and a single bloody feather.

His love had vanished, and with her his home.

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