all over so quickly–the shallow
affect to despise,
the wild destroy life, which both turn into
pure pain …
It makes no sense to think on these books or
tell old tales of the anguish of women …
Dear friends and readers,
For the last night of the Capital Fringe Festival and our one night at Glimmerglass Opera House (Cooperstown, NY) this year we found ourselves watching murderous, not to call them ferocious women whose stories fit with Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1797 The Wrongs of Women gothic novel. La Belle Parricide is also a kind of commentary on previous versions of the story (Shelley’s is the most notable), and Cherubini’s 1797 Medea is an 18th century she-tragedy turned into an opera.
The five women (Lori Fischer, Monica LaForce, Alia Faith Williams, Luci Tyler, Rebecca Nesvet), who clubbed together to write five short plays under the title La Bella Parricide to retell the story of Beatrice Cenci from five angles insisted on how often the tale of Beatrice has been told, how it has drawn audiences from the time Beatrice (in this production played by Madeline Ruskin), her stepmother, Lucretia (Jacinda Bonaugh) and brothers bludgeoned to death their cruel, and incestuous father and were executed. Until now while images of Beatrice have occasionally been made by women,
Breatrice Cenci by Harriet Hosmer
all the plays have been by men, at least 12 of them, most famously, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
One part of the merit of La Belle Parricide is the plays tell the story from different women’s point of view without false sentiment. And what is most striking about the plays is the violence of the two women, their anger, their intense aroused sexual passions. They are victims unable to not to obey engaging in the most degrading lurid sex acts, at the same time that they refuse character assassination. Or if you must talk about them as bad, you are not allowed to turn your eyes away from the disgusting luridness, cowardice and just plain vileness of the men they were dependent on, had to cope with. Several reviews have summarized the different takes: from well before, to during, to a couple of hundred years after the crimes and executions (Izzy’s blog), to types of play (Hip shot), to different psychological insights (Washington Post review). The company was the same which did a brilliant ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore last year.
The auditorium was so full, the ushers were adding on chairs. The stairway up is narrow and old (stone), lighting not great, and the air-conditioning leaves a good deal to be desired. But all stayed the course, and the applause was strong.
As it was the last night of the fringe, and we were lucky enough to be round the corner from the Gypsy Tent (a central open air bar next to the building from which the fringe is run and where tickets are to be bought), we went over to watch the fun of the awards amid the friendly crowd. They were of all types: for critics, for admirable audience members (those who go to as many plays as time and the need to sleep and eat permit), volunteers, actors, playwrights, kinds of plays and events, and good-humored ones too. Jim and I had cold drinks, and we did try to dance the night away a little. Jim’s shoulder gave out though. The woman who runs the fringe and her assistant were central to the evening’s festivities. As Izzy says, we did not see any of the award-winners, probably because we went to all “high culture” type plays this time (rewritten Greek comedies, tragedies, a soap opera, a play about Picasso, sopranos) but we have a chance to extend our experience, for one of the winners will be playing at Woolly Mammoth Theater all August: a musical, Who’s your Baghdaddy, or how I Started the Iraq War.
Now it’s not that we are blood-thirsty, or anxious to witness transgressive sex, parricides or infanticide, so I suggest there is more than a coincidence that the one older serious opera put on by Glimmerglass this summer was also about a famous murderous woman, Medea. A shortened version of Euripides’s great play was done last year at the Fringe, and far from sensational, these revivals are often remarkably moving (Fiona Shaw joined with Frederic Raphael at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently). And again, though most who have written her story have been men, women have enacted and visualized her,
Evelyn Morgan (1855-1919), Medea
Glimmerglass in fact elected to do a sentimental version, one whose history of rewriting shows how vexed (and poor) the original playscript must have been. The music is by Cherubini, but the script is a melange of rewrites based on Corneille’s play (not Euripides at all).
Quite unexpectedly I found myself watching an 18th century she-tragedy turned into an opera; such plays often present transgressive heroines piously and so this one did. The opening act is pure filler (what Euripides omitted): we watch Jason (meant to be sung by Jason Collins, but an understudy did it that night) marry the virtuous Glauce (also supposed to be sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, but actually sung by an understudy). The actor in the program notes tells us Jason is not so bad (“got worse than he deserved”) and certainly Cherubini falls for Jason’s hypocrisies (among them prudence). The second and third act of this opera are filled with long soliloquies by Medea which may be summed up as I want to kill my children, I don’t want to kill my children. Rather like someone plucking a flower, loves me, loves me not. All the raw details and fights of Euripides play — over the past, money, exile, are erased. The 18th century tragedy opera queen accuses Jason of loving this other woman and says over and over again how crushed she is. How unjust and unfair it all is. She weeps. By contrast, Euripides’ Medea takes Jason to be buying a convenient bride, seeking power, sex and so on and seethes with anger. She is a real woman and he one of the world’s success stories — how to network for example. In Euripides Jason gives Medea lessons on how to get along with the Creons of the world. She’s not listening though.
The tedium of this 1797 play was not relieved by the production. Wooden blocking and traditional outfits. From the date of the first version of the opera I take the play to be connected to the French revolution (not mentioned in the program notes) and to be meant to show sympathy for women. However ineffective today the language is intended to function as for women’s rights: Medea and her nurse are exemplary figures. I thought had the opera-makers dressed everyone in 1790s costumes instead of traditional garb, it might have had the right context. Maybe got Alexandra Deshorties (who sang Medea) up as Madame Roland or Olympe de Gouges? make her nurse into Charlotte Corday?
The lecturer beforehand never mentioned the French revolution; he never mentioned the story much, but went on about the music abstractly. Probably he was right about the music’s provenance and it had power but like the program notes which go on generally about Medea in history or legend detached from life, he evaded the subject of the opera, why it’s done. No one was thinking for real about the content of this legend nor this specific version’s content. It’s not from another planet.
It was not all loss. The best — and a fine long element in this version — is Medea’s relationship with her nurse, now her children’s nurse, Neris (Sarah Larsen). There are continuous duets and real sympathy between these women — beautifully sung that night. The applause after these was unforced. Jim thought the play was revived because Callas emoted through acts two and threee so successfully in the 1950s; when there were no subtitles, no one could see how lame were the sentiments. Since we don’t hear about who played the nurse to Callas, I must suppose modern audiences don’t think about these beautiful arias or who is on the stage in the 2nd and 3rd act. It seemed to me this was a play which enacted the 18th century theme of women’s friendship found in novels and poetry, a version of the mother-daughter pairs found in the gothics.
Glimmerglass is a beautiful building. It was blessedly cooler in New York than it has been in this astonishingly hot summer we’ve been having in the DC area (heat index one day 125 Fahreneit). There are lakes, nearby meadows, it’s refreshing to be there. We had a picnic supper and in the evening and following morning went for walks or just sat and watched a purling rill. We got into some good and fun talk with other patrons of the opera.
But to revert to the story of Medea as told by Euripides, Medea is a genuinely wronged woman who genuinely gets back at her craven despicable vile exploitative lover, Jason. He has refused to take her seriously, well when the play closes he can no longer dismiss her from his mind nor sneer. In the 1920s Virginia Woolf wrote that no thinking person can any longer simply vehemently condemn Clytemnestra, that contemporaries will in fact be on her side. Alas, I have not found that to be true, even Euripides’s Clytemnestra who is given most pity and rationale (in this play the focus is Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigenia) is often presented as a sheer witch.
Outside the world of plays, operas, movies, this summer has shown us that very little progress has been made by women when it comes to understanding or sympathy in sexual matters (I don’t address the others). This has been a summer of desolation in public court cases: this summer of desolation — from the women who were raped (a student by a fraternity, a Muslim cleaning woman, an office executive who phoned cops to help her) and got no justice (one had parents egregiously fined for litigating) to the woman who a jury acquitted of the accusation of murdering her two year old. In the case of the rapes the way evidence was allowed in (and not permitted) made it very difficult for the women to litigate, and when it didn’t, their personal lives were made the evidence against them. In the case of the woman accused of murdering her child, when the rules of evidence helped her we heard vicious howls — from women, mind, women.
So one might ask, why do these productions persist? My guess is a different group of people choose to mount the Beatrice Cenci productions than the mass of people who despise, dismiss, disregard and yes hate women (beyond Casey Antony, in some countries and cultures 90% women are still tortured all their lives by female genital mutilation and huge numbers of women snatched or trafficked). As to the Medea, it’s a war-horse, respected. Why write the material. Some did it for money, but not these 5 women nor Shelley.