Passion’s Tragic Consequences
Denis de Rougemont points out in his famous study, Love and the West, that one of the enduring characteristics of the western imagination is its tendency to weave together the themes of love and death. From Tristan and Iseult to Madame Bovary, the theme of illicit love, with its passion and tragic consequences, has been central to our literature.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a splendid example of this genre. Children of rival clans, the lovers’ passion runs afoul of the conventions of their feuding society. It also, in Juliet’s case, contravenes her family’s plans to marry her to her suitor, Paris. As a result, Juliet, her brother, Romeo, and his best friend Mercutio all meet fatal ends. The passions of love—the madness of Eros, to the Greeks—are profoundly destructive when it breaks with the social order.
In its final form, Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet, follows this formula. Originally, however, it had a happy ending. When he first composed it for the Kirov ballet in 1935, the ending was deemed unacceptable and the ballet itself “undanceable.” The rewritten ballet received its first full performance, not in Leningrad, but in Brno, at the Mahen Theater on December 30, 1938. The first Russian staging in Leningrad came two years later on the eve of the “great patriotic war.”
The Story as a Socialogical Critique
Given how well-known Shakespeare’s play is and how often Prokofiev’s version is performed, the staging of the ballet presents a dilemma for those who wish to give it a fresh face. Attila Egerházi, the Hungarian choreographer and artistic director of the South Bohemia Theater’s ballet company, meets this challenge by presenting it as a sociological critique of society’s objectification of women. Juliet, in his hands, becomes a mere commodity to be exchanged for the sake of family alliances.
Paris, her intended, is presented as a loathsome creature, intent only on grabbing at her breasts, which he cups at almost every possible occasion. As for the young men of Verona, their idea of flirting is to continually grab at the skirts of the girls and, whenever possible, to look between their legs from a prone position. The objects of their attention are complicit in this.
When we first meet them, the young women are lined up, their arms akimbo, looking very much like cups hanging in a cupboard. The men, linking their arms with theirs, take them and begin the dance. Throughout their numbers, the women frequently lift their skirts, flashing at the boys. The same theme is continued with the dance Mercutio performs before his fatal duel. Egerházi dresses him in drag and has his friends continually grope him, to his mock dismay.
In Egerházi’s hands, then, the destructive force is not passion itself. It is the commoditization of women that is passion’s face in our contemporary society.
The death of the lovers reflects their sacrifice to its demands. — oo
– James Mensch
Photo Credits: Petr Zikmund