More about Mary Shelley's two brief plays--her "mythological dramas."
Well, if you know the story of Proserpine (Persephone), you know things don’t go too well for her. In Mary’s Proserpine we learn that Pluto, “the King of Hell” (not the Disney dog), has abducted her and, in a “black car” (carriage—not a Porsche: don’t get excited), swept her off to the underworld. Poor distraught Ceres gets some help from Jove—but her daughter can return to the upper world (this one) only if she’s not eaten any food down there.
Oops. She had some pomegranate seeds. So for that trifling offense she can spend only six months each year with Mom, six with Pluto. And Ceres cries at the end—the play’s final line: He seizes half the Earth when he takes thee.
When I read the play back on July 21, 1997, I wrote in my journal just this phrase: some moving lines and moments. Not very helpful right now, nearly twenty years later—but as I’ve skimmed over it again, I do concur with that long-ago judgment. Still, I remember being surprised, much later, when I read that Mary had perhaps intended these two plays for a younger audience. Seems kind of scary, doesn’t it? Pluto whisking a young girl away, forcing her to live in the underworld (and what else he demanded of her we do not learn—and could not learn in a play from 1820 or so). All for some pomegranate seeds—the Food Violation something she’d not been aware of while she was Down There.
I see in my notes that I read Mary’s second “mythological drama,” Midas, A Drama in Two Acts, on the same day. (In Clemit’s scholarly edition, Proserpine is only eighteen pages of text; Midas, the same.) And I said not a word in my journal about Midas—other than to note that I finished it. Written in the same flurry of work in Pisa, Midas, I recall, I enjoyed quite a bit—and even considered recommending it to the theater department at Western Reserve Academy later on. (But I didn’t—I don’t think.)
In Act I, Midas—not yet he of fabled wealth—stumbles across a singing contest between Pan and Apollo (happens all the time, you know?). They ask Midas to judge; he does; he picks Pan; Apollo, annoyed, judges the judge. … thy punishment shall be / But as a symbol of thy blunted sense. / Have asses’ ears! and thus to the whole world / Wear thou the marks of what thou art ….
That’s not good, as Bottom the Weaver would discover, oh, a couple of thousand years later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mary, of course, knew that play from the mid-1590s (she loved Shakespeare), and when she decided to include the ears-of-an-ass story in her Midas, she must have issued one of her smiles—a rare look for her in those Italian days of grief and loss.
|Midas with the ears of an ass.|