Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tarquin Unmasked

The bathroom door was locked so he banged on it, and called, “Time’s up.”
     “Who is it?” said a voice.
     “Oh, I’m sorry,” said George, retreating a step or two from the locked door in his agitation. “I thought it was Sylvia.”
     “It’s only me,” said Edith. “I’ll be as quick as I can, but the bath’s so slippery I can’t get out. Your water is so soft and I used too much soap. I shan’t be long” and a sound of splashing told George that the guest was keeping her word and he went back to his room feeling himself a Tarquin unmasked.
     [Angela Thirkell, Enter Sir Robert, 1955]
Reading that passage last night—in what was a popular novel intended for a predominantly female audience—reminded me how very much popular culture has evidently changed in the last sixty years or so, here as well as in Britain. Angela Thirkell was a very prolific and popular novelist; more on her is on this blog here; I have a great admiration for her and am slowly reading all of her work. Clearly Thirkell not only expected that phrase, “feeling himself a Tarquin unmasked,” to illuminate and to enlarge this seemingly innocent scene—but also to signal feelings inside George, the lead male in this novel, towards Edith, the lead female, not evident on the surface.

My own recall of Tarquins was thin enough to amount to almost nothing. Something to do with Rome—yes, despite that odd spelling. Etruscan kings? And then, with effort, rose a small flag suggesting that a famous rape had led the Romans to abolish monarchy in favor of republican rule. Thus far my vague response to Angela. Naked Edith in a tub? Thoughts in George of sexual congress. That seemed to fit. But as for masks and such, not even the glimmer of a glimmer.

Here in a nutshell the story. Yes. The first Tarquin (Lucius) was a rich Etruscan immigrant to Rome; later he became a popular king. The second, known as Lucius Superbus, was his son, better remembered as Tarquin the Proud; he gained the throne by the assassination of his father’s popular successor, a Roman. Superbus’ son, one Sextus Tarquinius, raped the wife of a Roman nobleman by name of Lucretia. Here is the story of The Rape of Lucretia as told by Livy—the cause, ultimately, of the end of Roman monarchy.

Now in that story Sextus visits Lucretia while her husband is still away at the war. Lucretia receives the king’s son with due hospitality. But late at night Sextus enters her chambers and gives her a choice: She can make love to him or she can die. If she refuses, he proposes to kill her, kill a male slave, and place them in bed together suggesting that she was entertaining the slave while her husband was at war. She chooses to live and suffers his violation. But later, in public, she reveals his deeds before the king himself and then commits suicide with a dagger. Thus, in a way, she “unmasks” the Tarquin. (The painting shown is Titian’s version.)

But this sort of symbolic unmasking, it seemed to me, is a bit too obscure for the general reader. I went to search out a more vivid representation. A painting, perhaps? In no time at all I discovered what must have been Angela Thirkell’s reference—a play called Le Viol de Lucrèce by André Obey. In this play masked narrators, one for the Tarquin, one for Lucrece, voice the inner thoughts of the actual Tarquin and the actual Lucrece during that crucial scene. And at the most dramatic moment in the play, the narrator-Lucrece takes off her mask and addresses the audience to plead for the character. In a book titled Masks in Modern Drama, the author, Susan Valeria Harris Smith comments as follows (p. 75):

The brief unmasking humanizes and personalizes the action, catching the complacent and removed audience off guard. The departure from the stylistic ritual mode allows Obey to use the mask diversely without violating the mythological context he carefully creates in the first three acts.
The play, written in 1931, was very meaningful in France in that, as Smith points out, the Tarquins’ violation of Rome represented to the French the later German violation of France. The play was turned into an opera in 1946—and the play was undoubtedly produced again in connection with that event; indeed, I found a recent performance of it in 2006 in France. Obey himself became head of the Comédie-Française (1945-1947). In Thirkell’s time, therefore (most likely) that mask-scene had some standing in popular recall, and Thirkell’s use of the phrase consequently produced the intended poetic echoes in this humble scene in her novel. In my case it lead straight to the Internet so that I could unmask the Tarquin for myself.

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