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Parody of Greco-Roman Myth in Offenbach’s Orfée aux enfers and La belle Hélène

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 77-101 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0005

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While parody in Greco-Roman literature has been examined (e.g., Rose 1993, Hutcheon 2000, 1–68), critics have largely ignored parody of classical literature in the opera libretti because they tend to focus on musical elements. This article looks at some elements of literary parody in two of Offenbach’s operettas. But is it worth explaining the classical references? Is a joke still a joke if we have to give it a footnote? Unlike other forms of spoof, Orfée aux enfers and La belle Hélène engage deeply with classical sources, and understanding this can not only amplify our laughter, but also show how ancient texts serve as an original background for musical and social critique in Offenbach’s works.

Brief Introduction. Parody: Features and Difficulties

“I’d turn my back to my whole business, sell up, go off like Nikolay Ivanovitch . . . to hear La belle Hélène” – such is the sound piece of advice a character gives to another in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,1 testifying indirectly to the immediate international fame of Offenbach’s operetta.2 This extraordinary popularity came, in part, from Offenbach’s original use of classical sources to amuse his audiences, a topic that I intend to examine closely in the following article. My first purpose is to explore how the libretti of Orfée aux enfers and La belle Hélène function as parodies of classical texts. To do so, after a brief examination of parody as genre, my focus will be on specific comic elements reworking the Greco-Roman models in the libretti. A second purpose is to show how understanding the parodic approach to classical myth illuminates Offenbach’s dialogue with his predecessors (particularly Gluck) and with contemporary composers (such as Berlioz), who treated similar subjects. The Orfée aux enfers, a comic take on a myth that composers had embraced as fundamentally tragic and essential to the formation of opera, shocked some critics, appearing especially irreverent at a time of successful revivals of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Paris. Finally, a third purpose is to examine how classical themes offered the composer and his librettists the means of social critique under the guise of the legendary past.

In order to assess the parodic elements of the operettas, a brief introduction is needed to outline the features of parody as a genre. It remains a difficult task to choose among the numerous definitions of parody, a complex concept.3 A simple, silly gesture of mimicry stirs laughter, and so does an irreverent, yet sophisticated, imitation of an artistic model. Both belong to the vast domain of parody. Here are two definitions proposed by the same author, one broad, the other narrower, limited to the literary phenomenon. Generally, parody can be understood as “any cultural practice which makes a relatively polemical allusive imitation to another cultural production or practice” (Dentith 37). From a more strictly literary perspective, modern theory defines parody as a playful transformation of previous literary texts or traditions (Dentith 12, following Genette). Parody was well attested already in antiquity. One of the earliest forms consists of a poem written in Homeric style, but with a comic subject, such as the Batrachomyomachia, setting a mock epic battle between frogs and mice. The term itself, παρῳδία, occurs already in Aristotle’s Poetics (1448a12–13), with reference to Hegemon of Thasos and Nicochares.4 In addition to a meaning similar to the modern literary definition, Greek and Roman writers used παρῳδία to designate more broadly the use of paraphrase or literary adaptation, as well as word puns.5

One common feature stands out, unifying all forms of parody throughout time: comic imitation of a prototype, mimicry of a sort. Beyond this determining feature, problems remain regarding both the scope and the evaluation of the genre. These may be classified as follows into difficulties concerning: (a) the relationship between the parodic imitation and its model(s), (b) the relationship between parody and society, and (c) the degree to which the artistic merit of the genre ought to be acknowledged. As for problem (a), parody can contain direct humorous references to a previous text, or general allusions to a whole genre...


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