Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea (1808) was— and remains—revolutionary drama. Set during the Trojan War, it rejects both the Enlightenment vision of ancient Greece as a seat of reason and the dramatic unities and five-act structure of neoclassical tragedy, instead unfolding in twenty-four scenes of such emotional intensity as to render the play rarely performed and, for some, all but unstageable. It was thus a significant theatrical event this past spring when, on the bicentennial of its completion, Penthesilea received a stunning new interpretation by the Comédie-Française—its premiere for the company. Penthélisée, based on the new translation by Ruth Orthmann and Éloi Recoing, combined athletic acting with minimalist sets to explore the emotional chaos, disturbing sexual politics, and representational challenges of Kleist’s masterpiece. Running in repertory with another great play about violence and patriarchy, The Taming of the Shrew, Penthélisée offered a tragic alternative to Shakespeare: What if the shrew were not tamed?
The production succeeded because the feminism of the play is timely, and because the Comédie-Française did justice to its bookishness and critique of rationality. The plot turns on patriarchal myopia and the intertwining of desire and violence. When Penthélisée and her Amazonian army interrupt a battle by attacking the Trojans, the Greeks mistakenly view the women as allies when, in fact, the Amazons make war to reproduce: men are to be captured, indulged in the Festival of Roses, and then released once the women are pregnant. Penthésilée breaks the rule by falling for Achilles, who in turn initiates a game of love in which he will lose to the Queen in single combat, temporally become her captive, but ultimately take her to Greece as his consort. This patriarchal comedy is subverted when Penthésilée suddenly and inexplicably shoots her unarmed beloved in the throat and then joins her dogs in feasting on his corpse.
Kleist turned to the Amazons in part to examine the sexual politics of his day. As Penthésilée tells Achilles in scene 15, an idyll at the center of the tragedy, her state originated in rebellion against the brutal patriarchy of the Ethiopian King Vorexis. The performance certainly emphasized separatism: male and female characters were physically segregated even when onstage together, the notable exception being scene 15, in which a simple bridge—one of the few props—allowed us to see the tragedy in miniature. At the beginning of this scene, the most romantically idealistic part of the play, Penthésilée and Achilles stood on either side of the bridge; by the middle, she was crossing it, scattering flowers, as he lay prostrate on top of it. At the end, when he reached out to grasp her, she panicked and turned away. Her visceral reaction pointed to the emotional cost of separatism: this was Penthésilée’s tragedy as much as his. Léonie Simaga’s antic, exhaustingly athletic performance also hinted at older, allegorical traditions, in which the Greek defeat of the Amazons represented the triumph of rationality. Such is the case in Kleist’s likely source, in which Penthesilea slays but subsequently revives Achilles, who goes on to kill Hector. The brutal death of Kleist’s Achilles thus implies the failure of a rationality that is at best pragmatic, at worst coercive. Yet Penthésilée’s cannibalism shows the pre-rational to be no comforting alternative. By allowing Penthélisée to range through emotions while other characters argued, begged, and expressed shock and horror, the Comédie [End Page 124]
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Française offered an unflinching look at the chaotic brutality of desire: Penthesilea suffering from fits of passion and seeking to possess her lover, Achilles falling in love and being consumed by it...