David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Shadow Must Be Paid

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What a difference 64 years makes. Two nights ago Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home received the Tony award for Best Musical, the first time a musical with a lesbian protagonist has done so in the history of the Tony’s. Fun Home was adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same title. Bechdel is best known for her so-called Bechdel Test that measures the presence of female characters in Hollywood films—to pass the test, a film must have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man.

The musical Fun Home (so I’ve read—I haven’t seen it) concerns Bechdel and her relationship with her late father who she comes to learn was, like her, also gay. You see her attempts to unfurl the mysteries surrounding his life, especially when Bechdel reaches the age her father was when he died. As I understand it, the musical portrays Bechdel ultimately as inwardly triumphant and her family as a sanctuary of sanity, even if this touching number, “Telephone Wire,” when father and daughter awkwardly attempt to reveal their sexualities to each other, demonstrates how the wires can get crossed:

If only the sexually ambiguous Tom Rakewell in Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 The Rake’s Progress with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, could have fared as well.

Unlike Bechdel, Rakewell is not permitted understanding or triumph. Instead, he is lured into a dangerous quest by Nick Shadow, a demonic, post-war, apocalyptic, Mephistopheles. Rakewell struggles with sudden inheritance and wealth, inchoate, Edward Gorey-style debauchery, sexual identity—he marries a bearded Turkish mock-transvestite-like woman who epitomizes today’s Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner debate about what defines sexual identity and the consequences of women’s identity—and finally madness as if Tom Rakewell can reunite with his female love, Anne Truelove, only by going insane and believing he’s Adonis pining for an imagined Venus.

Last night, instead of watching the Tony’s—which, to be honest, I have never done and besides, I don’t have a television, blah, blah, blah—I was invited to attend one of the final dress rehearsals for Portland Opera’s The Rake’s Progress that opens later this week in order to participate in a live-tweet.

For audiences of both opera and poetry, the very music and language that we become attracted to actually begins in our bodies and minds long before the curtain goes up or the poem’s first words are uttered. In other words, one is predisposed at the outset. Both opera and poetry rely on an audience’s affection for imagination—before, during, and after the last word has been sung or spoken. Both opera and poetry enlarge and then enrich the crises and joys of the human condition. Both opera and poetry are mediums for a single voice to sing in the context of the social, the societal, and the civic—whereas opera relies on narrative action and a balance of solo and duet, poetry is all interior monologue with a balance of voice and metaphor. There are many obvious differences, of course. Poetry is to heightened speech what opera is to a bold shout from the top of the bell tower. The range of the opera singer’s voice requires singing to someone very far away, while the poet must only whisper in her ear.

The Rake’s Progress was composed between 1948 and 1951 based on a series of eight engravings by the painter William Hogarth, entitled “A Rake’s Progress.” The English artist William Hogarth produced “A Rake’s Progress” in 1735 on what Hogarth called “modern moral subjects.” Hogarth’s pictorials focus on a hearty rogue, named Rakewell, who after spending all his inherited money on clothes, women, and drink ends up in London’s notorious Bedlam lunatic asylum. Stravinsky, who was inspired by Hogarth’s morality tale, composed the music for a fabulist operatic version, even though it was the only opera he ever wrote.

As you might imagine, the chief interest of my tweets was with W. H. Auden’s libretto and the way it becomes a portrait of Auden’s own life after he leaves England for America in 1938. To give you a feel for the opera, here’s a sampling of my responses:

Igor Stravinsky invited Auden to Hollywood in November 1947 so that the two men could meet and work on the projected opera. Auden, who had been listening to Stravinsky’s music since he was a teenager, was terrified because he was already in awe of Stravinsky’s prowess—while Stravinsky, on the other hand, was a neophyte when it came contemporary poetry and was relying on assurances from his Los Angeles neighbor, Aldous Huxley, that Auden was indeed an outstanding poet who might write a brilliant libretto.

In fact, just as Stravinsky had never composed an opera, neither had Auden written a libretto. Enter Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover since 1939, who was an opera buff. Music critic David Schiff takes the story from there:

Auden and Kallman, too, brought their personal histories to the opera. Auden met the stunningly handsome eighteen-year-old Kallman in 1939 and decided immediately that he had found the man of his dreams. But Kallman really was a rake, sexually incompatible with Auden and endlessly promiscuous. There ensued a lifelong folie à deux in which Auden played the role of perfect wife to Kallman’s philandering husband. The situation made Auden feel both absurd and virtuous. In short, he was Baba the Turk… Baba was Auden’s addition to Hogarth’s story, and she has been a source of misunderstanding from the start. According to Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s longtime amanuensis, Stravinsky’s lawyer advised him to drop the entire project because Baba was a “sexual hoax.” Yet homosexual composers didn’t seem to appreciate the hoax any more than ostensibly straight critics did. Virgil Thomson praised the opera but predicted—correctly, as it turned out—that Baba, “a character drawn from female impersonation,” would not be easy to make convincing. Benjamin Britten, whose works are full of homosexual allusions, reportedly termed the opera “perverse.” Today, after a decade or more of “gender studies” and androgynous rock stars, one might assume that a bearded lady would no longer kill a show, but perhaps wrongly. As Thomson’s remark indicates, there has always been confusion about whether Baba is supposed to be a woman or a man. Last year the Public Broadcasting System showed a Swedish movie of The Rake’s Progress in which Baba was clearly a man, sung by a male alto with a short goatee. Instead of solving the problem, the TV movie just showed that in our enlightened age a drag queen is less threatening than a woman with a beard—and proved that Baba makes no sense at all as a cross-dressed man.

Schiff wrote the above nearly twenty years ago in 1997 in the Atlantic. With the luxury of time, I think Schiff in his terrific essay simply could not predict the turn in today’s society toward greater acceptance of homosexual and transgender love and marriage, and so I can see why he diminishes the Jungian masks Auden puts into play to obscure both Rakewell and Baba’s sexual natures in the early 1950s. Baba the Turk’s “cross-dressing”or transitioning or gender complexities are presented by Auden as a coded message for human honesty in a world of madness—Baba owns her personhood—as you see here in this clip from the African premiere of Stravinsky’s opera at the Baxter Theater in 2011 when Baba the Turk is introduced as Tom Rakewell’s fully sexually-compromised wife:

When I watched Baba’s marriage entrance last night, I immediately thought of the feelings of duty mixed with “fevers” that you find in Auden’s great poem, “Lullaby”:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

But what of Anne Truelove, the stalwart, heterosexual, ditched lover of the sexually naive Tom Rakewell? Auden represents her as society’s stalwart. “Tom is weak and needs the comfort of a helping hand,” she sings at the end of Act I, and then concludes with these essential lines:

Though it be hurt,
If love be love
It will not alter.
O should I see
My love in need,
It shall not matter
What he may be.
I go to him.
Love cannot falter,
Cannot desert
A loving heart,
An ever-loving heart.

Anne Truelove’s full understanding of Rakewell’s divided identity, sexual or otherwise—“It shall not matter / What he may be”—compares to the lines above from “Lullaby” as well: “Soul and body have no bounds.” Auden’s mastery in The Rake’s Progress is to cast human love, regardless of sexuality, as boundless and universal. Stravinsky’s music calls on Anne Truelove, as played in the clip below by soprano Martina Schilling at Theater Dortmund in 2008, to hit high C at the end of her great aria, “No word from Tom,” quoted above. Anne Truelove’s is a cry of undivided clarity about love’s determination to exist in honesty:

And here opera and poetry find their grand communion. Like poetry, opera thrives in the extremes of emotion, music, language, and the geographies of exterior and interior experience where all life is at stake. As Auden says, “No opera can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

So it is in poetry. The interior monologues of poetry honor the shadow natures of the psyche. A poet lives through the writing of poems inside his or her animal or sexual sides as a way to honor that aspect of our humanity. A poet does not ignore these energies of darkness mingled with light. I mean, Tom Rakewell tries to make a deal with his shadow side and suffers for it.

No, a poet knows that the extremes of the inner life are also what connect him or her to the human community.

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For readers of Poetry Wire who live in Oregon and the Northwest you can see Portland Opera’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress June 11th, 12th, and 14th. The performance features David Hockney’s legendary scene and costume designs. The Rake’s Progress staging is accompanied by a Portland Art Museum exhibition of Hogarth’s prints as well as a selection of Hockney’s original drawings watercolors and designs for the production.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →