The Country Versus the Cough

by Megan Meister

Early this morning, four decades after it smashed box office records across the U.S., I finally got around to seeing “Love Story” when it snuck-up on my television screen.  Aside from a head-snapping appearance by a youthful Tommy Lee Jones, the movie was everything I expected and less: sappy, over-the-top music score; “hoot-worthy” dialogue, and a plucky young heroine with one foot planted on the ultimate banana peel, who could easily have been mistaken for either Mimi or Violetta – if only she had TB.

Much has been written about the romanticization of certain diseases; chief among them, the dreaded and once nearly untreatable consumption, better known today by its official name: Tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis was already a well-established disease among humans when it contributed to (or caused) the death of Egypt’s King Tutankhamen around 1323 B.C.E.  Even today, according to the Clinical Microbiology Newsletter, about one-third of the world’s population carry the bacteria that causes the disease and approximately two to three million people die from the infection each year, mostly in developing countries.  But over the centuries, Tuberculosis has struck both high and low: bringing down literary giants like Emily Bronte, Franz Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Orwell and (famously) Edgar Allan Poe; political figures like France’s Cardinal Richelieu, Henry Clay (the first person to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol), Napoleon II, Simón Bolívar and Eleanor Roosevelt; along with a host of influential artists from Frederic Chopin to actress Vivien Leigh.

Once the disease was discovered to be contagious rather than hereditary (1865) and its bacterial source identified (1882), this new knowledge led to the development of fashionable sanatoriums in addition to sparking significant changes in waste disposal, city planning and public policy that continue to guide public health authorities today.

Yet it was also an ailment with a certain cachet in 19th century society where the young and beautiful were among its many victims.  “You can never be too thin or too pale,” might have been the motto of the era in which, wrote Mark Caldwell in The Last Crusade, Tuberculosis “was a badge of refinement…it led your friends not to mourn your early death so much as to venerate you as one marked out for a fate of special distinction.”  The scandalous Lord Byron once expressed the wish that consumption would carry him off because it was thought to be “such an interesting death.”

The prototype for Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camillias—who eventually morphed into Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata” (The Fallen Woman)—was a once-illiterate French farm-girl named Alphonsine Plessis who upgraded her name to “Marie Duplessis” after she arrived in Paris.  Her exotic features, long neck, tiny waist, ultra-pale complexion and dark locks led to a procession of lovers, each wealthier than the last—with the exception of the handsome young Dumas.  He spotted her in a box at the theater in 1844 and followed her to a party much like the soirée in Act One of Verdi’s opera, discovering Marie’s fatal secret when he found her lying face-down on a couch, coughing up blood.  Fascinated and filled with pity for this beautiful dying swan, Dumas became her lover, just like Alfredo.

However, here is where the opera and harsh reality begin to diverge: the real life lovers quarreled over infidelities, money, and other matters.  “Lies keep the teeth white,” explained Marie, before Dumas broke-off their affair in 1845.  The lady recovered swiftly after being introduced to pianist/composer Franz Liszt; however, his fear of being trapped by a woman or contracting the disease inevitably doomed their affair.  But Liszt never forgot her, describing Marie in his later years as “the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed.”

The 23-year-old courtesan died during Mardi Gras Season in February of 1847, still an object of public curiosity, now virtually alone except for her faithful maid (just as in this opera).  The frenzied sale of her remaining jewels and belongings paid-off her outstanding debts and provided a tidy bequest to her niece in Normandy, who inherited Marie’s ill-gotten gains on the condition that she never set foot in Paris.

In Dumas’ book, his fictional heroine tells us, “I built a future life on your love; I dreamed of the country, of purity.”  If Tuberculosis is the character in the foreground of our drama, the French countryside is very much in the background.  In Verdi’s opera, Alfredo (the stand-in for Dumas fils) was raised far from the wicked city-life and, in his naiveté, barely comprehends the choices Marie—now called Violetta—has been forced to make in order to survive.

For both Verdi and the average 19th century physician, the country itself represented freshness, moral and physical cleanliness and good health.  Alfredo is the embodiment of those qualities and, particularly when he takes Violetta away to spend those romantic months in the country, during which she blossoms and improves.  It is only when Violetta abandons Alfredo and returns to the city—away from the light, love, and fresh air that restored her—that her consumption flares once more, sealing her fate.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi shared that dubious distrust of the city and preferred to spend most of his time on his country estate in his own unconventional living arrangement with Giuseppina Strepponi.  In La traviata, Verdi’s only contemporary opera, the composer weaves a moving masterpiece composed of threads connecting him not only to Dumas’ most heart-felt work, but to the composer’s beloved first wife—Margherita, a former student of Verdi’s—who sold her jewels to help pay the rent during lean times, and who died tragically (along with their two children) while still in her twenties.

These threads also tie him to the land itself, reflecting Verdi’s lifelong love of nature and his belief that the country life is a more likely source of contentment and meaning.  “A time will come,” he wrote, “and it’s not very far off, when I shall say ‘Farewell, my public; have a good time; my career is over: I’m going to plant cabbages.’”  Or, as Alfredo put it while clutching the dying Violetta in his arms, “To Paris, dearest, we bid adieu, in love united our days will flow.”  Despite the best-laid plans, Giuseppe Verdi died in an exclusive hotel in the heart of Milan, and Violetta, one of his most memorable heroines, never made it out of her room.

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director of Media & PR for the Dallas Opera, is an award-winning journalist, producer, classical music broadcaster and playwright.  Most importantly, she tells you prior to each TDO performance to turn off your cellphone.  You were listening, right?

3 Responses to The Country Versus the Cough

Tatiana says: March 25, 2012 at 2:59 pm

One of the greatest pieces of 20th century literature is based on life in a sanatorium that sprung up to take care of the rich afflicted with tuberculosis. The book is Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, which this years celebrates its 100th anniversary. It is centered on a town – Davos – which earned its fame from its sanatorim stays. Ironically today Davos is known for its World Economic Forum.

vwgraphs@yahoo.com says: March 23, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Sorry you didn’t love it but then love means never having to say your sorry so I take it back. I guess you enjoy the poorly made films of today like Pee Wees Big Adventure. You didn’t like the soundtrack. Well the last time I went to the dallas Opera I feel asleep twelve times. Guess were even. Don’t waste your time with “Summer of 42″ you won’t like it either or it’s soundtrack.
Have a Happy
Victor