Roman frieze

“Seven Brides and Sobbin’ Women: remaking the myth of the Sabine Women”
Catherine Connors (University of Washington, Seattle)

This paper will consider the use of the myth of the Sabine women in the 1954 movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the short story on which the musical was based, Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘Sobbin Women.’ In both works, which are set on the mid 19th century American frontier,  a woodsman marries a girl named Milly whom he expects also to look after his six brothers. She, of course, wants to find wives for the brothers. In both the film and the short story, the finding of wives for the six brothers is explicitly compared to the rape of the Sabine women, which is cited from one of Milly’s few possessions, a copy of Plutarch’s Lives.

In an essay on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria published in 2006 Mario Labate considers Ovid’s use of the myth of the rape of the Sabine women in his handbook on courtship, and makes explicit reference to Seven Brides: ‘Just as the logic of Milly, teacher of courtship and author of an Ars Amatoria, is opposed to the approach of [her husband] Adam, or the new Romulus, so the method of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria [with its emphasis on carefully learned sophisticated courting techniques] is clearly opposed to that of the exemplum [of the Sabine women] that the poem aetiologically presents in its first excursus.’  This is clearly true, but it is worth pointing out that in the film departs significantly from the short story in the way the citation of Plutarch is introduced:  in the film Milly’s husband cites Plutarch (from Milly’s book) in formulating the abduction plan. In the short story it is Milly herself who reads and cites the Plutarch. The short story, written during the 1930’s, places considerable emphasis on Milly’s initiative and agency; the 1954 film, by contrast, presents Milly more as a housewife subordinate to her husband’s wishes. Stephen Vincent Benet’s picture of Milly as a woman who seizes Roman myth and remakes it for her own purposes  offers a strikingly modern paradigm for the reception and transformation of Classical mythology. 

Return to CAPN program