THE ART OF THEATRE / Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: 11 Anagnorisis

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What else is in here?


Two snakes carved in gold. The goddess Athene

insists that all new-born babies are given them.

Yours were copied from your grandfather's.

Stand back]

There's one last thing. Say what it is.


From the first olive tree ever planted in Athens

I cut young leaves and wove you a wreath.

Leaves that grow on Athene's tree

stay green as the day they were picked. See?

Is that your face?

Are those your eyes?


To me yours are as bright as the god's own light.

You died, you were cradled beneath earth, sea.

Persephone held you. Now you're held by me.

I was dead] Mother,

you've given me life

for the second time.

ION by Euripides, English version by David Lan

SHEILA: You mean to say she's Annie Palmer?

JOHN: Yes.

SHEILA: My sister was a friend of Annie Palmer's cousin Linda. You remember Linda, Reg.

REG: She had a mole.

SHEILA: No she didn't, that was Elizabeth. Linda married the youngest Bodoni boy. There was three of them, Giulio, Maurizio and Terence.

MICHAEL: My dad had a partner Maurizio Bodoni.

SHEILA: He never, did he?

MICHAEL: He done a runner.

SHEILA: Well he would, wouldn't he. Too fast to live, he was. He would have whipped the rug from under a dervish. Did you ever hear what he did to Graham Frith?

MICHAEL; Who's Graham Frith?

LIZ: Graham Frith used to visit our mum.

SHEILA: Now ain't that extraordinary.

JAMES: Not really. Show me the man that didn't visit our mum.

SHEILA: It gives you a sense of a greater pattern.

THE NEIGHBOUR by Meredith Oakes

Act Two, Scene Four

THE Greeks developed it fast. In Aeschylus's The Choephori, the long-lost Orestes meets his sister Electra and identifies himself immediately. When Sophocles wrote the same scene in Electra, he teased the revelations out. Orestes discovers that they're brother and sister, but three pages of suspense ensue before he tells her, so that her anagnorisis (the word means 'recognition') comes as a vast exhalation of relief.

Euripides' Electra is richer in circumstantial detail but less powerful: anyone trying to make anagnorisis seem likely is bound to fail. It's a Utopian form, not a rational one. Euripides seems to have worked this out for himself, because the following year he produced a terrific example of anagnorisis-as-happy-ending. In Ion, mother and son are reunited with the help of the basket stuffed with identifying tokens in which the infant Ion was abandoned 18 years ago. Ion takes his rightful place as head of a broken ancestral line, and a glorious future is promised. Anagnorisis would continue on these lines for over 2,000 years.

The tokens became increasingly formal. In Aeschylus, brother and sister compare footprints, hair and a piece of cloth. Sophocles gives them a signet ring. Euripides maliciously points out that Aeschylus's tokens don't make sense and invents a scar on Orestes' forehead: the ancestor of a thousand anagnoristic bodymarkings.

'My father had a mole upon his brow,' says Viola in Twelfth Night. 'And so had mine,' chips in her brother. These are twins who've been separated for almost no time at all: they could recognise each other in the dark. But anagnorisis without tokens would be a barbarous affair, a mere 'Hi]' across the street.

Modern examples are few. Magical solutions are too upsetting to contemplate these days, and people who harbour pastoral notions of family tend not to write plays. So Miss Prism's handbag in The Importance of Being Earnest - a direct descendant of Ion's wicker basket - is a knowing joke. And in What the Butler Saw, anagnorisis reveals that mother and son have been having it off in a hotel linen cupboard.

The Neighbour shows good and evil fighting it out on a designer-bleak south London housing estate. In the final scene, while Sheila, Reg and the rest are delightedly discovering how interconnected they all are, a boy is dying on the concrete. So, up to a point, the anagnorisis is ironic.

But it's also poignant. At the most despairing moment of the play, a vanished world is evoked: a place of linked communities where people trusted, and even liked, each other. The belief that extreme happiness might exist - however rarely - makes the anagnorisis work. But this was always the case.

Next week: The Scene a Faire.

(Photograph omitted)