Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Getting lubed up...


...for FINALLY jumping into the Theodora-screenplay full-time next week. I am going to give myself the end of September and all of October to get at least 70% of this stuff down in raw form. Once that much is done, the last 30% and the revisions will be no problem. ("no problem" = famous last words)

I'm about 1/3 of the way through Prokopios's "The Secret History" right now; Pro was an advisor to one of Justinian's primary generals, Belisarios, and so had firsthand knowledge of the goings-on of Justinian's Byzantine court in the 500s, which he spills out in gossipy (but, for him, pained) detail here. Pro is an aristocrat and is completely dismayed by the, to him, vulgarity of the Justinian/Theodora court (and especially the vulgarity of Theodora's actress/prostitute past), which he thinks corresponds with the current chaos of the empire as a whole.

Pro is the PERFECT skeptical teller/framer of this tale!

And this particular version of the text (edited and translated by Anthony Kaldellis) also has amazing related texts, like Justinian's decree banning the empire's former law that men of wealth were forbidden from marrying former "actresses" (slash "prostitutes"). (Theodora was both.) And a history of the famous "Nika riots," in which warring "sports clubs" at the Hippodrome suddenly joined forces to rush the emperor's box. (Theodora's speech famously saved her husband's rule here.) Pro's earlier description of the "fans" thuggery and appearance in general is so modern-seeming in tone, the conservative's dismay at the degradation of society as evidenced by the fashions of its young people:

The first thing that the militants did was to invent a new hairstyle, cutting it in no way as other Romans did. They did not touch the moustache or beard at all, wanting the hair to grow out as long as possible, as is the custom among the Persians. [My note: That was a huge issue of the day--the conservatives' desire to stick with the "pure" Roman ideals versus Justinian's alleged fealty to "Oriental"/Persian ways that conservatives felt were encroaching on the older way of life. Saying that Justinian's supporters followed "Persian" customs was a put-down similar to today's Republicans saying that Obama prefers the "European" model of society!] But the hair on the head they cut in the front as far as the temples, while letting it hang out long in the back for no particular reason... [My note: An early version of the Mullet!] So they called this look 'Hunnish.'[barbarian] Then, when it came to their dress, they all wanted to be stylish and each wore clothes that were too ostentatious for his class...The part of the tunic that covers the arms they wrapped very tightly around the wrist but from there until the shoulders it hung loose like an immense flap. And so whenever they waved their arms as they chanted in the theaters or hippodromes or shouted support for their favorites, as was their habit, this part of the tunic would flutter up and out and give any fool the impression that the bodies of these men were so strong and brawny that they had to cover themselves with such garments, not thinking that in fact a loosely hanging and mostly empty tunic reveals how scrawny the body underneath is. Their cloaks and barbarian trousers along with most of their shoes were also classified as Hunnish by name and style.

Holy Moley! How GREAT is this guy from 550 AD bitching about the young gangstas of his time period! Their weird hair! Their weird clothes disguising their scrawny, unmasculine bodies! This isn't staid, "ancient" prose, it's plain old bitching, a la bloggers of today! It's FANTASTIC to read, and really gives a sense of the ACTUAL thoughts of someone of the time period.

Pro isn't all stuffy, though. As author Kaldellis points out in his lengthy intro to "The Secret History": "Perhaps it was after he had witnessed this string of [political/military] disasters [under Justinian's rule] that Prokopios began to experiment with the idea that the world was governed by chance (tyche) and not the providence that Justinian so believed was on his side. This notion of random chance would feature prominently in the historian's works..."

While Pro seems on the surface to be (to me, funnily) overly dismayed by the hooligans that he feels Justinian is allowing, even encouraging, to run amok, he's also much more importantly concerned with Justinian's persecution of various religious (and other) minorities, as well as J's reworking of existing laws to suit himself, in the name of being "divinely endowed" with God's permission to act as he pleases.

That's why Pro is such an interesting narrator for this tale: In many ways, he's an overt antagonist to Theodora and her stirring rise to power from nothing. But while his lurid going on about her prostitute past (while very interesting) seems like the niggling of an old conservative, he also has some legitimate points about her/her husband's abuses of power while in office. Including their mutual betrayal of close friends, like the skilled general Belisarios.

And GET THIS for a side story in the movie: Justinian's general Belisarios was married to Antonina. Like Theodora, Antonina came up through the lower-class "entertainment" world. Like Theodora, she married a powerful man. AND... Theodora and Antonina met and became life-long friends while on "the circuit" in their youth.

Says Prokopios about Belisarios's wife/Theodora's friend Antonina:

She had every intention of cheating on him from the start but took precautions to practice her adultery in secret, not because she felt any qualms about her habits, and certainly not because she had any fear of the man with whom she now lived given that, firstly, she never felt shame for anything that she did and, secondly, she had quite overpowered her husband with her charms and philters of seduction. No, it was because she was terrified that the empress might punish her. Theodora, you see, used to yell at her savagely and, as they say, to bare her teeth at her.

Later, Antonina and Belisarios had severe marital problems because A was sleeping with their adopted son! There was all sorts of maneuvering: B wanted to get rid of the "son" once he found out. A was madly in love with the son. Justinian wanted to help his general, but Theodora wanted to help her friend (and wanted A and B to be reunited), to the point of having B arrested, then arranging for it to look like A had been the one responsible for her husband's subsequent release... while simultaneously smuggling the adopted son back into the palace and hiding him away so that her friend Antonina could continue to sleep with him...!!) :)

Good lord. And you wonder where they get the term "Byzantine"! :)

Um, maybe this'll all take more than a month to get sorted out! :)

Framer/unreliable narrator/voice of semi-reason in some instances: Prokopios
Heroine: Theodora
Her humble upbringing at the Hippodrome as the resident bear-keeper's daughter.
Father's early death, mother's selling off her daughter as an "actress."
Teenaged prostitution/meeting with then-underling Justinian.
The couple's mutual rise to power. (We're still cheering them on, especially after Theodora's iconic speech during the Nika riots at the Hippodrome that saves her husband's rule...and that hearkens back to her own father's Hippodrome past and club affiliation, to which she will remain loyal.)
In power. (Theodora's weird psychological maneuverings, based obviously on her troubled past; Justinian's appeasement. She influences new laws helping women, while simultaneously reveling in personal vengefulness. We're with her for 2/3 of the movie, then in the last 1/3: Power does seem to corrupt. Moments of her clarity, though.)
Summing up with Pro's overall philosophy/wry commentary on what has just transpired: "the world was governed by chance and not the providence that Justinian so believed was on his side"

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