Love in the Woods: Isabella Andreini’s La Mirtilla
What better way to kick off Amore’s holiday than a pastoral romp of mismatched lovers, gods, satyrs, gluttonous goatherds, wise shepherds, irrepressible longing, romantic rivalry, and the varied dangers of desire? On the eve of Valentine’s Day, we at Diversifying the Classics were fortunate to see a staged reading by L.A. Camerata of Isabella Andreini’s La Mirtilla, a fantastic mixture of the Italian traditions of commedia dell’ arte and commedia erudita, and, for English-speaking audiences, a resonant and familiar predecessor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Andreini—acclaimed actress, singer, poet, playwright, member of the Intenti of Pavia academy, and co-director of the Gelosi theater company—was extraordinarily famous in her native Italy and more broadly across Europe in the late sixteenth century. She was said to have participated in a poetry contest with her friend Torquato Tasso, her character was featured in Revenge without Punishment by Spain’s premier playwright, Lope de Vega, and when she died in France at 42 she was given a state funeral. La Mirtilla, though wearing its erudition proudly, with myriad allusions to Virgil, Ovid, Theocritus, and a slew of other classical texts, was sufficiently popular to go through nine printings between 1588 and 1616.
In this country, however, Andreini remains little known. Julie Campbell’s 2002 translation offers the only English version of La Mirtilla and L.A. Camerata’s staged reading was the first opportunity for English-speaking audiences to see the play. Devoted to telling the stories of women, and weaving together theater and musical compositions by Renaissance female artists, L.A. Camerata has found a fitting voice in Andreini. As Julie Campbell observes in the introduction to her translation, La Mirtilla stages an intervention in the male-driven genre conventions of pastoral. When Filli is threatened by a satyr, for instance, she does not depend on another man to come to the rescue; instead she outwits her would-be rapist, mocks him by tricking him into eating a bitter herb and yanking his beard, and leaves him tied to a tree.
Directed by Marilyn Winkle, the staged reading at the Greenway Court Theater was a delight. Doubling across gender in many of the roles, the fine cast managed to mine the play for all its comic moments. In an especially memorable scene, Mirtilla (Amy K. Harmon) and Filli (Corryn Cummins) seek to prove themselves worthy of Uranio, who, alas, is actually in love with Ardelia, who loves only herself. The women trade songs off verses of love before the sage shepherd Opico (Burt Grinstead), who is hunched and tottering with age and wears a long, white beard. As the rivalry and toughness of Mirtilla and Filli, and the absurdity of desire, come across in every note, a scene which may seem unremarkable on the page becomes one of the highlights of the show.
At the beginning of the play, Amore tells his mother Venus of the mixed-up lovers in the forest: Tirsi loves Mirtilla, who loves Uranio, who loves Ardelia (who loves only herself), who is loved by Iglio, who is loved by Filli. Foretelling the inevitable conclusion to the comedy, Amore explains that he will untangle these threads and ensure the betrothal of three happily matched pairs. The joy of La Mirtilla is not in who ends up with whom or how the plot resolves, but in the marvelous chaos of the tangle. The wandering in the woods is always more interesting than the wedding on the other side. Winkle’s wonderful staged reading of Andreini’s antic inquiry into desire is full of wit, comic hyperbole, and many fine set pieces, yet the final note is clear: love itself is ludicrous. Lord what fools we mortals be, and what laughs the foolishness offers.