- The Long Journey
Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas has been hugely praised, but because of the general admiration for certain of its elements—above all, Morris’s performance in the double role of Dido and the Sorceress, the grandest part he ever played—one feature, it seems to me, has not received enough attention: the set, by Robert Bordo.
Morris’s piece, premiered in 1989, is a through-danced production of Purcell’s 1689 opera of the same name, whose story is derived, ultimately, from Virgil’s Aeneid, written in the first century B.C., under and for Augustus Caesar. In 29–27 B.C., Augustus had ended Rome’s famed stature as a republic and set himself up as the sole ruler of what then became, ipso facto, an empire. For such an action, he needed justification, and that, in part, is what the Aeneid was. The poem represents Rome as the offspring of the great kingdom of Troy, whose destruction was the subject of Homer’s Iliad. It also portrays Rome’s founding as mandated by the gods. The Greeks win their war with Troy and kill almost all of the city’s superb warriors, but one remains: Aeneas, who, mentioned only briefly in the Iliad, suddenly appears as the hero of the Aeneid.
At the beginning of the epic, Aeneas, in a dream, is directed by the Trojan prince Hector, now dead, to leave Troy and found a new city on a foreign shore. Obedient (this is his central trait: pietas, dutifulness), Aeneas leads his father, his son, and his wife through the burning city. In the rush and chaos, the wife gets lost, and Aeneas has to go on without her. Then, in the course of the migration, his beloved father dies, whom he had carried on his back out of Troy. All he has left is his son, with whom, from what Virgil suggests, he has no strong ties other than dynastic. Late in the journey, the wives of his sailors, weary and frightened, set fire to the ships and succeed in destroying a number of them. When Aeneas arrives in Italy, where he will establish Rome, he acquires a protégé, who is then killed in the war that follows his arrival. To end the war, and establish common cause among the peoples on the Tiber, he marries the princess of a local tribe, a woman he does not love.
So, on the road from Troy to Rome, Aeneas loses pretty much everything. At one point, however, he receives a gift. On the coast of Africa, he meets a widowed queen, Dido, who, after the murder of her husband, has escaped from her kingdom, and with her wrecked community, is building a new city. (It will be Carthage. Today [End Page 182] it is Tunis.) She and Aeneas, then, are natural soulmates—each has nothing except a duty—and they fall in love. When the consummation comes, the nymphs howl on the mountains, but not in celebration. Aeneas is going to have to leave Dido—he has his orders, from the gods—which means that she will die. That, from the love to the death, is the story of Morris’s Dido and Aeneas.
All this is symbolized in Bordo’s beautiful backdrop. It is a stylized map (Figure 1). Bordo is a painter—he is now an associate professor of painting at Cooper Union—and in the 1980s he was making oils based on old maps. He was a friend of Morris, and so in 1988 Morris went to a show of his at the Brooke-Alexander Gallery. Seeing a painting called Day and Distance, Morris decided that this was what he wanted for the backdrop of Dido and Aeneas. It is hard to imagine a more brilliant choice. In the end, Bordo made a new design, based not just on Day and Distance, but also on his other map paintings, and he pinned it up at the back of the stage rather loosely. It hung in folds. On the stage was a floorcloth that duplicated it, so that the two formed a kind of clam-like construction, containing...