Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia: Director’s Foreword Benjamin Britten’s music has long held a place close to my heart. Most of his operas, in some capacity, address the opposition between the individual and society, an opposition used to characterise Britten’s own feelings of marginalisation in a world that condemned his homosexuality.
The Rape of Lucretia, however, does not operate in such clear-cut terms. It is on account of this that the opera has been so profoundly difficult to stage. When the hero-villain dichotomy is strewn with so much ambiguity, how is it possible to portray complexity without at least partially exonerating the offender? Tarquinius Sextus, the Prince of Rome and rapist of the title character, is one such problematic example. Whilst he is rightly condemned for his abhorrent behaviour, he is also portrayed as the victim of the homosocial structures which harbour such insidious conceptions of masculinity that equate virility with self-actualisation. ‘I hold the knife, yet I am bleeding’: Tarquinius is afflicted by the institutions that condemn his promiscuity and perpetuate the misogynistic ideal of chastity, which Lucretia must subscribe to.
Fiona Shaw’s 2015 Glyndebourne production endorses the hero-villain dichotomy, depicting the opera as a loving couple torn apart by tragedy. Yet this ignores Collatinus’ (Lucretia’s husband’s) complicity in Lucretia’s suicide. Collatinus is ‘politically astute to choose a virtuous wife’: once Lucretia can no longer be considered thus, she can no longer ‘be’. She only ever exists as a symbol of purity— her material self a mere construction of the male gaze. Lucretia’s descent into madness, and her consequent suicide really amount to a moment of clarity. Like Charlotte Perkin-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the female protagonist gradually begins to identify her imprisonment in the transforming image of her latticed wallpaper, Lucretia becomes aware of her own imprisonment. In addressing such issues the production seeks to critique not just the wrongs of the individual, but more so the wrongs of society—a society, which over 2500 years after the death of the real Lucretia, we still live in.
If you have been affected by sexual assault you may wish to contact: http://rapecrisis.org.uk/
Rape Crisis England and Wales
Rape Crisis England and Wales – specialist services for women and girls who have been raped and/or experienced any other form of sexual violence at any time in their lives