Friday, January 6, 2017

A Legend of Florence

The poet Leigh Hunt was not known for his business acumen. In fact, Charles Dickens famously satirized Hunt's impecuniousness with the character of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House.

However, in 1840, Hunt finally met with some success. After several abortive attempts at drama, Hunt had his play A Legend of Florence premiered at the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. Ten years later, Samuel Phelps revived the piece at Sadler's Wells, and Queen Victoria later ordered a command performance of the piece at Windsor Castle.

Hunt's one big theatrical hit starred Ellen Tree at Covent Garden. Tree would later marry Charles Kean, but in 1840 she was famous in her own right, and A Legend of Florence gave her a star vehicle in which to shine. The play, as its name indicates, comes from a Florentine legend of a woman who wandered the streets in her grave clothes after awaking in a tomb, having been mistaken for dead. (Edgar Allan Poe would have loved it.)

The play begins with a light-hearted conversation of a poet and a papal official, in which they recount the sorrows of Ginevra, a noblewoman in a miserable marriage. Though the noble Florentine Antonio Rondinelli loved her, Ginevra was instead married off to Francesco Agolanti, a bitter and jealous man who treats her horribly. Pope Leo X is returning to his hometown of Florence with much festivity, but Ginevra must stay inside. Still, she accepts her fate with equanimity, saying:

Well, dear Diana, should my husband's judgement
Encourage me to think my health would bear it,
I would fain venture, but—I hear him coming.
At all events, the windows will be gladly
Filled with your pleasures; the report of which
Will afterwards make them mine.

Agolanti is incensed when he learns that Rondinelli has sent letters to Ginevra, even though she has refused to open them. Ginevra has been weakened by a "late sharp illness." Still, her husband continues to torment her. Hunt prepares the audience for Ginevra's physical collapse, having her complain to her husband:

You make the blood at last mount to my brain,
And tax me past endurance. What have I done,
Good God! what have I done, that I am thus
At the mercy of a mystery of tyranny,
Which from its victim demands every virtue,
And brings it none?

Rondinelli, concerned that the woman he adores is being hounded to death by her husband, arranges a meeting with Agolanti to try to talk some sense into him, but as the two men argue, the passing bell marks Ginevra's death. All who hear it remove their caps, except for her hard-hearted husband, who only takes off his hat when he is chastised. The Act III curtain falls on a scene of gloom and despair.

In Act IV, Ginevra, having awakened in her tomb and walked through the city streets, piteously entreats entrance into her own home, but Agolanti, filled with guilt, orders the doors shut against what he takes to be a ghost. She then goes to Rondinelli's, having nowhere else to turn. When he suggests returning her to her husband, her answer is firm:

Never. The grave itself has been between us;
The hand of Heaven has parted us, acknowledged
By his own driving me from his shrieking doors:
And none but thy door, and a convent's now,
To which thy honourable haste will guide me,
Shall open to me in this world again.

Agolanti eventually hears of what has occurred and goes to Rondinelli, demanding the return of his wife. At one point, Ginevra starts to go with him, but when he triumphs in his mastery over her, it is too much for her to bear. Bravely standing up to him, she cries:

Madness will crush my senses in, or speak:
The fire of the heavenward sense of my wrongs crowns me;
The voice of the patience of a life cries out of me;
Every thing warns me. I will not return.
I claim the judgement of most holy church.
I'll not go back to that unsacred house,
Where heavenly ties restrain not hellish discord,
Loveless, remorseless, never to be taught.

Agolanti draws his sword, and when he threatens others, they decide he must be killed before he can harm anyone else. The death of the villain is not exactly tragedy, but it is satisfying.