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  • Purcell’s Dido and the Fate of Mark Morris
  • Jeff Dolven (bio)

Mark Morris has said that he first imagined choreographing and dancing Dido and Aeneas as a solo. It was the mid-1980s, and the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the dance world. “I just assumed because I am selfish that I was next,” he told Joan Acocella in 2009. “Before I die, let me make up this dance about love and sex and death.”1 He decided, ultimately, to expand the cast, and the production that premiered at the Théâtre Varia in Brussels in 1989 distributed the roles across his company. But there remains in the dance he created some evidence of his original conception, and that conception—its solipsism and its lonely grandeur—is a key to the way Morris read the Purcell opera and the Nahum Tate libretto that he chose (as it happened, prematurely) to be his swan song.

The dramatis personae of Dido and Aeneas had a curious history long before Morris got to it. Tate based his libretto, inevitably, on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, but as a serial adapter of old plays (especially Shakespeare) he was accustomed to taking considerable liberties with his sources. He is best remembered today for his rewriting of King Lear, in which Lear survives to bless the marriage between Cordelia and Edgar. (“’Twas my good Fortune to light on one Expedient to rectifie what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale, which was to run through the whole A Love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia,” he explained in a preface.2) His freedom with Virgil’s story was equally unembarrassed. In the Aeneid, the hero’s dalliance with Dido in Carthage is interrupted by a visitation from Mercury, sent by Jove to put Aeneas back on the path to Rome, the city and the empire-without-end that he is destined to found. He sails before Dido can discover his betrayal, and she kills herself in grief. When Tate rewrites the story he does not spare any lives, as he did in his Lear. But he introduces a new character, the Sorceress, who is animated by an unexplained hatred of Dido, and who becomes the menacing, campy mainspring of the play’s tragic action. Out of spite for the queen who loves him, she sends one of her enchantresses in the guise of Mercury to urge Aeneas to flee. Aeneas, in Tate’s version, is not called by the gods, but deceived by bad magic. Moreover, he does not steal away, but tells Dido that he must go, and then, confronted with her sorrow, recants: “In spite of Jove’s command I’ll stay.” It is up to her to refuse him, if his epic destiny is to be fulfilled: “No, faithless man, thy course pursue. . . . For ’tis enough whate’er you now decree, / That you had once a thought of leaving me.”3 [End Page 186]

The ideological complexity of these transformations has been much discussed by modern critics. At first glance, Tate would seem to be determined to purge his text of the ambivalence that has always haunted Virgil’s poem, the persistent anxiety about the price of Roman glory that we feel when we, like Augustine and so many subsequent readers, weep for Dido.4 Tate takes strong measures to protect Dido and Aeneas from blame, everything coming back to the motiveless malignancy of the Sorceress. Aeneas in particular benefits from Tate’s intercession, for how could he be responsible for Dido’s death if he deserts her at her own command? The hero’s conscience has never been so clean. Recent accounts, however, have complicated the picture. The reduction of Aeneas’s role and the dramatic centrality of Dido have seemed to some to be entailed to a political allegory of bad counsel in the Stuart court, for example, or of Tate’s general disenchantment with the monarchy in the years before the Glorious Revolution.5 (Aeneas in his dithering can be made to stand in for James II.) Such readings tend to view the opera as taking a skeptical view of English imperial destiny, at least as managed by...


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pp. 186-189
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