Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Rival Sisters

Arthur Murphy was a successful playwright of the 18th century. He adapted Voltaire's The Orphan of China (itself an adaptation of the Chinese zaju play The Orphan of Zhao) in 1759, and later penned the hit tragedy The Grecian Daughter.

Yet after Murphy wrote The Rival Sisters in 1783, he chose to publish it without having it performed. Murphy knew full well that a good production was often crucial to a play being favorably received. He wrote in the preface to the play that the piece had not received "The pomp of splendid scenery, and the illusions of the skilful performer" without which a play "in the leisure of the closet is not always supported."

In fact, a play being perceived as a closet drama can "excite a prejudice not easy to be surmounted," Murphy wrote. Audiences might well ask: "If it be of any value, why was it not produced in the usual form of a Public Exhibition?" However, he was equally clear that "the Play was written with a view to the Stage." The play is not a closet drama, and Murphy was acutely aware of the stigma that came with such a label.

The Rival Sisters is based on a 1672 play by Thomas Corneille, younger brother of Pierre Corneille, author of The Cid and The Liar. The legendary actress Marie Champmeslé (who later became the muse and mistress of Jean Racine) played the lead in the first production of that play. Murphy seemed highly aware of the fact that if his own play were to succeed on stage, it would require a performer of similar ability. He wrote in his preface: "When this country could, with pride, boast of an Actress equally followed, and perhaps with better reason, it occurred that a Tragedy, with the beauties of the original, but freed from its defects, might, at such a season, be acceptable to the Public."

For whatever reason (and Murphy remains quite coy in his preface), the author decided not to press The Rival Sisters to be performed by some grand British actress. Still, we can guess for whom it might have been intended. Murphy completed the play the year after the stunning appearance of Sarah Siddons at Drury Lane in the role of Isabella in Thomas Southerne's The Fatal Marriage. Siddons, who later that year also starred in Murphy's The Grecian Daughter at Drury Lane, took the theatre world by storm. She likely was the actress Murphy had in mind who might equal the grandeur of Champmeslé.

In fact, Siddons did perform in The Rival Sisters, though not until 1793. A decade after the play's composition, it finally made its premiere. The piece tells the story of Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos in favor of her sister, Phaedra. Interestingly, Ariadne does not even appear until the second act, when she confidently proclaims:

                    No, from this day, from this auspicious day,
                    Theseus is mine; the godlike hero's mine.
                    With ev'ry grace, with ev'ry laurel crown'd,
                    The lover's softness, and the warrior's fire.

Ariadne trusts her lover and her sister, though both are false. Pathetically, she goes to Phaedra, entreating her help to win back her man from the temptress leading him astray:

                    You can detect the traitress; guide me to her.
                    If on this isle—ha!—why that sudden pause?
                    That downcast eye? why does your colour change?
                    Oh! now I see you know her: in your looks
                    I read it all.

Yet Ariadne still does not understand. She thinks Phaedra is concealing her rival, not that her sister actually IS her rival! When the truth becomes known and Theseus sails away with Phaedra, Ariadne starts to go mad, then stabs herself.

In many versions of the myth, Ariadne marries the god Dionysus after her abandonment. Murphy gives us no such consolation, but he does show his heroine rising to a higher plain as she exclaims:

                    Elysium is before me; let not Theseus
                    Pursue me thither; in those realms of bliss
                    Let my departed spirit know some rest.
                    Oh! let me feel ingratitude no more.
                    Keep Theseus here in this abode of guilt;
                    This world is his; let him remain with Phaedra;
                    Let him be happy; no, the fates forbid it:
                    They will deceive each other.

And as those who know other plays about Phaedra can tell you, she's right. Theseus and Phaedra will deceive each other, but that's a matter for a different play.