Celebrity, that astonishing ascendancy, that shooting star in which the individual is projected and scattered into the imaginations of others, undermines the self that is displayed in performance. Rabidly socialized, beset, turned inside out, identity is both indulged and starved, a familiar yet an outsider. The fate of Michael Jackson, a child of musical talent commercially exploited by his father, was prefigured two centuries earlier when celebrity also touched, briefly, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, son of a Polish woman and an “African prince.” Bridgetower’s father was likewise adept at exploiting his son’s musical talent and distorting his childhood. A child prodigy recognized by Haydn, he made his debut in Paris as a violinist at the age of nine, thereafter becoming a favorite in the English court.
Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica, subtitled “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play,” is an extraordinary ensemble of poems inspired by this prodigy mulatto violinist, who, with such an auspicious opening to his career, was all set for permanent fame. At the age of twenty-three in Vienna he became friends with Beethoven who in 1803 composed and dedicated a sonata to him: Sonata mulattica composta per il Mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico. Beethoven declared that the work was of such difficulty that only this gran pazzo (“crazy genius”) would be able to play it. But the dedication did not stand. In a fit of pique after a quarrel with Bridgetower about a woman, Beethoven rededicated Violin Sonata no. 9 in A major, opus 47 to Rodolphe Kreutzer, another violinist. Kreutzer refused to perform it because it had already been premiered and because it was “outrageously unintelligible.” It is nonetheless still known as the Kreutzer Sonata. Bridgetower’s quarrel with Beethoven is not represented directly in the poetry but enacted in the burlesque farce entitled “Volkstheater” which is inserted into the middle of the poem sequence. His downfall is thus played as comedy. After this debacle, Bridgetower returned to England, to a long stint as leader of the Prince Regent’s orchestra, then to a nomadic period on the continent, the lustrous career in slow decline. He who had performed in Paris, London, and Vienna, died in obscurity in Peckham in his eightieth year.
These few and not very well known facts are Dove’s source materials as she gives them in her preface, notes, and contextual chronology at the back of the book. As she says in the preface, her “principal players,” including Mad King George, Mrs Papendiek (a Lady in Waiting at his court), Haydn, Beethoven, Black Billy Waters (a street fiddler), “lived real lives” (15). Dove’s artistic entry into this world is complex in terms of genre. Sonata Mulattica is an ensemble in which morality fable, history, poetry, fiction, and drama are the instrumental elements, an ensemble which is metageneric in the self-questioning of what can be delivered to the whole by interactions or hyperbolic conflations of genres. Thus, the mode of tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale is ratcheted up to “what if” fantasy, the speculation that if only our hero had not alienated Beethoven, “’we would find / rafts of black kids scratching out scales / on their matchbox violins” (“The Bridgetower” 20). The poet, herself one of the dramatis personae, archly calculates intentions and effects. With no respect for the inviolability of genre, she throws in stage props to brazen her way through this serious exercise in historical recovery. She confides the urge to make up the story, to add costume, to construct history as theater, making explicit the pact between writer and reader: [End Page 1373]
But you are here for the story. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . So it is a lost story but we will be imagining it, anyway. We’ll leave out the boring parts. There’ll be marching bands, wardrobe changes(“Prologue of the Rambling Sort” 21)
The staginess of “Prologue,” the looseness of “Rambling,” invoke spectacle, a dramatization deliberately fragmentary or episodic. The narratives voiced by characters are subjective and momentary, lives intersecting with gossip and glances, fireworks and fantasies, spectators and performers, jealousies, failures, diversions, and...