Great Lovers: Romeo and Juliet

On RN Summer this is Great Lovers, and part four of the story romance in the western world. I'm Amanda Smith.

Today it’s a love story from the Renaissance that's become the greatest teenage love story of them all, or as William Shakespeare called it, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Reader: Two households both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.

Jill Levenson: English Renaissance tragedy, to this point, had never before made romantic love its theme. It had dealt with matters of history and matters of legend, but not matters of love. So Romeo and Juliet was a first in that way.

Amanda Smith: That's Jill Levenson. She's the the editor of the Oxford edition of Romeo and Juliet.

Now in the Middle Ages, the best-loved mythic tale of forbidden and tragic love was 'Tristan and Isolde' - and they were the subject of part three, yesterday’s edition of Great Lovers. And if you missed it, it’s on the RN website. On the program list it’s under RN Afternoons.

Well moving form the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the favourite in becomes Romeo and Juliet. Both stories though, contain that mixture of love and death encapsulated in the German word, 'leibestod', according to Jill Levenson.

Jill Levenson: 'Liebestod': that word is ambiguous in German and it's ambiguous in translation from the German. It can mean 'love in death', it can mean 'death in love', it can mean 'love's death'. But what I can tell you, that is clear and straightforward I think, is there's a plot, a sequence of events which defines the liebestod theme. And we have that whole plot enacted in Romeo and Juliet. Basically it's simply that two young lovers face obstacles which are impossible, and they defy the obstacles and try to circumvent the obstacles with secret plans, but they fail, because of accident or because of misjudgement, and in the end, both of them die for love.

Amanda Smith: There's also a paradox there too, isn't there, about the desire for love, or the compulsion for love, becomes a kind of compulsion for death?

Jill Levenson: Yes, absolutely. And at the time that the play was written in the late 16th century, and beyond, there was a connection between those two ideas, because, how can I put this so that it doesn't sound rude? Well, I can't put it in any way that doesn't sound rude. Orgasm was identified with death.

Amanda Smith: As a 'little death'?

Jill Levenson: Yes, exactly. As something which in enough quantity shortened life, so that there was a direct connection between concepts of love and concepts of death.

Amanda Smith: Okay, so Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love at the Capulet's ball. Because Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is a Capulet, and the two families hate each other's guts, the lovers get married in secret. Just after the wedding, the secret wedding, the two feuding factions get into a street brawl. Tybalt (he’s Juliet’s cousin) kills Romeo's friend Mercutio. As a payback Romeo kills Tybalt. And for this, Rome is exiled to Mantua. He and Juliet have just one night to spend together in Verona before he has to leave. They part at dawn. Meanwhile Juliet's parents are arranging a marriage for her, to Lord Paris. Well, for Juliet that’s not going to happen, so she fakes her own death. But Romeo, who’s in Mantua by this time, gets the news that she is dead. What he doesn't get is a letter that would tell him it's a ruse. He races back to Verona, finds Juliet apparently dead in a tomb, and so he kills himself. Then Juliet wakes up, she finds Romeo dead beside her, and she kills herself, this time for real.

It's clearly a tragic story, but Romeo and Juliet is not, as the actor and director John Bell says, a tragedy in the classical dramatic sense.

John Bell: It's more of a sad story, if you like, or an unlucky story, than it is a tragedy. And that's signalled in the Prologue where we talk about 'star-crossed lovers'. It's a story of misfortune and accident, and misunderstandings and bad timing, which in itself is interesting. That's what we call a tragedy every day: someone gets run over by a train or two lovers get killed in an accident, we say 'What a tragedy'. So we still use the word rather loosely because we think it's a dreadful thing, especially if young people, children are killed by some unlucky or unhappy circumstance. But in the classical terminology I suppose, it isn't a tragedy in the sense that his more mature works are.

Amanda Smith: But it is kind of a tragedy of circumstance I suppose.

John Bell: Yes, which some critics would say, well, that isn't as significant as a tragedy of character; bad luck isn't as significant as human action and behaviour that is deliberate.

Amanda Smith: You could say though that the tragic outcome for the lovers, sort of hinges on a bad postal service between Verona and Mantua, and that is the sort of mix-up you're more likely to get in comedy, not tragedy, I would have thought.

John Bell: Absolutely. I think Romeo and Juliet could be a comedy. Until the death of Mercutio, it's full of fun and jokes and a ball scene and young lovers and a balcony in the moonlight. It's got all the romance and fun and jokes. It's got more jokes than any other Shakespeare play I think, and more dirty jokes at that. But suddenly the death of Mercutio turns the whole play around and then it becomes tragic. But until halfway through it could have a happy ending. And audiences are frequently shocked by the ending. I remember schoolkids coming out of Baz Luhrmann's film; the girls were all weeping and saying 'Oh my God, I didn't know it would finish like that.' You know, they wanted the happy ending and thought they were going to get it, because that's how the play starts out.

Amanda Smith: Yes well, it is interesting that, because to me something very strange happens when you're watching Romeo and Juliet. On the one hand you know they're going to die because they love each other, you're told that at the start, and yet also, no matter how many times I've seen Romeo and Juliet, during it I always find myself wishing and hoping that it's all going to turn out all right for them. So it seems to me there's something psychologically very clever about this play. What do you think?

John Bell: Oh yes, there is, because the lovers are quite irresistible. And because they're so young, you have this inbuilt pathos, you want them to survive and come through it. And of course the tragedy really isn't about them, it's about vendetta. It's about their parents and what the older generation has set up. That's the fulcrum for tragedy. If that vendetta didn't exist, and if the two parents could forgive each other, there would be no tragedy. So I think it's got a deeper significance than just bad luck and misfortune, it's really about the nature of vengefulness and unforgiving parents.

Amanda Smith: Is it a big part of the appeal of Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are victims of vengefulness, victims of circumstance, that they are themselves blameless?

John Bell: I think that's true. Just as we find great vicarious pleasure in the love affair of Antony and Cleopatra, I think we find vicarious pleasure in the youth, the romance, the rhapsody of Romeo and Juliet. And we also can identify I suppose. We all feel sometimes we're the victims of circumstance, and that our parents have let us down, or the older generation has stuffed up the world for us. So young people identify very strongly with that, I think. Young people disobeying their parents, at odds with their parents, try to say 'There's a place for us', like in West Side Story which is just another rendition of Romeo and Juliet. That appeal of youth having been betrayed by the older generation has a huge and everlasting appeal.

Amanda Smith: Yes, well you mention West Side Story. And for all the most beautiful words about love that there are in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, there's a very simple line from one of the songs in West Side Story that as you're speaking, keeps coming into my head, and which applies to Romeo and Juliet as well as to Tony and Maria, and the line is 'When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong'. In other words, love is amoral, it's bigger than anything else. Is that a deep-seated view we have about love which is projected in Romeo and Juliet as well as its offshoots like West Side Story?

John Bell: I think therein lies the tragedy, that that's what lovers feel. But of course society can't tolerate that, especially parents, who say 'Well there is right and wrong' and 'You can't do this, and you can't do that'. And youth is always constricted by what is regarded as right or wrong by people who are outside the situation. But for lovers themselves, there's no right or wrong, they're totally on cloud nine, above all that.

Amanda Smith: West Side Story is, as you know, the twentieth century American re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. Do you remember though, that at the end of 'West Side Story' Maria doesn't die, unlike Juliet? But as we'll hear later in this epsiode of Great Lovers here on RN, playing around with Shakespeare's ending to Romeo and Juliet is actually something of a time-honoured tradition.

Well the setting for West Side Story is gritty New York, whereas the original's in fair Verona. And John Bell thinks it's significant that it was an Italian love story that the great English dramatist drew on for his Romeo and Juliet.

John Bell: I think it's very interesting that so many of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy. He wasn't the only writer to do this. Marlowe, Johnson, most of the Elizabethan dramatists, used Italy as a backdrop. Because from there came a lot of the best stories, either the stories of ancient Rome, or stories out of the Renaissance, medieval Italian romances. They found something very liberating and very un-English I suppose, about the grand passions, the degree of emotion, the sensuality. It was a rather sort of romantic Englishman's version of a more colourful civilisation I think, and it's significant that the great lovers of Antony and Cleopatra are Rome and Egypt, and Romeo and Juliet are Italian. And it's very liberating for actors when you do these plays, to think, don't think Australian, don't think English, just think of the Italian vivacity and exuberance and that kind of climate, our popular images of Italy, and it's a rather liberating thing. And I think whenever I've seen Romeo and Juliet played by English actors, it can get very sort of cool and a bit stitched up unless they liberate themselves from that mindset, and think 'Let's play it Italian'.

Amanda Smith: So what is the lineage of the Romeo and Juliet story before Shakespeare gets a hold of it late in the sixteenth century? Jill Levenson says that it was a story that had already been doing the rounds for a good hundred, hundred and twenty years.

Jill Levenson: Well most of the plot that we have in Romeo and Juliet first appeared in 1476 in printed form in a short fiction, a novella, by an Italian writer named Masuccio. And there seems to have been quite a bit of activity around the story in northern Italy, between then and about 1530 when an important version was published. It was another novella and it was by a writer named Luigi da Porto. Da Porto was the writer who added a feud to the narrative as an explanation for the secret marriage, because in its original version there was no reason for the lovers to marry secretly. It's a very strange story, the Masuccio one, so da Porto added the feud, and he furnished the famous names. He borrowed the names Montecchi and Cappelletti from Dante's 'Purgatory' for the political factions. So that gives us our two feuding factions.

What happened next was that da Porto's version was elaborated in another Italian novella by Matteo Bandello, that was 1554, and then it began to travel to England. I can't resist saying that Bandello turned a novella that was a gazelle into a novella that was an elephant. It became very, very large and it became filled with circumstantial material. And it became quite prosaic by modern standards, I would think, but during the Renaissance this was the version that everyone loved.

Amanda Smith: What are the specifics of time and place that come into the story, as it is doing the rounds in Italy in the fifteenth, sixteenth century in this novella form? For example, as you mentioned, the family feud is the obstacle to the lovers. Now why does that come in as the reason why the love is forbidden?

Jill Levenson: Each novella was shaped by the cultural circumstances in which it was written. So for example, Bandello's novella version reflects social and economic conditions during the Italian Renaissance, which affected attitudes towards marriage. With the development of capitalism, there was an emphasis on consolidating the city-state and consolidating prosperous families. Women were viewed as marriage commodities. So you can see why a love affair would turn into a threat to that in this type of context. An unauthorised relationship would disrupt the new patterns of exchange and challenge the concept of marriage as it was developing at that point.

Amanda Smith: In the film, Shakespeare in Love, Will is trying without much inspiration, to write a play that he first calls 'Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter'. But historically, where does William Shakespeare get a hold of this story of Romeo and Juliet?

Jill Levenson: As far as we know, not quite out of his own experience, as the film would have you believe. Yes, the title of that play just kills me every time I hear it. Well there were two English versions actually, one by Arthur Brooke and one by William Painter, and he used both of them but he used one much more than the other. Brooke, which is the primary source, made two contributions to the narrative: he elaborated the idea of fortune controlling events, and he filled out the character of the Nurse. And I think personally that his version is interesting for another reason. Perhaps this is the reason that Shakespeare chose it. There are contradictions in it if you read it from beginning to end - I don't recommend that, because it's very boring, it really is soporific - but if you do read it from beginning to end, you find contradictions in his views of sex and marriage, which may register not just as inconsistencies in his own thinking, but inconsistencies in the thinking of his age about sex and marriage.

Amanda Smith: So what does Shakespeare do with the story? As you say, it's already well known and popular, and aside from turning it into a play, how does Shakespeare re-cast the narrative so that it's his version of the tale that becomes the famous one?

Jill Levenson: We should keep in mind in thinking about these questions that what Shakespeare inherited was a straightforward, melancholy tale of young love. There was no irony in them, there was no comedy in them, they were unremittingly sad. So what did he do with this material, as you asked? I think on one level he enhanced this emotional intensity and he enhanced the presence of the leibestod myth. For example, by reminding us from the beginning that the outcome of this love affair will be tragic.

Amanda Smith: Yes, because of course Shakespeare tells us right at the start of the play that it's going to end badly, 'a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life'.

Jill Levenson: Yes, that's right, and then after the Prologue, you have characters who experience dreams and forebodings about what's going to happen. The language is going to refer again and again to Death, as Juliet's lover. So even though there's an infusion of comedy and a hint that perhaps this plot could take a different turn, you're constantly being reminded that the story is headed for a tragic ending. So that's one of the things that he did. He enhanced what was already there. At the same time, he added something completely new, a wholly new dimension to the narrative, in portraying Romeo and Juliet as adolescents going through that particular rite of passage. If I could say something a little personal about this aspect of the research on the play which I did as part of the edition. When I discovered this dimension and was trying to understand it, I even took a course on adolescent psychology because by that point I was so far from my own adolescence that I couldn't remember it very clearly. And it was an exciting experience because as I began to understand the psychological state, the play seemed to come into view as a photograph from a negative. This part of it is so clear and so thorough and so brilliantly accurate, and I wonder if this isn't the dimension of the play which explains its continuing emotional appeal in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.

Amanda Smith: Especially for young people.

Jill Levenson: Yes, particularly for young people. For example, the opening scene emphasises Romeo's adolescence, and that part of the scene is wholly invented. That part of the scene where Benvolio, Romeo's cousin and Montague, Romeo's father, are discussing Romeo's behaviour; it must have been a huge surprise to the original audiences of the play, who wouldn't have had any indication that this was coming. But they talk about his restlessness, they talk about his lack of communication, indicating I think to the audience, a case of unsettled hormones, and we find out at the same time that Benvolio's doing the same thing. That's how he happened to find Romeo before dawn, wandering around, not having eaten, etc. So that dimension begins to become apparent right in the opening scene.

Amanda Smith: And Jill Levenson is the editor of the Oxford edition of Romeo and Juliet.

A striking thing about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a love story is that it presents more than one, in fact many views about love. In a way, the play's a discussion about the nature of love. For Romeo and for Juliet, it's the full fireworks and the full catastrophe, but we do get a range of other views and experiences of love. For example, at the start of the play, Romeo is actually quite desperately in love with someone else, with Rosaline, who's a bit of an ice maiden. So, John Bell, what's going on there?

John Bell: Well I think it's to show that Romeo is ready for the real thing, that the Rosaline thing was a mere sort of puppy love, obsession, but the Juliet relationship is going to develop into the real lasting relationship, that's what's been set up. Juliet on the other hand, this is her first love, she's totally virginal and idealistic. And she's the one who teaches Romeo what love's really about. He's the one who wants to rush off and she says, 'Hang on, wait till tomorrow, we'll get married, we'll do it properly; I'm worried about this rashness, it can't last.' And she I think makes a man of Romeo, and we see her mature into a woman by the end of the play - which only happens over four days if you look at the calendar - but she's grown from a wide-eyed girl to a very mature heroine by the end of it.

Amanda Smith: Now a big factor I think in the success of productions of this play, is the extent to which the lead actors can convince us right from the start of the depth of their love for each other, right from their first meeting. But I wonder, John, how many people today can really believe in love at first sight, and if we don't, does that diminish the emotional effect of the play?

John Bell: I think people do believe in it still, remarkably so. Especially young people. I mean you don't have to believe in it, it just hits you like a ten-ton truck. And given the circumstance of the play and the story, I think we accept that. We also accept that it's not very real, that it has to be tested against time and trial. But the idea of sudden infatuation I think is well within our understanding.

Amanda Smith: There's also something marvellously uncomplicated about Romeo and Juliet's love for each other. Their circumstances are complicated, but their love is immediate, it's completely mutual, neither of them has a problem with commitment. Again, I wonder how does this sort of perfect match sit with audiences today at a time when I suppose relationships don't necessarily seem so straightforward?

John Bell: Well again I think that, you mentioned the casting, I think that's terribly important that they are really adolescents, because we know that can happen and does happen repeatedly in adolescence. If you cast the lovers too old, then of course it doesn't make sense. These would have been played by boys of about fourteen, fifteen years old in Shakespeare's time, and I think that's the challenge today, to get young actors who are young enough to be convincing, but who are experienced and mature enough to handle that extraordinary language, who have that kind of acting technique. That's the challenge we have today. Whereas in Shakespeare's time they were brought up from a very early age as apprentices, and they were very expert actors by the time they were fifteen, and of course, speaking Elizabethan verse was their natural element. They were expert at it. It's harder today to make the play work, to find the right talented youngsters who can carry that off.

Juilet: My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Romeo: See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

Amanda Smith: In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare does put into the mouths of his young lovers some of the most beautiful and memorable and poetic lines that have ever been written about love in the English language. So how does Shakespeare use the conventions of the love poetry of his age, and recast them into drama? Jill Levenson.

Jill Levenson: I think what he's done with the poetry is quite astonishing, because as I've been saying, I think this play must have struck its original audiences as extremely new. And, perhaps I should add at this point that English Renaissance tragedy to this point had never before made romantic love its theme. It had dealt with matters of history and matters of legend, but not matters of love. So Romeo and Juliet was a first in that way. But the use of love poetry is especially intriguing. Shakespeare himself had been working extensively with the sonnet form and sequence when he wrote this play, and he incorporates all of the conventions into the dialogue, the rhyme schemes and all. So why did he make such extensive use of this fashionable verse, because sonnets were fashionable in the middle of the 1590s, why did he do that in a play? He may have been trying to give the prestige of lyrical verse to his work for the theatre, because verse was more prestigious than drama. He may have been attempting to reach a particular demographic in his audience, who would appreciate the references. Or he may even have wanted to rethink this poetry that he had been writing, from a different point of view. So Romeo and Juliet the play may in part show us a poet-dramatist thinking out loud. The only thing we can say for sure, I believe, is that Shakespeare adapts a verse form very effectively for the stage. It becomes the language of Verona, but at the same time its articulation by Romeo and Juliet distinguishes them from everyone else. At their most intense, they speak it in a way that still makes my hair stand on end, even though I've edited the play and I've had to look at every word and every punctuation mark. When I get, for example, to the speech that Juliet has before her wedding night, when she's anticipating her wedding night. Which comes in the wake of the death of Mercutio and Tybalt. Which takes a conventional piece of Elizabethan poetry, the kind of song that was done before a nuptial, and turns it into something totally new and original and brilliant.

Juliet: Come gentle night, coming loving black-browed night.
Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possessed it; and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed.

Amanda Smith: Well let's move to the fortunes and passage of this play after Shakespeare's time. Romeo and Juliet was revived in 1662 after the playhouses were reopened following the Restoration. Now, Samuel Pepys saw it, we know this from his diary, and he thought it was a shocker, didn't he?

Jill Levenson: Yes, he thought it was poor. But we actually don't know much about the earliest revivals during the Restoration. The history of that period is fairly vague. We haven't got printed texts, we have only references.

Amanda Smith: I'm terribly interested in an alternative version of the play at this time, the middle of the seventeenth century, that as I understand it, changed the ending. Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after, so the dying-for-love theme, and the inevitably of the lovers' deaths that drives the play, was entirely removed. Can you tell me what we know about the happy ending version of Romeo and Juliet?

Jill Levenson: We know virtually nothing. A prompter describes this as tragi-comical and it seems that this adaptation played alternately with the tragedy. But we don't know anything more about it, except from that reference. It seems to have sunk without a trace. In other words, the idea of the happy ending did not catch on.

Amanda Smith: No, well fair enough. Do subsequent productions though, into the eighteenth century, continue to play around with the death scene at the end?

Jill Levenson: They play around with it, but they don't make it a happy ending.

Amanda Smith: What do they do?

Jill Levenson: Mostly what they do is elaborate on it. That is, in the versions of the play which bear any relation to Shakespeare's play, and I'm thinking of Garrick at this point.

Amanda Smith: This is David Garrick who produced the play in the mid-eighteenth century?

Jill Levenson: Yes, that's right. And Garrick produced what I would call the biggest blockbuster ever of Romeo and Juliet. What Garrick was doing was adapting the Shakespeare play to eighteenth century taste. It was a revival which began in 1748 and it actually held the stage for ninety-seven years, and it was not finally dislodged until the late ninteenth century, and there are still elements of it which crop up in modern productions, and even in Baz Luhrmann's film.

Amanda Smith: Such as?

Jill Levenson: Well such as Juliet awakening before Romeo has expired.

Amanda Smith: So this is the playing around with the death scene at the end?

Jill Levenson: That's the kind of playing around with the death scene, which is famous, and still influential. Juliet awakens before Romeo dies, and in his version they have a seventy-five line dialogue immediately after he takes the poison.

Amanda Smith: And what's that doing that's different from the original Shakespeare: that thing of Juliet waking up?

Jill Levenson: I think it emphasises the pathos of the situation. You know, if she had awakened one minute earlier he wouldn't have taken the poison, everything would have been all right. We already know that, it seems to me, but Garrick enhanced, or increased the amount of sentimentality that that episode would hold. It seems to me he makes it explicit, or in your face.

Amanda Smith: Jill Levenson, the editor of the Oxford Romeo and Juliet.

And now to another re-working of the great teenage love story, created in the twentieth century: the music for the ballet of Romeo and Juliet, composed by Sergei Prokofiev. It's a bit hard to believe now, but in the 1930s, this music caused an artistic and political storm.

This ballet music for Romeo and Juliet gets my vote as the most successful adaptation of the story into another medium, at least since Will Shakespeare took that boring novella and turned it into a great play.

And what the ballet loses in spoken word, it gains in musical expressiveness, according to Mark Carroll, who lectures in the history and aesthetics of music.

Mark Carroll: One of the great strengths of the score is that it's not simply a story told to music, as one often finds, but it's actually a story told in music. By that I mean that it's quite possible to actually follow the dramatic action and the story unfolding, by listening purely to the music itself, without the visual prompt of the ballet.

Amanda Smith: But this music for the ballet very nearly didn't happen. There was as much intrigue around its creation as there is in a Shakespearean drama. This was because it was being created in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, where the story of Romeo and Juliet smacked way too much of capitalist decadence, especially coming from a composer who'd been living in the West since the Communist revolution. Mark Carroll, tell us the story.

Mark Carroll: Well Prokofiev's decision to compose the score to Romeo and Juliet coincided with his decision to move back to the Soviet Union from the West. He found himself in Leningrad, what we now know as St Petersburg, and his friend the avant garde choreographer, Sergei Radlov, invited him to collaborate with him on a score for a new production of Romeo and Juliet.

Amanda Smith: And this is for the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad.

Mark Carroll: The Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. Now unfortunately, right about that time, and indeed nary a note had been composed, when Radlov himself fell out of favour with the city's Communist authorities. So immediately the plans came awry. It's also reasonable to suspect that they also fell apart because the tragic ending, Romeo and Juliet's tragic ending, was very much out of kilter with what we would call the ruthlessly enforced optimism of Stalinism's socialist façade.

Amanda Smith: So what happens? The Kirov drops it.

Mark Carroll: Yes, they're cast adrift by the Kirov, and in 1935, Prokofiev and Radlov signed a contract with the Bolshoi Theatre.

Amanda Smith: So how come the Bolshoi picks it up when the Kirov has dropped it for largely political reasons?

Mark Carroll: Well at this particular point, socialist realism was not a blanket policy, so it was very much driven by localised party cells, if you like. Whereas in Leningrad, the spectre of Uncle Joe was looming large over the arts, in Moscow at that particular point, and here I'm talking about early 1935, things were a lot freer. So the Bolshoi was at that particular point in a political position to be able to offer Prokofiev and Radlov a new contract.

Amanda Smith: And they were happy with a story like Romeo and Juliet, whereas the Kirov found it ideologically unacceptable?

Mark Carroll: Indeed. So Prokofiev essentially retired to his dacha outside of Moscow and set about composing a score, or a piano reduction of the score, which he could then take back to the directors of the Bolshoi. Now in what's a remarkable sort of volte-face, the directors, upon hearing Prokofiev's completed piano reduction, promptly declared the music 'undanceable'.

Amanda Smith: Undanceable? What does that mean?

Mark Carroll: Well undanceable doesn't mean undanceable. Undanceable means we've had the message from higher up that this kind of music is now seen as an indulgence that's out of step with the Soviet socialist realist view of art. Now of course the unfortunate thing was that the realities of Soviet life at that particular time, were fairly miserable. But of course Stalin and his cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov, would have none of that, so that by official decree, we're all required to be happy. And art is required to be happy.

Amanda Smith: So yes, as Prokofiev originally conceived the ballet, it was with a happy ending, that Juliet would wake up just in the nick of time before Romeo killed himself. Now this wasn't the first time that Romeo and Juliet has been tried with a happy end, but do we know anything of why Prokofiev originally wanted to do it that way?

Mark Carroll: Well the official story, in other words Prokofiev's version of events was 'Living people can dance, the dying cannot, so how do you put onto the dance stage a death scene?' Now there's probably a fair degree of common sense in that, but also you would have to say that also arose through probably his collaborator, Radlov, being a little bit politically more attuned than Prokofiev. In other words, and after all he'd suffered the wrath of Stalin at the Kirov ballet, so he was probably encouraging Prokofiev in the direction of a happy ending: one that would then be able to celebrate and it would be seen as a celebration of Soviet life.

Amanda Smith: Well with or without the happy ending, Prokofiev's music for Romeo and Juliet remained 'undanceable'. In other words, ideologically unacceptable, in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. It was performed, however, in Czechoslovakia in 1938, which prompted another about-face back in the USSR.

Mark Carroll: Well the public success of the Czech premiere, together with what was during wartime a relaxation in socialist realist cultural policy in the Soviet Union, prompted the Kirov and the Bolshoi ballets to overcome their initial reluctance. So the Soviet premiere was given by the Kirov in 1940, and the Bolshoi followed suit in 1946.

Amanda Smith: What sort of reception did it get when it was finally performed in the USSR?

Mark Carroll: It received widespread acclaim. It was lauded as a great example of Soviet art. So obviously Stalin was very happy that during the war that the masses were being offered a diversion, however ideologically unsound it may well have appeared at the time.

Amanda Smith: Now maybe I'm just imagining this, but the music for the ball scene in this ballet, the Capulet's ball - which is probably the most well-known music from the ballet, that big, powerful, tight, tense sound - does seem kind of Soviet to me.

Mark Carroll: It does, you're absolutely right, I couldn't agree with you more. It's very foursquare. It's music to goosestep to, almost. It does very much have that sort of severe outlook.

Mark Carroll: What saves it from being the soundtrack to the Revolution if you like, is I think what comes before it and what comes after it. But it is very much that foursquare, severe kind of music that we've come to associate with the Soviet style.

Amanda Smith: Even though Prokofiev infused his ballet music for Romeo and Juliet with some elements of acceptable Soviet style, his political fortunes in the Soviet Union once again reversed towards the end of WW2. In 1948, Prokofiev was condemned by the Party Central Committee. He died in 1953, on the very same day, coincidentally, as Joseph Stalin died.

But, and here's another twist, Romeo and Juliet, with the music of Sergei Prokofiev, was the very first ballet that the Bolshoi took to the West. The company performed it at Covent Garden in 1956, to huge critical acclaim. In fact, Romeo and Juliet was the work that established the Bolshoi's international reputation. Maybe it was because the ballet so perfectly combined Soviet technical brilliance with Western sentiment.

Now to return to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Earlier in this series I was speaking with the actor and director John Bell, about Shakespeare's other pair of great lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, and the ambivalence that surrounds them about how they really feel about each other: is it love, is it lust? Are they motivated by ambition more than love or lust? But, John, with Romeo and Juliet, we never doubt that they love each other truly deeply, do we?

John Bell: No, and it's because the play happens so fast. It happens over the four days and they never get a chance to really examine themselves very deeply, or to face the longeurs of a long-term affair. But that works. Because they're so young, because the whole thing happened so quickly, and they're up against such odds, and therefore they're on full throttle to get all they can out of this affair while it can last. I think that's what carries it through, it's the sheer impetuosity of the whole thing.

Amanda Smith: Well given that these young lovers do end up killing themselves, what view of love do you think audiences take from the play? For example, that there is such a thing as loving too much, and it's dangerous?

John Bell: Yes, we do get that. Yet we think how wonderful that people can love so much, and can take those risks and go to those lengths for real love. And some people have said, 'Well what if they have survived? They would have settled into a very ordinary middle age.' And that's quite possible, so therefore they have to die, in the sense of we mustn't have that image of adolescent romance dashed, it has to remain. They died young, they died beautiful, and that's how it had to be.

Amanda Smith: Yes, you can't really imagine them discussing the mortgage or whether they're going to have chops for tea, can you?

John Bell: Who puts the garbage out! No, none of that.

Amanda Smith: John Bell, the founding artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company. Well, whether it's the Shakespeare play, the Prokofiev ballet music, or the film directed by Baz Luhrmann, or before him, the one by Franco Zeffirelli, watching this sad story of Romeo and Juliet does always seem to me to be a strangely uplifting experience, as any well-told story of forbidden and tragic love always is. So why do we find these great love stories so attractive? Do they tell you anything useful about your own lives and relationships?

John Armstrong is the author of Conditions of Love - the Philosophy of Intimacy, and he's not so sure they do.

John Armstrong: One is tempted to say that these great loves have a delusional quality to them. That doesn't mean that they are worthless, but it does mean that we should reconsider the way in which they stand as, say, an inspiration or as admirable. They're perhaps more like other delusions that inspire people to do great things, but are fundamentally quite weird. Like, why do people climb mountains? I think that's really quite weird, but it is impressive that they do it. So there can be great motives that we have which are actually not that well founded, but they impel people to do things which look rather amazing.

Amanda Smith: Now a feature of all love stories I think, is the obstacles that stand in the way of the lovers: 'the course of true love never did run smooth' as Shakespeare tells us in Midsummer Night's Dream. And put simply, in romantic comedy the obstacles are eventually overcome and the story ends with the promise or suggestion of living happily ever after. Whereas in romantic tragedy the obstacles are ultimately overwhelming, so the story ends with separation and most often death. Why do you think that so many of our most enduring love stories, the great lovers of Western culture, are tragedies?

John Armstrong: One of the things about tragedy is that it cuts off love at an early stage. So with Romeo and Juliet we get this very beautiful, as it were, morning image, springtime image of the start of love. And because things work out so badly for them, their love is cut off when it's in its perfect pristine condition. And that means that we don't really have to follow through what might happen, and does in fact happen, even in good loving relationships. Namely, that there are a lot of other problems, they discover the irritating little habits, annoying things about the other person. And all that is much less entertaining, much less in a way, less imaginatively powerful, but it's the real stuff of most relationships. So I think it's quite important to us culturally, to give ourselves images of love which is perfect, and one of the ways of doing it is to cut it off early. So that these great tragedies can give us a slightly misleading conception of what love is actually about.

Amanda Smith: But they are kind of strangely uplifting.

John Armstrong: It's nice to be misled.

Amanda Smith: Well even those these are tragic love stories in extremis, is their power to move us also that we recognise, or find kind of reassuring something of our own experience of love's agonies and ecstasies in them, and that's the consolation of art and philosophy?

John Armstrong: One of the most intense moments of life, at least in my experience, has been the moment of rejection, the moment when love breaks down. Especially if you feel that it's not your fault. That point when you've been abandoned makes you feel both intensely aware of yourself and also intensely sorry for yourself. And it's actually I think quite a special moment because your sense of what life is about suddenly gets this huge jolt. And often it cleanses away, although it's very painful, it cleanses away a lot of the petty details of existence. This is my experience. I remember my girlfriend at the time, it's a few years ago, left me, just at the point where a few other things were quite tricky in life as well. And I suddenly thought it's not the little things that are the problem, if only she'd come back, everything would be all right. So you get a sense of the really deep issues in life, even if only because you've lost them. One of the tragedies of life is that we appreciate things most when we lose them. The point is, that we are returned, when we watch a tragedy, we return to a very solemn and serious view of ourselves, which can actually be quite consoling, because it reminds us of what's really important to us. And by being reminded of what's really important, other problems get put in perspective, and I think that's the consoling aspect of tragedy.

The other thing is that when we see other people having a really bad time, it can make us feel quite cosy about our own existence. We're not being horrible to Romeo and Juliet on the stage by thinking, 'Thank God my life's not as bad as that'. But when you leave the theatre, you want to come back and sort of cuddle up and 'I'm so glad we're not in the tomb together.'

Amanda Smith: In this episode of Great Lovers, the perfect, young love of Romeo and Juliet, I was speaking with the philosopher John Armstrong, the author of Conditions of Love, and a professorial fellow at the University of Tasmania. Also John Bell, the founding artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, based in Sydney; Mark Carroll, who lectures in Music at the Elder School of Music in Adelaide, and the author of Music and Ideology in Cold War Europe; and Jill Levenson, who's the editor of the Oxford Romeo and Juliet. Jill's also Professor of English at the University of Toronto, in Canada.

Tomorrow on Great Lovers, we turn to the dark romanticism of the ninteenth century, with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and that strange, haunting, intense love of Heathcliff and Catherine.
And, ’the love that dare not speak its name’, the love that brought down Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas – Oscar and Bosie.

That’s Great Lovers tomorrow, hope you'll join me. And by the way, audio, transcripts and details for the five episodes of series are on the RN website – In the program list choose RN Afternoons. Technical production for Great Lovers is by Carey Dell. I'm Amanda Smith.

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