Thursday, April 23, 2009

Colonization and the Wooster Group's Didone

Last week - my review appears on Opera Today - I attended the Wooster Group's production of Cavalli's 1641 opera La Didone at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO. The opera - well, the second half of it (the first, concerning the fall of Troy, is omitted) - is presented more or less in tandem ("sync" would be an exaggeration) with Mario Bava's 1965 Italian horror film, Terrore nel Spazio (Terror in Space, but usually presented here as Zombies from Outer Space or some such title). The stories are intercut, the film is shown on monitors while singers perform the opera and actors perform the movie script up front, singers sometimes saying lines from the movie, actors sometimes saying lines from the opera, two sets of surtitles making everything clear except when they don't. There was some very funny acting and some lovely singing, and it wasn't like any other Cavalli opera performance you may have attended. Or Monteverdi. Or Wagner.

What struck me afterwards was the crux of both stories, the hook on which Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group had hung both these overcoats. Didone, while centering on the story of Aeneas loving and leaving Dido while on his way from the ruin of Troy to found the civilization that would become Rome (and conquer both Carthage and Greece), has as its subtext the power of Destiny to overrule personal inclination. Aeneas has a job to do, and sex - even sex mandated by his mother (the goddess Venus) - and personal inclination of any sort may not be permitted to interrupt.

In Terrore nel Spazio, meanwhile, the crew of a space ship trapped on a dying world whose inhabitants, desperate to escape and survive, hope to do so by invading the minds and souls of space travelers, thereby ensuring their transport to some more habitable, more vulnerable planet. The rivalry of souls, inborn and invasive, within a single human body is thus compared to the rivalry of civilizations over which shall survive, which is worthy to survive, which has the right to survive. Rome's egotistical certainty of its overriding supremacy is compared to the egotism of both the refugee aliens and the starship crew (human? or are they?) that wishes to reject them.

Carthage was itself founded by colonists from Sidon in Phoenicia, to the annoyance of the local tribes (Numidians, Mauretanians, et al.) in what is now Tunisia. (The Phoenicians called it Africa - whether this is a Phoenician word or Numidian is not clear. Perhaps it's a Phoenician version of a word in the local tongue that they couldn't pronounce - kind of like "Illinois" or "Mexico" or Gascony/Vizcaya/Biscay, the Roman/French/Spanish pronunciations for the place the inhabitants call Euskadi). Carthage rapidly made itself the major power of the Western Med, to the annoyance of previous Phoenician colonies in places like Cadiz and of Greeks in Ampurias, Marseilles, Naples and Syracuse, and of Etruscans and Romans. (The Romans, not being nautical, were less bothered at first than others.) But all these cities, except possibly Rome, had also been founded as colonies by distant civilizations, to the greater or lesser resentment of natives, whose accounts of the matter have not come down to us. (Neither have the Etruscan or Carthaginian accounts, but no matter.)

None of these peoples were aboriginal, but then - who is? There are always movements of people, and it's hard to find uninhabited real estate. The Pilgrims were notoriously lucky - European epidemic diseases had devastated New England's Indians just before they showed up. Other Europeans in America had to go through the motions of purchase or conquest before they could set up camp and begin full-time exploitation. Look at the problems the Israelis have had due to starting their nation on property with a pre-existing population they had no wish to assimilate (and who did not wish to be assimilated). The difficulties have been hardly less (and may perhaps prove at least as enduring) as those Biblically described of the Hebrews when they arrived in Canaan from Egypt.

Colonization is a memory of bad conscience for most modern civilizations - we all dispossessed somebody, even if it was so long ago (Persians and Elamites, Japanese and Ainu, Picts and Scots, Fomhors and Tuatha da Danaan, Greeks and Pelasgians) that hardly anyone remembers it now. The Chinese may be aboriginal - but in what portion of modern China? Less than one-fifth was the site of the original Han civilization - Zinkjang, Tibet, Manchuria were none of them remotely part of it. The Abos of Australia are not taken seriously by more recent immigrants because they did not think of building a civilization at all, for 180,000 years after their arrival from New Guinea. As Cavalli would have been sure to point out, and the modern Aussie to agree, if it takes you that long and you still haven't built an opera house - what good are you?

To see this as a source for the science-fiction delight in extraterrestrial rumor, or as a sidelight to the ancient Roman obsession with its almost certainly fictitious descent from Troy (a feature of Rome's cultural self-consciousness when faced with the glory that was Greece, or even Etruria), is a very sly, very witty dig at all our securities. That Wooster Group makes this quip by way of a lovely performance of a superb forgotten score is to do us all a favor: we can take the performance as it is, or we can enjoy it as a spark to think about the meanings of colonization, of the guilt of the colonizer and the resentment of the colonized, of the way civilizations merge or do not merge, evolve or do not evolve, and the way technological advancement proceeds inexorably, devising justificatory myths whenever the guilty conscience requires them, cut to fit our need to survive. Space aliens may not feel this, but then - they are fictitious too. And unlike the Gods, they do not have an earthly provenance.

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