The sad tale of Lucretia dates all the way back to the Roman historian Livy. Benjamin Britten's twentieth-century chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia is the story's most successful artistic embodiment, though it has also been told in narrative form by Shakespeare and in dramatic form by the French playwright André Obey.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece seems somehow ripe, or over-ripe, for satire, for its tabloid-style story is so unworthy of the verbal magnificence by which it is expressed. The story is quickly told: a virtuous Roman matron is raped, on a whim and almost on a dare, by a brutal foreigner; rather than live with her shame, she commits suicide. The artistic challenge, in taking on this subject, is to spin the story out, either by creating suspense about an action the reader knows is inevitable, or by creating sufficient psychological depth in the characters to make the action resonate with something more than mere physical horror.
In Shakespeare's Lucrece, however, both narrative and dramatic (or psychological) impulses are stifled by those of rhetoric: the language simply swamps the material. A spark of dramatic interest struggles into flame during the passage in which Tarquin argues with himself before committing his crime‹his morals and his personality briefly achieve three dimensions‹but the endless eloquent stanzas of rhyme royal in which Lucretia deplores her fate do not engage us emotionally: they seem just an exercise.
It is not, however, Shakespeare's Lucrece on which Britten's opera is based, but Le Viol de Lucrèce (1931) by André Obey, known to English readers through Thornton Wilder's translation. Obey's play, based on Shakespeare's poem, is his homage both to the Roman matron and to the English playwright. Obey recognized the challenges of dramatizing Shakespeare's poem, terming it, in his Preface, "genial bric-a-brac, where so much lyricism and rhetoric marvelously cover with dust so many golden fiery jewels with their magic life, all the fantastic Shakespearean boutique…."
Obey's dramatization, adapting what he identified as the "fugal" qualities of Shakespeare's poetry to actors' voices to produce a dramatic "oratorio", attempts to prevent the hijacking of drama by rhetoric, in part by focusing the drama within a frame of rhetoric. To this end, Obey introduced masked First and Second Narrators (one male, aligned with Tarquin and the claims of History; one female, aligned with Lucrece and the claims of Poetry) who remain onstage for most of the play. They occupy the position of the Chorus in classical tragedy, commenting upon the action, the feelings and motivations of the characters, and to some extent they accelerate the action. (Purportedly, the timbre and style of the Narrators' delivery came to Obey when he overheard a Davis Cup tennis match being broadcast on the radio from Paris.)
Obey's Lucrece is a bit of a sensualist, with a rage for order ("She ate her dinner alone…smiling…. She is the least bit greedy and the trout that had been touched with herbs was even more delicious than usual."). Her household is that of a respectable bourgeoise. And the assault on her person is felt by the Crowd (like the Narrators, a collective social consciousness in the play) to be identical with an assault on the honor and safety of Rome itself. Yet Obey's Lucrece remains a plaster madonna, a "mother of silence," a statue like the one of Minerva (Athena) she says she once saw on the bottom of the sea in the Bay of Baiae.
Obey's Tarquin is ruled entirely by his libido. "No, it's not so much the thing he desires! It's the act of obtaining," remarks the Second Narrator. There is an ingenious bit of stage business counterpointing the pounding hooves of Tarquin's approaching steed ("Listen to him, feel how he is panting between your knees…") with the attempts by one of Lucrece's maids to count her strands at the spinning wheel. And the moment of Tarquin's breach of Lucrece's bed is charged with images of sexual morbidity borrowed directly from Shakespeare: "Her breasts, blue-veined and ivory white, are like two maiden worlds.…"
Obey's play opens the perspective on Lucrece so that it leads to the present, as the Second Narrator exclaims, "Look, Rome is in Labor with History. Athens in its time was beauty. Babylon was luxury, and Troy was doom. There will come a day when Paris will be revolution and when Berlin will be war. But Rome, today, is history…" Obey says that his goal in this play was "less to write a tragedy than to create and animate a certain tragic order."
Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (1946), with a libretto by Ronald Duncan, shares with Peter Grimes (composed just before it) and Albert Herring (composed after it) a preoccupation with social corruption and the isolation and guilt of the individual. However, The Rape of Lucretia differs from Grimes in being a chamber opera, without stirring choruses and symphonic grandeur. But Britten makes the more intimate musical forces seem brilliantly appropriate to what is, after all, a "chamber" subject: a claustrophobically domestic story of violence and betrayal.
The classical story's contemporary resonances, hinted at in Obey, are in the Britten-Duncan version made all too explicit. The Revised Edition of the Boosey and Hawkes score carries a startling notice: "Although the story is set in Rome in 500 B.C., the Choruses comment on it as Christians." And here, depending on the religious inclinations of the individual spectator, is the greatest innovation or the greatest obstacle in the Britten-Duncan treatment of the Lucretia story.
The Christian perspective is emphasized, too, at the beginning of the opera in the Female Chorus' lines:
How slowly time here moves towards the date;
This Rome has still five hundred years to wait
Before Christ's birth and death from which Time fled
To you with hands across its eyes. But here
Other wounds are made, yet still His blood is shed.
The opera does not merely allude to parallels between the ancient world and the modern one, as does Obey's play; the Chorus asserts that it is a priest-like intermediary between the events of Lucretia's day and those of our own, validated in its interpretation "through eyes which once have wept with Christ's own tears."
This Christian angle can be somewhat baffling. Was it added out of an anxiety about the inherent dramatic deficiency of the story, for which Obey compensated by adding the Male and Female Narrators? Or perhaps the Christian frame is intended to counter the domestic claustrophobia of the action, or its pagan lust and violence, or the bleakness of its end. "Oh, Christ heal our blindness, which we mistake for sight,/ And show us your day for ours is endless night," says the Male Chorus in the opera.
The blunt proselytizing and awkward synchronicity are not helped by the uneven poetry of Duncan's libretto. Occasionally, the poetry is visually precise and dramatically effective. For example, "They drink for their time is flowing with the night,/ And life is dark except where wine sheds light," or "Home is what man leaves to seek." But frequently it is irrational and incoherent. Tarquinius says of the sleeping Lucretia, "She sleeps as a rose/ Upon the night," and the image seems very "poetic," but upon further reflection, the listener realizes that a rose at night would be hard to see. (These lines came to Duncan in a Tarquinian moment, however, as he took a morning cup of tea to a sleeping eighteen-year-old girl in a household he was visiting.) Other lines, such as "The oatmeal slippers of sleep/ Creep through the city and drag/ The sable shadows of night/ Over the limbs of light" feel oafish in their mingling of domesticity and eros. "Time treads upon the hands of women" is odd; "Through April eyes/ Your young blood sighs" sounds like doggerel.
Though language sometimes fails them, the characters in Britten's opera, and the dramatic relationships between them, are more complex than they are in Obey's play. Critics have pointed out Lucretia's complicity in her own rape in the Britten-Duncan treatment of the story. In Livy, Shakespeare, and Obey, Lucretia's resistance is weakened by Tarquinius' threats to kill her and leave her in the arms of a murdered slave if she resists him, so that her honor will appear compromised. But this threat is absent in the opera, and in fact Lucretia suggests her longstanding attraction to Tarquinius in lines like "In the forest of my dreams/ You have always been the Tiger." The Britten-Duncan Lucretia is far more three-dimensional than any of her predecessors: she is fallible, not immaculate.
The alliances of gender are greatly strengthened in the opera, too: Soldiers on one side, household women on the other, all sharing a consciousness of their own mortality and a condition of longing for what they cannot have, romantically speaking. The character of Junius (Brutus in other treatments of the story) acts as a kind of Iago to Tarquinius' impulsive Othello. Junius even emphasizes his own racial purity, as a Roman (Tarquinius is Etruscan). But Junius' true object is twofold: revenge against Collatinus, because he resents Lucretia's chastity, since his own wife Patricia has been unfaithful; and ruling Rome himself in place of the Etruscans, who will be disgraced and overthrown by Tarquinius' action. Junius may be seen as using Tarquinius as a shill to strike at Collatinus, and this also makes more complex Tarquinius' headlong charge into Lucretia's bed. The resentment of Junius and Tarquinius toward Collatinus is so deep that it is easy to feel that Collatinus is a sort of holy fool, like Billy Budd; and yet, for all that he may seem a bluff major-key hero, dedicated to maintaining order, he also has intimations of the fragility of his own happiness with Lucretia: "Those who love defeat/ Time, which is Death's deceit./ Those who love defy/ Death's slow revenge./ Their love is all despair."
During the instrumental interlude between the first and second scenes in Act II, in which we are to understand the rape takes place, the lines of the Male and Female Chorus seem especially irrelevant in their religious apology: "Virtue has one desire/ To let its blood flow/ Back to the wounds of Christ." And the final ensemble passacaglia, beginning with the exhausted stepwise ascent of Collatinus' "So brief is beauty…", is so perfect, so Roman an ending, that the concluding meliorism of the Male and Female Chorus seems tacked-on and emotionally unconvincing.
The Choruses' bromides also tend to occur as responses to the emotions of the mob ("Down with the Etruscans!/ Rome's for the Romans!"). When Britten composed Lucretia, a year after the end of World War II, perhaps the enormity of the violence resulting from the emotions of the mob seemed to demand a divine corrective and a controlling frame. We respect the frame, but we do not feel it, and our hearts have stopped listening some measures before the actual end of the opera.
No matter: Finally, it is Britten's score which makes us forgive the Christian overlay, which bears up the uneven poetry, and which transcends characterization which would suffice for the purely dramatic (rather than musico-dramatic) stage, but would not yield the unforgettable work of art that is The Rape of Lucretia.
Karl Kirchwey is the director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College and a former director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y.