The Riddle of the Labyrinth

In The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Crack An Ancient Code, Margalit Fox adds a new layer to the story of how the ancient script known as Linear B was deciphered.

In 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans uncovered a cache of clay tablets in an unknown script on Crete. For fifty years, scholars across the world struggled to decipher Linear B without even knowing what language it encoded. In 1952, an amateur named Michael Ventris solved the puzzle with what is often presented as a single stroke of inspiration. In fact, Ventris's inspiration was based on the work of another, largely forgotten, scholar-- classicist Alice Kober. Working alone in her Brooklyn home, Kober created a new methodology for decoding the unknown script without the benefit of a bilingual text or a computer. She also identified the keys that allowed Ventris to make his imaginative leap.

In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Fox returns Kober to her rightful place at the center of the story. She divides her story into three parts, focusing on the charismatic digger, Evans, the methodical detective, Kober, and the brilliant architect, Ventris in turn. She handles the mix of biography, archaeology, cryptology and linguistics with a sure touch. Technical discussions of how to decipher an unknown script written in an unknown language are as engaging as the lives of her protagonists.

In a satisfying conclusion, The Riddle of the Labyrinth ends where it begins, with the tablets themselves and what we have learned from them.


This review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

History on Display: Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

My Own True Love and I recently went to see Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. As far as I'm concerned, the play isn't one of Shakespeare's best,* but the performance was a theatrical tour de force. As always. CST knows how to do it right.

Written in 1613, ten years after the Queen Elizabeth's death, the play tells the story of Henry VIII's efforts to dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his not-quite-subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his break with the Catholic Church. It ends with the baptism of the newly born Elizabeth and Archbishop Cranmer's triumphant prophesy that the infant princess will be "a pattern to all princes living with her,/And all that shall succeed." Under her reign,

…every man shall eat in safety,
under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors;
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honor...

 The original audience  would have been even more aware than their modern counterparts of the story that followed: Henry VIII's later marriages, the religious conflicts of the later Tudor reigns, and the glories and contradictions of Elizabeth's reign. CST cleverly foreshadows all of it.  (I was particular taken with the use of dance as a visual metaphor that ties the story together.)

Shakespeare (or possibly CST artistic director Barbara Grimes), depicts Henry as dissolute, demanding inconstant, and charismatic, Katherine as fiery and tragic,** and Anne Boleyn as a bit of a floozy. Cardinal Woolsey, who plotted to keep England Catholic, is complicated and slimy; his Protestant rival Cranmer is virtuous and smug. With the possible exception of Katherine, it was hard to warm up to any of them. Instead, the character that caught my attention was the young Thomas Cromwell,*** who transforms himself over the course of the play from Cardinal Woolsey's devoted secretary to an advocate of the English Reformation.****

Looks like it's time to learn a little something about Mr. Cromwell, or at least read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

The play runs through June 6. If you're in the Chicago area, do yourself a favor and see it.

*It is generally believed that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with an up-and-coming young playwright, John Fletcher (1569-1625). Fletcher became one of the most influential playwrights of his time; today he is best remembered for, well, nothing. (Unless you're a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, in which case you know him as one of the most influential playwrights of his time.) Proving once again that readers can’t judge which contemporary literary works will become classics and which will become dissertation fodder.
** I'm not sure whether Shakespeare or actress Ora Jones was responsible, but Katherine blows everyone else off the stage in her scenes.
***Not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell, who led the Roundheads during the English Civil War.

****Like pretty much everyone who became involved with Henry VIII, he was later executed when Henry became unhappy with one of his own choices. But not in this play.

The Ballet That Caused a Riot

On May 29, 1913, an excited audience, fashionably dressed according to poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau* in "tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys,"** waited for the curtain to rise at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe was premiering a new ballet with choreography by Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky-- The Rite of Spring.

The Ballet Russe was a breeding ground of early twentieth century modernism.*** Diaghilev produced work that was innovative, exciting, challenging. The music for Stravinsky's two previous ballets, The Firebird and Petrouchka had been agreeably avant-garde, just enough to make the fashionable crowds who attended the ballet feel proud of their sophistication but not enough to be unenjoyable.

The Rite of Spring, subtitled Scenes of Pagan Russia, was a different pair of toe-shoes. When the curtain opened, the audience saw the dancers sitting in two circles in a wasteland scene dominated by massive stones. When the music began, the dancers moved: knees bent, toes turned in, stamping and stomping in a dance style that was the antithesis of classical ballet. The music and dance alike were dissonant, brutal, and self-consciously primitive, telling the "story" of a pagan rite in which a chosen victim dances herself to death as a sacrifice for the spring will come.

The fashionable audience hissed and booed, primitive in their own way.  Soon the noise from the audience drowned out the orchestra.  The dancers couldn't hear the music on stage; Nijinsky shouted out the count from the wings to help them keep time.  Artist Valentine Gross, whose sketches of the Ballet Russe were on display in the lobby, later wrote, "The theatre seemed to be shaken by an earthquake.  It seemed to shudder.  People shouted insults, howled and whistled…There was slapping and even punching."

Maybe not a riot by soccer standards, but pretty shocking for a night at the ballet.


* Best known today for the film Beauty and the Beast (1946).

**Large artificial plumes, not large fish-eating birds of prey.

***Over the course of his career, Diaghilev would commission librettos by Cocteau, sets by Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, and music by Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky.