Proserpine is a verse drama by Mary Shelley, written in collaboration with Percy Shelley. It is a sort of "pastoral tragedy," centered on the mythological characters of Proserpine and her mother Ceres. It’s the story of Proserpine’s abduction by Pluto and the intervention of Jupiter, Proserpine’s father, who commands Pluto to allow her to return to earth in spring and summer, and to live with her infernal spouse in autumn and winter.
The purpose of the myth was to explain the alternation of seasons. Mary Shelley uses the myth to develop her idea on the ambiguity of feelings (in particular the mother-sibling relationship) and the ambivalence of human beings: she wrote this poem immediately after Frankenstein. As many women after her, she explored the myth of Proserpine (or Persephone or Kore) to speak about the mother-daughter relationship - a true obsession for her.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wolstonecraft, considered the first British “feminist,” who died when Mary was eleven days old, so the writer never met her mother. And Mary Shelley’s personal relation with her own maternity was extremely tormented: she lost three of the children she bore from Percy (a girl and two boys) and only the fourth survived.
Thus, Proserpine is full of subconscious and autobiographical memories transformed by the reinterpretation of the myth. We adapted and abridged the poem, to make it dramaturgically more effective, but without adding anything to the original. We cut the many references to other myths that aren’t involved in the story, but kept the characters mentioned by the author: besides Proserpine and Ceres, the two nymphs Ino and Eunoe, Arethusa, a naiad of a spring, Iris, the gods’ messenger, and Ascalafo, the demon.
The action takes place in two acts: in the first, it’s spring and Ceres entrusts her daughter Proserpine to the nymphs Ino and Eunoe to keep an eye on her, recommending them to never leave her alone, since she might be kidnapped by infernal deities. Ceres must go the Olympus to serve the banquet of the gods. However, the nymphs aren’t cautious, and Proserpine is abducted. When Ceres returns on earth, she can’t find Proserpine and is desperate.
In the second act everyone is shocked by Proserpine’s disappearance. The sadness of Ceres, the maternal deity of earth and fertility, triggers famine and the earth becomes naked, bare, sterile. The flowers wither, the leaves die. Iris arrives announcing the return of Proserpine and reports the verdict of Jupiter. Proserpine has unfortunately eaten seeds of the forbidden fruit, a pomegranate, and therefore cannot come back forever. She can’t spend the whole year on earth but half, and now she is back and reunites with his mother. The demon Ascalafo tries to bring her back to the Underworld, but in vain. The alternation of seasons and the presence/absence of Proserpine on her mother’s side become a real source of happiness, because this is the best way to intensely appreciate every moment of joy and pleasure.
The work is a poetic re-enactment of the myth through the voices of the nymphs, the demon, the deities and the protagonists. The myth of Proserpine has inspired many poetic versions, after Mary Shelley: just to mention a few, those of Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Hilda Doolittle, André Gide, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morisson. Lully based an opera on it, and Stravinsky a ballet, inspired by André Gide’s drama.
The originality, however, of Mary Shelley’s text consists of her melancholy tone of positive resignation with respect to the infernal abduction.
It is a fact that Mary Shelley had a tragic life, made of escapes, deaths, mourning, but also of faith in the poetic force and in the vision of her fantastic imagination.
After the tragic death of Percy Shelley in a shipwreck, she devoted herself entirely to literature and to keep the memory of her brilliant husband alive.
She is remembered above all as the author of Frankenstein, and we thought it was a duty to bring to life her marvelous Proserpine, which is an important work within her substantial literary creations. We conceived this adaptation of Shelley’s poem for the composer Silvia Colasanti, after our Minotaur, based upon Dürrenmatt’s work, and it is part of a trilogy project that aims at revisiting ancient myths as an approach of the subconscious and of human relationships, relatively abstract, with the aerial, expressive and neoclassic music of Colasanti, enriched by unusual rhythms and a rich palette of musical colors.
René de Ceccatty, Giorgio Ferrara