Edna St. Vincent Millay Drama Analysis
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s plays can be divided into romances and political plays. It is ironic that her best-known play, Aria da Capo, is a political allegory, while her reputation as a poet suffered for writing anti-fascist poetry in the late 1930’s and for participating in the American propaganda effort during World War II. She wrote three one-act plays, The Princess Marries the Page, Two Slatterns and a King, and The Wall of Dominoes, as a student at Vassar. Except for the third Vassar play, which has never been performed, Millay wrote all her plays in verse. The romantic plays emphasize the concepts of honor and integrity and the ideals of love and friendship. Aria da Capo is the one most frequently revived, with 471 licensed productions alone in the decade following her death. Conversation at Midnight, on the other hand, was not performed until after her death and is rarely revived.
Aria da Capo
In music, an aria da capo is a three-part song in which the third part repeats the first. Millay’s Aria da Capo is a one-act expressionist morality play divided into three parts. The characters are Thyrsis and Corydon, young shepherds; Pierrot, an artist; Columbine, a young woman; and Cothurnus, stage manager and the Masque of Tragedy. Dressed as harlequins and sitting at a table, Pierrot and Columbine begin by caricaturing the bohemian types Millay knew in Greenwich Village and commenting on the radical movements of the era. Then Cothurnus interrupts them so that the shepherds can come onstage and perform their pastoral scene. After the harlequins leave, Cothurnus prompts the shepherds to build a wall that divides the stage into two territories. They discover that Thyrsis has all the water, and he refuses to allow Corydon’s sheep to drink. Then Corydon discovers diamonds in his territory. Finally, Thyrsis finds a black root. They agree to trade a bowl of water for a bowl of diamonds. Thyrsis poisons the water with the root, and Corydon strangles Thyrsis with a necklace of diamonds. They die simultaneously. After Cothurnus pushes the table over the bodies and leaves, Pierrot and Columbine return and make disparaging remarks about the corpses. The harlequins take Cothurnus’s offstage advice to use the tablecloth to hide the bodies and then resume their dialogue.
The harlequinade is an eighteenth century theater form, and the pastoral dates back to the ancient Greeks; the juxtaposition of both genres is a form of expressionism. The story, a play within a play, is an old one, similar to that of Cain and Abel. Because Corydon and Thyrsis separate and develop the concept of private property rather than engage in the pursuit of music and other constructive occupations, the naturally innocent shepherds develop distrust, egotism, and violence. The dialogue is mostly in blank verse in iambic meter, especially between the shepherds. The harlequins speak in shorter units with a smaller number of run-on lines and with a more colloquial vocabulary. Cothurnus’s dialogue, on the other hand, is quite dignified.
The Lamp and the Bell
The Lamp and the Bell is a spectacle Millay wrote for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Vassar College, an all-woman institution. There are forty-eight speaking roles and many nonspeaking roles for musicians and children, and Millay intended it to be performed outdoors in five acts. The medieval setting requires...
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