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Martha

Wednesday, October 14, 2009; 03:29 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Martha, referenced thus far in episodes 7 and 11 of Ulysses, is a four act opera by German-born Friedrich von Flotow based on a French ballet, first produced in Vienna, and set in Richmond, England. This international milieu is supplemented later on by the additions of the play’s two most famous arias: “M’Appari” during its first production in Paris and Thomas Moore’s Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer.”

Martha tells the story of a sheltered/shut-in noblewoman Harriet, her brief attempt to escape noble life, and the results this has on the locals and nobles. Flotow’s music is described as incredibly powerful and forbidding, especially the overture, yet everything ends happily enough.

Act 1 – Desperately bored with court life and riches (“pleasures come so easily they lack zest”) and unimpressed by her many suitors, she presses her maid Nancy and her most persistent suitor Sir Tristan into posing as country folk at the local fair. Posing as Martha, Julia, and Bob respectively, the three unwittingly entangle themselves in the fair’s tradition of auctioning off serving maids from the surrounding country. Before Bob (or the women) can stop events, “Martha” and “Julia” sign to a year’s contract with farmer Plunkett and his foster brother Lionel (who comes from a mysterious past).

Act 2 – Choosing to keep their identity secret to preserve their dignity, the women are asked by the brothers to perform basic household chores, proving inept (the men end up doing the chores). Despite this, love blooms between Julia-Plunkett, while Harriet/Martha (unsuccessfully) attempts to divert Lionel’s adoration by singing “The Last Rose of Summer.”

Act 3 – The women flee the farmhouse with the aid of Sir Tristan, returning to their former lives, yet now, instead of boredom, they are depressed. During a hunting trip they run into a similarly depressed Lionel, who recognizes Harriet for Martha, only to be locked up for a madman when he protests the trick played upon him and his brother. (M’appari – “Like a dream” – is sung during this act.)

Act 4 – Plunkett produces evidence of Lionel’s noble birth, setting his foster brother free with honors and titles. Lionel, however, has gone mad with depression at the loss of his “Martha.” Harriet, for her part, is lost and dejected. Nancy and Plunkett reunite the two at a “mock” fair, with a song; happiness.

Immediate connections occur between Martha and Ulysses. The overarching picture of a secluded/imprisoned female with many suitors draws parallels, though the twists in Martha, at least, illustrate the female’s love-hate relationship with that role and her own wandering loss/apathy. Martha is told primarily from the female’s point of view; Ulysses is almost claustrophobic in its avoidance of that perspective. The international background of the play and the idea of an Irish song that saves the heroes bears watching. At the beginning of episode 7, Bloom’s ruminations weave together Molly, Mary, Martha, Jesus, opera, song, Judaism, loss, and wanderings in the space of a few lines. In episode 11, the “M’Appari” song interjects thoughts of Molly in Bloom, who identifies, at the end, as Lionel – the disillusioned and betrayed wanderer – and Simon Dedalus, the singer, an Irishman. Complications with the Martha of Henry Flower’s correspondence or merely a jumping off point?

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