Sappho In Love by Carolyn Gage
Lights come up on Aphrodite's temple on Lesbos. The temple is on the
edge of a cliff, and the view of the ocean is spectacular, as
rosy-fingered dawn appears.
PERSUASION, a young slave woman, androgynous in the Mary-Martin sense,
lies sleeping on a stone bench. She is dressed in a shimmering chiton.
On the altar is a brass decanter. A voice is heard offstage-from
overhead, if possible:
APHRODITE: (Offstage.) Persuasion! Oh, Persuasion! (The young woman
stirs in her sleep.) Persuasion! Oh, Persuasion, my girl Sweet and
lovely Persuasion, where are you? (The young woman turns restlessly in
her sleep. APHRODITE calls sharply:) Persuasion! Answer me!
PERSUASION: (She wakes with a start and looks up toward the clouds.)
What? Here I am, mistress. Here I am (An aside.) Where am I?
(Looking around.) Let's see That looks like Mt. Ida (Turning
the other direction.) and there's Mt. Olympus So, that would
be the coast of Aeolis over there Well, this can only mean one
thing. (Speaking to the voice.) Mistress, it appears I'm at your
temple on the isle of Lesbos.
APHRODITE: (Offstage.) Good, good! That's exactly where I need you.
I'm expecting company this afternoon and I want you to help
entertain them. How's the supply of nectar?
PERSUASION: (Checking the decanter on the altar.) Almost empty.
APHRODITE: (Offstage.) I'll bring some more. Be a good girl and set
out the goblets. Three of them. I'll be down in a minute.
PERSUASION: Yes, mistress. (Slumping again on the bench.) Oh, was
there ever a slave more miserable than I, Persuasion, handmaiden of
Aphrodite! I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Gee,
tough life being the slave to the Goddess of Love." Well, it's not
all being on your knees, you know. (She crosses behind the altar,
retrieving a tray with three exotic goblets. One of the goblets is
purple.) No, it's my job to get women to fall in love with each
other. Not exactly a walk in the park, if you know what I mean. The
older women, for example. They see me coming, and they head for the
hills. The young women-they're easy, but, goddess, do they
complain! First they'll die if she doesn't notice them. Then
they'll die if she does notice them. Then they'll die if she
leaves. And then, they'll die if she doesn't leave It seems
that no matter what I do for them, they're still dissatisfied. But
it's not the work I mind so much. It's the ethics. I mean, let's
face it, women in love are worthless. Well-aren't they? Staring
out the window all day, kissing their pillows all night. There's
only one woman I know who can work when she's in love, and that's
Sappho-but she's a poet, so that doesn't count. No, women in
love are hopeless. And it's all my fault. You see, I drug them.
Yeah. With Aphrodite's nectar. I used to think it was fun, but that
was before it happened to me. Yeah. That's right. I'm in love. Is
that a joke, or what? Me, Persuasion, the one who makes everyone else
fall in love and act like an idiot. Aphrodite would kill me if she
knew. And you want to know what's worse? The woman I'm in love
with is her arch-rival. You know who I'm talking about, don't you?
Artemis, the Goddess of Celibacy. Is that perfect or what? Artemis
strong, independent, self-reliant Artemis. Never had any lovers, never
will have any. Doesn't need them, doesn't want them, doesn't
even believe in love. The absolutely most unavailable person in the
whole universe, and that's who the Slave of Love picks to crush out
on. And you think you've got problems! Of course, Artemis hasn't
even noticed me. How could she? I'm just a slave and she's a
goddess, and besides she hates Aphrodite. So, that's that. Not much
I can do about it, except in my dreams. That's what I was doing just
now, before Aphrodite woke me up. I was dreaming I was in Arcadia with
Artemis-that's where she lives. And I was her slave, and I was
walking behind her, carrying her arrows for her. And she was walking
in front of me, with those broad shoulders, and those muscular
arms-and those capable hands. Goddess, those hands! Anyway, she's
walking ahead of me, and I'm following behind, and then suddenly she
turns around and asks me for an arrow, and I go to hand it to her,
only her fingers brush against mine accidentally, and there's this
spark between us, and her eyes meet mine, and the next thing I know,
I'm in her arms (Closing her eyes and hugging herself.) and
she's bending over me whispering to me in that husky voice of
APHRODITE: (A shrill voice from offstage.) Persuasion! My little
Persuasion! Where are you?
PERSUASION: (Her eyes fly open.) That's not her.
APHRODITE: (Entering.) Not who, dear? (APHRODITE, an older woman, is
dressed like an over-the-top drag queen. She carries a large
PERSUASION: Nothing, mistress. I was asleep.
APHRODITE: And dreaming of my delights. I know, I understand. You
needn't be ashamed, dear girl. You couldn't help yourself. Indeed,
who can? For am I not Aphrodite, the great Goddess of Love
herself?-the embodiment of all womanly desire, the personification
of all female grace and allure, the very essence and quintessence of
PERSUASION: (An aside.) "Gynecoid?"
APHRODITE: Why, I even have dreams about myself! But this is no time
for us to sit around and feminate! We must hurry, because our company
will be here any minute, and I want us to be prepared when they
PERSUASION: Who are they?
APHRODITE: My rivals. No, not rivals-for the Goddess of Love has no
parallel Horizontal, yes-parallel, no. Let us say,
"challengers." Yes, two challengers who envy the power your
mistress wields over the hearts of mortal women.
PERSUASION: Who are these challengers?
APHRODITE: Hera, the Goddess of Marriage, and Artemis, the Goddess of
APHRODITE: Yes, I know-it's really a joke, isn't it, to think
that celibacy could hold a candle to sexual passion, but you know how
PERSUASION: (Horrified.) Artemis is coming here-today?
APHRODITE: This very hour. She and Hera have requested a summit
meeting to decide once and for all which goddess shall control the
destinies of women. As if women haven't already chosen for
themselves. But, the Goddess of Marriage and the Goddess of Celibacy
seem to feel that I exercise an unfair advantage, a common charge
brought by the less popular goddesses. Well, I have nothing to hide,
and if a meeting will make them feel better about their empty temples
and barren altars, then a meeting we shall have. But here's what I
want you to do, Persuasion: While I listen to our disgruntled guests,
I want you to practice a little of your persuasive arts-
PERSUASION: (Interrupting in a panic.) But I have no power over
Artemis! She is the only goddess who is immune to my spells.
APHRODITE: You didn't let me finish! (An aside.) Younger women never
do. (To PERSUASION.) I want you to serve them my nectar.
APHRODITE: For there are none on Olympus-or on earth-who are
immune to its intoxicating power. (She takes her decanter and passes
it under PERSUASION's nose.) One part the first dew of the morning,
gathered from the tender petals of the sweet and blushing
violet-soft, tremulous petals, nestled in their little thickets like
fragrant clusters of jewels-and a second part (Tracing a finger
down PERSUASION's face and onto her breast.) the tears of a
maiden for her first love-salty, bittersweet- melting on the
tongue-oh, the sighs, the tempests and the torments of that first
precocious love-the intoxicating effluvium of a young woman's
first crush (Crossing down center.) And finally the third and most
potent ingredient of them all-my own sweet juice (She dips her
fingers in the nectar and smells them.) the cyprian honey that
flows from the sacred cleft in the temple of the Goddess of Love
herself, Aphrodite, mistress of all passion, empress of all desire,
PERSUASION: (Interrupting.) You want me to drug Artemis with your
APHRODITE: So harsh a word, my sweet. I want you to persuade her.
PERSUASION: But she'll never touch it! She calls it poison! Artemis
has a horror of any kind of intoxication.
APHRODITE: And that is where I am counting on you to use a little
artifice, my dear. You shall tell her it's spring water.
PERSUASION: You want me to lie?
APHRODITE: It's your best feature.
PERSUASION: But I can't lie to Artemis!
APHRODITE: And why not?
PERSUASION: Because she's she's she's-
PERSUASION: The Goddess of Integrity. (There is a chilling silence.)
APHRODITE: Funny-I almost detect a note of respect in your voice.
PERSUASION: Oh, no, Mistress. I only-
APHRODITE: You aren't contemplating a defection, are you?
PERSUASION: No, Mistress-
APHRODITE: It would almost sound as if you would like to trade your
soft and silky chiton-which, by the way, is most becoming in that it
promises more than it delivers-for the coarse and smelly bearskins
with which your "Goddess of Integrity" covers her own sunburnt and
questionably groomed hide-(PERSUASION tries to speak, but she is cut
off.) It would almost sound as if you are weary of that palatial bower
on Mt. Helicon, with its cloud of downy pillows from which you trace
the nightly travels of the evening star in her graceful transit across
the inky empyrean-that you would prefer instead to pass your nights
on the cold and rocky heights of Arcadia's wildest haunts, in
bruised and restless privation, sharing your frigid billet with our
Lady of the Beasts-(PERSUASION starts to speak again, but is cut off
again.) It would almost sound as if my lovely Persuasion has tired of
ambrosia and nectar-mind you, the very honey nectar of her own most
generous mistress-o ungrateful minion!-the very nectar for which
the entire mortal world, like puppies brawling at a bitch's tit,
will gouge and gore themselves to death-that this very nectar of the
Goddess of Love has spoiled your palate and left you with an
insatiable craving for the redoubtable blandishments of Arcadia-to
wit: raw deer meat, tree fungus, and insect larvae.
PERSUASION: Mistress, I meant no offense.
APHRODITE: And none was taken. (A hand on her shoulder.) Now, you will
serve the nectar to Artemis.
PERSUASION: What about Hera? Do I lie to her, too?
APHRODITE: Oh, no, that won't be necessary.
PERSUASION: Why not?
APHRODITE: Because the Goddess of Marriage is a nectar-holic.
(PERSUASION registers surprise.) Don't tell me you didn't know? If
it weren't for the intoxication of sex, she'd never get anyone to
the altar. So-now, pay attention, dear. We'll pour nectar into
these two goblets, for our guests. (She pours from her decanter.)
There And then water in this one, for me (She fills the purple
goblet with water.)
PERSUASION: You're not drinking nectar?
APHRODITE: Not today. I'm sure you want your mistress to have her
wits about her for a meeting that will decide both our
PERSUASION: Yes, mistress.
APHRODITE: Now, you remember what you're supposed to do?
PERSUASION: This cup for Artemis and this one for Hera
APHRODITE: And this one, with the water, for me. And then, after
today, neither Artemis nor Hera shall ever rule the hearts of women
again, for I, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Delight, shall control
the culture, and the goddess who controls the culture shall also rule
the hearts, the minds, the souls, and the bodies of women.
PERSUASION: But how will you control the culture?
APHRODITE: I shall control the woman who creates the culture.
PERSUASION: You don't mean-
APHRODITE: Oh, but I do! Sappho! The legendary poet of Lesbos. After
today, every Lesbian shall be taught to kneel at my sacred cleft and
drink of my cyprian nectar! (Raising the decanter exultantly.)
PERSUASION: Mistress, here come the goddesses! (ARTEMIS and HERA
enter. ARTEMIS is wearing a tunic of bearskins, and HERA is dressed in
a matronly outfit.)
ARTEMIS: (Saluting.) Hail, Aphrodite!
APHRODITE: Artemis. How nice to see you again. (Sniffing the
Persuasion, would you light the incense, please. (PERSUASION is
staring at ARTEMIS.) Persuasion!
PERSUASION: (Jolting to attention.) Yes, mistress!
ARTEMIS: (Contemptuously.) Your slave certainly knows her place.
APHRODITE: (Smiling.) She loves her work.
ARTEMIS: The work of a panderer for a pimp!
APHRODITE: (Deliberately ignoring the remark.) Ah, Hera How nice to
see you again.
HERA: (Hugging her.) Aphrodite. It's been too long.
APHRODITE: Yes, it's a pity there should be such a distance between
the Goddess of Marriage and the Goddess of Love.
ARTEMIS: The "Goddess of Lust" would be more apt.
APHRODITE: (Turning to ARTEMIS.) Perhaps, Artemis, the distinction has
become blurred by your keeping so much company with the bears.
ARTEMIS: There is more dignity in the crudest animal mating ritual
than in all the so-called sacred rites of your decadent cult,
APHRODITE: You might have more credibility if you could speak from
ARTEMIS: I don't need to put my hand in the fire to know that it
APHRODITE: (Vamping her.) But just how close do you have to come to
feel the heat? (ARTEMIS pulls away in shock. APHRODITE laughs, turns
away, and claps her hands for her slave.) Persuasion! Please, some
refreshments for our visitors!
ARTEMIS: (To PERSUASION.) Do you always do what you're told?
PERSUASION: The greatest freedom is in the service of love.
ARTEMIS: Love! You can't believe desire has anything to do with
PERSUASION: (Blushing.) For me it does.
ARTEMIS: Then you deserve your chains. (PERSUASION is mortified.)
APHRODITE: Persuasion-you will serve the drinks!
PERSUASION: Yes, mistress. (She turns her back to APHRODITE to pick up
ARTEMIS: You know I never touch your nectar.
APHRODITE: Yes, of course. Persuasion has arranged for a special cup
of spring water for you-haven't you, Persuasion? (PERSUASION has
dumped out the contents of ARTEMIS's cup and is busy pouring the
contents of APHRODITE's cup into ARTEMIS's. She refills
APHRODITE's cup with nectar.) Persuasion?
PERSUASION: (Turning.) Yes, mistress?
APHRODITE: I was telling Artemis how you have arranged to serve her
spring water. Isn't that true?
PERSUASION: Oh, yes! I swear!
APHRODITE: (To ARTEMIS.) You see? (To PERSUASION.) Now, will you serve
our guests, please? (PERSUASION hands a cup to HERA.)
HERA: Well, I hope that mine is nectar. You know how I love it. So
delicate, and yet so
HERA: (Toasting.) Yes! (HERA drains the contents in one draught.
Meanwhile, ARTEMIS has turned her back on PERSUASION.)
APHRODITE: Persuasion, why haven't you served our Arcadian friend?
(HERA pours herself another cup.)
PERSUASION: She won't let me.
ARTEMIS: Artemis shall never be attended by a slave.
APHRODITE: Then allow me to serve you myself. Or does it hurt your
pride to be waited on by a goddess? (Handing ARTEMIS the cup which
PERSUASION has filled with spring water) And now, a toast! (Taking her
own cup, now filled with nectar.) To youth and beauty!
HERA: (Giggling.) To wisdom and maturity! (Hiccup.)
ARTEMIS: To sobriety and self-reliance! (They drink. Suddenly
APHRODITE spits out a mouthful of nectar.)
PERSUASION: (Terrified.) Mistress?
APHRODITE: Did you do as I ordered?
PERSUASION: Yes, mistress.
APHRODITE: (Throwing the contents of her cup in PERSUASION's face.)
HERA: (Shocked.) What did she do?
APHRODITE: (Enraged.) She knows what she has done. (She crosses to
PERSUASION as if to strike her.)
ARTEMIS: (Stepping between them.) Aphrodite-strike that woman and
you'll answer to me.
HERA: What did she do? (She pours herself another cup.)
APHRODITE: Persuasion, we'll discuss this later. Now, go!
(PERSUASION exits, and APHRODITE turns to her guests.) I apologize for
my slave. Shall we get on with the business of the meeting?
HERA: (Starting to pour again.) Just one more teeny-
ARTEMIS: We didn't come here to drink.
[End of Extract]