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Studies in

Volume Two Number One

ISSN 1750-3159

Studies in Musical Theatre | Volume Two Number One

Musical Theatre
Volume 2 Number 1 – 2008 2.1
3–4 George Burrows and Dominic Symonds

5–32 Emancipation or exploitation? Gender liberation and adult musicals in 1970s
Studies in

New York
Elizabeth L. Wollman
33–50 Hear Jane sing: narrative authority in two musical versions of Jane Eyre
Marc Napolitano

51–60 Fiddler on the Roof: considerations in a new age
Charles Eliot Mehler
61–81 Representation of Clytemnestra and Cassandra in Taneyev’s Oresteia
Anastasia Belina
83–100 Flooding the concrète: Clastoclysm and the notion of the ‘continuum’ as a
conceptual and musical basis for a postdramatic music-theatre performance
Demetris Zavros

Re: Act
101–108 Detached signifiers, dead babies and demon dwarves: Bieito’s Dutchman
Kara McKechnie

109–120 Reviews

121 Books received

intellect Journals | Theatre & Performance

ISSN 1750-3159

9 771750 315003 www.intellectbooks.com

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Studies in Musical Theatre

Volume 2 Number 1 2008
Studies in Musical Theatre is a fully refereed journal, the first academic Journal Editors
periodical in this area. We would like to invite contributions that explore Dominic Symonds
any aspect of the musical stage. For example: George Burrows
• Opera, Music Theatre or Musical Theatre? School of Creative Arts, Film & Media,
• Archival and production research University of Portsmouth, Wiltshire
• Narratives of the musical stage Building, Hampshire Terrace,
• Historiographical perspectives Portsmouth, Hampshire, United
• Musicological and dramaturgical approaches Kingdom, PO1 2EG
• Performance and performance practice
• Approaches to training and the industry Tel: +44 (0)2392 845126 (DS)
• The fusion of words and music Tel: +44 (0)2392 845132 (GB)
• The use of music and song within ‘straight’ theatre Fax: +44 (0)2392 845152
• Paralinguistics and rhetorical expression E-mail: dominic.symonds@port.ac.uk;
• Negotiating the art/entertainment divide george.burrows@port.ac.uk;
• The academic study of musical theatre musictheatre@port.ac.uk
The journal also welcomes contributions from recognised practitioners in
the field, who may include writers, directors, MDs, performers, coaches, Re: Act Editor
etc. The journal’s ‘Re:Act’ section embraces issues relating to practice George Rodosthenous
and seeks to participate in the development of creative practice in the School of Performance and Cultural
profession. Industries, University of Leeds,

Editorial Board Tel: 0113 343 8725

Michael Eigtved – University of Copenhagen, Denmark E-mail: g.rodosthenous@leeds.ac.uk
Heath Lees – University of Auckland, New Zealand
Jim Lovensheimer – Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA Reviews Editor
Kate Napier – Guildford School of Acting, UK David Francis
Catherine Parsonage – Leeds College of Music, UK School of Creative Arts, Film & Media,
Barbara Poston-Anderson – University of Technology, Sydney, Australia University of Portsmouth, Wiltshire
James Randall – University of Montana Building, Hampshire Terrace,
Clemens Risi – Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany Portsmouth, Hampshire, United
David Roesner – University of Exeter, UK Kingdom, PO1 2EG
Jane Schopf – Rose Bruford College, UK
E-mail: HEATLEW@aol.com
Steve Swayne – Dartmouth College, USA
Millie Taylor – University of Winchester, UK
Nicholas Till – University of Sussex, UK
Stacy Wolf – University of Texas at Austin
Graham Wood – Coker College, South Carolina, USA

Advisory Board
Stephen Banfield – University of Bristol, UK
Geoffrey Block – University of Puget Sound, USA
Tim Carter – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
Jon Alan Conrad – University of Delaware, USA
Robert Gordon – Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK
John Graziano – City University of New York, USA
Trevor Herbert – Open University, UK
Kim Kowalke – University of Rochester, USA

Studies in Musical Theatre is published three times per year by Intellect, The Mill, ISSN 1750–3159
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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.3/2

George Burrows and Dominic Symonds

Issue 2.1 of Studies in Musical Theatre represents another feast of writing on

various very different aspects of musical theatre. Once again the articles
demonstrate just what an interdisciplinary, vibrant and varied scholarly
community the journal represents.
In our first article, Elizabeth Wollman offers a fascinating analysis of
adult musicals in the 1970s, considering the discourses of gender and
sexuality within which they are situated. As well as high profile and often-
discussed shows such as Hair, she deals with several more obscure and
perhaps forgotten shows, and her article benefits from the input of several
performers and creators of the original Broadway, off-Broadway and off-
off-Broadway productions.
In Marc Napolitano’s article, he discusses two recent interpretations of
Jane Eyre as musical and opera, considering their narrative techniques in
relation to the novel. The explicit narration of the Bronte text is seen as
offering a double voice that in some ways is substituted on the musical
stage by the dual voices of character and orchestra.
Charles Eliot Mehler offers a reconsideration of Fiddler on the Roof,
interrogating the relationship this show has with the Jewish community.
His article looks at various productions since the 1960s, alongside chang-
ing depictions of and attitudes towards Yiddishkeit.
In Anastasia Belina’s article, she provides us with a comparison of
Taneyev’s opera Orestia with the Aeschylus on which it is based. Her piece
considers in detail the treatment by Taneyev of its two central female
characters, Clytemnestra and Cassandra.
Finally, the potential of music theatre as post-dramatic theatre is
considered by Demetris Zavros. Informed by practice as research and a
production of his own piece Clastoclysm, Zavros’s study engages with the
relationship between mythic structures and music, seen through the theo-
ries of Levi-Strauss.
As promised, we bring you the relaunch of our Re:Act section, which
for Volume 2 we have invited guest editor George Rodosthenous to oversee.
This section is intended as a forum for practice-based issues, and in this
issue Kara McKechnie considers the practice of Catalan director Calixto
Bieito in his recent interpretation of The Flying Dutchman in Frankfurt. The
issue concludes with a selection of book reviews which we hope you will
find useful.
Those with an eye for detail will quickly spot that at the heart of this
issue are a number of articles from scholars at the University of Leeds. This
bias reflects the fact that the ‘Song, Stage and Screen’ conference that is
associated with this journal was hosted by the University of Leeds in 2007,

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and we are delighted to bring you some of the material that was aired at
that marvellous event, reflecting the generosity of our hosts whose interest
in and support of the field of the journal have been unprecedented and
While last year’s Leeds conference had a particular character that is
captured in the range of articles herein, this year’s conference took place
at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, where an
equally varied array of papers were displayed, appropriately enough focus-
ing on Music in Gotham – the Broadway musical. We hope to bring you
some of the papers delivered at this conference in future issues of the jour-
nal, alongside other papers from the many and varied conferences that
have represented the area of study in recent months and in forthcoming
events. In the meantime, we do hope you enjoy reading the papers in this
issue, and look forward to your continued contributions and support.

4 George Burrows and Dominic Symonds

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.5/1

Emancipation or exploitation? Gender

liberation and adult musicals in 1970s
New York1
Elizabeth L. Wollman Baruch College

Abstract Keywords
Because the 1960s sexual revolution preceding the gay and women’s liberation off-Broadway
movements was largely defined by straight men, the increased sexual freedom women’s liberation
that came with liberation often translated, especially for women, into the sub- gay liberation
stitution of one kind of exploitation for another. The ‘adult’ musicals (musicals Oh! Calcutta!
featuring nudity and simulated sex) that were faddish off-Broadway in the Let My People Come
1970s grappled with the country’s changing sexual mores, and many reflected Mod Donna
contemporary struggles for gender equality. Yet because of the strong sexual The Faggot
content of adult musicals, messages of liberation were often lost on audiences
who were simply interested in vicariously experiencing reverberations of the
sexual revolution. This article examines the ways adult musicals translated
messages championed by the women’s and gay liberation movements, as well as
the ways that actors in musicals like Let My People Come and Oh! Calcutta!,
as well as their audiences, negotiated interconnected messages of sexual free-
dom and exploitation.

The sexual revolution was built on equal measures of hypocrisy and honesty, 1. I am grateful to
equality and exploitation. Indeed, the individual strands contain mixed moti- Stephen Amico,
Susan Tenneriello
vations and ideological charges. Even the most heartfelt or best intentions and two anonymous
did not always work out for the good when put into practice by mere peer reviewers for
humans with physical and psychological frailties. their comments on
previous drafts of
(Bailey 1994: 257–58) this article. I am also
grateful to the many
A curious legacy of the 1960s sexual revolution was the ‘adult’ musical, a people who agreed
to be interviewed;
number of which cropped up in New York City, occasionally on and espe- special thanks go to
cially off- and off-off-Broadway, through the 1970s. Adult musicals gener- Mod Donna composer
ally distinguished themselves from other types of musical in their reliance Susan Hulsman
Bingham for her
on strong sexual content in the form of any or all of the following: full- music, memories and
frontal nudity; simulated sexual activity; and frequent sexually suggestive insight.
or explicit dialogue, musical numbers or dance numbers. With few excep-
tions, representatives of the subgenre were reviled by theatre critics, who
alternately attacked them either for going too far in the direction of hard-
core pornography, or, conversely, of being so preachy about contemporary
sexuality that they were not erotic enough. Some theatre producers wor-
ried that at their most explicit, adult musicals were not terribly distinct
from the live sex shows and pornographic films that had begun to proliferate

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2. See for example Reif in Times Square by the late 1960s. Nevertheless, adult musicals appealed
(1983), Rich (1989),
Atkinson (1990),
to other producers – especially young, up-and-coming ones – because they
Bordman (2001) and were surprisingly easy to cast with young, eager unknowns, were usually
Ward (2005). cheap to stage, and, of course, were not difficult to costume. And even the
3. Coined around 1960 ones that earned the nastiest reviews usually made money. Clearly, specta-
in the Village Voice, tors were more interested in the nudity and simulated sex that these
the term ‘off-off-
Broadway’ initially
musicals promised than they were in what critics thought about their
denoted plays or orchestrations, scenic design or dramatic flow.
workshops staged Few adult musicals were published or recorded before they closed. The
in small spaces
anywhere in
subgenre as a whole dwindled significantly by the early 1980s as the social
Manhattan, for which and political climate grew more conservative, and seems to have gone
actors received little entirely out of fashion by mid-decade, when fears surrounding the AIDS
or no pay. The term,
however, quickly took
epidemic subdued free sexual expression. Virtually no scholarly work exists
on more ideological on adult musicals; historians and journalists who mention them at all
associations, tend to emphasize their dated music and subject matter, amateur produc-
especially since many
tion values, or the seemingly mercenary desires of producers to capitalize
practitioners had no on the American public’s fascination with sex at a time when sexual
desire to cross into mores were shifting dramatically across the country.2 Yet while they have
more commercial
realms. For further
been dismissed as trifles that collectively amounted to the musical-theatre
discussion of the term equivalent of streaking – a forgettable fad befitting a silly decade – adult
and its ideological musicals represent aspects of 1970s American culture at their messiest
associations see
Bottoms (2006) and
and most confused, and thus perhaps at their most honest. These musicals
Crespy (2003). reflect the country’s rapidly changing, often contradictory, attitudes about
gender and sexuality at a time when the sexual revolution had given way
to the gay and women’s liberation movements.

Aesthetically speaking, the adult musical owes much to burlesque for its
bawdy subject matter and its structure. While a few adult musicals – for
example the 1970 off-Broadway production Stag Movie – featured full-
length plots, most were written in revue form, in which songs, skits and
dances were loosely thematically interconnected. Yet the adult musical is
most closely connected with the overarching aesthetics and idealism of the
off-off-Broadway experimental theatre of the 1960s.
At a physical and philosophical distance from the Great White Way,
off-off-Broadway inhabited roughly the same geographical area as its
immediate predecessor, the off-Broadway realm, but was freer in terms
of its organization and objectives.3 The movement began in the late
1950s in reaction to off-Broadway’s increasing commercialism, and
thus stretched even further than off-Broadway had in terms of scope and
experimentation (Kauffmann 1979: 37). In its heyday in the 1960s, off-
off-Broadway was populated by individuals and collectives devoted to
developing artistically challenging work in alternative, non-commercial
spaces. Practitioners pondered potential roles for the theatre in a tumul-
tuous nation; many off-off-Broadway companies devoted themselves to
using theatre as a tool for socio-political change by blending political
and aesthetic radicalism, pushing the boundaries of what was deemed
theatrically appropriate, and encouraging audiences to engage directly
with – and thereby become part of – performances (Banham 1995: 647).
While Broadway entered something of a creative standstill in the 1960s,

6 Elizabeth L. Wollman
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off-off-Broadway was invigorated by the anti-war movement and the 4. For details on the
development and
counterculture, and exerted unprecedented stylistic influence on the impact of Hair, see
theatrical mainstream well into the 1970s. Horn (1991) and
When it opened at the Biltmore Theater on 29 April 1968, Hair: The Wollman (2006).
American Tribal Love-Rock Musical broke ground as the first critically and
commercially successful rock musical to land on Broadway. This musical
served as a linchpin that linked the commercial potential of the theatrical
mainstream with the experimentalism of off-off-Broadway; in this
respect, its influence cannot be overemphasized. Featuring a book and
lyrics by Open Theatre members Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and an
innovative score by jazz and R&B musician Galt MacDermott, Hair was
originally produced off-Broadway in 1967 as the inaugural production of
Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre. Recast by La MaMa director Tom O’Horgan
for its move uptown to Broadway, Hair retained plenty of its rough-edged
off-off-Broadway sensibility, including its disjunct structure, disregard of
the traditional fourth wall, hodgepodge of left-leaning social and political
messages, emphasis on communal experience both in rehearsal and per-
formance, and use, in the first act finale, of male and female full-frontal
Stage nudity remained relatively taboo both in the experimental and
commercial realms through the early 1960s. This would begin to change
when the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Weiss’ The
Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the
Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (commonly
known as Marat/Sade) opened to enthusiastic reviews at Broadway’s
Martin Beck Theatre on 27 December 1965. The production, directed by
Peter Brook, created a mild sensation not only because it featured ‘a real-
istic tableau of guillotined heads, buckets of […] blood being poured
down drains, [and] an actress using her long hair as a whip’, but also
because it allowed audiences a glimpse of the naked backside of Ian
Richardson as Marat, as he emerged from a bathtub beneath the stage
(Drutman 1966: 1).
Stage nudity became increasingly fashionable, especially off- and off-
off-Broadway, among playwrights and directors interested in honest depic-
tions of the human condition. Playwright Robert Patrick, an active member
of the 1960s Caffe Cino scene, remembers, ‘when we first started putting
nudity into plays, it was in situations where people would be nude in real
life. So when people were making love in my plays, I had them nude! Who
makes love in armour?’ (Patrick 2005) As off-off-Broadway continued to
exert stylistic influence on the mainstream, nudity became a familiar, if
still controversial, feature on both fringe and commercial stages by the
turn of the decade, and arguably helped draw audiences to such plays as
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Broadway, 1968), Scuba Duba (off-Broadway,
1967) and Tom Paine (off-off-Broadway, 1968). The nude scene in Hair,
then, was representative of the fringe’s attempts to close the gap between
audience and performers, and to use theatre as a tool with which to
explore socially relevant subject matter, including that which – like sexu-
ality – was traditionally considered taboo.
What helped set this particular nude scene apart from many of its
experimental predecessors was its joyful quality. Writing in 1969, New York

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Times critic Walter Kerr lamented that ‘in virtually all of our uninhibited
plays, sex and nudity are associated with dirt, disease, bloodshed and
death’, and that ‘the last thing any of these plays is is playful’ (Kerr 1969:
26 B). On the contrary, the nudity in Hair, which occurred at the Act 1
finale during the re-enactment of a human be-in, was intended merely as
‘a beautiful comment about the young generation’ (Ward 2002). The
dimly-lit scene, which featured male and female cast members undulating
happily beneath a sheer, flower-printed sheet, was an attempt at theatrical
realism: hippies espoused the body beautiful, so why shouldn’t actors play-
ing hippies do the same? It also happened to be entirely celebratory, which
likely added to its appeal.
Hair’s extraordinary commercial success resulted in countless imita-
tions, and thus more theatrical nudity, not only in straight plays but now,
also, in musicals. By the end of the 1968–69 season, nudity had attained
such faddishness, especially off-and off-off-Broadway, that critic Otis L.
Guernsey, Jr., was prompted to gripe,

This was a season [ … ] of experimentation with nakedness onstage, not so

much on Broadway as in the smaller playhouses. Males and females in vari-
ous combinations peeled, groped and pressed against one another. Very little
came of it except publicity, and not much of that. There was hardly even a
sense of shock. Theatrically speaking, the nudity and mimed fornication
accomplished so little, at the cost of so much effort, that perhaps we have got
that notion out of the way at last, once and for all.
(Guernsey 1969: 3)

Of course, Guernsey was wrong. When it came to adult musicals, 1969

was just the beginning.

Oh! Calcutta!
The first adult musical, Oh! Calcutta!, opened off-Broadway on 17 June
1969. An ‘erotic revue’ devised for ‘thinking voyeurs’ (Tallmer 1969:
n.p.), Oh! Calcutta! was the brainchild of esteemed theatre critic Kenneth
Tynan, who solicited a number of writers he admired to ‘dramatize their
own sexual fantasies or observations on sexuality’ (Tynan 1969: 1). The
result was a collection of sketches contributed anonymously by writers
and playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi,
Sherman Yellin, John Lennon and Tynan himself.
Oh! Calcutta! reflected off-off-Broadway’s influence not only in show-
casing playwrights like Shepard, Melfi and Beckett, but also in Tynan’s
interest in ‘taboo’ subject matter, and his choice of director. Former Open
Theatre associate Jacques Levy was enlisted to shape the songs and skits
into an evening’s entertainment. During the rehearsal period, Levy led the
cast through a series of experimental exercises, including a number of
encounter sessions designed to ‘enable each actor to accept the fact of his
own body and to work comfortably with his fellow actors – without
clothes’ (Dunbar 1969: 40). Musically speaking, Oh! Calcutta! took a nod
from Hair’s contemporary sound: the score was composed and, with a few
full-cast song-and-dance numbers as exceptions, performed by a rock trio
called The Open Window, featuring Peter Schickele, pre-P.D.Q. Bach fame.

8 Elizabeth L. Wollman
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Despite these off-off-Broadway moorings, Tynan made clear his desire

to attract a highbrow audience for Oh! Calcutta! ‘It seemed to me a pity
that eroticism in the theatre should be confined to burlesque houses and
the sleazier sort of night club’, he wrote (Tynan 1969: 1). ‘Some time ago
it occurred to me that there was no place for a civilized man to take a
civilized woman to spend an evening of civilized erotic stimulation. We’re
trying to fill that gap with this show’ (Karpel 1969: 40). The result, Tynan
hoped, would be ‘a few cuts above burlesque in intelligence and sophisti-
cation’ (Tynan 1969: 1). Tynan’s attempt to promote the show as ‘an
entertainment in the erotic area in the best possible taste’ (Tynan 1969: 1)
is evidenced in his choice of title, borrowed from a painting of the backside
of a female nude by the artist Clovis Trouille named Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta!
The title is a pun on the French ‘Oh, quel cul t’as,’ or roughly, ‘What a nice
ass you have!’ (Rich 1989: C13).
To quash rumours that cast members would actually have sex onstage,
thereby relegating Oh! Calcutta! to little more than a Times Square
peepshow, producer Hilliard Elkins opened rehearsals to New York City
officials and made himself available to hear their concerns. The creative
team publicly emphasized the high calibre of the contributing writers, the
professionalism of the actors, and the many accomplishments of Tynan
himself. The producers spared no expense on Oh! Calcutta!, which was
clearly a commercial venture from inception. An old burlesque house, the
Phoenix Theatre on Twelfth Street and Second Avenue, was refurbished
and renamed the Eden for the production, which boasted state-of-the art
lighting and scenic design. All jokes about saving money on the costume
budget notwithstanding, Oh! Calcutta! exceeded $100,000 in production
costs, making it the most expensive show in off-Broadway history when it
opened (Bunce 1969: 10).
While it is unclear whether all the attempts to position Oh! Calcutta! as
highbrow entertainment helped sell more tickets than did the simple
promise of nudity, it does seem to have aided the audition process. Original
cast member Boni Enten remembers insisting on auditioning for the show,
despite the concerns of her agent:

I had read about Oh! Calcutta! and I knew who Kenneth Tynan was. I called
my agent and said, ‘I want to audition.’ He said, ‘Are you, crazy?’ And I said,
‘No, I want to audition.’ So he got me the audition. Jacques Levy, the direc-
tor, had done experimental theatre in New York. And the list of people
involved as writers? I knew those people! I just had a feeling that this was
going to be something.
(Enten 2005)

Tynan’s interest in ‘elevating’ his show above the then-low status of bur-
lesque is clear in the finished product, which featured only a single sketch –
‘Was It Good for You Too?’ credited to humorist Dan Greenburg – that was
clearly rooted in the burlesque tradition (Barrett 1973: 35). This Masters
and Johnson send-up featured a Marx brothers-inspired medical team doc-
umenting the mating habits of male and female volunteers as madness
erupts in the laboratory. A vast majority of the sketches, however,
attempted more deeply-layered musings about sexuality. Topics included

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swinging, fetishism, sexual tensions between spouses, the emotional and

physical brutalities of the singles’ scene and the generation gap.
For its risqué subject matter and the amount of controversy it gener-
ated in the press during rehearsal and preview periods, Oh! Calcutta! struck
most critics as more quaint than progressive when it opened. Few critics
registered any moral outrage in reviewing the show, although James Davis
of the Daily News attacked it as ‘hard core pornography’ that was at once
‘dull’ and ‘disgustingly clinical’ (Davis 1969: 74), and Emily Genauer for
the Post called it ‘a bitter, mocking, outrageous […] sick but powerful
social statement offering […] every obscene word and gesture imaginable,
an endless catalogue of impersonal sexual transactions and bottomless
contempt for the human psyche, for sensibility, for sex and for life itself ’
(Genauer 1969: 14). Yet most of the critics agreed that the show was too
self-congratulatory and schoolboyishly silly to be truly erotic, or even con-
sistently entertaining. ‘Oh! Calcutta! is likely to disappoint different people
in different ways, but disappointment is the order of the right [sic]’, Clive
Barnes wrote for The New York Times. ‘I think I can recommend the show
with any vigor only to people who are extraordinarily underprivileged,
either socially, sexually, or emotionally. Now is your time to stand up and
be counted’ (Barnes 1969: 33).
As it turned out, an awful lot of people were so underprivileged. Despite
the reviews, the show ran to full houses at the Eden until February 1971,
when it moved uptown to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre for another year
and a half. An even more successful revival opened at the Edison Theatre
on 47th Street a mere four years later. Playing to houses so packed with
tourists that programmes were eventually offered in nine different lan-
guages, this production ran for thirteen years before closing in August
1989 (Reif 1983: 20).
Oh! Calcutta! does seem enormously conservative, especially in retro-
spect. The sketches, all of which were written by white men and performed
by an all-white cast, depict nothing but white, heterosexual, middle-class
concerns. Race and class issues did not seem to have crossed Tynan’s mind
in creating the show, and he explicitly forbade any gay subject matter with
the blunt explanation that ‘there’s been enough of that around’ (Ward
2002). His homophobia extended to the casting process: according to orig-
inal cast member Raina Barrett, men who were openly gay or too effemi-
nate for Tynan’s taste were automatically refused roles (Barrett 1973: 13).
The sole mention of homosexuality in Oh! Calcutta! is in passing: a single
derogatory aside of ‘weirdo’ (Rich 1989: C14). Quite a few sketches reflected
Tynan’s own sexual preoccupations, however. These included Victorian
attire, sadomasochism and the debasement of women by whipping, gag-
ging and imprisoning in hanging baskets or nets.
Despite their different authors, most of the sketches are built on tradi-
tional gender stereotypes. In one sketch – ‘Will Answer All Sincere Replies’
by screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton – a young couple
nervously prepares for a visit by a slightly older couple of experienced
swingers. The young wife makes it abundantly clear that she is unhappy
with the arrangement, which was her husband’s idea. Midway through
the sketch, the young man prematurely ejaculates while dancing with the
older woman and, mortified, slinks off to change. He returns to find that

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his wife has enthusiastically joined the swingers’ lovemaking; as the

sketch ends, he stands by limply (literally and figuratively), newly filled
with self-doubt.
The punchline of this sketch relies on the element of surprise that
occurs when traditional stereotypes – men as socially active and sexually
predatory; women as emotionally and sexually passive – are subverted.
The assumptions made here are typical of just about every sketch in Oh!
Calcutta! In scene after scene, female characters are rendered as erotic
appendages to the men, unless a punchline relies on undermining conven-
tional perceptions.

Salvation, Stag Movie, and the rise of gender activism

Despite its lacklustre reviews, Oh! Calcutta was a hit at the box office and
thus paved the way for more adult musicals, which began to crop up off-
and off-off-Broadway by the turn of the decade. One of the first, Salvation,
appeared briefly at the Village Gate in concert form in spring 1969 before
reopening in September for an open-ended commercial run at the Jan Hus
Theatre. This revue had music by Peter Link and a book and lyrics by C. C.
Courtney, who would pursue separate careers in the theatre and music
industries once their second effort, the rock musical Earl of Ruston (1971),
closed on Broadway after a mere five performances. Salvation was per-
formed by a cast of eight accompanied by a seven-piece rock band called
Nobody Else, and featured nineteen songs, all of which purported to cri-
tique organized religion and celebrate the various social and political mes-
sages embraced by the counterculture. The revue ran for 239 performances
and spawned a top-40 hit, ‘(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why
Can’t I Touch You?’ recorded by Hair alumnus Ronnie Dyson (Whitburn
2000: 205).
Due in part to its sparse set and loose staging (The Jan Hus was in the
cavernous basement of an Upper East Side church), Salvation was judged
almost entirely on the merits of its score and talent, both of which struck
critics as uniformly impressive. Despite the fact that its budget was smaller
than those of both Oh! Calcutta! and Hair, comparisons to both shows were
inevitable, since the revue touched on similar themes and espoused similar
messages. Like its predecessors, however, Salvation’s countercultural pos-
turing and left-leaning politics concealed morals that were ultimately
rather conservative: at the end, the cast concludes that in ‘the quest for
inner peace, perhaps religion’ – or at the very least, spiritual reflection –
‘still has more to offer than the various drugs and assorted kicks so
prominent in the contemporary scene’ (O’Connor 1969: 18). Or, as an
anonymous review in Time put it, ‘Salvation [ … ] trades on the residual
puritanism behind its ostensibly anti-puritan outlook. A people at ease
with sexuality, and casually and thoroughly iconoclastic, would not pay
good money to see an inept affirmation of a puerile paganism’ (Anon.
1969: 78).
These sentiments apply to most post-Oh! Calcutta adult musicals, often
despite their creators’ best intentions. Because these shows were often
developed and produced by young adults – many of whom were involved
in the off-off-Broadway scene – most were at once less opulent and self-
consciously highbrow, and at least somewhat more political, than Oh!

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Calcutta! Many adult musicals, inspired directly or indirectly by gay libera-

tion, attempted to include aspects of gay life; several also attempted to
address women’s issues in ways that Oh! Calcutta! did not. Yet despite
attempts to move beyond Oh! Calcutta!’s conservatism, most adult musicals
ultimately reflected the most stubbornly traditional of gender roles – and
stereotypes – both on stage and behind the scenes.
A case in point is Stag Movie (1971), which opened at the Gate Theatre
on Tenth Street and Second Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Eden, where
Oh! Calcutta! was playing to packed houses. Written by David Newburge, a
playwright and lyricist who later turned to writing erotica, Stag Movie was
a spoof meant to capitalize on current theatre trends. Producer Richard R.
Lingeman acknowledged that Stag Movie would feature ‘nudity, simulated
sex acts […] four-letter words and all the rest. Which means, ideally, we’ll
have it both ways’ (Lingeman 1971: 14).
The plot of Stag Movie focuses on a group of out-of-work actors who
decide to pool their resources and make a musical porn film based on the
stag reel known as ‘The Grocery Boy’. Shooting, which takes place in a
seedy motel near Kennedy Airport, is repeatedly interrupted by aeroplane
noise, the mafia, the police and an elderly maid who wants a part in the
film. Musical numbers, which were never recorded, were composed by
Jacques Urbont; they included ‘Get Your Rocks off Rock’, ‘Try a Trio’, the
romantic duet ‘We Came Together’, and a wistful ballad titled ‘I Want
More Out of Life Than This’, sung by the lead female character, played by
a then-unknown Adrienne Barbeau:

As I do the dishes I dream of a rapist

Who’d force me to do his desire.
He’d grip me, he’d strip me, he might even whip me,
He’d set my whole body on fire.
But my handsome husband has sexual equipment
That hasn’t been used since his bris!
I want more out of life than this!
(Newburge 2006b)

Unlike Oh! Calcutta!, Stag Movie featured gay and lesbian characters and, as
the lyrics above imply, ponder the possibility of female sexual desire, if not
in the most progressive of ways. Nevertheless, in part because of its
reliance on gender stereotypes – especially that of the mincing, effeminate
gay man – Stag Movie became the target of the Gay Liberation Front, an
activist group of gay men and lesbians that formed shortly after the 1969
Stonewall riots.
In a move that seems laughably naive in retrospect, the producers of
Stag Movie had invited the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) to a critics’ preview
on 2 January 1971, in hopes that the musical would catch on with a gay
audience. Ensconced in the balcony, approximately 30 GLF members
began heckling almost as soon as Stag Movie began; the group grew increas-
ingly agitated by the reliance on gay stereotypes and objected to the fact that
the lead female character was completely naked for most of the show, while
the male characters appeared naked more infrequently (Anon. 1971).

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Heavy use of the word ‘faggot’ throughout the show didn’t help matters 5. For far more extensive
information on
much (Newburge 2006a). twentieth-century
The hissing, booing and catcalls – including chants like ‘Sexist pigs!’ gay activism than
‘Dirty old men!’ and ‘Raise your level of consciousness!’ – built to such a this article allows,
see Marcus (1992),
degree that the actors eventually stopped trying to recite their lines. Duberman (1993),
Some cast members attempted to maintain order, while others joined the Kaiser (1997) and
melee and began shouting at the protesters from the stage until the Loughery (1998).
police arrived to remove the protestors and allow to the musical to con-
tinue (Anon. a. 1971).
In his review, Barnes admitted that while such disruptions are gener-
ally disrespectful, this one was ‘a welcome diversion from the seemingly
endless tedium’ of Stag Movie, which he called ‘dispiriting’, ‘dismal’ and ‘as
erotic as cold mulligatawny soup laced with frozen porridge’ (Barnes
1971: 39). Despite a near-universal critical drubbing, Stag Movie ran for
several months due to a break on the theatre rental arranged by the pro-
ducer, and word-of-mouth about the protests (Anon. b. 1971). Of course,
the nude Adrienne Barbeau – whose ample ‘mammary equipment’ caused
many a critic to interrupt his review mid-scathe in order to blather blush-
ingly and with something approaching genuine awe – probably also
helped keep Stag Movie running longer than it might have otherwise
(Lewis 1971: n.p.).

Gay liberation and The Faggot

Bad musicals often incite vitriol in the press, and in this respect Stag Movie
is not atypical. Yet the fact that Oh! Calcutta! – with all its advance public-
ity and ultimately traditional take on sexuality – escaped much in the way
of social criticism while a mere two years later a low-budget spoof stocked
with tired stereotypes would be the target not only of contempt in the
press but of virulent protest as well, speaks in part to the increase in gen-
der activism that occurred in New York City and across the country
between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. After all, Oh! Calcutta! opened
a mere two weeks before the Stonewall riots erupted in Greenwich Village,
and only nine months after the women’s liberation movement unofficially
launched during an organized protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant
in Atlantic City.
While gay activism existed long before the Stonewall riots erupted on
28 June 1969, the 1970s movement benefited greatly from the ideologies
and practices of the New Left on which it was based, and also on its trajec-
tory (Valocchi 2001: 451). Whereas pre-Stonewall activism was relatively
covert, the riots sparked ‘an entirely new kind of gay organization advo-
cating radical social change’ (Heidenry 1997: 102-3).5 For example, the
Gay Liberation Front – which, for all the ideological problems that would
cause its demise in 1972, would survive long enough to disrupt the
preview of Stag Movie in 1971 – was formed within weeks of the riots by
seasoned members of the New Left (Valocchi 2001: 455–6).
Post-Stonewall gay activism quickly found a place in New York’s the-
atre fringe, in part because there had already been a burgeoning gay
theatre established there, most notably at the Caffe Cino. Largely credited
as the cradle of modern gay theatre, the Cino opened in late 1958 and by

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the mid-60s had become an influential off-off-Broadway scene. Stephen

Bottoms writes,

The Cino initially developed as a venue in which young writers, directors,

and actors [ …] could exercise their skills. Many of these artists fully intended
to seek careers in the mainstream [ …] but in the meantime they discovered
that the Cino was …so free of commercial concerns that they could try out
anything, even if this meant casually breaking rules of form and content that
were sacrosanct in the professional theater. Moreover, the fact that the Cino’s
regular staff and customers were largely (though certainly not exclusively)
gay, made them outsiders of another sort in relation to mainstream culture:
though sexuality was by no means a defining theme in the Cino’s hugely
diverse range of work, there was an underlying awareness of difference [ … ]
that facilitated the celebratory abandon with which Cino writers embraced
the bizarre, the ridiculous, and the taboo.
(Bottoms 2004: 39)

The free-spirited atmosphere allowed for the cultivation of an impressive

number of gay playwrights including Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, H. M.
Koutoukas and Lanford Wilson.
By the time the Cino closed in 1968, various like-minded off-off-
Broadway troupes had formed. Many of these companies – for example the
Judson Poets’ Theatre and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous – were devoted
to the exploration of contemporary sexuality in general, and queer sensi-
bilities in particular. While the gay theatre that developed in the 1960s
and gained momentum through the 1970s was not, for the most part,
‘militantly or aggressively political’, the increased focus on various aspects
of gay culture worked both to subvert traditional stereotypes and to
expand them ‘to revel in self-parody, a gesture of defiance’ which was in
itself seen as a political act (Bigsby 1985: 416–7). It is perhaps unsurpris-
ing, then, that with the exception of Stag Movie, most post-Oh! Calcutta!
adult musicals approached gay male characters with increased maturity
and sensitivity. This is especially the case since many adult musicals were
off-off-Broadway productions in the first place, with creative teams often
comprising gay men who were at least tangentially connected to the gay
liberation movement.
In 1973, for example, The Faggot, which opened at the Judson Poets’
Theatre, was enough of a commercial and critical success to justify a move
to the larger Truck and Warehouse Theatre for an extended run. Written,
composed and directed by Al Carmines, The Faggot was praised in the
mainstream press as a ‘tribute to personal sexual liberation’ that satirized
‘the pressures placed on individuals to deny their orientation’ in song and
sketch (Bottoms 2004: 359). The revue purported to reflect the lives of
various gays and lesbians – including prominent figures like Oscar Wilde,
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas – from different time periods. Original
cast member David Summers argued that The Faggot was groundbreaking
simply because it recognized the fact that homosexuality existed: ‘Al
Carmines runs the gamut from closet queens and hustlers to open love
relationships. There are positive and negative statements, all made with-
out tears’ (Gustavson 1973).

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While a curious few questioned why the number ‘Art Song’ – in which 6. One writer who did
question the presence
Catherine the Great sang in praise of bestiality – belonged in a revue about of Catherine the Great
gay life, some of the depictions in The Faggot drew ire among gay activists.6 was Duberman
As Bottoms points out, Carmines’ attempts to ‘underline the wrongs of (1973).
societal oppression by stressing the consequently seedy, secretive nature of
some gay lives’ was easily misinterpreted, and The Faggot thus generated
hot debate about the distinction between politics and art and the overall
message of the revue (Bottoms 2004: 359–60). Infuriated by what he saw
as the reinforcement of gay stereotypes, Martin Duberman wrote in The
New York Times that The Faggot

pretends to [be] a kaleidoscopic view of gay life. It insists on treating issues

with serious implications for millions of people – and does so in terms of tin-
kly tunes, perky choreography and cartoon realities. In the process, it trivial-
izes everything it touches – gay love or loneliness, fearful secrecies and open
struggles, privatism and politics, problems of age and youth, monogamy and
promiscuity, jealousy and devotion […] Seeing it, you’d have no idea that gay
life in 1973 is in any way different from what it had been in the ‘50s –
except in the absence of all authentic emotion […] With friends like ‘The
Faggot,’ the gay movement needs no enemies.
(Duberman 1973: 4)

Carmines’ open response maintained that politics should not influence

creative vision:

although I agree with Mr. Duberman’s political position regarding gay liber-
ation, in the case of ‘The Faggot’ he is not dealing with a political position
paper, but rather with a personal, idiosyncratic, quirky, highly subjective the-
ater piece […] I do not believe politics is art and I believe a confusion of those
two human activities is a dangerous and ultimately catastrophic misunder-
standing […] as a political entity, I am committed to gay liberation […] As
an artist, I am committed only to the absolute human truth as I see it. And
that truth is far more complicated than any party line, however noble, could
ever be.
(Carmines 1973: D12)

As the debate continued in the press and among activists, The Faggot ran at
the Truck and Warehouse for 203 performances. Doric Wilson, the play-
wright and founder of the gay theatre company TOSOS (The Other Side of
Silence), acknowledges that, while not without its problems, The Faggot
struck him as more liberating than the more overtly political gay theatre
typical of the time. ‘The Faggot meandered here and there and was ama-
teur and was meant to be’, he remembers. ‘But you came away […] feeling
deeply moved. And very proud that you were gay. And a little taller’
(Bottoms 2004: 361).

Women’s liberation and Mod Donna

Like gay liberation, the second wave of feminism had roots in the socio-
political movements of the 1960s. While many feminists broke away
from the New Left due to its perceived institutional sexism, the women’s

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movement nevertheless embraced its emphasis on ‘personal experience

over tradition and abstract knowledge’, especially since, many feminists
argued, ‘theory and historiography had been based on norms and values
shaped by oppressive ideologies’ that the movement had been formed to
combat (Canning 1993: 530–1). Also like gay liberation, the women’s
movement, which gained momentum through the 1970s, had a sym-
bolic kick-off late in the 1960s, when the New York Radical Women held
an anti-Miss America Pageant protest on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City
on 7 September 1968 (Bailey 2004: 110–1). Yet although the off-off-
Broadway scene benefited from the hard work and dedication of many
women, the second wave of feminism did not affect either the fringe or
commercial theatre as quickly or to the same degree as did gay
There are several reasons for this. In the first place, off-off-Broadway
preceded both social movements, and developed at a time during which
men – regardless of sexual orientation – were expected to be leaders,
while women – also regardless of sexual orientation – were relegated to
supporting roles. Thus, as the gay and women’s liberation movements
began, the gender imbalance off-off-Broadway largely emulated that of
the dominant culture. There were, of course, exceptions: Ellen Stewart’s
leadership of La MaMa; the output of playwrights like Rochelle Owens,
Maria Irene Fornes, Megan Terry and Adrianne Kennedy; the Judson
Poets’ resolution to seek out and produce plays by women. Yet through
the 1960s, most troupes focused on work written, directed and produced
by men – which was not hard, since this constituted the vast majority of
theatrical output at the time, anyway – and thus reflected the same
patriarchal mindset inherent in the New Left and the counterculture
(Bottoms 2004: 120).
For all their moorings in the fringe, then, it is unsurprising that even
counterculture-era musicals viewed as particularly groundbreaking would
ultimately view sexuality in traditional ways. Gender stereotypes perpetu-
ated in Oh! Calcutta!, for example, exist in Hair as well, despite that musical’s
liberal bent and ‘revolutionary’ status. Bottoms describes one plotline:

Claude’s friend Berger […] resolves that, before going to war, Claude will get
to […] sleep with Sheila, a member of the tribe who is in love with Berger.
Sheila is thus placed under enormous pressure, as Berger tries to persuade
her that it is her duty as a member of the free-love community, whether or
not she is attracted to Claude […] Sheila finally submits to sex with Claude,
and Claude – appetite sated – goes poignantly off to war. Hair thus staged a
bizarre variant on the age-old patriarchal right of men to use and trade
women as if they are property.
(Bottoms 2004: 212)

To date, astoundingly little in the way of oral or reception history about

Hair makes any mention whatsoever of its sexism. Yet Hair neatly, if inad-
vertently, sums up problems inherent in the counterculture and the New
Left, and by extension much of the 1960s off-off-Broadway scene.
As the women’s movement gained momentum, many activists set
about forming companies dedicated to making theatre by, about and for

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women. Martha Boesing, founder of the Minneapolis theatre At the Foot of

the Mountain, remembers that she and other activists

walked in the Civil Rights and the peace movements, ‘turned on and dropped
out,’ lived in communes, and created theater events that flew in the face of the
linear, rational thought processes of our culture and led our audiences hollering
and singing into the streets…Gradually we began to notice that we were still
baking the bread, raising the children, and bringing coffee to the organizers of
the institutions both inside and outside of the mainstream. So we rebelled.
(Boesing 1996: 1012)

One of the first feminist theatre groups, the short-lived New Feminist
Theatre (NFT), was founded in New York by National Organization for
Women (NOW) activists Anselma Dell’Olio, Jaqui Ceballos and Myrna
Lamb. Lamb would become the group’s main playwright; their first perfor-
mance, at a Redstockings benefit at Washington Square Church in March
1969, featured three of her plays: What Have You Done for Me Lately, In the
Shadow of the Crematorium and Scyklon Z. The NFT organized a successful
NOW benefit in May of the same year, and presented new works on
Monday nights at the Village Gate until internal differences led to the
group’s demise (Rea 1972: 80–81).
The early 1970s saw the establishment, in New York and across the
country, of other women’s theatre collectives including It’s All Right to Be
Woman Theatre and the Westbeth Playwrights’ Feminist Collective. In
1972, a group of playwrights including Maria Irene Fornes, Megan Terry,
Rochelle Owens and Adrianne Kennedy founded the Women’s Theatre
Council, with the aim of encouraging the increased presence of women in all
areas of the theatre (Bemis 1987: 2). These companies had varying agendas
and philosophies, but most promoted social change not only with plays by
and about women, but also through a collective or collaborative approach
that encouraged communication, egalitarianism and shared experience.
Unfortunately, what many women’s theatre companies also had in
common was tremendous pressure – both interior and exterior – which led
to difficulties in making an immediate impact on the theatre landscape at
large. The painstakingly egalitarian, collaborative approach to theatre pre-
ferred by companies like It’s All Right to Be Woman Theatre proved mad-
deningly slow in practice, yet companies that relied on traditional
hierarchies often faced criticism from within and without for not trying
harder to counteract patriarchal models (Boesing 1996: 1021). Many
women’s theatre groups collapsed by the 1980s for these and a host of
other reasons, including inadequate funding, burnout and lack of profes-
sional experience (Bemis 1987: 3–4). If internal problems were not dam-
aging enough to women’s theatre collectives and the individuals behind
them, external pressures often took an additional toll.
The off-off-Broadway movement was often lauded by critics for its fresh-
ness and creativity in lieu of healthy budgets and workable performance
spaces. Yet when it came to women’s theatre, a perceived lack of profes-
sionalism was more often met with gruff impatience by the predominantly
male critical corps, which was not necessarily supportive of the women’s
movement, let alone women’s theatre. While much about off-off-Broadway

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7. Very few women had remained artistically influential and commercially viable in New York City
attained recognition
for writing musicals
through the 1970s, theatre with a strong feminist bent did not prove espe-
in New York City by cially popular with critics or mainstream audiences.
1970, with the The conservative strictures and mainstream appeal of the musical the-
exception of Gretchen
Ford and Nancy
atre made it especially resistant to feminist influence. Thus it is notable
Cryer, whose first that one of the first overtly feminist pieces to appear in a commercial
effort, Now Is the Time house was the musical Mod Donna by NFT co-founder Myrna Lamb, with
for All Good Men, ran
off-Broadway at the
music by Susan Hulsman Bingham.7 Produced and directed by Joe Papp at
Lortel Theatre in the Public in 1970, the piece critiqued the ways that men and especially
1967. Mod Donna women are culturally conditioned to use sex as a weapon in their power
seems to be the first
musical by women
struggles. Despite the strong sexual content of Mod Donna, Papp chose to
to tackle human buck the trend and keep his actors clothed. ‘I feel it would be wrong, here’,
sexuality as primary he stated, when asked why the musical contained no nudity. ‘There is the
subject matter, at
least in New York.
nakedness of the idea, instead, a stripping away of things that are usually
left unsaid’ (Bender 1970: 79).
Narrated by an all-female Greek chorus and accompanied by an all-
female instrumental ensemble, Donna focuses on four characters: Jeff, a
wealthy company man; his bored, manipulative wife, Chris; his resentful
but toady employee, Charlie; and Charlie’s sexually pliant wife, Donna.
Early in Act 1, Jeff and Chris invite Donna to join their marital bed with
the aim of improving their sex life; in return, Jeff will see to it that Charlie
advances at the office. The set-up initially makes everyone happy, but then
Chris and Jeff grow bored with their sexual plaything and decide to rekin-
dle their marriage in Europe, alone. They attempt to pay Donna off and
send her back to Charlie, but she has become pregnant and refuses to
leave the wealthier couple’s opulent home. In the end, Jeff and Chris
depart abruptly, and a jealous Charlie murders Donna.
True to their traditional role, the Greek chorus informs the audience of
Donna’s murder and offers the moral of the story: until class and gender
inequalities are resolved, and people stop manipulating one another sexually,
the Donnas of the world will continue to die violent, senseless deaths. The
chorus then reprises ‘Liberation Song’, a tonally murky, rhythmically jagged
number that appears in varied form several times throughout the show:

They tell us we are bound by grave and gravity

Yet we must bear ourselves against the stone
The tablets of a prophet of depravity
The rock is fathergod oppressor grown
Let them tell the fields to be fruitful for the nation
Let us not be compliant earth to wilful seed
Let us cast another god from our true vision
Our true need.
(Lamb 1970: 40)

As Mod Donna ends, the chorus faces the audience with fists raised, shout-
ing for liberation.
Lamb remembers that Mod Donna resonated with audience members, if
only because, as far as feminist theatre went, ‘it was the only game in
town!’ (Lamb 2007). Indeed, at least one review describes ‘wild cheering’
during performances (Brukenfeld 1970: 53). And the show received some

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positive reviews in the press. Barnes argued that while artistically incon-
sistent, Donna was, politically speaking, ‘one of the most pertinent and
stimulating offerings’ the Public Theatre had produced to date (Barnes
1970: 48). Although slightly more ambivalent, Dick Brukenfeld for the
Village Voice noted his appreciation for the musical’s anger, courage and
wit (Brukenfeld 1970: 53). Yet a majority of reviews for what the press
corps quickly labelled ‘the women’s lib musical’ were resolutely negative,
and critics frequently moved beyond the piece to mock feminism in general.
Papp obviously anticipated controversy. In his programme notes,
which read curiously like a circuitous apology, he explained that Donna
was not about feminism:

Though Myrna Lamb [ …] is an activist in women’s liberation and an ardent

feminist, her work is much too ambiguous, too sophisticated, too comedic to
satisfy the clear-cut political sloganeering required by a mass movement.
However, the play digs into the very core of the matter out of which has
sprung the struggle for women’s liberation – frustration [ … ] the thwarting
and distorting of natural aspirations. The heart of Mod Donna is the heart of
the male-female relationship in our society: the use of sex as the ultimate
weapon, the final solution in the bedroom [ …] Having more options, the man
finds alternatives outside the boudoir, while the wife [ …] wields the knife of
castration [ … ] Lamb has brewed a bitter, bitter medicine which we offer
to you [ … ] on a sugar-coated spoon. We hope it will not be too hard to
(Papp 1970)

Nevertheless, many critics found Mod Donna – not to mention the move-
ment Papp insisted it had nothing to do with – most unpalatable indeed.
In his review of Mod Donna for the Post, Jerry Tallmer lamented the fact
that Lamb had not addressed ‘the woman question’ as effectively as
Strindberg, Ibsen and Coward had, but noted that at least the lead female
characters were attractive: ‘Sharon Laughlin as Chris has a beautifully
modeled face and a Mona Lisa smile, which helps […] and April Shawhan
as Donna is just a trifle flat as an actress though not indeed – well, Sisters,
I’m not going to say it’ (Tallmer 1970: 23). Kerr for The New York Times
begins his review by deriding feminism:

I am glad to learn from Joseph Papp’s program notes for ‘Mod Donna’ […]
that the evening is not to be construed as a pro-feminist entertainment. I am
glad because if it were a feminist entertainment, anything I might have to say
against it would be taken as male-oriented, biased, vengeful, nearsighted,
thick-headed and disloyal to that half of the population which has been mak-
ing so much noise lately and to which I have hitherto been so intensely
devoted. I’m off the hook, right?
(Kerr 1970: 1)

Like Tallmer, Kerr finds solace in the attractiveness of the female cast
members: ‘Sharon Laughlin is cool enough to have been carved from cold
cream, with faint wisps of hair brushing her ivory cheeks’; April Shawhan
is ‘a lovely thing to look at in her pink silk and pink breasts’, even though

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‘she does an increasing amount of snarling’ as the play progresses (Kerr

1970: 1–3).
Such comments are par for the course when it comes to the critical
reception of Mod Donna. Taken as a whole, the clips about the musical
make abundantly clear the fact that New York’s theatre critics were over-
whelmingly male, and generally mocking of the women’s movement to
boot. Just as telling, however, is the content of the few articles written by
women about the musical. For instance, fashion writer Marylin Bender’s
interview with Lamb, Bingham and Papp for The New York Times focuses
less on Donna than on Lamb and Bingham’s personal lives, physical
appearances and husbands’ backgrounds (Bender 1970: 79).
The treatment of Donna in the press prompted several terse responses
from activists, including writer Vivian Gornick – who, in the Village Voice,
lamented the ‘patronizing and unilluminating criticism’ heaped on the
musical (Gornick 1970: 47) – and NOW Vice President Lucy Komisar,
whose letter to the Times lambasted Kerr’s review. ‘Lamb’s lyrics are
vibrant and memorable – and to feminists, they are poetry that represents
what we feel in our guts’, Komisar concluded. ‘[W]e are fiercely proud of
her and of the contribution Mod Donna has made to the literature of our
movement and to the cause of our liberation’ (Komisar 1970: 28).
The negative reviews, combined with a budget crunch at the Public,
led to a mere six-week run for Mod Donna, and a dearth of overtly feminist
musicals off- or on Broadway for a good decade. Feminism would be
reflected more regularly in the American theatre by the late 1970s and
early 1980s, but it remained at an arm’s length from the theatrical main-
stream through most of the 1970s, even as the women’s movement was at
its peak.

The women’s movement and media representation

What confuses matters is that while feminist theatre failed to click with
critics or mainstream audiences through much of the 1970s, the sexual
revolution reverberated rather strongly during this time. Even further,
since the women’s movement was influenced in part by the sexual revolu-
tion, the two tended to become conflated in the media and in the minds of
many Americans. This is perhaps unsurprising: the second wave of femi-
nism was an enormously influential, far-reaching, extraordinarily compli-
cated movement that encompassed not only the personal and the political,
but also the economic, legal, cultural, linguistic, sexual and social (Echols
1994: 158–59). Because the movement prompted so many questions for
which there were so few quick answers, and accepted so many challenges
for which there were so few easy solutions, it strongly influenced ‘the ways
Americans understood gender in this period’, but at the same time caused
an enormous amount of cultural anxiety, in part because ‘its positions
were not coherent enough to offer a firm foundation to sympathizers and
were various enough to provide a multiplicity of targets for opponents’
(Bailey 2004: 109). One result of the perceived vagueness of the women’s
movement, then, was a tendency within mainstream culture to react with
defensiveness, mockery or sensationalism (Carroll 1990: 113).
Sexuality as related to the concept of liberation was particularly com-
plicated. During the 1970s, women sought liberation from oppression by

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attempting to reject aspects of American culture that reduced women to

their sexual merits and, at the same time, by embracing sex on their own
terms. Meanwhile the media wasted no time in sexualizing the movement:

Sex sells […] and titillating images of bra-less women and sexual freedom
made for livelier stories than statistics about women’s wages and the lack of
affordable childcare. The mainstream media – and often for reasons no more
Machiavellian than a desire to attract viewers or readers – often treated
women’s liberation and sexual freedom interchangeably. But opponents of
women’s liberation also purposely conflated women’s liberation with the
sexual revolution to brand the women’s movement as radical, immoral, and
antifamily. [The] conflation of the women’s movement with the sexual revo-
lution […] reached beyond the ranks of avowed antifeminists. Many who
were […] sympathetic to the claims of the women’s movement found the
sexual revolution troubling, and the conflation of movements made it easier
for them to draw a line between ‘reasonable’ demands for decent wages and
(as they saw it) the sex-obliterating role reversals and illegitimate intrusions
into the ‘private’ spheres of home, marriage, and the family demanded by
‘radical’ women’s libbers.
(Bailey 2004: 116–17)

The resultant slew of mixed messages about feminism and its relationship
to sexuality fuelled the confusion that was – and continues to be – played
out in the cultural landscape at large.
Because adult musicals were strongly influenced by off-off-Broadway
theatre, many creators attempted to infuse their works with appropriate
social or political messages. Yet as noted above, when it came to gender
issues, the fringe itself was not especially liberated by the time adult musi-
cals appeared. As a result, messages about gay and especially female liber-
ation tended to get lost amid the jiggle of naked bodies that was a selling
point for adult musicals.

Let My People Come

A case in point is Let My People Come: A Sexual Musical, which enjoyed a
successful run that began off-Broadway at the Village Gate in January
1973, and ended after an ill-advised move to Broadway’s Morosco Theatre
in 1976. Written and composed by Earl Wilson, Jr., who developed the
show with producer and director Phil Oesterman, Let My People Come was
a response to Oh! Calcutta!, which both men saw as distressingly out of
touch. ‘Oh! Calcutta! was a dirty show’, Wilson remembers. ‘It was old. It
was my parents’ generation. It [made] you feel dirty when you [left] it’
(Wilson 2005). Wilson and Oesterman decided to try and represent con-
temporary sexuality more honestly, while being as ‘outrageous as the law
will allow, and the cast will go along with’ (Wilson 2005). Once Wilson
and Oesterman came up with the general idea for their revue, they held
auditions in search of young, multiracial, non-union actors who, Wilson
felt, would come across as more innocent than seasoned professionals. Of
course, non-union actors would also likely be more willing to perform
naked and simulate sex acts on stage in exchange for equity cards. Casting
the show was thus quite easy.

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Let My People Come began its run at the Village Gate in January 1973.
In a shrewd move, Oesterman refused to allow critics to see the show
unless they paid for tickets themselves, and never announced an official
opening. Word spread fast; enough critics griped in the press about the
nudie show they’d been shut out of that Let My People Come soon became a
hot ticket in New York and beyond: during its run, the musical spawned
national and international tours, an original cast album, and spin-off pro-
ductions in cities including Amsterdam, London, Paris and Toronto, where
it ran for a decade (Gussow 1974: 52).
In keeping with the off-off-Broadway ancestry of adult musicals, the
songs and sketches from Let My People Come were written largely in
response to conversations between the original cast and the creative team
during intense encounter sessions. Wilson recalls,

We had the auditions and we said, ‘We don’t really have a show. We have a
couple songs, we have an idea, and we’re going to write it around you guys.
It’ll be based on what you think. I don’t want you to say anything you don’t
believe, because that will come across. It has to be honest, or nobody’s gonna
come to the show.’ We had five months of rehearsal, five nights a week. We
had encounter sessions, where we would all talk. Then I would go home and
write a song for somebody, because I knew what they sounded like.
(Wilson 2005)

As a result of this inclusive process – which stems from experimental

theatre and has since been used to develop such ‘collective’ shows as the
musical A Chorus Line (1975) – the songs and sketches in Let My People
Come are more inclusive and reflective of a broader swatch of contempo-
rary sexuality than most adult musicals staged in New York during the
decade. Songs like ‘Take Me Home With You’, ‘I Believe My Body’, the
spoof ‘The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C’, and the title song cele-
brated various aspects of the sexual revolution. The song ‘Dirty Words’,
which consisted almost entirely of ‘taboo’ sexual terms and euphemisms,
was a direct homage to Lenny Bruce and an inadvertent tribute to Hair
and its own ‘taboo’ number, ‘Sodomy’. The revue poked fun at the main-
stream popularity of pornographic films with the song ‘Linda, Georgina,
Marilyn and Me’, in which a female singer eager to appear in adult films
opined, ‘What have they got I haven’t got more of? What they can take
two of, I can take four of ’ (Wilson 1974).
Unlike Oh! Calcutta!, which Tynan demanded be heterosexual in con-
tent and appeal, Oesterman insisted that Let My People Come reflect both
gay and straight perspectives. Wilson acknowledges that, as a straight
man, he was daunted by the challenge of coming up with gay content.
The cast and creative team, however, included several gay actors (albeit no
lesbians), and a gay music director, all of whom contributed ideas (Wilson
2005). The song ‘I’m Gay’, for example, was inspired by conversations
Wilson had with some of the gay cast members.
Performed by two male actors who were fully clothed and seated,
centre-stage, on stools facing the audience, ‘I’m Gay’ was written in the
style of a ‘coming out’ letter to parents:

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Dear mom and pop, I’m really happy

And not ashamed at all of what I am.
Those who don’t know or think it’s funny
Don’t pay much attention to them.
[ …]
I’m hoping that you’ll come to see
This is how God meant me to be.
This is my way, and I’m proud to come right out and say I’m gay.
(Wilson 1974)

As the two men repeated the line ‘I’m Gay’ at the end of the song, they
were joined by the rest of the cast. The number, according to original cast
member and assistant choreographer Tobie Columbus, was one of the
strongest in the show, often bringing the house down and spectators to
tears (Columbus 2006).
To their credit, the all-male creative team of Let My People Come also
devised several numbers purporting to represent women’s perspectives.
Yet these numbers seem to lean more in favour of titillation than hon-
est representation. Take, for example, ‘And She Loved Me’, a number
depicting a lesbian love affair. Because there were no lesbians in the
cast with whom to confer, Wilson turned to media representations of
lesbians on which to base this song. ‘There was a scene in – was it
Killing of Sister George? It was some movie of the time that had a lesbian
scene in it’, he recalls. ‘I thought, “I’m going to use that as my example
in my head.” So I didn’t talk to any lesbians or go through any of that’
(Wilson 2005). Yet, as Karen Hollinger points out, lesbian characters
have traditionally been depicted through a heterosexual and highly
critical lens as ‘sinister villains, victims of mental illness, cultural
freaks, or pornographic sexual turn-ons for a male audience’ (Hollinger
1998: 10).
The last applies to ‘And She Loved Me’, the lyrics and original staging of
which reflect lesbians primarily as seen through the male gaze. The fact
that the women begin and end their lovemaking by weeping in one
another’s arms, for example, is likely indicative of Wilson’s reliance on
mainstream depictions of lesbians for inspiration:

And she loved me, oh

Took me in her arms
I softly cried
Then she held me, oh
Ran her fingers through my hair
‘Til my tears had dried
[ …]
Then she woke me, oh, gently like a child
And I softly sighed
And I loved her, oh
Took her in my arms
And then we cried
(Wilson 1974)

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Columbus recalls that the song was sung by two fully-clothed women who
flanked the stage, while two other women danced naked centre-stage
under soft lighting to give the impression of lovemaking. In Columbus’
view, the number was not intended to be crude or titillating, but, instead,
impressionistic and ‘quite beautiful’ (Columbus 2006). Nevertheless, it is
telling that the sole lesbian number was performed in the nude and
depicted women weeping after experiencing forbidden love, while ‘I’m Gay’
featured two fully-clothed men who, upon proclaiming their sexuality,
were joined in cheery solidarity by the rest of the cast. In short, ‘And She
Loved Me’ emphasized sex while ‘I’m Gay’ emphasized the struggle for
acceptance and respect.
The tendency to conflate feminism with the sexual revolution is demon-
strated in the number ‘Give It to Me’, which Wilson wrote with a particular
cast member in mind. Even in his recollections of this actress, Wilson
associates the women’s movement with free sexuality. ‘We had a girl in the
show who […] was very sexually liberated, sort of a women’s libber’, he
remembers. ‘She had a certain look about her – dungaree jacket, open
shirt, “I’ll take home anybody” kind of attitude. So I came up with “Give It
To Me,” and she was terrific with it because she really believed it. She
could pull it off ” (Wilson 2005).
In ‘Give It To Me’, a woman voices her desire for a man who is terrific
in and out of bed:

I want a man who loves to fuck and can keep it up for days
Who’s clever and smart and can make me come in a thousand different ways
I want a man who knows how to love and loves all that sex can be
And when he’s driving me out of my mind I wanna know he’s fucking me

Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give it to me,

Give it to me hard and strong
Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give it to me,
Give it to me all night long
There’s too many candy-assed lily-livered soft-bellied boys parading as men
Find me a man who’s got some balls – I’ll be happier then.
(Wilson 1974)

In keeping with the theme of Let My People Come, this song purports to
offer a woman’s perspective on desire, and can thus certainly be read as
empowering. Nevertheless, as the only number directly reflective of
second-wave feminism, ‘Give It to Me’ can also be read to imply that for all
their complaining, what women really want is a good, old-fashioned roll in
the hay.
Perhaps the most problematic number, from a feminist perspective, is
the first one that Wilson wrote for Let My People Come. Composed before
casting began, ‘Come in My Mouth’ was originally performed by Tobie
Columbus, who sat alone onstage in a red dress, crooning into a micro-
phone while bathed in light from a single pin-spot. Whereas much of the
content of Let My People Come was meant to be satirical – comparatively
serious declarations of sexual freedom like ‘I’m Gay’ notwithstanding –
‘Come in My Mouth’ was intended to be overtly erotic (Columbus 2006).

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The song, and the way it was performed, thus borrows a great deal from
the aural techniques common to the pornographic films that had become
fashionable by the early 1970s.
In ‘Come in My Mouth’, the singer describes in graphic detail the fellatio
she professes to have been waiting all day to perform on her partner.
Accompanied by a mechanical ostinato and the same ethereal, synthe-
sized noodlings typical of just about every porn film soundtrack ever com-
posed, the singer lavishly praises her man, all the while asserting his
dominance over her:

Put your feet up on the sofa

Stretch out baby, close your eyes
Feel my fingers walking over the part of you I idolize
All day long I’ve been planning on how I was going to love you tonight
So I could show you how I absolutely adore you. So you know I am your
Run your fingers through my hair as you force my mouth to open wide
Don’t you just love it there as I drink you deep inside?
I can feel all your strength. What would you like me to do?
I’ll take you inch by inch – just let me worship you.
(Wilson 1974)

The song ends as the keyboard fades out and the singer erupts in orgasmic
The primal reaction of the female singer is typical of much hard-core
porn. Whereas male arousal in pornography is visually obvious – and the
‘money shot’ thus fetishized as proof of satisfaction – the female orgasm is
far more complicated to render visually. Thus, sound is often used to prove
a woman’s sexual pleasure in the absence of visual representation (Corbett
and Kapsalis 1996: 103). The orgasmic moans the singer elicits at the end
of ‘Come in My Mouth’ can only imply a money shot, not only because the
song was performed by a woman, but because the revue it appeared in
relied on simulated and not actual sex. Both the pleasure the singer expe-
riences and the climax she causes her man are transmitted to spectators
via her cries.
Columbus remains ambivalent about this number, which she never
enjoyed performing:

the song was supposed to be every man’s fantasy. I mean, what’s a man’s
fantasy, gay or straight? But, you know, I was brought up a nice Jewish girl,
and this wasn’t something I did! This was dirty! Now, I couldn’t say that,
because this was the swinging seventies and you were supposed to be
enlightened. But that was a male fantasy, not a woman’s fantasy! Everything
else I did in the show – including the nudity – was more comfortable for me.
(Columbus 2006)

Columbus’ ambivalence mirrors that of other women who have spoken to

me about their experiences in Let My People Come, almost all of whom

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recall feeling pressure to be more sexually liberated than they were com-
fortable with. Actress Joanne Baron remembers,

I had a lot of psychological trouble with being naked [onstage]. I found it

frightening, confusing – I remember having pressure to loosen up, to be open
to other people sexually. Not in any kind of overly aggressive way, but the
tone was, ‘hey, you have a great body, you’re real sexy, don’t be so scared of
your sexuality’. But I felt like a good girl who had chanced upon this more
free lifestyle. It wasn’t a perfect psychological fit.
(Baron 2005)

Other women remember feeling pressured to appear naked onstage,

whether or not they were entirely willing to do so, and sometimes despite
‘nudity-optional’ company policies. For example, an actress who appeared
under the sole name Peachena refused to sign a contract to appear in
Let My People Come unless it stipulated that she would not have to appear
nude during the run. Even though such a contract was granted, she
remains convinced that her abrupt dismissal from the show after her
contract was up a year later was based solely on her refusal to disrobe, and
has never been given any reason to believe otherwise (Peachena 2006).
Columbus remembers that, like Peachena, ‘if I could have stood my
ground and said, look, I don’t wanna be nude, I think I probably would
have, but I could never voice that […] because doing that would have been
unhip and I knew that I was there to be nude. And I think I would have
lost my job’ (Columbus 2006). These experiences point to the fact that
while many women during the 1970s were attempting to reject traditional
sexual values in favour of more control over their own bodies, the sexual
revolution’s emphasis on detached sexuality often resulted in widespread
pressure for women to either conform to male standards or appear prudish
and unliberated (Carroll 1990: 25).
For all the messages of inclusion and the interest in depicting sexuality
honestly and openly, distinctions between sexual freedom and exploitation
were often lost – behind the scenes as well. While everyone interviewed for
this project remembers that relationships within the companies were
largely respectful, the turmoil of the times and the barrage of social
messages that adult musicals were ostensibly promoting often proved confus-
ing in other ways. For example, many of the performers interviewed recall
ignoring the ‘no sex’ policies imposed on them by producers, some of
whom broke them themselves. Original Oh! Calcutta! cast member Barrett
writes that some fellow cast members violated the production’s ‘No Fuck
Law’ – (christened ‘the NFL’ by the cast) – within hours of the first rehearsal
(Barrett 1973: 17).
Barrett also remembers that the sexual freedom her show celebrated
did not extend to all parties: despite the company’s purported disgust at
Tynan’s homophobia, one particularly private male actor was so regularly
taunted, alienated and labelled a ‘fag’ by his fellow cast members that he
left the production. Meanwhile, despite the homophobia that hung in the
air backstage, some female cast members – Barrett included – were subject
to exercises during which the male director had them touch and fondle
one another and then talk with him about how they felt; these ‘lesbian

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rehearsals’ were apparently deemed necessary so that the cast members

would appear at ease with one another onstage (Barrett 1973: 23–24,
84–85). Clearly, lesbian overtones were acceptable in Tynan’s review
because they fuelled male fantasies in ways that gay men did not.
The distinctions between liberation and exploitation seem to have been
blurred not only by companies of adult musicals, but by audiences as well.
Visitors to Let My People Come, for example, included, on the one hand,
Betty Friedan – who told the press that the show was so affirmative about
sex that she’d seen it twice and planned to bring her daughter (Anon.
1974) – and, on the other hand, Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner – both of
whom devoted space to the show in their magazines and invited several
female cast members to pose as centrefolds (Columbus 2006). One anec-
dote that points especially acutely to the blurring of women’s liberation
and exploitation is told by actor Barry Pearl:

Every night, at the beginning of the show, the actors would walk out and
schmooze with the audience before the show began. Clothed. Got into a rela-
tionship with the patrons, put them at ease, because at the end of the show,
now we’re all naked, and we go down into the audience again in a receiving
line, and as the audience leaves, we shake hands standing there, perfectly,
totally naked. [But a while into the run] the women remained on the lip of the
stage, with some male cast members just sitting there naked, protecting
them, because they’d gotten groped too many times through the course of
the run. So they decided to have the ladies stay on the stage. Only men basi-
cally were in that receiving line.
(Pearl 2005)

Despite the widespread ambivalence, everyone interviewed noted that,

overall, they found their experiences in adult musicals liberating. ‘Once
you take your clothes off in front of people you can certainly do just about
anything. And in that way, it really served me as an actor’, Pearl argues
(Pearl 2005). Boni Bryant, original cast member of Oh! Calcutta!, agrees:
‘For me, it was enlightening, liberating. I was 24, and I had not really been
that open about sex, or a man’s body, or even my own body. So this was a
real educational, growth experience. And it was really fun, and it was in a
safe environment’ (Bryant 2005). Columbus remembers that her work in
Let My People Come solidified her beliefs in ‘sexually being who you are, and
not judging anybody else’s sexuality’, a message she remains proud to
have been able to convey to audiences (Columbus 2006). And despite her
concerns about appearing naked onstage, Baron argues that overall, Let
My People Come was ‘a fantastic lot of fun, and a great creative experience,
and I met wonderful people, so I can’t say I regret it’ (Baron 2005).
This prevalence of doublespeak – in which many of the actors look
back on their experiences in adult musicals as simultaneously exhilarating
and confusing, embarrassing and liberating, freeing and exploitative –
implies that not even the young performers advocating increased sexual
freedom onstage nightly for eight shows a week were entirely comfortable
with the changing times, or the social movements they were representing.
The ambivalence expressed by the cast members serves as a reminder that
just as culture at large can be confusing and contradictory, so are social

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movements, especially those that end up meaning so many different things

to so many different people.
Todd Gitlin points out that during the late 1960s, there were ‘many
more weekend dope-smokers than hard-core “heads”; many more readers
of the Oracle than writers for it; many more co-habiters than orgiasts;
many more turners-on than droppers-out’ (Gitlin 1987: 214). The same
may be said of the sexual revolution as interpreted by the enthusiastic, yet
ambivalent companies of adult musicals. Ambivalence may be, in the end,
the healthiest reaction to a production that paid cast members to cheer-
fully simulate a wide variety of sex acts – while singing! – before audiences
comprised of as many Larry Flynts as Betty Friedans.
The actors’ ambivalence easily extends to the audiences of adult musi-
cals, and even to the question of why these shows existed at all at a time
when there was so much other sexually-steeped entertainment available.
Why adult musicals, when one could go to the local cinema for an 8pm
showing of Deep Throat? Why bother with a musical mediation on sexual-
ity when you could just as easily see a live sex show, with actual – not
simulated – sex, on the next block?
In his 1969 New York Times article about the trendiness of stage nudity,
Kerr wondered, ‘Why are we, in our new [ … ] freedoms on the stage so
dreadfully, laboriously humorless? Why are we so serious about sex and
why do we dislike it so much?’ (Kerr 1969: 26B). Perhaps adult musicals
helped ease the collective gloom that Kerr describes and, like Hair, permit-
ted audiences to revel in the simple idea that naked bodies can be pleasant
to look at and that sex can be fun. Just as adult musicals allowed actors to
experience the sexual revolution and its offshoots in a relatively safe envi-
ronment, they also allowed audience members to live vicariously without
having to think too deeply. These shows, after all, espoused sex that was
fun, light-hearted and consequence-free, but there was ultimately nothing
transgressive about them. Pretty, innocent-looking young actors simulated
sexual activity; the message of even the most risqué songs and sketches
was that our bodies and urges are not such a big deal, after all; and the
whole package was almost always offered in a comforting, age-old format:
the musical revue.
Adult musicals thus allowed performers and audience members alike
to feel a little bit dirty, a little bit liberated, without having to brave the
seediness of a peepshow on the one hand, or having to confront the more
serious ramifications of the sexual revolution and its offshoot movements
on the other. This may help explain why comparatively serious musicals
with social and political messages – like Mod Donna and The Faggot – have
largely faded from memory, while shows like Oh! Calcutta! – the most con-
servative of all – not only enjoyed such long runs, but eventually influ-
enced such upbeat, conventional confections as The Full Monty and Naked
Boys Singing. One of the most damning adjectives critics hurled at the
many adult musicals they panned during the 1970s was ‘innocent’, but it
is possible that, deep down, they were as relieved to apply that word as
they were indignant.
The sexual revolution, gay liberation and second-wave feminism were
all enormously influential, complicated movements that meant different
things to as many different people. During the 1970s, Americans began a

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mighty struggle over issues of sexuality and gender in ways they had not
before, and it is no wonder that the result was often feelings of liberation
on the one hand and confusion – even fear – on the other. In the end,
adult musicals succeeded not so much in challenging notions about sexu-
ality and gender as they did in offering cheerful, conventional messages to
audiences who might have felt, more than anything else, comforted by the

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Suggested citation
Wollman, E. L. (2008), ‘Emancipation or exploitation? Gender liberation and adult
musicals in 1970s New York’, Studies in Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 5–32,
doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.5/1

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Contributor details
Elizabeth L. Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College and
author of the book The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair
to Hedwig (University of Michigan, 2006). Her research interests include American
popular music, the musical theatre, gender studies, and the cultural history of
New York City.

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.33/1

Hear Jane sing: narrative authority in

two musical versions of Jane Eyre
Marc Napolitano University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Abstract Keywords
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre focuses heavily on the development of the protago- Jane Eyre
nist’s voice, as the reader can trace the young Jane’s transition from a vulnerable Bronte
gothic heroine to an authoritative autobiographical narrator. Film adaptations of musical
the novel often fail to convey this transition due to the inability of the film-maker opera
to successfully incorporate Jane’s narration into the piece. Two recent musical adaptation
versions of Jane Eyre present interesting solutions to this problem; the ability to narrative
layer voices through song, along with the potential for musical commentary as
opposed to voice-over, allows for innovative approaches to rectifying the problems
regarding Jane’s narration in other media. However, although the stage musical
version by John Caird and Paul Gordon and the chamber opera adaptation by
Michael Berkeley and David Malouf both attempt to preserve Jane’s narrative
authority, the writers are unable to fully capture the novelistic nuances of the
heroine’s development from abused orphan to omniscient storyteller.

The opening chapters of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre establish the contra-
dictory tensions which seem to dominate the entire novel, for as Jane
interacts with the Reed family there is a sense of both aversion and longing
on the part of the heroine: she is repelled by her cousins’ behaviour, but
she simultaneously desires their approval. The depiction of Jane’s contra-
dictory feelings towards the Reeds seems the perfect way to begin a novel
which presents the reader with so many incongruous themes and ideas:
marriage versus independence; passion versus asceticism; religion versus
idolatry. The very form of the novel is itself paradoxical, as the gothic romance
is tempered by the realistic and autobiographical narrative voice of the
heroine. This specific contradiction between romance and autobiography
is perhaps the most enticing clash in the novel, though it is important to
note that these two elements of the story are not set in complete opposi-
tion to one another. Rather, they are both essential components of
Bronte’s text. In an article on doubling in Jane Eyre, Robyn Warhol asserts
that ‘the two genres are not so much in competition as in continuous
oscillation with each other, serving to double each other at crucial moments’
(Warhol 1996: 858). This doubling, particularly in its relationship to the
depiction of the main character, seems inherently novelistic; a reader can
perceive and appreciate the developmental relationship between Jane the
character and Jane the narrator in a way that would not be possible in any
other medium. Nevertheless, the contrasts between Jane Eyre: gothic hero-
ine, and Jane Eyre: autobiographer, provide a particularly interesting lens

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through which to examine the novel when one considers the popularity of
this story in other media. Jane Eyre remains one of the most heavily
adapted novels in literary history, and the number of film and stage versions
of Jane’s story is staggering.
Anyone seeking to adapt Jane Eyre for stage or screen faces significant
difficulties, however. It seems almost impossible to capture the subtle
nuances in the relationship between the gothic romance and the heroine’s
autobiography through any medium besides the novel. For obvious rea-
sons, the romance plot seems infinitely more suitable for visual adapta-
tions, and indeed, though most film and stage versions of Jane Eyre try to
integrate some of Jane’s narration through the use of voice-over, most of
her autobiography is forfeited. The excision of Jane’s autobiographical
reflections is understandable: visual media cannot convey the incremental
development of Jane’s narrative authority in the same way that it is pre-
sented in the text. Nevertheless, this excision leaves the heroine incom-
plete. While the viewer can still appreciate Jane’s journey from abused
orphan to happily married heiress, the true scope of her maturation is
imperfect without the constant presence of her voice.
Two recent stage adaptations of the novel have complicated the ques-
tion of whether or not an adaptor can successfully incorporate both incar-
nations of Jane into his particular version of the text. In 2000, an operatic
version of Jane Eyre written by Michael Berkeley was produced in the United
Kingdom, with a libretto by David Malouf. That same year, a stage musical
version of Bronte’s novel, with a book by John Caird and music and lyrics
by Paul Gordon, debuted on Broadway. Like all adaptations of Bronte’s
novel, these two versions of the text must grapple with the duality of Jane’s
story, but the fact that music is an integral element in both of these adap-
tations opens up new possibilities for resolving the tensions between
romance and autobiographical narrative.
Before proceeding with an analysis of these two musicals, it is useful to
consider the centrality of the development of Jane’s narrative voice to Bronte’s
novel, particularly in the context of Gerard Genette’s arguments on the
relationship between the first-person narrator and the representation of
his or her younger self. Typically in a bildungsroman narrated in the first-
person voice ‘we [ …] expect to see the narrative bring its hero to the point
where the narrator awaits him, in order that these two hypostases might
meet and finally merge’ (Genette 1980: 226). Genette asserts that there is
usually some point in the text where the hero has, through experience and
understanding, developed into a person capable of taking on the role of the
storyteller: ‘The narrator’s last sentence is when – is that – the hero finally
reaches his first’ (Genette 1980: 227). Genette adamantly insists that the
two separate versions of the single fictional character do not work together
to tell the story, as it is inconceivable for them to both reach the ‘end’ at the
same time. The autobiographical nature of the novel means that the narra-
tive is presented retrospectively; the narrator’s ‘narrative time’ can commence
only after the hero’s ‘story time’ has concluded.
Throughout Jane Eyre, the ability to tell one’s own story is consistently
linked to empowerment, and Jane learns to appreciate this power early on
in the text; Carla Kaplan cites Jane’s stinging rebuke of Mrs Reed following
their meeting with Mr Brocklehurst as a resolution ‘to narrate her own story,

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to explain and vindicate her life, to exercise her voice’ (Kaplan 1996: 5).
Though the young Jane is extremely vulnerable, she is able to attain
a taste of narrative power at a young age, which is something she carries
with her all through the story and up to its conclusion. Throughout the
novel, the reader can detect that the younger Jane is making a progression
from protagonist to storyteller; the fact that she is constantly being asked
to tell her life story is a significant detail in the text. As a character, Jane
repeats her biography, or at least parts of it, for Mr Lloyd, Helen Burns,
Miss Temple, Mr Rochester and the Rivers siblings. Consequently, Jane’s
skills at recounting the story of her life have already been established
before she finally adopts the formal position of autobiographical narrator.
By the end of chapter 37, the reader realizes that Jane has completed
her development from protagonist to narrator, for her trials have con-
cluded and she has overcome her reservations about her relationship with
Rochester. At the very end of this chapter, when Jane decides not to tell
Rochester that she heard him calling her across the moors, the line between
character and narrator has been blurred:

I listened to Mr Rochester’s narrative, but made no disclosure in return.

The coincidence struck me as too awful and inexplicable to be communi-
cated or discussed. If I told anything, my tale would be such as must neces-
sarily make a profound impression on the mind of my hearer: and that mind,
yet from its sufferings too prone to gloom, needed not the deeper shade of the
supernatural. I kept these things then, and pondered them in my heart.
(Bronte 1996: 437)

Just as Jane the narrator decides to skip over her years at Lowood when
recounting her life story to the reader, Jane the character decides to skip
over this gothic experience when speaking with Rochester. Part of the nar-
rator’s power is her ability to be selective in the telling of her story. It there-
fore seems fitting that Jane asserts such power shortly after she has attained
the financial independence which has eluded her for the entire novel.
Jane’s unexpected fiscal empowerment prepares her for the role of story-
teller. The fact that narrative authority emerges from character authority
in the final chapters of the novel makes it clear that, despite the obvious
contrasts between the two main threads of Jane Eyre, both the gothic love
story and the realistic autobiographical narrative are essential to the
The timelessness of Jane Eyre is at least partially attributable to the clas-
sic appeal of an underdog story, as Jane’s transformation from a vulnerable
orphan into a happily married heiress is a celebration of the heroine’s
strength and endurance. The true power of Jane’s story lies in the protag-
onist’s narrative voice, however. While it is fitting to celebrate the happy
ending that Jane attains for herself in the novel’s final chapters, the most
important element of Jane’s new found authority is that it reinforces the
idea that she is ready to make the transition from heroine to storyteller:
a heroine has little control over what happens to her over the course of the
narrative, particularly in a gothic romance where she is constantly being
acted upon by outside forces. Conversely, a narrator exercises supreme
control over the narrative. While film and stage versions of Jane Eyre can

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easily chronicle Jane’s transformation from orphan to heiress, highlighting

the development of her narrative authority is more difficult. Though voice-
over is a convenient tool for including parts of Jane’s narrative, to overuse
this device would undoubtedly frustrate viewers as the non-synchronous
voice would distract from the action taking place rather than supple-
menting it.
As mentioned, the two recent musical adaptations of Bronte’s novel
create new opportunities for the inclusion of Jane’s narrative voice. While
the idea of Jane singing parts of her narration is enticing, even more entic-
ing is the ability of a composer to layer different voices through music, as
this technique presents a chance for the viewer to come to a true appreci-
ation of the connections between Jane the heroine and Jane the narrator.
Furthermore, the presence of the orchestra in both the musical and oper-
atic versions of the novel allows for a more dynamic form of narrative
commentary than the kind provided by voice-over. However, while both
musical adaptations attempt to balance Jane’s gothic adventures with her
interior development into the role of the narrator, both must sacrifice part
of the heroine’s autonomy in the process. Neither the Caird musical nor
the Berkeley opera grant Jane the full authority that Bronte bestows upon
her in the book: Caird’s Jane is incapable of successfully articulating the
feelings of the other characters to the audience, while Berkeley’s Jane can
present only her memories as opposed to a concrete analysis of her life
story. In the end, both of these musical adaptations reinforce the difficul-
ties of trying to integrate successfully the subtle nuances of Bronte’s auto-
biographical narrative with the more overtly entertaining gothic romance.
At the same time, the musical scores incorporated into both of these adap-
tations present interesting means by which to try and merge these sharp
Transforming novels into stage musicals is a notoriously difficult endeav-
our, and the inspiration for some of the greatest musicals of the twentieth
century has not been novels, but rather plays: Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
served as the model for Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956),
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was the inspiration for Bernstein and
Sondheim’s West Side Story (1957), and Wilder’s The Matchmaker preceded
Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (1964). In their book on writing for musical the-
atre, Allen Cohen and Steven L. Rosenhaus point out that dramatic works,
such as films or other plays, are usually better sources for musical adapta-
tion than non-dramatic works like novels: ‘In literary fiction [ … ] much of
what the main characters experience is internal – psychological and
emotional – which makes it extremely difficult to translate into theatrical
terms. Some internal monologues, of course, can be translated into solo
songs, but to have more than a couple of them in a show would create
monotony’ (Cohen and Rosenhaus 2006: 52). Cohen and Rosenhaus’s
text underscores the difficulties in adapting a novel like Jane Eyre for the
musical stage, as Jane Eyre is a highly internalized novel; the action is lim-
ited, and far more emphasis is placed on the thoughts and feelings of the
characters than on their experiences. This limited scope makes it difficult
to avoid the ‘monotony’ that Cohen warns of in his text; since Jane is the
centre of the novel, most of the songs must revolve around her, and yet it
is both impractical and impossible to have her sing the entire score.

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Moreover, unlike many Victorian novels, the number of central characters

in Jane Eyre is surprisingly small. Whereas the multi-plot novels of Thackeray
and Eliot feature a wide variety of lead characters as well as a large sup-
porting cast, Jane Eyre is built almost entirely around two individuals,
which makes it difficult to produce a chorus. Once again, this creates
musical problems: most musicals alternate between solos, duets and larger
numbers involving some type of ensemble. Such variation is difficult to
achieve when adapting a novel with such a limited number of characters.
Despite the composer and librettist’s best efforts to overcome these dif-
ficulties, several critics could not overlook the fact that Bronte’s novel
seemed fundamentally incompatible with the conventions of musical theatre.
Charles Isherwood of Variety contrasted Caird and Gordon’s musical with
several successful musical adaptations of nineteenth-century novels,
including Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables
(1980) and Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960):

While the appeal of the Dickens and Hugo books resides in their larger-than-life
characters and relentless plotting, the allure of Bronte’s novel is a more deli-
cate thing; it’s a matter of sensibility. Jane Eyre draws the reader directly into
the bruised heart of its embattled heroine – psychological immediacy, not
narrative potency, is the key to its appeal, and that’s not easily translated
into dramatic terms.
(Isherwood 2000: 34)

For Isherwood, the autobiographical narrative supersedes the gothic

romance in terms of overall importance, but the autobiography is far more
difficult to adapt for the stage; thus, Caird and Gordon seemed doomed to
fail before they even started work on this project. Clifford Ridley of The
Philadelphia Inquirer also found the subject matter to be limiting in terms of
its musical adaptability:

It’s hard to find the tonal variety required for good music theater in Bronte’s
gothic romance about an orphaned young woman who becomes tutor to the
ward of the reclusive Edward Rochester [...] Focused firmly on the principals,
the narrative contains little action, provides little excuse for a chorus, and
leaves little room for humor.
(Ridley 2000: E03)

Ridley’s comments on a lack of ‘tonal variety’ reinforce the limitations of

the source material in terms of its overall musicality. Jane Eyre is an espe-
cially solemn novel: it is difficult to imagine the characters singing any-
thing except slow and sober ballads. Since the potential for musical
variation in an adaptation of Jane Eyre is almost nonexistent, Caird’s pro-
tagonist, despite her dynamic roles as both heroine and narrator, is sur-
prisingly flat from a musical standpoint. Almost all of her songs are
written in 4/4 time and set to the tempo of a ballad. The result of there
being so little variation between the songs is that none of the musical
numbers is particularly memorable. By confining Jane to only one style of
music, Gordon reduces her overall vitality and, simultaneously, weakens
the show’s score. Though the musical received praise for its cast and its

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staging, few critics felt that it would last on Broadway, and the show closed
after only 209 performances.
Despite the failure of the musical to attain popular success, Caird and
Gordon deserve a great deal of praise for their attempts to preserve the
novel’s integrity while adapting it for the stage. In the preface to the musi-
cal’s libretto, Caird stresses that the creative team worked tirelessly to try
and incorporate both the gothic romance and the autobiography into the
musical: ‘while we accord the relationship between Jane and Rochester the
central place in our adaptation, we begin where Charlotte begins with
Jane’s early childhood’ (Caird and Gordon 2000: i). The play’s opening
scenes stress Jane’s role as narrator, as the older Jane appears onstage and
watches her younger self interact with the Reeds and, later, the residents
of Lowood School. Through song, ‘Jane herself narrates the drama while
the story concerns her life as a little girl’ (Caird and Gordon 2000: iv).
Though the Lowood section of the novel is significantly condensed in
Caird’s adaptation, the creative team imaginatively emphasizes the links
between the young heroine Jane and the older, more mature narrator,
and, in one of the musical’s most striking moments, the two incarnations
of Jane actually sing together at the grave of Helen Burns:

Let the world forsake me

Let them do their worst, I will
Withstand it all
They will not break me
There is another world that watches us
I’m not afraid
The angels know when we have sinned
Or we have been betrayed
(Caird and Gordon 2000: 20)

This short but moving song presents a musical variation on Genette’s the-
ories regarding the gradual merging between the heroine and the narrator:
Caird and Gordon use the duet to stress the fact that certain lessons Jane
learned as a child have been preserved into her adulthood. Furthermore,
this is the first time that young Jane sings in the entire play, and it is fitting
that her first song is a duet with her older self. The audience is made
aware of the fact that the young heroine’s journey from abused orphan to
independent woman will be complemented by her developmental journey
into the role of the narrator.
Unfortunately, Jane’s role as the narrator is quickly reduced. As soon
as the young Jane grows up, older Jane steps into the role of heroine, and
the idea of two incarnations of Jane singing together is abruptly discarded.
Furthermore, from this point on in the musical, the narrator’s commen-
tary is sung by various servants at Thornfield and other members of the
ensemble; this technique has the supplemental benefit of granting the
chorus a larger role in the adaptation, as the number of choral songs is
very small. The primary rationale behind this decision, however, relates to
the portrayal of the title character. It would be monotonous and perhaps
impossible for the actress cast as the older Jane to continue playing the
parts of both narrator and heroine, as the roles are too demanding.

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Furthermore, the form of a musical is traditionally not conducive to the

constant presence of a confident and reflective narrator.
In The Musical as Drama (2006), Scott McMillin argues that all narra-
tors in musicals must inevitably be presented as limited and fallible. In
Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and Man of La Mancha (1965) the lead charac-
ters of Tevye and Cervantes provide narrative commentary throughout
the show, but they remain unaware of what is going to happen to them-
selves or to any of the other characters, which stands in sharp contrast to
Bronte’s Jane, who can tell her story confidently, retrospectively and with
closure. Several musicals by Stephen Sondheim also feature narrators,
but, humorously, these characters are done away with by the other char-
acters who view their presence as meddlesome: ‘the narrator is a deeply
unwanted person in his omniscient complacency’ (McMillin 2006: 152).
The idea of the narrator as an intrusive entity reveals further difficulties
of trying to balance Jane’s roles as heroine and narrator in a musical
adaptation. If the composer and lyricist had placed too much emphasis on
Jane the narrator, they would have run the risk of presenting the charac-
ter as a tiresome ‘Ms Know-it-all’ whose songs simply reinforce her own
The complications presented in trying to incorporate the voice of a
first-person narrator into a musical adaptation of a novel are underscored
when one contrasts Caird’s Jane Eyre with various adaptations of novels
narrated in the third-person voice. Some of the more successful musicals
based on nineteenth-century novels, including those listed in the
Isherwood review, are noteworthy for the use of an omniscient third-
person narrator in the source material; the narrators of Les Misérables and
Oliver Twist both contribute heavily to the texts by providing an almost
constant stream of narrative commentary whilst telling the story.
Nevertheless, since these narrators are not limited to a single perspective
and can thus represent the inner lives of all the characters, their voices are
far broader and more encompassing than Jane’s. The third-person omni-
scient voices that narrate Oliver Twist and Les Misérables allow for greater
freedom in the musical adaptation process, as the composers, lyricists and
librettists can focus on the musicality of all the characters, rather than
preoccupying themselves with the preservation of a single character’s
narrative voice.
This contrast between the two different styles of narration becomes
even more enticing when one considers McMillin’s theory for why musi-
cals are so resistant to the presence of first-person narrators: the orchestra
itself serves as an omniscient narrator. Because a musical alternates
between singing and speaking, and no single character sings all of the
songs, the one constant presence is the orchestra itself, which plays the
music for each song, no matter which character is singing, and simulta-
neously underscores each scene. The orchestra is certainly all-knowing;
furthermore, practically every musical begins with an overture: this is the
orchestra’s ‘announcement of its authority’ (McMillin 2006: 128). The
orchestra can also help advance the plot. Sometimes there is action but no
dialogue onstage and the orchestra’s music helps to convey a feeling of
what is transpiring. This is the musical’s equivalent of narrative commentary.
Since the orchestra seems so powerful a storytelling force, the necessity of

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Jane’s narrative commentary is reduced, and Jane’s power as the narrator

of her own life story is diminished. Through the technique of underscoring,
the orchestra can provide an almost constant ‘voice’ capable of highlighting
various emotions, reinforcing certain themes and, perhaps most impor-
tantly, effectively representing other characters.
A key example of the multifaceted power of the orchestra can be found
in the opening to the second act when Richard Mason slips away to see his
mad sister, Bertha. The orchestra clearly heightens the intensity of the
scene through its ominous music, but this is just one component of its nar-
rative capability. As Mason approaches Bertha, the orchestra underscores
his movements with the melody to Rochester’s song, ‘Sirens’, and Mason
himself eventually sings a reprise of this number. The orchestra’s music
thus creates a clear thematic link between Rochester and Mason, as they
are both responsible for the mistreatment of Bertha; simultaneously, the
orchestra’s voice conveys a sense of sympathy for the two men as the
melody to the song, coupled with the lyrics that they sing, reveals the men-
tal and emotional pain they have endured subsequent to Bertha’s confine-
ment. This sympathy reinforces the limitations of Jane’s role as narrator in
the musical. In the novel, Jane must confine her impressions of Mason to
her analyses of his behaviour during their few short meetings; in the musi-
cal, Jane must do likewise, but the audience is allowed to come away with
a greater sympathy for the character thanks to the ‘commentary’ of the
Consequently, Caird faced the unenviable task of trying to preserve
Jane’s role as narrator, despite the fact that the viewer does not really need
her to comment on any of the action in the story: the music created by the
orchestra is perfectly capable of conveying Jane’s (and the various other
characters’) sentiments to the audience. Furthermore, although using the
chorus as a sporadic narrative voice provides a sensible solution to some of
the problems inherent in incorporating Jane’s narration into the play, the
autobiographical thread is severely weakened as a result. Jane’s narrative
lacks any real sense of dramatic significance when it is presented by an
unnamed member of the chorus. Disappointingly, the musical never again
reaches the same level of poignancy displayed in the aforementioned grave-
yard scene; once young Jane grows up, there is no chance of the two versions
of the protagonist (heroine Jane and narrator Jane) singing together. Had
Caird and Gordon been willing to take greater musical risks, they might
have been able to come up with some truly innovative ways of layering the
two incarnations of Jane’s character musically. Instead they chose a simple,
practical, but ultimately unsatisfactory, solution to the problem, and Jane’s
power as storyteller is thus weakened significantly.
Jane’s authority as narrator is also undermined by the fact that Caird
and Gordon allow several other characters to sing solo. When a character
sings in a musical it is usually because he or she is overwhelmed with senti-
ment. Emotional catharsis is a key element of the musical form, for, as Scott
Miller writes: ‘the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre
offers audiences a much needed release. Only in musical theatre can those
big emotions be adequately expressed’ (Miller 2007: 1). Thus, a solo number
is an important, affecting moment between a character and the audience;
we are made privy to the innermost feelings of the character, and, in some

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way, we are transformed by listening to them sing about their emotions.

Solos also serve to reinforce the omniscience of the orchestra, in that the
orchestra can represent each and every character in the musical by provid-
ing them all with a fitting solo melody to which they can sing their song.
In Caird and Gordon’s Jane Eyre, Jane sings at least eight solo numbers
along with several reprises. Some of these songs reflect her role as narra-
tor, particularly early on in the show when she sings retrospectively about
her younger self. She sings other numbers in her capacity as heroine, as
she conveys to the audience her feelings about Rochester. No matter what
the context, all of Jane’s solos help to create an emotional connection
between heroine and audience. However, Caird’s decision to have Rochester,
Blanche Ingram, and several other characters sing solo numbers as well
further weakens Jane’s power as narrator. When these characters sing
their solo numbers, Jane is not onstage. Her absence is analogous to the
fact that in the novel, Jane can never know exactly what characters like
Blanche Ingram or Mrs Reed are thinking and feeling. This fact does not
seem to matter in the novel; the reader accepts her assessments of these
other characters based on her authority as narrator. However, in the musi-
cal the audience directly learns of Rochester’s depression, Blanche’s
doubts and Mason’s guilt through their songs. We experience the inner
lives of characters besides Jane, and we can make our own assessment
about them without her having to serve as a go-between; as McMillin sug-
gests in his text, the only narrative voice necessary is the ‘voice’ of the orches-
tra, which impartially provides each character with the music necessary for
his or her solo. Essentially, whenever these characters are allowed to sing
solo, they temporarily usurp the narrative from Jane; the musical becomes
their story for those few minutes, even though the story itself is not
advanced by their reflections.
Caird’s decision may weaken the autobiographical element of Jane’s
story, but it is understandable that he would allow these characters the
chance to sing for themselves. In the case of Rochester it is absolutely
essential that he be allowed to sing alone to the audience at several points
in the show:

for its part the audience is not looking at Rochester through Jane’s eyes, it is
looking at the man himself without the aid of a partial interpreter. We decided
therefore that we had to reveal Rochester’s deep feelings for Jane, at least
before the intermission falls, or he would risk losing so much sympathy with
the audience that they would never forgive Jane for falling in love with him.
(Caird and Gordon 2000: ii)

Here it is important to return to the idea of the musical form. According

to Cohen and Rosenhaus’s text, it is folly to try and adapt a mystery
story into a musical because characters in mysteries are rarely what
they seem to be; conversely, when a character sings in a musical, he or she
is fully exposing his or her innermost feelings to the audience (Cohen and
Rosenhaus 2006). It must be assumed that a character is telling the
truth when he or she bursts into song. Rochester is a mysterious and
potentially dangerous character in Bronte’s novel, but Caird’s decision to
allow Rochester to sing solo ensures that the audience will be able to

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sympathize with him despite his numerous character flaws. Bronte relies
on Jane as narrator to make Rochester sympathetic to the reader: ‘I
believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles,
and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education
instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials
in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and
tangled’ (Bronte 1996: 152). Though Jane is cognizant of Rochester’s
flaws, she consistently reminds the reader of his good points. Even so, it
would be virtually impossible to achieve the same effect in a stage musi-
cal; Jane’s singing about Rochester cannot have an effect as powerful as
Rochester singing for himself. Thus, when Rochester reveals the depths
of his despair in his solo numbers, the audience is able to come away
with a better understanding of who he truly is and why he deserves our
This is not to say that Caird tames Rochester; his songs are brooding
ballads befitting Bronte’s Byronic hero:

Damn the passion, damn the skies

Damn the light that’s in her eyes
I know too well where it has led before
She saves me but I can’t be saved
Frees me but I’m still enslaved
Now I battle what I most adore.
Oh, let me sail away
Get lost at sea
Where I won’t hear her voice
Where I am blind and free
For as sirens call the sailors
She calls me now.
(Caird and Gordon 2000: 74)

However, the key difference between Caird’s Rochester and Bronte’s

Rochester is that the audience is never in doubt regarding Rochester’s
inherent goodness and, moreover, his love for Jane. Though Rochester is
given the benefit of the doubt in Bronte’s text, the reader must trust in
Jane’s authority as narrator to exonerate Rochester. Caird allows us
access to the interior world of the hero, and we come away with an
understanding of him which could never be attained solely through
Jane’s narration.
Caird’s changes to Rochester’s character, or at least to the presentation
of Rochester’s character, are necessary given the form of the musical: the
audience must be allowed to experience Rochester’s emotions first-hand
when he sings. Caird does not stop with Rochester, however; he grants
several other characters the opportunity to express themselves through
solo songs. The most notable example is Blanche Ingram. As with all the
characters in Bronte’s novel, the reader experiences Blanche only through
Jane’s narration. We share Jane’s dislike for her, and we know that she
deserves our contempt given her mistreatment of Jane and Adele through-
out the novel. Blanche’s defining characteristic is her shallowness, and
almost everything associated with her in the novel emphasizes her surface

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qualities. Tellingly, Jane is not particularly jealous of Blanche, for she rec-
ognizes her rival’s hollowness:

she was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many
brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature:
nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit
delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original: she used
to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion
of her own.
(Bronte 1996: 188)

In Caird’s musical, the composer initially presents a Blanche who is very

similar to her counterpart in the novel. He astutely captures her showiness
by having her sing her initial numbers in front of others; whereas most
characters in musicals remain unaware that they have shifted from speak-
ing to singing, Blanche seems perfectly aware of the transition, and she
delights in affected vocalizing.
Such showiness seems befitting of the shallow young woman from
Bronte’s novel, but Caird departs from the source material when he allows
Blanche to sing alone onstage. As mentioned, solo numbers expose the
inner lives of characters to the audience; in the novel, Blanche’s inner life
seems nonexistent. Her solo during ‘In the Light of the Virgin Morning’
initially reveals her shallow motives for marrying Rochester, as she
delights in the various material pleasures of Thornfield. However, Caird
also reveals a completely different side of Blanche to the audience, as she
admits to her own fears and doubts regarding her relationship with

As I stroll through the pinks and roses

As I savour the columbine
I am grateful for all he is
And what will one day all be mine
The perfect plan
If only I could love the man
But I’m not quite sure I can.
(Caird and Gordon 2000: 85)

In these few short lines, Blanche reveals new dimensions to her own per-
sonality, dimensions which remain inaccessible in the book. Jane can only
tell us about her own impressions of Blanche, and while we can glean
hints of Blanche’s inner life from her behaviour, her true emotions and
thoughts remain inaccessible. Caird’s Blanche, though equally vapid and
unlikable, becomes much more sympathetic simply because she is capable
of revealing such thoughts and feelings to the audience. Even if we do not
like her any better than her counterpart in the novel, we most certainly
understand her better, and such understanding leads to sympathy.
Furthermore, ‘In the Light of the Virgin Morning’ eventually evolves into a
duet sung by both Jane and Blanche (though neither one is aware of the
other’s presence). As Blanche reveals her fears about marrying Rochester,
Jane reveals her own fears regarding her feelings for her master. She resolves

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to leave Thornfield, and the two women conclude by singing to the same
melody. Though Jane remains unaware of Blanche’s true feelings, the audi-
ence comes to realize that despite their being complete opposites in most
respects, Jane and Blanche share a veiled connection regarding their fears
and doubts about Rochester.
The unfortunate side effect of Blanche’s song is that Jane’s role as
narrator is weakened further; since the audience is able to make its own
assessment of Blanche without relying on Jane, any narrative commen-
tary on Jane’s part regarding Blanche’s behaviour proves superfluous.
Furthermore, Blanche’s very act of singing solo disproves Jane’s assess-
ment that Blanche is without substance. Through her solo she proves that
she is capable of wrestling with difficult thoughts and feelings, and the
contrast between this number and her earlier songs is profound. Blanche
uses music to win the attention of others, but she can also use music in a
more private and reflective way. Interestingly, this is the very same way
that Jane uses music throughout the show; the majority of her musical
numbers are solos in which she addresses the audience. The fact that
Blanche is allowed to share a similar moment with the audience under-
scores the contrasts between storytelling in a novel and storytelling in a
musical. In the novel, it is impossible for the reader to gain access to
Blanche’s inner life because of the first-person narrator; the musical
grants access when Blanche temporarily asserts herself as narrator during
her solo number.
Despite Caird and Gordon’s efforts to preserve both the romantic and
autobiographical elements of the original novel, their version of the lead
character lacks the narrative authority that Bronte grants her protagonist.
The internal access we are given to characters like Rochester and Blanche
is attained at the sacrifice of Jane’s control over the representation of these
individuals, a key facet of her power as storyteller. Furthermore, the com-
posers’ inability to sustain the musical layering of Jane’s character that
they first present in the graveyard scene prevents the audience from com-
ing away with a true appreciation of the development of Jane’s voice. As in
so many adaptations of Jane Eyre, the central focus is ultimately placed on
Jane’s journey from downtrodden orphan to heiress and wife, as opposed
to the growth from heroine to narrator and the maturation within Jane
which makes such a transition possible.
While Caird and Gordon attempt to preserve the autobiography in their
musical, Berkeley completely omits this element from his opera: Jane is not
introduced as a narrator who has decided to share her life story with an
audience. Instead, Berkeley’s version of the heroine exists in a vague stasis
between character and narrator; since Berkeley omits the Marsh End seg-
ment of the novel from his opera, story time has effectively ceased with
Jane’s departure from Thornfield. Simultaneously, narrative time has not
yet begun as she is unable to give a coherent account of her biography.
Jane will eventually become a narrator when she learns to document her
thoughts and memories in a chronological narrative, but, for now, she is
capable only of reflection. On the other hand, Berkeley manages to pre-
serve a great deal of Jane’s authority over the story by indicating that the
entire opera is taking place within the character’s head. The opera is
formed from Jane’s recollections about her time at Thornfield, which adds

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a complicated dimension to the representation of other characters.

Whereas Caird makes it clear that the solo songs sung by various charac-
ters are based on their own feelings and thoughts as opposed to Jane’s
impressions, Berkeley makes no such distinctions in his opera; the few
moments when a character besides Jane sings solo are clearly indicative of
Jane’s own perceptions of what that character was feeling at that particu-
lar moment. Jane remains the medium through which the audience expe-
riences the story, though, unlike her counterpart in the novel, she makes
no attempts to connect with the audience members as she is unaware of
their presence. Nevertheless, the fact that the opera is so thoroughly
embedded in Jane’s own subjectivity grants her an autonomy that Caird’s
version of the heroine lacks.
One of the most distinguishing features of Berkeley’s opera is its scale.
While the very word ‘opera’ evokes images of epic sets and grandiose
spectacle, Berkeley’s piece is small and restrained. There are only five
characters in the entire work: Jane, Rochester, Mrs Fairfax, Adele, and
Bertha (Mrs Rochester). Furthermore, Berkeley does not use a complete
orchestra for the piece. Instead, he relies only on a chamber ensemble.
The idea of transforming Jane Eyre into a chamber opera is intriguing
given the fact that the novel itself, through its domestication of the gothic,
presents the reader with a sense of something large-scale which has been
The range of the opera is far smaller than the span of the actual novel,
and most critics immediately picked up on the limited scope of Berkeley’s
opera in the context of Bronte’s work. Writing for The Observer, Fiona
Maddocks sardonically commented that

to dare to compress an epic Victorian novel into a short, taut opera with only
five characters requires a touch of madness. When the book in question is
Jane Eyre, that might prove an asset. Mrs Rochester up in the attic may be
the one who is certified insane, but Mr Rochester and Jane herself are not
averse to morbid imaginings and distinctly odd behaviour.
(Maddocks 2000: 9)

In spite of her sarcastic assessment, Maddocks praised the opera for its
innovative approach to the original text, and most reviews were equally
positive; like Maddocks, many critics were impressed with how effectively
Berkeley was able to consolidate the novel into a small-scale opera.
Furthermore, most reviewers found the psychological elements of the
opera enticing. Though much of the novel is lost in the adaptation process,
the focus on Jane’s inner life allows the work to retain several of the more
important elements of the heroine’s subjectivity.
The creative team behind the opera deliberately decided to emphasize
Jane’s psychology, most likely as a means of compensating for the absence
of her narrative voice. In the preface to the opera’s book, Berkeley’s librettist
David Malouf claims that

it is the voice of the narrator in Jane Eyre that holds the book together and
holds us too; commands our attention and inward consent, engages our
emotions, convinces us, however improbable the events and the turn of

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events it is recounting, that the world of the novel is our own, as close to us
as our own breath.
(Malouf and Berkeley 2000: viii)

The primary goal of all subsequent adaptations of the novel is to find an

equivalent for that voice: something that will engage the audience with
the same intimacy. Berkeley and Malouf substitute psychological reflection
for narrative commentary, most likely in hopes of attaining a greater sense
of immediacy:

the opera is unfolding in Jane’s memory of the events at Thornfield, but, as

we see it, in real space and real time. Its movement is from Jane’s belief that
the voice of Mr Rochester is a projection of her own painful yearning to the
discovery that it is the voice of her lover’s present need for her.
(Malouf and Berkeley 2000: x)

The excision of most of the plot allows for the composer and librettist to
focus completely on the interiority of the lead heroine.
The composer’s emphasis on the heroine’s psychology is conveyed not
only through the concise libretto, but, moreover, through Berkeley’s
music. Jane’s singing, particularly during the opening movements, is
marked by violent vocalizing and strange, abrupt shifts in the melody; as
she describes a storm on the moors, the instrumental accompaniment pro-
vided by the orchestra seems to capture the violence of the tempest. The
turbulent music used throughout the piece reinforces the idea that Jane is
not telling a story so much as reliving it in her mind. The heroine tries to
reassure herself that everything will be all right:

In the wind’s lee the nest

Is safe on the bough.
No print marks the snow,
No terror affrights
The still breast.
(Malouf and Berkeley 2000: 3)

Jane’s metaphorical reflections throughout her singing are reminiscent of

the metaphorical language that Bronte herself uses to characterize the
heroine’s struggle to strike a balance between cold asceticism and self-
indulgent passion:

Till morning dawned I was tossed on a buoyant but unquiet sea, where bil-
lows of trouble rolled under surges of joy. I thought sometimes I saw beyond
its wild waters a shore, sweet as the hills of Beulah; and now and then
a freshening gale, wakened by hope, bore my spirit triumphantly towards the
bourne: but I could not reach it, even in fancy – a counteracting breeze blew
off land, and continually drove me back.
(Bronte 1996: 156)

However, Berkeley does not rely solely on words to convey his heroine’s
emotional fluctuations. Instead, he cleverly uses different types of music to
characterize Jane’s moods at various moments.

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The orchestra in Berkeley’s adaptation repeatedly jumps back and forth

between diverse musical genres so as to convey the general tone of various
scenes, and, simultaneously, the condition of Jane’s mind at any given time:
a charming waltz is played during the tranquil scene in which Jane meets
Adele, while violent Caribbean drumbeats play in the background after
Jane learns of Bertha’s existence. The abrupt shifts between the different
melodies are evocative of stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. As
in the Caird adaptation, the orchestra adds a narrative voice to the piece,
though its commentary is intimately connected back to the heroine, for the
style and tone of the music produced by the orchestra is always dependent
on Jane’s mental state. The heroine’s consciousness, as reflected by the
orchestral music, shapes the way the audience perceives the story. From the
joys of her romance with Rochester to the terrors of her discovery of
Bertha, an appropriate musical accompaniment is always provided.
Unsurprisingly, Berkeley’s version of Jane is a far more demanding part
from a vocal perspective than Caird’s rendering of the heroine. Whereas
Caird and Gordon confine their heroine to the ballad, Berkeley’s Jane sings
many different melodies and exhibits a wider vocal range in order to match
the fluctuating melodies of the orchestra. Consequently, Berkeley’s version
of the heroine, while not an overt storyteller, is able to exert a significant
amount of control over the narrative due to her dominance over the
orchestra. Furthermore, while the orchestra is the only constant in the
Caird musical, Berkeley’s Jane is a constant presence in his opera; she never
leaves the stage and sings throughout the entire piece. Berkeley’s Jane
comes closer to the omnipresence that Bronte’s narrator possesses, despite
the fact that she is not telling a story. Here the orchestra is not a rival sto-
ryteller but rather a medium for Jane’s still undeveloped narrative voice, as
the hectic melodies that it provides capture the chaotic state of the psyche
of the heroine following her abrupt departure from Thornfield.
Due to the fact that the opera revolves around Jane’s psyche, Berkeley
must show restraint in his depiction of the other characters. It would be
impossible to have Rochester sing solo to the audience, for the opera takes
place entirely in Jane’s mind; Jane cannot enter into the minds of other
characters, nor can she have flashbacks to events which she did not wit-
ness. Berkeley makes certain to keep Jane onstage when the other charac-
ters sing. Whereas Caird limits Jane’s role as narrator by having other
characters reveal their hidden feelings to the audience, Berkeley preserves
Jane’s authority over the supporting cast by keeping their inner lives
inaccessible and characterizing these individuals solely according to Jane’s
Besides Jane, only one other character in Berkeley’s opera sings solo:
Bertha. This creative decision is perhaps the most fascinating and confus-
ing element of the operatic adaptation. In the novel, Bertha can express
herself only through violent actions and malevolent laughter, but Berkeley
presents the audience with a Bertha who is capable of using both song and
dance to articulate her thoughts and feelings. As in Caird’s musical, the
ability of the supporting character to connect directly with the audience
through solo song increases the viewer’s sympathy for her. Nevertheless, it
is important to reinforce that the action of the opera takes place entirely
within Jane’s mind and memory. Bertha’s solo singing is an anomaly; all

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of the other characters sing in front of Jane, but Bertha remains hidden
from Jane for much of the opera. How then can the viewer make sense of
Bertha’s singing solo in Jane’s memories of Thornfield, if Jane has never
actually heard her sing? The only legitimate explanation is that Bertha’s
solos are manifestations of Jane’s own empathy for her; in other words,
Bertha’s solos are not her actual thoughts and feelings but rather Jane’s
own thoughts and feelings about the woman projected out to the audience.
Like Jane, Bertha is an almost constant presence in the opera; she can be
seen in the background throughout all the Thornfield scenes, as if she is
literally haunting the old house. However, the interior focus of the opera
suggests that Bertha is haunting Jane’s thoughts as well; Jane was unaware
of Bertha’s existence for much of her time at Thornfield, and Bertha’s
constant presence onstage seems to suggest that all of Jane’s memories of the
manor are tainted by her presence. This is not to say that Jane lacks sympa-
thy for Bertha; as mentioned, Bertha’s solos can only be comprehended as
expressions of Jane’s own sense of compassion for the madwoman:

She [ Jane] the bride of Thornfield?

Mrs Rochester? Who am I
Then? Who am I? A ghost
In this house? Oh Edward, Edward –
Why have you put me
Away? Why have you sent me
To a living grave? Condemned me
To walk the corridors
Of this house, a living
(Malouf 2000: 20)

Jane clearly pities Bertha and feels as though her husband has mistreated
her. Furthermore, Bertha’s solo highlights the similarities between her and
Jane, as they are both referred to as ‘Mrs Rochester.’ It is reasonable to
accept Bertha’s words throughout her solo as manifestations of what Jane
believes her to be thinking and feeling, given the fact that Jane expresses
an empathy with Bertha throughout the remainder of the opera. While many
film adaptations of the novel subtly underscore the parallels between Jane
and Bertha, Berkeley explicitly draws attention to the connection between
the two characters. When Bertha finally emerges from her hidden room,
she reveals herself by exiting a secret passageway located behind Jane’s
mirror; when Jane peers into the looking glass and sees Bertha wearing
her wedding veil, the idea of the doppelgänger is made explicit. Berkeley’s
overt depiction of the similarities between Jane and Bertha reinforces the
idea that Bertha’s singing is an expression of Jane’s own fears and appre-
hensions regarding Rochester. Thus, Bertha’s solo, unlike the various solos
in the Caird and Gordon musical, actually reinforces the importance of
Jane’s feelings and perceptions, and the frighteningly discordant music
played by the orchestra when Bertha emerges from the attic underscores
Jane’s trauma following the revelation of her lover’s wife.
Despite the fact that Jane retains her power over the representation of
other characters in the Berkeley opera, it is inappropriate to see her as

48 Marc Napolitano
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maintaining the same level of narrative authority that she exercises in

the novel. Part of Jane’s authority stems from the fact that the reader, like
Genette, can appreciate her transition from heroine to narrator. Even
though the Caird musical reduces much of Jane’s authority as narrator,
the very fact that the two incarnations of the character are featured is
enough to allow for a similar appreciation. Since Jane never actually
attempts to tell her story in the opera, there can be no comprehension of
the heroine’s development into the narrator. Furthermore, the chaotic
presentation of Jane’s memories is maintained throughout the opera,
despite Jane’s insistence that she will not allow herself to be shaken by
her setbacks. Because Jane makes no attempt to organize her thoughts,
she seems incapable of attaining the empowering composure that her
counterpart in the novel achieves in her role as narrator. Fairly early on
in the novel, Helen Burns tells the young Jane that she should not infuse
such passion and vehemence into her account of life at Gateshead. Jane’s
first telling of her life story is to Helen and it is not altogether successful as
Jane, the narrator, reflects that her ‘bitter and truculent’ (Bronte 1996: 68)
narrative technique is ineffective. Throughout the novel, the reader can
appreciate the fact that Jane has attained the confidence and calmness
necessary to present her story in a controlled, coherent, yet still engaging
manner. Berkeley’s opera presents a narrative which is reminiscent of the
tumultuous passion that the young Jane injects into her story to Helen.
There is no sense of order or development; there is only the chaotically
alluring fervour of the heroine. Unfortunately, Berkeley’s Jane thus lacks
narrative authority because she is unable to develop into the kind of story-
teller capable of presenting her memories in a logical and insightful way.
Though the opera can capture the heroine’s passion, it is unable to cap-
ture the novel’s astute portrayal of the development of Jane’s narrative
voice and, subsequently, her narrative authority.
Throughout the novel that bears her name, Jane Eyre conveys the impor-
tance of finding the ability to speak out. Her narration is the ultimate sign of
her independence, as she is able to convey her life story with a sense of
empowerment and authority. In both musicals and operas, singing solo
implies power: a character who sings alone onstage is able to temporarily take
complete control of the narrative and convey his or her feelings directly to the
audience. Since it is impossible for one person to sing an entire musical score,
no musical or opera could ever fully capture the essence of an autobiographi-
cal novel like Jane Eyre; the perpetual intimacy between reader and narrator is
impossible to replicate. And yet, the very fact that Jane is allowed to sing out
to a sympathetic audience in both adaptations reinforces the power of her
voice; as in the original novel, she is a heroine who must be heard.

Works cited
Bronte, C. (1996), Jane Eyre (ed. Beth Newman), Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Caird, J. and Gordon, P. (2000), Jane Eyre: The Musical, New York: Music Theatre
Cohen, A. and Rosenhaus, S. L. (2006), Writing Musical Theater, New York:
Palgrave MacMillan.
Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, Ithaca: Cornell
University Press.

Hear Jane sing: narrative authority in two musical versions of Jane Eyre 49
SMT_2.1_03_art_Napolitano.qxd 5/22/08 5:02 AM Page 50

Isherwood, C. (2000), ‘Review of Jane Eyre, by John Caird and Paul Gordon’,
Variety, 18 December, p. 34.
Kaplan, C. (1996), ‘Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration’,
Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 30:1, pp. 5–31.
Maddocks, F. (2000), ‘Eyre we go, Eyre we go: Genteel Cheltenham Sees Dark Passions
Run Riot in Michael Berkeley’s Brooding New Opera’, Observer, 9 July, p. 9.
Malouf, D. and Berkeley, M. (2000), Jane Eyre: A Libretto for an Opera by Michael
Berkeley, London: Vintage.
McMillin, S. (2006), The Musical as Drama, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Miller, S. (2007), Strike Up The Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Portsmouth:
Ridley, C. (2000), ‘Musical Version of Jane Eyre Finally Makes it to Broadway’, The
Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 December, p. E03.
Warhol, R. R. (1996), ‘Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette’, SEL:
Studies in English Literature, 1500 –1900, 36:4, pp. 857–75.

Suggested citation
Napolitano, M. (2008), ‘Hear Jane sing: narrative authority in two musical versions of
Jane Eyre’, Studies in Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 33–50, doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.33/1

Contributor details
Marc Napolitano is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently researching theatrical adaptations of
Dickens’ novels. Napolitano attended Villanova University as an undergraduate
and graduated summa cum laude in 2004. He remained at Villanova an additional
two years to attain his Master’s degree before accepting enrolment in UNC’s Ph.D.

50 Marc Napolitano
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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.51/1

Fiddler on the Roof: considerations in

a new age
Charles Eliot Mehler Louisiana State University

Abstract Keywords
Is the universal acclaim given to Fiddler on the Roof well earned? Or has Fiddler Fiddler
lost its power over its forty years of existence, owing to a more cynical, less Aleichem
sympathetic culture? Might this be especially true with respect to what was once musical theatre
perceived as Jewish oppression, and might now be seen as Jewish nostalgia and Jewish
arrogance? Such a lack of sympathy begs the further question: how legitimately Harnick
Jewish an experience has Fiddler offered to audiences, whether during the 1960s Bock
when it premiered or in the new millennium? We thus explore Fiddler on the Roof
as a cultural, literary and theatrical entity, especially in terms of the genuineness
of the Yiddishkeit experience the play has offered and might still offer.

I beg the reader’s indulgence as I present a short anecdote, the story of my
Uncle Joe blowing up and leaving my nephew Andrew’s bar mitzvah. To
make a very long story short, when names were announced for ceremonial
birthday cake cutting, Uncle Joe’s name had been left off the list. A man of
almost pure surface emotion, Uncle Joe (who passed on recently) blew up,
took Aunt Myrna and their daughters, and stormed out of the bar mitzvah,
creating a scene.
Owing to any number of other family crises that were playing them-
selves out at this catered affair in addition to Joe’s tirade, my partner
Scott, my aunt Evelyn, my Uncle Bernie and I decided we needed a short
breather from the tumult. We started walking through the halls of the
catering establishment hosting Andrew’s bar mitzvah, and came upon
a room adjacent to our celebration. In this room, we found a Filipino
wedding in full swing. But for the ethnicity of the participants and the absence
of a chupah (traditional Jewish wedding canopy), one might have mistaken
this for a Jewish wedding. To add to this sense of cross-cultural Yiddishkeit,
we watched as members of this Filipino wedding party broke into song:

Is this the little boy I carried?

Is this the little girl at play?
I don’t remember growing older.
When did they?

Having just survived Uncle Joe’s eruption among other family crises, the
four of us found this episode funny in near-Biblical proportion.

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1. For a more complete Such is often the reaction to Fiddler on the Roof among Jews, especially
discussion of less-
more secularized Jews, especially in recent years. That which was once a
reactions to the source of ethnic pride has become a source of kitsch humour. The sight of
original production otherwise innocent Filipinos singing Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s
of Fiddler on the Roof,
see Suskin 1990,
immortal ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ is the fodder for politically incorrect snickering.
pages 207–209. However, in thinking about this bar mitzvah incident more recently,
and especially in a scholarly sense, it occurs to me that the work of Messrs
Harnick and Bock struck so universal a chord among people the world
over that a little humour at their expense is to be expected. This begs the
question, is the universal acclaim given to Fiddler on the Roof well earned?
Or has Fiddler lost its power over its forty years of existence, owing to a
more cynical, less sympathetic culture? Might this be especially true with
respect to what was once perceived as Jewish oppression, and might now
be seen as Jewish nostalgia and arrogance? Such a lack of sympathy begs
the further question: how legitimately Jewish an experience has Fiddler
offered to audiences, whether during the 1960s when it premiered or in
the new millennium?
We thus explore Fiddler on the Roof as a cultural, literary and theatrical
entity, especially in terms of the genuineness of the Yiddishkeit experience
the play has offered and might still offer. We begin with journalistic reaction
to the original production that sets the tone for the possibility of Fiddler
being problematic. In contrast, reaction among musical theatre scholars
to Fiddler, which is generally positive if not glowing, is then considered. It then
becomes necessary to make reference to theoretical constructs questioning
the legitimacy of Fiddler as a cultural icon among American Jews, especially
Jews of the generations that followed the original production. This begs
comparison and contrast of the Tevye stories of Yiddish literary giant
Sholem Aleichem, upon which Fiddler is based, with the text of the play. In
the end, the question of Fiddler’s legitimacy as an icon in the annals of
musical theatre is vetted.

Reaction on the part of the New York theatre critics to the original 1964
production of Fiddler, while generally positive, was less than universally
enthusiastic. Typical of the nay-sayers was critic Walter Kerr of the Herald
Tribune, who wrote:

[Zero Mostel] is less Mother Courage than Father Complaint [ …] I think it

might have been an altogether charming musical if only the people of
Anatevka did not pause every now and then to give their regards to Broadway,
with remembrances to Herald Square. [The result] is a very-near-miss, and
I very much miss what it might have been.1
(Suskin 1990: 207)

Steven Suskin provides his own commentary, arguing that the material, par-
ticularly the score, of Fiddler is weak in comparison to the direction/choreog-
raphy and the stellar performance of Zero Mostel.
In reviewing the 2004 Alfred Molina revival of Fiddler on the Roof, New
York Times critic Ben Brantley used the epithet ‘McShtetl’ to describe what he
saw as a cold, calculating, ‘antiseptic’ attempt on the part of director David

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Leveaux to invoke an unearned sense of Yiddishkeit (Brantley 2004: E1, E3). 2. The Aleichem
translation that Ruth
Yet even with Brantley railing to the contrary, reviews of Broadway Wisse uses spells
revivals of Fiddler between 1964 and 2004, at least as far as theatre critics the name ‘Tsaytl’.
at The New York Times were concerned, would garner a more positive atti- Librettist Stein spells
it ‘Tzeitel’. Each is
tude toward the war-horse than those of the original. Upon the return of pronounced ‘ts-EYE-tl’.
Zero Mostel as Tevye in a 1976 revival, Clive Barnes wrote, ‘Everyone has I will use ‘Tsaytl’ to
a favorite musical. Mine, apart from [Verdi’s] Aida, is Fiddler on the Roof’ refer to the Aleichem
translation, and
(Barnes 1976: 12). In 1981, Richard Shepard wrote, ‘If you were a rich ‘Tzeitel’ to refer to
man, you couldn’t buy a better show than the joyous re-creation of Fiddler Stein. The same will
on the Roof ’ that featured Tevye #2 in the original 1964 run, Herschel be true for any other
inconsistency in
Bernardi, and the original Golde (Tevye’s wife), Tony-winner Maria spelling, such as
Karnilova (Shepard 1981: III, 3). In 1990, upon viewing the performance ‘Motl’ (Aleichem
of Chayim Topol, Tevye from the 1971 Norman Jewison film and the original translation) versus
‘Motel’ (Stein)
London cast, the Times’ Mel Gussow gushed, for Tevye’s first
daughter’s beloved.
The score liltingly evokes folk and liturgical strains while never losing sight
of the show’s obligations as a work of popular theater. Both the lyrics and
book convey Sholom Aleichem’s homespun philosophies. The musical has a
seamless fluidity, songs flowing into story into dance. Even the settings seem
to dance as Tevye’s cottage swirls in time to the music and as, in the song
‘Sabbath Prayer’, the skies are lined with an aurora borealis of families light-
ing candles.
(Gussow 1990: 13)

Until the 2004 revival, time would seem to have treated Fiddler on the Roof
well at least as reflected by these New York Times reviews. But not only had
these end-of-millennium critics at the Times become aficionados of Fiddler;
musical theatre history scholars would wax eloquently as well. Musical
theatre historian Richard Kislan, in discussing the primacy of the book in
the modern musical, points to the Tzeitel-Motel2 wedding scene.

The use of ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ [presents] a sentimental song of graceful lyrics

and pleasing melody, one that would stand out in any score of any musical
comedy. What distinguishes the song in its musical play is context, universal
sentiment particularized in the specific dramatic situation of the pogrom.
How the musical play uses a song adds the layers of dramatic intensity that
give dignity to the theatrical moment. The song in its deft context goes deep
into audience emotion, finds the human spirit and caresses it. We are made
to feel deeply, even cry. Yet we are grateful. On some deep and satisfying
level, we have been engaged.
(Kislan 1995: 174–5)

And yet we must ask: is it the purpose of theatre to tap into what some
might consider shallow sentimentality, or must the theatre be a force of
revolution against such silliness and old fashion? For those who would
defend Fiddler, such sentimentality is far from shallow, and goes directly to
the depth of who we are as human beings. Fiddler, as a prototype for the
entirety of musical theatre, shuns the postmodern, post-human construct,
opting instead for a paradigm in which human emotion is the source of
true human dignity.

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In terms of craft, Kislan points to the miniscule scene in which third

daughter Chava falls in love with her gentile. ‘No better example of economy
and clarity exists in the modern musical book than the critical scene [ …]
where Fyedka connects with Chava in Motel’s tailor shop [ … ] In less than
a page of dialogue, librettist Joseph Stein (1) makes two people fall in love
and (2) sets in motion the mechanics for the plot’s denouement’ (Kislan
1995: 181–2).
Mark N. Grant provides further positive argument in favour of Fiddler
as an icon of the art of musical theatre, this time from the direction of
music, movement, and artistic synthesis. In discussing the work of noted
Broadway musical director Lehman Engel, Grant writes, ‘Engel invented
the idea that Broadway had an equivalent of what classical music has
referred to as a “common-practice period”. The classical music common-
practice period of masterpieces runs roughly from Mozart to Brahms (defi-
nitions vary). For Engel the Broadway common-practice period was from
Pal Joey (1940) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964)’ (Grant 2004: 80). Though
one might disagree with Engel’s choice of endpoints, a great compliment is
paid to Fiddler composer Jerry Bock.
More important to Grant is Fiddler’s service to the Wagnerian ideal of
Gesamtkuntzwerk, the integration of words, music, design and movement
into a unified piece of art. This ideal would be fostered in the so-called
‘golden age’ of musical theatre by Oscar Hammerstein II, and followed by his
disciples, notably Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Alan Jay Lerner.
In discussing the end of the career of Fiddler auteur, director-choreographer
Jerome Robbins, Grant writes,

Robbins’s retirement from the Broadway stage with Fiddler on the Roof in
1964 was the watershed. The more powerful that directors and director-
choreographers became after the watershed, the more they pursued the
direction of conceptual showmanship and abandoned the playwriting chore-
ography of de Mille and Robbins. Conceptual showman directors sit their
concepts on top of the book like oil on water. [ … ] After the mid-1960s not
only did the book matter less but [ … ] the music and lyrics also became less
important. [ …] The organic link between text and movement – which was
what had made the high-water American musical different from the light
musical theatre of other nations – was sundered for good.
(Grant 2004: 279)

In sum, not only is Fiddler on the Roof a great piece of playwriting – as

Kislan argues – but it also represents, according to Grant, the last of what
would become a dying breed: the integrated book show, where the inte-
gration of plot, music and stagecraft was more important than any of its
component parts.

Like any artistic endeavour that has become a mass cultural phenomenon,
the larger-than-life entity we have come to know over the past forty years as
Fiddler on the Roof comes complete with its own argument and counter-
argument. Let us deal with the counter-argument first. Simply stated, that
argument contends that the American cultural upheaval of the mid-to-late

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twentieth century, commonly referred to as the rise of the ‘counter-culture’, 3. In revealing her
attitude on the
perhaps makes Fiddler, once relevant to a Jewish community striving to conflict in the Middle
throw off the yokes of old-world oppression, no longer as compelling to a East, Solomon says,
modern generation of Jews. Village Voice commentator Alisa Solomon ‘[T]he image of
Jewish powerlessness
describes resentment against Fiddler by the postmodern community plainly represented – even
and succinctly when she invokes the hallowed attitude taken towards the celebrated – in Fiddler
production of the play with respect to following its long-established recipe. was turned on its
head only three years
A so-called ‘bible’ exists, controlling all production values from here to after the musical’s
eternity, for all major productions of the play. Solomon puts it bluntly in an debut, when Israel
‘eleventh commandment’: ‘Don’t fuck with Fiddler’ (Solomon 2004). captured the West
Bank, the Gaza Strip,
Comparable to the sight of a Filipino family performing ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ and other territories’
as part of a wedding celebration, Solomon describes a world far removed (Solomon 2004).
from the original motivation for Fiddler, in conflict with this eleventh com- 4. In this speech, Brooks
mandment. This brave new world has witnessed what Solomon calls said, in part, ‘Behind
Jewish ‘aggression’ in the Middle East,3 matched by prayers for Palestinian me [ …] you see
a phalanx, an
freedom at Passover seders. What was once anathema and sacrilege, a les- avalanche, of Jews
bian wedding performed under the chupah, is now nearly commonplace, who have come with
especially in the large cities with large concentrations of theatre-going their talent, their
money, but most of all
Jews in which professional companies perform Fiddler. In contrast, argues their spirit and their
Solomon, Fiddler would seem to come from an age in which Jews were still love for the theater
fighting World War II and the Nazis. Like Mel Brooks’ ‘phalanx of Jews’ [ …] And that’s what
brings us all together
speech at the 2001 Tony Awards ceremony,4 Solomon implies that Fiddler tonight. We all love
on the Roof was a victory celebration over Hitler’s attempt to invoke a ‘final this thing called
solution’. But even Brooks’ 2001 mega-hit, The Producers, pays homage to, theater’ (Tallmer
then circumnavigates, Fiddler. Solomon comments on the anti-nostalgic
comparison between the two plays.

Nowadays, ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ is sampled into hip-hop tunes, and a block
away […], The Producers blows a raspberry to Fiddler. As the chorus vine-
steps across the stage and violins saw away, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock
throws his arms toward the heavens, tilts his head back, and jiggles his belly.
He then shoves away the image of Tevye (and of Zero Mostel, who also origi-
nated the role of Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s 1968 film) with a get-outta-here
wave of his hand. Of course the gag also pays homage. You can’t kick up a
goose-stepping can-can to ‘Springtime for Hitler’ without first bidding a
tuneful farewell to ‘underfed, overworked Anatevka’.
(Solomon 2004)

Nor is the middle-class Jewish theatre audience that Mel Brooks patiently
mocks in The Producers the Jewish community that Terrence McNally,
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty describe in the 1998 musical adapta-
tion of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime: penniless immigrants, oppressed by capi-
talism and in need of liberation by the likes of Emma Goldman. ‘The
grandchildren of Tevye’, comments Solomon, ‘no longer dream of becoming
rich men (and women) in “a big tall house with rooms by the dozen”. In
vast numbers, they’re there’ (Solomon 2004).
Worse yet, Solomon makes compelling arguments that Fiddler is an
ersatz experience in cultural Judaism. Rather than focus on the real prob-
lems of the Jews of czarist Russia, Fiddler becomes an anthem to the
American dream, and takes on strongly historically progressive overtones.

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5. A virtually identical [Fiddler] succeeded, writes the Yiddish literary scholar Seth Wolitz, because it
article, ‘Shtetl Shtick’, was able to ‘fill the needs of Jewish cultural adaptation’. Imposing enormous
by the New Republic’s
Ruth Franklin, would changes on the plot and tone of the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was
appear in The New based, Fiddler made what Wolitz calls ‘a gigantic substitution’: American
York Times of Sunday, ideals of individual rights, progress, and freedom of association were presented
29 February 2004.
Franklin adds to as also Jewish – except that in Anatevka they were thwarted by oppression.
Solomon’s criticism In the golden land of America [ … ] these Jewish values would at last find full
the idea that expression.
Aleichem was a
bourgeois stockbroker (Solomon 2004)
from Kiev, himself
perhaps guilty of In contrast to the tragedy, dark comedy and pathos of the original
trying to invent a
Jewish milieu that Aleichem stories, Fiddler would seem to offer a mere shadow of the true
had already begun to oppression the residents of any real Anatevka would have faced. Solomon
disappear when he compares the Anatevka of book-writer Stein, lyricist Harnick and com-
wrote his stories.
poser Bock to Brigadoon, Lerner and Loewe’s mythical, Disneyfied Scottish
city, the setting of the musical play of the same name. So Fiddler might be
seen as a Yiddishkeit experience of dubious value, to be avoided at all costs
by anyone with a serious concern with Jewish culture. ‘Many more
American Jews’, says Solomon, ‘know the words to Fiddler’s curtain-raiser,
“Tradition”, than know the prayers and practices that once constituted
that tradition’ (Solomon 2004). In the 1980s, comedian Bill Cosby offered
America an African American grandfather image which America
accepted. In a similar vein, Fiddler ‘offered everybody [ … ] the zeyde
(grandfather) they’d like to think they would have had’ (Jeffrey Shandler
quoted in Solomon 2004). In the end, like the musical itself, Solomon
remains hopeful: ‘I like to think’, says Solomon in conclusion, ‘that the
nostalgia Fiddler stirs up today is more salutary – speaking to Jewish
yearning for the more liberal and expansive ethos that once defined us. [ …]
I, for one, fully expect to [sing along at the upcoming revival]. And to have
a good cry’ (Solomon 2004). One would imagine that Solomon’s tears would
be both tears mourning the loss of a culture, as well as tears celebrating
Jewish survival.5

In considering both Solomon’s counter-argument against and the argu-
ment in favour of Fiddler on the Roof, one must consider the musical play in
terms of both its theatrical and literary roots. Let us first, then, deal with
Fiddler as a piece of theatre. Specifically, let us deal with Fiddler as a piece
of theatre that is of primary importance to American Jews.
In the early part of the twentieth century in America, gentile
Americans came to find themselves in greater day-to-day contact with
Jewish immigrants and their children. This created the need to deal with a
new reality, a reality which no one had had to face in the ‘old countries’ of
Europe – the novelty and import of the American Jew as fully-functioning cit-
izen. Thus there would be an inevitable transition in theatre of the portrayal
of the stock Jewish character from sinister caricature to something less
threatening. In discussing the transition between the portrayal of the Jews
as a ‘sheeny villain’ (Erdman 1997: 37) to something more in keeping
with this newly found place in the world, Harley Erdman creates a con-
struct based in popular song lyric. ‘“For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”’, writes

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Erdman, ‘usefully serves [as] a symbolic cultural test that Jewish men –
that is, Jewish male characters – had to pass as they tried to perform as
themselves as Americans in this moment of transition’ (Erdman 1997: 64).
Erdman examines each critical word in the lyric – ‘jolly’, ‘good’, and
‘fellow’ – and determines that these words served as a sort of litmus test
for the Jew in the process of assimilating into American life (Erdman
1997: 64–5). This Jew, particularly the male Jew, had to be affable, of high
moral standing, and ready to take on the responsibilities of citizenship.
And so it is with the Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof. Like Solomon’s zeyde
reference, the Tevye that book-writer Stein creates is at once a friend, a
spiritual advisor, and someone we would trust as a judge in a courtroom.
This ‘jolly good fellow’ Tevye would prove to be a metaphor for the
upwardly-mobile Jewish community of mid-twentieth-century America
that came to know Stein, Harnick and Bock’s Tevye in over 3000 perfor-
mances on Broadway. The importance of this identification to the World
War II generation cannot be overstated.
As mentioned earlier, Fiddler on the Roof is based on the ‘Tevye’ stories
of Yiddish-language author Sholem Aleichem. In a lecture at Syracuse
University in 1979, Ruth Wisse summed up Aleichem’s important place in
the annals of Yiddish folk literature.

One of [Aleichem’s] admirers, the Hebrew writer, Y. Ch. Brenner, said that
Sholem Aleichem was not a folk writer, nor even the folk writer; he had
transcended all literary genres to become ‘the living essence of the folk
itself ’. A generation later, the Soviet Yiddish critic, I. Dobrushin, wrote
with much the same enthusiasm that Sholem Aleichem’s works were actu-
ally ‘life itself; his works transgress the boundaries separating literature
from life’.
(Wisse 1979: 1)

Wisse continues by discussing Aleichem’s gift for keeping his characters,

here specifically Tevye, in a state of mystery while the audience, aware of
what Tevye will face, remains compelled by the force of the narrative,
using what Wisse calls the ‘literary sport of recognition’ (Wisse 1979: 4).
Most importantly, Wisse points out the significance of Tevye and his com-
munication with his daughters. This would become the basis of the dra-
matic conflict when Aleichem’s stories were adapted to the musical stage
by Stein, Bock and Harnick.

With Tsaytl, the eldest daughter, Tevye engages in full-bodied discussions of

their differences. [ … ] At first Tevye tries to impose his own traditional
Jewish ideals of status, but when he gives way, he argues himself down in the
very same words that the young couple has used against him. [ … ] The fact
that Tevye has no semantic difficulty in understanding this daughter is a
sign of their relative cultural proximity. But with Hodl, the second daughter,
the cultural distance grows. From Tevye’s first encounter with Feferl, the
revolutionary on the road, to the final leave-taking from Hodl when she goes
off to join her husband in Siberian exile, there is a gap of understanding that
no amount of affection can bridge. [ … ] The pathos increases in ratio to the
threat that each daughter poses. With the third daughter, Chava, all

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6. For lack of a better communication is severed. Chava’s decision to marry a non-Jew necessitates
translation, one might her conversion to Christianity. At this point, the very act of speaking to his
describe the shlamazzle
as a ‘goofball’. One daughter would imply a measure of acceptance that would undermine
might look to Art Tevye’s essential being.
Carney’s ‘Ed Norton’ (Wisse 1979: 11–13)
character from the
Honeymooners televi-
sion show for an It is in these stories of Tevye and his daughters that we find the organic
appropriate modern, link between Fiddler and the great Aleichem. Stein’s book for Fiddler avoids
goyischer comparison.
much of the racier, more blatantly worldly detail of Aleichem’s original,
7. See footnote 5. such as discussions of matters of sexuality and Tevye’s near-constant
desire to be plied with alcohol by his social superiors. In fact, Solomon is
correct when she argues that Stein’s Tevye is substantially more heroic,
less of, in Aleichem’s words, a shlamazzle6 than Aleichem’s original creation.
Nevertheless, it is this choice on Stein’s part to focus on the loss of Tevye’s
daughters from the Jewish tradition to the modern, secular world that
makes Fiddler as effective as it is.
Wisse would seem to agree that this need for Jewish cultural continuity
was as important to Aleichem himself as it was to either the lackadaisical
Tevye of his original stories or the heroic Tevye of Stein’s libretto. In describ-
ing the end of Aleichem’s life and his posthumous wishes, Wisse writes:

While allowing his children whatever religious convictions they may or may
not [have held], he [bid] them remain Jews. ‘Those of my children who cut
themselves free from their roots and cross over to another faith have thereby
severed themselves from their roots and from their family, and erased them-
selves from my will, and they shall have no share or portion among their
(Wisse 1979: 27)

Thus, there exists a clear comparison between Stein’s Tevye and Aleichem
himself. As Tevye in Fiddler walks offstage with his milk-buggy and all his
worldly possessions, he is bound for America, hopeful for his new life, yet
unwilling to compromise his roots. As Aleichem walks off into eternity,
encumbered only by his literary legacy, he is bound for his reward, hopeful
that he has done well in the world, but unwilling to deal with those of his
progeny who choose to reject their roots.

In his text that reproduces and comments upon critics’ reviews of original
Broadway productions (see Walter Kerr’s ‘Father Complaint’ review supra),
Suskin provides a ‘scorecard’ for each play mentioned. In Suskin’s ‘score-
card’, the original 1964 Fiddler received two ‘rave’ reviews and four ‘favor-
able’ ones (Suskin 1990: 210). Let us create a more rigorous scorecard for
the now older, presumably wiser Fiddler. First, let us consider Fiddler as
‘shtetl shtick’.7 Not only does the play perhaps pay more homage to its
musical theatre roots than to its part in the promotion of Yiddishkeit cul-
ture, it plays more to a sense of American progressiveness than to the real
feelings and yearnings of those who would be victims of czarist pogroms.
Next, let us consider Fiddler as the last vestige of the Golden Age of the
Broadway musical. As critics Grant and Kislan argue, Fiddler was perhaps

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the zenith of the Gesamtkuntzwerk style of musical theatre, as fostered by

Oscar Hammerstein II and his disciples.
Being in love with the musical theatre reminds one of the lyric from
Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat (1927): ‘Tell me he’s lazy – / tell me he’s
slow – / Tell me I’m crazy – / maybe I know’ (Hammerstein: 23). One can
love Fiddler on the Roof and still accept its faults, especially those of the
intellectual variety. Fiddler is not the perfect reflection of Aleichem’s original
intent. Yet it stands on its own to promote Aleichem’s primary purpose –
the continuation of a great and glorious culture. We can perhaps look at a
play like Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and accept
the idea that Stella Kowalski capitulates to Stanley’s crudeness and vio-
lence as a vestige of a long-past time. Both in terms of mid-twentieth-century
Jewish-American culture and the cultural revolution that would follow, we
might consider extending the same privilege to Fiddler on the Roof.

Works cited
Barnes, C. (1976), ‘Celebrating Return of Fiddler’, The New York Times, 30 December.
Brantley, B. (2004), ‘A Cozy Little McShtetl’, The New York Times, 27 February.
Erdman, H. (1997), Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity,
1860–192, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Franklin, R. (2004), ‘Shtetl Shtick’, The New York Times, 29 February.
Grant, M. N. (2004), The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, Boston:
Northeastern University Press.
Gussow, M. (1990), ‘Fiddler Returns with a Heritage of its Own’, The New York
Times, 19 November.
Hammerstein II, O. and Kern, J. (n.d.), ‘“Showboat”: a Musical Play in Two Acts’,
London: Chappell & Co. Ltd.
Kislan, R. (1995), The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theatre, New York:
Applause Books.
Shepard, R. (1981), ‘Stage: “Fiddler on the Roof ”’, The New York Times, 10 July.
Solomon, A. (2004), ‘Fiddling with Fiddler: Can the Broadway Revival of Everyone’s
Favorite Jewish Musical Ignore Today’s Radically Different Cultural Context?’,
Village Voice, 13 January, www.villagevoice.com/issues/0403/solomon.php.
Accessed 16 April 2008.
Suskin, S. (1990), Opening Night on Broadway, New York: Schirmer Books.
Tallmer, J. (2001), ‘Springtime for the Six Million at the Tony Awards’, New York
Theatre Wire, http://www.nytheatre-wire.com/jt01061t.htm. Accessed 16 April
Wisse, R. (1979), Sholem Aleichem and the Art of Communication, [B.G. Rudolph
Lectures in Judaic Studies ], Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University.

Suggested citation
Mehler, C. E. (2008), ‘Fiddler on the Roof: considerations in a new age’, Studies in
Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 51–60, doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.51/1

Contributor details
Charles Eliot Mehler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theatre at
Louisiana State University. Mehler’s previous publications include the articles
‘Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars’ (2005), ‘Mamet, Homosexuality, and Chicago

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Politics’ (2004), and a review of Jessica Sternfeld’s The Megamusical for Studies in
Musical Theatre (2007). As a playwright, Mehler has written a musical adaptation
of Shaw’s Major Barbara entitled Wealth, and How Not to Avoid It (2004) and the
original musical Poster Children (1992), as well as the non-musical play Flip-Flop
(2004). As a lyricist, Mehler has contributed to Hard Road (2002) and Downtown
(2007). As a translator, Mehler has written verse translations of Molière’s Critique
of the School for Wives and Impromptu at Versailles (both 2006) and Alfred Jarry’s
Ubu roi (2005). In addition, Mehler holds degrees in mathematics and teaches it to
gifted children online.

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.61/1

Representation of Clytemnestra and

Cassandra in Taneyev’s Oresteia
Anastasia Belina University of Leeds

Abstract Keywords
Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915) was a Muscovite, a piano virtuoso, music theorist, Taneyev
composer, and pedagogue. He was a pupil and later a close friend of Tchaikovsky, Oresteia
and a teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Glier and Gretchaninov, among Aeschylus
a host of other Russian composers. Taneyev was also known for his passionate Clytemnestra
interest in Greek antiquity, in the early music of the Netherlands, and in counter- Cassandra
point. The choice for the subject of his one and only opera Oresteia (1894),1 based
on the eponymous tragedy by Aeschylus, perplexed its critics and audiences.2
While Aeschylus made a number of changes in his The Oresteia that challenged
the established perception of its characters, Taneyev’s changes and additions were
necessary in order to combat his listeners’ lack of familiarity with the tragedy and
its storyline. This article concentrates on Taneyev’s treatment of women’s roles
and explores the ways in which Taneyev’s Clytemnestra and Cassandra are similar
to, and different from their counterparts in the original source. The important
changes and additions made by Taneyev are analysed and set in the context of the
nineteenth-century Russian operatic scene.

Taneyev’s Oresteia, based on the eponymous tragedy of Aeschylus 1. The title of Aeschylus’
(525/4–456/5 BC), was composed between 1882 and 1894. It sharply The Oresteia appears in
Russian as Oresteia,
contrasted with the operas that appeared during this twelve-year period: because the definite
Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa (1884), Charodeika [Enchantress] (1887), Pikovaya article does not exist in
Dama [Queen of Spades] (1890), Iolanta (1892); Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina Russian. This article
will therefore refer to
in Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition (1886); Borodin’s Prince Igor (1890); Rimsky- Taneyev’s opera as
Korsakov’s Mlada (1891), Snegurochka, Noch pered Rozhdestvom [Christmas Oresteia, and the
Eve] (1895); and Rachmaninov’s Aleko (1893). Apart from Iolanta, all these original work of
Aeschylus as The
works were inspired by Pushkin’s dramas, Russian fairytales or history. Oresteia.
When viewed in the context of other Russian operatic works composed
2. For a detailed
at the end of the nineteenth century, Taneyev’s Oresteia is thus something discussion of antiquity
of an anomaly – a forgotten, under-performed work that baffled both critics in Russian literature,
and audiences. According to Tchaikovsky, only ‘real, living people, feeling music and art, see
Korabelnikova 1986:
in the same way as I do’ were able to appeal to audiences (Zhdanov 1951: 101–109, and
169).3 Accordingly, Tchaikovsky told Taneyev: ‘I would not have chosen Korabelnikova 1979:
such a subject as yours, with terrible atrocities, with the Eumenides and 83–92.
Fate as characters’ (Zhdanov 1951: 169). 3. All translations from
But while Tchaikovsky indeed chose subjects with ‘real, living’ characters, Russian sources
belong to the present
Aeschylus’ The Oresteia was a natural choice for Taneyev, who had become author, unless stated
interested in ancient Greek history and literature at a young age. His otherwise.

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4. Taneyev’s choice also father’s passion for Greek tragedy ignited Taneyev’s own interest in vari-
reflected the stance of
Russian revolutionary-
ous aspects of ancient history that became his lifetime pursuit. When he
democratic criticism found a Russian translation of The Oresteia in 1882 in a bookstore, he thought
of the last decades that the second part, The Libation Bearers, would make a good subject for an
of the nineteenth
century, which
opera, and began composing (Korabelnikova 1985: 175). The myth of The
‘discovered in Oresteia appealed to Taneyev because it gave him an opportunity to graft
Ancient Greece his own beliefs onto Aeschylus’ story.4 The final scene of Oresteia shows
characteristics of
ideal social order’
Taneyev’s attempt to promote forgiveness and equality: Taneyev’s Athena
(Korabelnikova 1979: pardons Orestes because his suffering and repentance earned him freedom
100). One of the from guilt, and the closing chorus concerns ‘love of man for man’ and
most important
characteristics of this
‘pity’. Aeschylus’ Athena pardons Orestes because she is biased in favour
kind of order was the of the male:
right of every citizen
to appeal to and take
In everything I’m for the male with all my heart (except I would not marry
part in civil court.
one); I am the true child of my father Zeus. And so I will not give a greater
status to a woman’s death who killed the man, the guardian of the house.
(Aeschylus 1995: 740)

Taneyev himself had no prejudice against gender: he treated both sexes

equally, with his usual politeness, and he did not leave any evidence that
might have pointed to the contrary. Among his closest friends were three
sisters: Anna, Sophia and Varvara Maslov, as well as their two brothers,
and during his last year as the Director of the Moscow Conservatory he
helped appoint a woman, Alexandra Ivanovna Hubert, to the post of the
inspector. He even had to convince her when she voiced her doubts and
mentioned that it would be strange for a woman to hold such a post.
Taneyev wrote to Tchaikovsky:

Apropos Alexandra Ivanovna’s argument that it would be strange to appoint a

woman to this post, I say that in the past it might have been indeed strange,
but not now, when there are women doctors, academics, professors, and so on.
(Zhdanov 1951: 161)

Taneyev made sure that Hubert would have strong supporters in the con-
servatory, and enlisted Tchaikovsky’s help in convincing Alexandra
Ivanovna to accept the post, to which she finally agreed.

After the premiere

After Oresteia’s premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in
1895, the critics decided that Taneyev’s work enjoyed some close relation
to that of Aeschylus: ‘[Aeschylus] wrote in dead language, and [Taneyev]
wrote a dead opera’ (Anon. 1895b). One critic concluded that there was
no reason in ‘bringing back the dead in order to put to sleep those who are
still living’ (Anon. 1895a). Many reviewers agreed that Taneyev’s musical
language was plain and unmemorable, with the exception of the choral
scenes, which they found melodically rich and interesting. But many of
these reviewers were not prominent or even professional musicians, and
while they found the music of Oresteia lacking in memorable melodies,
many of Taneyev’s colleagues had different opinions. Thus, Rimsky-
Korsakov wrote after hearing Taneyev play the opera on the piano at his

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house in St Petersburg that he ‘astonished us all with pages of extraordinary 5. The translation by
Michael Ewans has
beauty and expressiveness’ (Rimsky-Korsakov 1935: 323). Tchaikovsky, been used throughout
although he did not approve of the subject for Taneyev’s Oresteia, never- this article. It was
theless admired the work so much that in 1893 he convinced the found to be most
appropriate because
Directorate of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg to produce it at the it attempted to make
Mariinsky Theatre (Zhdanov 1951: 188). A music critic and composer, the tragedy more
Herman Larosh, a friend and colleague of both Tchaikovsky and Taneyev, accessible and
suitable for the
wrote that the music of Oresteia was ‘noble, delicate, rich in beautiful modern stage, and it
melodies’, and that it suited very well ‘the character of his chosen story is also one of the most
and reflects all its nuances with wonderful truthfulness and warmth’ recent translations in
existence (see Ewans
(Larosh 1974–78: 345). Thus, many members of the professional com- in Aeschylus
munity were far from believing that Taneyev’s opera lacked in musical 1995: xv).
invention and interest. 6. Agamemnon’s father,
Aeschylus created his trilogy for an audience that knew several ver- Atreus, killed his own
sions of the myth, but he introduced a number of important changes and nephews, and fed
their flesh to their
innovations in his own version. Michael Ewans discusses these changes in father, and his
detail, listing among the most important a move away from Homer’s ‘all- brother, Thyestes.
too-feminine Clytemnestra’, who was ‘chaste and at first unwilling’, and
who was seduced by Aegysthus into helping him kill Agamemnon, to a
‘strong, masculine-inspired Clytemnestra who does the murder herself ’
(Ewans in Aeschylus 1995: xxviii–xxix).5 Greek history and Greek and
Latin were among the obligatory subjects in nineteenth-century Russian
universities, and many translations of philosophical and literary works
from Greek appeared in various academic journals and publications of the
time. However, none were of considerable merit, and many were of poor
quality. I. F. Annensky published the first important translation of Greek
tragedy, Euripides’ The Bacchae in 1894, the year in which Taneyev com-
pleted his Oresteia. The works of Aeschylus were not well known, and only
one Russian translation of The Oresteia existed when Taneyev began his
work on the opera (Aeschylus 1864).
Taneyev’s listeners were much less acquainted with the tragedy, and
some of his changes were necessitated by this lack of familiarity with the
story. For example, while Aeschylus does not refer to Clytemnestra’s intent
to kill Agamemnon until after his return (Aeschylus 1995: 34), Taneyev’s
audience learned of her decision before Agamemnon came back.
Aeschylus’ Aegysthus enters the stage after Agamemnon’s death, but
Taneyev’s Aegysthus appears before Agamemnon’s arrival. Aegysthus’
early entry in the opera allowed Taneyev to develop his role, by giving
Aegysthus a monologue in which he disclosed another part of the history
of the house of Atreus – Thyestes’ feast.6 Taneyev’s Clytemnestra tells the
audience about the sacrificial murder of her daughter Iphigenia, while in
the original tragedy, the event is recounted by the Elders.
This article aims to explore the ways in which the female roles of
Clytemnestra and Cassandra in Taneyev’s Oresteia compare and relate to
their counterparts in Aeschylus’ version, and attempts to show how these
women fit into the general context of the nineteenth-century Russian opera.
Musical analysis here will be contextual and descriptive, to illustrate how the
music supported and enhanced the portrayal of these two characters.
Taneyev’s Oresteia is a three-act opera and the acts are named accord-
ing to the corresponding parts of Aeschylus’ tragedy: Agamemnon, The

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7. Foley lists further Libation Bearers, and Choephoroe. In addition to the central female roles of
sources on discussion
of female-male
Clytemnestra and Cassandra that are discussed here, there are also those
conflict in the of Electra and the goddess Athena, and women, of course, form a part of the
Oresteia: Zeitlin chorus.
1978, Gagarin
1976: 87–110, and
1983: 101–31.
Clytemnestra in Agamemnon
Helene Foley described Clytemnestra as ‘the most infamous of Greek stage
wives’ (Foley 2001: 201); Edith Hall characterized her as ‘a murderer, an
androgyne, a liar, and orator, and executor of a palace coup’ (Hall 2005:
53–4), while Sally MacEwen thought that ‘of all the women in ancient
Greek literature, Clytemnestra seems to have been the most interesting
(MacEwen 1990: 3). It is fascinating that Clytemnestra is perceived by
many as even more infamous than Medea, who committed the graver sin
of killing her own children.
Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra possesses masculine qualities, and is compared
to a strong animal. When she informs the Elders that Agamemnon is coming
back victorious, they remark that she speaks ‘graciously and wisely, like a
man’ (Aeschylus 1995: 12), and Cassandra calls Clytemnestra a ‘double-
footed lioness’ (Aeschylus 1995: 38). Foley wrote that ‘The Oresteia evolves
dramatically as a male-female conflict and tensions between the genders
are explicit throughout’, and that the tragedy ‘offers the climactic female
challenge to a masculine system of justice, language, and ethics’ (Foley
2001: 203).7 Clytemnestra tore apart the moral fabric of civilization by
delivering revenge on Agamemnon. She thus took on a male role, further
insulting the patriarchal system by replacing Agamemnon as ruler of
Argos (MacEwen 1990: 29).
After Agamemnon’s murder, Clytemnestra comes out to the Elders to
explain that she killed him because ‘He took my own child [that] I brought
up, my much-lamented Iphigenia, and for what he did unjustly to her he
now suffers justice’ (Aeschylus 1995: 46). The Elders ignore her state-
ment, and their reply shows that a wife who kills her husband was per-
ceived as committing a greater crime than a father who butchers his
innocent daughter: ‘Who will lament him? Who will bury him?’
(Aeschylus 1995: 47). Clytemnestra tells the Elders that she will bury
Agamemnon herself, and that Iphigenia will ‘embrace and kiss her father
lovingly’ when he crosses ‘the swiftly flowing stream of tears’ (Aeschylus
1995: 47). Perhaps Aeschylus shows Clytemnestra’s caring side here: she
does not want to destroy the relationship between father and daughter in
the afterlife, despite Agamemnon having robbed Iphigenia of her life in
this world so mercilessly. But Clytemnestra does not regret the murder and
she stands by her decision.
Aeschylus deemed Agamemnon’s choice ‘impious and unholy and
impure’, and his thoughts ‘reckless’. His verdict on Agamemnon’s deed read:
‘shameful are the counsels of that wretched mania which gives men courage
to embark upon a chain of miseries’ (Aeschylus 1995: 220). Here, Aeschylus
clearly tells his audience that Agamemnon’s choice was wrong, and that it
brought a curse and further tragedies on the house of Atreus. While
Aeschylus shows the process of Iphigenia’s sacrifice and her father’s moral

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dilemma, Clytemnestra does not deliberate: she acts. The question of choice
between avenging her daughter and killing her husband does not come into
the equation, and her conviction and drive for revenge are unshakable.
Aeschylus counted on his audience’s previous knowledge of the
tragedy. Agamemnon’s imminent murder would be in the minds of the
spectators, and thus Clytemnestra’s chaste words about her faithfulness
would intensify the feeling of duality and deceit. Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra
is openly audacious. She sends a messenger to Agamemnon to tell him
that when he comes back;

he will find a faithful wife

just as he left her, watchdog of the house,
loyal to him, an enemy to those who wish
him harm, and as she was in every way; through all
this time she’s broken not one seal.
Of pleasure from another man, or rumoured scandal,
I know less than how to temper bronze.
Such is my boast; brimful of truth -
and one a noble woman may proclaim without disgrace.
(Aeschylus 1995: 19)

In fact, she openly challenges those around her, but they do not pick up
the gauntlet that she throws to them. It shows the respect and, perhaps,
the fear that she commands over the people.
Taneyev’s Clytemnestra enters the stage as a faithful wife, rejoicing at
the thought of seeing her husband again. The news of the king’s return
has reached Argos, and the slaves are carrying the corpses of sacrificed
animals, flowers, incense, and singing ‘Glory to Zeus’. Clytemnestra enters
with the words ‘Oh powerful, mighty god, Zeus the protector of wedlock,
the judge of the sinful, accept our gifts of gratitude’, which are nothing
more than hypocrisy - she has not been faithful to her husband, and she
will soon kill him (Taneyev 1900: 23–24). The gratitude she expresses to
Zeus is for bringing Agamemnon back alive, so that she can have the plea-
sure of killing him herself. Thus, her words are charged with a hidden
meaning, but outwardly she still appears as a wife who is ready to greet
her husband after a ten-year absence.
Taneyev’s Clytemnestra tells the people about the imminent return of
Agamemnon, and they rejoice at this welcome news. Taneyev removed
even the slightest suggestion of the power struggle between her and the
Elders (or the people, in the case of this opera), which is present in
Aeschylus (1995: 10–12). This Clytemnestra is an authority whose words
are accepted without doubt; she is the queen, the woman who looked after
her people during her husband’s absence and in whom they trust.

Clytemnestra and her men

Taneyev used music as a descriptive tool that shows Clytemnestra as a loving
woman in one case, and a hating, vengeful wife in another. Two examples
will be discussed here, in both of which Clytemnestra greets her men on
stage, and in both cases these are their first entries. To Aegysthus she sings:
‘Oh my Aegysthus, my love, the dawn of our bliss is rising’ (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Clytemnestra’s greeting to Aegysthus. Act 1, scene 4.8

8. All musical examples Clytemnestra’s musical characterization here is lavish and sensuous;
in this article are her vocal line is accompanied by the entire violin and woodwind sections,
taken from Taneyev
1900. which help illustrate her loving words to Aegysthus, and show the audi-
ence her caring side. Clytemnestra’s greeting to Agamemnon is strikingly
different: it is sparsely accompanied by a single chord progression in the
strings unison (see Figure 2).
While Clytemnestra’s vocal line is measured and calm, the chords that
accompany her line are unevenly placed, as if reflecting her nervous antic-
ipation of Agamemnon’s execution. Faking her happiness at seeing
Agamemnon, Clytemnestra proceeds to lead him inside the palace, inviting
him to walk on the rich red fabric. Her vocal line becomes recitative-like,
accompanied only by the string’s tremolando. When the king begins his
entrance to the palace, Clytemnestra quietly sings: ‘Let this path, red as

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Figure 2: Clytemnestra’s greeting to Agamemnon. Act 1, scene 7.

blood, be the last path you take’ (Taneyev 1900: 95). Even without her
words, the funeral-like, sinister music would be enough to show that
Agamemnon is embarking on his last walk (see Figure 3).
When Clytemnestra announces Agamemnon’s death to the people, she
appears joyous, victorious and satisfied. She recounts exactly how she
killed Agamemnon, and how his blood ‘sprinkled her as if it were heavenly
dew’ (Taneyev 1900: 129–130). The process of Clytemnestra’s talking
and thinking about murder is different in Aeschylus’ tragedy. There she
talks about it in great length and detail, describing every blow she delivered
to her husband’s body, and even derives sexual pleasure from the act of
murder. Taneyev’s Clytemnestra, although overjoyed at exacting revenge
for her murdered daughter, treats Agamemnon’s own murder strictly as a
necessity, and any satisfaction she receives originates from an accom-
plished deed, rather than the process of killing itself. The sexual element is
completely absent not only from this aspect of Clytemnestra’s characteri-
zation, but from the whole opera as well, no doubt because of the out-
wardly conservative morality of nineteenth-century Russia, the standards
of the censor, and Taneyev’s own views of propriety.

Clytemnestra and Cassandra

When Agamemnon instructs his wife to welcome his mistress, Cassandra,
Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra appears kind to her, trying to make her feel better
about entering their house as a slave. When Cassandra does not reply to
Clytemnestra’s greeting, she wonders if Cassandra does not speak their
language, and remarks: ‘I’ll reach inside her mind and win her over with
my words’ (Aeschylus 1995: 32). Taneyev’s Clytemnestra is not gentle
with Cassandra. Right from the start, she lets the young woman know
where she stands: ‘Get down from the chariot. Do not be proud. A slave
has no right to be proud’ (Teneyev 1900: 96–97). When Cassandra
responds only with silence, Clytemnestra does not disguise her direct
threat: ‘You do not want to obey? You are annoyed that you arrived here
as a captive, as a slave. Give me time. I will teach you obedience’ (Taneyev
1900: 96–7).
Taneyev clearly wanted to make his Clytemnestra more assertive and
more ruthless with Cassandra. His Clytemnestra does not feel any natural

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Figure 3: Agamemnon’s last walk. Act 1, scene 7.

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warmth or affection for her husband’s mistress, and she does not waste
time on trying to calm her down and make her feel welcome. Taneyev’s
Clytemnestra almost openly disobeys Agamemnon and demonstrates that
she will not do what she is told.

Clytemnestra in The Libation Bearers

It is inconceivable to think of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra as weak and fright-
ened. She does not regret killing her husband and she displays no remorse.
She begins to have terrifying and ‘roving horrors’ after killing Agamemnon,
and dreams of giving birth to a snake that bites her breast (Aeschylus
1995: 70). She screams in terror when she wakes up, but she does not
Taneyev attempted to develop this aspect of Clytemnestra’s character in
a way that was typical of nineteenth-century Russian opera. He opened
the second act of the opera, The Libation Bearers, with a scene that is absent
in Aeschylus. Here Taneyev shows Clytemnestra as a vulnerable and
frightened woman. Her opening words, ‘Oh, I am a hapless sinner, and my
soul’s peace is gone forever!’, show her suffering after the murder (Taneyev
1900: 174). She appears dishevelled, and her face is pale – in contrast to
her composed and confident self in the first act. Clytemnestra is afraid to
sleep in her bedroom, where everything reminds her of Agamemnon, and
where his phantom visits her every night. She is tormented not only by his
spectre, but also by her guilt, and she asks Morpheus to grant her peaceful
rest. She falls asleep, but soon Agamemnon’s ghost returns again, proph-
esying her imminent death at the hand of their son Orestes.
By dramatizing Clytemnestra’s dream, Taneyev introduces a psycho-
logical element, which relates his Oresteia with a number of its Russian
contemporaries. A good example is Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, where the
sinful tsar is tormented by the spectre of his nephew, whom he killed in
order to inherit the throne and whose bloody apparition eventually drives
him to madness. Another is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada of 1891, in which
Voyslava is tormented with guilt after killing Mlada. The character of
Salieri, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Motsart i Sal’yeri [Mozart and Salieri] of
1897, also experiences emotional anguish after poisoning Mozart.
In narrating Clytemnestra’s dream, Aeschylus employed symbolism to
foretell the return of her son who would kill her – in the aforementioned
dream in which the snake bites the queen’s breast. But Clytemnestra
chooses to ignore this powerful image and only when Orestes decides to
kill her does she understand the meaning of the dream. In the opera,
Taneyev is very direct with his delivery of the prophecy that makes
Clytemnestra’s situation more difficult – she has to live under the threat of
death at the hand of her own son.
Clytemnestra’s last appearance on stage occurs at the end of The
Libation Bearers. She greets a wanderer who brings her the news of
Orestes’ death. When Clytemnestra replies to the sad news, which should
plunge her, as a mother, into despair, her vocal line is even and measured,
displaying none of the emotion that is expected in such a case. Her stage
directions read ‘with false sadness’, and the music shows a complete
absence of grief (Taneyev 1900: 231). In fact, the hurried demisemiqua-
vers in the orchestra demonstrate her nervous excitement (see Figure 4).

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Figure 4: Clytemnestra’s false grief. Act 2, scene 19.

Clytemnestra pretends to be distraught, but sings to herself: ‘This is

good news – I will find peace again’ (Taneyev 1900: 231). Her words show
that nothing has changed in her emotional state since her last appear-
ance. In fact, when she learns of Orestes’ death, she is trying very hard to
suppress her relief, for now she thinks that she can at last live without fear
for her life. Clytemnestra’s words show that it was not remorse that she
felt in the bedroom scene, but fear and terror about Agamemnon’s
prophecy coming true.
The scene of Clytemnestra’s confrontation with Orestes changes every-
thing. She finds out that the wanderer is her son, and that he has already
killed Aegysthus. Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra is almost certain that she will
die: ‘Now we die by treachery, just as we killed’ (Aeschylus 1995: 82). But
she still does not give up, she says, ‘Let’s see if we are finished, or still have

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a chance’ (Aeschylus 1995: 82). When Orestes decides to kill her, she says
that her Furies will pursue him.
Taneyev’s Clytemnestra plunges into turmoil at the news of Aegysthus’
death, but it is shown only in the orchestra: her stage directions read ‘she
stands still, struck by terror’ (Taneyev 1900: 236). However, her terror
lasts for a very short time and she very quickly regains her composure.
She is determined to fight for her life and when Orestes appears before her
she attempts to stop him by reminding him that she is his mother, that she
gave birth to him, she nursed him, and most of all, that it was not she who
killed Agamemnon, but fate guiding her hand. At first, she merely gives
Orestes reasons why he should spare her life. But gradually, when she sees
that her son is not swayed by her words, she pleads for her life. When
Clytemnestra realizes that all is lost, she curses her son and tells him that
her Erinias, or the spirits of retribution, will haunt him forever.
Clytemnestra’s characterization in these last scenes is the most varied -
she appears as a welcoming host, a falsely grieving mother, a resolute
fighter, a woman desperate for survival, and lastly as an angry female who
has lost everything she loved, and will soon lose her life. Clytemnestra
meets her death with a curse and resentment, having exhausted all possi-
ble ways of avoiding it. The musical language of these last scenes is as varied
as Clytemnestra’s emotional states. The following examples demonstrate
Clytemnestra’s entreaties to her son, where at first she asks him if he
would indeed raise his sword at his mother, then reminds him of their
mother and son bond. The accompaniment’s rocking motion, lullaby-like,
alludes to her words ‘I carried you under my heart’ (see Figure 5). Figure 6
shows her cursing Orestes.
Interestingly, when Clytemnestra tells her son that fate guided her
hand during Agamemnon’s murder, her words appear incongruous with
what the audience has learned about her character previously. These
words are just an excuse, one of her tools in the arsenal with which she tries,
unsuccessfully, to save her own life. Agamemnon and Orestes were
ordained by the gods to sacrifice Iphigenia’s life and kill Clytemnestra, and
even Cassandra, whose scene will be discussed next, was led to her death
by Apollo. Taneyev’s Clytemnestra, therefore, appears to be the freest char-
acter in the opera, of either sex. She was not ordered by a god to kill
Agamemnon: his execution was thought up and executed by her, guided
only by her own free will. Perhaps this is the reason why Taneyev chose to
concentrate on the consequences of her deed and show her suffering after
the murder.
It remains to mention that Clytemnestra was perhaps not such a
shocking character for Russian morals of the late nineteenth century.
Natalia Pushkareva tells a story of Vera Zasulich, one of Russia’s ‘New
Women’, who educated themselves through the works of Western social-
ists and Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1862 novel What Is to Be Done, in which
the author ‘pointed the way to “action and freedom” and how they could
be achieved’ (Pushkareva 1997: 204). ‘On January 24, 1878, [ …] Zasulich
shot and fatally wounded Fedor Trepov, the governor of St Petersburg. He
had ordered the use of corporal punishment on a political prisoner’
(Pushkareva 1997: 206). When Zasulich was tried, the jury acquitted her,
despite there being no doubt about her guilt. In fact, the jury found her

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Figure 5: Clytemnestra pleading Orestes. Act 2, scene 21.

actions fully justified. This incident prompted a large number of similar

assassination attempts, and in the 1880s over eighty women were put on
trial. It is perhaps not too difficult to imagine Clytemnestra as one of the
‘New Women’, fighting for freedom – physical, emotional, and political.

Cassandra arrives in Argos at the most inopportune time and in the least
favourable situation. Agamemnon has brought her as his mistress, and
calmly asks Clytemnestra to welcome her, only fuelling his wife’s already
raging hatred. Cassandra has received a gift of prophecy from Apollo, and
thus her character combines divine and human elements. She is shown as
both a seer and a human being; a young woman who is frightened of

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Figure 6: Clytemnestra curses Orestes. Act 2, scene 21.

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9. Taneyev used leading dying alone in a foreign country. Her role is confined to one scene only, but
motifs (often termed it is an important scene, which not only explains the past tragedies of the
leitmotifs by scholars) house of Atreus, but also foretells the key events of the future.
to identify the
characters, their
emotional states, and Cassandra as a prophet
abstract ideas, such as Cassandra’s divine character is inextricably linked to the tragic element in
fate, retribution and
justice. the opera. Cassandra’s scene is structured to correspond with the same
scene in Aeschylus’ tragedy, but Taneyev shortened it, compressing all the
information into a third of the space devoted to it in the original. In both
versions, Cassandra sees the gruesome past and future events right at the
beginning, and refers to the palace as ‘a prey for the Furies’, whose ‘tune-
less chorus’ she can hear (Taneyev 1900: 100).
All her visions are traumatic: the butchered children, Agamemnon’s
murder and her own death, and the killing of Clytemnestra by her son
Orestes. Aeschylus’ Elders do not believe her prophecies, and the chorus
representing the people in Taneyev’s opera realize that Cassandra can see
the sinister past of the house of Atreus, but they are too terrified to act
upon her predictions for the future. Their inability to take action deepens
the sense of tragedy, particularly for those who know that her prophecies
will come true.
When Taneyev’s Clytemnestra asks Cassandra to step down from the
chariot, she does not reply, but the orchestra responds with a plaintive,
gentle motif in the oboe (see Figure 7). It is associated throughout the
scene with Cassandra, and functions as her leading motif.9
When Clytemnestra leaves, Cassandra immediately becomes agitated.
When she finally speaks, her first words, ‘Oh, terror! This wretched coun-
try!’ (Taneyev 1900: 98–99), begin on A-flat of the second octave above
middle C and sound like a piercing shriek. This corresponds well with
Aeschylus’ description of her ecstatic speech that is moulded ‘to a melody
of dissonant and piercing strain’ (Aeschylus 1995: 35). Cassandra’s vocal
line during her prophetic visions in the opera is abundant in high and
piercing notes, large leaps and tritone (augmented fourth) intervals.
Taneyev made a slight but important change to Cassandra’s words ‘A
house that hates the gods’ (Aeschylus 1995: 33) altering them to ‘A house
that gods hate’ (Taneyev 1900: 100). The words are more blasphemous,
their meaning haunts the house of Atreus to the point where everyone
appears forever doomed – there is apparently nothing that can help lift the
The defining moment for Cassandra is the vision of Orestes’ arrival, at
which point her character begins to transform, for she knows that her
own death, and that of Agamemnon, will be avenged. When Cassandra
knows that Orestes will expiate the house of its sins, and avenge his
father’s murder, she is ready to accept her fate. She breaks her prophetic
emblem (her sceptre) and bravely faces death. In Aeschylus’ tragedy,

Figure 7: Cassandra’s leading motif. Act 1, scene 8.

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Figure 8: Cassandra foretells the arrival of Orestes. Act 1, scene 8.

Cassandra merely throws away her sceptre and the woollen bands around
her neck, the symbols of prophecy, but by making her break the sceptre,
Taneyev imbues her character with decisiveness and defiance. The tonal
stability of this episode (see Figure 8) contrasts with the musically and
emotionally unstable opening of the ensuing Arioso (see Figure 9) where
Cassandra’s part is diametrically opposed to that of Cassandra, the

Cassandra and the human element

Cassandra’s human side is shown in her Arioso that comes as a contrast-
ing lyrical interlude after the dramatic first part of the scene (see Figure 9).
But, instead of offering respite from her highly charged emotions, it only
strengthens the tension and increases the drama by underlining her
poignant situation. Taneyev highlights Cassandra’s uncertainty about her
future in the opening section of the Arioso by using tonal ambiguity, which

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Figure 9: Cassandra’s Arioso. Act 1, scene 8.

is created by a progression from a half-diminished seventh chord to the

dominant of A minor (see Figure 9, bars 1–5), and by withholding the
arrival of the anticipated tonic. In this short number, Cassandra laments
her death, which, as she comes to realize, is imminent. She begins to pre-
pare for it with the words ‘The will of Fate cannot be changed, and there is
no hope for me’ (Taneyev 1900: 106–107).
In the Arioso, Cassandra laments about her pitiable fate and reminisces
about her happy past. Aeschylus’ Cassandra remembers her homeland with
the words: ‘Skamander, river of my native land – beside your banks I once
was nursed and grew unhappy’ (Aeschylus 1995: 35), but in Taneyev’s
Oresteia her childhood memories are happy and she treasures them.
Cassandra’s reference to her homeland forms the middle part of the

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Arioso - the only part of the whole scene written in a major key - which
makes references to her past happiness and highlights her plight even
more. Undeniably, it also strengthens the drama and gives more weight to
Cassandra’s laments about dying alone ‘under the foreign skies’, without
being properly mourned by her family (Taneyev 1900: 107). Cassandra
concludes her Arioso by reiterating her opening words about fate’s will. She
sings again that she will die alone, without family and friends around her.
Cassandra’s character is in consonance with a number of female roles
in contemporary Russian opera. Her characterization is close to that of
Liza from Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama [Queen of Spades] of 1890, Tatiana
in Evgeni Onegin [Eugene Onegin] of 1881, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada
of 1891. All these young women find themselves in distressing situations.
While Tatiana does not die, she enters a marriage to save her family from
poverty; Liza, Mlada and Cassandra all die tragically and undeservedly.

Taneyev’s portrayal of Clytemnestra and Cassandra differs from that of
Aeschylus in several aspects. While his Clytemnestra still gets her ‘just
deserts’, she is psychologically tormented after the murder, and realizes
that her actions will have dire consequences. Taneyev’s interpretation of
Clytemnestra’s role added to the established perception of her character. In
the drama, as well as in the opera, Clytemnestra is portrayed as a regal,
powerful woman, obsessed with the idea of revenge, and her irrevocable
conviction and resolution result in tragedy. She is a mother, punishing
Agamemnon for his heartless slaughter of their innocent daughter as she
pleaded for her life in vain. Taneyev’s Clytemnestra provokes mixed emo-
tions. The sin that she commits is too grave to be ignored, but the motiva-
tion behind it is too serious to be discounted. It is difficult not to admire
her resolution and strength in carrying out such a horrific and unprece-
dented act that alienates her from humans and gods alike, and ineluctably
leads to her death.
For today’s audiences, Agamemnon’s murder is perhaps easier to com-
prehend: he died because he sacrificed his young daughter to satisfy the
whimsical demands of a deity. Today, these reasons appear as nothing
more than a cruel, superstitious fancy. Few members of today’s audiences
would relate easily to the idea of a wife staying faithful to her husband for
ten years, especially after he had murdered their child. His return ten
years later with a young mistress would most certainly elicit little empathy
from the majority of listeners.
Throughout the opera, Clytemnestra appears in various emotional
states, despite her attempts to remain outwardly strong. In the bedroom
scene, Taneyev showed the change in Clytemnestra’s mental state: she was
weakened by the terror that Agamemnon’s visits brought to her, and by
having to live with the consequences of her actions. By adding this scene,
Taneyev wanted to focus attention on the consequences of Agamemnon’s
murder, bringing an element of psychological drama to his opera, a defining
element of Russian nineteenth-century opera. The scene also gives the
audience another reason to feel sympathy for Clytemnestra and believe in
her remorse. Taneyev’s Clytemnestra is a woman who begins to suffer the
consequences of her deed, and who knows that what she did will alter her

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Figure A: Sketches of the costumes for Cassandra, Agamemnon, and Aegysthus by

F. F. Fedorovsky. Reproduced with the permission of the Moscow State Bakhrushin
Theatre Museum.

life forever. She does try to maintain her composure when Orestes appears
with a sword in his hand, but, when she realizes that her end is near, she
attempts to change his mind by talking to him, reminding him about their
blood bond, and even pleading for her life at the end. When everything fails
her, Clytemnestra does not think twice about cursing her son forever,
throwing doubt onto her earlier expressions of motherly love and affection.
Cassandra meets her death very differently from Clytemnestra. After
seeing the past and the future of the house of Atreus, she is at first shocked
and overwhelmed by her vision of her own destiny. However, she accepts it
and meets her death with confidence. Her character evolves from a fright-
ened and helpless prisoner of war, through a tragic prophetess, to a person
who is ready to face death in the assurance that it will be avenged. When
she walks into the palace, her divine and human elements are fused
together, and she becomes a person who tragically sacrifices her life
through understanding and acceptance of her fate. Taneyev’s Cassandra
is not so different from Aeschylus’, but her human side is much more
developed, as is seen in her Arioso.
There is no question about which woman invites more sympathy. But
although these two women are portrayed very differently, they each evoke
their own measure of sympathy from the audience. Clytemnestra finds herself

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Figure B: Maria Slavina as the first Clytemnestra in the first production of Oresteia in 1895.

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isolated and remorseful, and, like Cassandra, she is afraid to die. But while
Cassandra dies with confidence, Clytemnestra does so with resentment and
curses. Cassandra’s portrayal is reminiscent of a number of female roles in
contemporary Russian operas that depict young women in tragic or dramatic
situations. Clytemnestra’s rebellious character, while appearing somewhat
unorthodox and shockingly blasphemous, is not all that far from the real-life
personas of such women as Vera Zasulich and her fellow ‘New Women’.

Works cited
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Aeschylus (1995), Oresteia (trans. M. Ewans), London: Everyman.
Anon. (1895a), untitled and unattributed in Peterburgskaya Gazeta, No. 281, 18
October [P. I. Tchaikovsky State House-Museum in Klin, II b, B9, No. 1].
Anon. (1895b), untitled and unattributed in Peterburgskaya Gazeta, No. 283, 20
October [P. I. Tchaikovsky State House-Museum in Klin, II b, B9, No. 1].
Foley, H. (2001), Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gagarin, M. (1976), Aeschylean Drama, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hall, E. (2005), ‘Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra versus her Senecan Tradition’, in
Macintosh, F., Michelakis, P., Hall, E. and Taplin, O. (eds), Agamemnon in
Performance 458 BC to AD 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 53–75.
Korabelnikova, L. (1979), ‘Oresteia S. I. Taneyeva. Antichnyi syuzhet v russkoi hudozh-
estvennoi kulture vtoroi poloviny XIX v’ [‘Taneyev’s Oresteia. Antique Subjects in
Russian Culture of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century’] in G. Y. Sternin,
G.Y. (ed.), Tipologiya russkogo realisma vtoroi poliviny XIX veka [Typology of Russian
Realism of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century], Moscow: Nauka, pp. 79–128.
Korabelnikova, L. (1986), Tvorchestvo S. I. Taneyeva: istoriko-stilisticheskoe issle-
dovanie [Taneyev’s Works: Historico-Stylistic Investigation], Moscow: Muzyka,
pp. 99–121.
Korabelnikova, L. (ed.) (1985), S. Taneyev: Dnevniki [Diaries], Moscow: Muzyka.
Larosh, G. A. (1974–1978), Izbrannye stat’i v 5 tomakh [Selected articles in 5 volumes],
Gozenpud, A. (ed.), Leningrad: Muzyka.
MacEwen, S. (ed.), (1990), Views of Clytemnestra, Ancient and Modern, Lewiston,
Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Pushkareva, N. (1997), Women in Russian History: from the Tenth to the Twentieth
Century, Levin, E. (trans. and ed.), New York and London: M. E. Sharpe.
Rimsky-Korsakov, N. (1935), My Musical Life, (trans. J. A. Joffe), New York: Tudor
Publishing Co.
Taneyev, S. (1900), Oresteia [Vocal Score], Leipzig: Belyaev Publishing House,
reprinted (2000) by Elibron Classics.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. (1983), Studies in Aeschylus, Cambridge: University Press.
Zeitlin, F. (1978), ‘The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the
Oresteia of Aeschylus,’ Arethusa 11, pp. 149–84.
Zhdanov, V. (ed.), (1951), P. I. Tchaikovsky, S. I. Taneyev: Pisma [P. I. Tchaikovsky, S.
I. Taneyev: Letters], Moscow: Goskultprosvetizdat.

Suggested citation
Belina, A. (2008), ‘Representation of Clytemnestra and Cassandra in Taneyev’s
Oresteia’, Studies in Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 61–81, doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.61/1

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Contributor details
Anastasia Belina is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds, where she
is currently working on the dissertation entitled, A Critical Re-Evaluation of Taneyev’s
Oresteia. Anastasia is a writer and translator for Naxos and Toccata Classics record-
ing labels, and a regular presenter of talks and lectures on Russian music. Her
research interests include Russian and European opera, Soviet music, and Wagner.

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.83/1

Flooding the concrète: Clastoclysm

and the notion of the ‘continuum’ as a
conceptual and musical basis for a
postdramatic music-theatre performance
Demetris Zavros University of Leeds

Abstract Keywords
This article explores issues that pertain to the concept of ‘music-theatre as music’ postdramatic
through a discussion of the performance Clastoclysm. Using Lévi-Strauss’ notion theatre as music
of the affinity between the domains of music and myth as a point of departure, the Clastoclysm
article presents the ways in which the performance makes use of a musically- musique concrète
derived conceptual model, which is applied to mythic text in a way that evades the continuum
boundaries of structuralism. The model is based on the concept of the ‘continuum’, music theatre
derived from musique concrète, and its application will be explored through a
discussion of the process of the composition of the performance score, as well as
the process of performance. In the last section of the article we will return to the
original issue that informed our discussion of the musical model, and will discuss
how the concept of the continuum was used to include in the performance a met-
alingual function as a performed clash between tonal music and musique concrète.

Clastoclysm (2007)1 is a music-theatre performance based on the composition 1. The word is derived
of several mythical fragments. The fragments are chosen on the basis of from Nonnenmann’s
their connection to the notion of ‘creation’ and their inclusion of the ele- and the conjunction
ments of stone and/or water. The myths are connected through the use of of the two prefixes
motivic relationships that do not support a linear logic of cause and effect. ‘clasm’ (destruction,
suspension, negation)
The composition and visual translation of the mythic texts on stage (through and ‘clysm’
several degrees of abstraction) give rise to a redefinition of the performers’ (construction,
roles, which escapes mimetic imitation. The performance brings together constitution, position)
seventeen performers (actors and musicians) in a conventional studio 2005: 4).
theatre space, where there is a clear sense of a ‘stage’ area (however, this is
blurred at times through the placing and nature of action). The stage set is
minimal and includes a seven-foot tall platform (upstage) made of steel
decking covered with white gauze and a steel ladder mounted on its left
side; a square metal sheet raised from the floor on a wooden square frame
(in front of the platform ladder); a small glass tank filled with water
(downstage right); a narrow wooden trough (along the downstage area);
and a rectangular wooden frame filled with soil (stage left). It was first
commissioned and performed as a work-in-progress at the Song, Stage and
Screen II conference (School of Performance and Cultural Industries,
University of Leeds, United Kingdom, 23 March 2007). In its completed

SMT 2 (1) pp. 83–100 © Intellect Ltd 2008 83

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2. Lehmann quotes Eleni version, Clastoclysm was performed as part of the festival-conference
Varopoulou’s talk Masterworks (School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of
about the
‘musicalization of all Leeds, United Kingdom, 18 May 2007).
theatrical means’ in
Frankfurt in 1998 Music-theatre as music: a trait of postdramatic theatre and
(Lehmann 2006: 91).
3. These instances are: The term postdramatic theatre has drawn notable attention since the pub-
(1) musicalization of
language; (2) lication of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s book Postdramatic Theatre (2006) in
application of sense of English. Even if ‘this term may not be familiar to many readers’, as
rhythm and music to Christopher Balme wrote in 2004, ‘the phenomenon it embraces most cer-
classical texts; (3)
polyglossia; (4) tainly is’ (Balme 2004: 1–3). The introduction of the term is a result of the
electronic re-evaluation of the historical break, postulated by Peter Szondi in Theory
manipulation of vocal of the Modern Drama (Szondi 1987), between Aristotelian drama and epic
and other sounds; (5)
composing the sonic theatre. Lehmann suggests a new schism between dramatic theatre
space through (which according to him includes Brecht’s innovations) and a ‘theatre
simultaneous without drama, i.e. without the representation of a closed-off fictional cos-
superimposition of
sonic worlds; (6) mos, the mimetic staging of a fable’ as Karen Jurs-Munby explains in her
using props as introduction to the book (Lehmann 2006: 3).
musical instruments. Lehmann discusses the idea of ‘theatre as music’2 as a trait of postdra-
matic theatre. In a theatrical performance, where ‘drama’ is not the predom-
inant factor, music can provide a basis for the shape of the performance
such that ‘an independent auditory semiotics emerges’ (Lehmann 2006: 63).
In his exemplification of the term (Lehmann 2006: 91–3), Lehmann
notices several instances3 in which this term becomes apparent in the
practice of theatre directors. These instances of ‘musicalization’ fall within
what he calls ‘the no longer dramatic language of theatre’ (Lehmann
2006: 93). Taking Lehmann’s term as a point of departure, I will try to
unfold, in a more comprehensive manner, one specific way in which it can
be applied in the creation of a postdramatic music-theatre performance.
Thus, this article will present how the creation of a ‘music-theatre as
music’ performance can be based on a musically derived conceptual model for
‘the musicalization of all theatrical means’ (Lehmann 2006: 91).
The article begins with a discussion of the musical/conceptual model
used in the performance Clastoclysm. In the following sections, it focuses
on the ways the model was applied in the composition of a performance
score, as well as in the process of performance. In the final section, we will
return to issues that initially informed our discussion of the musical model
to show how these issues can be ‘performed’ by way of inclusion.

In search of a musical model: a painting in time

In his structural analysis of myth, Lévi-Strauss makes the argument that
a structural correspondence exists between the domains of myth and
music. The reason behind the ‘initially surprising affinity’ between the
two, he argues, is to be found ‘in the characteristic that myth and music
share of both being languages which, in their different ways, transcend
articulate expression, while at the same time – like articulate speech, but
unlike painting – requiring a temporal dimension in which to unfold’
(Lévi-Strauss 1970: 15). He notices that, in the way they are received,
myth and music both make demands on the listener who, in order to
correctly grasp the recurrence of certain themes and other forms of back

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references and parallels, has to allow his mind to survey the whole range 4. Balme notices that
the theatre critic
of the story as it unfolds. So, after he has compiled several different Elinor Fuchs
versions of a myth, Lévi-Strauss does not concentrate on the story regards the same
(a diachronic reading). Instead, he suggests that a synchronous reading developments
that Lehmann is
of a myth entails its breakdown into motifs that fall into ‘binary opposi- preoccupied with ‘as
tions’ (or opposite poles). This presentation of opposites leads to a sense a response to the
of resolution of the subject under consideration. In surveying ‘the whole massive critique
of Western models
range of the story’ to make meaningful connections, Lévi-Strauss comes of subjectivity that
close to an idea postulated by Lehmann who states that ‘the spectator of we associate with
postdramatic theatre is not prompted to process the perceived instanta- terms such as
poststructuralism and
neously but to postpone the production of meaning (semiosis) and to store the deconstruction’
sensory impressions with “evenly hovering attention”’ (Lehmann 2006: 87). (Balme 2004: 1–3).
Yet there is a major discrepancy between Lévi-Strauss’ analysis and the In this article, I will
not endeavour to
context of my research, which we will address at the outset of this article.4 explicate a connection
Lévi-Strauss bases his view of the affinity between the two sign systems on between post-
quite a limited definition of music, referring mainly (if not exclusively) to tonal structuralism and
music. In his writings he attacks other forms of music because they do not theatre. While I am
support his structuralist notion of the binary: musique concrète is one of them. using Lévi-Strauss’
ideas as a point of
departure, I will base
By rejecting musical sounds and restricting itself exclusively to noises,
my discussion (and
musique concrète puts itself into a situation that is comparable, from the formal the inevitable shift
point of view, to that of painting of whatever kind: it is an immediate com- from structuralist
theory) on the musical
munion with the given phenomena of nature.
discrepancies that
(Lévi-Strauss 1970: 22) exist in his work.
5. In tonal music the
He objects to musique concrète because, he suggests, it is a musical system first level of source
that is built on a first level, which is antithetical in its degree of abstraction material is to be
found in the domain
to that of tonal music.5 He argues that this special characteristic makes it of a culture-based
less of a musical system, because it creates a problem on the level of the organization (i.e. the
binary between culture and nature that he bases his study on. Because of hierarchical structure
of the scale), whereas
its first-level material, Lévi-Strauss regards musique concrète as being closer to in musique concrète
a type of painting – one which would have to unfold in time. And this idea that first-level
opens up possibilities for a theatrical realization based on a musical model. material includes
sounds as they appear
Taking Lévi-Strauss’ idea of the affinity between the structural systems in nature.
of music and myth as a point of departure, we will focus on musique con-
crète, as a musical style that makes use of the notion of the ‘continuum’.
Thus, we are introducing a notion (which comes in opposition to the
‘binary’) both as a conceptual and a musical basis for the compositional
and performative aspects of a ‘music-theatre as music’ performance. In
doing this, we propose a departure from the structuralist idea of the
‘binary’ to a more open space of meaning: a flooding of mythical images
that are structured musically.

Musique concrète and the ‘continuum’: a flooding of images

Musique concrète is a term coined by radio technician and composer Pierre
Schaeffer and his associates at the Studio d'Essai in the late 1940s in Paris.
The Encyclopædia Britannica Online states that musique concrète is

an experimental technique of musical composition [which uses] recorded

sounds as raw material. The fundamental principle of musique concrète lies in

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6. The New Grove the assemblage of various natural sounds recorded on tape (or, originally, on
Dictionary of Music disks) to produce a montage of sound. During the preparation of such a com-
states that with
regard to position, the sounds selected and recorded may be modified in any way
Lachenmann’s (born desired – played backward, cut short or extended, subjected to echo-chamber
in Stuttgart on 27 effects, varied in pitch and intensity, and so on. The finished composition
November 1935)
musique concrète thus represents the combination of varied auditory experiences into an artistic
instrumentale, ‘the unity.
composer's intention (Musique Concrète 2008)
was to explore a new
sound world and to
create compelling and What is more, Priscilla McLean notices two strands of generative processes:
logical musical works one in which identifiable sounds from the environment are used and
based predominantly
on sonorities which altered ‘but the actual source or intended imitation is still clearly recogniz-
had remained unused able’; and another in which the resulting sound ‘is removed several
and hence uncontam- degrees from any obvious source into a more abstract level. [ … ] This
inated in the past’
(Mosch 2007). imago-abstract sound, often gestural in nature, evokes dual sets of realities’
(McLean 1977: 205). The notion of musique concrète that we have used in
this particular project (both conceptually and practically) is closer to the
second type. In other words, the originating source of sound becomes per-
ceptible at some point in the compositional process, but the rest of the
sound (through manipulations) becomes detached from the original
At this point, I would like to clarify the above notion by discussing an
example of musique concrète in Clastoclysm. In the opening sequence, the
pre-recorded sound is based on the manipulation of a sound sample of the
recording of a water spring. The sound of the spring does not appear until
the end of the sequence. The rest of the recorded section is composed of a
gradual transformation of the spring sample, from its breakdown into
‘clipping sounds’ to the water sound. Aurally, the continuum is diachronic
but also synchronic in nature, since (while not recognizable as a reference
to the sound source) all the stages of the sound evolution are connected
The three stages of continuous transformation can be presented in the
following diagram:

---------------------------- ------------------------------------- -----------------------------

‘clipping sounds’ abstracted sound objects water sample

Figure 1: Representation of the ‘continuum’ in the first piece of musique concrète.

Musique concrète makes use of the notion of the continuum, both in its
treatment of the sound-material on an aural level, and its treatment of the
sound source which is semantically ‘abstracted’ on several degrees through
manipulation and/or organization.
This continuum, in the form of the preceding diagram, can be further
explored in considering a view expressed by Rainer Nonnenmann in his
discussion of Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrète instrumentale.6
Nonnenmann asserts that, because of the concrete visualization of the
process of the sound production, a dual reception process – which he
names ‘iconoclastoclysm’ – takes place in the following manner:

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First, the demand made by musique concrète instrumentale to reveal mechanical-

energetic conditions of sound production, in order to liberate sounds from all
existing tonal, connotative and expressive baggage [is] an iconoclastic act, so
to speak; that is, to free them from the sum of intra- and extra-musical
pre-formations, and instead to create music based exclusively on sound-
immanent structures through a reduction to the concrete acoustics of the
sounding material. Second, the sounds thus removed from existing images
are intended to reveal a new form of expression through being redefined by
the composer, and made newly accessible to the listener in altered contexts.
They are two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and can thus supply
the ambivalent compound term ‘iconoclastoclysm’, formed from the opposing
terms ‘iconoclasm’ and ‘iconoclysm’.
(Nonnenmann 2005: 4)

While the idea of ‘iconoclastoclysm’ is demonstrated within the context of

musique concrète instrumentale, which is different (as Nonnenmann points
out) to musique concrète, I believe that the idea could be extended to the
domain of the latter, if we were to consider the second type of musique
concrète that McLean refers to. A sound composition that illuminates the
process of transformation of a sound (especially one of concrete reference)
can break free from established forms of aural signification – a breaking-
free which Lachenmann set as a goal of his compositional practice along
with other composers of electro-acoustic music, differences between their
uses of respective media notwithstanding. When musique concrète allows
itself an aural and structural detachment from the original sound-object,
it does not always refer ‘back to its original context’ (as Nonnenmann
suggests with regards to Schaeffer’s musique concrète) (Nonnenmann
2005: 6). And this is especially true when the original sound-object is not
presented to the audience until the end of a section, as in the example pre-
sented in Figure 1. Through the exploration of its acoustic properties,
musique concrète can accomplish a de-semanticization of the sound, similar to
the iconoclastic process entailed by musique concrète instrumentale: ‘[D]estruc-
tion and construction, suspension and constitution, negation and posi-
tion’ (Nonnenmann 2005: 4) happen simultaneously as the sign is ‘the
process of becoming’ itself. And this process happens while the mind of the
listener is flooded with ‘images’ which are neither ‘unambiguous nor arbi-
trary’, but, rather, ‘possible, more or less convincing ones’ (Nonnenmann
2005: 5). In this sense, it would be beneficial to suggest an alternative to
the term ‘imago-abstract’ used by McLean, by using the term: imago-clysmic.
Regarding the opening-sequence piece of musique concrète, in the
process of its transformation from ‘clipping sounds’ to the water sample,
the soundscape of the intervening sections does not have a concrete refer-
ence to an everyday life sound-object. Yet one reading of the sound (or one
‘possible image’, to use Nonnenmann’s term) in the process of transforma-
tion could be ‘the sound of rolling stones’. When stone becomes a recurring
visual element in the subsequent sequences, this ‘image’ that impregnates
the musique concrète of the opening sequence may (or may not, according
to each individual audience member) come to fruition in the sense of a
‘meaning’; but the ‘meaning’ will be of a structural connection. Similarly,
when the concretization of its referent (through the presentation of the

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7. In ‘Of Sounds and original sound source) does not relate in the form of signification, but only
Images’ Berio states
that ‘Musical theatre
in an (obvious) structural way to another sign, then structure becomes
only seems to take primarily a vehicle of presentation: a vehicle of communication, not of signi-
on a deep and fication. Meaning remains in a state of flux and, maybe because of that,
enduring meaning
once the
the experiencing of the ‘flooding of images’ comes with the experiencing of
dramaturgical the corporeality or materiality of the sign in this process of communication.
conception is The musique concrète in the opening sequence, as will become apparent
generated by
the music’
in the following discussion, takes the form of an introduction which encap-
(Berio 1997: 296). sulates the essence of the performance: a musical structure that approxi-
mates the creation of a continuum between water and stone. Furthermore,
this introductory piece of musique concrète presents a model of composition
that will be used quite extensively in the performance of the score: creating
a continuum of (re)presentation that supports the idea of abstraction/flood-
ing and which climaxes with the presentation of the concrete reference.
However, how can the visual be incorporated (in a music-theatre per-
formance) in such a way that it does not counteract the process of this
‘flooding of images’, as introduced by the musique concrète continuum? By
making this question the focal point of our creative investigation, the idea
of using the music for the intrinsic ‘dramaturgical conception’ of the piece (as
suggested by Luciano Berio 1997: 296)7 and its performance becomes a sig-
nificant conceptual apparatus. In the following two sections, I will endeavour
to show how this was attempted in the performance of Clastoclysm; firstly,
with the composition of the ‘performance score’ (which I will be using as
a substitute for ‘dramaturgy’) and, secondly, with the process of translating
the score into a performance.

Composing the performance score based on fragments that

support a continuum of relationships rather than a binary
In his Myth, Music and Nature or The Dolphins of Arion, François-Bernard
Mâche proposes ‘to put forward a concept according to which music (more
than any other exercise in thought) has remained close to mythic roots’
(Mâche 1992: 8). In this, he comes from a standpoint that is far from
strange to Lévi-Strauss’ analysis, and while he separates his theory from
structuralism, he does admittedly use models of the latter in his project. In
the first chapter, ‘Music in Myth’, he looks at a collection of myths, drawing
a conclusion which at first seems to create a binary opposition with regards
to musical creation and the way it relates to the elements of stone and
water. He notices a connection between music and water as a metaphor
which is supported by the assertion that ‘music rises from the depths of the
unconscious, of which the sea is the image’ (Mâche 1992: 11). At the same
time, he also states that in a few of the myths ‘petrification represents the
antithesis of music, or its enemy’ (Mâche 1992: 15). If we were to take this
initial proposition, it seems that a binary could be formed on the basis that
water=music=creation and stone=non-music= destruction. Coming from
the standpoint that ‘mythic thought always (surreptitiously, or explosively)
revindicates its rights to multiplicity’ (Mâche 1992: 28), Mâche could not
explicitly propose such a binary. In fact, while it is initially implied in his
writings, later he does mention the inversion of the initial metaphor
wherein stone ‘regains life’ (citing the myth of Pygmalion).

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Based on these observations and more extensive research on Greek 8. ‘Primary’ only in the
sense of a starting
mythology, it became obvious that this initial binary could be problema- point, but not in their
tized on the grounds that the relationships between creation and water/ treatment in the
stone present a more diverse universe of connections which can be process of
regarded in the form of a continuum of relationships. By emphasizing the
motifs in these mythological stories (or by creating a ‘first level of motivic
relationships’ for the composition of the performance score, as will be
shown below), we are looking at the stories in the way that Lévi-Strauss
would be looking at one myth in a synchronous manner in order to create
his binary categories. Yet by relating motifs from different myths, we
depart from structuralist theory: the goal shifts from the creation of bina-
ries to the presentation of relationships that could represent points on a
continuum. These points are presentations of relationships between the
notions of creation and destruction and the way they relate to the ele-
ments of water and stone in musical myths. In this sense, we are not forc-
ing a musical structural connection, but we are extracting musical (motivic)
relationships that already exist in (Greek) mythology itself, just as Lévi-
Strauss suggests.

First level of motivic relationships

If we think of the motifs in the initial binary opposition (now, the extremi-
ties on a continuum of relationships) as the primary motifs8 (i.e. primary
motif 1: water=music=creation; primary motif 2: stone=non-music=
destruction), all other relationships can be seen as variations of these pri-
mary motifs, and could be regarded as intermediary (to the extremities) on
the continuum of relationships. To clarify this, I will present an example of
how motivic relationships are generated with regard to two of the mythical
fragments used in the performance.
The first mythical fragment uses the myth of the Sirens and Odysseus.
The Sirens sing to Odysseus and when he successfully sails away, overcom-
ing the temptation of their singing, they hurl themselves into the sea and
are drowned. The second fragment uses the myth of the Sirens and
the Argonauts. Orpheus, who is on the ship Argo, sings against the song of
the Sirens. One of the Argonauts (Butes) still succumbs to the temptation
of the Sirens’ music and he jumps into the sea towards them. He is saved
by Aphrodite (a divine intervention), and all the other Argonauts are
saved by Orpheus’ song. Because of their failure, the Sirens, in this case,
are lithified.
These two myths relate music and creation to the elements of water
and stone in ways other than the ones expressed by the primary motifs. In
the second myth, we have the Sirens’ music=destruction=stone (in the
case of their petrification) – thus a reversal of primary myth 2. In the same
myth, we have Orpheus’ music=non-destruction (a variation of music=
creation) and the Sirens’ music=almost destruction by water (in the case
of Butes) – thus a variation of the reversal of primary myth 1. In addition,
in the first myth, we see the Sirens’ music=destruction=water (since they
drown themselves), which is a reversal of primary myth 1. Using these
new relationships (as variations of the primary motifs), we can place them
as points on a continuum represented in the diagram below:

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P.M.1 Variation of Reversal of Variation of Reversal P.M.2
P.M.1 P.M.2 reversal of P.M.1 of P.M.1

Figure 2: Representation of the motivic relationships in the two myths as points of the ‘continuum’.

9. This is further The same process could be applied to the rest of the fragments used in
supported by the fact the performance. The presentation of myths (such as the ones presented
that the particular
performer (with two here) in the performance score provides a structurally unified composi-
other performers) was tion, based on the coexistence of the different variations of the primary
involved in an act of motivic relationships. While their presentation in a linear fashion (as in
making music in the
opening section the diagram above) accommodates their belonging to a continuum, their
where she came motivic relationships create a connection between them that would sup-
opposite the port their reading in a synchronous manner. In other words, the resulting
instrumentalists (who
are sitting in the amalgamation will be that of a musical structure which conceptually
audience) and presents an approximation of a continuum.
together they created
a musical soundscape Translating the performance score: the continuum as a basis
that accompanied the
sound of the in the process of visual presentation
pre-recorded musique In the visual realization of the score, we come to address the idea of musique
concrète. The three concrète being akin to a type of temporal painting, or a melding of forms
female performers
(onstage) (mentioned earlier in connection to Lévi-Strauss’ writings). In the context
(re)presented singers of a theatrical performance based on the presence of real performers on
‘singing’ against the stage, this melding can happen on the level of the presentation of the per-
soundscape created by
the instrumentalists formers’ ‘roles’. Firstly, we will look at how a piece of musique concrète can
(offstage). The space be used practically as an impulse that gives rise to a continuum of (re)pre-
of reception of the sentation in the performance. Secondly, we will analyse the presentation of
roles here remains
open as it is not the mythical fragments on a continuum of abstraction/ concretion.
clear whether the
instrumentalists take Musique concrète and continuous ‘melding’ of (re)presentation:
on the role of
‘characters’ or the
the ‘leaking vessel’
performers take on The musique concrète example of the opening sequence (discussed earlier)
the role of musicians. ends with the recorded sound of the water sample. What follows is the
This blurring of the
boundaries between
continuation of that water sound created live on stage by a performer who
musicians and takes water out of a small tank in a leaking vessel. As she walks (in the
actors/performers is trough that is situated along the downstage area) the water leaks out
one that was further
explored in the
of the vessel she carries. Because the sound of the leaking water (presented
performance through a concrete visualization of the sound production) is a continuation
extending the of the pre-recorded sound in the musique concrète segment, the act of creat-
continuum of the
assignment of these
ing sound could be read (initially at least) as another mode of ‘making
roles to encompass music’.9 If the performer who sprinkles water is to be read as a ‘musician’,
the audience. then she escapes another form of referential representation (as with
regards to functioning as a ‘character’). In the process of the performance,
though, her role changes gradually as she continues performing the same
action in a slow, ritualistic manner until the end. This performative mode
(‘ritualistic’, alone) initially disrupts her association with the musicians,
but only until other, thus-far-designated ‘instrumentalists’ come on stage
and also perform music in the same performative mode. Thus they put her
role (and theirs) as a ‘musician’ or ‘actor’ in flux.

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Figure 3: The Danaid as ‘noise’. Photo: Georges Bacoust.

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---------------- ---------------- ---------------- ---------------- ----------------

Pre-recorded Concrete Performer as Performer’s Performer’s
sound of visualization ‘actor’ action action as a
water sample of the sound as metaphor representation
production and of a mythical
performer as character

Figure 4: A diagram of the continuum of representation given rise to by the musique concrète of
the opening sequence.

10. ‘A lyric poem may not Arguably, another point on the continuum of (re)presentation would
be called a narrative – be that the performer not only creates ‘noise’ which is used to connect the
that is, it may not
have the impact or compositional structure aurally, but also represents ‘noise’ in the sense
felt quality of a that in her endless journey she gets in the way of the audience’s gaze on
narrative – yet almost the other happenings. When she is perceived as an ‘actor’, however, the
invariably it will
include all kinds continuous repetition of an action of ‘no consequence’ can be further read
of narrative bits and as ‘action as metaphor’. Finally, the ultimate degree of concreteness of the
pieces. These bits can image (on this continuum of referential concreteness) will be its referential
even have a high
degree of narrativity, attachment to the myth by which it has been inspired. The performer rep-
yet still the effect of resents a Danaid who was ‘punished’ by being made to carry water in a
the whole is not that leaking vessel for eternity. Both the stages of receiving the image as a
of a narrative.’
(Abbott 2002: 28). metaphor and as a mythical representation depend on the individual
experiences of each audience member.
Because the pattern of the Danaid was conceived and composed struc-
turally (as an ostinato pattern) in its relation to other happenings, the
audience is free to draw from an open space of semantic correlations with
regard to their coexistence. But far from relinquishing responsibility for
the resulting associations, we need to ensure that the continuum becomes
a means of opening up a free space of associations, different in the mind of
each one of the audience members. This could be a point where Lévi-
Strauss’ ideas can be brought closer to the notion of the postdramatic.
‘[M]usic has its being in me, and I listen to myself through it [… ] the myth
and the musical work are like conductors of an orchestra, whose audience
becomes the silent performers’ (Lévi-Strauss 1970: 17).

Second level of motivic relationships

In having composed the score of the performance so that the first level of
motivic relationships comes to the forefront, I used mythical fragments
which are admittedly narrative fragments in themselves, but do not achieve
an overall sense of narrative in their composition (just as it would be in the
case of a lyric poem according to H. Porter Abbott).10 The space of meaning
will be opened up if the multifarious correlations between the notions take
precedence over any other relationship of cause and effect. Abbott talks
about ‘the need to interpret by exclusion’ (Abbott 2002: 80), a need that is
accommodated by the formulation of a narrative. The presentations of
mythical fragments could create causal relationships that support a mech-
anism of interpretation ‘by exclusion’. But if a creative construction points
to its inclusive character by way of structure, it could arguably resist such

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an interpretation. If, in their presentation (the execution of the score) as

well as in their composition, the fragments are related very strongly
through musical strategies of organization, i.e. motivic relationships, then
the process of ‘exclusion’ could be (at least) suspended. Abbott argues that
themes and motifs can help interpret a narrative text in the way that they
point to connections used by the perceiver to fill in apparent gaps in the
‘reading’ of a narrative (Abbott 2002: 89). But an extensive use of motifs
which appear in many evidently unrelated (narrative-wise) contexts could
even multiply the gaps instead of bridging them. In this way, a relationship
of cause and effect will become extremely difficult to establish (however
much the audience tends to ‘under-read’) and would be replaced by a sense
of flux of order or meaning: a flooding of images.
Along these lines, a second level of motivic relationships (which I will
call the ‘motivic gesture’) was introduced. The challenge at hand relates to
the decision made in the translation of the mythical fragments into
actions, which are connected in terms of gestures and their permutations.
Again, these translations do not happen on a constant level of abstraction
but are based on a continuum of abstraction/concretion, so as to primarily
accommodate the creation of a strong structural bond between them.
To exemplify this process, let us take three mythical fragments that
were included in the score because of their first-level motivic connections:
Narcissus wasting away into the water of the river; Pygmalion’s statue
coming to life as Galateia; and Teiresias dying after he drinks water from
a pool that has been spread over with stones.
In the myth of Narcissus we see a performer’s persistent (but futile)
attempt to touch his object of desire: his own reflection in the water. The
movement of the arm as it is trying to reach for something ungraspable
is treated as a motif when it is used later for the representation of
Pygmalion’s unrequited love for Galateia. Galateia, who is still a statue,
remains just as unreachable/unattainable an object of affection as Narcissus’
reflection. Pygmalion’s gesture is a transposition of Narcissus’ arm
movement on a vertical rather than a horizontal plane. The same arm
movement is re-contextualized towards the end of the performance
when Teiresias (the blind seer) reaches to drink water from the water
pool and dies. The motif, in this last case, is a variation of the first
instance, since Narcissus can see and cannot touch the water, while
Teiresias cannot see but eventually touches it. So what we have here is
a gestural motif (which we can name ‘reaching for the object of desire’),
a transposition of it on the vertical level in the second sequence, and a
variation of it in the last. In the way they are used, these gestural motifs
do not bridge the gaps of a narrative, nor do they form any other relation-
ship of cause and effect, but they connect the fragments in a musical way,
creating a structure. Teiresias appears at the end of the performance
while Narcissus is seen in the opening (followed by Pygmalion). The con-
nection between these two groups of fragments is one of the strategies
employed in the creation of the cyclic structure that the performance is
built on.
In between these sections, arm movements are also used in other myth-
ical fragments and re-contextualized through a variation of this gestural
motif (arguably another level of form-melding). The variation of the motif

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Figure 5: Gaia and Cronus. Photo: Georges Bacoust.

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Concrete Abstract
Teiresias Narcissus Pygmalion Rhea Gaia

Figure 6: Continuum (in levels of concretion) in the visual translation of the five mythical fragments.

could be labelled as ‘reaching for the product of creation’. This time the 11. The sound of a baby
arm movement is used on a higher level of abstraction. When Rhea, for crying appears in the
next sequence as part
example, gives birth on stage, she does not do it in naturalistic terms, of a musique concrète
instead there is an abstraction of the birth-giving process into an arm move- piece. This time, the
ment sequence. This same motif of ‘reaching for the product of creation’ is sound sample gives
rise to a melody
reversed afterwards in another sequence when Cronus forces his children picked up by the
back into Gaia’s womb. Gaia is synonymous with Earth, so as Cronus instrumentalists and
pushes down a pile of soil that the performer (Gaia) was building some- played live on stage
as part of the
thing out of, she uses the reversal of Rhea’s arm movement motif from the presentation of
previous sequence. another mythical
In these last two examples the presentation of the mythical frag- fragment.
ments happens on a high degree of abstraction. Yet, in connection to the
simultaneous visual realization of other mythical fragments on stage,
and through their own development on the continuum of representa-
tion, such abstractions are occasionally allowed to acquire a more
concrete signification, at least in a narrow sense of a referential attribute.
After the climax of her arm section, Rhea holds the product of her
efforts in her arms, in the way that a mother would hold her baby. This,
in effect, mirrors the process that I described earlier in the musique con-
crète model, wherein the concrete sound sample is only presented at the
end of the process of composition. Yet, again, as long as this reference is
not connected in a manner of causality (but only in a structural manner)11
to another happening (or other happenings), the specific section acquires
the quality of a happening that is only in the ‘process of becoming’. It never,
in actuality, consummates as part of a concrete conceptual order like
that afforded by a narrative, used as a tool to ‘making sense’ by exclusion.
By creating a clear structure (both on a macro and micro level), the
physicality of the performers comes to the forefront. And it is a physicality
imbued with several levels and changes of intensity (musical dynamics),
rhythm and structure that lends the performance a sense of a musical or
(to quote Lehmann) ‘auditory semiotics’ (Lehmann 2006: 91).

Before ‘The Great Flood’: concrète versus the ‘suppressed

concrete’ and the metalingual as part of the continuum
At the beginning of our discussion on the musical/conceptual model used
for the performance, a decision was made to introduce the concept of the
‘continuum’ based on musique concrète. Just as Lachenmann tried ‘to liber-
ate sounds from all existing tonal, connotative and expressive baggage in
an iconoclastic act, [...] to free them from the sum of intra- and extra-
musical pre-formations’ (Nonnenmann 2005: 4), we have used musique
concrète in an effort to break free from established forms of aural significa-
tion. To make this ‘iconoclastic act’ obvious in a theatrical performance,
the ‘existing expressive baggage’ of tonal music was presented as a point

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12. The myth of Orpheus from which we were to depart. By presenting this, the clash between the
has inspired
generations of
‘continuum’ and the ‘binary’, which informed the conceptual basis of this
composers (such as performance, becomes performed, essentially as a clash between the ‘concrète’
Monteverdi, Gluck, and the ‘tonal’ (or the iconically concrete).
Offenbach, Rossi, Peri,
Haydn, but also more
In the discussion of the musique concrète example of the opening sequence,
contemporary I referred to a model wherein the concrete reference is presented at the
composers like climax of the compositional process. Based on this model, the presenta-
Krenek, Birtwistle,
Glass etc.) and its
tion of the iconic ‘concreteness’ of tonal music was reserved for the climax
operatic realization of the performance. The music of the climactic sequence is a collage based
through the on musical fragments from operatic realizations of the myth of Orpheus12
preceding centuries
has been
(from various periods of the operatic tonal tradition), and more specifically
phenomenal, to the from scenes wherein Orpheus is in the Underworld. So, while the perfor-
point that some of the mance is based on the idea of presenting a collage of mythical fragments in
operas have acquired
a mythological status
a musical way, this is reversed in the climactic sequence where a collage of
themselves. (tonal) musical fragments accompanies the representation of one mythical
13. An aria from Luigi
Rossi’s Orfeo (1647), But if we were to present only one instance of tonal music we would be
a fragment of which is violating not only our conceptual thesis of the continuum, but also the
also to be found in the
collage of the
idea of basing the performance on a musical structure (on an aural level).
climactic sequence. The compositional dilemma can be summed up in the following question:
how can the climax have a metalingual effect without being unique in its
musical (tonal) material? One way of dealing with this issue can be found
in the compositional/conceptual notion of the continuum. The musical
material of the climax need not be unique in its nature, as long as it can be
unique in its use. As a consequence, other pieces of tonal music are used
in the performance, but presented under some form of a ‘suppression’
When, in a previous sequence, Orpheus performs a song to protect the
Argonauts from the Sirens, his song13 is obscured by the non-tonal clus-
ters of the Sirens (both pre-recorded and live) and by the instrumentalists
who also act as Sirens in the simultaneous presentation of the myth of
Odysseus. In this case, the suppression of the tonal aria was absorbed as a
representational technique in the presentation of the mythical fragments
in the following manner. The instrumentalists (musically representing the
Sirens) begin by playing clusters and using extended techniques, but,
slowly ‘infected’ by Orpheus’ song, they gradually start using pitch-sets
from the aria. By the end of this sequence, they all join together in repeat-
ing the introduction from his aria like a broken record ad infinitum; thus
representing their lithification. The choice of using the repetition of a tonal
phrase as a representation of their lithification (again at the climax of this
process of musical transformation) was not accidental. It hints at the met-
alingual point of iconic ‘concretization’ in tonal music that will be more
extensively presented in the climax.
The tonal music excerpt that the instrumentalists repeat here (the
instrumental introduction to Orpheus’ aria) will come back in another
sequence, suppressed this time in a different way. Each of the instrumen-
talists is playing ad libitum in a manner that the sonoric tension created by
the simultaneous lines is never resolved into a cadence. The suppression is
not used as a method of narrative representation of the mythological
fragment, as in the previous case, but as a method of using the audience’s

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Figure 7: The scene of Orpheus on stage. Photo: Georges Bacoust.

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Figure 8: Conducting the scene of Orpheus (offstage). Photo: Georges Bacoust.

14. This action is, of pre-supposition of a well-known, tonal musical device (the cadence). The
course, part of a aural element is complemented by what is happening on stage; the musi-
presentation of
another mythical cal device is shared between the aural and the visual. A group of perform-
fragment that ers keep falling to the floor,14 as if visually transliterating the meaning of
happens the cadence (Latin cadentia, ‘a falling’), as well as the audience’s desire for
simultaneously. The
performers represent a closure. Another performer dances continuously until the lights go off at
Hercules’ enemies the end of this sequence.
whom he kills with The different suppression mechanisms that accompany instances of
stones that have fallen
from the sky as help tonal music could, in fact, produce a feeling of frustration in the audience.
from Zeus. In this way, the climactic sequence would be originally conceived as a
release/liberation from the ‘suppression’ mechanisms inflicted on a type of
music that the audience is comfortable with. This initial feeling of com-
fortableness, though, is jarred in this case by the visual. On stage, there
is one performer (representing Orpheus) and the conductor. The visual
representation of the myth is in fact quite abstract, as we see a male per-
former following, very slowly, his own shadow (projected on the gauze
of the platform) from stage left to stage right where there is a ladder.
Yet the fragments of operatic music in this case impose on the performer
the character of Orpheus. In addition, the use of perpetuating tonal/operatic
clichés exposes and supports the mythic narrative: as the music is brought
to a climax, he turns around and looks at the audience (his shadow

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At the same time, the audience is confronted with a reversal of usual

operatic staging and practice: the performers/actors become musicians/
singers – and part of the audience – as they stand amongst the audience;
the conductor, who conducts the instrumentalists/musicians/performers
and, arguably (by way of his placement), the audience, conducts to a
pre-recorded piece of music, and thus becomes a performer as much as a
Returning to the idea of musical creation and the way it is presented in
myth via the elements of water and stone, the climactic sequence poses a
question: if the relationships between water/stone and creation in Greek
mythology do not fall strictly within categories of binary opposition but on
a continuum, is it because musical creation (as any type of creation
arguably) inherently includes the element of destruction? The music of the
climactic sequence includes quotations of tonal operatic music, which
have been taken out of context and used to create a new piece of music.
The composer/conductor/Orpheus is thus created from the music as much
as he creates it. He is conducted by it as much as he conducts it. And the
audience members find themselves in a place where they are not only
watching, but unless they reject this invitation, they are performing in

While mimesis in Aristotle’s sense produces the pleasure of recognition and
thus virtually always achieves a result, here the sense data always refer to
answers that are sensed as possible, but not (yet) graspable; what one sees
and hears remains in a state of potentiality, its appropriation postponed.
(Lehmann 2006: 99)

Clastoclysm is a musical presentation of myth, which invites the audience

to participate in an act of listening and seeing myth through themselves,
if not themselves through it (Lévi-Strauss 1970: 17). It does not intend to
offer resolutions or definite meanings such as the ones suggested by a
structuralist analysis of myth. Both the processes of composition and
performance pertain to a musical conceptual model that comes in antithe-
sis to the notion of the binary. Using the continuum for the creation of
the score, we invited a ‘flooding’ of mythological fragments (‘images’).
Applying the continuum to the realization of the score, the performance
opens up the space of possible connections between the ‘sense data’ by
highlighting musical (motivic) relations between them. In this way, the
musical structure does not delimit the space of meaning: it multiplies it.
The performance supersedes the boundaries of dramatic theatre in that
it is not subordinated to the primacy of the text. The determining factor for
all aspects of the performance is the music. The mythical fragments are
chosen to fit the musical model; the compositional process of the score gives
predominance to musical over dramatic strategies; the visualization of the
score elucidates motivic connections, which evade the boundaries of a logic
based on cause and effect. The particular musical model is certainly not
exclusive in its ability to do this. I believe that through its treatment of the
sign as ‘a process of becoming’, the model facilitates our understanding

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of how music can be used in a theatrical happening to create ‘sense data

that refer to answers that [… ] are not (yet) graspable’ (Lehmann 2006: 99).

Works cited
Abbott, H. P. (2002), The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Balme, C. (2004), ‘Editorial’, Theatre Research International, 29, pp. 1–3.
Berio, L. (1997), ‘Of Sounds and Images’ (trans. David Osmond-Smith), Cambridge
Opera Journal, 9: 3, pp. 295–299.
Lehmann, H. (2006), Postdramatic Theatre, Wiltshire: The Cromwell Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1970), The Raw and the Cooked (trans. John and Doreen Weightman),
London: Cape.
Mâche, F. B. (1992), Music, Myth and Nature or The Dolphins of Arion (trans. Susan
Delaney), Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.
McLean, P. (1977), ‘Fire and Ice: A Query’, Perspectives of New Music, 16: 1,
pp. 205–211.
Mosch, U. (2007), ‘Lachenmann, Helmut’, in Macy, L. (ed.), Grove Music Online.
Accessed 12 October 2007.
‘Musique concrète’ (2008), Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.
com/eb/article-9054441/musique-concrete.html. Accessed 15 April 2008.
Nonnenmann, R. (2005), ‘Music with Images – The Development of Helmut
Lachenmann’s Sound Composition Between Concretion and Transcendence’
(trans. Wieland Hoban), Contemporary Music Review, 24: 1, pp. 1–29.
Szondi, P. (1987). Theory of the modern drama: a critical edition. (trans. Michael Hays).
Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Suggested citation
Zavros, D. (2008), ‘Flooding the concrète: Clastoclysm and the notion of the ‘continuum’
as a conceptual and musical basis for a postdramatic music-theatre performance’,
Studies in Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 83–100, doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.83/1

Contributor details
Demetris Zavros is a music-theatre Ph.D. student at the School of Performance and
Cultural Industries of the University of Leeds. He is Associate Director of the theatre
company ‘Altitude North’ and also works as a freelance composer for the theatre.
His music-theatre works include: AiAs Mana, Icarus, and Clastoclysm. His theatre
music includes: Tender Dearly, The Little Prince and other stories, Ajax, On/Off, Frozen
(as composer) and A Stranger in the House (as orchestrator).

100 Demetris Zavros

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Re: Act
Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.101/7

Detached signifiers, dead babies and

demon dwarves: Bieito’s Dutchman1
Kara McKechnie University of Leeds

Abstract Keywords
The Catalan director Calixto Bieito is a successful opera director, critically Richard Wagner
acclaimed for his often violent and confrontational concepts. He has worked The Flying Dutchman
mainly on German stages in the last decade, where audiences have often been Calixto Bieito
scandalized by the explicit imagery and radical re-interpretations in Bieito’s Stuttgart State Opera
work. This ‘reactive’ review critiques his production of The Flying Dutchman interpretation
for Stuttgart State Opera (2008), applying mainly semiotic and some phenome- semiotics
nological analysis. It also contextualizes Regietheater (director’s theatre) with
audience expectation. The context of the production and the impact of using an
earlier (1841) version of the opera is examined with reference to direction,
scenography and conceptual updating of The Flying Dutchman.

When you go to the opera, you want to feel the energy. It’s about energy, like
at a bullfight.
(Bieito in Beyer 2007: 124, my translation)2

Although the Catalan director Calixto Bieito is talking here about the 1. I would like to thank
energy onstage, his new production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying the press office at
Staatsoper Stuttgart
Dutchman at the Staatsoper Stuttgart created energies similar to a bullfight (Frau Meyer and Frau
amongst its viewers. Though it can be distracting, the feeling of polariza- Peitz) for their
tion certainly raises the emotional temperature in the auditorium, felt generous permission
to reproduce the
even after the first night, when protest and acclaim had been reported as image used in this
noisy and confrontational. At this, the third performance (2 February 2008), article (copyright
sarcastic laughter was projected at images on stage; even more extrovert of Sebastian Hoppe).
My thanks and
audience members chose the quiet introduction to the Dutchman’s first aria appreciation are also
to declare they had had enough and walked out, slamming the door. Come due to Harry Rowohlt
the end, though, surprisingly, no booing was heard. This lack of protest, for his translation of
Bernstein’s poem spe-
despite tangible dislike of the production, may be to do with a different cially for this article.
emotional temperature having developed during the second half of the
2. ‘Wenn Du in die Oper
evening. I am going to argue in this reactive article that, while Bieito often gehst, willst du die
practises a style of detached signifiers (i.e. a semiotic signifier that has very Energien spüren. Es
little connection with what it signifies, or normally signifies), and is always geht um Energien,
wie bei einem
looking to develop his ‘surreal language’ further (see Beyer 2007: 127), he Stierkampf ’.
follows the emotional curve Wagner sets out in The Flying Dutchman. I will

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try and elaborate on a production that juxtaposes moments of striking

poignancy with effects which got stranded in this seafarer’s tale.
If opera should counter apathy and produce opinionated audiences,
then Stuttgart State Opera can bank a success: outraged audience mem-
bers insist that state subsidy should consider those who just want to rec-
ognize the story and withdraw funding from a production which flippantly
associates a favourite operatic wandering ghost with fridges and show-
girls. Afterwards, some people hover expectantly, wanting confirmation
that no, you didn’t understand why there was a white Wendy house with
women’s legs sticking out of it, either. The national press, meanwhile, is in
raptures over Bieito’s innovative provocations.
Opera manages to combine and conflict the progressive and the reac-
tionary more than most art forms. Productions like Bieito’s violate the
reactionary expectations of opera that have turned out to be very persis-
tent, despite about forty years of Regietheater (director’s theatre; see also
Brandenburg 2008: 19). This is not necessarily a clean split between
avant-garde production and a traditional audience; it is a conflict that
divides opera companies themselves. The composer, the revered auteur, is
often seen as the creator of narrative and scenic ‘intention’ (‘that’s not
how Mozart intended the work to be staged’). This can be described as an
intentional fallacy, which means audience members confuse their own
expectations, often based on more traditional experiences of a production,
with the composer’s ‘intention’, seeking legitimization for something that
is essentially a matter of taste. The question of intention is no longer prob-
lematized in critical literature, as there are such compelling reasons why
this approach is flawed – theatre is ephemeral and can never be recreated,
and historical veracity cannot be achieved, as production context and
audiences are not of the original period:

A director wanted to make the seats uncomfortable for the audience when
they were watching a Greek tragedy, as they would have been uncomfortable
in their seats in the original amphitheatre, so I suggested they turn the heat-
ing up as well.
(Bradley 2008)

The authenticity issue is nonetheless alive and well for a sizeable propor-
tion of the audience: some people go to the opera to recognize what they
already know. Opera strives to be accessible on the one hand, but will not
survive by repetitive revivals of archaic scenic inventory on the other.
Thus, productions often do not pursue the objective of clear storytelling,
and directors are not appointed to facilitate or clarify. They instead seek to
interpret a work in their own creative language, and often in relation to
their contemporary surroundings, rather than the world contemporary to
the composer and librettist. According to Bieito, the real scandal is caused
by art refusing to face up to reality (Brandenburg 2008: 19). Given the
small number of works in the operatic core repertoire, the narratives of the
popular, canonical operas are so familiar that some directors see it as
unrewarding or unchallenging to simply pursue another easily accessible
telling of the story. The convoluted and dramatically abstruse nature of
some libretti may also prompt radical updating. Familiarity can thus be a

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carte blanche to be playful and bank on the solid, well-known frame of 3. Opera occupies a
special position for
Carmen or The Magic Flute,3 making conceptual and visual choices ever UK audiences, as it is
more extraordinary. The current generation of big name opera directors often sung in a
have no concern over their obligation towards ‘intentions’ or expectations; foreign language, and
words cannot always
they see works as the ‘material’ and their productions as versions or vari- easily be identified
ations on a tale, as the director Peter Konwitschny explains: over the orchestra –
the simplistic vocabu-
lary of gestures and
Mozart won’t be turning in his grave and even if so [… ] Theatre is a very
scenic shortcuts often
short lived affair. We have the scores as a template only. The score is the associated with tradi-
skeleton, the real theatre comes through the live people, they lend their life tional opera can
partly be explained
to the work for a certain time, which revives the skeleton. [… ] It is not our
by this.
job to direct the pieces in the way that the author imagined them, how
4. ‘Mozart dreht sich
should that work anyway? It is our job to ask certain important questions in
deshalb nicht im Grab
order to prompt a discussion. The pieces are the material with which to do herum und selbst
this, they are not just for their own sake. [… ] If you understand Mozart as a wenn. Theater ist eine
sehr kurzlebige
closed system, you are abusing him and he can’t get out; that is also true for
Angelegenheit. Wir
Wagner and most artists. haben die Partituren
(Konwitschny quoted in Beyer 2007: 27–29, my translation)4 nur als Vorlage. Die
Partitur ist das
Skelett, das
If opera audiences don’t recognize what they already know, they at least eigentliche Theater
want to understand what they are seeing. German audiences might some- entsteht mit den
lebenden Menschen,
times be persuaded, for the Bildungsauftrag5 of its generously state-subsi- de leihen ihr Leben
dized theatre, to suspend culinary and aesthetic pleasure for intellectual dem Werk für eine
insight. But a theatre like Bieito’s, full of violent emotion and detached sig- gewisse Zeit aus,
wodurch das Skelett
nifiers seems to satisfy neither demand. To call Bieito’s work semiotically für drei Stunden
dysfunctional would be doing it an injustice, though. It is image-based theatre belebt wird. [… ] Es ist
that sometimes reveals a striking parabolic meaning to a scene. Bieito nicht unsere Aufgabe,
die Stücke so zu insze-
describes how the impulses for ideas originate in his work with the score: nieren, wie es sich die
Autoren vorgestellt
It is our job to interpret the music in accordance with its different levels of haben, wie sollte das
auch gehen? Unsere
interaction with the scene [… ] When I start rehearsing, I know the music off
Aufgabe ist es,
by heart, I can manipulate it, or maybe it is better to say I play with it. [… ] bestimmte wichtige
I work more with the music than I do with the text. Fragen so zu stellen,
daß darüber
(Bieito in Beyer 2007: 126, my translation)6
diskutiert wird. Die
Stücke sind das
Bieito also dismisses criticism that accuses him of pursuing a sensationalist, Material dazu, sie sind
kein Selbstzweck. [… ]
forcibly updated agenda, seeing himself rather as a destroyer of operatic Wenn man Mozart als
clichés. When Quentin Tarantino and his particular style of violent noncha- geschlossenes System
lance first came to popular consciousness in the mid-1990s, some critics begreift, tut man ihm
Gewalt an, da kann er
compared his texts to those of Jacobean playwrights Webster or Marston. nicht mehr aus sich
Bieito, sometimes compared to Tarantino, sees his heritage in his culture, heraus, das gilt genau
however, providing an autobiographical aspect to some of his concepts:7 so für Wagner wie für
jeden anderen
Künstler auch’.
My black humour comes from Cervantes, Valle Inclan and Cabedo. That’s
my culture – my surrealistic view of life comes from my background and cul- 5. The terms
Bildungsauftrag (‘the
ture. People have said that my work is like Tarantino but I’m far closer to mission to educate’)
Goya. His paintings are violent but he was the precursor of the and Kulturauftrag (‘the
Expressionists. I was shocked when I was young and saw Goya’s pictures at mission to provide
culture’) are very pre-
the Prado. sent in German
(Bieito, quoted in Fisher 2003) society, and are

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Kara McKechnie
Page 104
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Figure 1 The dinghy of lost capitalists and the boatswain of lost signifiers. Heinz Goehrig and men's chorus, Staatsoper Stuttgart. Photo: Sebastian Hoppe.
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Xavier Zuber, Bieito’s long-term collaborating dramaturg, outlines concep- central to the expecta-
tion of a theatre or
tual choices in the informative and visually striking programme booklet opera company’s
for the Dutchman, which apes the appearance of a MasterCard on the public role.
cover, and is laid out like a credit card statement on the inside. The pro- 6. ‘Die Musik
duction team decided on using the Urfassung, the 1841 version of the entsprechend zu
opera: it is performed without an interval, is set in Scotland rather than interpretieren und auf
ihre verschiedenen
Norway and can be aligned with Wagner and his situation at the time, as Niveaus mit der Szene
elaborated below. Conductor Enrique Mazzola also discusses ‘the straight- zu reagieren ist unser
forward kinds of feelings that are expressed here’, in contrast to a spirit of Job. [… ] Zu Beginn
der Proben habe ich
transcendence which didn’t enter the score until the 1861 version. The die Musik auswendig
transfigurative qualities of Wagner’s later version(s), he remarks, would im Kopf, ich kann sie
not match the conceptual approach of the Stuttgart production, which is manipulieren, doch
das ist vielleicht das
free from allusions and hints (Mazzola 2008: 53)8. ‘The opera is thus falsche Wort, ich
Wagner’s attempt to artistically contribute to the societal situation of the kann mit ihr spielen.
times, clad in the gown of the Dutchman’s legend’ (Zuber 2008: 9). [… ] Ich arbeite
darüber mehr als mit
dem Text’.
The performance
In the overture, with the ‘violent tremolo, the hollow fifths and octaves’ 7. In some interviews
preceding the
that constitute the ‘ghostly Dutchman motif ’ (Kaiser 1992: 24), a Stuttgart Dutchman,
woman’s silhouette is visible behind semi-transparent glass panes. She is Bieito described an
surrounded by threatening shadows, enormous when far away, and only epiphany at Zurich
airport, where he
diminishing to human size when they are close to the panes. One male suddenly felt like a
figure with a briefcase approaches the woman and alternates affectionate rootless, eternally
attention with brutal acts, striking her and stubbing cigarette ends out travelling Dutchman
figure in a faceless
on her skin. The proximity of this act makes it even more disturbing, airport lounge. This,
although it is anonymized by the semi-opaque glass. One assumes that the however, is not
figures are Senta and her father, Donald in this version. After the male fig- mentioned in the
programme booklet
ure has left, the female paces the length of the curtain, looking outwards, for the production.
and finally writing ‘Rette mich!’ (‘Save me!’) all over the panes with a lip-
8. It is debatable
stick. The scene is set: Senta’s desperation, her innere Notwendigkeit (inner whether the term
necessity) to escape the abuse she has just encountered (and the confor- ‘Urfassung’ can be
mity she is expected to show in later scenes) has clearly been formulated. used, as the 1841
version was never
It is juxtaposed with the Dutchman’s inner necessity to escape, shown in performed as it is
the first scene. The Dutchman is not a ghost in this interpretation. Bieito presented in the
and Zuber map his search for redemption onto Wagner’s description of an Stuttgart production:
‘the material was not
inner necessity, and interpret it as the character’s need to escape the ‘inner produced by Wagner
apocalyptic prison’, the ‘steely hard structure’ of capitalism (Weber, in this form’ (Mazzola
quoted in Zuber 2008: 8). ‘The Dutchman as modern businessman of 2008: 53).
today [in a] life between duty and loneliness. Thus the first scene was
born, a boat full of men, stranded victims of modern working life.
Survivors of our achievement’ (Zuber 2008: 8).
It is Max Weber’s ‘steely hard structure’ that has given the main impulse
to Bieito’s scenography – a cold metal frame which encases the depth of the
stage and extends the proscenium arch on the inside. The production’s dra-
maturgy draws a parallel between the outcast that is the Dutchman and a
destitute Richard Wagner during his time in Paris. Here, he likened himself to
a shipwrecked person, not as one who comes up against cliffs, but one who
slowly sinks in bog and quicksand – the artist’s dependence on capital, spon-
sorship and funding. Hence the two main elements of the scenography: a
steely hard structure, set on wet, boggy sand, into which one helplessly sinks.

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9. ‘My mother said it Donald’s ship does not deliver romantic seafarer’s fantasies: it is an
was simple to keep
a man, you must be
overcrowded rubber dinghy onto which the male chorus is piled. They are
a maid in the living wearing black suits, the disjuncture between formal wear and inadequate
room, a cook in the boat making sure we understand that these men are stranded: shares,
kitchen and a whore
in the bedroom. I said
bonds and other signs of financial transaction littering the scene as they
I’d hire the other two enter. There is a PowerPoint projection at the back that formulates the
and take care of the vocabulary they have been conditioned to respond to: life coaching, nat-
bedroom bit’ (‘Jerry
Hall’ 2008).
ural selection, motivational talk. Gradually, the words flashing up on the
screen speed up, giving the impression of being out of control, hollow rep-
etitions of corporate jargon. Here is a clear case for getting out. The
German word Aussteiger is used a lot in the materials provided with the
production – it can be translated as ‘someone who leaves the rat race’, and
it certainly looks as though the Dutchman has taken that decision and
joined the futile crew on the dinghy. Confusingly, no distinction seems to
be made between Donald’s and the Dutchman’s ship, there is one
(generic?) rubber dinghy. Another enigma, albeit of the entertaining kind,
is provided by the Boatswain. With no direct narrative function in the plot
of the opera, a provider of maritime atmosphere, Bieito has sought new
playful outlets for this figure. Dressed in white, he is accompanied by two
showgirls with headdresses and white feathery costumes and a lit-up
Wendy house that can walk. A male dwarf bursts out of it, dressed in a
bridal gown and projecting demonic laughter at the bewildered audience.
After the Boatswain’s aria ‘Durch Gewitter und Sturm’, he and the dwarf-
bride-demon retreat to the walking Wendy house for sex. The signs produced
by this white-dressed conglomerate are at best speculative (a perversion of
the pseudo-romantic ideals of a screwed-up society? A perversion of a
domesticity that is just based on transaction – homeliness for money and
sex? But what about the showgirls?!).
Apart from the dinghy, the most quoted image in reviews and reactions
consists of the three rows of fridges that are brought in for Act 2. They are
multi-purpose fridges, replacing the spinning wheels in the women’s cho-
rus of the same name, and functioning as objects to sit on, lean over and
to engage with choreographically. Disturbingly, when opened, they reveal
copious amounts of shiny shrink-wrapped meat, and a human foetus
each. The associations evoked by the fridges are supported by the women’s
appearance and behaviour, motivated entirely by the need to please the
tastes of their husbands. This prompts thoughts about Jerry Hall’s famous
quoting of her mother’s recipe to keeping a man: a maid in the living
room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom.9 Senta, although
equipped with the same attributes, a blonde wig and her personal fridge,
never for a moment belongs to this perversion of a sisterhood. Given her
position, she is not yet able to be the Aussteiger the Dutchman has already
become. She, however, has a powerful voice. In her ballad, at the very core
of the opera both dramaturgically and musically, striking imagery is found
for Senta’s in-between situation. She is encouraged to sing the ballad
(against the wishes of Mary, a fierce ‘butch’ supervisor figure in a mono-
chrome suit), but in order to be contained, is ‘chained’ with marigolds
between two fridges, so her arm movement is restricted. Bieito follows the
musical structure of the ballad, which suggests disinterest by the other
women at first, but draws them into joining the chorus and developing

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empathy for the Dutchman’s plight. When this happens, Senta’s arms are 10. There is a slight irony
to the ‘emancipation’
freed by one of the women and the first step towards her emancipation has of Senta over the
been made, it seems. The ballad has interrupted the women’s routine of other women as
preening dances and the existence based on wanting to please.10 Wagner envisaged her
as a prototype of the
It is the mass scene at the harbour in Act 3 that culminates in one of ‘new ideal woman’,
the climaxes of this production: the ghost choir. The disintegration that has who gives herself up
started in the fridge scene takes hold even more. It is best perceived through entirely in support of
the man she loves.
the bodies, hair and make-up of the chorus, not so much on the disintegra- There are possible
tion of the set, which is by now far too chaotically messy and overloaded to connections with the
offer any parabolic or metaphorical clarity. This prompts a question about stormy relationship
he had with his first
whether directors like Bieito need a strong scenographer as a collaborator, wife, Minna Planer, at
resulting in more of a visual counterpoint in which to embed the concept. the time of working
The chorus, in calling the sailors from the ghost ship, turn towards the on Dutchman, as is
pointed out in the
audience, which is confrontational, but we don’t yet understand what the programme booklet.
point of this is. When the ghostly voices from the (here invisible)
Dutchman’s ship respond, the doors of the auditorium are flung open,
piercing light floods in, and the amplified choral voices enter the audito-
rium and have their effect on the stage. While this is a hair-raising
moment, which provokes genuine tension, some of its danger is spoilt by
the stage exploding into action during this sequence. Sixty people simulate
total meltdown in strobe lighting on a stage covered in neon-coloured
wrapping paper and discarded data sheets. They rip off their clothing and
writhe in wet sand and fog. My criticism of this does not relate to the
provocative element this sequence doubtlessly carries, but to the fact that
an initially thrilling and unsettling idea has been weakened: the disembod-
ied voices attacking the audience’s comfort zone, which possibly equate us
with the ghost choir, desperately need a counterpoint of stillness on stage.
The German word Aktionismus – action for the sake of it – unfortunately
describes the mayhem on stage.
In conclusion, the semiotics of this production do produce exciting
results for some key features: the MasterCard programmes introduce the
production before the curtain rises; the steely frame and the fridges pro-
vide dramaturgically motivated scenography; the ghost choir raises pulse
rates; the biographical allusions to Wagner’s outsider status prompt fur-
ther thinking. Bieito is at his most successful where an image or a scene at
first triggers a strong phenomenological reaction, which then contributes
to a semiotic response. As for the detached signifiers, some have emotional
triggers, some are pure spectacle, which prompts the question about the
interaction between dramatic narrative, in which the opera is constructed,
and the function of spectacle within it.
The emotional temperature in Bieito’s productions, described as ‘either
boiling hot or ice cold, but never lukewarm’ (Brandenburg 2008: 21)
responds to the needs of operatic expression, so dependent on heightened
emotions. It is this quality that gives an edge to Bieito’s work over other
‘scandalous’ opera productions, despite its frequent dramatic unevenness.
Is the unevenness of the production conceptual or an accepted by-product?
This question is provoked by the production’s more enigmatic images,
which do not seem to serve an immediate emotional or dramaturgical
function. They might, of course, have the function of simply livening up
the more ‘connected’ aspects of the evening. I would firmly put the

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11. ‘Horch – ein Schrank Boatswain, the showgirls and the howling, cross-dressing dwarf into this
geht durch die Nacht /
Voll mit nassen
category. In accepting the ‘unreadability’ of this series of images, one is
Hemden… / Den reminded of a poem by the German poet F. W. Bernstein (Fritz Weigle) that
habe ich mir promotes confusing one’s audience for the sake of it:
ausgedacht, / Um
Euch zu befremden’.
Hark – a closet walks by night
Full of shirts so wet …
Did I invent this, thought you might
Be displeased? You bet.
(Bernstein 1994: 14, translated by Harry Rowohlt)11

Works cited
Bernstein, F. W. (1994), Reimweh: Gedichte und Prosa, Stuttgart: Reclam.
Beyer, B. (ed.), (2007), Warum Oper? Gespräche mit Opernregisseuren (2nd ed.), Berlin:
Alexander Verlag.
Bradley, J. (2008), personal communication, March.
Brandenburg, D. (2008), ‘Der menschenfreundliche Extremist’, Die Deutsche Bühne,
March, p. 18.
Fisher, P. (2003), ‘I’m Not a Monster’, The British Theatre Guide, http://www.
britishtheatreguide.info/otherresources/interviews/CalixtoBieito.htm. Accessed
16 April 2008.
‘Jerry Hall’ (2008), Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/
j/jerryhall182855.html, Accessed 21 March 2008.
Kaiser, J. (1992), Leben mit Wagner, München: Piper Verlag.
Mazzola, E. (2008), ‘Zur Urfassung von 1841 (Nach einem Gespräch mit Xavier
Zuber)’, Der Fliegende Holländer (programme), Staatsoper Stuttgart.
Zuber, X. (2008), ‘Jenseits materieller Werte und Konventionen. Zur Dramaturgie
und Inszenierung’, Der Fliegende Holländer (programme), Staatsoper Stuttgart.

Suggested citation
McKechnie, K. (2008), ‘Detached signifiers, dead babies and demon
dwarves: Bieito’s Dutchman’, Studies in Musical Theatre 2: 1, pp. 101–108,
doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.101/7

Contributor details
Kara McKechnie is a Lecturer in Dramaturgy and Literary Management at the
University of Leeds. She has a professional background in opera and gained her
MA from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. She has worked extensively on
Alan Bennett (Ph.D. 2004), specifically in the field of television drama (Alan
Bennett, The Television Series, Manchester University Press 2007). She teaches and
publishes on adaptation, intermediality and new writing, and has recently been
working with Opera North, both within the University of Leeds partnership with
the company, and as a freelance dramaturg.

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Reviews. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.109/4

Opera From the Greek: Studies in the Poetics

of Appropriation, Michael Ewans (2007)
Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 216 pp.,
ISBN 978-0-7546-6099-6 (hbk), £55.00
Reviewed by Barbara Poston-Anderson, University of Technology, Sydney

This examination of the ways in which selected opera librettists and com-
posers have used, or – as Michael Ewans states – ‘appropriated’, elements
of story, style and form from traditional Greek sources makes for captivat-
ing reading. The author traces each of the eight selected operas back to its
source texts, in particular, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the Greek tragedies
of Sophocles and Euripides.
The following chart lists these operas, their librettists and composers,
and the ancient Greek source materials to which they are traced. The first
three operas were originally performed prior to the twentieth century, and
the last five during the twentieth century.
In some cases, the opera chosen for analysis is close to the style and
spirit of the source material (e.g. Iphigénie en Tauride); in others the opera is
a compilation of several stories about the same mythical person or series of
events (e.g. Oedipe); or is a free or even fragmentary adaptation (e.g. King
Priam); or is a totally new re-interpretation of the characters and themes

Opera Librettist Composer Source Material

1 Il Ritorno d’ Ulisse in Giacomo Badoaro Claudio Monteverdi Homer’s Odyssey
2 Iphigénie en Tauride François Guillard Christoph Ritter von Euripides’ Iphigeneia
3 Médée Benoît Hoffman Luigi Cherubini Euripides’ Medea
4 Elektra Hugo von Richard Strauss Sophocles’ Electra
5 Oedipe Edmond Fleg George Enesco Sophocles’ Oedipus
6 King Priam Michael Tippett Michael Tippett Homer’s Iliad
7 The Bassarids W. H. Auden/ Hans Werner Euripides’ Bacchae
Chester Kallman Henze
8 Greek Steven Berkoff Mark-Anthony Sophocles’ Oedipus

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reset in an identifiable contemporary setting (e.g. Greek, an East End of

London Oedipus story).
The relationship between each opera and the text of its Greek source
raises important issues, which Ewans claims are ‘always complex and
problematic, especially so when the source text comes from an ancient cul-
ture with radically different values and beliefs from the modern audience’
(p. 5). There are key questions associated with these issues. Can Christian
religious beliefs or psychoanalytic and modern psychological or philosoph-
ical theories be effectively ‘grafted’ onto an ancient Greek tale? Can the
Greek concept of fate or destiny be meaningfully understood and appreci-
ated within a contemporary opera? For his investigation, the author selected
those operas that he believed most noticeably drew attention to these and
other related questions.
To highlight these issues the author uses ‘a comparative analysis of sig-
nificant divergences of plot, character and dramatic strategy between
source text, libretto and opera with reference to the values and belief
structures of the original Athenian writers and audiences and of their
modern counterparts’ (p. 5). The result is an organized, well-balanced,
and in-depth treatment that provides insight into the source texts as well
as the operas themselves. Historical, social, psychological and philosophi-
cal influences on the works are analysed; development of ideas that appear
in subsequent variations in the selected libretti over time are traced; and
a discussion of how the music interacts with and impacts on the libretto in
each opera, along with some implications for staging the various perfor-
mances, is featured. Each chapter treats a separate opera, with well-placed
musical examples replicated from the score to support the author’s key
points relating to characterization, atmospheric intensity and dramatic
development within the libretto and the music. The extensive footnotes at
the bottom of most pages are particularly useful to the reader because they
provide additional information, alternate points of view, or references to
other relevant studies.
One of the key strengths of this text is the clear way in which the
author shows how librettists and composers have adapted traditional
source materials to reflect the central issues of their own times. Opera cre-
ators have used ‘local’ concerns as a main criterion by which to judge the
contemporary relevance of traditional elements and, subsequently, to
decide which themes and motifs to preserve or delete. For example, the
Greek male revenge-ethic and the female mother-bond in Euripides’ Medea
give way in the Hoffman/Cherubini opera Médée to the conflict between
‘reason and passion’, a characteristic debate within French classical
tragedy (p. 77), and the concerns in Sophocles’ Electra about ‘right and
wrong, justice and expediency’ are replaced with preoccupations about
‘silence and psychology’ in Hofmannsthal/Strauss’ Elektra (p. 91). The
author’s perceptive analysis in this area makes for a fascinating study in
the history of ideas and their application within an operatic framework.
The author also provides insight into the creative tension experienced by
librettists and composers as they combine their talents to shape the content
and form of an opera. The story of complementarity or competing ideas, tex-
tual or musical dominance, or shifting emphasis between forms within an
opera affect the work’s overall composition and, ultimately, its performance.

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The only limiting feature of the book for researchers is the lack of pub-
lisher names for the monographs cited in the secondary literature section
in the bibliography. Despite this drawback, the text of the book itself is
compelling reading and inspires the reader to want to consult the original
source material as well as listen to or watch the operas under discussion.
The clarity of the writing style, the in-depth insight into the operas, com-
plete with musical examples, and the erudite analysis of the relationship
between opera and source material all make this a valuable resource for
music researchers, students of opera, and also for those general readers
interested in the development of opera as it relates to classical Greek epics
and theatrical forms.

Oklahoma! The Making of an American Musical,

Tim Carter (2007)
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 327 pp.,
ISBN 978-0-300-10619-0 (hbk), £20.00
Reviewed by Barbara Poston-Anderson, University of Technology, Sydney

This scholarly work traces the creation and development of Rodgers and
Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (originally entitled Away We Go!) from its incep-
tion in 1942 through rehearsals and tryouts for the New York opening
and then through its first ten years of performance up to the 1955 film
version of the musical. Oklahoma!, based on the 1930 Lynn Riggs play,
Green Grow The Lilacs, was considered a characteristically American musi-
cal with ‘homespun’ values. The show was hailed as innovative because of
its ‘realism’ and ‘naturalness’ and because it integrated music, dance and
drama – characteristics that set it apart from other popular musicals of its
time (p. 26). Oklahoma! defied classification, even by the production team
itself, and was alternately described as: an operetta, a folk opera, and a musi-
cal play. This show was one of a small number of musical productions of
its day, including Porgy and Bess and Show Boat, which were said to explore
the essence of what it meant to be ‘American’. Because the images in
Oklahoma! engendered positive feelings of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ in its audi-
ences, the show was used to raise the morale of citizens and soldiers alike
during the war years (p. xiv). In retrospect this show was deemed to have
achieved a ‘golden mean, successfully reconciling all the different
demands facing the Broadway stage in the early 1940s’ (p. 27).
Tim Carter’s opening chapter considers the context in which Oklahoma!
developed. Insight into Riggs’ play, the musical’s source material, is provided
with a discussion of how characters and their emphasis in the storyline
changed when they were transported from the original play into the develop-
ing musical (e.g. Jeeter became Jud, Ado Annie’s role was extended). The the-
atre scene in New York is also discussed, in particular the development of the
influential Theatre Guild that initially produced Oklahoma! The careers of Riggs
and Rodgers, first when he was with Hart and then with Hammerstein, are out-
lined, and the collaborative partnership between Hammerstein and Rodgers
that ‘dominated Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s’ is analysed (p. 21).

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The following chapters include rich descriptions of the external context

and internal workings of Oklahoma! including the responses that it received
from the press and the public. Particularly worthy of mention is the chapter
entitled ‘Creative Processes’ that takes a close look at how the text and
lyrics were crafted. To make his points, Carter compares various drafts with
the final version and the original Riggs play in order to identify changes to
the storyline, revisions made to the dialogue and which songs were
included, deleted or rearranged at various stages of the creative process.
Several songs are given special emphasis. For example, Hammerstein said
that ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’, the first lyric composed for the show,
was ‘a very significant moment in the “childhood of the play” and influ-
enced a great many other of its later-developed characteristics’ (p. 82).
There is also a detailed analysis and discussion of the ground-breaking
dream ballet, choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Snippets from the lyrics
and score are included, when appropriate, to highlight the key examples.
In addition to specific insight into the making of Oklahoma!, the reader
is introduced to the nature of theatrical production during the 1940s and
1950s. The success of Oklahoma! was far from inevitable. The production
and artistic teams faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges, for
example the initial effort to find actors, particularly in the face of
Hollywood’s reluctance to release desired actors from contractual commit-
ments to be in a Broadway musical; the constant revisions to the dialogue,
music and staging; the fight not to lose leading men to the draft during
war time; and the ongoing struggle against the stereotype of the musical
genre as ‘lightweight’.
Overall this work is a thorough, step-by-step account of Oklahoma!,
the historical context in which it matured and all aspects of its develop-
ment and production. Detailed notes for each chapter and the appendix,
which is a chronology of all the ‘datable’ events relating to the show up
to the New York opening, are notable for their comprehensiveness. The
book’s strength is that it places Oklahoma! and its hard-earned success
clearly within the artistic, socio-historical and monetary contexts that
impinged upon its development and production. The researcher’s tena-
cious detective work at digging out from the vast collection of reviews,
letters, theatre programmes, audition tapes, photos, autobiographical
accounts and other memorabilia those items relevant to telling the story,
and the way in which he skilfully pieces this jigsaw together are admirable.
Carter frequently uses several forms of evidence to support points or to
highlight discrepancies between what was ‘said’ and what actually hap-
pened. In addition, direct quotations from the playwright-librettist and
composer add credibility and provide valuable insights into the musical’s
creation process.
At times this information treasure trove runs the risk of overwhelming
the reader with minutiae, yet in light of Carter’s intended aim of creating
the definitive account of Oklahoma!, the detailed approach is understand-
able and, no doubt, justifiable. Carter himself states that prior to his own
work, ‘the material has remained untapped in any systematic way’ (p.
xvii). He justifies his comprehensiveness by contending that it is only in
the detail that generalizations can be ‘supported, modified or under-
mined’ (p. xvii).

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In short, this scholarly work deserves recognition for the valuable contri-
bution it makes to research about ‘the musical’ in general, and Oklahoma! in
particular. Carter’s well-documented treatment should delight both musical
aficionados and researchers alike.

Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, Amanda Vaill (2007)

London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 675 pp.,
ISBN 978-0-2978-4797-7 (hbk), £25.00
Reviewed by Arthur Pritchard, University of Leeds

There can be little of significance in the life of Jerome Robbins omitted

from Amanda Vaill’s comprehensive biography of the legendary dancer/
choreographer. As a child she had seen Robbins’ production of Peter Pan
(1955); she discovered that he lived on her block in New York City, and
her infatuation was born. Widely known as the prodigiously talented
choreographer of On the Town (1944) and director of West Side Story
(1957), Robbins’ career is traced painstakingly in these pages. In getting
to know this huge, contradictory personality, the reader engages with a
Who’s Who of all the talents (and a legion of lesser-knowns) assembled on
or near Broadway in the mid-twentieth century. So comprehensive is Vaill’s
treatment of her subject that one senses the whole history of American
music theatre beating just beneath the surface of the text.
Robbins’ first stage training took place at the Stanislavski-based Group
Theatre. Here the dance/mime artist Gluck Sandor urged apprentice Jerome
Wilson Rabinowitz to find a non-Jewish stage name to perform in charac-
ter-based dance dramas, and to study ballet. Four years as a summer camp
hoofer provided contacts and a foundation in comic choreography. His
eclectic studies in dance took him to the New York City ballet where he
toured in wartime under George Balanchine and ‘his mentor’ Michel
Fokine (p. 86). He rehearsed with Doris Humphrey, was directed by
Agnes de Mille, associated with Antal Dorati and Anton Dolin, and fell in
love regularly and indiscriminately with men and women, including the
movie actor Montgomery Clift with whom he lived for two years from
1947, with breaks for affairs with Rose Tobias, Tanaquil le Clerc and
many others.
Vaill’s is a colossal achievement, made possible by Robbins’ sporadic
journals, diaries and letters, as well as copious notes for ballets and music
theatre projects, completed or not, that the author with an overwhelming
appetite for detail of events, performances and personalities has traced,
corroborated and analysed. Indeed, Vaill seems determined to emulate
Robbins’ own fastidious research impulses; a man who, early in his career,
would ‘fill his offstage hours with writing – stories, vignettes, scenarios
[ …] for short ballets’ (p. 65). His ideas for new work ‘crossed genre lines
and mixed different media’ (p. 65). A ‘driven perfectionist’, he would later
research film archives for ‘ideas for chase sequences’, or ‘track down mem-
bers of the few surviving dance teams who knew how to do the Castle
Walk, a pre-World War I ballroom dance’ (p. 141).

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In a lengthy career of dance and musical projects, working with all

the major Broadway names, his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein
forms a central, continuing and absorbing thread in this narrative. While
Robbins works to discover new directions and subject matter for stage dance,
Bernstein is restrained by the demands of his position as assistant conduc-
tor of the New York Philharmonic under Serge Koussevitzky. The sexually
themed, ‘enigmatic’ ballet Facsimile (1946) is an example of Robbins’ inno-
vative choreography, set to a ‘haunting’ score that Bernstein eventually
produced in a three-week burst of writing, which received mixed reviews:
‘the principals [two male, one female] roll on the floor, kiss[ing] indiscrim-
inately’ (p. 130). Critics later attempt quite reasonably to justify the piece
as a projection of Robbins’ own experience, for Robbins had indeed
planned works with Oedipal themes, imagined an erotic dream narrative
which ‘morphs into a homoerotic orgy full of rubbing bodies and an
atmosphere “like thick warm cream around him”’ (p. 130).
Vaill manages to find the excitement, and glamour, as well as the per-
sonality clashes, tensions and frustrations of a show business career, and
she strings together a sinewy, robust American prose to communicate
Robbins’ determination to carry through his vision for each new project.
He is an uncomfortable subject, as we find when, hauled in to testify at
Senator McCarthy’s un-American Activities hearings, he names fellow
artists; he lives on nervous energy, and can be riddled with doubts over an
unsuccessful show which require regular visits to the analyst’s chair.
The genesis of West Side Story provides spicy ingredients for Vaill to
work with and she adds colourful detail to this well-known narrative. At
audition, the artists could be recalled as many as a dozen times, effectively
providing pre-rehearsal sessions at no cost to the production; in the eight-
week rehearsal period Robbins used method acting techniques to build
individual character histories for the show’s chorus. In this, as in all his
collaborations, Robbins’ intuition and bloody-minded obsession with every
detail of production drive the achievement. Often uncompromising and
not always likeable, and at times virtually alienating Bernstein and
Sondheim, he can find moments of genuine humanity, such as his tender
attention to Tanny le Clerc when she falls victim to polio, an example of
the gentler side of his theatrical genius. Yet even when she was diagnosed
with a life-threatening abdominal abscess, Robbins could be at logger-
heads with this woman (the one he truly loved?) over his credits in the film
The author has evidently determined to write the definitive account of
Robbins’ career. However, it sits slightly uncomfortably between biogra-
phy and cultural history, daunting in length and detail. The numerous
forgotten shows and names with only minimal bearing on Robbins’
development are covered elsewhere in the work of such authors as
Bordman and Mordden. Vaill’s treatment could be more selective: her
accounts of long-forgotten shows and projects could be relegated to the
ample end notes, as well as her gossipy speculations on flings with dancer,
starlet or hunk.
But for all the less memorable tittle-tattle, the book delivers some useful
insights: following Robbins’ struggles with his ballet production of The
Dybbuk (1974), his studies in The Ordeal of Civility, a sociological account of

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Jewish assimilation, revealed that the ‘enormous anxieties’ that had beset
his working life were located in his Jewish identity. His career had been
‘a lifetime of work to assimilate’ himself into American society, lest he be
found out to have no talent, to be ‘a little Jewish kike’ (p. 447–448).
Readers of this book should keep a Yiddish glossary to hand.

Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition

and Analysis, Janet K. Halfyard (ed.)
Ashgate: Aldershot, 2007, xxii + 306 pp.,
ISBN 978-0-7546-5445-2 (hbk), £60.00
Reviewed by Martin Iddon, Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts

With Berio’s death in 2003 still recent, it is certainly an appropriate time

for scholars to begin a large-scale reappraisal of the import and impact
of his musical output. That the ongoing development of his virtuosic
Sequenzas for solo instruments was central to Berio’s compositional work
and thinking is hardly in doubt. It seems apt, then, that the first major
English-language scholarly publication to deal with his music since his
death, engages with precisely these pieces.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, the chapters are divided by three
broad themes: performance issues; compositional processes and aesthet-
ics; and analytical approaches. With the exception of Sequenza XII for bassoon
and Sequenza XIV for cello, each of the Sequenzas is examined in detail at
some point during the volume; Sequenza I for flute, Sequenza III for voice
and Sequenza IV for piano feature prominently in more than one of the
In the first section of the volume, two essays (one by Cynthia Folio and
Alexander R. Brinkman, which examines Sequenza I, and one by Patricia
Alessandrini, which focuses on Sequenza VII for oboe) take as their theme
issues posed by the fact that each of these two Sequenzas exists in two dis-
crete versions. The first essay examines performative distinctions between
the 1958 version’s proportional and the 1992 version’s precisely metrical
notation. While both these versions were completed by Berio himself,
Alessandrini considers immanent differences between Berio’s original
notational grid structure for Sequenza VII and a redrafted, metered version
by the oboist Jacqueline Leclair. Although, in a similar way, multiple ver-
sions of Sequenza IV exist, Zoe Browder Doll’s essay focuses on just one,
concentrating specifically on Berio’s various uses of the sostenuto pedal in
this version of the piece (and in Leaf and Sonata), demonstrating the rich
range of tonal vocabulary Berio draws from technical means. Though
more analytically superficial than the other essays in this section, Kirsty
Whatley’s personal reflections upon Sequenza II, written from the harpist’s
perspective, contain many striking observations that analysis alone
might be unable to educe. Jonathan Impett’s response to Sequenza X also
contains ideas developed from his own experience as a performer, situ-
ating the piece within a wide cultural discourse of the trumpet’s gestural

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The volume’s central section is doubtless the strongest. Janet Halfyard’s

contribution – informed by, but certainly not limited to, her own performa-
tive engagement with the theatre of Sequenza III – dovetails neatly with
Impett’s. She marshals numerous contextual factors in an examination of
the nature of virtuosity as it is (re)conceived within the Sequenzas. Like
Halfyard, Paul Roberts’ essay, focusing on Berio’s reworkings of several of
the Sequenzas into ensemble pieces, the Chemins, is informed by a factor
exterior to the music, namely Roberts’ activity as Berio’s musical assistant.
This inside knowledge is demonstrated by a rich description of the interlac-
ing paths that the Chemins take away from, and occasionally back to, the
Sequenzas. Two chapters draw parallels between the work of Berio and
Umberto Eco. Eugene Montague interlaces his analysis of Sequenza VIII for
violin with Eco’s Theory of Semiotics and, most especially, Foucault’s Pendulum.
Montague’s essay employs an innovative strategy, whereby the semiotic
mutability of Sequenza VIII is ultimately utilized to open more complex per-
spectives on the narrative of Foucault’s Pendulum. The second Eco-focused
chapter is similarly impressive: Edward Venn’s contribution reworks Eco’s
theory of open form, finding imaginative strategies for building upon what
seems to have been initially a misunderstanding of the way in which
Sequenza I might constitute an open-form work, alongside such unlikely
bedfellows as Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI. The last essay within the sec-
ond section, Andrea Cremaschi’s examination of Sequenza IX for clarinet,
and its proliferation into Sequenzas IXa, Sequenza IXb, La vera storia and Récit
(Chemins VII), as well as the withdrawn ‘Chemins V’, reflects the concep-
tion of the pieces under examination by walking the reader through the
various paths the common musical material takes through these pieces.
The essays within the final section are predominantly examples of
much more conventional analytical fare. Irna Priore’s discussion of vesti-
gial serial practices within Sequenza I adroitly covers significant analytical
ground, while demonstrating the ways in which even these practices
might be regarded as to some degree ‘open’, working from the same cre-
ative misunderstanding as Venn. Didier Guigue and Marcílio Fagner
Onofre’s analysis of Sequenza IV is of a completely different order from
Doll’s earlier consideration of the same piece. Though its observations
regarding the larger-scale polyphony of ‘sonic objects’ are doubtless ana-
lytically insightful, there is an extent to which this reader, at least, would
have preferred to see more of the results of the analysis than the ‘nuts and
bolts’ of the analysis itself. Nevertheless, the complexity (and subtlety) of
the analytical framework will doubtless be genuinely valuable to some
readers. Sequenza VI for viola is dealt with by Amanda Bayley with an
equally rigorous analytical framework, in an examination of the various
ways in which expressivity is generated through non-tonal means,
focusing in particular on the piece’s transformations of timbre and tex-
ture. Mark D. Porcaro’s examination of Sequenza XI for guitar utilizes a
variety of analytical strategies to demonstrate structural and morphologi-
cal elements of polyphony in ways that certainly suggest an extension of
this tactic to a wider range of Berio’s output might be fruitful. This focus
on polyphony – both literal and metaphorical – is continued in the final
essay in the volume, Thomas Gartmann’s discussion of Sequenza XIII for
accordion. While strong analytically, Gartmann never loses sight of the

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wider context, and many of the volume’s issues as a whole – performativity/

theatricality, openness of form, commentary, polyphonies of style – underpin
an extremely lucid discussion of the piece, alongside providing the reader
with a concrete understanding of how the nature of the accordion impinges
upon the compositional practices at work.
For all that is good in this volume, it is a little disappointing that none
of the contributors begin a serious engagement with the collaborative
processes of composition undertaken by Berio in the Sequenzas, since, as is
observed repeatedly within the text, with the exception of Sequenza IV
each piece was written with a specific performer in mind, often in discus-
sion with that performer, often in person. Despite the fact that the issues
at stake in examining such examples of composer-performer collaborations
rely upon primary materials, which may in many cases be extremely dif-
ficult to obtain, the absence of such a discussion is palpable, even in the
cases of essays such as those from Halfyard, Gartmann and Impett, where
a detailed description of the respective instrumental idioms is on display.
Nevertheless, as a whole, the volume contains much valuable, insightful
commentary on one of the most significant contributions to the solo
instrumental repertoire of the past fifty years, and will hopefully lead to
much further discussion of the rich seam that the Sequenzas represent.

The British Musical Film, John Mundy (2007)

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press,
276 pp., ISBN 978-0-7190-6321-3 (pbk), £14.99
Reviewed by Christine Etherington-Wright, University of Portsmouth

This book seems unsure whether it is a major contribution to academic

debates or whether it is a comprehensive guidebook for students. Since the
agenda is unclear, appropriate judgements need to be made with care.
John Mundy is right in noting that this area ‘suffers from critical neglect’
(p. 2). In recent years there have really been only two comparable books
to consider: K. J. Donnelly’s Pop Music in British Cinema: A Chronicle (2001)
covering music in British films, both as musical scores (part one) and as
British film musicals (part two), while also providing a detailed chronolog-
ical review history; and Jan G. Swynnoe’s The Best Years of British Film
Music, 1936–1958 (2002), which is concerned with the special British
contribution to film music, detailing how the idiosyncrasies of British film,
and of the British character, set it apart from its Hollywood counterpart.
Mundy’s book sits well beside these two works. His earlier chapters, on
the years from 1920–1969, cover a similar period to that he has addressed
before in Popular Music on Screen: From Hollywood Musical to Music Video
(1999), which also has a chapter on British musicals. However, in The
British Musical Film, he sets himself the task of providing a comprehensive
study of ‘the centrality of music in British cinema’ (p. 8). To allow this study
to be more encompassing he has used the term ‘musical film’, as it admits a
broader definition and allows for the distinctive way that ‘specific cultural
and aesthetic traditions’ (p. 8) have impacted on British ‘film music’ and

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British musical films. Mundy notes that audiences often see these films as
poor relations of the Hollywood musical films. His work here goes some way
to redress that criticism. His stated intention is ‘to redress what has been a
critical dereliction of an important area of British cinema’ (p. 10).
One of the tenets of this book is that British musicals of the period both
drew upon and articulated important and distinctive aspects of British
national identity, including contentious issues of social class, regionalism,
attitudes to youth, and gender. To examine these issues, each chapter pro-
vides a brief history of the decade under scrutiny. Then, from chapters two
to five, the content follows a similar format: production, distribution and
exhibition context, legislation, censorship, and brief biographical artist
details where appropriate. These combine with selected and detailed case
studies of plot analysis that are placed in an historic context. His detailed
critical analyses, which tease out the dynamics and implications of the
social and the cultural influences, are thorough. This organizing principle
of the first five chapters works well.
But where this book disappoints is from chapter six, ‘The 1970s and
beyond’, where Mundy amends his format of ‘one decade, one chapter’ to
cover thirty to thirty-five years in as many pages. It is a question of balance.
Whilst I am certainly not advocating that each chapter should be of equal
size, the cramming of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and a mention of the 2000s
into one chapter raises several questions and problems of faulty proportion
within the book. For this I can see no justification: elsewhere Denis Gifford
charts 38 British musical films from 1970 to 1979, whilst Linda Wood has
30 ‘pop music’ films listed for 1971–1980; these alone require a greater
‘fleshing out’. These thirty years deserve a full exposition. The changes
which took place from the 1970s to 2000 and beyond match the changes
from the 1930s to the 1960s in their different complexities. Perhaps Mundy
is less assured in his consideration from the 1970s onwards, as there is still
a deal of research to be undertaken if the last chapter of this book and his
bibliography are to be considered representative.
A further disappointment of the book as a whole is the lack of technical
detail: a fuller ‘soundscape’ would give a greater dynamic to these films
and would introduce the reader to a vocabulary of useful expressions
(heightened sound effects, long-lead notes, ascending flutes, dissonant
suspense, for example). Mundy’s methodology tends to be too dependent
on plot paraphrasing which is an unhelpful technique for analysing film
musicals (the fact that Dorothy is concussed during a ‘twister’ hardly
forms an analysis of musical film, for example). Work in film and in musical
film requires some kind of technical analysis: how music works at a technical
level; how musical discourse relates to verbal and visual discourse and
questions of musicality all require scrutiny.
This book is to be recommended as a good, informative, broad-based
survey, useful for students of film, media, music, drama and cultural studies
who are looking for an entry into this broad genre and to use this text as a
general resource. But the reader needs to be alert to errors. One of the
more entertaining examples is that Leslie Howard was the star of Brief
Encounter (p. 110).
This is not a book that opens up new research questions or offers new
ideas. The density of this study is at once a strength and a weakness, and

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difficult to adapt to the needs of an undergraduate. In terms of its contex-

tual scope it may be a useful resource for students, but it is a book to use
rather than to read.

Works cited
Donnelly, K. J. (2001), Pop Music in British Cinema: A Chronicle, London: BFI
Gifford, D. (1986), British Film Catalogue, London: David and Charles Publishers
Swynnoe, J. G. (2002), The Best Years of British Film Music, 1936–1958, Rochester,
NY: The Boydell Press.
Wood, L. (1983), British Films 1971–1981, London: British Film Institute Library

British Pantomime Performance, Millie Taylor (2007)

Bristol (UK) and Chicago (US): Intellect Books, 208 pp.,
ISBN 978-1-84150-174-1 (pbk), £19.95
Reviewed by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen, Bath Spa University

In Britain, the annual ‘panto season’ has become a staple of Christmas

along with carols, turkey and mulled wine. Within the cultural hierarchy,
it clearly falls at the popular end of the spectrum but other than that it is
surprisingly hard to categorize in relation to other forms of music theatre.
For people brought up outside this tradition, pantomime can also be
highly confusing – I have vivid memories of trying to explain to a group of
incredulous French teenagers how an art form that revolves around cross-
dressing, anarchic behaviour and double entendres is seen in Britain as
the ultimate in family entertainment.
In British Pantomime Performance, Millie Taylor succeeds admirably where
I struggled, providing a fascinating and very accessible analysis of what is in
fact a deceptively complicated form of theatre. The great strength of this
book is the way in which Taylor weaves together elements of history, theory
and practice within twelve chapters that deal with topics ranging from the
pragmatic (‘Money Matters’), to structural and dramaturgical questions
(‘Quests and Transformations in Pantomime Stories’, ‘Mixing Genres in
Pantomime Music’), gender theory (‘Is she or isn’t he? Gender and Identity’)
and cultural readings and reception theory (‘Audience Participation,
Community and Ritual’). Thus the stock role of the Principal Boy (tradi-
tionally played by a young woman in a short tunic) is explored in terms of
its historical roots, feminist theory and contemporary theatre practice,
including interviews with producers concerned about the impact on
young children and the recent move towards having male actors playing
the role.
One core focus of the book is the sophisticated relationship between
illusion and reality in pantomime, with the overt ‘reality’ of contemporary
cultural references and direct audience address offset by use of fantasy and
nostalgia. At the heart of the pantomime experience, Taylor suggests, is a

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shared idea of ‘pantoland’ created through the moments when the actors
step out of character or acknowledge their performance in addressing the
audience: ‘pantoland is not the place where the story of pantomime takes
place; that might be Nottingham or Peking or the Village of Much
Giggling. Pantoland is the theatrical world where the performers exist ‘as
themselves’ and from which they tell the story’ (p. 91). The result of this,
Taylor argues, is twofold: ‘the performance frame in pantomime is revealed
not only to distance the audience from the story, but to draw the audience
into complicity with the comedians in the perception of the performance
world, pantoland, as unique, original, anarchic and fun’ (p. 102).
A key running theme of the book is how pantomime trades on the
seemingly opposing ideas of tradition and anarchy. Taylor points out that
there is something ‘carnivalesque’ about pantomime, from the transfor-
mational storylines and scenery (p. 88) to the central cross-dressing roles
of the Dame and Principal Boy which add to ‘the confusion of reversals
and transgressions that links pantomime with the anarchic fun of the car-
nivalesque’ (p. 106). In pantomime, ‘taboos are challenged in a safe and
permissive environment’ (p. 43) but crucially the audience is complicit in
the anarchic impulses that threaten to derail the story through the slap-
stick and messy ‘slosh’ scenes: ‘the audience is often involved in encouraging
the mess and devastation and this increases the involvement of the audi-
ence in the game and the excitement when the target is hit’ (p. 43).
What makes this book particularly valuable is the fact that the more
scholarly considerations are balanced by pragmatic examples of pan-
tomime in performance. The book abounds with excerpts from recent
pantomime scripts and an impressive number of production photographs that
root Taylor’s discussion in concrete examples. She also draws extensively on
her own experience of working in the band pit of pantomimes and on inter-
views with current writers, producers, actors and musicians who provide
fascinating insights into the kinds of cultural and pragmatic considerations
that are currently helping to shape the evolution of British pantomime.
Altogether, British Pantomime Performance is an informative, thought-
provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read. The clarity of the writing, the
breadth of knowledge and the obvious enthusiasm of the author for her
subject makes this an excellent resource for students, scholars and practi-
tioners of British musical theatre. Given the relative lack of scholarship in
this area, it may also help to stimulate further investigation into this
hugely popular but largely under-appreciated art form.

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Studies in Musical Theatre Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd

Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/smt.2.1.121/7

Books received
The following books have been received and will be reviewed in a future
issue of the journal:
Atkey, M. (2006), Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre,
Toronto: Natural Heritage Books.
Banfield, S. (2007), Jerome Kern [Yale Broadway Masters Series], New Haven and
London: Yale University Press.
Clayton, M. and Zon, B. (2007), Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s
– 1940s: Portrayal of the East, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Everett, W. (2007), Sigmund Romberg [Yale Broadway Masters Series], New Haven
and London: Yale University Press.
Fields, A. (2007), Tony Pastor: Father of Vaudeville, Jefferson, NC & London:
Hischak, T. S. (2007), The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia, Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Laing, H. (2007), The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman’s
Film, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Miller, S. (2007), Strike up the Band: a New History of Musical Theatre, Portsmouth,
NH: Heinemann.
Morcom, A. (2007), Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema [SOAS Musicology Series],
Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Osborne, C. (2007), The Opera Lover’s Companion, New Haven and London: Yale
University Press.
Smith, M. W. (2007), The Total Work of Art: from Bayreuth to Cyberspace, New York
and London: Routledge.
Wollman, E. L. (2006), The Theater Will Rock, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

SMT 2 (1) pp. 121–121 © Intellect Ltd 2008 121

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Music on stage

An international, interdisciplinary conference at Rose Bruford College,

Sidcup, Kent, UK

October 18th and 19th,2008

This conference will host papers from international scholars on various

aspects of performance as well as the creation of the music and its

There will be a performance of Richard Arnell’s two chamber operas

Moonflower and Love in Transit at the Rose Theatre on campus.

Delegate rate is £150.00 for the two days and performances exclusive
of accommodation.

Enquiries to Fiona.schopf@bruford.ac.uk (subject to peer review, papers

to be published in Studies in Musical Theatre)
Studies in

Volume Two Number One

ISSN 1750-3159

Studies in Musical Theatre | Volume Two Number One

Musical Theatre
Volume 2 Number 1 – 2008 2.1
3–4 George Burrows and Dominic Symonds

5–32 Emancipation or exploitation? Gender liberation and adult musicals in 1970s
Studies in

New York
Elizabeth L. Wollman
33–50 Hear Jane sing: narrative authority in two musical versions of Jane Eyre
Marc Napolitano

51–60 Fiddler on the Roof: considerations in a new age
Charles Eliot Mehler
61–81 Representation of Clytemnestra and Cassandra in Taneyev’s Oresteia
Anastasia Belina
83–100 Flooding the concrète: Clastoclysm and the notion of the ‘continuum’ as a
conceptual and musical basis for a postdramatic music-theatre performance
Demetris Zavros

Re: Act
101–108 Detached signifiers, dead babies and demon dwarves: Bieito’s Dutchman
Kara McKechnie

109–120 Reviews

121 Books received

intellect Journals | Theatre & Performance

ISSN 1750-3159

9 771750 315003 www.intellectbooks.com

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