Sunday, October 23, 2011

THE EMPRESS

S. and I had talked about the Byzantine Empress Theodora years ago, tossed around the idea of a screenplay. The idea, as with everything else between us, petered out. But I still kept thinking about Theodora. I'd first discovered her after watching a History Channel show on the end of the Roman Empire. (The Eastern part of the Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, lasted centuries after the fall of the Western part in AD 410.) And was struck by the TV-show account of Theodora's singlehandedly standing up to the hordes at the Hippodrome who were trying to overthrow her husband (the Emperor Justinian). In the midst of the chaos of the revolt, she convinced her husband and advisors to stand and fight, when they were all ready to give up and take flight. Thanks to Theodora, they did make a stand, and Justinian's rule was saved.

Who the hell WAS this woman?

I did a little research at the time, and learned that she was born the daughter of a bear-keeper at Constantinople's Hippodrome. When her father died when she was little, her mother guided her 3 daughters onto the stage in order to make money for the family. ("The stage" at that time included prostitution.) A young (not-yet-Emperor) Justinian met her while she was performing, and the rest was pretty much history...

Interesting to me. But then after I shared the idea with S. and the idea went nowhere, I let it go. A couple of days ago, though, when I was at the library, I typed in a search for "Theodora" just for the hell of it; apparently there's a brand new 2011 book out about her that the library's still waiting to get. I put myself on the waiting list to check it out. And then found another book about her -- "Theodora: Empress of Byzantium" by Paolo Cesaretti (2001), that I hadn't read yet. This author fills in a lot of historical detail that I didn't know about. I'm only a hundred pages into it, but he's already provided several striking occurrences in her life that made me think of A MOVIE.

One scene is: After Theodora's bear-keeping father died, her mother took her 3 daughters (Theodora the middle one) to the public Hippodrome before all the masses to beg a city official in the stands that the bear-keeping position be continued with the new step-father in their family. (Otherwise the family would have been destitute.) The city official (who had officiated at the funeral of the father; both he and the father were members of the "Green" team of the Hippodrome -- one of 4 stadium competing teams, who fought lions and bears, etc.) stared at the kneeling mother and daughters and then pointedly turned his head away from them. The crowd was silent; the kneeling mother and her daughters were humiliated. Until... a call came from the other end of the stadium... from a rival team, the "Blues." The leader of the Blues called the family over to join them.

How frigging dramatic and screen-worthy is that? The betrayal of the Greens, her father's team, and salvation by the Blues... ESPECIALLY knowing that, years later, Theodora would again be confronted with the Hippodrome teams when trying to publicly save her emperor husband...

After reading this kind of stuff, I started taking notes on a screenplay: Main Characters, Historical Notes, Important Plot Points...

A couple of years after the above public Hippodrome humiliation and temporary salvation, Theodora's mother started to pawn off her daughters sexually for the family's financial survival. Here are the notes I wrote about that under "Important Plot Points":

Mother guides daughters to perform on stage, for financial survival. [Actresses considered barely better than whores; they often performed nude or nearly nude and were expected to have sex with rich patrons.] Oldest, Comito (then around 15), becomes actress/courtesan, with Theodora (around age 12) appearing in Comito’s retinue as a boy. Both must perform sexual acts. (Since Theo too young to be considered a “real woman,” she, per her “boy” appearance, is allowed to be sodomized.) Comito, as a beautiful woman and featured performer, has sex with upper-classes, while Theo must have sexual relations with lower classes. [This will come into play later when Theo is in power --- though she is a relatively fair ruler, she will, however, force many “ladies” in her court to marry working-class men.] During this time, Theo known for being somewhat of a clown, overtly sexual, not a great actress, more of a “pal” (i.e., “fuck buddy”) than a real actress/temptress. [Her sister Comito takes herself and her “art” seriously; Theo does not.] Procopius bitchily reports that during this time period, Theo often after a show dined with 10 upper-class youth, having sex with them, then – allegedly unsatisfied – finishing the night off with their slaves. He also reports that Theo publicly wishes for more orifices with which to satisfy her lovers. (!) [I see this as part of her “whatever” attitude – she’s in a horrible position, forced to make the best of it, and she takes it to the extreme.]

That stuff is too powerful. And not made up! And just the first third of the movie! She hadn't even met Justinian yet!

Just what I needed: some inspiration. I have always not minded working crappy jobs as long as I had a creative project to come home to.

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