Recent performances of Handelís Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) at the Metropolitan Opera, and the translated "titles" and staging applied to this opera there, remind one how much the English language, and society, have altered since 1724. An especially egregious example is the "effeminacy" of Tolomeo, the villain of the piece. In his first appearance, Tolomeo is taunted by his sister, consort and rival for the throne, Cleopatra, as an "effeminato amante," an effeminate lover. Since she goes on to suggest that he devote himself to the joys of womenís love rather than statecraft, she is obviously not suggesting what we nowadays think of as effeminacy, and indeed Tolomeo, if the libretto is to be trusted, seems quite heterosexual. But the staging at the Met takes off from this insult, and perhaps from the fact that this role, composed for a heroic castrato, was sung at the Met by countertenor Brian Asawa -- in other modern stagings it has often been given to a bass.
At the Met, Asawa performed the role with dapper charm and an impressive bare chest. Effeminacy, however, was imposed on him by the addition of two "super catamites," non-singing muscle boys and, by implication, male concubines, who crouched at his feet like tame leopards and posed provocatively whenever Tolomeo appeared. Too, the lines Tolomeo sings aside, to no one, were confided here to a beskirted chamberlain, also non-singing, who had no other function. The suggestion was clear: Tolomeo is unworthy to reign because he is gay.
This is certainly not what Handel, and his librettist Nicola Haym, meant by the word "effeminato," and the transformation of this concept shows us how far, and along what sort of road, we have come. In renouncing the aristocratic ideals of male behavior that were still in favor as ideals in Handelís day, we have lost our traditional sense of what properly constitutes manhood, and the behavior proper to a man.
The public for whom Handel wrote his
operas -- mostly English and at least somewhat
classically educated -- had expectations when it came
to opera that were very different from ours. Those
expectations were aristocratic. This is not to say
that he composed his operas merely for an audience of
aristocrats. But opera seria was an art originally devised for the ruling classes, and its moral compass exalts them. The characters are legendary and formal to an extent Euripides and Shakespeare might have found risible -- they are hard to take seriously today, as humans of any dimension.
Handel, among the greatest composers of his day, did not see fit to challenge the assumptions of the form, to lead it towards a new style, as Gluck and Mozart were to do. He was content with the strictures as he found them, and within their bounds discovered the freedom to express character and drama. Handelís operatic characters are all of them stick figures, preposterously virtuous or villainous -- only the emotional variety created by his music makes them human.
In Giulio Cesare, for example, Caesar is not a man of flesh and blood, still less the middle-aged egotist who ruled Rome, but an archetypal "king," with official feelings and official duties. Cornelia is not a particular woman but the archetypal Roman matron as all Handelís contemporaries knew her from childhoods spent translating the Roman classics: selfless, virtuous, noble, "beautiful and cold" (as Shakespeare describes Octavia). Three men fall in love with Cornelia at first sight; she rejects them all -- two of them with special scorn, because they are "Egyptians," and the Romans did not believe in exogamy. Sesto (Sextus), her son, is an archetypal adolescent, a boy verging on manhood -- not in the sense of Mozartís Cherubino, of being overwhelmed by the sex urge, but in the sense of becoming an adult, a warrior, a Roman of the upper classes.
When Sesto puts aside his "childish" terrors to take martial action -- ultimately slaying the villain who is about to rape Sestoís mother -- it is a sign that Pompey lives again in a typically "noble Roman" son. The piquancy of this transformation is due to the fact that Sesto, when first seen, is a boy, unsure of his manhood. (The role, sung at the Met by a countertenor, was composed for a woman.) All these things were clearly understood by Handelís audience, who had been raised on Livy, Plutarch and Vergil, in ways with which the modern opera audience has completely lost touch.
In contrast to these noble, if boring, Romans, we have the Egyptians, or rather (as everyone knew in Handelís day), Egyptianized Greeks: Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Achilla. They boast none of the "Roman" virtues. Ptolemy is lecherous, treacherous, spoiled and violent -- the archetypal tyrant, self-evidently unfit to rule. Achilla is a traitor, rightly betrayed by the only man he trusted -- he exists to demonstrate, in dying, just how evil his master is.
It is in their first appearance in the
opera, in a scene that is necessary to introduce the
Egyptian characters (as the previous scene introduced
all the Romans) and indicate to the audience what
traits to expect of them, that Cleopatra calls
Tolomeo "effeminato amante,"
effeminate lover. "Homosexual" is clearly
not what Handel and Haym intended the words to mean.
What, then, did "effeminato
amante" mean, to Handel and his intended
audience? What is Cleopatra
implying?"Effeminato," applied to a man, is
obviously a derogation of manhood in some sense.
Tolomeoís behavior is not "manly," as
the conventions of opera seria understood manliness. Of what was this archetypal manliness supposed to consist?
Tolomeoís behavior conflicts with this on every level: He does not make war; instead, he fawns on a conqueror by assassinating a guest. He makes no reference to the chase or manly exercise. He is faithless to his friends and brutal to his sister. Too, he is understood to spend much of his time in the harem -- that is, making love to women. This is what Cleopatra tells him to run along and do, while she runs the country. This is what she means by "effeminate" behavior.
A "real man," in the Roman warrior sense, while not immune to sexuality, keeps it in its proper place and does not allow himself to be distracted from business. When Caesarís tryst with "Lydia" (Cleopatra in disguise) is interrupted, he draws his sword and rushes off to battle without hesitation. Ptolemy, we may presume, is not even present at the battle, though he manages to assassinate his own victorious general. In short, making love to women (or, at any rate, devoting much of oneís leisure time to it) is, in this warrior culture, to be "effeminate."
Even in Handelís time, these
conventions were more than rusty, as the immediate
success of the lampoon, The Beggarsí
Opera, which drove Handelís company into
bankruptcy, makes clear. In that work, rival kings
are replaced by rival corrupt officials, virtuous
queens by sluttish barmaids, and the whole crowd may
expect to be "whipped, hanged or
transported" to the penal colonies. The joke was
total and delicious; Handel didnít stand a
chance. But the matter was old: knights errant had
been figures of fun since Don Quixote, over a
So now we know: Ptolemy is effeminate because he spends his time seeking "pleasure," which includes making love to women. Ptolemy must die; therefore, he must be seen to commit offenses to noble and kingly conduct such as will justify regicide, the most atrocious of crimes. Ptolemy has not only betrayed a guest, deposed a sister, and murdered a friend, he has now assaulted a noble Roman matron, the very archetype of virtue. He is slain while attempting to rape Cornelia, and by her son, who thus attains "manhood." (The plots of opera seria are not so far removed from the churchly "mystery" plays, in which idealized virtues and vices contended for the human soul.)
From the libretto you would never guess Ptolemy had committed any of the deeds regarded as "effeminate" in the 1990s. He lusts for power, he disposes of political opponents and untrustworthy friends, he pursues women insatiably -- just the sort of behavior the modern action film, rap music, and the popular myth of the noble Mafia "don" regard as satisfyingly masculine.
Noble behavior, or at any rate the sort of thing one could expect of a nobleman on the stage, had changed a bit by the time Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte wrote their three celebrated dramme giocose. The kings in Mozartís opere serie are still noble (if troubled) kings of archetype: the whimsical Mitridate to whom only the most villainous of sons would be treacherous, the tormented Idomeneo who secures divine forgiveness by abdication, the all-forgiving Tito who begs the Gods to take his life if he cannot be a blessing to his subjects. Even Mozartís German singspielen give us the noble Turk, Pasha Selim, and the all-wise Sarastro.
But this was no longer credible in tales of "real life." The behavior of real kings and real nobles was too well known in a world full of inexpensive publications and a broad literacy, the age of Voltaire and Sade. Accordingly we have, in Count Almaviva, a tyrant constantly outwitted and frustrated, obliged to crave pardon without having committed the sin that must be forgiven.
If a noble is no longer a warrior or a huntsman, he is no longer eligible to be the archtypal king as war-leader or hunter as provider. If he does not fulfill these ancient types of maleness, how does he establish that he is male?
As life became more orderly, as
individual energy was reined in or put to the service
of the state, males were left without an obvious
outlet for this adolescent impulse. With duels banned
and hunting turned from a frequent necessity into a
rare recreation, traditional maleness was deprived of
its ancient function and its ancient proof --
for if the male sexual act cannot be performed
publicly, in society, then its symbolic actions
become all the more important, even necessary.
We can see this transformation in action as early as Mozartís Don Giovanni (1787). The title character is a gentleman, an aristocrat, trained to all the responsibilities of his position. Yet, from the first moments of the opera, we see him abusing his privileges, putting his skills to evil use, and corrupting the society that has nourished him. When Don Giovanni places a peasant wedding party under his "protection," and invites them to his home for refreshment, he is a nobleman, behaving as one should toward social inferiors. When, two minutes later, he attempts to seduce the bride, he is conspicuously violating the social contract.
He gets his comeuppance, to be sure. For one thing, on this day, his last, every planned seduction goes awry. His attempted conquests of Donna Anna, Zerlina, Donna Elviraís maid and the unnamed beauty he refers to at the opening of Scene 2 are all frustrated. When we see him at his last banquet, he is dining, conspicuously, alone -- indeed, we have never seen him in a "human" relationship except cynical flirtation or his abusive patronage of his servant, Leporello. For a man who claims to love women, he has very little to say to them aside from the clichťs of courtship.
Don Giovanni is, in short, the nobleman who has irresponsibly renounced every archetypal quality of his rank -- pillar of the state, fount of honor, protector of the weak. And yet he never strikes us as "effeminate" -- and why? Because he has managed to transform this sensual weakness into the appearance of strength, the manly threat to the enemy becoming a threat to those he is expected to defend. This impresses us not as dishonor in Ptolemyís style but as a rather courageous challenge to authority, the authority of society.
If it is society that has channeled maleness into the ideal of "gentlemanly" behavior, for its own purposes of order and self-perpetuation, Don Giovanni, a nobleman in a time when the nobility were losing their historic function, discards what remains of the trappings of traditional maleness, the euphemistic categories of warrior and huntsman, for the naked reality of the sex urge run amok. Unable to be knights errant or lordly providers in a world of citizen armies and bourgeois factories, the nobleman has no outlet to demonstrate his masculinity but sexual violence. In the nineteenth century, when the hero who defies society was exalted, Don Giovanni was a constant item on the operatic stage precisely because its hero seemed outrageous in a way that much of his audience could respond to.
Sexual restraint had ceased to be manly; it had come to seem (as Don Ottavio may seem in the opera) "effeminate." Because we have no other outlet for the vital energy, Don Giovanniís brutal sexuality has become the traditional image of maleness -- to the point, indeed, where even homosexual men who take the "receptive" role are nowadays expected (and expect themselves) to adopt the trappings of exaggerated "macho."
Let us look at a similar case from a
much later libretto, that of Gilbert and
Sullivanís Trial By Jury. Edwin, the
Defendant, has been trifling with the affections of
Angelina, the Plaintiff; they have become engaged; he
has lost interest in her accordingly. She sues him
for "breach of promise." For a woman who
could neither secure reasonable employment nor engage
in sexual relations without forfeiting much of her
attraction in the marriage market, to be jilted was a
Angelinaís Attorney is naturally eager to blacken Edwinís reputation. In his statement to the Jury, he compares Edwin to a treacherous shepherd of the archaic romances of Virgil and Tasso, who has villainously lulled Angelina into believing theirs the sort of relationship found in literature:
Swiftly fled each honeyed hour,
The remark of interest here is "unmanly male," directed at Edwin. Edwin is a seducer by habit and avocation -- his defense is that he falls out of love with every woman he proposes to, and in love with someone else, and that this is intrinsically natural behavior. This constant and decidedly heterosexual lust was not "manly" in 1875. On the contrary: it is "unmanly." And why? Because although Edwin is heterosexually active, the more serious qualities of manhood are absent. He does not keep his word. He does not live up to his obligations. He is obdurately fickle. Indeed, we will learn that he is given to drink, and to brutal behavior to women when drinking. The "manly male" is not sexual until everything else has been attended to. The man who puts sex first is still an "effeminato amante."
And yet, look at the Attorneyís language: it is consciously archaic, the symbols of Arcadia and the unfashionably naughty paintings of Watteau show how old-fashioned Gilbert designs him to be. If Edwin is not manly in the sense thought proper to older society, he is right in the swing of things for life as it is actually lived -- in 1875. And indeed, both the Judge and all the jurors admit (not without a certain masculine smugness) that they have been guilty of the same bad behavior.
What does this evolution of words say about us? The words we use, the way we use them, guides the processes of our thought. The debasement of "manliness" to (hetero-) sexual activity and "effeminacy" to any other sort of behavior (sexual and otherwise) says a great deal about the way we think now, and the way we behave now, and the way our society is going.
At the dawn of a new millennium, we have been deprived of what it was that usefully defined manhood from the dawn of recorded history: We no longer fight, we no longer hunt, we no longer "take care of business." Manhood no longer stands for principles of self-control and maturity. But instead of beating our swords into plowshares, of becoming stalwart men of peace and balanced behavior, we have devoted these energies into worship of the frivolous: of youth and sexual excess. As "effeminate" has come to mean "queer" (another fine old word that has been impoverished in its usage by the neurotic sexualization of our society), so "manly" has come to mean merely adolescent, horny and unrestrained.
-- John Yohalem is the editor of
Enchantť: The Journal for the Urbane Pagan.