Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Martha Clarke’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a theatrical interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Delights, a vision of Paradise, humankind’s fall from grace, and its subsequent damnation. The original canvas is a densely populated triptych portraying beautiful, humorous, and grotesque images from the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell. Clarke’s performance piece is similarly structured, but includes the insertion of a section illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins, which is based on another Bosch painting. Like Bosch, Clarke deals with the great, familiar themes of Western religious art.

Clarke’s version of events is impressionistic, stressing the blithe innocence rather than the material sinfulness of earthly pleasures, yet she focuses on the relentless horrors of punishment. As in Bosch’s painting, no possible redemption is offered to the damned. Bosch’s images of humankind’s fate seem alarmingly modern when viewed as metaphors for the present condition of humanity.

In the opening section, Adam and Eve move innocently through Paradise as angels swing merrily over their heads. The beauty of Bosch’s Paradise landscape remains with them as they move out of Eden into the Garden of Earthly Delights. Darker, more ominous images gradually filter into the dramatic world, but the charm of Eden lingers. The movement is lyrical and the music soothing as couples swim in pools of...

(The entire section is 482 words.)