Friday, December 3, 2010

(For Fun) Eighteenth Century Theatre and Bestiaries

Just as one of our secondary sources predicted, once you start to pay attention to animals, they’re everywhere. I’ve been studying early modern theatre, and it just so happens that it is full of animals; which gave me the idea to make some comparisons between the medieval animals and a few plays. After all, T.H. White, in the appendix to his Book of Beasts, argues that bestiaries had a profound impact on the development of allegory and symbolism in art and literature. White was even able to trace a direct line of influence from the bestiary tradition to Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost.1
                So I decided to see to what extent the bestiary tradition carries into eighteenth century theatre. I had the translations of Carlo Gozzi’s fairy-tale plays, which have lots of animals in them. The centrality of animals to Gozzi’s oeuvre can be seen by glancing at a list of the titles of his plays; his ten tales for the theatre included The Raven (1761), King Stag (1762), The Serpent Woman (1762), The Blue Monster (1764) and The Green Bird (1765). Gozzi led a revival of supernatural theatre at a time when the general trend was in the direction of realism, as championed by his rivals Pietro Chiari and Carlo Goldoni. He drew heavily on the traditions of the commedia dell’arte and fairy tales, which may be the reason why animals fit in so seamlessly into his works.
I found his use of the dove really interesting. In one of his plays, The Love for Three Oranges, the dove functions allegorically to underline the themes of loyalty and love. But Gozzi’s use of the dove in another of his plays, The Raven, is somewhat more challenging to untangle, and therefore more interesting. The play begins at sea; we gradually find out that Prince Jennaro has captured and abducted Princess Armilla in order to bring her to his brother, King Millo. Some time ago, the King shot and killed a raven that belonged to an ogre. The ogre then put a curse on the King, saying that he must “seek a woman whose skin/Is as white as this marble tomb,/Whose lips are scarlet, akin/To my raven’s blood, and whom/The Gods have given black hair,/As black as his every plume.”2 Armilla is the only woman who fits this description, but she also (we are led to believe) has an evil magician (Norando) for a father, who sets out to get his revenge. On the voyage home, Jennaro acquires a falcon and horse as gifts for his brother; in consequence, two doves, Norando’s messengers, alight on a branch, and declare a horrible prophecy to Jennaro: the falcon will pluck out the king’s eyes, the horse will kill him, and if the King marries Armilla, a monster will devour him on the wedding night. All this Jennaro must keep to himself, and not try to avoid it, or he himself will turn into marble.
The two speaking doves primarily function as messengers. Such a role is very clearly ascribed to them in the bestiaries: a comparison between doves and preachers is extensively drawn out in The Book of Beasts,3 whereas the Aberdeen bestiary, in addition to a comparison with preachers, devotes a long section to the three doves of Holy Scripture.3 Other bestiaries also mention the eastern practice of training doves to carry written messages. While this aspect of Gozzi’s doves is consistent with the bestiaries, their evil natures are not, a contradiction of which Gozzi himself is aware. Jennaro declares that these doves are “Evil birds! Are they doves – or crows?”.4 The crow is mentioned one more time in the same play, and it is in reference to the raven, which is very plainly an evil bird, both in the play and the bestiaries, where it is grouped with the vultures. Jennaro doubts that the two messenger birds are doves, since he cannot reconcile their evil message with the pure and good nature of the dove. The bestiaries very clearly associate the dove with the Church and the Holy Spirit, and so it should not be evil in the play, if it is indeed influenced by the bestiary stories. The ambiguity becomes resolved at the end of the play, when we find out that Norando is not actually evil, but rather good. His seemingly evil message, too, was meant to bring about a favorable conclusion, one that (not surprisingly) includes a happy marriage.
Gozzi’s use of the dove, then, is quite consistent with the bestiaries, and it would seem that the animal lore of the bestiary tradition was still very persistent in the eighteenth century, if we are to take Gozzi as being in any way representative.

1 T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), pp. 263.
2 Carlo Gozzi, Five Tales for the Theatre, trans. Albert Bermel and Ted Emery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) pp. 30.
3 White, Book of Beasts, pp. 144.
4 Aberdeen University Library MS.24, 26r, v.


1 comment:

  1. I, too, have had the experience of noticing animals in places that I had not before: almost everything I read at the moment seems to have animal referents and/or imagery. How far into the present does this tradition persist? It seems certain, from what you say of Gozzi, that he was playing off the kind of imagery that we find in the bestiaries. Does this mean he had read the bestiary or that doves and crows simply still carried these referents (to goodness, to carrying messages)? Doves we can see the story of Noah, but I can't think of particular Scriptural images of crows (help!). Which makes me wonder, reflecting on your post, how much the imagery of any particular animal depends upon that animal (doves make pleasant noises, crows don't) and how much on the persistence of the tradition. A good test for both the ways in which animals come to signify and for the ways in which story-telling traditions are reinvented over time.