Prior to the publication of his first collection of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems (1955), Beat poet Gregory Corso wrote three plays while living as a "stowaway" on the campus of Harvard University.
The first of these plays, written in 1954, was Sarpedon, which Corso described as "a great funny Prometheus Unbound ... all in metre and rhyme" and "...an attempt to replicate Euripides, though the whole shot be an original. Like the great Greek masters, I took off where Homer left an opening (like Euripides did with the fate of Agamemnon). My opening was found in The Iliad. Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Europa, died on the fields of Troy, and Homer had him sent up to Olympus with no complaint from Hades, who got all the others what died there. Thus I have Hades complain, demanding from his brother Zeus, the dead, all the dead, from said fields."
The play comprises 17 pages of this volume. It is supplemented with a two-page introduction by Corso himself, taken from a transcript of his prefatory remarks at his 1978 reading of Sarpedon at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Also included are an editor's introduction which provides information about the plays Corso wrote while at Harvard and describes the circumstances surrounding his brief residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The volume is footnoted as well.
Corso never professed to be a Greek scholar but this brilliant yet little-known work clearly demonstrates the depth of his mastery of classical literature, no doubt picked up from auditing Harvard lectures as well as from the extensive reading he did in the Clinton State Prison library in Dannemora, New York, while serving a three-year sentence for theft. What makes it all the more significant is that, despite the ancient subject matter, his verse is infused with the street slang and Beat vernacular of the time in which it was written, and portends the irreverent humor that would become a hallmark of much of his later work.
About the Author
Gregory Corso (1930-2001) was abandoned by his mother a month after his birth at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. Growing up in foster care and on the streets of Little Italy, Corso was a juvenile delinquent who spent time in Clinton Correctional Facility, in the cell recently vacated by gangster Lucky Luciano. An aspiring poet, Corso was taken under the wing of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and became the youngest member of the Beat Generation's inner circle, with whom he lived and work in the Beat Hotel, a lodging house in Paris, during the late fifties. There he created one of his signature works, Bomb, a poem composed of typewritten strips of paper arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Late in life, Corso became reunited with his mother and maintained a close relationship with her until his death.
Allen Ginsberg was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, and died in New York City in 1997.