Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Samson and Delilah - melodrama and biblical narrative.

I like music, I like listening to it. As I write this, I have the radio on playing classical music from ABC's classical music network. Over the last few years I seem to have moved from listening to more popular music to classical. Apart from the intricacy and variety of classical music, think another reason is that on the classical music stations there is generally a lot less talking than on other stations. I used to listen a lot to 'talking radio' in the form of ABC's Radio National, which I once described as the jewel in the crown of Australian radio. Sadly, I think it's been considerably run down over the years - Howard's revenge. I persisted with their breakfast program into last year, it had basically replaced the daily newspaper. But last year, following the change of government, I found that it had not moved on. All the commentary remained stuck in Howard era style politics. Quite frankly I'm past it. It's not relevant to the real issues facing this country or the planet. Mainstream media discourse on current affairs, including the ABC's, is basically irrelevant to those important issues. And I'm not really interested in confected dramas about trivialities or the ongoing perusal of arcane poll data, especially when it relates to Opposition figures. I just don't care. And life's too short to be caught up with such irrelevant ephemera.

So I ended up listening to Classic Breakfast with Emma Ayres. The music is quite varied and often rather fun too and she doesn't seem to thnk that we are all tuning in for the sound of her voice. The program includes some fun regular segments and one I rather like is 'Tears on Toast' which each week plays excerpts from one of the great melodramatic operas. I'm not into opera much but, in this format, you can enjoy the campy quality of opera but in short daily doses.

This week's opera is Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah. I think it's the first biblically themed one I've heard and I've been struck by the way this opera demonstrates the way biblical narratives are taken, adapted even completely rewritten in such cultural appropriations. This rewriting relies on a general cultural familiarity with the story and its characters but also a complete cultural ignorance of the details of such stories.

The story of Samson is a classic example. Samson is generally regarded as a heroic figure, perhaps because he epitomises the masculinist dream of possessing superhuman strength. He's superpowerful, he's got to be a hero hasn't he? My response is, just go read the story for yourself. When I read Samson's story in Judges, the overall impression I get is that this guy is not only a sociopath but a particularly stupid one too.

But back to the opera. I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first aria played in yesterday's Tear son Toast but my attention was caught by Emma Ayres' description of events afterwards. The aria is Samson's and in it he calls on the Hebrews, who are slaves to the Philistines in Gaza ,to rise up against their oppressors. Of course, the biblical narrative contains NO such rallying cry by Samson or anyone else and Samson never leads any Hebrew uprising. He never leads anyone and seems only to ever follow his own desires in whatever he does.

I thought I'd find out a bit more about the opera's story and went looking for a synopsis. I found one here at the Music with Ease site. It describes the events around the aria from the first act as follows:

Before the curtain rises we hear of the Philistines at Gaza forcing the Israelites to work. When the curtain is raised we see in the background the temple of Dagon, god of the Philistines. With the lamentations of the Jews is mixed the bitter scorn of Abimelech. But Samson has not yet expressed a hope of conquering. His drink-inspired songs agitate his fellow countrymen so much that it now amounts to an insurrection. Samson slays Abimelech with the sword he has snatched from him and Israel’s champion starts out to complete the work. Dagon’s high priest may curse, the Philistines are not able to offer resistance to the onslaught of the enemy. Already he Hebrews are rejoicing and gratefully praise God when there appear Philistines’ most seductive maidens, Dalila at their head, to do homage to the victorious Samson. Oh what use is the warning of an old Hebrew? The memory of the love which she gave him when "the sun laughed, the spring awoke and kissed the ground," the sight of her ensnaring beauty, the tempting dances ensnare the champion anew.


Oh my, pure soap! Totally cheesy and bearing no relationship to the biblical story whatsoever. And so I have to laugh when I read elsewhere on the same site that, "'Samson and Delilah' is in three Acts, and the libretto has so faithfully followed the Bible story that there is no need to outline the text." Clearly the writer has never read Judges. But the story of Samson is one that is abroad in the culture and everyone remembers it as a great man - a hero - undone by a scheming woman. Saint-Saens clearly plays with that element in his opera and so everyone thinks he has been faithful to the narrative.

I'm sure the opera is delightfully cheesy and melodramatic. But if you really want melodrama befitting the daytime soaps. The biblical story of Samson can't be beaten. As I said this man is at least a totally self-obsessed individual or a sociopath. He never leads anyone, he never issues clarion calls to the Israelites, he only follows his personal agendas. He has the rather disturbing habit of going berserk every so often but, unlike the judges before him, he never shows a whit of interest in doing anything for the Israelites.

He is a wildman and in a Gothic way rather humorous, or should I say comic. Comedy certainly is the only way to read the account of Samson's miraculous conception in Judges 13. Not many people know that Samson marries a Philistine woman. His treatment of this woman is appalling. He is also quite a stupid man. His interactions with Delilah show him to be a complete klutz. One can also read Delilah as the arm of Fate, paying Samson back for the treatment of his wife.

Given that the whole narrative is drive by Samson's desires, which all too often bring grief to others and finally himself, it really is the stuff of soap opera. It's a nasty soap opera but I guess soap needs a certain amount of schadenfreude to engage its audience. I think that with Samson any possibility that Judges is a heroic narrative is ripped apart. One can say that Jephthah is a tragic character of sorts but you can't say that about Samson. After Samson, the world of Judges just spins apart. He is the transition point.

Poor old Delilah gets treated as a femme fatale but I like to think of her as the avenging arm of hubris. In the end, even she fails - in Judges pretty much everyone fails - Samson can call on the berserker within even without his hair and that rage unleashed will go on to infect the people of Gibeah and destroy the Benjaminites and culminate in the massacre and pack rapes at Jabesh Gilead and the pack rapes at Shiloh, defiling the sacred festival at the national sanctuary in Shiloh itself.

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