Skip to main content
The Folger Spotlight

Dramaturg's Notes: Faedra Chatard Carpenter on Metamorphoses

On Myth and Metamorphoses

The creative team of Metamorphoses on the Folger stage during first rehearsal
The creative team of Metamorphoses on the Folger stage during first rehearsal

“Myths are the earliest forms of science.” Such are the words uttered—with a Freudian-demeanor— by the therapist in Mary Zimmerman’s contemporary, dramatic adaptation of Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses (circa 8 CE). The therapist, one of Zimmerman’s innumerable dramatic innovations, delivers this line with a casual certainty, forging a relationship between myth and science. In so doing, Zimmerman offers us the opportunity to align the supposed fantastical with the supposed factual, concisely capturing Norman Austin’s assertion that: “Myth purports to offer an adequate explanation for everything—for the elements and the laws of nature, for social structure, ethics and the dynamics of the individual psyche.”

The persistent power of myth in our lives—across time and cultures—not only animates our inherent desire to understand and explain the “hows and whys” of our everyday realities, but it reflects our affinity for storytelling and our seemingly perpetual delight in the re-telling of stories. The initial penning of Ovid’s most famous work, Metamorphoses, offers ready proof of these observations. In writing Metamorphoses, Ovid retold and refashioned over 250 Greco-Roman myths, dividing these familiar narratives across 15 chapter-like “books.” Essential to Ovid’s curation, however, was his thematic focus on the notion of transformation. Thus, in writing Metamorphoses, Ovid “practiced what he preached”: he necessarily adapted a broad array of mythic tales, artfully adjusting them to create a laudatory masterpiece about metamorphosis.

Knowing that the creation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was guided by conceits of change (in both form and content) makes Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical text an especially poetic and prophetic undertaking. For Zimmerman, the reimagining of Ovidian vignettes began as a piece titled Six Myths, a work that she initially created for Northwestern University in 1996. Inspired by the enthusiastic reception of Six Myths, her unquenchable love of mythology, and her adventurous directorial vision, Zimmerman continued to develop the work. This culminated in its rebirthing and the official stage debut of Metamorphoses in 1998.

Since its debut, Metamorphoses has enjoyed critical acclaim and praise for its dynamic storytelling and masterful literary syncretism. Furthermore, it has also been routinely celebrated as innovative and daring, particularly in relation to the set design suggested in the script. As originally envisioned and repeatedly produced, the set directions describe a pool of water, a visual spectacle (as Zimmerman explained to Berkely Rep Magazine) that was rooted in both the inception and writing process of her play:

I picked stories that hinge on water, that can use the water, or that water can work metaphorically in. At all times, water is working thematically because water is such a changeable, metamorphosing element… Water is symbolic of change: to be baptized, to cross a river—these are moments of import and transformation—into eternal life, or into death.

Inspired by the curatorial choices that shaped Zimmerman’s Ovidian adaptation, as well as the other cutting-edge adaptations of Metamorphoses that can be traced throughout our present-day literary and entertainment canons, the Folger’s 2024 production of Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses marks yet another exciting conceptual and curated transformation. Not only is this production cast with evocations to the African diaspora, but it also marks a notable change in that our production—while fully heeding Zimmerman’s thematic investment in water—aspires to make its own notable adaptation by not materializing the literal presence of water on stage. Rather, by activating the Folger’s theatrical milieu with other visual, kinetic, and auditory signs and symbols related to water; by leaning into design and choreographic choices that highlight the thematic relevance of the aqueous, we invite you to ride this fresh new wave of change. Welcome to this latest metamorphosis of Metamorphoses!

About the dramaturg

Faedra Chatard Carpenter

Faedra Chatard Carpenter