Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 5

Rexroth's poetic, philosophical, and visionary powers are epitomized in the dramatic tetralogy Beyond the Mountains in which he communicates more profoundly than in any other work love as universal responsibility and the integral person as the center of community. Here, tragic conflicts among Greek heroes and heroines openly work out the abstract dialectical personalism of The Dragon and the Unicorn. Thanks to the passionate and precise direct address, in lines usually varying from seven to nine syllables, the characters, much more substantially developed than the Damascan brothers in Homestead, speak heroically without being bombastic. Iphigenia, Hippolytus, Phaedra, and others achieve transcendence through mysteries of erotic union and sacrificial death, which had enticed but eluded the Damascan youths and which Rexroth had talked about at length in the other long poems.

Rexroth acknowledged the influence of Noh drama, ritual verse-plays in which masked actors chant their lines, subtly gesture, and dance, but his plays resemble Euripidean tragedy much more closely than the highly elusive and less logically structured Japanese plays or Yeats' Plays for Dancers, which had given Rexroth an early impression of Noh in Chicago. Rexroth's characters argue much more persistently and intellectually than do the more shadowy Japanese and Irish characters. [1] As in both Greek and Japanese theater, dances evoke the sexual ecstasy of Phaedra and Hippolytus and, at the end of the tetralogy, the collapse of classical civilization. In the plays are two choruses, the first consisting of a young prostitute and beggar whose curious resemblances to various heroines and heroes is a reminder that tragic figures emerge from, and return to, the common people. At the conclusion of the tetralogy, the beggar changes roles with Menander, and the prostitute with Berenike. The second chorus, throughout, consists of four musicians who act also as populace, commentators, and stage hands (14).

If Rexroth's plays are more Greek than Japanese in form and ideas, they nevertheless reflect the Buddhism of Noh explicitly and implicitly. The choruses, including bald beggars holding bowls like monks, repeat some of Shakyamuni's last words, concerning the ephemerality of the world (67). The Buddha's Fire Sermon is transformed into Hippolytus' erotic speech to Phaedra about their union spraying fire that burns down the world (47). In fact, Hippolytus' intention before being seduced by Phaedra is to retire like a monk from the world that his father has corrupted. Vowing to take no life, he worships the goddess Artemis, who seems to be identified as Avalokiteshvara (Kannon), the Bodhisattva of Compassion who traditionally hears ''the world's cry,'' a phrase Rexroth applies to Artemis (21). Menander, who in the tetralogy is the last Greek king eventually destroyed by the Huns, is modelled on a Bactrian philosopher-king who was converted to Buddhism by the sage Nagasena. [2] In ''Berenike'' Menander echoes The Flower Wreath Sutra in lines that suggest the Net of Indra, which Rexroth creatively transforms into a ''cobweb'' of infinite lines imagined between stars; and the mutually reflecting mirrors of the sutra become infinite pairs of lovers whose eyes reflect each other before enlightenment is imaged in a climactic dance of light.(158-59):

I have no real being.
I am like an astronomer's
Imaginary line, just one
Probable strand in your cobweb
Of the infinite possible,
And so you are to me. Millions
Times millions Menanders
Face the unending mirrors of
Berenikes at this instant,
And a million times a million
Berenikes see themselves in
The firelit pupils of their brothers,
As I see myself in your eyes.

Another important quality of Buddhism and Noh found in Beyond the Mountains is yugen, a term derived from Zen that means subtlety, often symbolized by a white bird carrying a flower. [3] Although the tetralogy is full of yugen, perhaps it is most apparent in the epigram spoken by the First Chorus in Berenike: ''We meet and touch and pass on/As log meets log in mid-ocean'' (189).

Some of Rexroth's characters are derived from Euripides, but they are transformed with the kind of moral clarity that we associate more with Sophocles' heroes. In Classics Revisited, Rexroth distinguishes between Sophocles' tragedies of will and fate and Euripides' tragi-comedies in which egoists are trapped in confusion.4 In Rexroth's plays, cynical men of the world such as Demetrios, Theseus, and Agamemnon are treated as Euripides would have presented them, as mock-heroic parodies. Their motives are debased by their vulgarity, sentimentality, and callousness. On the other hand, Rexroth treats women of Artemis such as Iphigenia and Phaedra, and their lovers Achilles and Hippolytus, as Sophocles would have conceived them, ennobled by their suffering. Their fate is their responsibility, not the result of an external cause of catastrophe. In moral triumph and physical defeat they struggle with universalizing love, and their sacrifice renews community.


Phaedra, the first play, depends upon Euripides' Hippolytus; but Rexroth radically transformed the main characters and made explicit the fertility ritual from which Greek tragedy emerged (16). As King Theseus commits adultery with Persephone in Hades, Phaedra rages against the Greeks who had savagely killed her father, King Minos, smashed Crete, kidnapped her, and made her a princess to reproduce her flesh. In fury she performs the Minotaur dance, the fertility rite on which Cretan civilization depends; but alone, she is powerless, mad, sterile. Meanwhile, her stepson Hippolytus, abandoning his princely duty to father new armies, has become an ascetic seeking visions of Artemis (18).

In Euripides' play, a Nurse-confidante, to whom Phaedra admits her love for Hippolytus, betrays the secret to him; and self- righteously rejecting her, he is falsely condemned by his father. But Rexroth drops the Nurse; and perhaps influenced by the possibility of a lost earlier version by Euripides in which Phaedra directly proposes to Hippolytus [5] he has Hippolytus falling into her arms as if she is Artemis. When they part, she predicts that they will pay for this crime, alluding to Proudhon's ''property is theft'' (39). Hippolytus is naively optimistic, but she knows that Theseus will find them out. They are not simply victims of vengeful Aphrodite, as in Euripides' version, but are doomed by their sense of responsibility.

Hippolytus momentarily regrets their mortal love which has prevented him from attaining immortal union with Artemis, but Phaedra persuades him that he had attained salvation in her arms, and there is more than a suggestion that she is the goddess incarnate, for she weeps for the world, and when she asks him if he would recognize Artemis, he turns dead white (34-35). Even after accepting her love, he has difficulty accepting the consequences. He does not understand her insistance that vision is ''evisceration'' (42); and as her speech becomes more paradoxical, he wants to unite with just a woman, not with nothingness (44). Suddenly abandoning responsibility, she invites him to escape to a utopian colony in Italy; but renouncing political leadership he accepts their love, regardless of the consequences. She agrees, with the cruel paradox that now is never (47). They drink sacramental wine, dance again, and the Chorus hymns their love. Nevertheless, impure intentions destroy them (9); or as the Chorus concludes the play, ''Each sinned with each other's virtue'' (55).

When Theseus returns from Hades, Phaedra commits suicide, and the matured Hippolytus courageously confronts him, expecting horror and wrath. But unlike the suspicious, grief-struck, vengeful Theseus of Euripides' play, Rexroth's Theseus cynically tells his son that he planned even their incest and adultery to satisfy them during his absence. Euripides has Hippolytus, a self-righteous virgin condemned to unjust banishment, smashed in his chariot, chased by a bull; whereas Rexroth's hero is trampled to death by the bull on which his father has ridden from Hades. Despite impurity of intention, Rexroth's couple achieves transcendence through perfect erotic union and sacrificial death, the fulfillment of the dreams of Homestead. At the end, instead of Artemis' bringing Theseus to enlightenment, remorse, and final reconciliation with his dying son, as in the original play, Rexroth's Theseus, incapable of moral responsibilty, banally wonders why trouble comes his way.

Iphigenia at Aulis

In Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, the heroine's father Agamemnon invites her and her mother Clytemnestra to come from Argos to Aulis, where the Greek ships are becalmed, for the ostensible purpose of marrying her to Achilles; but actually she is to be sacrificed to Artemis, who will blow the ships to Troy. When Iphigenia discovers his real purpose, she at first pleads with him, but later resolves to die for glory for saving Greece. [6] In Rexroth's version, however, she has initiated the idea of her sacrifice, but for three months her father has resisted her offer. Loving her more than his Euripidean counterpart loved her counterpart, he is, in fact, her lover, and he tells her that she is worth more than any victory. Nevertheless, as a man of the world who believes that they are fated (or karmically determined), he allows her to persuade him (67). Ironically, she uses arguments that he had used in Euripides' play. Ironically also, he is more concerned about his own guilt than about her death. Meanwhile, celebrating a perfect union with her true love, Achilles, she tells him that she has no being but him; but their love cannot prevent her from sacrificing herself for the pure act (70- 73). In her acts of love and sacrifice, she becomes Artemis herself (80). She dances ecstatically with Agamemnon, who knows that she will die, and with Achilles, who despite his wisdom believes that they can be reunited after the war. As Agamemnon kills Iphegenia offstage, the Chorus concludes the play with prophetic lines that are reminiscent of Yeats' prophecy of another Troy rising and setting, at the finale of The Resurrection [7]. Rexroth's are (91):

The flames crawl over Troy's walls.
Asia falls into ruin.
Aeneas and Odysseus
Wander, lost in a new world.
Helen dies in a brothel.

The characters of Iphigenia at Aulis, the second play, are wiser than those of the first. Agamemnon is a more sensitive man than Theseus; Achilles, more aware of the consequences of love than Hippolytus, escapes his tragic death; and Iphigenia's motives are the purest of any in the tetralogy.


Like Yeats' Resurrection, Rexroth's last two plays ritualize the transition from pagan to Christian culture. Yeats saw a virgin replace Dionysus [8]; and Rexroth's Chorus at the beginning of Hermaios, which takes place in the last Greek stronghold on the night before Christ's birth, prophesies that a bloody baby will replace the erotic Greek deities (95 and 101).

Hermaios Soter, utopian ruler of the last independent Greek city state (in Bactria, Afghanistan), agrees with the Magi that a new god is being born; but instead of accompanying them to Bethlehem, he has been trying to appease a gang of Huns in order to preserve his bastion of classical culture. Betrayed by them, he has temporarily fought them off with the help of his heroic mistress, an Indian named Tarakaia who worships Artemis in trances. Kalliope, who is both his wife and sister, urges him to escape to Rome, but he proudly lashes imperial decadence and instead proposes to realize a Platonic utopia (125-26). Demetrios, who is at once Kalliope's brother and lover, seems to agree with him, but they betray both Hermaios and Tarakaia, who die with dignified foreknowledge as smooth-talking Demetrius takes over.

Hermaios achieves transcendence by virtue of his utopian commitment, but it is limited by ego and will, as was classical culture generally: so this last Greek humanist dies for nothing new. Certain that he has made the wisest possible decision, he lacks the universal compassion of Tarakaia, who might have responded to Christianity despite the ferocity of her fighting the Huns.


The Chorus in the final play, Berenike, watching over the bodies of Hermaios and Tarakaia, expresses the doctrine of total responsibility that Rexroth develops more expansively in The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Dragon and the Unicorn (15). Hermaios' daughter Berenike vows vengeance against the usurpers Demetrios and Kalliope; but her brother Menander, who is even more passive and withdrawn than Hippolytus, tells her that she is caught in the web of karma, from which he wants only to escape (152), a Buddhist wish to escape samsara for nirvana. Berenike, who is even more willful than Phaedra, replies (154):

You are blind.
The door to inaction is called
Action, and the gate of action
Is called inaction. You cannot
Find bliss by dropping your eyelids.

She begs Menander to use her to avenge their father's death, but he denies that he has will, judgment, fire, being. She persists, sword- dancing, joining with him ecstatically as Phaedra and Hippolytus danced, but he continues to be passive. So she turns to Demetrios and, seducing him, stabs him as they dance. He dies cynically, and she foresees the inevitable end of herself and the classical world. Menander nevertheless still refuses to act, and the Chorus agrees that in the illusory world means are distinct from ends, but in reality an act is its own end (181).

As Berenike dances, the Chorus announces the end of the Greek era and sings the first Delphic hymn. Sword in hand, Menander confronts Kalliope but dares not take vengeance. Accepting full responsibility for her crimes, she knows that history, or fate, will move the sword from his hand to her heart; and it does just that as the Chorus announces the birth of Christ. Acting in spite of himself, Menander loses the moral purity he had tried so carefully to preserve. Kalliope achieves transcendence by taking responsibility for her acts, whereas he does not even die. Instead, through complicated dance movements at the finale of the tetralogy, they take the places of beggar and prostitute in the First Chorus as the Huns rush in for the massacre.

In Rexroth's plays one human type is the destructive man of the world, such as Theseus (who cynically lets Athens sicken while he visits Persephone in Hades), the usurper Demetrios, and Agamemnon (who sacrifices his daugher Iphigenia despite his knowledge that victory over Troy will not be worth the price).

Transcending the unjust world, on the other hand, are certain women who worship Artemis (32). Iphigenia, the most saintly of all Rexroth's characters, beyond dualities of cause and effect, will and purpose, persuades Agamemnon to sacrifice her to Artemis (74). Phaedra gives herself completely to the fires of creative process, but kills herself out of fear as well as responsibility. Tarakaia, whose compassion extends to mankind despite her violence, ranks higher on a scale of transcendence than Kalliope, who merely accepts guilt, or Berenike, who seduces Demetrios in order to kill him in vengeance.

Male counterparts of the women of Artemis, inspired by them but less charismatic, try to detach themselves from the world like the Damascan brothers, but with varying degress of certainty. Torn between the human love of Phaedra and the divine love of the goddess, Hippolytus burns more brightly than Hermaios, whose good intentions are to make a good society rather than to transcend it; so he remains in the world of purpose. Achilles is guilt-ridden because of his consuming love for Iphigenia, and Menander tries to escape responsibility for the death of his mother.

Though motives are humanly impure, these men and women achieve various degrees of transcendence, some helping to create community in the face of depersonalizing forces, not only from Huns but from cynical Greek rulers as well. Depending on the purity of action, the integral person accepts responsibility. No act in the plays is explicitly Christian or Buddhist, but universal compassion, love, responsible sacrifice, and utopianism are essential ingredients of both religions. Demetrios, Theseus, and Agamemnon still rule the world, and acts of sacrificial love in our warlike world still reflect the values of these plays and the spiritual traditions embodied in them.

Beyond the Mountains is Rexroth's most fully realized literary work. It should be understood and performed not only as drama and poetry but fundamentally as sacrament that renews our sense of integral persons as the source of true community, arising from mysterious processes of creation and destruction but ultimately transcending them. The flexibility of Rexroth's style perfectly generates a range of characters as psychologically and as morally complex as their classical counterparts. Shall we strive for power or withdraw into the contemplative life? Is love salvation or deception? How can we be one with another, with humankind, with the universe? The answers come, if at all, not through reason, but through the poetry of these plays.

Go to the next chapter | Go to the contents page

Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry