Mystic Bison Theatre & DanceTM


The California Premiere of
Ariel Dorfman


    Some literary and historical background enhances the enjoyment of Ariel Dorfman's play Purgatorio.  In some sense, Dorfman has implanted Jason (of the Argonauts) and Medea in a story reminiscent of part of Dante' Purgatorio and a place resembling a penitentiary, a sanitarium, or the afterlife.

A. Dante's Divine Comedy
    Although we have seen almost no reference to it in discussions of the World Premiere, the play clearly is related to Dante's Purgatorio.  However, the analogy is imprecise.  Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy or Comedia is widely considered the greatest epic poem of the Middle Ages and one of the most influential fictional works in recorded Western History.  It was also the first major work in Italian versus the traditional Latin of Rome. Although grounded in religion and a fictional work, Dante made concrete reference to contemporary political and religious figures as well as historical and fictional figures from the past.   Written circa 1300, it was an allegorical journey of Dante himself led by the dead Roman/Latin poet Virgil, appointed as Dante's guide by Beatrice, the great love of Dante's life, through the three realms of afterlife: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  Here is a rough outline of the journey and the afterlife envisioned by Dante in The Divine Comedy

    1. Inferno
    Dante and Virgil descend from the Earth's surface down into the eight inner circles of Inferno or Hell.  In Upper Hell were the first six inner circles. The first five made up the Sins of the Appetites: 1-limbo, 2-lustful, 3-gluttonous, 4-hoarders, 5-wrathful.  Crossing the River Styx (Hateful River), they encounter the City of Dis (Devil) where the violent were punished.  The two levels here were: 6-heretics, 7-violence. Level 7 itself  had 3 rings - 1) murderers, tyrants 2) suicides 3) those who committed violence against nature & god. The 8th level below the Earth's surface consisted of various "malbowges" with various levels of "bowges" for those who committed fraud, panderers & seducers, flatterers, simoniacs who stole from the church, sorcerers, beraters, thieves, fraud, sowers of discord, falsifiers. and various traitors: to kindred, to country, to guests, and to lords.  At the very bottom of Hell at the Center of the Earth resided the Devil trapped in the ice of the River Cocytus frozen by the beating of Lucifer's wings.   In this complicated classification of sin, sins of incontinence were those of passions that could not be contained while sins of malice involved intellect or a perversion of reason for the purpose of injuring others.

    2. Purgatorio
    After descending through Hell, Dante and Virgil ascended toward Purgatory eventually emerging in Paradiso on Easter Sunday. The journey through Purgatorio begins in Ante-Purgatory.  On the 1st terrace of Ante-Purgatory were last minute repenters who waited 30 years for each earthly year before entering Purgatory. On the 2nd terrace they waited their own lifetime. There Dante and Virgil found 1) the indolent who postponed confession until just before death, 2) the unshriven-the ones who died a violent death who did not have chance to repent, and 3) the preoccupied who were too busy with wordly affairs.

    Those journeying through Purgatory proper proceeded through stages of confession, contrition, and satisfaction.  Souls in Purgatory were guaranteed a place in Heaven.  Generally, the punishments in Purgatory were the  opposite of the sins committed in life.  For example, it is where the slothful were driven to constant motion and the envious had their eyes sewn shut.

    As with the Inferno, Purgatorio had a hierarchy.  At the shores of Purgatory, Dante met the excommunicated and the late repentant: the apathetic, the unabsolved from violent death, and the negligent.  On his journey through Purgatory upward to Paradise, Dante encountered those guilty of committing the seven mortal or deadly sins: the proud, the envious, the angry, the slothful, the avaricious, the gluttonous, and the sexually promiscuous.  (These seven sins were the backdrop for the 1990's film Seven starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow.)  After meeting with the Angel Chastity and passing through flames, Dante left Virgil behind and was reunited with Beatrice in the Garden of Eden.

    Dante himself fell in love with Beatrice early in life.  Both he and Beatrice married others.  However, she was the subject of his poetry until her death in her 20's.  Dante was plagued by grief over her death thereafter and remained an inspiration for his literary works.

    3. Paradiso

    Paradiso had nine levels through which Dante and Beatrice passed.  The first seven levels were: faith blemished by inconstancy, hope marred by ambition, love spoiled by lust, wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.  Eighth heaven included faith, hope, and love. At ninth heaven, time, space, and nature begin. Ninth heaven is beyond space, time, and matter.

B. Jason & Medea
   In addition to Dante's work, Ariel Dorfman's play Purgatorio clearly borrows character types from Greek mythology although the analogy is again imprecise and literally inserting these characters into Dante's Purgatorio may not quite make sense.  The myth of Jason and Medea more or less originates with Euripides' Medea but is probably most familiar to present day Americans through the innovative 1960's special effects film Jason and the Argonauts.  Jason sailed on a very long, arduous, and time-consuming voyage from Thessaly in Ancient Greece to Colchis to obtain the Golden Fleece to ensure prosperity for Greece.  At Colchis he met the priestess and sorceress Medea who betrayed her people to help him steal the Golden Fleece from Colchis.  She bore Jason two children.  Upon their return to Greece, Jason became betrothed to a Greek princess.  As revenge, Medea murdered their children.

C. The New World
    Although the Man and Woman in Ariel Dorfman's Purgatorio clearly resemble Jason and Medea, the story of a male conqueror falling in love with, befriending, or enslaving a female native who helped him conquer the land is a common historical theme in the European conquest of the New World inhabited by Native Americans.  One is reminded of Cortes and Dona Marina (La Malinche) in Mexico circa 1520, John Smith and Pocahontas in the Virginia Colony circa 1607, and Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacajawea's who accompanied Lewis & Clark on their Northwest Expedition circa 1804.

D. Penitentiaries
    The concept of penance was pervasive in early American history.  In the 1790's the Quakers of Pennsylvania introduced the concept of a penitentiary.  It was a place where the guilty would meditate upon their crimes in solitude and eventually repent their sins.  This contrasted with other punishment approaches involving physical labor or abuse.  The penitentiary idea spread throughout the country and the world but eventually became deplored since its emphasis on solitude seemed to provoke mental illness.  In the Roman Catholic Church the Apostolic Penitentiary is not a prison but a a tribunal concerned with the forgiveness of sins.

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