An interesting, wide-ranging selection of words and music.
Since ancient times poets, artists and composers have celebrated the ideal woman. Chaucer's famous poem, from which this programme takes its title, undermined and satirised this process: does abandonment, assault and suffering make for a "good" woman and what place do the murderous Medea and Philomela have in the parade of virtuous femininity?
What makes a good woman? Chaucer’s long poem, A Legend of Good Women, from which this edition takes its title, unfolds a catalogue of famous women from myth, legend and history assembled for their virtue and is told at the behest of Alcestis the Greek princess who died in place of her husband.
Ariadne, Cleopatra, Iphigenia and Philomela, amongst many others, jostle to tell their tales of suffering, suicide and abandonment. Ariadne left on an island by Theseus whom she rescued from the labyrinth and Minotaur; Philomela raped and mutilated by her brother in law; Iphigenia sacrificed by her father to speed the warships to Troy and the seductive and powerful Cleopatra undone by the loss of Anthony: it is misery that seems to bind them in a sisterhood of despair.
These powerful stories have been the source of inspiration for writers and composers and retold in poetry, music and opera until the air into which a nightingale (the bird into which Philomela is transformed at the end of her story) sings is clogged with resonance and the idea of goodness tipped towards victimhood.
Is Medea, most famous perhaps for infanticide, truly good; or Philomela who served the flesh of her nephews to her abuser? There’s a complicated knot of ideas entangling womanhood, and the Porphyria of Robert Browning’s startling poetic monologue, with tresses of seduction, pain and powerlessness.
In these stories if being hurt means being good what happens if the story is remade by the women at the centre of them as it is here in Carol Ann Duffy’s recasting of Penelope who is, most definitely, not waiting for Odysseus’ “too late” tread on the stair?
But it is Demeter with whom we are left. A mother whose love and powerful longing for her dead daughter seems to sing her back to life.
I must make time to listen properly during the week. I did hope they were not seriously proposing Browning's Porphyria in Porphyria's Lover as a role model! But these myths are still powerful tropes, I think.
Then we watched Serena Williams playing her tank-like tennis. No Porphyria, she.