Saturday, 30 September 2017

A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony (1882).
For the past few years I've been reading Oscar Wilde's plays; Vera (1880), The Duchess of Padua (1883), Salomé (1891), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and now, the final two on my list: the unfinished fragments of A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane. Both fragments are very small, La Sainte Courtisane (1894) about 6 pages, and A Florentine Tragedy (published in 1908) about 15 pages.

A Florentine Tragedy is similar to the Jacobean tragedies Wilde imitated in The Duchess of Padua. Simone, the husband, discovers his wife Bianca in the arms of another man: Guido. Simone feigns friendship, saying -
My noble lord,
You bring me such high honour that my tongue
Like a slave's tongue is tied, yet cannot say
The word it would. Yet not to give you thanks
Were to be too unmannerly. So I thank you,
From my heart's core.
He continues in a similar vein in a rather long speech, offering various things. Guido then says, "What if I asked / For white Bianca here?" Simone tells him she is not such a good wife, instructs her to spin, and then briefly exists whereupon Bianca tells Guido how much she hates her husband:
How like a common chapman does he speak!
I hate him, soul and body. Cowardice
Has set her pale seal on his brow. His hands
Whiter than poplar leaves in windy springs,
Shake with some palsy; and his stammering mouth
Blurts out a foolish froth of empty words
Like water from a conduit.
Simone returns, and eventually his hospitality wanes; he challenges Guido to a fight, revealing that he knows too well what has passed between Guido and his wife. He overpowers Guido and kills him, and though Bianca cheered on Guido all along, she is suddenly struck with how powerful her husband is:
Bɪᴀɴᴄᴀ: Why
Did you not tell me you were so strong?
Sɪᴍᴏɴᴇ: Why
Did you not tell me you were beautiful?
                   [he kisses her on the mouth]

La Sainte Courtisane, or The Woman Covered in Jewels as I've said is far shorter. It's set in Thebaid in ancient Egypt; the fragment begins with a dialogue between two men who have caught sight of Myrrhina:
Fɪʀsᴛ Mᴀɴ:  Who is she?  She makes me afraid.  She has a purple cloak and her hair is like threads of gold.  I think she must be the daughter of the Emperor.  I have heard the boatmen say that the Emperor has a daughter who wears a cloak of purple.
Sᴇᴄᴏɴᴅ Mᴀɴ:  She has birds’ wings upon her sandals, and her tunic is of the colour of green corn.  It is like corn in spring when she stands still.  It is like young corn troubled by the shadows of hawks when she moves.  The pearls on her tunic are like many moons.
Fɪʀsᴛ Mᴀɴ:  They are like the moons one sees in the water when the wind blows from the hills.
Sᴇᴄᴏɴᴅ Mᴀɴ:  I think she is one of the gods.  I think she comes from Nubia.
Fɪʀsᴛ Mᴀɴ:  I am sure she is the daughter of the Emperor.  Her nails are stained with henna.  They are like the petals of a rose.  She has come here to weep for Adonis.
Sᴇᴄᴏɴᴅ Mᴀɴ:  She is one of the gods.  I do not know why she has left her temple.  The gods should not leave their temples.  If she speaks to us let us not answer, and she will pass by.
Fɪʀsᴛ Mᴀɴ:  She will not speak to us.  She is the daughter of the Emperor.
But she does speak to them and we learn that she is in search of the Christian hermit Honorius, her goal to tempt him. She succeeds, but then so does he: she sees the error of her ways and remains in the desert whilst Honorius leaves for Alexandria.

It's hard to say too much about these two plays being as they are just fragments, and I'm not so sure where Wilde was going exactly but I do wish he'd stuck with them. They're in the same ilk as The Duchess of Padua and Salomé, both beautiful, sensual, decadent, rich and glittering (more so La Sainte Courtisane), and ultimately frustrating. Wilde's comedies are of course better known (if not simply better) but I do have rather a fondness for his tragedies!

And that was my 40th title (or titles: a two in one this week!) for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Octavia by Seneca.

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