About eight years ago, I taught a course,” Steiner says, and there begins the real tale.

It was one of those Major Works of Western Literature survey courses, and it included The Canterbury Tales. Steiner’s field is 20th-century literature and art, and she hadn’t read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” since graduate school. But the story grabbed her and wouldn’t let go.

“I was astonished,” she says. “It could have been written yesterday, except that it’s in Middle English.”

The premise is indeed timeless: A knight rapes a maiden, and is condemned to death—unless he can find the answer to the question: What do women want most? After many twists, turns, and digressions—and with a big assist from an old, “loothly” lady—the knight arrives at the answer: What women want is sovereignty, or mastery, in marriage. But to repay her for her assistance, the loathly lady demands that he marry her. When the horrified knight tries to wriggle out, she tells him he has a choice: He can take her as his ugly but faithful wife, or he can have a young and beautiful wife—who is not likely to be faithful. Having finally learned something from his trials, he tells the loathly lady that she can make the choice for him—which pleases her so much that she becomes young, beautiful, and faithful, and they live happily ever after.

“It’s one of those brilliant, steel-trap plot structures,” says Steiner. “But it’s also so perceptive about issues that have to do with women that it wouldn’t leave me.”

As she thought about it, she kept imagining what the story would be like if the knight had had the chance to talk to Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen’s Emma, or Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or any number of other great female characters.

“Then I remembered what Freud had said late in life: ‘I’ve been studying women all my life, and I still don’t know a thing about them,’” Steiner says. “So I thought the knight could run into Freud, too.”

She began to write—feverishly, in her spare time. Within a few months, her idea had evolved from a “ridiculous preoccupation” into a “very gratifying, pleasurable experience with words,” she says. “It became a combination of personal psychotherapy and crossword puzzle.”

While she did not employ the Middle English of Chaucer, she believes that the flavor of her libretto is still “very Chaucerian.” Not quite as earthy as your average Canterbury Tale, maybe, but certainly bursting with Chaucerian style and humor—not to mention the old poet’s wisdom regarding the sexes.

“I think it’s a dynamite plot,” says Steiner, “but at the same time, phrases of his like mastery in marriage—how do you actually translate that into modern terms?” The trick was knowing when to be faithful, so to speak, and when to be … not.

The solution to a larger question came to her like a “series of jokes,” she recalls. “For example, when I was thinking of who the knight could run into, I was certain he should run into Virginia Woolf, and what did Woolf write? A Room of One’s Own. And as soon as I thought that, it occurred to me that Eliza Doolittle had said, ‘I want a room somewhere,’ and for some reason I had to go to the ‘Lady of Shalott’—Tennyson’s poem—and I thought, ‘Well, she could want a room with a view, because she’s not allowed to look out the window.’ A lot of verbal accidents created it.”

But for all the updates and verbal acrostics that went into the libretto, the tale she was adapting also had a powerful resonance for Steiner.

“I completely identified with everything in here,” she says with a laugh. “Being an academic, for a woman, is a very special sort of thing, though I suppose any career for a woman is a special thing. As a literature professor, you’re constantly dealing with very thoughtful pieces of writing that consider the human condition, and many of them, especially feminist texts, consider the condition of women. So you’re always talking about this and mulling it over and thinking, ‘What do people do?’

“But in my own life, I have two children whom I’ve raised, and I’ve had a career, and I’ve always written. Usually it’s been academic writing, but more and more recently it’s been outside that. So there are different compartments of one’s life. And if you start thinking about what you want as a woman in life, I mean, what don’t you want?”

As she mulled those sometimes-competing desires, an idea occurred to her: “assign a different desire to each character, and have that character engage with the Knight, who is my professional naysayer.” For example, “Titania wants most to have a child, so I could put in her mouth all my thoughts about wanting to have children and why it’s such a wonderful thing, and on the other hand I could have Oberon explain why men are not always too happy when women have children, and so on.” After all, she says, “why should women have everything they want and a man not have anything he wants?”

A devotee of both opera and Stephen Sondheim-style musical theater, Steiner wrote her tale as an operatic libretto. But she also knew her limitations—and those of her medium.

After all, the usual sequence for an opera or musical is for a composer to write the music first—then the librettist gets to work, and finally a designer.

“Imagine writing this and having words come into your head without any sense of what a composer would think of this, or who a composer would be or how to get to it,” she says. “I had music in my head, but it was extremely primitive.”

It also dawned on Steiner that even with the right composer and the perfect score, there was a distinct possibility that the most she could hope for was for her opera to be performed once or twice—then never be seen or heard again. But if she could make it as a film—an animated film in particular—“you could really have a performance forever,” she thought. And “nothing could be more like animation than opera,” which is “full of supernatural creatures and magic and all sorts of things that happen in animation.”

Steiner sent the libretto to her friend John Kindness, a “wonderful artist” (now living in London) who had exhibited at the ICA. He wrote back saying that he would love to do the artwork.

“What I really liked in the libretto was that blend of cleverness and silliness, and the period language peppered with modern wisecracks,” says Kindness in an e-mail interview. “But in practical terms, with regard to the idea of a full-length animated opera—I knew she wasn’t rich, so I guessed she must have gone crazy.”

Not only did Kindness produce some delectable images of the various characters and some backgrounds; he also created storyboards to suggest how the images and scenes might flow. But it wasn’t always easy.

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