Hadrian – the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar and the opera by Rufus Wainwright

Near the beginning of Marguerite Yourcenar’s exquisite novel Memoirs of Hadrian, the aged Emperor writing his memoir observes that:

I was at twenty much what I am today, but not consistently so.

Near the end of the novel, these words are spoken by the dying Emperor:

I sometimes think that through the crevices I see and touch upon the indestructible foundation, the rock eternal. I am what I always was; I am dying without essential change.

Hadrian spent a lifetime seeking to understand the dynamics of the body politic, rising through the ranks of the Roman militia, distinguishing himself in foreign campaigns, being bequeathed the mantel of Emperor by his predecessor Trajan, ushering in an era of stability for the Roman empire, constructing major public works in Rome, Athens, Alexandria, and beyond, executing a few notably savage campaigns, fostering the arts, revitalizing appreciation among his fellow Romans for the riches of the earlier Greek culture, falling deeply in love with young Antinous only to lose him in the murky waters of the Nile, and preparing a succession plan for the youthful Marcus Aurelius to become Emperor after a mentorship by Antoninus Pius.

And yet, with such a full life, he maintained that he was essentially the same person when dying as he had been as a youth.

Is that true of all of us?

Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is full of life and is full of dying. Much of the novel chronicles the major events of Hadrian’s life with the richness lying in his personal, sociological, political, spiritual, and philosophical reflections on those events. The core of the novel, however, is Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous and his grief at the premature death of his young lover. So death predominates, both that of Antinous and Hadrian’s own anticipated ending. Hadrian grieves profoundly, far more for the former than the latter. Yourcenar’s intense depiction of Hadrian’s mourning resonates authentically with my own:

That death would be in vain if I lacked the courage to look straight at it …

Most historians credit Marguerite Yourcenar with having produced an account of Hadrian’s life that is faithful to the historical record. Memoirs of Hadrian is not written as biography. Rather, as the title suggests, it is an autobiographical narrative written in the first person. First published in French in 1951 with the English translation appearing in 1954, Yourcenar was writing brilliant historical fiction sixty years before Hilary Mantel’s similarly engaging Thomas Cromwell series, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Both writers have the capacity to draw us into the souls of the principal characters living centuries ago enabling us to see their life and times through their eyes.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian to compose an opera. Entitled simply Hadrian, it received its world premier in Toronto in the fall of 2018 produced by the Canadian Opera Company. I saw it at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on October 17th. Like the novel, the core of the opera is the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous and the consequences for Hadrian of his lover’s death. I had a few reservations about the opera and how it was directed but they were minor compared to my enthusiasm for it.

I posted on Facebook that evening:

I’m thoroughly enraptured tonight experiencing Rufus Wainwright’s new opera “Hadrian” with lyrics by Daniel McIvor and directed by Peter Hinton – intense lyricism, lush orchestration, dramatically-drawn characters, powerful singing and acting. Rufus’s inspiration to write the opera was his reading of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel “The Memoirs of Hadrian” twenty years ago. 

The process of artistic creation fascinates me — how Marguerite Yourcenar was able to bring to life the loving and tragic relationship of Hadrian and Antinous from 1900 years ago in a novel that I luxuriated in reading and how Rufus Wainwright was able to transform the story into dramatic symphonic and operatic music that I relished experiencing on stage.

* * *

For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

Hadrian

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