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Gerald Carpenter: A Tale of Two Didos

Poster for The Dido Project by Scott Anderson.

Westmont College’s Music and Theater departments have joined forces to create a truly ingenious event, which they call "The Dido Project," after the legendary Queen of Carthage who fell fatally in love with the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who washed ashore in her state after fleeing the sack of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks). 

The weekends of Jan. 28-30 and Feb. 4-6, 2016, they will be presenting four performances each of Christopher Marlowe's verse tragedy, Dido, Queen of Carthage (premiered 1593, but probably written 10 years before), and Henry Purcell's opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689) (libretto by Nahum Tate). Both productions are directed by the incomparable John Blondell.

With Venus for a mother, and Cupid for a brother, Aeneas was bound to face a life of romantic complications. He was a shadowy, sketchy presence in the Iliad, and his significance increased a thousand fold when Virgil made him the eponymous hero of his epic of the founding of Rome.

Early in Marlowe's play, as he stands on a North African beach, whence he and his ships have been blown by a fierce storm, his goddess mother approaches him in disguise and tells him where he is — "The kingly seat of Southern Libya, whereas Sidonian Dido rules as Queen" — and then asks him: "But what are you that ask of me these things? Whence may you come, or whither will you go?"

And he replies, in the the manner of a "Previously on..." segment for a television series:

Of Troy am I, Aeneas is my name,

Who driven by war from forth my native world,

Put sails to sea to seek out Italy;

And my divine descent from sceptred Jove,

With twice twelve Phrygian ships I plowed the deep,

And made that way my mother Venus led:

But of them all scarce seven do anchor safe,

And they so wracked and weltered by the waves,

As every tide tilts 'twixt their oaken sides:

And all of them unburdened of their load,

Are ballast’d with billows' wat'ry weight.

But hapless I, God wot, poor and unknown,

Do trace these Libyan deserts all despised,

Exiled forth Europe and wide Asia both,

And have not any coverture but heaven.

Alas for the historical veracity of this romantic narrative, the most recent dating for the end of the Trojan War is about 1180 BCE, and Roman sources (backed by archeological evidence) say that Dido herself founded Carthage sometime around 800 BCE, give or take fifty years.

That means Aeneas would have been nearly 400 years old when he came ashore in Tunisia. So, whatever started the centuries-long Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, it wasn't the jilting of Dido by Aeneas.

Aeneas, in fact, doesn't come off very well in either of these works. Marlowe paints him as a kind of duty-obsessed blockhead (of the "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" variety) while Tate's libretto makes him out to be a conniving, lecherous sailor on leave ("Sorry, babe — like to stick around, but I gotta found Rome").

Nor do the gods get much respect: the first scene of Marlowe's play shows Jupiter (Zeus) "dandling" the beautiful boy, Ganymede, on his knee and telling him not to worry about Juno's, his wife's, jealousy.

In comes Venus like a suburban housewife, complaining that while Jupiter is fondling Ganymede, her son Aeneas is perishing in a storm.

(It is, in fact, this scene which persuades me that Marlowe wrote the play while still an undergraduate — it has all the  marks of a satiric college review.)

It is Dido who is the tragic protagonist, the emotional center, of both Marlowe and Purcell: she is given the best lines and the best tunes. Her death gains power and poignancy from the worthlessness of her love object.

The century that separates Dido, Queen of Carthage from Dido and Aeneas does not seem to have witnessed any marked improvement in documentation techniques — no scholar is willing to state with certainty when either the play or the opera was composed or first performed.

The source of both, on the other hand, is obviously Virgil's Aeneid, to which both Marlowe and Tate would have been exposed — and made to translate — at university.

Unlike Shakespeare — the "clever grammar school boy" (A. L. Rowse) — both Marlowe and Tate were 'varsity men: Marlowe at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (B.A., 1584; M.A., 1587); Tate at Trinity College in Dublin (B.A., 1672).

A considerable portion of Marlowe's play is, indeed, a fairly literal translation of Virgil.

John Blondell is the perfect director for this double Dido delight, and I'll bet he had a field day putting it together. 

Dido, Queen of Carthage plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28 and Feb. 4; and at 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.

Dido and Aeneas plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 and Feb. 5; and at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.

All performances will take place in Westmont’s Porter Theatre on the college's campus.

"Audiences," says the Westmont publicity, "have opportunities to see both shows individually or one after the other on two Saturdays." 

Tickets are $12 for general admission and $7 for students, seniors and children. They may be purchased at www.westmont.edu/boxoffice.

For more information, please call 805.565.7140.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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