The Rape of Lucretia: An Ancient Tale of Tragic Abuse of Power

Then again, perhaps not so ancient. Written by Nathan Durkin

A power struggle. A lost bet. Jealousy. Desire. Lust. All culminating into the assault of an innocent young woman, leading to her suicide. The story of the fall of the Etruscan kings of Rome centers around young Lucretia, using her as a pawn in a struggle for power. On Thursday, I saw this story, one I was familiar with, performed in opera form at Krannart Center for the Performing Arts.

I took 4 years of Latin in high school, and from that am familiar with the story of the Rape of Lucretia. A group of Roman Soldiers had a bet where they ran home to check on their wives. All of their wives were found to be unfaithful save one: Lucretia, wife of Collatinus. Young, foolish, lustful, and fearful of the prestige this brought to Collatinus, Tarquinius Sextus, youngest son of Tarquinius Superbus (the 7th Etruscan king of Rome), took it upon himself to ruin the faithful Lucretia by sneaking off to her house in the middle of the night and raping her. Filled with shame at being violated, Lucretia killed herself, becoming a martyr for the overthrowing of the Etruscan kings, and the rise of the Roman Republic.

My ticket for The Rape of Lucretia at Krannart Center for the Performing Arts
Taken by Nathan Durkin on 2/21/2019

Knowing the story already, I was excited to see a performance of it at Krannart. I hadn’t seen an opera prior to this one, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Overall, I thought that it was a very good performance. The singing was stunningly beautiful – the musicality of the performance was easily my favorite part. Looking at it as a form of music, of art, I think it was amazing. However, the one part that I felt was really lacking – and the one part I was looking forward to most going into it knowing the story – was how the story was told. For me, it just didn’t work as a way to show the story. The singing, while beautiful, was not always coherent. To help with this, there were subtitles on a display above the performance. However, my eyes hurt throughout most of the performance because I kept having to look up at the words and then back down at the performance. I would’ve much rather been able to understand what they were singing in the first place. Overall, while I feel like it was beautiful for what it was, I think it would’ve worked much better as a musical. The elements of the opera were just too distracting and cumbersome as an audience member for me to feel the full experience. I feel like a play or a musical would’ve done a better job at storytelling, though then that likely takes away from the beauty of the music. I suppose it’s just a stylistic difference, story versus musicality, but as someone who was looking forward to the storytelling elements, it really just didn’t work for me.

A picture of the stage, with the caption display shown above. From where I sat, it was impossible to watch the story and the captions simultaneously, and it was hard to keep flickering my eyes up and down.
Taken by Nathan Durkin on 2/21/2019

In spite of the difficulties in following it, however, the story itself is still an interesting one. Stories like this happen throughout history, even today. An innocent person taken advantage of for personal, political, or other gain happens too often. Today, it’s all too common on the news to find very similar stories of people abusing a position of power for similar gains. The backlash against the people accused is similar as well. Just as Lucretia became a martyr for the Romans to overthrow the Etruscan kings, the victims of these attacks are often martyrs against the people in power. It’s really amazing, looking at it, how people from thousands of years ago dealt with the exact same power abuses and responses then. Seeing this story, thinking about it in a modern context, it makes me wonder whether humanity ever grows and changes at all. Our technologies stay the same, but as a species it seems we haven’t been able to deal with flaws that have been around for thousands of years.

A picture of my program. A famous tale sadly echoed in current events.
Taken on 2/21/2019 by Nathan Durkin

It’s an extremely troubling story that has too many parallels to our world today for my comfort. If you have the opportunity, I would find a way to see this story performed. Perhaps not as an opera – while beautiful, it is much harder to follow than a play or musical would be – but in some form, go see it. It’s disturbing, but it is well worth the experience to see an ancient story that echoes the modern era.

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