Adelaide Ristori.

Studies and memoirs ; an autobiography online

. (page 12 of 21)
Online LibraryAdelaide RistoriStudies and memoirs ; an autobiography → online text (page 12 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

gesture intimate to my weeping attendants I would
pray Heaven for them. I stretched out my hands
towards them in an attitude of benediction. Then,
embracing the cross, I waved a last farewell to them
all, and descended the interior staircase, followed by
the executioner.



ANY ONE who is familiar with the dramatic litera-
ture of our great authors, will easily understand that
among all the tragedies produced by the immortal
Alfieri, that of Myrrha is founded upon the most
difficult and extraordinary subject of any which he
has treated. And, in fact, to place upon the stage
the spectacle of a daughter powerfully enamored of
her own father, and assailed from time to time by
impulses of fierce jealousy against her own mother,
is undoubtedly a monstrous thing. But it will assur-
edly not be reckoned so unbecoming or incompatible
with public morality, when it is remembered that this
passion was inspired by an irresistible fate. Alfieri
tells us that Cecris, Myrrha's mother, having boasted
of the beauty of her daughter as superior to that of
Venus herself, the offended goddess took her revenge
by filling the heart of Myrrha with an incestuous
passion. And thanks to his master hand, which has
never had its equal, Alfieri has succeeded in making
the representation of it not merely bearable, but
even affecting.

In truth, the sight of the incessant and most pain :
ful conflict raging in a pure soul filled by such a terri-
ble passion, a passion which causes remorse, shame,
and scarcely-understood desires, and the enormity of



which its victim herself can measure by the horror it
causes her, must move the spectators to a feeling of
compassion, and Alfieri has expressed this opinion at
the close of his tragedy.

But if it was a difficult task for the author to treat
such a subject so as to render it acceptable upon the
stage, what must have been the burden of responsi-
bility upon the actress who undertook to interpret it,
and render it admissible, or even tolerable ? There-
fore, I may frankly say that this was the only character
I studied during my artistic career, in the interpreta-
tion of which I was not at once successful, and it
was the only one whose immense difficulty seemed
to paralyze my intellectual powers.

For it appeared to me impossible adequately to
depict the startling contrasts which succeeded one
another without pause in the soul of this unhappy
woman, who was vainly struggling against her destiny,
and her living martyrdom.

How could it be shown that all that was guilty in
her was not hers, but that hers rather was the virtue,
the strength, with which she fought against the evil
passion that filled her heart, fought against it even to
taking her own life ? How, step by step, could the
overwhelming fury of that fatal sentiment be devel-
oped, and its incomprehended impulses and terrible
results be set forth in their due proportions?

From the early age of fourteen, when, thanks to
my natural and precocious development, I was able
to undertake the principal part in Francesca da Rim-
ini, up to the last day of my artistic studies, I was
gifted with a great facility of imitation, which helped


me to identify myself with my subject, and made me
successful in every part. But in this of Myrrha I
was dismayed by the many obstacles I encountered,
and if any conceit had been likely to spring up with-
in me, it would have been effectually annihilated, for
during a considerable time it seemed to me the diffi-
culties I encountered would surpass my ability to'
overcome them.

It was in 1848 that the unexpected change of
Government made it possible to put upon the stage
works hitherto prohibited by the Papal Censor,- and
my capocomico immediately conceived the idea of
bringing out Myrrha, which was one of these pro-
hibited plays.

It was just before the birth of the eldest of my
four children, and it seemed to me most inappropriate
for me, in my condition, to undertake the part of a
young girl of twenty, the victim of such an unnatural
passion. I, therefore, opposed the project as much
as I could, but without success, for my Impresarii,
Domeniconi, and Gaetano Coltellini, naturally count-
ed on this play for filling the theatre. In my quality
of dependant, I could not refuse my services, and,
like my other companions in art, I was forced to

In four days I learnt the part of Myrrha, which
contains about 370 lines !

How was it possible for me thoroughly to study
and enter into the meaning of even a quarter of such a
task, or to identify myself with such a recondite char-
acter ? There was barely time to commit the words of
my part to memory, as every one will know who is ac-



quainted with Alfieri's verses, and with his involved
form of expression. The result was what might have
been expected, half a failure ; and I was so annoyed
that I declared nothing should induce me ever to ap-
pear again in this tragedy. It was not until 1852
that wiser counsels induced me to change my mind.
Then our celebrated prima donna, and my very dear
friend, Carolina Internari, who displayed towards
me the affection of a mother, and who was devoted
to tragic art, speaking to me one day about Myrrha,
began to reprove me sharply for my cowardice in not
having again attempted the character. When I per-
sisted in my refusal, she offered me an inducement of
which I could never have dreamed. Such was her
love for her art, and for the beautiful, that although
she had always taken the principal part in the play
and had been received in it with the greatest enthu-
siasm, yet if I would only consent once more to as-
sume the part of Myrrha, she herself would play that
of the Nurse Euryclea, one of considerable import-
ance certainly, but still one usually assigned to the
second lady of the company. I was vanquished by
her generous proposal, my objections ceased, and I
resumed my study of Myrrha. But what a study !
I meditated on every line, I analyzed each word, I
studied every look, until, at last, I began to fancy I
saw somewhat how this exceptional character should
be interpreted. This study, in its complete and its
many details, was successful, and was received with
all the favor which was then bestowed on grand tragic
art, and the manifestation of which by the Italian
public differed widely from the convulsive aspiration


of the present day, and it found an appreciative
audience which showed inexpressible delight, often
amounting almost to delirium, in witnessing these
tragic representations.

Towards the close of 1852, after three months of
hard work, I presented myself upon the stage of the
Theatre Niccolini, at Florence then the Cocomero
to undergo my ordeal. The fact of having that
living incarnation of tragedy, Carolina Internari, to
support me in my effort, gave me such impulsive
energy, such fire and enthusiasm my soul was so
keenly alive to the influence of that beautiful charmer
that the very magnetism of her presence made the
blood to leap in my veins, my imagination carried
me, as if were, out of myself, and enabled me to
identify myself entirely with the miserable vicissi-
tudes of Myrrha.

Thus it came to pass that I made this tragedy
entirely my own mine exclusively and it was this
which, when I played it at the Theatre Ventadour, in
Paris, in 1855, procured me the favor of the public,
and of the French press, and afterwards that of the
other nations.

If the incestuous love of Myrrha was repugnant,
its repugnance was somewhat covered by the stress
which was laid upon her own innate chastity, and I
had so colored my interpretation of her character
with this nobler sentiment, as to bring out all its re-
condite and hidden beauties. My chief care was to
prove to the public, that although the subject appear-
ed immoral, it was not really so in action. If, in the
old mythological fable, Myrrha is presented as whol-


ly odious and despicable, in Alfieri's tragedy the
woman's passion is always dominated by the natural
chastity of the young maiden, and indeed I heard
several mothers remark, to my great satisfaction,
" that they had not seen anything that could offend
their daughters' modesty."

I will here recount a curious little anecdote in sup-
port of my assertion. A young lady who had just
returned home from the theatre, greatly impressed by
all she had seen, was talking over various points in
the tragedy with her parents and friends, and she
said : " But why was this Myrrha so strange, so dis-
satisfied ? sometimes she will be married, sometimes
she wont : her parents are always of her mind. She
herself fixes the day of her marriage, then she talks
of putting it off, she tries to forget what just before
she so ardently desired, and behold ! when the wed-
ding is to take place, she, in an agony of anguish and
fury, refuses her husband, reproaches her mother, and
ends the tragedy by killing herself, after saying to her
father, ' Ah ! thou would'st see that father recoil
with horror if he knew it, Ginyras.' Whatever was
the matter with her ? " Then the father of this young
girl, whose penetration equalled his own, and who
found himself rather at a loss for an answer, replied,
with a wisdom worthy of him, "that the poor thing
had probably been bitten by the tarantula." *

And indeed, a person whose intelligence is not
very acute, may be excused for being somewhat be-

'* The tarantula is a venomous spider found in some parts of
Italy, whose bite is said to be fatal. Translator.

MYRRH A. l8l

wildered by the sudden and sharp contrasts of feel-
ing in the tragedy.

In the first scene that Myrrha has with Pereus,
her intended husband, I used every effort in my
power to conceal the struggle that was raging within
me, and to hide the real cause of my anguish, and of
the aversion I felt towards every man but my father.
But here and there, as it were, my weakness prevails
over my resolution for an instant, and, as was evi-
dently the author's intention, I let drop a word or
two which gave some hint of the conflict through
which I was passing.

Thus, for example, when Pereus says

" Now thou dost not disdain to be mine ?
No more to repent ? no more to delay ? "

Myrrha, who feels her courage is deserting her,
answers :

" No. This is the day, and to-day I will be thy bride, but to-
morrow let our sails be given to the winds, and let us leave for
ever these shores at our back."

PEREUS." What do I hear ? What sudden contradiction is
in thy words? It is pain to thee to leave thy native land, thy
revered parents, and yet would'st thou depart thus for ever ? "

MYRRHA. "I would abandon them for ever and die of

These passages are also a proof of the inflexible
resolution of Myrrha, who, though certain she will
die if separated from her father, yet prefers that
separation to a prolonged residence near him.

I find it indispensable to touch as briefly as may
be possible on certain ideas, certain passages difficult
of expression, in order to enable the reader to form a


better judgment of my interpretation of them. Thus,
in the third Act, when Myrrha is invited by her parents
to confide in them, at the beginning, I advanced to-
wards my mother with a firm step, as though my
martyrdom were suspended for a moment, and com-
ing opposite to her in an affectionate manner, I so
contrived that the presence of my father was hid
from my eyes. Cecris, in advancing to meet me",

" Ah ! beloved child ! come to us come ! "

But as she spoke the words " Come to us," I be-
came aware that my father was also before me, and,
stopping as one struck by a sudden ague, gave my
mother occasion for the second " Come," as though
she would ask " Why do you hesitate ? " her question
being followed by my words, spoken in an aside

" Heavens ! What do I see ? my father also ! "

In answer to the affectionate exhortations of Cinyras,
and the caresses of my mother, I allowed the public
to guess the mental torture I was undergoing, by
saying in another aside

Are there torments in the world to equal mine ? "

And when, pressed by my father, and persistently
entreated by my mother, I saw no way of escape
without betraying my guilty passion, I could control
my feelings no longer, it seemed to me that my heart
must break.

After a superhuman effort not to betray myself I
murmured resolutely in an aside

"Oh I Myrrha I this is thy last effort ! O soul, take courage 1 "


And as the father, seeing the miserable condition of
his child, and the suffering which oppressed her, said,
in a tone of decision and authority

" No ! It would not be right. Thou dost not love Pereus,
and it is unwillingly thou would'st give thyself to him,"

I exclaimed, with the cry of a soul which sees its last
chance of escape from the fearful passion that is con-
suming it cut off

"Ah! do not tear him from me rather give me instant

After a moment's pause, as though to regain my
self-control, and excuse my vacillating state of mind,
I continued

" It is true, perhaps, that I do not love him as he loves me,
and that I am not well assured of it myself. Believe me, he
has my esteem, and that no man in the world could have my
hand if he did not have it. I hope he will be dear to my heart
as he ought to be. Chaste and faithful always I would live for
him, and joy rekindle in my bosom. Some day, perhaps, life
will return to me sweet and happy. If, at present, I do not
love him as he merits, the fault is not in me I, who abhor my-
self, have chosen him I choose him again. I only wish and
ask for him as a husband. This choice you have consented to
with joy, let all be completed then, as I wish, and as you have
wished. Since I triumph over my grief, so let it be with you ;
when I am happier I will go to the nuptials quickly, and you
will be happier some day."

Identifying myself with the poet's ideal, I labored
to reproduce the wonderful strength of will with
which this unhappy girl repulsed her father's caress-
es, and adduced fallacious reasons as the unhappy
cause of her mysterious sorrow, at one moment
directing bitter imprecations against the cruel enemy


who had wrought her such woe, while at another,
feigning a calm she did not feel, a hope she was far
from experiencing, all the time showing to the public,
by occasional hints, her firm decision to die, if it
were necessary, rather than live near the object of
her shameful love. And who would not be moved
to pity for the unfortunate maiden who had thus
become the sport of such an adverse destiny, and
whose soul was lacerated by such a guilty passion !

I was very careful not to meet my father's eyes,
while at the same time I did not neglect any oppor-
tunity of showing the audience, by my expression,
what jealous anger I felt at seeing my mother the
object of his tenderness.

One of these occasions, of which I availed myself,
was when Cinyras, after hearing the reasons his
daughter adduces for the necessity of her separation
from her parents, turns sadly to his wife, and says,
as he embraces her

"And thou, dear wife, standest there in silent grief. Con-
sentest thou to her wish ? "

At this sight I made a hasty movement as though
I would rush forward and hinder the embrace, then,
seized with a sudden shivering, and bashfulness, I
gathered my mantle about my person, and fled to
the back of the stage. Afterwards I took leave of
my parents in these words

" I will withdraw to my room for a moment. I wish to go
to the altar with dry eyes and with a smooth forehead to greet
my spouse."

I exchanged an affectionate embrace with my mother,

MYRRH A. 185

but when my father drew near and attempted to clasp
me to his heart, in order to avoid his caress, I bent
before him in an attitude of simulated respect, allow-
ing the terror with which I shrank from him to be
plainly seen. Then, a prey to the most evident agi-
tation, I rushed from the stage.

In the beginning of the fourth Act the author repre-
sents Myrrha so calm, serene and smiling as to make
Nurse Euryclea say

"It is a cruel joy thou showest now in leaving us."
And this joy appears as though it might be the natu-
ral consequence of the satisfaction experienced by
Myrrha, in the belief that she has triumphed over all
the obstacles which might prevent her departure, and
has in this way freed herself from the fatal influence
exercised over her. In a tranquil and sensible tone
she says to Pereus

"Yes, dear spouse, for that is the name I now wish to call
thee, if ever I had an intense wish, it is to depart with thee at
the dawn to-morrow. Oh! I desire it. I wish to be alone
with thee. I wish no longer to see one of these objects, the
witness of my tears, and their cause, perhaps. To cross new
seas, to visit another kingdom, to breathe an air strange and
pure, and to have thee for a protector at my side, a husband
like thee, full of joy and love, such are my wishes, and all this
will bring me back to what I once enjoyed. I trust I shall be
less troublesome to thee. Thou must have some compassion
for my state. My grief, if not spoken of by thee, will not long
have root. Do thou not speak to me of the paternal kingdom,
and of my deserted and disconsolate parents, nor of anything
remind me that once was mine. Speak not their name. This
alone will be the remedy to stay forever the fountain of my

From this it may be gathered that when Myrrha is


not in the actual presence of her father, she is able
to conquer her internal strife, and to obtain the mas-
tery over her passion. But, on the appearance of
Cinyras, in order to bring out more strikingly the
contrast between the following supreme situation and
the instantaneous effect which the sight of my father
produced on my heart, I was successful in showing
by incontestable evidence the icy coldness which ran
through my veins, my hair which stood on end in
one word, the deep and invincible perturbation that
had seized me. The public, comprehending, identi-
fied itself at once (as the wave of involuntary emotion
let me plainly see) with the sentiments of this situa-
tion, which is one of the most moving in the tragedy.
The first returning symptoms of Myrrha's passion
are manifested when the priest intones the opening
verses of the nuptial hymn. Then her face assumes
the pallor of death, her limbs tremble. The only
one to perceive it is the nurse, who approaches her
in terror, and asks

" Daughter, what is this ? Thou tremblest ! Heaven ! "

To which Myrrha replies, still shaking and shiver-

" Silence, O silence 1 "


But yet -"

MYRRHA (resolutely and with authority)
" No ! it is not true. I tremble not "

whilst burning tears run from her eyes. And this is
one of the most magnificent passages in this Act.
I remember what immense labor and fatigue it

MYRRH A. 1 87

cost me to arrive at the most exact interpretation of
the mental torment which her mother's persistent
demands as to the cause of her sorrow inflicted upon
Myrrha, and that this was aggravated by the struggle
caused by her irrevocable determination to consum-
mate her marriage, even at the cost of her life.
These two true and powerful situations are admirably
expressed in the following words :

CECRIS. " But why is this ? Why changes thy face ? Alas 1
thou dost vacillate, and trembling, canst scarcely stand."

MYRRHA. " Ah 1 for pity's sake, my mother, do not shake
my constancy by thy words. I know not of my face, but my
heart, my mind, remains firm and immovable."

Meanwhile, the priest continues repeating the third
strophe of the nuptial hymn

" Let pure Faith and Concord, eternal and divine,
Make in the bosoms of these two their shrine,
And always in vain the fatal Alecto
With the horrible Furies
Released, moves her dismal nuptial torches
Before the strong pure heart
Of the honored bride who transcends all praise,
While the Furies rage in vain
And fatal discord from their path departs."

While the hymn goes on, Myrrha's breast heaves
with the violence of her effort to repress any outward
manifestation of the tempest that rages within her.
But at the words

" While all the Furies rage in vain
And fatal discord from their path departs,"

it seems to me that she must have reached the
crowning point of her desperation.


The anger which possesses her can no longer be
held back j the passion, which is consuming her like
a poisonous serpent, bursts all bounds, and incites
her to exclaim, half mad with rage

" What say you ? Already in my heart all the Furies have
fearful possession. Behold with whips of vipers, and with dis-
mal torches the mad Furies stand. See, these torches are
what these nuptials merit/'

Here I became entirely transfigured, as though
seized with delirium, and, after a short pause, con-
tinued in a terrified manner

" k But what is this ? The hymns ceased ? Who holds me to
his breast ? Where am I ? What said I ? Am I already
married? O wretchedness ! "

As I spoke these words, I suddenly turned round,
and found myself face to face with my father, who,
with folded arms, gazed at me threateningly.

Struck by this sight, I felt the blood curdle in my
veins, and, losing all my courage, with the cry
"O misery!"

I let myself fall to the ground as though struck by

Little by little my mother and nurse succeeded in
bringing me back to life again, though I was slow in
entirely recovering my scattered senses. It was the
magnetic effect of my father's voice that finally re-
called me to myself, and, as I listened confusedly to
his austere and menacing words, I replied in a weak
and scarcely intelligible voice

"It is true. Cinyras, be thou inexorable with me. I ask
nothing else. I wish no more. He alone can terminate all the

MYRRH A. 189

sufferings of his unworthy, unhappy daughter. Into my breast
strike that vengeful sword hanging at thy girdle. Thou gavest
to me this miserable life. Take it from me. Behold, it is the
last boon for which I will supplicate. Ah, think! If thou
standest still, and with thine own right hand dost not kill me,
thou wilt compel me to die by mine own and no other."

How plainly Alfieri shows in this and other places
that Myrrha is powerless to conquer her love, and
that death alone can bring her rest and peace !

At the last words I fainted once more, so that I
did not perceive I was being supported by my father,
before he left me.

In the two following scenes Myrrha comes slowly
to herself, and, remaining alone with her mother,
there is a long interchange of sentiments of pity, of
anguish, and of remorse, and finally of jealous rage,
at seeing her hated rival continually at her side, and
of knowing that she alone possesses the affection of
Cinyras, and enjoys his tenderest caresses. Thus,
when Cecris says

" Rather I would always from this hour watch over thy life " ;

Myrrha, beside herself with passion, interrupts her

" Thou watch my life ? Must I at every moment, must I see
thee ? Thou always to be before my eyes ! Ah ! first, I wish
that these my eyes were sepulchred in eternal darkness ; with
my own hand I myself would wish to tear them from my brow."

And when Cecris adds

"O heaven! What do I hear? Thou makest me to shud-
der ! Thou hatest me, then ? "

with savage desperation her daughter answers


"Thou first, only, and everlasting mournful cause of my
every misery "

But, quickly the sight of my weeping mother re-
called me to myself, and showed me what terrible
words must have issued from my lips, as by some
irresistible force. I was ashamed of having been led
into such excesses. My natural goodness of heart
triumphed, and blushing at the remembrance that I
had treated my mother so cruelly in my paroxysm of
jealous fury, and that I had so addressed her, I
besought her to kill me. Oppressed as I was by
the terrible conflict of emotions, I felt my strength,
gradually forsaking me. and allowed myself to be
led gently towards my apartment by my mother,
exchanging caresses and kisses with her.

In the fifth Act the desolate Cinyras, aware of the
death of the unfortunate Pereus, determines to put
an end to the anxious life he leads, and, at every risk,
to have a clear explanation with Myrrha, and speak to
her with the decision and authority of a father. She
advances towards him.

The words which Alfieri has put into the mouth of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryAdelaide RistoriStudies and memoirs ; an autobiography → online text (page 12 of 21)