Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Suffering for art: Opera, books and Bollywood

Beraud, After the Misdeed

After the Misdeed, by Jean Béraud (detail), ca. 1885-90

It hasn't escaped my attention that central to the art by which I am most powerfully engaged—18th- and 19th-century British literature, opera, and Indian films—is suffering. And, primarily, the suffering of women.


Opera begins with women's suffering.

The first opera by most accounts is Jacopo Peri's Dafne (1598), in which the title character flees an attempted rape by the god Apollo. The first opera whose score survives complete is Peri's Euridice (1600), in which the title character is bitten by a snake, dies, and is taken to the Underworld.

The story of Euridice and Orpheus was also the subject of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607), often described as opera's first masterpiece. The second masterpiece was the same composer's L'Arianna (1608), which contained opera's first hit song, "Lamento della ninfa"—Ariadne's lament after she has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos:

(The words by Ottavio Rinuccini in translation: Hear me, O Love, [she begged the heavens] / What happened to the faithfulness that traitor swore? / [Unhappy woman!] Return him to me, but as he was. / If you cannot do this, then kill me; / I cannot bear this torment."
Montserrat Figueras with La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall.)

That opera's first popular hit was a lament is fitting: Women's suffering has continued as a frequent theme throughout the history of the form. What follows are the ten most performed operas internationally over the past five years (according to Operabase.com), in descending order, with the fates of their heroines:
  1. Verdi's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853): the courtesan Violetta finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Bizet's Carmen (1875): the free-spirited heroine is stabbed to death by her rejected lover.
  1. Puccini's La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896): the seamstress Mimi finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791): Pamina is imprisoned, threatened with rape, believes she has been abandoned by the hero, and contemplates suicide.

(Kathleen Battle performing Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl's" from the 1991 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine.)
  1. Puccini's Tosca (1900): the heroine fights off an attempted rape by her enemy Scarpia, killing him in the process, and then leaps to her death when she realizes that her lover has been executed on Scarpia's orders.

(The words by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa in translation: "I lived for art, I lived for love, / Never did I hurt a living soul! / . . .In the hour of my grief / Why, why, o God, / Am I repaid in this way?"
Angela Gheorghiu performing Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" from the film by Benoit Jacquot, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano.)
  1. Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904): the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is married to an American sailor, but when she discovers that he has abandoned her she commits suicide.
  1. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786): the Countess Almaviva laments the loss of her husband's love and is fearful of his violent jealousy. Meanwhile, her lady's maid Susanna is being sexually coerced by the Count.

(The words by Lorenzo da Ponte in translation: "O Love, give me some relief / From my sorrow, from my sighs! / Either give me back my beloved / Or let me die."
Renée Fleming performing the Countess Almaviva's "Porgi, amor" from the 1994 Glyndebourne production with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)
  1. Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816): Rosina (later to become The Marriage of Figaro's Countess Almaviva) is held a virtual prisoner in the home of her elderly guardian, who plans to force her to marry him against her will.
  1. Verdi's Rigoletto (1851): after one night of passion Gilda substitutes herself for her inconstant lover the Duke, and is stabbed to death in his place.
  1. Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787): the title character sexually assaults Donna Anna in her bedroom and Zerlina, a peasant bride, on her wedding day. A third woman, Donna Elvira, has been seduced and abandoned; although she rages against Don Giovanni she remains hopelessly in love.
The French critic Catherine Clément has written that "on the opera stage, women perpetually sing their eternal undoing." [1]

18th- and 19th-century British literature

The list of 18th- and 19th-century British novels with suffering heroines is long. To name just a few:
  • Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), the heroines experience attempted (and in Clarissa's case, perpetrated) rape; in her misery Clarissa wastes away and dies.
  • Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796): the heroines are repeatedly beset by men whose aggressive and importunate actions threaten the women with disgrace and ruin. Believing themselves abandoned by the men they love, each of the three heroines falls into a near-fatal delirium.
  • Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847): the heroine flees across a storm-lashed moor to escape her deceitful lover Rochester. When night falls, exposed without shelter to the cold, rain and wind, she nearly dies.
  • Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859): Laura Fairlie's domineering husband stages her death and imprisons her under a false identity in a mental asylum so that he can defraud her.
  • George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876): women are trapped in marriages with emotionally withdrawn, cruel and self-centered men.
"What the novel deals with is what women have to deal with," wrote G. K. Chesterton. [2]

Indian films

While men can also experience emotional pain and even weep in Indian films, many films focus on women's self-abnegation, self-sacrifice and suffering. As examples I've limited myself to only one film from each of the past seven decades:
  • Sadhna (Devotion, 1958, directed by B. R. Chopra): a dancing girl (Vyjayanthimala) finds acceptance and love under an assumed identity, but realizes that due to her profession she will be forever excluded from domestic happiness:

(The words in translation: "Woman gave birth to man / And he gave her the flesh-trade. . .She is trampled, abused, and discarded at will / She is weighed in dinars or sold openly in the marketplace. . .A man has a right to every luxury / For a woman life itself is a punishment. . ."
The music is by Datta Naik with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi; Vyjayanthimala's playback singer is Lata Mangeshkar.)
  • Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962, directed by Abrar Alvi): a neglected wife (Meena Kumari) spirals downward into the depths of alcoholism and despair; and a young woman (Waheeda Rehman) is separated, perhaps forever, from the man she has grown to love:

(The music is by Hemant Kumar, with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni; Waheeda Rehman's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972, directed by Shakti Samanta): Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is violently driven away from her village home by the brutality of her husband; the passer-by who prevents her suicide betrays her by selling her to a Calcutta brothel. When a wealthy client falls in love with her, his disapproving family forces them to separate.
  • Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981, directed by Muzaffar Ali): the child Ameeran is kidnapped from her village and sold to a Lucknow brothel, where she becomes the famous tawaif Umrao Jaan (Rehka). During the 1857 Uprising she flees to the countryside and finds herself in her old village. She has a bittersweet reunion with her mother, but her brother demands that she leave the village and never return. She goes back to Lucknow, only to find the city in ruins.

(The music is by Khayyam, with lyrics by Shahryar; Rehka's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998, directed by Karan Johar): the tomboyish Anjali (Kajol) falls in love with her classmate Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan). At the moment she is about to confess her feelings to him, he tells her that he has fallen in love with the new girl at the school, Tina (Rani Mukherji). Anjali conceals her pain from Rahul and Tina, but, devastated, leaves school.

https://youtu.be/4cJvmGWfDk4?t=1h19m52s (the song ends at 1:23:40)

(The words are: "O God, why does love hurt so much? / Let the heart remain silent / Let it not speak / . . .My heart weeps, and my eyes are full of tears / What is there to say? / You didn't even think of me. . ."
The music is by Jatin-Lalit with lyrics by Sameer; the playback singers are Manpreet Akhtar, Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan)
  • Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003): the shy Naina (Preity Zinta) falls in love with her new neighbor, the extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan), only to discover that he has a life-threatening illness. 
  • Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013): the shy Naina (Deepika Padukone) falls in love with her new acquaintance, the extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), only to discover that he has a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.
Sadism, patriarchal complicity, or something else?
So for those of us who love these forms, an uncomfortable question arises: Are we conscious or unconscious sadists, openly or secretly experiencing pleasure in the spectacle of women's suffering? Is to enjoy opera, 18th- and 19-century literature or commercial Indian movies to be complicit with patriarchy? And why is women's suffering so essential to these forms?

One obvious explanation for the predominance of women's suffering in art is its predominance in reality. Taking a global and historical view, in comparison to men women have been prevented from earning, inheriting or controlling as much money, have been blocked from as much educational attainment, and have been given poorer nutrition and health care. They have been allowed fewer social, political and personal freedoms and have been subject to significantly more sexual violence and trafficking. If art reflects the culture within which it is produced, then art created within patriarchal cultures will inevitably reflect sexual double standards, women's enforced dependence and powerlessness.

But I think something more is going on as well. Fiction doesn't straightforwardly mirror the real world; as we know, operas, novels and movies all have a complicated relationship to reality. And while of course artists are embedded in the culture of their societies and times, they don't always unthinkingly reflect its values—which, after all, are hardly monolithic, but are continually being contested and changed.

Certainly it's true that opera and Indian films are largely created by men, but many 18th- and 19th-century novels were written by women, and all of these forms have large and enthusiastic female audiences. In fact, almost all of the examples I've listed can be read—and many were explicitly intended—as critiques of the condition of women.

In all of the works I've listed above, it is the threatened, abused, rejected, ostracized and vulnerable women at their center who intensely engage our sympathy. As Chesterton wrote, ". . .sympathy does not mean so much feeling with all who feel, but rather suffering with all who suffer." We do not seek out the experience of opera, novels and movies because we enjoy the spectacle of others' suffering; we seek it out in order to share that suffering.

1. Catherine Clement, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 5 - 6.
2. G. K. Chesteron, The Victorian Age in Literature, Home University Library, 1913, Ch. II: "The Great Victorian Novelists"


  1. In light of this, what would you make of the famous quote from Edgar Allan Poe: "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world"?

    1. Anonymous, thank you for raising an issue that I bypassed in my post, which is the danger of aestheticizing suffering. Moving from Poe's writing for a moment to painting, J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship came to mind. It is a striking painting: a ship battling against surging waves is silhouetted against the setting sun as black clouds tower overhead. It is only after looking at it for some moments that a viewer may become aware of the drowning people in the foreground.

      A viewer of this painting undeniably has an aesthetic experience, but is it only an aesthetic experience? I would say no, and further, that the aesthetic qualities of Turner's painting are what allow us to fully apprehend the horror of this scene. (A likely inspiration for this painting was the Zong massacre, in which 130 slaves were thrown overboard to drown and the ship owners later filed an insurance claim for jettisoned cargo; for more details, including the outcome of the case, please see my post "Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery II.") This work's beauty amplifies its emotional impact.

      This can be especially true of music, which has a direct address to our emotions. In his brilliant essay on Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Bernard Williams writes about the ways that Mozart's music deepens and complicates Da Ponte's characters and situations (see my post "Was Mozart a misogynist?"). While the songs of suffering from operas and Indian films I included in the post are undeniably beautiful, they are never merely beautiful: music often heightens the degree of our engagement with the dilemmas of the characters.

      There's another danger in representing suffering, expressed by Oscar Wilde's reported comment on Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop: "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." Wilde was being unfair about Little Nell; for a more perceptive reading of Dickens' novel see David Frum's "Charles Dickens' Enduring Insights on Human Loss and Suffering". But he wasn't wrong to suggest that in aiming for pathos, artists without an extraordinary control of their craft can instead easily slide into bathos.

      And finally, why must it primarily be women's suffering? There are certainly some counterexamples: Orfeo's lament for Eurydice in Gluck's opera, Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Amitabh Bachchan's "Angry Young Man" films of the 1970s. But as Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "I always believe in following the advice of the playwright [Victorien] Sardou [whose play was the basis for Puccini's Tosca]. He said, 'Torture the women!'" As Hitchcock and Sardou knew, both men and women in the audience will respond more readily to a suffering female character. To extend the argument Carol Clover makes in her study of horror movies, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, women not only have greater social permission to express fear and terror, but other emotions as well, such as sadness, grief, and despair. And the affective identification of members of the audience of all genders is with the women who suffer, not with the men who inflict suffering. (Tenors who sing the part of the callous Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly are often booed at the first curtain call, even, or perhaps especially, if they've sung the part well.)

      Thank you again for your thought-provoking comment!