American Beauty (1999). Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay by Alan Ball.
Euripides, Hippolytus (428 BCE). Translated by Anne Carson in Grief Lessons: Four Plays. New York Review Books 2006.
Warning: contains spoilers.
American Beauty begins with a piece of evidence: a teenage girl appears to be recruiting her boyfriend to kill her embarrassing father. We learn soon afterward, from the father’s own voice-over narration, that he will soon be dead. Will the daughter’s boyfriend kill him? Late in the film, Lester’s distraught and unfaithful wife heads home to confront him, packing a loaded gun in her purse. The film, running like a murder mystery in reverse, drops a series of clues, and encourages the viewer to speculate about how Lester Burnham will eventually meet his death. The problem is that most of the clues are false. The film is about, among other things, the difficulty of interpreting the things in front of our eyes.
Is Ricky Fitts a dangerous psycho? Is Angela as confident and sexually precocious as she acts? Is Lester as much of a pathetic jerk as his daughter Jane thinks he is? What exactly are Ricky and Lester doing together as Col. Fitts watches from next door? What lies behind Col. Fitts’s military discipline and intense homophobia? In Ricky’s dresser, there’s a drawer with a false bottom that conceals his stash of pot—a good metaphor for a film in which everyone has something unexpected inside, in which surfaces mislead.
The tragedy hinges on a mistaken impression, and on the actions that proceed from that mistaken impression.
The same can be said of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus. Hippolytus, son of Theseus, is a chaste young man who worships the virgin goddess Artemis. Nothing is more distasteful to him than the thought of soiling himself with a woman. Hippolytus is a masterpiece of misogyny; he says (in Anne Carson’s smart, quick-moving translation):
O Zeus! why have you settled on men this evil in daylight,
this counterfeit thing—woman?
If you wanted a human race,
there was no need to get it from them:
men could pay down a sum of cash in your temple
and buy their offspring,
each according to his property value,
and dwell in houses free of females!
A charming young man. In his devotion to the virgin goddess, he has scorned Aphrodite, the goddess of love—perhaps the most potent god in the pantheon. Aphrodite opens the play by declaring that Hippolytus will die for his rejection of her. As in American Beauty, the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion. It’s simply a matter of when and how.
Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta. His stepmother, the wife of Theseus, is Phaedra, whom Aphrodite causes to fall desperately in love with Hippolytus (much as Lester is inappropriately smitten with Angela, his daughter’s friend). When Hippolytus finds out about Phaedra’s passion—through the treachery or miscalculation of one of Phaedra’s servants—he is appalled. Phaedra, fearing dishonor more than death, hangs herself—and leaves behind a note claiming that Hippolytus has raped her. The fate of Hippolytus hinges on this deceptive note—this false signifier, this misdirection.
Euripides interested in truth and difficulty of discerning it. How can we know what is true, or right, or good? Socrates argues that if we know what is good, we will act upon it. To know the good is to do the good. Phaedra, in the midst of her passion, is not so sure:
Not from bad judgment
do people go wrong—many are quite reasonable—
but look, it’s this:
we know what is right, we understand it,
but we do not carry it out. Either from laziness,
or we value something else, some pleasure.
This seems like a direct response to Socrates. In the Hippolytus, nothing is straightforward, everything is duplicitous. Even the word shame, so central to the play, has a double meaning: for Hippolytus, “shame” has positive connotations of modesty, for Phaedra it signifies disgrace. “If right action were ever clear,” Phaedra says, “these two things wouldn’t have the same name.”
There’s an interesting lexical connection between Socrates and Hippolytus that has always intrigued me, altough I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. Near the beginning of the play, Hippolytus keeps his distance from Aphrodite, saying that, being pure, he “greets her from afar” (πρόσωθεν…ἀσπάζομαι). At the beginning of Plato’s Charmides, Socrates, returning from the battle of Potidaea, goes out to meet and converse with some of his friends. Most of them “greeted [him] from afar” (πόρρωθεν ἠσπάζοντο), but like a madman Chaerephon jumps up to greet him. Chaerephon goes on to introduce Socrates to a beautiful boy named Charmides, with whom Socrates discusses the nature of sophrosyne, or “temperance” (or “modesty,” or “restraint,” or “self-control”). The restraint of most of Socrates’ friends is contrasted with Chaerephon’s “manic” welcome, and the scene is set.
It’s difficult to make connections between a play performed in 428 BCE (the year of Plato’s birth) and a dialogue composed in 380 BCE. Plato could be consciously echoing Euripides; Euripides could possibly be consciously echoing the historical Socrates. From afar, it’s difficult to know. We do know that 428 was the year in which the Athenians crushed a revolt in Mytilene and voted to slaughter or enslave the city’s inhabitants—a decision revoked after the famous “Mytilenean debate” recreated in Thucydides. In that debate, Diodotus argues that Mytilene should be spared. This is the good and moral course of action, but Diodotus argues not from goodness and morality, but from expediency and self-interest.
Robert Zaretsky argues: “[the Mytilenean debate] marks the first step away from the realm of Periclean discourse—language which is built on a one-to-one correspondence between words and the things denoted by the words; it is an almost transparent language that treats men as if they are moral and virtuous beings. With Diodotus, we have slid to a new and more familiar kind of discourse—one which panders and deceives, albeit for good ends.”
When confronted by the apparent disjunction between Hippolytus’s outward goodness and modesty and his inward criminality (as testified to in Phaedra’s letter), Theseus says:
What human beings need is some clear index
of who is a friend and who is not—
a diagnostic of the soul—
and every man should have two voices,
one righteous and one however it happens to be,
so that the righteous voice could refute the unrighteous,
and we would not be duped.
What we say or see or hear or do—it’s all double-edged, potentially deceptive, open to misinterpretation. Instead of a “one-to-one correspondence between words and the things denoted by the words,” there is a doubleness, a duplicity. In the Hippolytus, the theme of doubleness is famously expressed by Hippolytus himself, who, when confronted with Phaedra’s posthumous false charge against him, cries out: “I wish I could stand apart, observe myself/and weep for my own suffering.”
This idea of standing apart—being participant and observer—reminds me again of American Beauty, and the scenes in which we see Ricky filming Jane Burnham from his bedroom window. Jane stands in her own bedroom window and undresses, and looks across at Ricky’s bedroom window and sees herself undressing on Ricky’s screen. She is doubled.*
Are we who we appear to be? Do we always act on what we know is right? Do we have the same standard for ourselves that we have for others—or are our moral standards “doubled” as well, creating a kind of relativism? Relativism is an issue for Euripides. Hippolytus says, in rejecting Aphrodite, “different men like different gods.”
In American Beauty, Col. Fitts has strict standards of discipline and behavior for his son Ricky. When he discovers that Ricky has been in his private study, unlocking cabinets and looking at his stuff, Col. Fitts beats his son and tells him that he has no respect for other people’s property. But later in the film, Col. Fitts sneaks into Ricky’s room and searches Ricky’s things for evidence—which he misinterprets—to use against his son. As it turns out, the standards he sets for his son arise out of his feeling of revulsion at himself for failing to meet those same standards. Col. Fitts is double: his image of himself (the image he wants to convey to others), and who he is on the inside.
In her introductory essay to her translation of the Hippolytus, Anne Carson writes: “The Hippolytus is like Venice. A system of reflections, distorted reflections, reflections that go awry” (163). This is true also of American Beauty. What people see, and how people act, is not always true. The film is a system of distorted reflections.
But in the end, Lester Burnham comes to a moment of goodness and truth. He sees an unexpected nakedness and beauty. He sees the truth of his life, not just a distorted reflection.
“You have no idea what I’m taIking about, I’m sure,” Lester says. “But don’t worry. You will someday.”
* As Jane is framed in the window, the panes of glass seem to separate her face from her body, to divide her into face and torso. In Plato’s Charmides, Socrates admires Charmides’ face, and Chaerephon exclaims, “Yet if he would consent to strip…you would think he had no face, he has such a perfect beauty of form.” Interesting, this splitting of a person into face and form. Anne Carson heads her introductory essay on the Hippolytus with a somewhat cryptic but suggestive quotation: “The face as the extreme precariousness of the other…” Someone more post-modern than I am might explain that to me.