The Metastasian themes that seemed so old-fashioned in the late eighteenth century were the very epitome of an artistic reflection of order, of monarchy, of a world controlled by reason and distrustful of the passions. The heroes and heroines of Pietro Metastasio’s dramas are highborn princes, kings and queens who ultimately subdue their baser drives and who adhere to an ideal—patriotism, duty, honor. Conflicts in a Metastasian drama are therefore not physical but psychological. Characters often philosophize and rarely bleed. The action of the drama—static by standards of a later theatrical tradition—revolves about the protagonist’s resolution of the conflict, a resolution sometimes closed by death but more often also by happiness and salvation. In the end, dignity triumphs; order is restored.
Dido Forsaken, Metastasio’s first melodrama and his earliest success, is an excellent introduction to his work because it illustrates some of the major characteristics of his later Viennese period. In his introduction to the drama, Metastasio notes that his source was Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), in deference to the classics, which typified the eighteenth century’s idea of imitation and adaptation of Greek and Roman literary models. His plot is straightforward and uncomplicated. Dido, widowed queen of Carthage, has fallen in love with Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who has escaped from the fall of Troy and who has been shipwrecked on her North African shores. Aeneas loves Dido, as well, but his mission—he has been ordained by the gods to found Rome—must take precedence over his feelings. After declaring his love, he sets sail for Italy and his destiny. Angry, then forlorn, Dido hurls herself on her own funeral pyre, and in the concluding scene, Neptune rises from the sea and quenches the flames.
To this basic plot, Metastasio fuses an element from Ovid, who, he declares in the same introduction, portrays Iarbas, King of the Moors, as one of Dido’s suitors who destroys Carthage after Dido’s death. In the interest of “good theater,” however, Metastasio introduces Iarbas in disguise and pits him as a rival of Aeneas. Interestingly, the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe had earlier written with Thomas Nashe Dido, Queen of Carthage (pr. c. 1586-1587), in which Iarbas is portrayed as Aeneas’s chief rival. If Metastasio knew of Marlowe’s play, however (which seemed unlikely), he took little from it.
Metastasio’s piece on Dido, unlike that of Marlowe, is a tight, three-act tragedy that opens with Aeneas having already announced his intention of leaving Dido. Metastasio thereby limited the action to the conflict of emotions and places dramatic emphasis on the psychological forces rather than on the physical. The epic sweep of Aeneas’s story is distilled into a lyric cameo.
Moreover, Metastasio limited the number of characters. To the three major ones forming the basis of the action, he introduced only three others: Selene, Dido’s sister (“Anna” in the Aeneid), who is secretly in love with Aeneas; Araspe, Iarbas’s confidant, who is secretly in love with Selene; and Osmida, Dido’s confidante, who is secretly plotting with Iarbas for the queen’s overthrow. This use of confidants is a marked characteristic of Metastasian drama. The confidant is an effectively economical device for externalizing the conflict by providing alternative courses of action for the main character. The confidant is, in effect, a dramatization of the protagonist’s inner voice, thus eliminating the need for the dramatic monologue or the soliloquy. This second group of characters also provides the grounds for a subplot of intrigue—as opposed to the honesty of Aeneas’s and Dido’s motives—and keeps the play from becoming static by maintaining a tension of opposing forces that alternates with each scene or clusters of scenes.
With almost mathematical precision, the scenes of swordplay between Aeneas and Iarbas—no one dies and there is no bloodshed or violence depicted—occur near the end of act 1 and again near the beginning of act 3, perfectly balancing the main, largely declamatory scenes portraying the emotions of love and hate and the sentiments of duty, honor, loyalty, and even repentance.
Declamation, in fact, is a strategic principle in the structure of Dido Forsaken. The characters declare their love, proclaim their intentions, and assert their feelings in neat, compact recitative—a middle way between speech and song, between spoken dialogue and sung verse. Significantly, major scene clusters conclude with a character’s singing in arietta, or small aria, placed not only for virtuoso effect but also for dramatic emphasis and tension.
Despite the declamation, Dido herself is portrayed as a woman of genuine passion. Though she is willing to die for Aeneas, she is not an infatuated ingenue, but rather a queen who knows how to rule. Angry at Aeneas for denying her love, she reminds him shrewdly that she has presided over Carthage all these years without him, and without him has seen it prosper. She bitterly mocks him at his delay, sarcastically asking him why he was not already in Italy, subduing kings and...
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