August 22, 2020
“Introducing a new play about the skew lives of Alice Kober and Michael Ventris” with further readings appended
by Tom Palaima, FSA
§a1 We at PASP are pleased to report that an emotionally perceptive, moving and intellectually engrossing play has been written that explores what we might call the unparallel and relatively briefly intersecting lives of two of the three main figures in the decipherment of Linear B, Michael Ventris and Alice Kober.
§a2 The playwright Bernadine Corrigan (born May 20, 1961) used the Kober and Ventris papers and related materials on-line at PASP, as well as the primary written biographically oriented accounts of the decipherment of Linear B: Andrew Robinson on Ventris (The Man Who Deciphered Linear B 2002) and Margalit Fox on Kober (The Riddle of the Labyrinth 2013) as wellsprings for her play.
§a3 Robinson and Fox both made substantial use of materials in the PASP archives to write accounts of the lives and work of the two founding figures of Aegean scripts and Mycenology.
§a4 Corrigan comes at them as human beings. Her play helps us see how they may have related to one another in reality and in Bernadine’s truly insightful imagination.
§a5 Having lived with and worked on the Kober and Ventris and Emmett Bennett archives for a third of a century, I can attest that Bernadine is not making things up, but opening windows into the minds, hearts and souls of these two giants of script cryptanalysis.
§a6 Having read the play closely and thought about it carefully, I can say this much, without giving too much away.
§a7 As I wrote to Bernadine, her play is superb in getting across who Kober and Ventris were as products of their backgrounds and upbringings and life events and the social and educational systems through which they became their adult selves.
§a8 The exchanges among the main characters strike me as true to their persons. The dialogue, in fact, is understatedly brilliant and well founded upon what the archives and personal witnesses reveal. Bernadine has kindly provided an excerpt from Act II, Scene 2.
§a9 Kober and Ventris are both tragic heroes. They are not grand tragic figures like Oedipus or Lear. But extraordinarily ordinary tragic heroes, like Crocker-Harris in Rattigan’s The Browning Version https://sites.utexas.edu/scripts/files/2020/06/2002-TGP-TheBrowningVersions.pdf. They are persons who do not fall from Olympian heights. But fall they do and from high enough up to move us to pity and fear and deep, deep regret.
§a10 Ciphers introduces us to Ventris and Kober and lets us see more than their public selves. It shows us their humanly understandable tragic flaws and many more subtleties than it is decent here and now to point out. This is not melodrama and for the most part it is what it is: real.
§a11 As scene follows scene, the play moves from strength to strength. We look forward eagerly to the time when it can be put up on the stage and we can watch actors give voice to Corrigan’s words. Ventris and Kober will come to life.
§a12 Here follows Bernadine Corrigan’s explanation of how she became interested in Kober and Ventris and how she then pursued her ever-deepening interests. We thank her for following her passion. After that comes an excerpt from her play.
§a13 We recommend the following concise, and relatively easy, informative reading:
Really do read the first five!
Alison Fell, The Element -Inth in Greek (2012) a spectacular book by a gifted writer with Kober always in the soul of the central character.
And of course, Robinson’s and Fox’s excellent books.
How I Came To Write Ciphers, by Bernadine Corrigan
§b1 My path to Linear B is perhaps an unusual one. I originally left school at the age of sixteen and for the next twelve years worked variously as a typist, insurance clerk and playworker, then for eight years as a comedy performer and writer with a small degree of success. I wrote and performed in two plays at the Edinburgh Festival: the first was a hit, the second an unsalvageable flop. Time for a change.
§b2 I fetched up in the office of Justin Champion then Admissions Tutor of the History Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, and presented him with my academic credentials, a copy of ‘When Harry Met Cathy – and Anne and Jane and Anne and Kathy and Cathy’ (the Edinburgh hit; the life of Henry VIII in an hour with a cast of three) which convinced him, recklessly, to admit me as a student. I mention Justin by name as I should like to pay tribute to him: he died last month at the age of 59.
§b3 Many history undergraduates have a firm idea of the period upon which they wish to concentrate but as a ‘mature’ student everything looked good, so I simply started at the beginning. Homer. Hooked. Ancient history for me.
§b4 Fast-forward to 2002 and I had completed my BA in Ancient History and was finishing an MA in Hellenic Studies when I happened to attend Andrew Robinson’s talk and book-signing of his biography of Michael Ventris The Man Who Deciphered Linear B. I found the story of Ventris fascinating and the decipherment itself utterly mind-boggling. I was by then living in Hampstead, as had Ventris, and it was some years later as I was passing his house while walking on Hampstead Heath with a group of friends that I pointed out to them the blue plaque on house’s exterior and told them his story. One of the group said; ‘That would make a good play. Why don’t you write it?’
§b5 As it happened I was at something of a loose end, after having gone on from studying at Royal Holloway to teaching there for a few years and eventually leaving in order to travel more with my husband. I was taken with the idea of writing a play again after a break of almost two decades and set about doing more research. Unfortunately I was no longer affiliated to any academic institution and had no external funding, so lengthy study trips to the USA were not possible, and the Ventris materials at the Institute of Classical Studies are not generally available so I was unable to obtain access to the papers and letters stored there. Consequently my research relied on easily accessible published and digitized materials such those available at PASP, and it was Margalit Fox’s book The Riddle of the Labyrinth which convinced me that the juxtaposition of the working-class American woman Alice Kober and the privileged and well-connected Englishman Michael Ventris would be the backbone of the drama.
§b6 I could not concentrate a great deal on the technicalities of the decipherment for they are simply beyond me. I am no linguist. When I began to write I found the historian wrestling with the playwright. As an historian I am infuriated by the careless handling of facts in historical drama but as a dramatist it is almost impossible to stick entirely to the straight and narrow for that produces not a play but a documentary or a lecture. Consequently I have put words in characters’ mouths which were never spoken – though in my defence, some that were – and some major figures in the real story have been brutally excised for reasons of both dramatic clarity and base economics.
§b7 It is extremely difficult to get a new play by an unknown author staged and if the cast list begins to edge toward double figures, almost impossible. The historian argued with the playwright that if there was no room for John Chadwick or Emmett Bennett, how to defend the inclusion of Theseus and Ariadne? The playwright contended that assuming no knowledge on the part of the audience, some explanation of the basics of Linear B would be desirable without resorting to ludicrously unlikely exposition between characters for whom no explanation would have been necessary:
‘I say Miss Kober, have you heard about Linear B, an ancient language inscribed on tablets discovered by Arthur Evans at the turn of the century in Crete?’
‘Why, yes, Mr Ventris, I most certainly have!’
And so on. Consequently, Theseus and Ariadne appear in Ventris and Kober’s imaginations as innocents in the matter of cryptography. They also provide some light relief, particularly Theseus. I fear there may be more jokes than many purists might tolerate. That was not my intention at the outset as I fully intended to write a serious play about a serious subject but there on the very first page appeared, almost unbidden, a joke – and a none-too clean one at that – so I sighed and accepted the inevitable. I should say that the joke has since been deleted. From the first page at least. This is not to say that ‘Ciphers’ is rolling-in-the-aisles comedy, far from it, as we all know that both Kober’s and Ventris’ lives were not entirely happy and their early deaths tragic.
§b8 Kober’s early life was extremely poor and her professional life was without doubt hampered by her gender; how galling it must have been to see opportunities and plaudits offered to men with a fraction of her intellectual gifts. She desperately wanted to decipher Linear B but died while the solution was still just beyond her grasp.
§b9 Ventris, though financially well-off, was the child of a tubercular father and a suicidal mother and an orphan by the age of 18. His success with Linear B failed to bring him any happiness; he had neither the desire – or, it might be argued, the necessary highly-developed linguistic tools – to continue very much further with the subject and the historical and archaeological aspects of the work didn’t hold much appeal for him. His career in architecture seems to have been driven more by his mother’s ambition than his own, and although he was clearly genuinely convinced at an intellectual level of the need for good modern architecture, particularly after the depredations of World War II, he was a competent rather than genuinely creative architect and by the mid-50s was surely aware that he had been outstripped by his peers.
§b10 It is unfulfillment that is at the heart of the play. The trite and popular assumption that hard work will always produce one’s heart’s desire is no more clearly refuted than in the lives of Ventris and Kober. Both worked tirelessly; neither, for different reasons, was ultimately satisfied.
§b11 I write this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and it may seem irrelevant to hope to produce now a play about a subject that to the vast majority of people is hopelessly arcane and the obsession of two people long dead. Perhaps. The best I can hope is that eventually my play might bring the lives and work of Ventris and Kober to even a few people who were previously unaware of them. For though they were very different, they had in common shining intellects and integrity and used those virtues to plough on with their apparently irrelevant obsession through a time even darker than ours and thus left the world better enlightened than they found it. It is to the enormous credit of everyone at PASP that they too continue to bring enlightenment to a world badly in need of it.
August 22, 2020
An excerpt from the play Ciphers written by Bernadine Corrigan
All rights reserved by Bernadine Corrigan
CONTACT for Bernadine Corrigan: email@example.com
Act II Scene 2
KOBER: I am a professional academic, and everything I do, everything I’ve done for the past twenty years has been directed toward this. All my degrees, all the teaching and examining and marking and the endless faculty meetings so that I can afford to come and do this. But that’s fine – that’s just fine because all of that makes me a professional – not an amateur – and all of that means that I am possessed of an intellectual rigour that you –
VENTRIS: Ah yes, I felt sure we were hurtling toward the second-person pronoun, and there he is.
KOBER: You are doubtless a very clever young man. But you’re playing – you guess that Linear B might be Etruscan: you might as well guess that it’s Swahili. A university education would have knocked that sort of nonsense out of you. You could have come here, to Oxford, to study, to work. I dreamed of that all my life. But you couldn’t be bothered. You are a privileged dilettante.
VENTRIS: Oh Miss Kober, I believe you’re trying to flatter me.
KOBER: I do not find you at all amusing.
VENTRIS: Yes, that is being borne in upon me. I’m sorry, I was merely trying to defuse…
KOBER: Well, it’s too late for that, my fuse is well and truly lit.
VENTRIS: Perhaps you should stand in a bucket of sand.
KOBER: When I got your letter blithely telling me that you intended devoting the rest of the year to Minoan ‘because it isn’t really worth doing in fits and starts’ it made my blood boil. That would be such a luxury for me and it seems so trivial to you.
VENTRIS: So you do remember some parts of my correspondence. I’m sure I had no intention of poaching your corpuscles, and I’m fully aware that I am privileged when so many are not – and the irony is that I would hope that I am a socialist, which would probably see me locked up in America – but money is beside the point…
KOBER: Money is always beside the point for people who’ve never been without it.
VENTRIS: That is a truism.
KOBER: Forgive me. We can’t all be geniuses. What do you expect from the daughter of a janitor but crude truisms? What was it you told me yesterday? ‘Oh Naum Gabo and Marcel Breuer are great family friends of mine!’
VENTRIS: I believe I said I was very lucky that Gabo and Breuer happened to befriend my mother. I wasn’t deliberately dropping names.
KOBER: Where I come from men called Gabo and Breuer run a deli!
VENTRIS: Miss Kober you misunderstand me entirely. I wouldn’t for a moment dismiss the difficulties you face, but I rather resent your thinking that I am merely toying with this. Having said that, I see no reason why I should defend myself to you. And I have no intention of playing a game of ‘who works the hardest.’
KOBER: You wouldn’t win.
August 22, 2020