Written byMary Zimmerman
  • Myrrha
  • Midas
  • Hermes
  • Phaeton
  • Aphrodite
  • Erysichthon
  • Alcyone
  • King Ceyx
  • Orpheus
  • Eurydice
  • Therapist
  • Apollo
  • Baucis
  • Philemon
  • Ceres
  • Psyche
  • Eros
Date premiered1996
Place premieredNorthwestern University
Chicago, Illinois
Original languageEnglish
GenreDrama, comedy

Metamorphoses is a play by the American playwright and director Mary Zimmerman, adapted from the classic Ovid poem Metamorphoses. The play premiered in 1996 as Six Myths at Northwestern University and later the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. The play opened off-Broadway in October 2001 at the Second Stage Theatre. It transferred to Broadway on 21 February 2002 at the Circle in the Square Theatre produced by Roy Gabay and Robyn Goodman.[1] That year it won several Tony Awards.

It was revived at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago on 19 September 2012 and was produced in Washington, DC at the Arena Stage in 2013.[2]


Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses is based on David R. Slavitt's free-verse translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid. She directed an early version of the play, Six Myths, in 1996 at the Northwestern University Theater and Interpretation Center. Zimmerman's finished work, Metamorphoses, was produced in 1998.

Of the many stories told in Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, only the introductory "Cosmogony" and the tale of Phaeton are from the first half of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The story of Eros and Psyche is not a part of Ovid's Metamorphoses; it is from Lucius Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses[3] —also called The Golden Ass—and was included in Zimmerman's Metamorphoses because, as Zimmerman said in an interview with Bill Moyers of Now on PBS, "I love it so much I just had to put it in."[4] She wrote and directed Metamorphoses during a period of renewed interest in the life and writings of Ovid.

Other Ovid-related works published in the same decades include David Malouf's 1978 novel, An Imaginary Life; Christoph Ransmayr's Die letzte Welt (1988) (The Last World, translated into English by John E. Woods in 1990); and Jane Alison's The Love-Artist (2001). Additionally, Ovid's Metamorphoses were translated by A.D. Melville, Allen Mandelbaum, David R. Slavitt, David Michael Hoffman and James Lasdun, and Ted Hughes—in 1986, 1993, 1994, 1994, and 1997, respectively.[3]: 623 

Plot synopsis

The play is staged as a series of vignettes. The order is as follows:

The stories as they are told in the classic Ovid tales:


Plot analysis

David Rush notes that in this case, the plot is the playwright's deliberate selection and arrangement of the incidents and actions.[6] When Metamorphoses is not a conventional arrangement and has a non-linear point of view.[6]: 37 

A linear dramatic action may be set as with the following steps:

  1. A state of equilibrium
  2. An inciting incident
  3. Point of attack of the major dramatic question
  4. Rising action
  5. Climax
  6. Resolution
  7. New state of equilibrium.[6]: 38–39 

These set of events are described as being of a well-made play and follow a linear set of actions.[6]: 37  First one event, then the next and the following one after that and so on and so forth. Metamorphoses does not follow this laid out set of steps and no single analysis can make it follow this formula. However each of the separate stories embedded within the play is in itself a "well-made play" within a play. Each story can be easily followed and analyzed through a look at the seven parts already established. An example that can easily demonstrate and lay out the structure is the story of Erysichthon described within Metamorphoses.

The seven elements of this story can be seen as follows:

Each of the stories told within Metamorphoses can be analyzed in this fashion and it is even worth noting the story of King Midas. His dramatic action can be followed over the entire length of the play for we are introduced to his story in the beginning and are not subjected to the resolution of his story until the end of the play and his story is actually the last one addressed in the play.[6]: 35–39 

Character guide

(as listed in the script)

Character analysis

Because of the mythic quality of the script, sometimes the players in the performance often resemble "archetypes instead of characters."[7] Miriam Chirico describes the work as "enacting myth does not require creating a plausible character, but rather an emblematic figure who demonstrates a particular, identifiable human trait."[8]

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is told twice, each to emphasize their individual stories and act like mirrors with reflecting stories of love and loss; the first being from Orpheus' point of view from Ovid's tale from 8 A.D., then Eurydice's tale in 1908 inspired by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Orpheus is an archetype for strong human emotion and expressing it through poetry and music. Music is related to Orpheus' ability to move only forward in time, along with his feelings and mortal love. Although they can repeat, as they do in the scene several times, they cannot turn back completely and be the same. Zimmerman includes with the line, "Is this a story about how time can only move in one direction?" to bring light to Orpheus' struggle.[9]

Phaeton narrates his own story (not the case with most of the other stories). With the Therapist bringing a glimpse of Freudian psychoanalysis, Phaeton's relationship with his father can be seen in new ways: "the father is being asked to perform an initiation rite, to introduce his son to society, [and] to inscribe him in a symbolic order."[9]: 75 

Because Midas frames the story at the beginning and returns at the end as a redeemed man, the play ends with a sense of optimism due to his transformation.

The character Eros, although he attains many of the traits of the more popularized Cupid, is meant to symbolize more. In the play, "A", Psyche, interprets why "Q", Eros, is presented as naked, winged, and blindfolded: he is naked to make our feelings transparent, he is winged so he might fly from person to person, and he is blindfolded to encourage us to see into each other's hearts.[8]: 175  A, a narrator of the Eros and Psyche scene, says, "He is blind to show how he takes away our ordinary vision, our mistaken vision, that depends on the appearance of things."[5]: 69 


Since the Metamorphoses is derived from literary texts, productions of Zimmerman's may be classified in the genre of Readers Theater.[8]: 157–158  According to Miriam Chirico, Readers Theater presents a narrative text to an audience, for instance a poem rather than action that follows a typical play script. Readers Theater generally follows the "presentational" form of theater, rather than representational, often relying on narrators to bring insight from an outside perspective to a character. The presentational aspect creates a direct link between the audience and the narrator. Readers Theater reduces theatrical devices, such as costumes, sets, and props, to concentrate on the story and the language.[8]: 157–158  Metamorphoses follows these methods by using multiple narrators, who both tell and comment on the story, and language that is strongly rooted in the David R. Slavitt translation of Ovid.

Compared to classic genres, Metamorphoses is a hybrid containing elements of various genres, including comedy, classic tragedy, and drama, but not necessarily limited to any of them.[9]: 73  The play borrows aspects from opera, as it uses visual and aural illusions, and achieves them in simple ways.[9] Joseph Farrell praised Zimmerman for capturing the seriocomic elements of Ovid's tales better than in most adaptations.[3]: 624 


Based on myths thousands of years old, Zimmerman's Metamophoses demonstrates their relevance and emotional truths. The play suggests that human beings haven't changed to the point of being unrecognizable nearly two thousand years later. Zimmerman has said, "These myths have a redemptive power in that they are so ancient. There's a comfort in the familiarity of the human condition."[8]: 165  Zimmerman generally presents an objective point of view. An example is the Alcyone and Ceyx passage, when the audience learns of Ceyx's death long before Alcyone does. In terms of motifs, Metamorphoses is more subjective, especially related to the theme of death and love. The play promotes suggesting death as a transformation of form rather than death as an absence, which is more typical in popular Western culture.[8]: 159 

A non-naturalistic play, Metamorphoses is presented as mythic rather than realistic.[8]: 159  The use of myths essentially "lifts the individuals out of ordinary time and the present moment, and places him in "mythic time"—an ambiguous term for the timeless quality myths manifest."[8]: 153  The setting of the play isn't limited to just one specific location. For example, the pool on stage transforms from "the luxurious swimming pool of nouveau riche Midas, the ocean in which Ceyx drowns, the food devoured by Erysichthon, Narcissus' mirror, a basin to hold Myrrha's tears, [and] the river Styx"[3]: 624  and that the pool, like the stories transcend realistic thinking and are "suspended in space and time."[10]

The plot is constructed as a series of vignettes, framed overall by a few narrative devices. The opening scene essentially shows the creation of the world, or Cosmogony, not only sets up the world that the following characters will live in, but the world itself. In terms of a beginning and end within the stories themselves, King Midas frames them with his story of greed at the beginning and his redemption at the last moments of the play. After being introduced as a horribly selfish man, the other stories of the play get told and mask the lack of resolution within the Midas story. Finally at the end, Midas who is "by this time long forgotten and in any case unexpected--reappears, newly from his quest" with his restored daughter, and "on this note of love rewarded and love redeemed, the play comes to an end.".[3]: 626  Through all the vignettes that are portrayed, the audience is meant to leave not with the story of a few individuals, but rather to know the power of human transformation in all forms.

Metamorphoses uses a combination of presentational and representational forms, including the Vertumnus and Pomona scene, which is both acted out and tells the story of Myrrha. Representation is used as a rendition of a story. For the most part, the play follows a linear technique by having the sequence of events in each individual story follow a rational chronological timeline. The Orpheus scene strays from this, by repeating a portion of the same scene numerous times to emphasize the torment of his loss.

Zimmerman intended the play to build on a foundation of images. In a New York Times interview, Zimmerman said, "You're building an image, and the image starts to feed you." She said, "When I approach a text, I don't do a lot of historical reading. It's an artificial world and I treat it as an artificial world."[11] Miriam Chirico has described Zimmerman's plays as "theater of images" and compared to the style of the director Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch, and Julie Taymor.[8]: 152  Zimmerman uses the play as a "poetic bridge between myth and modernism" by creating a hybrid of ancient Greek and modern American cultures.[9]: 71 

Metamorphoses expresses general concepts and emotions, rather than focusing on individual characters.


The central idea of Metamorphoses is the concept of change. To "metamorphose" means the striking change in appearance or character of something.[12] Each story contains at least one example.

The theme of change is expressed by the play's use of water. The set includes centrally placed pool, into which characters move and leave as they are transformed. The water is used for different functions throughout Metamorphoses, and it is described as "the most protean (lit: diverse or varied) of elements"[3]: 624  In transforming her early version of Metamorphoses, Six Myths, into its final form, Zimmerman's most significant change was the addition of the central pool. According to David Ostling, Zimmerman's scenic designer, "She was looking for the changing ability of water, the instantaneous nature of it, how it could go from still to violent and back to calm."[13]

Zimmerman's play also examines the causes of change in persons. What can make a person become something completely different? The most frequent cause throughout Metamorphoses is love. At the same time, Metamorphoses warns of what happens when love is ignored. When Erysichthon cuts down a sacred tree, showing that he loves only himself, he is transformed into a man consumed by hunger, eventually eating himself. When the beautiful Myrrha scorns the love of her suitors, the goddess Aphrodite curses her to love her father. Discovered, she flees to the wilderness, where the gods transform her into tears.[5]

Zimmerman has said that "[Metamorphoses] makes it easy to enter the heart and to believe in greater change as well... that we all can transform."[4]


The primary feature of the set in Metamorphoses is the pool, which generally sits center stage and occupies most of the stage. The pool is central to all of the stories, although its function changes. During the production, for instance, it becomes a swimming pool, a washing basin, the River Styx of the Underworld, and the sea.[5] The stage set consists of a platform bordering the pool, a chandelier hanging above, a large depiction of the sky upstage and right of the pool, and a set of double doors, upstage left of the pool. The stage has been described as "reminiscent of paintings by Magritte and the dream states they evoke."[13]

The costumes of the play are described as "evocative of a generalized antiquity but one in which such things as suspenders and trousers are not unknown."[3]: 624  Actors wear costumes that range from classic Grecian togas to modern bathing suits, sometimes in the same scene. This juxtaposition of old and new is particularly striking in the story of Midas, in which he is shown wearing a "smoking jacket" and confronted by a drunken reveler in a half-toga with vine leaves in his hair.[13]


The language in Metamorphoses sets up the mythic, yet comprehensible world, to be portrayed on stage. Philip Fisher describes the myths as "poetic" and says that Zimmerman "has a great vision and her sense of humor intrudes on a regular basis, often with clever visual or aural touches."[14] The comedy elements present contemporary connections for the audience to the mythic stories. When an audience hears a clever interjection by Zimmerman, they can easily take in the experience of a well-written play.[14]

Zimmerman's rhythm in the play establishes quick scenes and down-to-the point dialogue, making it easy to follow. She does not leave much silence or pauses. This upbeat rhythm shows up within separate lines as well. For example, "HERMES: The god of speed and distant messages, a golden crown above his shining eyes, his slender staff held out in front of him, and little wings fluttering at his ankles: and on his left arm, barely touching it: she."[5]: 45  A device known as "dissonance" is strongly used in this particular line. Dissonance is a subtle sense of disharmony, tension, or imbalance within the words chosen in the play.[6]: 86  Dissonance uses short, stressed sounds, as in this example; the playwright uses them to emphasize the up-tempo rhythm throughout the play.


Willy Schwarz composed the music, for which he was awarded the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play. Schwarz also collaborated with Zimmerman in her plays The Odyssey and Journey to the West.[15] His music often signifies a change in scene or accompanies specific moments, often one or more of poetic speech.

Finger cymbals are used in the story of Midas, to indicate his footsteps after he has the power of transforming all he touches to gold.[5]: 18  During the story of Phaeton, Apollo sings the aria "Un Aura Amorosa" from Così Fan Tutte by Mozart .

Production history

(Times and dates retrieved from the beginning of the script.[5])

Margo Jefferson commented that the performance style fell into an American jokiness form; its youthful charm and a high energy was a way to deflect and delay an emotionally heavy scene, but this had more resonance.[17] It closed on February 16, 2003, after a total of 400 performances.[18] This production was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2002, competing against Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog and Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, which took the award.[19]

Despite the staging challenges, with a pool of water for actors to swim and frolic in required to successfully produce the show, the play has been popular on stages throughout the United States. Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. produced the show in 2012, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman and featuring live music by Tom Teasley.[20] Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. brought the Lookingglass Theatre Company's production, directed by Mary Zimmerman, to its Fichandler Stage in 2013.[21]

About the author

Mary Zimmerman was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1960. As a child she was introduced to the stories of the ancient Mediterranean world by Edith Hamilton's Mythology. While studying in England, a teacher read her The Odyssey.[4] Zimmerman was educated at Northwestern University, where she received a BS in theater, as well as an MA and PhD in performance studies. She is a full professor of performance studies at Northwestern.[22]

Beyond her childhood fascination with Greek myths, Zimmerman credits the Jungian scholar James Hillman as the source of many of her ideas involving love, such as that in the story of Eros and Psyche. She also acknowledges the influence of Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology, in her work.[4] Zimmerman won the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 1998 in recognition of her creative work.[9]: 69 

Her plays include Journey to the West, The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and Eleven Rooms of Proust. She also co-wrote and directed Galileo Galilei.[22] She has twice directed for the New York Shakespeare Festival in the Park. In 2002 she won the Tony Award for Best Director for the Broadway production of Metamorphoses.[23] Metamorphoses was Zimmerman's first Broadway production.[3]

Awards and nominations



  1. ^ Brantley, Ben (2002-03-05). "THEATER REVIEW; Dreams of 'Metamorphoses' Echo in a Larger Space (Published 2002)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-10-28.
  2. ^ "Metamorphoses". Looking Glass Theater. Archived from the original on 28 September 2013. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Farrell, Joseph (Winter 2002). "Metamorphoses: A Play by Mary Zimmerman". The American Journal of Philosophy. 123 (4): 626.
  4. ^ a b c d Moyers, Bill. Interview with Mary Zimmerman. NOW with Bill Moyers. PBS. 22 March 2002
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Zimmerman, Mary; Slavitt, David R.; Ovid (2002). Metamorphoses: A Play (First ed.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-8101-1980-2.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Rush, David (2005). A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois Printing Press. p. 35.
  7. ^ Brantley, Ben. "Dreams of Metamorphoses Echo in a Larger Space", New York Times 5 Mar. 2002: Sec. E.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chirico, Miriam M. (Summer 2008). "Zimmerman's Metamorphoses: Mythic Revision as a Ritual for Grief". Comparative Drama. 42 (2): 153. doi:10.1353/cdr.0.0014. S2CID 192014367.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Garwood, Deborah (January 2003). "Myth As Public Dream: The Metamorphosis of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses.". PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. 25 (73): 74. doi:10.1162/152028103321658346. S2CID 57562514.
  10. ^ Whitworth, Julia E. Rev. of Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman. Theatre Journal Vol. 54 Is. 4 (Dec. 2002): 635.
  11. ^ Marks, Peter. "Building Her Plays Image by Image," New York Times 9 March 2002, late ed.: B7.
  12. ^ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Metamorphose. Merriam-Webster, Inc.
  13. ^ a b c Eddy, Michael S. "Metamorphosing Metamorphoses: scenic designer Daniel Ostling discusses moving Mary Zimmerman's meditation on Ovid from coast to coast," Entertainment Design 36.4 (April 2002): 28(4).
  14. ^ a b Fisher, Philip. The British Theatre Guide. 2003.
  15. ^ Willy Schwarz website, 29 November 2008.
  16. ^ Brantley, Ben. "Dreams of Metamorphoses Echo in a Larger Space," New York Times 5 March 2002: E1.
  17. ^ Jefferson, Margo. "Myth, Magic, and Us Mortals," New York Times 26 May 2002: A1.
  18. ^ Metamorphoses Internet Broadway Database, Accessed November 26, 2008.
  19. ^ Mckinley, Jesse. "Ratcheting Up Tony Tension," New York Times, 15 February 2002
  20. ^ Constellation Theatre’s Aquatic Metamorphoses Runs Deep, Washington City Paper, May 2, 2012. accessed October 21, 2014.
  21. ^ Theatre Review: Metamorphoses at Arena Stage, Washingtonian, February 19, 2013. accessed October 21, 2014. in 2015, Leah Lowe directed a production of the play at Vanderbilt University Theatre with a cast of fifteen student actors.
  22. ^ a b Northwestern University School of Communication. 2008. Northwestern University. 29 November 2008.
  23. ^ "Mary Zimmerman" at Lookingglass theatre, 30 November 2008