Which brings us back to the Learned Dame’s Tale, as you’ve come to call your presumptuous little opera. It opens in the Locust Walk office of the Learned Dame, who looks suspiciously like Dr. Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English. Exhausted from teaching Chaucer in an undergraduate survey course, she falls asleep in her Gothic lair in the Penn Humanities Forum, her blond hair spilling out in esthetic tendrils over her desk, and begins to dream a cast of literary characters.

First is the gap-toothed Wife of Bath, who ambles through the door on a mud-splattered horse crying: “What thyng it is that wommen moost desiren?”

The Learned Dame is agog; she shakes her head and responds in a breathy contralto:

A woman has many desires, an academic dame still more.

If I give voice to yours, good Wife, who next will come               through my door?

The Wife of Bath grins wickedly, and the door again swings open. Through it stride a bevy of women straight out of the pages of literature and myth, all snapping their fingers to the saxophone strains of “Respect”—Guenevere, Emma, Sheherezade, Titania, Woolf, the Lady of Shalott, Eliza Doolittle.

Still snapping their fingers, they form a half-circle behind the Wife of Bath. A neon sign overhead reads:

The Wife of Bath
The Womanly Desires

The Learned Dame gasps delightedly.

My God! These women are entrancing!

They set my pen a-dancing!

Suddenly the music changes to something closer to the wolf music in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and a spotlight illuminates a handsome young knight, wearing a chain-mail vest and an arrogant sneer.

Wife of Bath:

If you would adapt my tale, good Dame,
       then you must make it new,

And to that caddish, raping Knight I’d add some new men, too.

Learned Dame:

You’re right. I need a pair of sages

Whose wisdom represents the ages.

Enter Merlin, who shambles in like a medieval hipster; he is followed by Freud, stroking his beard and muttering, Was will das Weib? (A subtitle flashes: “What does woman want?”)

Learned Dame:

Yes! Merlin could hold the young cad’s feet right to the fire

And Sigmund spent his lifetime trying to understand desire.

Womanly Desires:

But did he figure women out? Did he really get it?

Learned Dame:

A lot about desire he learned. But women? Hah! Forget it!

Wife of Bath:

So what do we women want—if false words we disparage?

Womanly Desires:

That’s easy, Sister, as you know: It’s mastery in marriage!

With that, they break into a big Busby Berkeley-style dance number titled “Mastery in Marriage,” highlighted by the Wife of Bath donning an S & M dominatrix outfit and chasing Freud around the office with a whip.

Learned Dame:

I’ve got a plotline, characters, and pots of inspiration;

Now I must decide what’s the next step in this creation.

I’ll need a great composer who’s at home in different styles

Since ’tween the Wife of Bath and Freud the chasms
       stretch for miles.

To blur my characters’ subtleties would be an act of blindness—

To render them in portraits I will want the hand of Kindness.

Then, we’ll have to make them move—to dance and frown               and swoon;

Josh Mosley’s animation skills will fly them to the moon.

The Learned Dame begins to write furiously, as a calendar on the wall flips through the months.

Learned Dame:

Our pilot’s done; I know it’s good, but still, I’m not quite sated;

What will it take to get my opera up and animated?


The same thing men have fought about since misty days of old:

The root of evil, dream-enabler, precious metal—gold.

Learned Dame (suddenly unable to sing):

Gold? But this is art!


For some art you need money—moolah,
       cabbage, the Big Green:

And you’ll need an awful lot to get your film up
       on the screen.


At that, the Learned Dame wakes up, and her characters vanish in puffs of smoke. She shakes her head and glances at her digital clock, which reads 10:00, and just then there is a knock at the door. A grey-bearded scrivener enters the room and opens his laptop.

“Take it from the top, please,” he says.

The Wife, The Lady, and the Book of Dames
by Samuel Hughes

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/07