πτοιώδης καὶ ὑποδύσκολος: Richard Armitage plays shy and awkward…

I should be grading some papers right now, so of course I’m writing a blog post…it has to be brief though, those students might revolt if I don’t have their papers tonight!

Fortunately, I have just the thing…When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago last fall, moving through the Of Gods and Glamour:  The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art, the raison d’etre of that pilgrimage to Chicago,  I noticed this vase:

Attic Red Figure Hydria attributed to the Leningrad Painter - mid 5th century BC

Attic Red Figure Hydria attributed to the Leningrad Painter – mid 5th century BC

(This is a photo that I shot and I apologize for the glare in some spots…the high gloss fire of the slip along with the curve of the vase and the halogen spots in the exhibit was not a winning photographic combo.)

This is a  beautifully preserved vase dating to the period when Athens was reaching the height of its political and cultural influence.  The central couple was what really caught my eye…a couple who appear to be engaged in a rather shy kiss between a woman and much taller man.  His left arm is around her waist, his right appearing to hang awkwardly between them as he stoops over.

At face value, this scene reminded me very much of the body language used by Richard Armitage in his role as John Standring in Sparkhouse (BBC, 2002).

Wow, this is awkward...(John Standring and Carol Bolton on their wedding night)

Wow, this is awkward…(John Standring and Carol Bolton on their wedding night)

Richard Armitage does a great job embodying the shy awkwardness of John Standring as he interacts with a much smaller, but much more worldy Carol Bolton (Sarah Smart).  His hesitance, his great care to measure his movements towards her, his willingness to let her take the lead, sits in touching contrast to his much larger physical presence.  (I got the impression he would have stood in that stairwell all night had she not taken his hand to lead him up the stairs.)  This is one of my favorite things about Richard Armitage, how he uses tiny cues to make himself believably vulnerable despite his imposing physicality.

Close up...what is that hand actually doing?

Close up…what is that hand actually doing?

For all that I appreciate the superficial similarity of scene, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that hesitance and shyness is probably not the intended tone of this vase painting.  Yes, this is a much taller man bending to reach a shorter partner, but the difference really lies in how one “reads” that sort of awkwardly hanging right arm.  Without prior knowledge, it is easy to interpret this as an inexperienced young man who’s not quite sure where to put his parts during this embrace…that is a possible reading, but it would be unusual to see such a scene in the Corpus Vasorum (yes, that is an actual term 🙂  )  In fact, that arm is most often read by scholars as cupping toward her crotch…so much for shy and awkward!

I can’t for the life of me see “Sweetie John” moving in for the full frontal grope!  Although…..who knows, Carol might have made a lot of different choices if he had 😉

John Standring and Orpheus: “Haunted” Lovers

I’ve yet to touch on Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Standring in Sparkhouse, the BBC’s 2002 take on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  A question from Guylty (Hi Guylty!) about stories of haunted lovers in the classical tradition started the wheels cranking, and here we are.

What the modern mind would call  “love stories” are rare in the classical tradition.  Romantic love does not seem to have been viewed with much favor in the ancient world.  In a period where marriages were social and economic contracts between families, love had no place in the equation.  The notion that a couple would marry for reasons of emotional attachment was ludicrous – perhaps such an attachment might grow over time, but it was certainly not grounds for making such an important connection.  Usually, classical “love stories” have less than happy endings.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of stories of infatuation and lust in the classical tradition…stories like Achilles and Penthesilea, Apollo and Daphne, and many others touch on these themes, but rarely is there the boy and girl fall in love beyond place and time variety.  More often than not, someone ends up dead (usually the woman/nymph) and the other party (usually the man/god/hero) recovers nicely, largely unfazed by his brush with love.

One myth that breaks the mold a bit on this pattern is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.  As with many mythological figures, there are a variety of stories of his birth, life and death, but all of the authors agree that Orpheus was the greatest of all the Greek musicians.  His skill as a singer and lyre player were so great that it was said that he could calm wild animals with his songs.

Orpheus soothes the wild beasts from  Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus soothes the wild beasts Roman Mosaic in Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The love of Orpheus’ life was a woman named Eurydice, but their love was short lived.  On their wedding day, while dancing through a meadow to Orpheus’ song, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus was so devastated by her death that he traveled to the Underworld to bring her back.  This is usually a big no-go for the Greeks…heroes go to the Underworld, but only to converse, never to reverse.  However, Orpheus’ song was so beautiful that it charmed the King and Queen of the Dead (Hades and Persephone) into releasing Eurydice, and lulled the three headed hound Cerberus to sleep so that the reunited couple could sneak by him on their way out.  There was one condition of Eurydice’s release though…Orpheus was not allowed to look back to make sure she was still following him….

orpheus and eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice – figure on far left is Hermes Psychopompos (leader of souls) preparing to take Eurydice back to the Underworld …
Source: Wheat Ridge, Colorado. UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc42461/.

You guessed it, Orpheus couldn’t resist temptation and was compelled to look back to assure himself Eurydice was there.  That was a deal breaker and Eurydice was returned permanently to the Underworld.  Orpheus was so distraught that he removed himself to the remotest reaches of the wilderness, turning away from humankind and playing his sad, sad song to the animals.  That is until the day he ran afoul of some maenads…

Death of Orpheus Source: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Death of Orpheus
Source: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

It never ends well for Greek men who meet up with a group of maenads…suffice it to say the Orpheus was killed in heinous fashion (some later art focuses on only his head, if you get my drift)  Not exactly a fairy tale ending, but it is a love story where the hero is moved to action by love.  It’s the whole fate thing that trips him up – for the Greeks, there is no avoiding fate.

(Interestingly, Plato, in the Symposium criticizes Orpheus as a coward for trying to bring his love back to the living rather than simply joining her in death – once again, the connection between love and death.)

John Standring...who wouldn't love him? Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

John Standring…who wouldn’t love him?
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

How does sweet John Standring fit into this mess?  Well, he’s not a great musician, but he does exude a remarkable kindness, a sweetness, that is very compelling to Carol…she is attracted to it, even against her better judgement that she will inevitably hurt him.  John is willing to go above and beyond for Carol in virtually everyway, but fate had another plan…

"Don't be afraid to tell me things..." *sigh* Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

“Don’t be afraid to tell me things…” *sigh*
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Carol wants to stay with him, she knows he’s good for her, but something is pulling her back…

John helps Carol out of the ruins... Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

John helps Carol out of the ruins…
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

In this scenario, Carol’s destructive passion for Andrew is the Underworld – it exerts an inexorable pull on her…one that she, like Eurydice, cannot resist, one which leads her away from life, from John.  The closing frames of Sparkhouse show John, with Lisa’s help, leading Carol away from the ruins of her doomed desire for Andrew…although the film leaves it to the viewer to decide their ultimate fate, I can’t help but think that their future is not much brighter than that of Orpheus…lingering in the remnants of haunted love.