Crimes of Passion
Adultery! Rape! And lots of murder! Our critics take a look at what happens when the blood runs hot.
Sarah Kaufman on Dance
Lizzie Borden and other crazy-from-the-heat killers.
Above: Doomed adulterers Francesca and Paolo inspired Dante, Rodin and more. (Pierre Mornet for The Washington Post)
A jury may have acquitted Lizzie Borden, but Agnes de Mille found her guilty of murdering her father and stepmother on a hot August day 122 years ago. (Pierre Mornet for The Washington Post)
Lizzie Borden and a trail of bloody footprintsBy Sarah Kaufman
It was August, and it was hot. The temperature was over 100 degrees before noon on Aug. 4, 1892, when Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were hacked to death in their Fall River, Mass., home.
Grisly doesn’t begin to describe the blood-splattered rooms, where the victims had suffered nearly two dozen blows to their heads. This was violent hyperbole, carried out in broad daylight. Was it a case of summer madness? Undoubtedly. A crime of passion? Depends on whom you ask. The jury wasn’t sure. It finally acquitted Borden, a Sunday school teacher and otherwise respectable woman.
But Borden was convicted by a ballet. In “Fall River Legend,” Agnes de Mille left no doubt that the quiet, unmarried daughter had butchered her parents in a fury that sweltering morning. De Mille created her psychological dance-drama in 1948 for Ballet Theatre, the young troupe that would later be known as American Ballet Theatre. She had hit the big time just a few years before, choreographing Broadway’s “Oklahoma!,” and she knew a great story when she saw it.
De Mille capitalized on what draws us to crimes of passion: the poignancy and surprise of them. There but for the grace of not having a weapon handy go the rest of us. Murderous rage can so easily, so unexpectedly, erupt from an ordinary heart. And as a bonus attraction: In the bloodiest acts of overkill, both the perpetrators and the victims can live on in legend.
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
But why? In a series of flashbacks, De Mille’s “Fall River Legend” proposes how a proper-looking spinster committed a double murder in the house where she was born. Young Lizzie idolizes her mother, and suffers after her unexpected death. Her father takes a new wife and Lizzie (identified only as “The Accused”) is shunted aside. Her cold, disapproving stepmother thwarts Lizzie’s chance at romance. Sick of her joyless life, Lizzie seizes upon the ax with almost erotic glee. This is surely De Mille’s nod to the prurient atmosphere of the trial. Lacking any bloodstained clothing, the prosecution had suggested that Lizzie must have stripped naked (!) before she grabbed her weapon.
What’s interesting is that in digging into an American tragedy, “Fall River Legend” became part of a great American victory. De Mille’s style is part streamlined ballet, part hard-bodied tension of the kind Martha Graham favored, and part exuberant musical theater. This amalgam typified the revolution that was going on in ballet at the time. The big news was that European dominance was out, and that American stories and American ways of telling them were in.
Ballet Theatre wouldn’t be called American Ballet Theatre until 1957, but in its beginnings in the 1940s it was busily launching a fresh, homegrown kind of ballet, without tutus and princesses. The new ballets concerned cowboys and ranch hands (in de Mille’s “Rodeo”), sailors and city girls (in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”), and a desperate sexual awakening (in Antony Tudor’s “Pillar of Fire”).
A broken, lonely but independent-minded woman who decided on murder after breakfast joined them, bloodstained frock and all. In peppering her dance with a potent emotional back-story, de Mille turned Lizzie into a tragic hero for a new age.
As a result, ballet got bigger. It opened up, became modern. De Mille redefined what it could talk about.
Lizzie Borden, who ignored suspicions about her guilt and remained in Fall River until her death in 1927, might have been applauding from the grave. She was an ardent fan of the theater. She took up with an actress and hosted performers at the grand new home she moved into, and spent part of her father’s inheritance traveling to shows.
“I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire:
The day is HOT, the Capulets abroad,
And, if we meet, we shall not scape a BRAWL;
For now, these HOT days, is the MAD BLOOD stirring.”
— “Romeo and Juliet,” Act 3, scene 1
Benvolio knew that violent crimes rise with the temperature. Especially outdoor crimes. It was the end of July in Verona when the doomed lovers of “Romeo and Juliet” met, and the summer heat adds fuel to their story.
Love as a cause of bloodshed is a pervasive theme in the Shakespeare play. Death haunts the ballet versions, too. But the true crime of passion — in fact, the cruelest death — is not the lovers’ double suicide. That had been hinted at all along. Nor is it Mercutio’s demise in the street-fighting brawl that Benvolio predicted, which was sparked once Tybalt reveals his plan to battle Romeo.
The big shocker is Romeo’s spur-of-the-moment, rage-fueled stabbing of Tybalt. He is blinded with “fire-eyed fury” at Mercutio’s death, and forgets the fact that, after his secret wedding to Juliet, Tybalt is now his kinsman. In an instant — ”like lightning” — our gentle loverboy becomes a monster.
In the most popular ballet version of the tragedy, created by Kenneth MacMillan and performed by companies all over the world, this scene is one of the most exciting, both for the choreography and the music. It’s full of dazzling swordfighting and Prokofiev’s racing, even jaunty, strings. But when Romeo’s mad blood stirs, and his sword pierces Tybalt’s body, the music turns suddenly grim. The drums sound a death-knell; the brass shrieks. This crime of passion is the story’s turning point.
“These violent delights have violent ends,” Friar Lawrence had warned Romeo. “. . . Therefore, love moderately.”
Good advice. Of course, the young man ignored it, and others paid dearly. But in the end, who can blame him? In the long view of art, moderate love leaves no trace.
And the band played on
The searing heat of summer is as much a character as a cause in “The Great Gatsby.” The heavy temperature dogs the well-heeled friends who hang around uneasily together on Long Island for those few fateful months of 1922 in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. And it surely helped ignite the final tragedy.
It was early September when the crime of passion happened — when George Wilson, the gruff workingman who mistakenly thinks Gatsby was driving the car that killed his wife, shoots the unsuspecting dreamer one hot afternoon as he floated on a raft in his swimming pool. Then Wilson kills himself, and as the novel’s narrator and Gatsby’s friend Nick tells us, “the holocaust was complete.”
This ghastly act marked the finest moment in the colorful, swinging ballet version of “The Great Gatsby” that Septime Webre created for the Washington Ballet in 2010. A live jazz band gave the whole evening verve and swooning emotional appeal, while the dancing was a whirl of Charlestons and fisticuffs.
Gatsby’s death shifted the ballet into the realm of Greek tragedy. Even though you knew it was coming, the startling suddenness of his murder took your breath away. Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” echoed hauntingly, and Jared Nelson, a willing prisoner of love to the very end, spun Gatsby’s last breaths into a solo as heartbreaking as it was rigorously unadorned.
Women with axes to grind
Speaking of Greek tragedy, Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon is one of the ur-crimes of passion. And wouldn’t you know, our own goddess of modern dance, Martha Graham, made a dance about her.
Clytemnestra had an understandable beef against her husband, the Mycenaean king who led the Trojan War. He’d sacrificed their daughter so the gods would send wind for the sailing ships. Then, when he returned home after the war, after overseeing a campaign of lavish raping and pillaging, he brought company: a beautiful mistress. To share the house with Clytemnestra!
Makes your blood boil just to think about, doesn’t it? It did hers, and according to the great classical play by Aeschylus, she made short work of the lout.
With an ax.
(No wonder the bloody crimes that Lizzie Borden stood accused of rang all kinds of bells for her era, and they do for ours, too.)
When she unveiled her dance-drama “Clytemnestra” in 1958, Graham danced the leading role herself. She was 64, and despite arthritis and limited mobility, she was said to have been entrancing. She danced the role for years. It was especially dear to her, for in telling the queen’s story of choosing rage over duty, she was, in effect, justifying her own history. She, too, chose passion —art — over society’s conventional expectations for a woman.
“Clytemnestra” was groundbreaking: at more than two hours long, it was a full-evening work of modern dance, and one of the first. It was also Graham’s single biggest undertaking. Her company performed a magnificent revival of it at the Kennedy Center in 2008, giving audiences a total immersion in Graham’s highly physical language. The dancing ranged from splayed-out expansiveness to tense, sucked-in constriction. With sets by sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Graham’s minimalist costume design in a strong palette of black, white, red and gold, “Clytemnestra” represented a peak of mid-century modernism.
But we are left to ponder: Was Clytemnestra’s crime justified?
Maybe yes, maybe no. It’s the mix of poignancy and evil that makes misdeeds of the heart so fascinating. But at the end of the day, Agamemnon still lies dead in his bath.
Francesca da Rimini and her lover and brother-in-law, Paolo, are featured in “The Divine Comedy” and “The Kiss.” (Pierre Mornet for The Washington Post)
Tale of love and murder inspired Dante, Rodin and two composersBy Anne Midgette
Crimes of passion: In the humid, sweat-stained nights of summer, they’re the stuff of our beach house reading, our movie-watching, our outdoor stages under the probing, bug-flecked spotlights. They intertwine love and death — endlessly fascinating, endlessly seductive — and throw in mitigating circumstances to awaken not only our horror but our sympathy. Who doesn’t understand how the intense heartbreak of betrayal could lead people to murder, or dream, sometimes, of losing themselves in the embraces of a gorgeous soul mate, spouse or no spouse? The appeal is part voyeurism, part wish fulfillment. Opera, in particular, profits: without crimes of passion, the standard repertory would be slender indeed.
True crimes are particularly gripping — though is anything “true” after an operatic librettist has gotten done with it? Dig far enough back in history and it’s hard to remember any longer what’s true and what’s not. Take Francesca da Rimini, a 13th-century Italian noblewoman who was unlucky in marriage, doomed in love, and fortunate in her choice of chroniclers. What really happened, as far as we know it, is that she, subjected to a political marriage with an unattractive man, started a lengthy affair with his better-looking (and also married) younger brother. The wronged husband eventually caught and killed them both. Dante, in his “Divine Comedy,” placed the doomed lovers in the second circle of hell, battered by wailing winds and intertwined for all eternity, and he created such a compelling portrait of undying love that Paolo and Francesca went down in Western cultural history as one of the great icons of romantic love. They have inspired symphonic tone poems by Tchaikovsky and others, paintings by artists such as everyone from Botticelli to Ingres to Dante Gabriel Rosetti, no fewer than three sculptures by Rodin, including his famous “The Kiss” — and more than 18 operas.
Writing an opera about adultery, in this context, involves a great bait-and-switch, because while adultery was once a crime, love is not. Love, in fact, is supreme in Western culture: we are told that it is synonymous with God, that it conquers all, that it has its own laws, and that in its pure form it is one of the greatest things to which man can aspire. So a story about two adulterers can at once titillate and uplift: the passion outweighs the crime. Paolo and Francesca’s love extends beyond the grave, and when Dante, as protagonist of his poem, encounters them, he is so overwhelmed by pity and sympathy that he falls down in a faint. Artists ever since have been making various cases, in their works, for Paolo and Francesca’s exoneration — to the point that the sin itself, the actual act of consummation, is almost entirely glossed over.
It is, in fact, a literary seduction. The key moment, as Dante recounts it, came when the pair were reading, together, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and, overcome by the romance of the story, emulated it. Francesca, in her retelling, castigates the guilty book as a “Galeotto,” an Italianization of Galehaut, the knight who enabled Lancelot and Guinevere to meet: the book was responsible for their downfall. It’s a significant moment in Western literature, acknowledging the power of a text to lead the reader to good or ill — demonstrating, in short, the potent and dangerous link between literature and reality. That fat beach book on the towel beside you can be a portal to all kinds of trouble. Isn’t that just what we want, what we secretly hope for? Even Dante’s immediate successors didn’t think that this kind of power was necessarily a bad thing. A few decades after the “Divine Comedy,” Giovanni Boccaccio gave his “Decameron” the secondary title “Prince Galehaut”; his book, known for its licentiousness, was supposed to enable the very kinds of behavior that brought about Paolo and Francesca’s downfall.
At the same time, if all Paolo and Francesca did was read together — however juicy the implications of Francesca’s concluding line in Dante, “That day, we read no further” — there is a sense of chastity to their story. Rodin’s “The Kiss” is perhaps the epitome of the story’s implicit blend of sensuality and purity; the sculpture is at once a visceral, powerful presentation of physical love and, it’s sometimes said, an image of coitus interruptus, since the couple’s lips are not touching (the book is still clutched in the man’s hand).
And this lingering question, the drawn curtain, the trace of unfulfillment is one reason this story is ideally suited for opera. Opera is better at yearning than consummation; its lovers are often doomed (though there are plenty of counterexamples to each claim). One of the greatest love stories in opera, “Tristan und Isolde,” is similarly unconsummated, at least onstage, though it’s been argued that the lovers could have been snatching stolen meetings for some time by the time they get to their great interrupted love duet in Act II.
Opera is also fond of defending the honor of its heroines. Many of the operatic treatments of Francesca’s story embrace the claim, begun by Boccaccio only a few decades after the fact, that Francesca was effectively tricked into marriage by being presented with Paolo in the guise of her future husband, only to have his brother revealed in his stead at the wedding. This angle features in the one-act “Francesca da Rimini” opera by Rachmaninoff as well as the “Francesca da Rimini” by Zandonai, the only Francesca opera to retain a foothold in the standard repertory (the Metropolitan Opera did it as recently as 2013). Historically inaccurate it may be, but it underlines the case for Francesca as victim rather than perpetrator.
And she was, of course, the victim — the victim of a murder. Dante leaves no question about which is the worse crime; Francesca’s killer will be found, he’s told, not in the second but in the ninth circle of Hell, at the very bottom of the moral totem pole. Dante’s universe didn’t allow for moral ambiguity. Not so, of course, the morally dubious world of art, which is filled with accidental and repentant murderers. Even history offers a few — like the wildly eccentric Gesualdo di Venosa, a 17th-century nobleman and composer who surprised and killed his adulterous wife and her lover. In 1993, Gesualdo became the subject of an opera by Alfred Schnittke. In the wake of all the attention showered on Paolo and Francesca in the 19th and early 20th centuries by artists celebrating the power of their work to incite love, can an opera about Francesca’s husband be far behind?
The rape and suicide of Lucretia, depicted here by Pierre Mornet, was a foundational story of the Roman Republic and a lasting tale of titillation retold for the morbid pleasure of listeners well into the last century. (Pierre Mornet for The Washington Post)
For ages, artists have been drawn to rape of LucretiaBy Philip Kennicott
We wouldn’t call it a crime of passion, but an act of violent misogyny. Yet Livy, in his “History of Rome,” specifically mentions lust as the proximate cause of Lucretia’s death: “Lucretia’s beauty, and proven chastity, kindled in Sextus Tarquinius the flame of lust, and determined him to debauch her.” Tarquinius rapes her, and then, from an excess of shame and commitment to honor, she stabs herself.
The story has been retold countless times since, turned into poetry (by Ovid and Shakespeare), set to music (Benjamin Britten wrote a dark, tormented opera on the subject), analyzed from the theological and philosophical perspective (St. Augustine devotes several pages of “The City of God” to the narrative) and, of course, painted (by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rembrandt and many others). It was both a foundational story of the Roman Republic and a lasting tale of titillation retold for the morbid pleasure of listeners well into the last century.
Livy’s version begins like the opening to a trivial bedroom farce: Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, boasts to his colleagues in the Roman army that his wife is the most chaste of all; so together they set off to spy on their women, and discover that indeed she is the only one who sits at home spinning cloth among her maids. Her beauty, her chastity, and likely the shame of losing a bet, sparks rage in Tarquinius, son of the last of the legendary kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud.
The rape — the dishevelment of dress, the flowing hair, the stark contrast between brawny arms and white flesh — is what most painters depict, though not Gentileschi or Rembrandt. One might assume that Gentileschi, as a woman, avoided the violence of the scene to concentrate on the pathos of Lucretia’s suicide. But so, too, did Rembrandt, and the result is a deeply disturbing painting (on view at the National Gallery of Art) that captures something much darker and disturbing than a woman about to stab herself.
Lucretia’s unnecessary suicide has troubled readers for millennia: She was the innocent victim of violence, so why does she kill herself? Livy explains: “Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve.” So she punishes herself lest adulterous women cite her as an example to justify their cheating.
Rembrandt captures the moment of her death, dagger held out, head turned to the side, eyes half shut. But the hands tell a complicated story: One resolutely grasps the dagger, the other is held open, in a pose of futile resistance. And they are very sturdy hands for a woman with a face as young as the Lucretia in this image. Rembrandt’s Lucretia kills herself with the hands of a man.
Which makes visual the ugly truth of the story: Her suicide is a final act of male violence, for which she is the sadly dutiful proxy. Augustine was disturbed by the suicide as well but couldn’t help taking his own violent stab at her even as he stoutly defended her honor. “Being a Roman with a passion for praise, she was afraid that, if she lived, men might think she did willingly what she had endured by violence.” She was sinned upon but, in an excess of pride over her chastity, she sinned in her suicide. By upholding the strictures of Roman honor, she ran afoul of Christian ideology.
Violence against women was essential to the Roman identity and has filtered down through the ages in the many societies that trace their roots to ancient Rome. The Rape of the Sabine Women (another vastly popular subject for Renaissance painting) helped the nascent Roman state grow its population and extend its reach. Outrage over the treatment of Lucretia led directly to the end of the Tarquin kings. Later, in 449, an abusive member of the Decemvirs — a council of 10 men given near dictatorial powers during a period of crisis — attempted to use the force of government to steal a man’s daughter and force her into sexual servitude. Her father, Verginius, kills her rather than let her “honor” be betrayed. His murder of his own daughter was deemed a spectacularly honorable act of self-sacrifice, and like the outrage over Lucretia’s rape, it led to the downfall of the government.
Violence against women is the first and most primal form of government, the subjection of the vulnerable other. Rome couldn’t seem to locate its conscience without appeal to this primordial abuse of power. Ideas like “honor” and “chastity” were a cover lie for men’s sense of possession, and a convenient way to abuse women who asserted any kind of sexual or personal independence. The hypocrisy has reeked for centuries, and even the subtlest of intellects, including Augustine, couldn’t unmask its contradictions without adding to them.
Did Rembrandt do any better? He shifted attention away from the cheap, sexual aspect of the story. He compels as much sympathy for the victim as any painter before or since. And perhaps those hands in some way indicate that he understood the story couldn’t be told without making men the responsible parties, the only real agents in this ugly tale of a young woman caught in a world of violence, lies and subjugation.