the dialogue was performed by Jeanne Pansard-Besson and Denis Maksimov at The Palace of Ritual during the opening days of the 58th Venice Biennale Arte in May 2019.
1. Weaving Penelope’s web
They rush the marriage on, and I spin out my wiles. A god from the blue it was inspired me first to set up a great loop in our royal halls and I began to weave, and the weaving finespun, the yarns endless, and I would lead them on: ‘Young men, my suitors, now that King Odysseus is no more, go slowly, keen as you are to marry me, until I can finish off this web... so my weaving won’t all fray and come to nothing. This is a shroud for old lord Laertes, for that day when the deadly fate that lays us out at last will take him down. I dread the shame my countrywomen would heap upon me, yes, if a man of such wealth should lie in state without a shroud for cover.’ Despite their pride and passion they believed me. So by day I’d weave at my great and growing web—by night, by the light of torches set beside me, I would unravel all I’d done. Three whole years I deceived them blind, seduced them with this scheme. Then, thanks to my maids – the shameless, reckless creatures – the suitors caught me in the act, denounced me harshly. So I finished it off. Against my will. They forced me. And now I cannot escape a marriage, nor can I contrive a deft way out.
No one could oppose my task, it was so extremely pious. All day I would work away at my loom, weaving diligently, and saying melancholy things like, ‘This shroud would be a fitter garment for me than for Laertes, wretched that I am, and doomed by the gods to a life that is a living death.’ But at night I would undo what I had accomplished, so the shroud never got any bigger.
To help me in this laborious task I chose twelve of my maid-servants the youngest ones, because these had been with me all their lives. I had bought them or acquired them when they were small children, brought them up as playmates for Telemachus, and trained them carefully in everything they would need to know around the palace. They were pleasant girls, full of energy; they were a little loud and giggly sometimes, as all maids are in youth, but it cheered me up to hear them chattering away, and to listen to their singing. They had lovely voices, all of them, and they had been taught well how to use them.
Though we had to do it carefully, and talk in whispers, these nights had a touch of festivity about them, a touch—even of hilarity. Melantho smuggled in treats for us to nibble on—figs in season, bread dipped in honeycomb, heated wine in winter. We told stories as we worked away at our task of destruction; we shared riddles; we made jokes. In the flickering light of the torches our daylight faces were softened and changed. We were almost like sisters. In the mornings, our eyes darkened by lack of sleep, we’d exchange smiles of complicity, and here and there a quick squeeze of the hand. The shroud itself became a story almost instantly. ‘Penelope’s web,’ it was called; people used to say that of any task that remained mysteriously unfinished. I did not appreciate the term web. If the shroud was a web, then I was the spider.
But I had not been attempting to catch men like flies: on the contrary, I’d merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself.
2. The Killing
‘Quick, report in full on the women in my halls – who are disloyal to me, who are guiltless?’ The women crowded in, huddling all together... wailing convulsively, streaming live warm tears. First they carried out the bodies of the dead and propped them one against another. Odysseus shouted commands himself, moving things along, and they kept bearing out the bodies – they were forced. Next they scrubbed down the elegant chairs and tables, washed them with sopping sponges, rinsed them clean. (...) And then, at last, once the entire house was put in order, they marched the women out of the great hall – between the roundhouse and the courtyard’s strong stockade – crammed them into a dead end, no way out from there, and stern Telemachus gave the men their orders : ‘No clean death for the likes of them, by god! Not from me – they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too! You sluts – the suitors’ whores !’ With that, taking a cable used on a dark-prowed ship he coiled it over the roundhouse, lashed it fast to a tall column, hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground. Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings against some snare rigged up in thickets – flying in for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them – so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death... they kicked up heels for a little – not for long. (...)
‘But which maids?’ I cried, beginning to shed tears. ‘Dear gods— which maids did they hang?’
‘Mistress, dear child, he wanted to kill them all! I had to choose some—otherwise all would have perished!’ ‘Which ones?’ - I said, trying to control my emotions. ‘Only twelve,’ she faltered. ‘The impertinent ones. The ones who’d been rude. They were notorious whores.’
‘The ones who’d been raped,’ I said. ‘The youngest. The most beautiful.’ My eyes and ears among the Suitors. My helpers during the long nights of the shroud. My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves.
3. Cunning gods
The immortals, givers of all good things, stood at the gates, and uncontrollable laughter burst from the happy gods. (...)
Who is to say that prayers have any effect ? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t ? I picture the gods, giggling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’. Twenty years of my prayers had gone unanswered. But, finally, not this one. No sooner had I performed the familiar ritual and shed the familiar tears than Odysseus himself shambled into the courtyard.
Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, recognising the strong clear signs Odysseus offered.
She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms around his neck and kissed his head. I knew that the beggar was Odysseus. There was no coincidence. I set the whole thing up on purpose. I didn’t let on I knew. If a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of is own cleverness. The songs say I didn’t notice a thing because Athena had distracted me. If you believe that, you’ll believe all sorts of nonsense. In reality I’d turned my back on the two of them to hide my silent laughter at the success of my little surprise.
Athena held back the night, and night lingered long at the western edge of the earth while in the east she reined in Dawn of the golden throne at Ocean’s banks. Once she thought he’d had his heart’s content of love and sleep at his wife’s side, straightaway she roused young Dawn from Ocean’s banks to her golden throne to bring men light and roused Odysseus too.
He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away. He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seductresses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me. Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation - almost the compulsion - to do otherwise? And what did I amount to once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears - yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.
4. Maids’ choir
We had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
one face the same
we took the blame
it was not fair
but now we’re here
we’re all here too
the same as you
and now we follow you,
we find you now,
we call to you to you
too wit too woo too wit too woo too woo.