Lessons With Hypatia

A Tragedy for Music Theater by Andrew Thomas Kuster


Lessons With Hypatia is a musical tragedy that seeks to unveil the congruities between eroticism, philosophy, religion, culture, and love. In fifth century Alexandria, Egypt, the woman HYPATIA, among the last philosophers of Late Antiquity, was schooled as a man by her father THEON, chief librarian of the great library at Alexandria. Hypatia’s philosophical dialogues and discussions about love with her confidants propel the drama: A shared love of ideas prompts Hypatia to wed ISIDORE, the philosophical leader of Alexandria, in hope of resolving the brewing turmoil between CYRIL, Alexandria’s religious authority (and in love with Hypatia), and ORESTES, the new Roman consul (who also falls in love with Hypatia). But Isidore’s extramarital sensual exploits grow reckless, and Orestes and Cyril seek to capitalize on Isidore’s rashness to grab power. Hypatia reasons that producing a child might protect Isidore, and ruminates about consummating her longstanding love with Cyril. But when she attempts to offer herself to him, unanticipated emotions terrify her. Orestes begs Hypatia for love, and after her initial repulsion she considers giving herself to him. But when Hypatia finds Orestes with another love, she yields to her passion with Cyril. Orestes becomes enraged and threatens to rile up the Alexandrian people to burn Theon’s library. And Hypatia and her students determine a risky method to preserve classical knowledge should the library be destroyed. Hypatia resists Orestes, and he lovingly recants his threats, but not in time to prevent disaster.

Eroticism and philosophy mingle through the songs, dialogue, and action to blend together multiple levels of interpretation: What is the nature of love and divinity? What it is to communicate and to share one’s self? What is culture, and how might it be preserved? And, how does each individual assign meaning to the emotional events in his or her life?

Artistic Statement

Today we remember almost nothing about Hypatia—she was the daughter of the Librarian of Alexandria, she was schooled just as male philosophers were, she taught students who held diverse beliefs, and as a woman she faced challenges different from those of the men of her time—but none of her personal views remains extant. And therefore the blank canvas of her life is ideal for a playwright to decorate with an imaginary and meaningful “creative nonfiction.” Her real life lost to forgetfulness, Hypatia becomes not an individual but a metaphor.

Lessons With Hypatia reverses this metaphor: In the course of the musical tragedy Hypatia the person becomes aware that others treat her not as an individual but rather as an archetype or symbol of their own motivations, and within the shifting symbols of femininity that others cast onto her she becomes trapped. As she learns what she seems to be for others, she struggles with how to use what she learns and to what end. She struggles to communicate her knowledge when she realizes that words change their meaning as a person redefines the strongest words for herself through life experience. She struggles with the uncertainty of what can be communicated through shared experience and what can be preserved in words and symbols, mere tokens that lose a sense of truth through misunderstanding and frail memory. But through her struggles, her communication, and her love, Hypatia discovers she can transcend her status as metaphor in the minds of others and become an individual for herself.

Hypatia confronts her own failure to communicate in that most horrible metaphor: the destruction of the accumulated classical wisdom in the Alexandrian Library. When Hypatia and her Neo-Platonist students debate about how and whether any wisdom might be preserved, they determine that despite their almost-hopeless efforts they ought to attempt to preserve what they believe to be the core of classical wisdom: that humanity is part of the divine. But the central hidden knowledge (as Cyril and other Alexandrian religious thinkers posited) is that instead of God becoming man as in Christian dogma, the direction might be reversed, and man for a timeless moment might also become God. Here is the kernel of classical wisdom from which all other wisdom can be deduced, the concept of heiros gamos, the metaphor for the deepest love experienced at the full capacity of each individual. But that wisdom is dangerous and could be lost forever, so Hypatia and her students intend to encode it into something that will remain for centuries in the newly-Christianized Roman Empire: the rite of the Mass; and they concoct a method to teach how to train minds to read metaphorically and to decode that message: the science of alchemy. (In an artistic parallel, all the musical pieces in Lessons With Hypatia are based on components of the Gregorian chant for the Mass of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but in reverse order.)

But that’s superfluous: Lessons With Hypatia is at its heart a love story, because nothing but love drives individuals so profoundly to confront themselves and the personhood of a beloved other, and nothing but love drives individuals as urgently to know what they want to do, what they need to do, and what they cannot but do. All the characters in this musical tragedy are motivated by their own comprehension of love, and the drama unfolds by how those loves intermingle, change, grow, fade, or deepen. Finally, and paradoxically, Hypatia learns that she can transcend the unsatisfactory symbol of femininity which had been projected upon her by others only when she accepts a love that lies closest to her individual femininity, the deepest love that her beloved allows to grow within her and to discover for herself.


Dramatis Personae

(6 Men, 3 Women, 1 Unspeaking)

HYPATIA, brilliant young woman philosopher
THEON, chief librarian of the great library at Alexandria, Hypatia’s father
ISIDORE, leader of Alexandria’s philosophy schools, arranged husband of Hypatia
ORESTES, political leader of Alexandria, representative of the Roman Empire
CYRIL, leader of the religious institutions at Alexandria
SYNESIUS, Hypatia’s student, erudite, witty, and mature
DAMASCIUS, Hypatia’s student, young, clever, and bold, in love with Isidore
FLORA, Orestes’ voluptuous wife, friend of Hypatia
CYBELE, Synesius’ wife, a calm mystic, friend of Hypatia
TRUST (non-speaking), the personification of the people of Alexandria


(12 Players, add Strings when available)

Reed I (flute, oboe, alto saxophone), Reed II (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Percussion I (drum set, castanets, tambourine, gong), Keyboard/Percussion II (synthesizer and/or harp, sitar, organ, celesta, harpsichord, electric guitar, chimes), Piano, Violin I, Violin II, Violoncello, Bass

Technical Information

Setting is Alexandria, Egypt in the early fifth century. Costumes and sets should incorporate simple, elegant, and stylish elements of ancient Egyptian, classical Greek, and late Roman art mingled with Art Deco and contemporary fashions in order to create an idealized conception of high culture in Late Western Antiquity. Sets include a grand chamber where is held a wedding celebration and dramatic dialogues, an exterior public forum where are held philosophical discussions, and the famous Alexandrian library and museum, which at the end of the play is destroyed by fire.

Musical Numbers

Lessons With Hypatia is an evening-length show performed in two acts with one intermission. It has twenty-six musical numbers—totaling 70 minutes of music—that heighten and underscore the dramatic action of the plot.

Act One

1. Mnemosyne’s Pool (Instruments)
2. Feast (Instruments)
3. Fanfare (Instruments)
4. Hail, Alexandria (ISIDORE & Ensemble)
5. What We Become Floods Over (THEON & HYPATIA)
6. Lessons With Hypatia (SYNESIUS, FLORA, DAMASCIUS, & CYBELE)
7. Stay, Please Stay (ORESTES)
8. Love Will Grow For Me (FLORA)
9. Intuition Moves (Instruments)
10. Go I Know (THEON)
11. Be With Me (FLORA)
12. Eros (Instruments)
13. Together (CYRIL & HYPATIA)
14. Love Music 1 (Instruments)

Act Two

15. Entr'acte (Instruments)
16. What, Why, How (ISIDORE & Ensemble)
17. Tomorrow’s Daughters (CYBELE & SYNESIUS)
18. My Body Over (HYPATIA)
19. Love Music 2 (Instruments)
20. Soliloquy (Instruments)
21. Take Me (Ensemble)
22. Alexandria in Flames (Ensemble)
23. Fast Our Voices Fade (FLORA & ORESTES)
24. Trust Ending (Instruments)
25. Lethe (Instruments)
26. Dew Drop Down (Ensemble)

The Author's Work

In my work, I seek to reveal how real people become aware of human urges—life and love—through which each individual comes to comprehend their unique experience of being alive. I try to express powerful emotions (especially the many shades of love) that color a person’s interactions with others and flavor a person’s understanding of his or her self. I try to depict how a person experiences resisting or succumbing to instinctual behaviors, how that person learns to use memory, reflection, and sacrifice to construct meaning, and—by the emergent awareness of behaviors that bring satisfaction at different stages of life—how a person realizes who he or she is as an individual. Although my work explores philosophy, mysticism, eroticism, power, gender, family, and religion, really what I’m trying to tell are love stories.

I take the substance of my work from my own life experiences and my education. I also draw inspiration from the delightful writings of Daumal (A Night of Serious Drinking) and Calvino (Invisible Cities), particularly how their light and engaging style so simply opens up to immediate and profound poignancy. My thinking about perception, psychology, metaphor, and memory is deeply indebted to Jung’s scholarly writings on the alchemical process of individuation and his Red Book, the clarity and honesty of Jaspers' Philosophy of Existence, and Crowley’s The Vision and the Voice, an attempt to tear open how mind, metaphor, and archetype function. And I’m humbled by those composers who have so earnestly tried to express their individual understanding of love, humanity, and divinity, especially Messiaen and Mahler in his Eighth Symphony.

I compose love songs. I try to enhance the listener’s experience of the viewpoint of a character by using musical elements appropriate to the meaning of the words and drama. I seek to compose beautiful and singable melodies that utilize modality, vocal range, and articulation effectively and appropriately. Likewise, in my orchestration I attempt to heighten the lyrics and drama by using appropriate instrumentation (from classical orchestra to rock) and large-scale formal construction that incorporates dance-forms and over-arching areas of harmonic suspension and arrival.

Of those writers and composers who address archetypal human behavior, I most highly regard the plays of Ibsen, Molière, and Wedekind and the collaborations of Brecht and Weill, especially in Seven Deadly Sins. I too attempt to depict instinct, but I focus on how an individual internally struggles with conflicting instincts. My poetry represents enraptured speech, or rather: emotion at the level of becoming words. I try to avoid metaphors and poetic forms that might distract from the expressivity of a character or the unfolding of the dramatic whole. Instead, I try to enhance the emotional density the character is experiencing using real, impassioned language. Thereby, I hope to depict through words, music, and drama the externalization of a person’s essential humanity (or, how that individual comprehends life, love, and divinity).


Get a script, piano-vocal score, or full score from Lulu, or inquire for perusal materials.

Contact: andrewthomaskuster@gmail.com