NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews Mary Zimmerman

BILL MOYERS: We've seen in this program how some myths keep human beings imprisoned in political and religious shackles. But other myths have redemptive power. They change the way we see our world and ourselves.

Mary Zimmerman believes in the power of myth to transform, even to transform a thirty-foot swimming pool into an ocean of the imagination. That's what she's done on Broadway, making a big splash — no pun intended — with her acclaimed play METAMORPHOSES. She's taken ancient Roman myths and brought them to life in the here and now. From the ODYSSEY to ARABIAN NIGHTS, from Proust to Leonardo da Vinci…Mary Zimmerman has a way with old ideas dressed up for now. No wonder the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a genius grant.

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.

MOYERS: In everything you do you find the story in the images. I've just showed you a moment ago the film from Palestine, of the children.


MOYERS: What's the story in those images?

ZIMMERMAN: You know, I think it's kind of the most ancient story there is, which is the longing for home. You know, so many of ancient myths are really not someone going out but someone trying to get home, like Odysseus coming back from exile, and the story of being taken away from where we think our home is like being taken from ourselves.

There's also a story of wanting to believe that all men are brothers, that we're all related — and then, how difficult that is in real life.

MOYERS: You know, when I saw that film and knew you were coming I thought of one of the stories in METAMORPHOSES, Orpheus and Eurydice.


MOYERS: Sum that story up for me, and then I'll tell you why I thought of you.

ZIMMERMAN: Orpheus and Eurydice are getting married, but on their wedding day Eurydice steps on a snake and is bitten and poisoned and dies immediately — so the wedding becomes a funeral party.

Then Orpheus, so bereaved, goes down into the underworld to try and ask Hades to allow her to come back. And he sings a song that's so beautiful that the king of the underworld says, you can have her back, but she will be following behind you as you leave the underworld. And you must not turn around and look at her until you're safely back on earth. If you turn around and look at her, she's ours forever.

And for some reason or another, temptation or uncertainty, he at the last moment is afraid she isn't behind him, or for whatever reason he turns, and he turns just in time to see her being pulled back...

MOYERS: She's lost.

ZIMMERMAN: ...and gone forever. She's lost forever.

MOYERS: She's lost forever.

ZIMMERMAN: It's an irredeemable moment.

MOYERS: Every breakthrough in the Middle East seems to reach that moment...


MOYERS: ...somebody looks back.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. A moment of lack of trust or lack of confidence or just panic.

MOYERS: Do you believe in original sin?

ZIMMERMAN: I don't know. In fact, I'm not even sure I know what the term is.

MOYERS: Well, by that I mean that we're born with some hand on our ankles, and every time we are just about to soar it pulls us back.

ZIMMERMAN: No, I think I feel like we're born innocent. I really do. I just feel that those children are such examples of it in their absolute open heartedness. I also feel like in a couple of years they won't be able to talk in that open way that they were just talking. They'll be too embarrassed to cry maybe in front of each other like that. They were so unbelievably articulate about their own state, their own way they were feeling, I thought.

MOYERS: Let me show you a few scenes from METAMORPHOSES.


MOYERS: And you describe them as...

ZIMMERMAN: Describe them, okay.

MOYERS:...they come up. Yes, all right, here's the first one.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, this is the end of the play, and it's a story called Baucis and Philemon, which is a story that actually occurs in a lot of cultures and is even in the Bible, a similar story where the gods come down to earth disguised as beggars and no one takes them in except really poor people.

So they take in the gods and they lay the table and make a big fuss, and then the gods reveal themselves and turn their house into a house of gold. So.

MOYERS: And this one?

ZIMMERMAN: This is just Eros and Psyche, the conclusion of it, which is not even from Ovid, it's a later myth. But I love it so much I just had to put it in.

MOYERS: And there's another.

ZIMMERMAN: This is Erysichthon with Hunger on his back, and Erysichthon is a man who's very greedy and destructive, he chops down a grove that's sacred to Ceres just because he needs the wood, he's utilitarian.

And he's cursed for this by having perpetual hunger inside him. And so Hunger is on his back there, and he's trying to sort of devour the pool by eating everything up to satisfy his hunger. He eventually eats himself.

MOYERS: His own...starts with his foot.

ZIMMERMAN: His foot, yes, in our production.

MOYERS: And finally, Phaeton.

ZIMMERMAN: This is just a transitional moment into Phaeton, so those are three grace figures or muse...people in the transition. And Phaeton is the son of Apollo, but Apollo sort of doesn't recognize him. He lives over in his hill where he goes and drives his chariot across the sky every day.

And so Phaeton wants acknowledgment that Apollo is his father. He's being teased at school, literally, a kid named Epaphos is sort of teasing him. And his mother says, well, go make the journey and your father will acknowledge you.

He makes the long arduous journey, typical sort of epic journey, and...Apollo says, yes, you're my son, I'll grant you any wish you desire. And Phaeton basically says, give me the keys to your car, I want to drive the chariot across the sky today.

And the father doesn't want to let him but he does, and he ends up destroying everything. It's a kind of painful myth, I think, for us these days, because we like to think we can leave our children and they'll be okay, because we're seeing them on weekends and stuff? But this father-less son doesn't ever quite mature. He never is quite ready to be a grown up because his father has ignored him. And it leads to great...terrible disastrous consequences.

MOYERS: That's one of the oldest stories 2,000, at least...


MOYERS: ...2,000 years old, and yet you set it in Hollywood...on a psychiatrist's couch.


MOYERS: Only a Hollywood producer or a broadcast journalist would entertain...neurosis like that.

ZIMMERMAN: I thought you meant only a hogway...a Hollywood producer or journalist would have a therapy session in his swimming pool, because there's no real indication it's Hollywood but I understand why you...I guess the sunglasses and the swimming pool make it that.

MOYERS: How do you explain their power to transform? One of my colleagues went to the play last evening, came out and said, I laughed, I cried, but I felt transformed. And several of the other people out in the audience, in our audience, said, we did too, we've been there, we feel transformed when we leave.


I'm not so...I'm not sure what that...what causes that, but there is something about these stories being so ancient. And they have something to say because they are so ancient that help you take the long view.

MOYERS: This play was in rehearsals during the World Trade Center attack.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, it was. We were in rehearsal September 11th and we went into technical rehearsals on the 13th. And you know, it felt sort of strange going in to rehearse a play at that time, but on the other hand, the play suddenly had all of these very profound resonances.

There are at least two stories in the play where someone goes away, off to work basically, and is suddenly taken from the earth — just destroyed. And I remember on our first public performance, which was the 18th, just sort of shaking and trembling off stage about showing this and dragging the audience through this story, including the dying prayer of a man saying, I only pray my body is found. Just let my body be found.

MOYERS: Not added...

ZIMMERMAN: And I was just shaking.

MOYERS: ...not added after 9/11.

ZIMMERMAN: No. Nothing. Not a line was changed.


ZIMMERMAN: Not a line was changed.

And I didn't know the proximity in the...the people in the audience's proximity to the event.

MOYERS: Right.

ZIMMERMAN: And yet I just had to sort of accept finally that catharsis and the way people talk about it being dragged through pity and terror is a real thing.

MOYERS: They're changed by it.


MOYERS: We're changed by it.

ZIMMERMAN: It does. It releases something in us and it lightens us.

And the line that has become the most important to me in the play that was never important really before, is in the final minutes, Baucis and Philemon where this poor couple are setting the table for the gods and they're bringing out all this different food, and there's a moment where one of the actors brings out a basket of apples and someone says, remember how apples smell?

And then everyone pauses and remembers. And that's a very, very important line to me right now, because there's a lot of rhetoric about how everything is changed, nothing will be the same, everything is different, we can't go back, everything is lost, it's all different, everything is over and done with.

But the natural world — the smell of apples — to me remains innocent. Don't lose sight of the fact that there is still beauty in the world, and there is still love in the world, and these simple pleasures in the world, which are indelible.

MOYERS: But it's hard to go there...


MOYERS: ...and see the play as you wrote it because of 9/11.


MOYERS: I can't even listen to the 23rd Psalm in the same way.

MOYERS: It sounds different, you know, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

ZIMMERMAN: Yes it does.

MOYERS: And the moment I reach that point the abyss of the World Trade Center appears in my mind.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. But you know, there was poem that appeared on the back page of THE NEW YORKER, their first issue after that, Try and Praise the Mutilated World. And that poem to me is I think what I'm always seeking, maybe the world is mutilated, maybe there is original sin.

But there's also this joyfulness in it. And just even in your piece with the children, seeing those boys be boys and like wrestling with each other the way boys like to do, is so enormously affirming and thrilling, even if it's just a moment, you know, in the darkness.

MOYERS: You make me think, I had not asked B.Z. Goldberg, the filmmaker, why he called it Promises, but this must be why he called it...


MOYERS: ...Prom — ...there is that glint.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. There's a promise of youth and of innocence and childhood in that story.

MOYERS: Whose line is it in your play, let me step out of my...

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, out of my own heart.

MOYERS: Out of my own heart.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, gods, I pray you change me, transform me entirely, let me step out of my own heart.

I actually wrote that line, let me step out of my own heart. And it's partly because when I first made this play I was sort of undergoing some personal transformation in my life. I had lived with the same fella from the age of 20 to 37, and he was leaving me.

And it was so devastating to me, and change felt so soul destroying and know, I was so frightened of what was going to come. And I couldn't sort of stand the state I was in; I wanted to be through it — through the moment of...the moment of metamorphoses is so excruciating but then it can produce something new, you know.

MOYERS: The birth.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Something the world has created through these horrible changes. And I don't mean that particularly from the World Trade Center, but if you take the long view, we've suffered incredible disasters and transforming events, and yet story goes on, narrative goes on. That's kind of the big message of METAMORPHOSES, I think, is it tells stories in a bunch of different ways...


ZIMMERMAN: And so a kind of subtext of it is, we've always liked to tell stories, and stories keep continuing, and narrative always continues. Even though we die, these stories continue and sort of ties together.

MOYERS: So many people with whom I've talked, their favorite story is Alcyon and...


MOYERS: Ceyx. Tell me that story.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, in that story, and this is one that seemed to have a lot of resonance.

Alcyon and Ceyx live, it says, in a monotony of happiness. In other words, an unchanging kind of life, you know? And then one day Ceyx just gets it into his head to take a sea voyage to consult an oracle.

And Alcyon has a premonition about it, I don't like you going on the sea, it's dangerous. And he's like, what are you talking about? It's just a little trip, I'll be back soon.

He sails off and before you know it he's just, a terrible storm comes up and drowns him. And as he's drowning he makes a prayer to the gods, just let my body be found.

So then we sort of cut back to poor Alcyon, and I have her sleeping by the shore waiting for him to come home. And the gods take pity on her and send her a dream of her husband who says...

And this is so wrenching in light of, you know, recent events. Your prayers have done no good, for I am gone beyond all help or hope forever. And he says, get up from your bed and put on your mourning clothes. And then he disappears and she wakes up and searches the shore for him, and he's not there, but then his body comes up.

And then in a know, his body comes to the shore, his dead body. And in a very unusual moment I think in any myth — it's rare for this to happen — she starts to run towards him and in her agony she turns into a bird...


ZIMMERMAN: ...that's not the rare part. The rare part is that he is resurrected and turns into a bird as well.

And then they fly off together. And then it talks about how for seven days each year there's a calm on the ocean because these birds like to build their nests on the waters, and that at that time Alcyon's father, who is the kind of the winds, keeps the winds short reined so everything is calm. And it says, and these are the days we call the halcyon days, which is an example of myths for the earliest form of science, it's a sort of explanation of why there's this regular period of calm in a certain season.

MOYERS: None of us believe that, and yet to some...what's the comfort in it?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, you know, I think in a certain way we do believe it though, that even in a scientific way everything can be turned...Leonardo says, everything can be turned into everything else.

And that some part of us does go on, some spirit does go on. And just a vision of the birds by the shore, to think that they were once people is a really sweet vision. And you can believe. I mean, it's a suspension of disbelief, that's what the theater is.

And the whole play works that way, because it's really a single set and you've got to pretend these people are gods and goddesses, and that they're birds and all they're doing is sort of moving their arms like children would. And so you're already in this sort of enchanted realm where you're vulnerable and giving over.

And so it makes it easy to enter the heart and to believe in greater change as well, not just the little magical enchantment of the theater but that we all can transform.

MOYERS: Is that the reason for your line, let me step out of my own heart?

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, I mean, I do think that...I mean, that story in particular when I first was engaged with it, seemed like the most tragic thing ever, and now it doesn't at all. It seems like a beautiful thing, it seems like a necessary thing.

It seems to me that that couple was a little too interwoven with itself, like a little too much lost in each other, not individuated enough, not able to manage a day without each other. But now as birds they're freer, they have more independence and yet they're always a team. It's a more mature relationship when they're birds.

MOYERS: Metamorphoses just seems like such an appropriate play for a time, thinking of those children again in Israel and Palestine, when God has no answers.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, well, there's lots of gods in METAMORPHOSES, and the Greek gods I believe are 12 different names for feelings inside ourselves.

So there are moments when you're being governed by Aphrodite, she's chairing the meeting of all the different parts of your personality. There are moments when you are governed by Zeus, when you're in a kind of authoritative position and you're very reasonable.

There are moments when you're being governed by Mars and you're crazy angry. But all those different parts exist inside us; it's just sort of who's chairing the meeting at different times. You know, who's really got the upper hand at that moment.

MOYERS: How did you come to love these stories?

ZIMMERMAN: I'll tell you, I read Edith Hamilton's MYTHOLOGY when I was a child...

MOYERS: So did I.

ZIMMERMAN: ...and yes, those little pen and ink drawings are engraved on my heart.

And that's the reason in a way Eros and Psyche is in the story because I so have the memory of this picture of Psyche with the parted curtain holding up the oil lamp looking down at Eros.

And I knew as a child that, I thought they were sort of fairy tales but on the other hand they're not, they're very adult, they have adult sexual content, they have very dark content. They don't have happy endings a lot of the time, tragic things happen. They had just a tremendous power over me as a child.

Also I was read THE ODYSSEY when I was living in England when I was a little girl, and I thought myself to be in exile away from my homeland of Nebraska. And our teacher read us THE ODYSSEY every afternoon, and I was just absolutely transfixed by that.

MOYERS: In your story of Cupid and Psyche, and I'll quote from it...


MOYERS: The narrator philosophizes on happy endings. You mentioned happy endings.


MOYERS: Quote, it's just inevitable. The soul wanders in the dark until it finds love. And so wherever our love goes there goes our soul. If we're lucky and if we let ourselves be blind...


MOYERS: ...instead of always watching out.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. That has very personal meaning for me. Those ideas are a lot drawn from James Hillman writing on the figure of Eros.

MOYERS: The Jungian scholar.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, the Jungian scholar, protege. But I guess I feel that I believe in that sort of idea that there's another I, that love operates from a sort of internal I, but that we're often fooled by appearances. It's the Beauty and the Beast story, too, you know.

And I just have faith that if you allow yourself to be trusting, to sort of forget about your past hurts, your past wounds, that's the chance at which you will find love.

And that story remains always mysterious to me. Their names are Eros, which means love, and Psyche, which means the soul. Why is it forbidden for the soul to look directly on love? Like, why should that be...and it's the myth that feels like it has the most urgent symbolic content and yet it remains elusive to me.

And part of it I think is it actually...she's forbidden until she has gone through some kind of maturation. She had to go through all these tasks and sort seeds one from the other, and go to the underworld. She had to go on a whole little epic journey and then she can live with Eros. But before that when she's untrusting, when she's believing her sisters, what they say, like, it's not going to work out somehow. She has to grow up.

MOYERS: How do you think you have changed? Metamorphoses is...


MOYERS: ...just so much, but how have you changed most from the time you were growing up in Nebraska?

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, from the time I was growing up in Nebraska!

MOYERS: What's the...

ZIMMERMAN: I hope I've returned to how I was when I was growing up in Nebraska. Again, Willa Cather said I'll never be the artist I was as a child. And I really love that idea that like when you're a child and you don't have much, you're so purely imaginative. And I like the idea of going back to that aesthetic, you know, to like just making things up and making do.

I'm different, though, I guess. I mean, although I do still read as many books. I'm not that different.

MOYERS: Since the tragedy...since 9/11...


MOYERS: And seeing films like the one we just saw from Israel and Palestine, do you still think love is real? Do you still think there are happy endings to be embraced?

ZIMMERMAN: I do. I think we can't lose sight of that dream. I think that dream guides us even if it's not finally attainable. I think it brings it out the best in us. I mean, I don't think...I think if you're in love with the wrong person or you're just kind of crazy, then no, I don't believe in love no matter what the cost.

But I do think that there are people who find commonality and are sort of meant for each other, whatever, and make it work. Yes, I do believe in it. I do.

MOYERS: What do you believe about death now, because we were talking earlier...


MOYERS: ...that life comes out of the ordeal of the mother's pain and travail, and to...


MOYERS: ...a new life.

What about death? What do you think happens at death?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I'll tell you, I don't know what happens at the moment of it, of course, but I have a friend who very simply said, why does everyone ask us what's life after death like, what's death like?

We already know what it's like, we've been there. We were dead before we were born. It's just like that.

MOYERS: That great...out of that great unconsciousness, right?

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, exactly.

MOYERS: In the playbill you acknowledge your debt to Joseph Campbell.


MOYERS: And one of the great scholars …students of mythology.


MOYERS: Campbell once told me once the secret cause of all suffering is mortality. I mean, that we are here and we suffer.

ZIMMERMAN: Then the consciousness of mortality, the fact that we know we're going to die...if we didn't know that, then maybe that wouldn't be the problem in the way that I'm not sure animals know it.

But the fact that we know it and that frightens us and we're impermanent and that scares us and it's's difficult and that loss is part of our life, growing older, that's what these myths are really about, is that life equals change, it equals loss. And you have to embrace it. You have to sort of go with it.

MOYERS: Thank you, Mary Zimmerman. Thank you for your stories.

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.