(Photo: Discovery of Achilles on Skyros)
Achilles, the mighty warrior, pretending to be a girl and fighting off the manly advances of a king? Finding himself pestered on all sides by people determined he should become a bride? This and more all happens in John Gay’s 1700s opera, Achilles in Petticoats.
The story of Achilles and how his mother, the nymph Thetis, convinced him to live as a girl dates back to ancient times and has been the subject of paintings, sculptures, epic poems and operas in French, Spanish and, happily for me, English! For a listing of the many depictions of this event, check out the Achilles on Skyros Wikipedia page.
The Opera itself, Achilles in Petticoats, can also be read online and features some scenes that, unfortunately, could have come right out of 21st century TG fiction. I say unfortunately because it shows how little has changed in terms of women being sexually harassed. Here, we see a man subjected to these kinds of sexist treatments, and that is what this opera explores, with songs such as this, a duet between Achilles and Lycomedes as the king is trying to pressure Achilles into sex, leading to a threatened rape. This is the lead in and then the duet. Notice how Lycomedes assumes Achilles is only pretending (s)he’s not interested:
Lycomedes: Since your obstinate behavior then makes violence necessary–
Achilles: You make self-preservation, sir, a necessity–
Lycomedes: I won’t be refused!
Lycomedes: Why this affectation?
Achilles: Why this provocation?
Lycomedes: Must I bear resistance still?
Achilles: Check your inclination.
Lycomedes: Dare you then deny me?
Achilles: You too far may try me
Lycomedes: Must I then against your will?
Achilles: Force will never ply me!
(Achilles pushes Lycomedes from him with great force and throws him down).
One of the more interesting twists in most versions of the story is that Achilles agrees to learn to walk and talk and live as a girl because he is in love with Deidamia, one of the king’s daughters, and the only way he can get close to her is if he pretends to be a girl. So, it is full of gender role bending fun as it is his desire for a woman that makes Achilles willing to live as one. There is also an interesting aspect in most version in that is is his mother, Thetis, trains him to “graceful gait and modest tongue.” It’s an interesting dynamic, a mother being the one who takes her manly and macho son and feminizes him– all to protect him from the early death it has been foretold awaits him at Troy. But could there be more to it? Could there be some other factors driving Thetis to this unusual plan?
I feel like a modern re-telling exploring all these relationships and issues is past due, and so I am starting to write one now, and I am having great fun in exploring these decisions by Thetis for her son, and Achilles for himself. Of course, in my version, there will be a physical change!