Who Was Myrtha?
In February, earlier this year, I was making my way through the sixth arrondissement in Paris. Taking refuge from the icy wind, I stepped into a small antiquarian bookshop in a narrow impasse off Rue Monsieur le Prince. Leather-bound volumes in varying stages of disrepair lined the shelves, and the place smelt musty, as if not often visited. The proprietor, an elderly man, invited me with a gesture to examine his stock. I did so, pulling out a couple of books at random, and was just returning the second of these to its place when a sheaf of handwritten papers on a lower shelf caught my eye. I knelt, blew the dust from the cover-sheet, and read the words:
La Tragédie de Myrthe, Ballet-Pantomime en 2 Actes
The short libretto was unsigned, and dated 1838. It was not for sale, the proprietor courteously informed me, but I was welcome to read it. I did so several times, memorising the contents. Then, as I had an appointment to keep, I reluctantly left the shop, and surrendered myself once more to the elements. The following day I returned to Rue Monsieur le Prince, determined to question the proprietor about the provenance and authorship of the libretto. But I could find no antiquarian bookshop, and indeed, no narrow impasse. I paced the area for hours, endlessly retracing my footsteps, but without success. The shop, and its elderly proprietor, might never have existed. There are those, of course, who will say that they never did exist, and that rather than recreate the story of Myrtha from the anonymous libretto, I simply made the whole thing up. What can I say? In the face of such assertions, the only dignified response is silence.
M Y R T H A
The Duke and Duchess of Pomerania.
Count Wolfram, their son.
Myrtha, a beautiful orphan of aristocratic birth, lodged at the Castle.
Caspar, a squire.
Berthe, a servant girl.
Myrtha is dancing in the castle gardens with her friends. They are interrupted by a commotion: Berthe, a servant girl, is being expelled from the castle. Myrthe asks why, and a steward tells her that Berthe is pregnant. Myrtha pleads on the girl’s behalf, but is told that nothing can be done. Wolfram enters, and Myrtha sees from Berthe’s expression that he is her seducer. Myrthe questions him, but Wolfram laughs the matter off, and Berthe is led away.
It is the first evening of the harvest festival, and dancers are entertaining the Duke and Duchess of Pomerania, their household and their guests. Six year-old Albrecht, son of the Duke of Silesia, has been dressed by his nurse in a peasant costume, and dances with the local children. A mime holds the company spellbound with the story of the wilis, spirits of young girls who die before their wedding nights. When they elect a queen, the legend goes, the wilis will take vengeance on any young man who falls into their grasp. Also present at the celebrations is Caspar, a handsome squire enamoured of Myrtha. Caspar and Myrtha dance together, and slip away. A short distance from the castle they meet villagers returning from the vineyards. The young couple dance with the villagers in the twilight, and declare their love for each other.
When they return to the castle torches are burning, tables have been laid with food and wine, and the celebrations are in full swing. Seeing Myrtha, Wolfram claims her for a dance, to the visible approval of his parents. Myrtha is unwilling, but powerless to refuse him. Caspar seethes, and has to be restrained by his friends. Later, Caspar and Myrtha contrive to meet in a quiet corner, but are discovered embracing by Wolfram, who by now is very drunk. Wolfram attempts to drive Caspar away, and imposes himself violently on Myrtha. She resists him, and is rescued by Caspar. The couple make plans to run away together.
Berthe meanwhile, is stumbling through the forest on her way back to her village. As darkness falls, the wilis appear, and surround and terrify Berthe. Eventually, they vanish into the night, and Berthe flees.
A hawking party in the forest. The Duke and his retinue are taking refreshment in a village. Dogs pant, falcons sit watchfully on gauntlets, pennants bearing the red griffin of Pomerania snap in the breeze. As the villagers entertain the ducal party with a dance, Myrtha and Caspar wrap themselves in villagers’ cloaks and make good their escape. The dance ends, and Wolfram notes their absence. Angrily, he questions the villagers, but the interrogation is interrupted by the arrival of the exhausted Berthe, carried on a stretcher of branches by the village gamekeeper and his young son Hilarion. Mutely, Berthe identifies Wolfram as the author of her distress. Furious now, Wolfram takes a party of supporters in pursuit of Myrtha and Caspar.
In a clearing in the forest, the couple express their joy in a passionate dance. It is not long, however, before Wolfram and his party arrive and confront them. The two men duel, and when it looks as if Caspar might gain the upper hand, he is treacherously stabbed in the back by one of Wolfram’s friends. Dying, Caspar sinks to the ground. Wolfram tries to claim Myrtha, but she seizes Caspar’s sword and stabs herself. The ducal party and the villagers arrive, and before their horrified gaze, the lovers expire in each others’ arms.
Myrtha is buried in the forest, in unhallowed ground. As darkness falls, the wilis surround her grave, and as midnight tolls in the distant castle, Myrtha rises from the dead. Plucking sprigs of rosemary from the graveside, she surveys her dark domain. Forming spectral ranks to left and right of her, the wilis acknowledge Myrtha as their queen.