We Can Make It Our World

The credits for Head Over Heels say "Based on The Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney." But it's so much more complicated than that.

First of all, there are two Arcadias. Sidney wrote it, then later substantially rewrote it, and the two versions are called The Old Arcadia and The New Arcadia. And there are some huge differences between the two.

But also, to say that Head Over Heels is "based on" Arcadia is only vaguely true. Maybe "inspired by" would be more accurate. The show's creators, Jeff Whitty and James Magruder, have taken a handful of characters -- out of a few dozen in the novel -- and some of the larger themes in the novel, and they've essentially written a new story. The show's plot takes elements from the novel, but almost never transplants them intact.

In the show, Musidorus loves Philoclea. In the book, Musidorus loves Pamela, and his best buddy Pyrocles loves Philoclea. But Pyrocles isn't in the show. In the show, Pythio's birth name is Mira; in the book, Mira is an entirely different character, the love interest of Philisides, who does not appear in the stage version.

But maybe there's something more important. Whitty and Magruder have captured so much of the spirit and intentions of Sidney and his novel. I've been reading a great book about Arcadia, called The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics by Blair Worden. He writes:
Yet the high spirits of the Arcadia, if they can divert us from Sidney's "delightful teaching," are more often its means. The teaching is cleverest when it is funniest, when the comedy points us to the ironies of the action. The test which he would, I think, have applied to his wit is whether it sharpens the critical alertness of his readers. A theme both of the public and of the private story of the Arcadia is the loss of wakefulness, of ethical vigilance. Sidney's readers, like his characters, must keep awake.

Change a few words and you'd be talking about Head Over Heels, with its goofy, wacky surface and its very serious issues of gender, sexuality, and human connection underneath.

One of the themes in the show that's treated both seriously and comically is the idea of virtue. Worden writes:
Virtue had a larger meaning for the Elizabethans than it has for us. It meant not only conformity to moral principles but the possession of divinely endowed gifts and powers. Those properties, if cultivated by education, would carry the authority of example and could change the world. There are people in the Arcadia who 'count' virtue 'but a vain name' or 'but a school name'. They could not be more wrong. Through virtue we honour the divinity of our souls, and through it we serve the public community to which we belong.

Virtue was hardly a novel ideal. But the Humanism of the Renaissance brought a new phase in its development. Behind virtue, in the Renaissance conception of it, there stands an ethical system which trains us for, and tests us in, both our public and private lives. Though virtue is God-given, and though Sidney's God is Christian, the ideal of virtue expressed in Sidney's writings is essentially classical. It derives from Plato and Aristotle and Cicero.

Many of the insights in Worden's book apply to both the novel and the musical, and I've learned some interesting things that give me insight into our story on stage. Worden writes:
People who share a political outlook will develop (not always consciously) a common political language in which to express it. The language used in politics by the party to which Sidney belonged has a large presence in the Arcadia. Perhaps our post-Romantic sensibilities expect the vocabulary of imaginative literature to be freshly minted, and are disappointed if it proves to have reproduced the phraseology of ephemeral political debate and polemic, if the language of poetry proves also to be the language of state papers. Yet the interchange of literary and political vocabulary is a recurrent phenomenon of the early modem period. Did Sidney plant the phraseology of current political debate in his work and invite his readers to notice its presence there? Or did he reach without deliberation for the language of the moment?

That's so interesting to me, because the show absolutely swims in the language and politics of today. Part of the delicious mashup here is the slamming together of four really different elements that shouldn't work together -- a setting and characters from a fictional Greek past; the language and politics of 1580 London; the music and feminism of 1980s America; and the language and politics of gender and sexuality in 2020. But as with all the great works of mashup, these disparate forms not only work together, but they also reveal fascinating things about each other in the process.

You can make up your own mind whether the sum of these parts is greater than the parts themselves, but either way, the sum of these parts is certainly something very different from the individual parts.

One of the cool things I've learned from Worden's book is the meaning behind the characters' names. I was shocked to discover, for instance, that "Pamela" was not a name until Sidney invented it for Arcadia, by putting together the two Greek words for "all" and "honey."

Sidney invented a lot of these names. Musidorus is formed out of the Greek words for "gift of music or song." The name of his love, Philoclea, comes from the Greek words for "love of glory." Interestingly, when he takes on the clumsily invented name Cleophila (you'll have to come see the show to find out why), it's actually a very clever joke, because now he's (accidentally) turned the "love of glory" into the "glory of love."

"Mopsa" is a name that appeared earlier in Virgil's Eclogues (which means short pastoral poems), but it may be another Sidney invention, based on the English word mops, which meant a country bumpkin, adopted from the Dutch word for a pug dog. But Mopsa in the novel is an entirely different character in the show. Interestingly, Shakespeare used this name later for a shepherdess who loves a clown, in The Winter's Tale. "Dametas" is another name from Virgil, both here and there, father of Mopsa. Mira is also a completely different character in the show, and her name comes from the Latin for "wonderful."

King Basilius' name comes from a Greek name meaning royal or kingly, which is also related to an Arab name meaning brave, fearless, intrepid. Queen Gynecia's name is the Greek title of many ancient medical texts about women’s nature, conditions, and diseases, literally meaning "women’s things," but it can also refer to the female sex organs.

"Pythio" comes from "Pythian," a word that means it's related to Apollo, because Apollo had to defeat a giant python to build his temple at Delphi. So the Priestesses there were often referred to as The Pythias.

There's such richness and complexity and intelligence in this show, all swirled together with the high-energy silliness. But if there's any doubt about the intentions of the show's creators, Magruder offers us some very smart notes "From the Adaptor" in the script. His notes start with this:
Head Over Heels is not mean. It is not self-aware. It is not snarky. It does not refer to other musicals. It is not anachronistic. It does not know that it is funny. Sex permeates its content, but it is not a dirty show. It is a show with an open, generous, inclusive heart for heartless times.

I don't always know why a particular show speaks to me at a particular time, but this one is clear. "It is a show with an open, generous, inclusive heart for heartless times." Have we ever needed that more?

Long Live the Musical!


Shaban | March 5, 2020 at 6:09 AM

Mopsa sounds like such a cool name. And Basilius is not even close to what i assumed it meant, damn.