Adelaide Ristori.

Studies and memoirs ; an autobiography online

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the sufferings I had endured through my lost love,
then, like the drooping plants which are revived by
the beneficent dew, I too regained my vigor ; and
during the magnificent scene with Creusa, in which,
step by step, I revealed the grief that was gnawing at
my heart, dreading that while I was wandering about
in my wretchedness, seeking some trace of my
beloved who had left me, I should find him living
happy in the arms of some rival my whole appear-
ance became transformed, my limbs worked convul-
sively, my eyes blazed, my mouth seemed to breathe
forth poison ; and when Creusa asked me what I
would do to Jason and his affianced bride if I came
upon them, I answered with the aspect of a fury,
looking at her with malevolent eyes, while I seized
her hand and drew her to the front of the stage

" What does the leopard in the forest depths, when pounc-
ing on his prey with hideous roar ? He bears it to his den,
and tears the bloody carcass limb from limb."

As I uttered these last words I assumed the air of
a wild beast gloating over his victim, while, with my
hands, I made as though I were indeed dismembering
my prey, my whole expression and attitude being
calculated to excite the utmost dread and horror.

This posture, ferocious as it was, seemed to me
strictly logical, and in accordance not merely with
the disposition of Medea, but with that of every


woman of strong character capable of extremes
either in love or hate. And this conviction tended
to make me a just judge, and served me as a pattern
in the frequent transitions of the part. Thus, by
profound study, I succeeded in developing this
double passion as the author had imagined it, with-
out departing from the truth.

But the scene changed with the unexpected appear-
ance of Orpheus. At the assurance he gave me that
Jason was still alive, my features lighted up with a
passionate joy; but when I further discovered in
Creusa the woman who was my rival, and heard her
rashly defy my anger with the words

" Hold ! respect the hero who has plighted his faith to me " ;

I replied with a stern look

" You love him ? "
and Creusa said

" Yes, I love him, and to-morrow the high priest will hail
him as my husband."

Like a lioness who is determined her prey shall not
escape her, I exclaimed in a mocking voice

" You will marry him ? We shall see."

I extended my right hand towards her with a resolute
air, as though daring her to defy me, and stood thus
until the curtain fell.

This first Act was received with the greatest enthu-
siasm, and I was called for several times by the
excited audience. The Foyer (green-room), as it is
named by the actors, was crowded with people.
Admirers were profuse in their compliments, friends


wrung my hands with emotion too deep for words.
Others gathered round me in silence, unable to speak
their sentiments. M. Legouve and I were indeed
the hero and heroine of the hour. All united in
expressing their astonishment at the wonderful way
in which each part had been studied and each detail
carried out after such a small number of rehearsals.
This would probably not have been so much a matter
of surprise in Italy, where theatrical conditions are
much less florid than among other nations, and where
it is essential to attract the public by the production
of constant novelties, and therefore but little time
can be given. In France on the contrary, the neces-
sary preparations sometimes occupy six months.

The second Act abounds in fine situations and mar-
vellous scenic effects, which offer the actress a large
scope for the display of her dramatic capacity. Chief
among the former is the scene between Medea and
Jason. When Jason reproaches himself with having
involuntarily condemned his children to a life of toil
and privation, and dreading to know that they should
be exposed to further shame and suffering, tells her
that he will do all in his power to rescue them from
such a fate, provided their mother sacrifice herself for

them, I eagerly ask

JASON. By breaking our marriage tie !

I am for the moment stunned by such a proposal.
Then with a great effort at self-control, I add, with
scarcely repressed irony

" Ha ! you will repudiate me 1"
and already the tempest his words had awakened


within me made my eyes flash. I will not stop here
to enumerate, even briefly, the thousand suggestions
and questionings that passed between us in the few
lines preceding those in which I answered his argu-
ments with the sarcastic words beginning " I have
foreseen all," and gave place to the accents of hatred
and revenge in keeping with Medea's indomitable
temper, and which must breathe in every word of mine
during the progress of the scene. And now I gave
full vent to the fury that raged within me, which I had
hitherto restrained in some degree. Weakness, pas-
sionate affection, were both forgotten in the just
resentment of an outraged, humiliated soul, injured
in its tenderest and strongest .feelings, and all my
fury burst forth as I answered him

" Yes ! Lacerate my heart with thy base treachery, discard
me and elect another in my place. I can understand it, such
crimes are of thy race. But to speak of thy children, to feign
anxiety for their welfare while thy heart is busy with adulterous
plans, to mingle their innocence with thy guilty thoughts, and
shield thy infamy beneath the name of father ! This exceeds
all bearing this thrills me with horror."

After my absolute refusal to consent to the rupture
of our marriage tie, and ascertaining from his cruel
and insulting words that he defied my anger, and that
all affection for me had died within him, in spite of
myself I remained strangely agitated. My deepest
grief, however, was when, weary of my reproaches,
and caring little for my refusal, Jason informed me
that the very next day I should be banished the
country, and Creusa would become his wife, while
the winds that drove me from his shores would waft

MEDEA. 211

me the strains of their wedding hymn. These men-
aces seemed to petrify me. My love changed to the
deepest hatred. Like a torrent of burning lava I
poured forth the words

" Blood ! Blood ! Oh, for something wherewith to wring, to
lacerate his heart! something atrocious fearful hideous
some punishment unknown to human nature, but equal, if it be
possible, to my hatred."

And like a wounded wild animal, I paced round and
round the stage, as though seeking for some new and
terrible mode of vengeance. Even the voices of my
children, who ran towards me, calling me by the en-
dearing name of mother, could not calm my fury;
for when they appealed to me with the words, " Hear
thy sons ! " I replied vehemently

" The children of Jason are no sons of mine ! "

LYCAON : " Dost thou love us no longer ? "

" No [I answered in bitter accents], accursed race ! hence !
all, all I hate, but ye far more than all ! Because ye spring
from him; because to him I owe ye, him whom ye both

Then, beholding the forlorn air of the poor little
innocent ones, I cried

" Oh, Jason, wilt thou pursue me with thy semblance and thy
sons ! "

And the affection which reigned all-powerful within
me awoke once more ; deeply touched, I continued

" Thy children ! no, no, mine ! "

I stretched out my arms towards them in a trans-
port of maternal affection, and they at once rushed
into my embrace. I threw myself upon a seat, took


the youngest on my knee, and pressed the other with
rapture to my heart; thus forming a group which
produced the greatest effect upon the audience. My
true mother's love overflowed in my next words

" I whose love for you has known no bounds, I who in this
wide world have naught but you ; I hate you ? I send you from
me ? Wretch that I am ! What are you to Jason, you unfort-
unate children of Medea! I should have broken my own
heart, but not touched his ! Does he know anything of you ?
His heart is filled with one idea, one name, one love,
Creusa ! "

As I uttered this name all my fierce jealousy once
more awoke within me. The children, terrified at
the change, shrank from my embrace. Left alone,
the sole idea of vengeance possessed me. I would
destroy my rival. I would stab her, for

" The heart then serves as guide to the blow, my arm would
grudge to leave its work to poison."

I pulled a dagger from beneath mypeplum, and at
sight of it exclaimed with savage exultation : " Oh,
joy ! " Then in a deep voice and cautious tone I

" At night, gliding stealthily along the sombre walls, I will
enter, spectre-like, the room where she sleeps, and when I see
her prostrate on her downy couch, and at my mercy, I will
brandish on high my avenging weapon and plunge it in her
bosom to seek out her soul. When she opens her eyes she
will see me ! At her death-cry the palace will awaken. Lover,
friends, and parents will rush in horror-stricken, and behold
Medea standing, avenged, over Creusa's lifeless corpse ! "

While I uttered these last words I drew myself up
in such a manner as to appear of gigantic size, hold-
ing my dagger tightly clasped aloft, so that men
might well have been thunderstruck at my aspect.

MEDEA. 213

At the unexpected appearance of Creusa, the idea
of instantly carrying out my revenge came like a
lightning flash into my mind, and filled me with a
savage joy, but I rapidly hid myself behind a column
in order to choose a propitious moment to fall upon
her. As I followed Creusa with the intention of
surprising her, we suddenly came upon one another
face to face. The unhappy girl was looking for me,
with the generous intention of warning me that an
excited crowd was besieging the palace and thirsting
for my blood

" 'Tis thee these angry crowds pursue. Let them but cross

the threshold, and thou art lost ! I come "

MEDEA : " For what ? "
CREUSA : " To save thee ! "

This answer disarmed Medea's wrath, who, with a
quick return of the instincts of her royal race, repeat-
ed in astonishment

" Thou to save me ! save me ! "

When I had spoken, I suddenly became conscious
that I was still grasping my dagger, and, ashamed of
myself, I hastened to hide it in silence.

Then followed a short scene with Creusa, in which
I prayed and besought her, in accents full of anguish,
to leave me the man who was all the world to me ;
but at her repeated refusal my hatred returned in
tenfold force. I rose up, ready to spring upon her,
when Creonte, alarmed by her daughter's cry, came,
in terrified haste, to her rescue, followed by a crowd
of people. In the last scene, while my children cling
closely to my side lest they should be dragged from


me by the infuriated mob who carried stones in their
hands ready to cast at me, Orpheus suddenly appear-
ed, and addressed the raging multitude in an authori-
tative voice

"Let him who loves not his own sons, be the first to tear
these children from their mother ! "

At sight of him the people, awestruck, stood aside,
letting the stones fall from their hands. Creonte,
Jason, and Creusa felt in their turn the irresistible
fascination of the divine poet. Reassured by the
words of Orpheus who promised me a safe escape, I
wrapped both my sons in my mantle, and, certain
that all would now be well, retreated slowly, murmur-
ing to myself

" At last I have found my revenge."

I need not insist upon the effect all these situations
produced on the public.

The stage was arranged in a truly artistic manner
for my appearance in the third Act. On the side to
the left of the spectator, a large curtain, draped in
the Greek style, indicated the entrance to a room,
which was reached by a short flight of steps. When
the drop scene rose Jason was discovered listening
impatiently to the admonitions of Orpheus.

Creusa comes on the scene unexpectedly, leading
his children in either hand, and delighted by their
caresses. It is quite a domestic group, and gives
opportunity for the expression of many tender senti-
ments towards the children on the part of Creusa,
who desires to adopt them both as her own. Jason,


MEDEA. 215

11 of these glad prospects, withdraws, followed by
his dear ones and by the gloomy Orpheus. At this
instant I show myself on the threshold of my cham-
ber. I descend the first step with one foot, and,
raising in my right hand the heavy curtain, I remain
in the shadow of it, a cold observer of this new proof
of Jason's treachery.

In the short monologue that follows, I confirm
myself all the more in my thoughts of vengeance,
and only wait the fall of night to fly with my children
while the palace is full of the jocund guests who
are celebrating the auspicious wedding of Creusa!
These last words I pronounce in the sarcastic tone
of one who has prepared quite a different close to
the festivities. Here Orpheus returns, bringing an
order from Creonte. He tells me that among the
answers he had received from the oracle was one
warning that the presence of Medea at the marriage
would be fatal to the bride ; and he ordered me to
depart instantly, but without my children. Such a
decree pierces Medea's heart, for her maternal love
is stronger than her hate, and she entreats Orpheus
to intercede for her with the king that he will restore
her sons to her. In the following scene every-
thing conduces to show the strain of humanity exist-
ing in this woman who is subjected to such severe
trials, and this study served to prove how difficult it
is to give a correct representation of such a strange
personality, and to bring out in their true analogies
the constantly opposing and contrasting passions by
which she is incessantly torn.

Finding all my prayers and entreaties vain, I hum-


bled myself so far, at last, as to beseech the inflexible
Jason to allow me to depart with my sons; but hear-
ing that he would only consent for one to accompany
me, I turned with the most moving expression of
countenance towards Creusa, the king, and Jason,
and besought them again, with reiterated prayers, to
grant my request. But the decision was irrevocable.
Then, seeing myself abandoned even by my children,
who were clinging to Creusa in dread lest they should
have to go with me deaf to every word of comfort
that was addressed to me, I implored to be left alone,
a prey to my grief. Presently I discovered that my
children were gone, and with a breaking heart I

" My sons ! my sons ! "

and fell, as though deprived of my senses, on the
steps of the altar erected to Saturn. After a short
pause, I commenced the following powerful mono-
logue :

"Alone! Alone in the world ! Father, husband, children 1
all are gone ! Thou weepest, Medea, thou ! . . ."

But a feeling of shame succeeded that of despair.
I blushed as I saw my hands glistening with the
tears that had fallen from my brimming eyes, and I

" And Jason ? He triumphs ! Yes ! thanks to me his every
wish is fulfilled. Our union was a burden to him. . I have dis-
solved it. He asked for my sons, and I have surrendered them
to him ! My own hand has given him to his beloved one I "

Then, step by step, I went over the wrongs I had
endured, until, stung by the remembrance that I had

MEDEA. 217

" Unconsciously aided and assisted Jason in the accomplish-
ent of his happiness,"

ny fury broke forth once more, and while I said the

" My own hand has given," &c.,

I leaped to my feet, and shook my head resolutely as
though to free myself from the load of shame which
seemed as if it would crush me. But the picture my
4 imagination drew of the transports of Jason and his
bride, was too much for me ; I shouted

" Oh, ye infernal gods ! Help me ! help me ! Blood ! tears !
groans ! The avenging steel ! All these I crave ! "

At this point I decided to exterminate them all

" As yet I scarce know what I do. But I am resolved some
hideous crime, throughout this terrified land shall shroud me
with a veil of horror, stained with blood! that of Jason,
Creusa, her father, my own children "

But the recollection of those dear ones suffices some-
what to calm my fury, and I began to be horror-
stricken at the idea of killing them with my own
hand. However, as I reflected that such a blow
would overwhelm Jason with eternal sorrow, I crushed
back the cry of my better nature ; giving to the fol-
lowing verses all the force of the madness I no longer

" Let me die, provided only that Jason's grief be sempiternal,
that my fell deed create for him innumerable tortures, and
that the infernal deities of my own land do claim him for their
natural prey ! Oh, thou pale god of gloomy Tauris ! "

And here turning towards the statue of Saturn, I
burst out impetuously


" Thou, Saturn, above all others, whose worship doth delight
in infant slaughter, hear me ! Thy terrible altars love the
blood of children sacrificed by their mothers' hands! This
dread offering thou shalt have from me! But, in return, I
claim thee as an accomplice! Fix then an undying vulture
into Jason's breast, which shall gnaw his heart eternally. In-
crease his love for Creusa; for then her loss will cause him
tenfold grief. Grant him even goodness and a parent's heart,
that, wandering and outcast, he may live a prey to sorrow, and
die as desperate as I shall die ! "

At this moment my children reappear, led by
Creusa's nurse ; I stayed my wild words when I saw
them, terrified at my scarcely uttered oath. I com-
manded them to avoid me lest I should be forced to
sacrifice them to the implacable deity. But, hearing
that Jason awaits them at the altar, as though to
make them witnesses of Jiis perfidy, every feeling of
pity vanished, and I was again a prey to my mad
fury, and ordered them to approach me, I arranged
that after the words

"Thou hast rightly said! Time presses, the hour is at
hand! Let them draw near. No! no thought of pity shall
move me! father and son struck by the selfsame blow must
both "

Melanthe and Lycaon should throw themselves before
me, grasping my knees with their tender hands, and
raising their eyes to me in pitiful supplication ; I am
moved by their touch ; I let fall the arm lifted to
strike them ; my voice softened, my hands as they
dropped encountered theirs, and that contact pro-
duced such a sentiment of affection in my soul, that
I forgot my thoughts of vengeance, and, deeply

MEDEA. 219

moved, I exclaimed in a voice overflowing with
tenderness :

" Their hands ! their little hands, I feel their touch ! I hes-
itate ; my heart fails me in spite of myself my lips incline to
theirs. Ah! the struggle is too hard! "

Stooping to kiss them, but recollecting the oath I
had just before sworn to Saturn, I turned to his
altar, as though imploring the deity to grant me one
brief moment of joy before I dealt the fatal blow.
Contemplating my sons, the maternal sentiment awoke
once more in all its strength within me ! After brief
struggle I burst into tears, and cried out like one
intoxicated :

**No, the effort is too great. Hence ye black designs! I
have found my children ! "

Thus saying, I fell on my knees between them,
covering them with kisses, and pressing them with
transport to my heart. At this moment Orpheus
hastened towards me, urging me to seek safety in
flight with my sons. I welcomed his proposal eagerly,
when suddenly a distant and confused murmur of
voices stayed our steps. A maid servant, dishevelled
and in tears, ran in to announce that Creusa was
dying, murdered by a poisoned veil. Distractedly I
cried out

" Yes ! mine ! the one I gave her ! "

When Orpheus in a fury exclaimed

" Wretch, let thy sons be torn from thee ! "
" Never ! "

I replied ; and, seizing little Melanthe, I held him


under my arm, while with the other I dragged
Lycaon. I tried to escape, hurrying precipitately to
the right side of the stage, but the noise of the infuri-
ated mob drove me back in terrified haste to the
other. In vain I sought safety in every direction.
The cries of " Death ! death ! " which resounded
throughout the palace, forced me to try some other
way. At that moment the mob broke in on every
side, like an overwhelming torrent, seeking to tear
my children from me in accordance with the king's
command, who urged them on with the cry

" Seize them ! to death with her ! "
I exclaimed desperately

" Never ! you shall not have them 1 "

and I made one bound to the altar of Saturn, drag-
ging my children after me. The furious crowd
surrounded me, closing me in on every side ; when
suddenly a cry of horror burst from every throat,
which told that the awful sacrifice had been consum-
mated. The people fell back from such a sight, and
let the audience see Medea with her murdered sons
lying behind her at Saturn's feet ; her eyes sternly
set, her face stony, her whole attitude befitting that
of a statue of remorse.

After a brief interval of general horror, the voice
of Jason was heard crying

" Leave me, by my hand must she perish ! "
ORPHEUS : " Approach not ! "
JASON : " The children ! "

" Slain ! "

answered the afflicted Creonte. Jason now hurried
in, asking desperately

MEDEA. 221

" Murdered ? Who, who has murdered them ? "

exclaimed Medea, drawing herself up in an imposing
and ferocious attitude, and extending her arm to-
wards Jason, like an image of an inexorable destiny !

And here the curtain fell.

I applied myself to the study of this subject with
irresistible transport of volition. So that I may say
that I played and considered MEDEA as the study in
which I delighted most, and which induced me to
have recourse to all the resources of Art.

To use a common phrase, I considered this tragedy
my Cheval de Bataille. I studied deeply the contrast
between two passions which, if they are not common,
are not even extraordinary, Jealousy and Hatred ;
and from the one and the other necessarily deriving
itself, Revenge. It was a study exemplarily philo-
sophical, finding its origin and explanation in the
tenderness of the human soul. I have endeavored
to express it in the best manner I was able. Return-
ing to the past, and feeling myself live again in the
impressions of those hours, it seems to me I have
understood it as I ought and as I could.



IT is worthy of notice that Racine, in composing
his magnificient tragedy of Phaedra, was indebted,
for some of the most truthful and beautiful parts
of it, to dramas already produced by those great
masters of tragic composition, Seneca and Euripides.
Both their tragedies, however, were called Hippolytus
(after the hero instead of the heroine of the piece).

This is what Racine says in the preface to his
Phaedra :

" Quoique j'aie suivie une route un peu differente de celle de
cet auteur [speaking of Euripides] pour ]a conduite de 1'action,
je n'ai pas laisse d'enrichir ma piece de tout ce qui m'a paru
eclatant dans la sienne." *

And in fact, he, among others, found the scene
between Phaedra and her nurse CEnone, so full of
truth and pathetic sentiment, that he imitated it very
closely when he introduced Phaedra in the first Act.
Euripides, however, represents her as resolute to
die, because she cannot vanquish, with chastity,
" that guilty and impure love."

* 4< Although I have followed rather a different plan for the
development of the action to that chosen by this author, yet I
have not hesitated to enrich my piece by adding all that seemed
to me most excellent in his."


The means imagined by Racine completely to
alter the character of the action at the close of the
first Act are masterly, and quite original. He makes
her attendant Panope announce to the Queen the
reported death of Theseus at the very moment when
the former, overwhelmed with remorse for her illegit-
imate passion, and certain that she can never satisfy
the impure flame which renders her odious to herself,
has decided to allow herself to die of weakness.

Like a flash of lightning, the joyful news pene-
trates to her heart, for in this event she sees a way of
escape out of the difficulty which rendered her
nefarious love hopeless.

" The cards are broken which make our love a shame and a
disgrace." *

The voice of conscience is silenced. The sweet
hope that Hippolytus, when the death of her husband
becomes known, will come to her, flashes across her
mind like a ray of sunshine amidst a furious tempest,
and like a young girl who for the first time hears
loving lips whisper sweet words into her ear, Phae-

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Online LibraryAdelaide RistoriStudies and memoirs ; an autobiography → online text (page 14 of 21)