Descent: sources and inspirations
The idea of a “descent” to the underworld is a familiar motif from classical myths and literature.
Our starting point for Descent was Dante’s poem, Divine Comedy, which follows Dante himself as he travels through hell, and encounters the dead; and then passes through Purgatory and ascends to Paradise. We decided to create our own story of “descent.”
Descent features six characters who go on a strange and mysterious journey. They have all been living through a terrible war, which has devastated the environment, and left them all suffering some kind of trauma. They are haunted by visions of things they have done, things they have gone through, things they have seen. There is a soldier, for example, who is haunted by the ghost of a woman he has killed in the war.
Their journey is in part psychological: the characters have to face their own fears and nightmares. We wanted a story that could be read on different levels – both mythical, and realistic. So you can’t be sure how much of what happens to the characters is real, and how much is in their imaginations.
We looked at other stories of “descent.” There is an epic poem from Sumeria, called The Descent of Inanna. In it, the goddess Inanna descends into the underworld until she stands in front of Ereshkigal – the “Dark” Goddess, queen of the Netherworld and the dead. Ereshkigal is like Gaia – the “Earth” Goddess, the mother of all life.
In our play, one of the characters is called Inanna. She imagines herself as a kind of priestess of an ancient cult; and she believes that, if they are all going to be healed, it is necessary for them to undertake this journey - to descend into the underworld, in order to encounter the “Dark” Goddess.
The play in fact climaxes in a meeting with the “goddess.” You could take this literally. But at the same time, the “vision” could just be happening in the characters’ imaginations. The encounter gives them new hope that they can be healed - and the earth can be reborn.
“No one should deny the danger of the descent, but it can be risked. No one need risk it, but it is certain that someone will. And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent…” (Carl Jung, Collected Works Vol. 5: Symbols of Transformation)
The characters in the play have been given significant names – drawn from myth or from literature.
It is as if, behind each character, there is a mythical “archetype.” It is also as if the characters are going through or re-enacting an archetypal, mythical pattern of experience. This reflects how the play is meant to operate on two levels: as a psychological story of real people who are going on a psychological journey, and as a mythical tale (of “descent” into the “underworld”).
Erekshigal in the play is a rebel soldier / terrorist, and Inanna is a “priestess.” Here are the other characters and a bit about their names:
Ishmael, the poet. The Biblical name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts. There is also a reference here to Ishmael, the narrator of the novel Moby Dick by Hermann Melville. At the end of Descent, our character sits down and starts to write a poem - as if he is now writing down the story of the play, recording the events which the characters (and the audience) have gone through.
Anton, the doctor. A reference to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who was also a doctor. In a scene in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, the doctor Astrov tells a story about how one day, he was called to treat a man who had been in an accident: “I laid him on the operating table and he went and died in my arms under chloroform, and then my feelings that should've been deadened awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the man.” The character in our play goes through a similar experience: he is haunted by the memory of a boy who died in his care.
Attar, the soldier. Attar was worshipped in Southern Arabia in pre-Islamic times. A god of war, he was often referred to as "He who is Bold in Battle.”
Nammah, the farm worker. The name is Jewish; in some traditions, she is Noah’s wife. But our writer David Calcutt says that in this case, he just chose the name because he thought it sounded good…
There is also a “shadow” figure in the play. This is a “Jungian” archetype: the “shadow” is the part of you that you don’t want to recognise - the “unknown” or “dark” side.
“The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure - be it a daemon, a human being, or a process - that constantly recurs in the course of history, wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure.” (Jung, The Collected Works, Vol. 15, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature)
Images on this page:
Gustav Doré, top and bottom: illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The so-called “Burney Relief,” believed to represent either Inanna or Erekshigal (c.19th or 18th century BC).
The structure of hell according to Dante, as illustrated by Sandro Botticelli.