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'Spider-Man' musical dissected by a classics scholar in the New York Review of Books

April 24, 2011 | 11:00 am

Spiderman One of the major complaints about Julie Taymor's version of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" was the classical spin that she gave the comic-book story, including the addition of the character Arachne from ancient mythology and a Greek ("geek") chorus of nerds that narrated the action.

Now the New York Review of Books has published a lengthy analysis of the musical by classics scholar and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn. The essay, which appears in the latest edition of the biweekly publication, echoes the prevailing sentiment among critics that Taymor should have left out the classical allusions altogether.

"At the heart of the 'Spider-Man' disaster," he writes, "is the essential incompatibility of those two visions of physical transformation—the ancient and the modern, the redemptive and the punitive, visions that Taymor tried, heroically but futilely, to reconcile. As happens so often in both myth and comic books, the attempt to fuse two species resulted in the creation of a monster."

Mendelsohn, who has written extensively about ancient Greece and Rome and is a humanities professor at Bard College, notes that Taymor is fundamentally mismatched for "Spider-Man" because  she thrives on symbolism and abstraction as a director, not the literalism of pop entertainment.

He also notes that while superheroes have a number of traits in common with mythical characters -- such as the power to transform themselves -- today's heroes "tend to lack the abstract intellectual and ethical pointedness you get in the mythic transformations of classical narratives."

The musical's backstage drama has provided its own classical arc -- "a woman of great talent, overweening artistic ambition, and then humiliation," he writes.

"In the end, Julie Taymor got her Greek drama," he writes. "Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues."


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Theater review: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'

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Julie Taymor stepping aside from Broadway's 'Spider-Man'

Is Julie Taymor going on the PR counteroffensive?

-- David Ng

Photo: Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York. Credit: Jacob Cohl / 8 Legged Productions