Penthesilea’s impossible love

Peter Stein is so absorbed by and dedicated to «Penthesilea» that when the production of the play at Epidaurus was almost hindered by the incomprehensible stance of the mayor of Lygourio, he responded, «That doesn’t concern me.» Stein follows the labyrinthine thought and frenzied rhythm of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), one of the most significant, fearless and ambitious playwrights Germany has ever produced. Kleist, it is said, possessed the skill of Dionysian rhetoric. Stein, on the other end of the telephone, «orates,» totally taken by the «destructive power of desire» that is negotiated in «Penthesilea.» «A happy love affair in the theater does not interest me. Love is a wonderful thing, but life exists for death. We live to die. Just like Penthesilea,» he says. The play begins with a joyful and charming Amazonian celebration, only to end in an act of cannibalism: The queen of the Amazons tears Achilles, her great love, to pieces. This Friday and Saturday, Peter Stein, one of Germany’s most inspired directors, will present the world premiere of «Penthesilea» at the ancient theater of Epidaurus. He is collaborating with an international cast of 50, led by his wife, Maddalena Crippa, and Graziano Piazza. The production’s set design is by the acclaimed Dionysis Fotopoulos. The entire performance was prepared in Italy and designed especially for Epidaurus. According to its director, it is a «theater which is a work of art, which can talk directly to us, after 2,500 years.» In «Penthesilea,» Kleist talks of the deluding, blind passion of the queen of the Amazons for Achilles. Are Achilles’ feelings just as deep? I don’t see why you call it delusive. Penthesilea is deeply in love with him. She is experiencing a great passion which drives her out of control. Under the law of the Amazons, the erotic act only takes place for the purposes of reproduction, but Penthesilea desires something much more than the idea of conquering a male in order to use him for reproduction. Her feelings are contrary to the Amazon regime and she comes into conflict with it. The structure of Kleist’s work is complex. In the great love scene, Penthesilea is very tender and wholly feminine; she gives herself completely. The same with Achilles. Except that she believes that he is her captive and that the power lies with her. This is the delusion; this is where the «power» actually lies. Penthesilea becomes confused when she realizes the actual situation: Achilles is not her enemy, nor is he her captive, in a political sense. But he is subject to love. Achilles, for his part, tries to understand her mentality and realizes that in order to be near her he has to be under her thumb. He decides, then, to fight with her, not to beat her but to remain her «captive.» She misunderstands him, as she does not understand why he wants to fight when she has offered him all her love. She becomes angry, kills him and eats him. Is the structure of the play reminiscent of an ancient tragedy, or is it closer to romanticism? It has a special structure, which makes it resemble a 20th-century work. It unfolds without acts, without the scenes being separated. On the other hand, however, Kleist respects the structures of ancient tragedy. There is one location, and time moves in real time, without going backward and forward, following one of the basic rules of ancient tragedy, the unity of time and place. Kleist borrows a lot of elements from ancient tragedy, but he rewrites them in an absolutely contemporary way, so modern that his contemporaries couldn’t understand him, and this is why they never staged «Penthesilea.» The premiere took place 100 years later! Does the complex text not create problems for the stage presentation? It is indeed a difficult work. More to the point, it wasn’t written for an open space. There are two long scenes, the struggle and the love scene, which require concentration. An open space is not suitable for this. In addition, the play has been translated from German into Italian. Kleist’s language is very literary and stylized; it is not spoken language. With the translation into Italian it loses its formalism, yet this is a very interesting element. I had to have it translated because the actress who plays Penthesilea is Italian. When I was invited to stage it at Epidaurus I decided to add a female chorus to bring it closer to ancient tragedy. The Chorus didn’t have a text, so we composed a kind of score with sounds, choreography and music. It is a production that is full of energy. I hope so. There are two stories in this play, that of Penthesilea and Achilles, and that of Penthesilea and the Chorus. She clashes with the Chorus because it is always asking for something different from her. Using her power and energy, she manages to get the Chorus on her side, even if it disagrees with her. Eventually she forces the Chorus to become wild and tough like her, and to make love not for war but for death. They become like animals, tough and wild. Let’s not forget that the «Penthesilea» ends with an act of cannibalism. When the heroine realizes what she has done, she commits suicide and the Chorus follows her. Kleist committed suicide, too. Here, however, the «male» appears, despite his ultimate defeat, in the position of power. Power is fake. Achilles is dominant only because of his physical strength. He doesn’t understand this woman. He is stuck in the traditional role of the man. So, when he challenges her to a second fight, he doesn’t realize his mistake. Achilles suffers, then, from a form of emotional disability. Precisely. He is emotionally inferior to Penthesilea. Neither of them can acquire the object of their desire: he because he is inferior, she because she is over the top. The intermixing between the two sexes is very modern. In the production, however, I do not emphasize the contemporary aspect. I am against this tendency to «oblige» plays to become contemporary. Modernity must come from the acting, from the style of the production, from the way the audience understands it. Because whatever happens, Kleist didn’t write it today. Directed by F. Murray Abraham, starring Tony Shalhoub, Shannon Elizabeth. A family inherits a grand old house along with some powerful and vengeful ghosts.

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