The Drama Opera of DIDO AND AENEAS

There is no question but that Vergil is the master-poet of the Latin language, and beyond that one of the rare poets of the Western tradition. The Aeneid is clearly the finest work of his mature years, a re-assembling of traits drawn from the Homeric epic world of long before, but now with a change of tone and mood, becoming an intimate part of Vergil's poetic mind, re-fashioned and relocated in the geographical and historical world of Italy. Little more need be said, here is poetic genius at its highest pitch.

The Latin Original Poem

To really grasp the fecundity and subtlety of Vergil's lines one must read him in Latin. That should be obvious from the start. But this option has largely vanished as the 20th century veered away from the traditional Classical studies, dismissing the severe and often uninspired language-study of the early century as too narrow for readers who are reaching for the scope of Literature qua Literature. But just as the old language-based Classics shrunk, there was a great exfoliation of interest in the Classics, and the "Classics in English Translation" became our normal avenue into the ancient world.

Loss of Poetry in translating.

More people now read Vergil in English than the whole body of students ever read him in Latin at the start of the century, but they are reading him in a changed medium, and clearly reading him less well. The storyline comes through well enough, but that is the least important feature of Vergil's poetry, as he himself certainly knew. It is the handling of words, the special associations of ideas and figures, above all that curious technique of writing between the lines, making a sheer feeling come through somehow out of the dactylic hexameters ---- these are the things which make his poetry remarkable. And these the things that are lost in translation, even the best and most carefully wrought ones.

Translations of Vergil and some Problems,

A few years ago I gathered all the translations of Vergil I could find and started to inspect them carefully. They all told the story well enough, but beyond that there was nothing much which would tell a reader that this was the work of an absolute Master. Some translations had short and jerky lines, which did not correspond at all to the long dactylic lines of Vergil, which have between 15 and 17 syllables. The form of the original was not coming through at all, and I wondered where all those subtle acoustic effects had gone, that carefully textured mosaic of Vergil's musical language. I felt as annoyed as I would be reading St. Paul's Corinthians in rhymed couplets.

A Scholar's Prose Version

I had known Conington's prose translation for years, and always felt that Conington, a deep Classical scholar of the pre-research period (he died in l869) had put his finger on many of the fine turns in Vergil's lines. It was good, clean prose, but the sentences were over-long in the l9 th century manner, some words had changed meaning over the years, and although Conington had a wonderful way of fine-tuning the words, his version was not really suitable for reading out loud, which is the only way to approach ancient poetry.

I started editing and revising Conington, and found that much of his material could be re-constructed into an acoustically readable format. There were other changes which I made, but it was surprising how much of the true Conington and the essential Vergil came through. This was not really like reading Vergil in Latin, something which you don't really get into until you have read a great deal in the language and reached a certain level of personal maturity. I was almost thirty before I really perceived Vergil's sense of word-magic and genius, while the next thirty years reading him again and again confirmed the treasure house which I had discovered. Deep reading takes time and some living before it all comes together.

Restoring the Losses in Translation

I thought to myself that perhaps there might be a way to sketch out something about the rest of the poetic material which was missing, or as it were, evaporated. As I started to lay out a commentary on the first book of the Aeneid, I saw that some of the losses could be accounted for, that I could even tell an English reader something about the lacunae in his English translation. In a sense I thought that following a close-written commentary accompanying the English text, might be a good way to read carefully and slowly, absorbing the minute detail, rather than skimming through the whole of the twelve long books of the Aeneid in the two weeks which a college course allows. It seemed to me that reading a carefully commented edition of Books I and IV, with that good Odyssean account of ships on sea and men against nature, followed by the wonderful Tragedy of Princess Dido, would be a good introduction as an approach to Vergil's art. Much of the Aeneid will probably seem long-winded and finally boring without the fine Latin wording, especially the parts that are political and Nationalistic and not to our taste today. So the best way (I thought) would be read the only finest parts and read them very slowly and carefully.

An Approach to a New Kind of Commentary

But of course Commentary, however careful and detailed and esthetic, impedes the flow of a text. You go to a major Museum and see the people reading the art-historian's footnotes on a stand below the picture, then glancing up at the Rembrandt for a moment before going on. The commentary becomes the focus of attention, and the art-object which it was intended to illustrate becomes the illustration to the comment. Still I believe commenting is worth doing, although there are dangers in the process, especially the overloading of the text with ancillary materials in a way which loses sight of the contours of the original.

Problems with Over-Comment

When we read a literary author with its attached commentary, we are several stages removed from the thrust of the original. If the work was a poem, and the poem was conceived as sound-based rather than a written-artifact, we are at the first remove automatically. If the work is translated, we are moved back several more steps, and if we need a commentary to evoke the aura and fine points of the original, we stand still further from the poet and his original composition. In a few over-commented Classical editions there may be one line of the original, with the rest of the page all commentary in small print! Comment is initially intended to be enlightening, but too much of it obfuscates the sense of the original, and we are left encumbered with a dreary perusal of minute detail. We probably do need some help getting back over the successive losses of focus. So the question is: Can we find a new mode of access?

A New Approach through Studio Media

How can we get back to the excitement of the original work?

Faced with this quandary, I suddenly realized how many new possibilities were now open to us through the gateway of the Media. What I wanted for Vergil would be in the direction of an acoustic rendition, done by professional actors who have a wide range of voices and intonations. Layered behind this are the natural sounds of sea and wind, court life and throngs of persons, and along with this the effect of reverberation for voice at a distance, as against flat-out close speech sounds. A separate layer of music might seem suitable for modern ears since we are so used to musical background in film and TV, although absolute silence has a special effect of its own. In other words, recasting the new translation of "Dido and Aeneas" with a studio created mise-en-scene, and using the full range of techniques which we have at hand to try to restore the directness and immediacy of Vergil's poem, seemed to me a good way to go, and one which can clearly be done with equipment we have readily at hand.

Radio Broadcast as a Vehicle for "Studio Poetry"

Radio is now recognized as occupying a special and valuable niche in the world of the media, and Radio-Drama is currently being developed with remarkable results. When a listener concentrates on "sound" as the avenue of access, a full range of associations and imagery will be supplied by his own imagination. Some of us remember sitting as children before the home radio and "seeing" the whole range of the Lone Ranger's adventures week after week. The ear perceives things differently from the eye. In many ways the ear is the more imaginative organ of perception., it has special neural connections of its own, which can separate simultaneous channels of a string quartet or choral piece.

Interactive Reading and Hearing

The brain has a remarkable ability to supply visual imagery to fill out and amplify perceived acoustic inputs.. This is a personal world where each of us fills in a visual scenario for himself, and can be actually more involved in the presentation than if it were all laid out on the TV screen. The word "interactive" seems to be popping up everywhere these days, usually as a way to '"dial in" to participate with your computer or TV screen. But we should not forget that reading a book or listening to a radio-drama is basically a interactive process, although in a different way. We respond to the program mentally, unaided by switches or buttons, and mentally supply the various levels of background which produce as rich a panoply of design as any cinema or TV production can offer. It may be the worst fault of cinema and TV as the century ends, that the eye of the camera dominates with pictures, overriding scenario, storyline, dialog and even purpose.. This is because video-imagery is the newest child of the new digital technology, a set of tools we are eager to fidget with. And in the commercial world, it so happens that visual imagery sells well. The public media are commercial-minded, and visual imagery is a very expensive and profitable product.

Broadcast as a Practical Medium

Radio Broadcast is available today as a well developed and reasonably inexpensive medium. Considering new directions, I began to think of this Vergil dramatic project as being suitable for a composite Radio-Drama production, which could follow a well read acoustic translation, shifting from voices in the background to narrative spoken dialog, with a soundtrack in the background providing a sense of ambiance, while a newly composed music track could work intimately with the poem, with the spoken words and the development of the story. These three levels ---- the words delivered by professional actions, the composed music written to fuse into the text, and the acoustic ambiance sound ---- should together make what would in reality be nothing short of a dramatic RADIO OPERA.

This solves the dilemma of the ancillary role of the long-winded verbal commentary, which can now be turned into directions for several levels of simultaneous performance. In the studio development of the actual "performance", the various talents and tracks of actor, reader, singer and studio effects manager are all subsumed into a quasi-orchestral ensemble, which is under the general hand of the director of the project, and under the immediate hand of the studio editor and mix-master.

Poetry as Acoustic Medium in Studio-Broadcast

What I am presenting here is a scenario for a RADIO DRAMA OPERA, based on a new and complex media-treatment of the Dido and Aeneas story, which are Books I and IV of Vergil's Aeneid. This scenario presents in discrete paragraphs the new acoustically-oriented translation of the text, with .separate directions for the reading of the words and lines, for the musical background, and for background acoustic sounds and effects. The storyline of the complete scenario is the famous Dido and Aeneas episode, which mesh together perfectly as Book I and IV of Vergil's Aeneid. These two parts for a complete artistic whole, and have been used for poetry, drama and opera since the days of the Renaissance. They are the quintessential core of Vergil's high art. (I might note that Book II and III are recounts in flashback form of Aeneas' wandering, inserted separately in a flashback technique, between Book I and IV.)

Voice-Casting for the Various Roles

Since the Aeneid is primarily a poem and not a play or drama as such, a few words are needed to outline the various roles of spoken voice in this performance. The passages which are spoken by separate persons are to be worked out as character-passages, and they can be recorded in various takes with different actors to test the voice-casting. In editing the digital sound-bites will have the same flexibility as takes in classical cinema production. The use of sound-bites on HD with the flexibility of the medium in cutting, adjusting and suturing, opens up a new set of tools for assembling separate tracks into a coherent piece of work.

The Role of the Narrator and Method Acting

But the voice of the narrator is somewhat more difficult. I would like to go back to what we know about the original readings done at the court of the emperor by Vergil himself. According to Donatus' information which was still available in the later Roman Empire, Vergil was a country boy from the north area, he spoke in a countryside manner, somewhat hesitantly, and probably showed up poorly in his early legal training in a time when preparation for the law was largely a matter of cultivating "facundity" or glib facility in speaking. When the Aeneid was being completed and Vergil recited sections to Augustus and the court, his mode of presentation was considered remarkably beautiful. In fact when one time he had a sore throat and the well educated Prime Minister Maecenas started to do the reading for him, Vergil stopped him cold as not coming up to his standard of sensitive reading. The first voice-casting problem I encounter is the discrimination between the voice of the "Narrator", who is the poet in a thinly cloaked "bard/poet" disguise, as against the "character actors" whose roles can be more easily defined.

Personality and the Voice of the "Narrator"

Vergil was known for his unusual shyness;if he were recognized in the street of Naples, his favorite town to visit, he would duck into a house or alley. His style of life was very pure by Roman standards, to the extent that he was dubbed "Parthenias", a pun with its double meanings: "The Maiden" as well as "The Maid of Naples (originally called Parthenia)". Despite his large country frame, he tended to be sickly with indigestion, tooth and headache problems, he had no interest in women but had close sexual relationships with educated servant boys. If we can project any picture of Vergil as a person, as background for a Method actor to work with, we would have to mention a girlish shyness, a hesitant countryside manner of speaking, yet in his mature years a great delicacy in reading poetry exactly as he designed it. Since we have little sense of what Roman gay lifestyle was like in terms of personal manner and mannerism, we have to avoid the temptation of overlaying a modern "gay" manner of speech (if there is really such a thing). But the background suggests that we should at least avoid any macho mannerism in the readings of Vergil, even in passages which are masculine or have a warlike tenor. This is a hard row to hoe, and must be done with great care and sensitivity. But it is worth taking time at the start to get a firm sense of the voice and speaking style of this poet "Narrator", since we want to avoid the traditional histrionic declamatory manner of reading ancient Epic Poetry.

Sensitivity in Style and Interpretation

I mention all this detail for a reason. The poet works out of a bardic style base, although as far removed from Homer as Homer is removed from the actual folk-bards. But from the first line of the Aeneid, there is a speaker as the teller of a narrative tale, yet the manner of projecting the verse-lines must have a delicate character, if it is to approximate in any degree the famous reading style of Vergil as it is reported. A late ceramic tile floor-mosaic shows Vergil the Poet in a state of thoughtful pensiveness, and this exactly kind of mood has always been associated with his writing through the ages.

The Personality of the Narrator..... Vergil

The young man poring over his Epicurean philosophy with his Lucretius, slumming unseen in the backstreets of Naples in his spare time, living quietly with his educated and sensitive boyfriends, reading Homer with a sense of absorbing Homer's masculine, explicit style, while turning it with a few overt imitations, into the New Epic as an implicit, in-turned poem with secret places where he could write between the lines, always evoking the native spirit-gods of Italy and inserting pensive asides ---- this is intimate nature of the poet Vergil. And this voice must be assumed somehow by a trained Method reader, like a cloak or mantle giving a special personality to the poem as it is unfolded. The biographical details of Vergil's life and manner may be scant, but we have enough basic traits to sketch the outlines for a sensitive reading of the narrative parts of the poem. In the modulation of the spoken voice, there is great latitude for evincing shades of personality, and since Vergil's poetry is always fashioned with delicate graduations of feeling in the background, this is an important factor to get right at the start.

The Inner Voice

Modern scholars have pointed to a "two voice" theory in describing Vergil, but this is too simplistic a view for such a complex author. There are actually many voices, but they all fall on the delicate and sensitive side of the spectrum, while the actual storyline proceeds on what appears to be a separate track. The ideal reader's voice must be controlled, quietly in-turned, yet varied and supple, and above all sensitive to the needs of weaving on the outside one thread of the storyline, on the other hand tracing the web of a tangle of emotions and feelings.

Voice-Casting for this Performance

Each voice and each reader for this performance must be "cast" very carefully. If Aeolus is a boisterous blow-hard at first and then a Uriah Heep before he is done, that will be easy to read and act out. But the multifarious reading of "Vergil the Narrator", on which the rest of the poem is threaded, is a much harder role to outline. Perhaps as the last word, the reader must sound young, also sensitive and perhaps hesitant as if thinking something other, and always conscious of the exact form and sound of his wording. Much variety in the narrow spectrum of this art of interpretation is needed, something an artist might think of as his own hesitancy, as he pivots on the point of a change of mind, perhaps even a sense of his own artistic "vulnerability".

Poetry as High Language?

I must mention a literary curiosity, which I think has a bit of information we should observe carefully. The great General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa is said to have blamed Vergil for "tastelessness" or literally the chase after the ugly, because he mixed ordinary words from daily life with the high diction of poetry. For our time this seems no problem at all, perhaps an actual enhancement, like T S Eliot's line in Prufrock : "O O O O That Shakespeherian rag...", which is a fine confrontation of two levels in l922. But we have no real sense of what the "common" words in Roman diction were, except that (whether good or tasteless) they are buried there somewhere in Vergil's immortalized poetic fabric. In places where I feel I have discerned a key, I will note "Use common mode......", whether it is the actual word or the pronunciation; believing that this marks a sharp edge of natural language which the country boy from Andes, son of a farmer or forester, grandson of a Carthaginian deserter left over from the Carthaginian wars, would not want to let go unnoticed. There is far more to art, my good General Agrippa, than using the right, standardized vocabulary.

The Poet's Background Considered....

One more facet of Vergil's identity which may bear on our interpretation. His grandfather was one Magus, clearly not a Roman name, but Latinized certainly from Mago, a common name for many Carthaginian leaders from the remote sixth century on. Remember that Vergil was described as dark-complexioned (aquilus), a characteristic of the Semitic Carthaginians who emigrated early from the near Eastern Levantine coast. Sicily was in his historical period half Carthaginian-speaking, and modern Sicilians are even now darker and physically different from modern North Italians. Look at Aen X 521 ff. where Magus (the grandfather) cowardly offers to turn over his family money to the enemy to save his life! We have no options for casting Vergil as a Semite, or as a swarthy Carthaginian proto-Othello. But he is in some inner sense not completely tuned to the world of the Scipios and the famous Republican families of the State, and his hesitancy about adopting a real Roman stance comes out in his shabby portrayal of the weak (if thoroughly Roman) Aeneas.

But if you say that the "Greatness of Rome" as declaimed in Book VI stands against my argument, note how thin and formulaic those lines of praise are. To live one does accept commissions from the moneyed establishment, Horace did it in those tight and frigid state-odes, painters did all sorts of post-office art for the W.P.A in the l930's, the finest cinematographer of her time took commissions from Hitler, and Vergil was not going to go the way of the pathetic dirt-farmer of the Eclogues. But this is matter of biography, of personal history in the process of surviving, and has nothing to do with the nature of the artist's real life's work.

Carthage as Enemy of the State....... or Shangri-la?

Carthage is dangerous, a city of iron and warfare, and above all "foreign", a word which made Romans uneasy forever. But it is also the imaginary world of the one woman Vergil could dare to admire, a rich court of far-off kings and princesses, where the Queen Dido could literally die from passion, where deep and inner feelings were not forbidden. If the Romans had an essentially Puritanical streak, the Carthaginians were not Romans in this sense at all. And this was the world, perhaps, where his family came from, that bi-valent world which the Romans burned to the ground; now a world no long dangerous but a palace of the imagination in which a sensitive boy could imagine un-Roman thoughts, his fairy story, his Camelot.

Aeneas the Stoic...... Aeneas the Heel

Perhaps the Epicurean vision leaches into this scene, not as the cheap voluptuary hedonism of a foreign Princess, but as Lucretius viewed the Greeks long ago, a matter of the sheer intelligence of very smart people in a great city far away. Lucretius was thinking of the Greek philosophers and scientists, but Vergil was (perhaps) privately thinking of the very ingenious Semitic people of North Africa whence his family came. Aeneas would be a totally different matter, a simple man with a simple message, a Puritan without a conscience, a Roman through and through!

Poetic Vision and "Looking Away..."

All these considerations may sound hard to fix upon with ordinary words, but there is much always much of the mysterious to be found in the history of artistic endeavor. I would like to suggest as "required reading" for this project, perusal of Prof. R. Carney's remarkable study of the film of Frank Capra in "American Vision" (Cambridge l986). Carney sees a curious mode of "thinking the mind off to another place" while doing something quite finite in daily living, as a characteristic of American vision and art in the 20th century. He aptly cites examples from Capra's film, as well as the painting of Winslow Homer and Eakins, as part of a curious American was of viewing.

It is this quality of "looking away......." which I want to impress on the reader of the "Narrator" line of this project. It is the male voice which carries the theme and storyline along, but within this voice is the quality of an inner voice which gives life to the poetry. In order to adjust this complex relationship of two voiced parts, it is necessary to "look away" from what is being said, to envision another place, another situation or another feeling. In film this can be done visually, with a pause in the acting pace and a turn of the eyes. For voice work with sound, it may require a change of tempo, a shift in the dynamic level, and perhaps even something like the "anagogic pause" of the Baroque harpsichord.

For Vergil the epic has become internal, with an external scaffolding which supports the framework while the delicate inner-structure is being elicited. Vergil actually said this about temporary "scaffolding" for the story, probably a thought derived from watching the building of Agrippa's Pantheon in construction in 27 B.C. How we reach into this internal core of design with intonations of the voice and articulation, is the core problem for the reading of the Narrator track, and this is in turn basic to the development of the whole performance.

Planning and Preparation for Performance

There is little more to be said at this point, about the actual plan for this production, other than the use of a modern, digitally equipped sound studio which can store multiple retakes of each paragraphed section of the poem as outlined in the following pages. General effects of sound effect, wind and storm at sea, mast and oars breaking and men shouting are insertable with effects and fading on a separate set of tracks.. As music is developed to accompany the reading in sections where music is appropriate, it may become obvious that the normal speaking-voice of a professional actor/reader is not entirely suitable for the lines at hand, and some elements of pitch and musicality may be needed. Turning some segments of the quoted paragraphs into sprech-stimme, at times into lightly sung cadences with a few pitched notes against less critical phrases, may be hard to develop tastefully, but as with all hard thing the results can turn out fresh and wonderful. Finally, speaking again of music, the speech of Venus in the first part, and certainly the long and impassioned speeches of Dido in the second part, should be scored for accompanied song. Dido's voice cries out for a real aria treatment, not the voice of l9th c. Opera, but a new voice in a new treatment which can make this performance in part what this long discussion has been leading toward:

Treatment of the Sequences of the Gods

The handling of the sequences which involve the discourses of the Deities is going to demand some special techniques and devices, if it is to work artistically. At the bottom end of the possibilities, we have trite declamations, which is largely what the passages we are not approach, will involve. Not only are we dealing with a "religion-no-religion", we are dealing with a literary tradition which has worn itself out over the centuries and unless revivified, will pull down our whole performance.

First, let me point to the historical tradition of the gods who are in Homer's words, "rheia zoontes...... living at ease". They are "happy" or makares, which Lucretius took to mean they live in a world of their own,, but I think we can at out distance ion time, take these terms in a different way.

The Gods are 'lightheaded" in their fortunate emancipation from reality, as it intoxicated on a high level of nectar in their blood, not unlike the ancient Indian notion of being happy forever through the use of "soma" which is probably more related to cannabis than to devotion. But the native Americans know the value of some mushroom intoxication as a way of clearing parts of the mental pathways, and the Greeks were clearly involved at Eleusis and elsewhere in highly developed mushroom based cults.

Faced with the difficulty of rendering the somewhat heavy-handed passages which follow, I suggest we adopt a radically difficult attitude and project the conversations with the deities as supremely and celestially lightheaded. This can be done with the manner of reading, the fast and at times superficial rhythmic pacing, and above all, through appropriate use of the voice timbres.

When the old comic strip Little Orphan Annie became a movie, the director knew how to lighten the tone of the old comic, and it worked out very well indeed. I am, not suggesting that we convert Venus to an earlier Annie, or Jovis pater to a mere Daddy Zeus, but I am thinking of the use of edges of such a situation as a way of reclaiming what might be a dreary discourse.

This will take a lot of thought and much experiment, but it is the only way I can think of enlivening the inter-theic passages, and if it works there, then the way is clear for Venus talking like an overage girlie of the hippy period, to a highly serious Al Gore-like Aeneas, the model of absolutely sincerity.

Music Background for the Long Embroidered Passages

Toward the end of Book I, some of the longer passages will be very hard to deal with in terms of interpretative reading, since they are virtual paintings of rich and complex palace decor, most important for the structure of the whole Carthage episode (even more in Part II = Book IV). But there is only so much variegation one can invent in dealing with these embroidered passages, so I suggest a special treatment as follows:

Select from one of the less well known Baroque and earlier composers, passages which have a similar embroidered and decorated quality. I suggest using less known passages to avoid immediate association with a a theme inherent in the music, or if operatic as very interesting, association with an operatic story.

Use this in very weak background, both dynamically, and also with enough reverb to make them seem part of a large palatial hall, as suits the Palace of Dido setting. This must not intrude.

It may also be possible to do some breaks in the rhythms, disjoining the regularity of Baroque technique, to avoid the rhythm and measured cadences of the music dominating the spoken rhythms of the poetry. There are usages of this kind in modern music, I think Christian Wolff's style is overly disjointed for this idea, but that direction might be useful.

One of the reasons for this, beyond the joining of background to complement text, is that using pre-recorded music and perhaps doing some work on its presentation, simplifies the preparation of the whole performance. There isn't enough time, what with planning of the whole, working with the speakers and their styles, to write all new music from scratch, so this approach might well be a time-economic aid to what is, after all, quite a large project.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College