This study examines how Willa Cather used the medium of dance to explore the "glittering idea" of scientific warfare. Inspired by the late-nineteenth-century classical Italian ballet Excelsior (juxtaposed against modern performances of Faust and Jeux), Cather was able to manipulate the "human story" of war with her own unique style of literary choreography. But the ballet motif is difficult to pin down. When Richard Giannone encountered a similar problem with Cather's music metaphors, he looked at the shifts in meaning from her early works to her later novels. This type of approach helps clarify her use of dance imagery too; it is possible to detect the transition from a simple experimental prose translation to a sophisticated subtext woven into the story. For example, Alexander's Bridge can be interpreted as a straightforward retelling of the plot from Swan Lake, whereas a more mature novel like The Professor's House employs a far more subtle and complex approach—the result of a two-decade exposure to dance during which time Cather became an aficionado. As recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of many other arts in Cather's work, it is now time to consider the influence of ballet.
Cather's arrival in New York in 1906 coincided with a resurgence of interest in classical dance generated by Adeline Genée and the stars of the Russian Ballet. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's biography Willa Cather: A Memoir reveals how ballet "interested her vitally as a balanced trial of grace, poise, muscle and temperament in which a unique individual, the ballerina, could excel." Sergeant explains that the famous Anna Pavlova was a particular favorite of Cather because she was "a superlative mistress of coordination and aesthetic charm" (197). Ballet "divertissements" were traditionally performed as light relief during an opera, usually at the start of the third act. Consequently the Russian dance stars appeared on the same bill as the major opera divas of that period, including Cather's favorite performer, Olive Fremstad. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the writer was exposed to the finest quality ballet from around 1910 onward; she thereafter followed the Russian dance movement with great enthusiasm, even when it was no longer connected to the opera house.
At the turn of the century pioneers of modern dance were following in Isadora Duncan's footsteps, seeking a new form of movement to free them from the staid conventions of European classical ballet. A similar transition was taking place in Russia, which culminated in an exciting program spearheaded by the Ballets Russes. So by the time Cather's enthusiasm was aroused there were three major professional schools of dance: the traditional classical ballet (Italy and France); modern dance, or "classic"/ "barefoot" dancing (Isadora Duncan et al); and modern ballet (the Ballets Russes). Cather dismissed the first type as being antiquated and the second style as being unskilled. Her artistic interest lay in the imagination, innovation, and dynamic energy of the Russian company that produced such phenomena as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova.
Perhaps one of the times when Cather's world "broke in two" was when she first saw Pavlova perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910. From that point on dance could be categorized as being either pre-Pavlovian "entertainment," or post-Pavlovian "high art." For although there is no apparent sequential growth pattern in Cather's treatment of dance themes in her early short stories, they do reveal two very distinct before and after phases, commemorating the moment when modern ballet was accepted into the kingdom of art.
In 1913 Cather wrote an eleven-page explanatory article for McClure's called "Training for the Ballet," featuring photographs and interviews from the fledgling Metropolitan School of Ballet Dancing. Setting herself up as expert, she educates readers to appreciate the five basic positions of classical ballet, bar exercises, "toe dancing," male elevation, and balance skills. She emphasizes the strength, power, and athleticism involved and the rigorous years of training. She also tries to restore the reputation of professional dancers, who for many years had functioned as kept sexual playthings of the European nobility. Cather's article also reveals her personal interest in this exciting discipline. As an artist herself, she appreciated the aesthetic and spiritual side of human movement, commenting on "the creature's enjoyment of its own vitality expressing itself in movement of the body," and recognizing how pure art elevates the soul to "escape from sordid things." She adds that the "great dancer is made, like any other artist, of two things: of a universal human impulse, and a very special and individual experience of it" (86).
Such ideas influence Cather's later work as she embellishes her stories with plots, themes, twists, reversals, and techniques that appear to originate in the world of ballet. By the time Cather wrote The Professor's House (1925), her use of the dance motif had become so sophisticated that it allowed her to deconstruct and subvert her own surface texts in fascinating ways—as skilful as a "real dancer's practice is beautiful to see, light and rapid, and characterized by a most satisfying elegance" ("Training" 95). While it is always possible that many other popular sources may have influenced her subtext, the detailed reference to ballets that we know were performed in New York during her time there (or which were so notoriously shocking she would have undoubtedly been familiar with them) is more than merely coincidental when it is sustained from the earliest novel throughout her entire oeuvre, and when so many consistent allusions to a particular dance or dances supplement a specific text.
In a letter of 1940 Cather explains how The Professor's House is an experiment with the Nouvelle and the Roman, and she claims inspiration from the Dutch paintings showing a picture-window view of the sea from a warmly furnished room (Bohlke 125). She also describes the three-part sectioning of the novel as loosely based on the statement-development-restatement musical form of the sonata (Giannone 152-53). But Cather's tripartite structure also reflects three specific ballets: the plot resonates the subliminal homoeroticism of Nijinsky's Jeux; the characterization reflects the dance version of Faust; and the central theme is reminiscent of the magnificent Italian spectacle Excelsior. Together these ballets help elucidate Cather's views on patriarchal culture, scientific progress, and modern warfare. As Patrick W. Shaw explains in Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict, the Dutch painting image suggests that "Tom Outland's Story" "is the window in Professor St. Peter's conventional room" (113), but it also emphasizes Steven Trout's observation in Memorial Fictions that "the First World War stands much closer to the thematic center of this cryptic text than most critics have acknowledged" (10). The window of "Tom Outland's Story" provides a microcosmic portrait of the destruction of war on an earlier civilization, ironically still being reflected on the macrocosmic world stage centuries later.
When Tom Outland and Rodney Blake discover the Cliff City, they find remnants of a lost community that had "developed considerably the arts of peace" (219): primitive medicine, astronomy, farming, textiles, pottery, and painting. But rival warriors found the natives "in their summer camp and destroyed them for their hides and clothing and weapons, or from mere love of slaughter" (221). It can be no coincidence that the only "one of the original inhabitants—not a skeleton" on the Blue Mesa is a mummified woman, thought to have been murdered by her own husband (214). Her face is frozen in a horrific scream that reverberates across the ages, crying out against the injustices of gender. The novel suggests she was punished for being found "in improper company," and that her lover "may have escaped" leaving her to face the violent consequences (223). Even in supposedly advanced patriarchal societies it is common to find females blamed as the source of sin, which aligns them with the first "fallen woman" of our own culture—"Mother Eve" (214).
So the Outland "picture" highlights Cather's observations that similar traits are apparent in the modern world: men have historically killed for the ownership of women and land; war has repeatedly wiped out the progress of civilization; and society suffers the consequences of unchecked male aggression. And Cather uses the ballet Excelsior to underscore these three important "window" themes.
Excelsior was first produced in Milan in 1881 to praise the "progress in science and accomplishments, in keeping with the era of supreme optimism" before the Great War (6). It was written and choreographed by Luigi Manzotti to music composed by Romualdo Marenco. Hundreds of performances were given at La Scala between 1881 and 1916, and it was presented in many other theaters across Europe and the United States. Cather may have encountered this ballet on her trip to Italy in 1908, she may have seen it in New York, or she may have watched Luca Comerico's pioneering 1914 film version. As it contained over five hundred performers and an assortment of live circus animals, Excelsior was an extraordinarily popular spectacle that had a wider appeal than most ballets of the time. It is unlikely that Cather would have missed such a celebrated event.
Excelsior aimed "to present by means of a ballet all the great discoveries and achievements which had illuminated the late 19th century." It "reflects the optimism of the new classes who, with boundless confidence in progress of science and technology, saw in industry and the new discoveries the means that would lead mankind out of all its inherited troubles." Excelsior also promoted "brotherliness and internationalism" (6). The ballet consists of two parts and eleven scenes. Part 1 takes place during the dark era of the Spanish Inquisition, where the male Genius of Darkness struggles to keep the female Genius of Light silenced and in chains. Their battle of "ignorance" versus "progress" is sustained throughout the whole piece.
Cather uses a similar background for The Professor's House by having history professor Godfrey St. Peter spend two years on sabbatical in Spain researching his fifteen-year project: Spanish Adventurers in North America. We do not know the exact contents of this book, but references suggest that St. Peter was interested in the way that Spanish missionaries brought civilization to the New World.
Scene 2 of Excelsior highlights the great deeds that triggered enlightenment: "science, culture, love, harmony, the arts and technology" (8), and in Cather's novel this is shown by the Cliff City dwellers on the Blue Mesa, who out of a "natural yearning for order and security" built a sanctuary "and humanized it" (221). Although they seem to have dealt harshly with the transgressions of "Mother Eve," Tom Outland appreciates the mesa dwellers' primitive science, culture, love, harmony, art, and technology— to the extent that he transcends his modern self and becomes one with their ideology. At the end of his account he explains how "the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion" (251). In the ballet, the dancer representing "Civilization" bears a red cross on her chest symbolizing both the House of Savoy and the influence of missionary Christianity. And in a similar way Outland's "religious emotion" is connected to an appreciation of the idea of civilization, making the mesa a sacred place for him.
The third scene of Excelsior reveals the "shores of the Weser near Bremen," where the inventor Denis Papin shows off the first steamboat. The Genius of Darkness encourages the unenlightened locals to attack and destroy this monstrosity until the Genius of Light "praises his new invention before the assembled crowd" (8). In The Professor's House, Cather changed the invention of steam to Tom Outland's "gas"—a formula that was such a success with "manufacturers and machinists" (138) that it generated a lot of wealth for the patent owners, St. Peter's daughter and son-in-law. The Outland patent apparently involved some commercial application of this gas in relation to the "Outland Vacuum"—the "construction of the bulkhead vacuum that is revolutionizing aviation" (40). But Outland's invention (like Papin's), met with hostility from the local townsfolk, who rather than display ignorant aggression toward scientific progress chose instead to squabble over royalty payments.
The fourth scene in Excelsior highlights the magnificent engineering achievement of the Brooklyn Bridge, built in New York between 1870 and 1883. This innovation triggered a wave of similar structures, including the Manhattan Bridge, completed in 1909, at the time when Cather was living in the city. Perhaps because one of Cather's earlier inventors had been a bridge-builder (Bartley Alexander), in The Professor's House the chosen genius is an engineer whose inventions revolutionize the aviation industry. And certainly Cather intends us to acknowledge Outland as a personification of the light of progress, for St. Peter says, "The boy's mind had the superabundance of heat which is always present where there is rich germination. To share his thoughts was to see old perspectives transformed by the new effects of light" (258). Like the Roebling engineers who constructed the amazing Brooklyn Bridge, Bartley Alexander and Tom Outland are both representatives of modern science and technology.
Excelsior then shifts to "Signore Volta's Laboratory" in Lake Como in 1799. The Genius of Darkness is gloating over the pioneer's early experimental failures when suddenly an electric spark jumps across the stage, electricity is discovered, and once again Light triumphs over Darkness. Scene 6 then celebrates "The effect of electricity" in a grand finale to part 1, highlighting the invention of telegraphy and the way this new form of communication helped unite the international community. The ballet also draws a subtle connection between telegraphy and electric light, because although Volta discovered the theory of charging a body by induction, it was Thomas Edison (a telegrapher) who produced the first commercially successful incandescent lamp, and who set up the world's first power plant.
In The Professor's House Cather emphasizes the practical application of such developments. Louie Marsellus, a member of the Association of Electrical Engineers in Hamilton (111), was the man who later transformed Tom Outland's inventions into commercial propositions. Marsellus met his wife, Rosamond (formerly Tom's fiancée), when he arrived "to put in the Edison power plant, just at the time the city was stirred up about Outland's being killed at the front" (136). He is the practical "bringer of light." When Mrs. Crane challenges the Professor about Outland's legacy, St. Peter makes it clear that the gas her husband helped Tom Outland create would never have been an economic success without Marsellus's business acumen: "Crane and I together could never have raised a hundredth part of the capital that was necessary to get the thing started" (138). In this manner Cather suggests that the idea alone is insufficient; it takes a different kind of mind to turn it from a formula on paper into a commercial accomplishment. And had Outland not been killed, his inventions may never have achieved the same degree of fiscal reward. Cather's point seems to be that scientific progress is always a collaborative effort. But the irony is that although Outland's "gas" and "vacuum" could perhaps have been utilized in a variety of ways, the aviation industry's interest implies they would be developed for military purposes, uncannily predicting that the Second World War would be fought in the skies as much as in the trenches. Once the "idea" is out, the inventor has little control over its use.
Part 2 of Excelsior opens with a scene called "Desert Storm." There has been a "remarkable backsliding" in progress, depicted by a caravan of tribes people "surrendering helplessly to a sandstorm that carries man and beast away with it and plunges everything into darkness." The Genius of Darkness revels in the destruction, but then the Genius of Light appears to show the travelers "a new way to safely reach their destination" (9). This reflects the perpetual human struggle against evil forces and ignorance—a theme Cather explores throughout The Professor's House that is perhaps best highlighted by her use of Faustian characterization, as will be discussed later.
Scene 8 heralds the building of the Suez Canal, and in a colorful Pas-de-cinq (dance for five people), "Civilization" brings together a variety of cultures from different parts of the globe. Scene 9 continues the theme of international unity by highlighting the "last detonation" of the Cenisio tunnel linking Italy and France; the invention of explosives is seen as a positive force connecting the people of the world. By the time Cather wrote The Professor's House, however, explosives had much more sinister uses. With the advent of the Great War, the high explosives traditionally used in construction were developed to propel ammunition and bombs. And instead of uniting the nations of Europe, this particular technology took the lives of millions. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was himself so horrified by the weapons his technology created that he set up the Nobel prizes in a belated attempt to promote art, medicine, science, and world peace.
Scene 10 of Excelsior moves to the final confrontation between Darkness and Light. The Genius of Light triumphantly shows her adversary "the brotherly re-unification of the peoples of the earth," before the ground "opens and devours the Genius of Darkness, who has lost his power forever." The ballet ends "in never ending jubilation" when "science, progress, brotherliness and love" are united in "an even greater glorification of the future." Victory is celebrated by a "big monument" that signifies "the triumph of the human genius" (9-10). In Memorial Fictions Steven Trout claims that Cather's novel One of Ours "represents, at least on one level, a war memorial in prose" (8) and suggests that in a similar way, in The Professor's House, "the 'great catastrophe' of 1914- 18 is central—but nearly invisible." He adds: "Revealing its unnamed presence requires the most painstaking of textual archeology" (191). Yet by following the Excelsior clues encoded in the subtext it is possible to interpret The Professor's House as another of Cather's ironic reversals. One of Ours can be read as a positive "memorial" to war because it highlights the patriotic belief that the Americans would restore world peace through their excelsior-style bravery and genius: "In another year the Yankees will be flying over. They can't stop us" (257), while The Professor's House ultimately emerges as a negative "commemoration" of the same event. "Light" has resulted in postwar "Darkness" again; civilization has been "devoured" by the very technology it created.
This seems to have been Cather's second motive in assimilating the ballet Excelsior into The Professor's House—she wished to underscore her observation that throughout history war has repeatedly wiped out cultural and scientific progress.
The irony of Excelsior's prewar optimism would not have escaped Cather's postwar analysis, and numerous critics have suggested that the author's own world "broke in two" as an after-effect of the Great War. She seemed depressed not only about the devastation in Europe but also about its consequences in America. This tension is highlighted when the Professor's two sons-in-law are discussing Prohibition, and Louie challenges Scott to write a complaint for his newspaper. Scott replies, "And lose my job? Not much! This country's split in two, socially, and I don't know if it's ever coming together" (108). Not only had the world been blown apart on a global level, but the after shocks were causing fissures in every aspect of the supposedly civilized world: on a national level in a country divided by moral and philosophical differences, in bickering families like the St. Peters, and in individual minds where the trauma of war left deep psychological scars. For even though Godfrey St. Peter never experienced combat himself, he is Cather's reminder that the people left behind suffer as well. They have to mourn not only lost loved ones like Tom Outland but also the old secure way of life. Once such innocence is lost it can never be regained—the broken pieces can be glued back together, but the cracks will always remain visible. The pride and bravado of Excelsior must have suddenly seemed very dangerous and naïve, and Cather's insight into the brittle postwar psyche helps explain why the ballet Excelsior declined in popularity around 1916.
A third point Cather highlights is that in patriarchal societies women are still suffering the consequences of male aggression. In Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World Janice P. Stout detects the Parsifal "hero and fool" motif in One of Ours as an earlier critique of "masculinity's drive toward war" (175-78). Interestingly, although Excelsior was written by Italian men in 1881, it portrays the conflict between darkness and light, bad and good, savagery and civilization, war and peace, as a battle between the sexes. The Genius of Darkness is a male character (originally danced by Carlo Montanara), and both the Genius of Light and Civilization are female (portrayed in the debut performance by Bice Vergani and Rosina Viale). Ballet critic Cyril W. Beaumont describes the opening scene: "The Spirit of Darkness rejoices, for at his feet lies a woman, Light, in chains. Gradually she revives, breaks her chains, and informs the Spirit of Darkness that his reign is over and that the future belongs to her" (525). And although the pioneers of technology are male characters representing Papin, Volta, and various other scientists and engineers, they are each introduced by Light, who protects their work like an all-powerful fairy godmother. It may have been this strong feminist undertone that made Excelsior so interesting to Cather.
The Professor's House offers a more traditional portrayal of gender roles. The women in Cather's book are either "brilliantly beautiful," like Rosamond, who "resembled her mother in feature" (36-37), or functional, like the "seasoned and sound" Augusta and her female sewing forms (281)—with the possible exception of Kathleen, who was so much more "plucky" and "I can-go-it- alone" that St. Peter felt compelled to make her "docile" on occasions (64). Kathleen is brighter than her sister, "and very clever at water-color portrait sketches," but she was "deaf to her father" on the one occasion when she chose to marry Scott McGregor (64-65). Godfrey St. Peter's possessiveness leads him to ask, "When a man had lovely children in his house . . . why couldn't he keep them?" (126). Like many patriarchs he sees the women as his property instead of adult people in their own right. And it is at this point, when the women have abandoned the old family home where St. Peter was in control, that his midlife crisis reaches its peak. Cather's aim is perhaps to show that although women are only allowed to make decisions in the domestic sphere, these decisions are generally sound. The girls select good marriage partners, and Lillian's insistence on moving to a new house will ultimately enrich the quality of their lives. Although Cather certainly uses these women to symbolize what Stout calls the " 'materialistic civilization' [that] was 'triumphant' in America" (194), they also underscore how women had little influence in the political sphere so were unable to prevent the escalation of male aggression into global war.
In contrast, the male characters represent men whose ideas have changed the world. As Merrill Maguire Skaggs explains in "Willa Cather's Great Emersonian Environmental Quartet," Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter is an eminent "embodiment of Emerson's 'American Scholar' " who "accomplished his professional work through conscious design," making an important contribution to academia as "the best of the West" (200). Louie Marsellus is the practical driving force that sees Tom Outland's ideas move from paper to production, thereby changing the course of aviation history. And Outland himself personifies the "glittering idea," which can now be equated with human scientific progress.
These characters represent the persistent pioneering quest for excellence made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1842 poem "Excelsior," which likely inspired the ballet title: The shades of night were falling fast, As through an Alpine village passed A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice, A banner with the strange device, Excelsior! His brow was sad; his eye beneath, Flashed like a falchion from its sheath, And like a silver clarion rung The accents of that unknown tongue, Excelsior! In happy homes he saw the light Of household fires gleam warm and bright; Above, the spectral glaciers shone, And from his lips escaped a groan, Excelsior! "Try not the Pass!" the old man said; "Dark lowers the tempest overhead, The roaring torrent is deep and wide!" And loud that clarion voice replied, Excelsior! "Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest Thy weary head upon this breast!" A tear stood in his bright blue eye, But still he answered, with a sigh, Excelsior! "Beware the pine-tree's withered branch! Beware the awful avalanche!" This was the peasant's last Good-night, A voice replied, far up the height, Excelsior! At break of day, as heavenward The pious monks of Saint Bernard Uttered the oft-repeated prayer, A voice cried through the startled air, Excelsior! A traveller, by the faithful hound, Half-buried in the snow was found, Still grasping in his hand of ice That banner with the strange device, Excelsior! There in the twilight cold and gray, Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay, And from the sky, serene and far, A voice fell, like a falling star, Excelsior! (22-23) "Excelsior" means "yet higher," and Longfellow's theme heralds the bravery of human endeavor. Its connection to the ballet and The Professor's House is further cemented by Cather's comment in "The Novel Démeublé" (1922) that writers should "present their scene by suggestion rather than by enumeration" (836). Therefore, whenever Cather "furnishes" her novel with a particular feature, it usually offers an important clue regarding subtext. She deliberately draws our attention to Longfellow by including his translation of the Norse poem "The Grave": For thee a house was built Ere thou wast born; For thee a mould was made Ere thou of woman camest. (272) Cather appears to be hinting that Longfellow's poems will reveal one of the ballet themes in this novel.
The excelsior men move civilization into the twentieth century, but the irony Cather proposes is that they also propel the world closer to total destruction. It was apparent in 1925 that the scientific progress so admired in the ballet did not (as the program promised) result in "brotherliness and love" and "an even greater glorification of the future" (10). Rather, it led to that other "great catastrophe" lurking behind The Professor's House that "swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (260). As Shaw concludes, "Instead of saving and preserving humanity, Outland creates a device which when used maliciously can imperil humanity" (125-26). The suggestion is that masculine genius, without the feminine light of civilization to temper the way, will change the world—but not necessarily for the better.
To further emphasize the paradoxical nature of scientific progress, Tom Outland (the inventor who contributed to aerial warfare) is killed in the first technological war. Steven Trout explains how, "It is precisely . . . [Hiram Maxim's Machine Gun,] the creation of a fellow American, that presumably kills Tom Outland, an inventor whose own scientific discoveries inevitably spawn military hardware" (163). And by uncovering the remains of the peace-loving tribe on the Blue Mesa, Outland also ironically discovers his nation's heritage of violent death; he then continues the patriarchal legacy by inventing a newer, more effective way to deliver carnage and destruction to other civilizations.
Perhaps because St. Peter is intelligent enough to anticipate the escalation of technology toward weapons of mass destruction, he engages in a passive suicidal impulse. What is the point of striving for knowledge and civilization if humanity is doomed to wide-scale annihilation? So when St. Peter comments that he is "nearing the end of his life," he perhaps means literally because "he didn't in the least believe he would be alive during the fall term" (267) but also metaphorically in that his relations with other people "would be of short duration" (271) if everyone on the planet is potentially damned. In this manner, Cather flips the traditional reading of the ending of The Professor's House to move away from the optimistic conclusion that St. Peter "could now face with fortitude . . . the future" (283) and introduces a more pessimistic realization that the Professor's near-death experience underscores his realization that humanity's days are numbered.
Yet Cather often juxtaposes simultaneous ideas, and a more complex conclusion to this novel is suggested by aligning it with Excelsior. At the end of the ballet several dozen children sit on the stage holding signs reading "Pax." Perhaps this inspired Cather to add the "advent of a young Marsellus" (273) at the very point in the story where St. Peter decides his "daughters had outgrown any great need of him" (281) and after he had been reminiscing about his own grandfather (Old Napoleon Godfrey), finally "beginning to understand what the old man had been thinking about" (266). If St. Peter had lost interest in his family because they no longer needed him (and therefore he had lost control of them), his first grandchild might offer him a new lease on life, bringing unity to the divided family. He or she might finally bring them all "peace." Cather appears to have returned to a similar idea in one of her late stories, "Before Breakfast," where the jaded Henry Grenfell experiences an epiphany watching the geologist's daughter swimming against the tide. Grenfell acknowledges that "plucky youth" always endures, evolves, and finds a way forward in the true excelsior spirit "on a long hop" (769). And because of this suggestion, the children at the end of both Cather's novel and the ballet perhaps represent renewed hope for a world on the brink of self-destruction.
A second ballet influence that helps elucidate the plot of The
Professor's House is Vaslav Nijinsky's unsuccessful production of
Jeux (1913). This dance is no longer extant. It was choreographed
to Debussy's music, and according to many sources it contained
a strong homoerotic undertone. In The Birth of the Ballets-Russes
Prince Peter Lieven describes how Jeux was set in a garden next
to a tennis court. Likewise, The Professor's House also features a
"walled-in [French] garden" (14) that Tom Outland walked into
when he first entered St. Peter's life (253). Lieven explains the
plot of Jeux: a young man (Nijinsky) chases a tennis ball across the
stage and is followed by two girls (Ludmila Schollar and Tamara
Karsavina) who "become jealous of each other, but finally agree
to share the young man's attentions, and the three form a sort of
ménage à trios" (188-89). Millicent Hodson's and Kenneth Archer's Web
site highlights the sensationalism of the piece:
[Jeux] is a daring dance poem about the libertinemanners and
mores of the Bloomsbury artists that [Nijinsky] and designer
Léon Bakst observed at a nocturnal tennis party in London's
The ambiguous coupling and tripling Nijinsky explored in
Jeux startled the public.
is a daring dance poem about the libertinemanners and mores of the Bloomsbury artists that [Nijinsky] and designer Léon Bakst observed at a nocturnal tennis party in London's Bedford Square.
The ambiguous coupling and tripling Nijinsky explored in Jeux startled the public.This dance, the first to openly suggest homosexuality, appears to have inspired Cather's bold treatment of the more unconventional relationships in The Professor's House.
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky reveals how the bisexual dancer "composed this ballet on the subject of lust" to represent "the kind of life Diaghilev [founder of the Ballets Russes] dreamed of," with two male lovers (206-7). And while there has been much speculation on the nature of Cather's own relationships with other women, whatever her sexual orientation may have been she certainly explores several ambiguous relationships throughout this novel, experimenting with the ménage à trois theme in both homosexual and heterosexual ways. Firstly, the two St. Peter daughters vie for Tom Outland's attention. At the start of their relationship Outland is around twenty years old, with a "manly, mature voice" (112) in contrast to the giggles of St. Peter's "two little girls" (117). He "would spend hours with them in the garden," telling stories of his adventures with Roddy Blake (122), and St. Peter recollects how he "enjoyed the prettiness and freshness and gaiety of the little girls as if they were flowers" (124). There is something disturbing about the relationship between a full-grown man and two children young enough to still require afternoon naps (131). Yet, for Tom, who perhaps harbored latent homosexual desires (in a time when such sexuality was considered deviant), the St. Peter girls might have provided a less threatening alternative to adult females. Even the Professor comments on the advantages Tom enjoys by dying before the possessive hand of a wife was laid on his own. And there is always the possibility that Outland may have been bisexual.
Some type of homoerotic bond seems to be suggested between Outland and St. Peter, of which "Lillian had been fiercely jealous." The Professor himself acknowledges how "sometimes a second infatuation" gradually "makes a difference" in a marriage. This revelation is juxtaposed against his comment that in "their own case it had been, curiously enough, his pupil, Tom Outland" so that the vague hint of a potentially romantic relationship between St. Peter and his protégé is implied (49). At the opera Lillian explains how "it wasn't the children who came between us," expressing "something that spoke of an old wound, healed and hardened and hopeless" (94). And Cather's speaker reveals that it was "after the Professor began to take Tom up to the study and talk over his work with him, began to make a companion of him" that Lillian "withdrew her favour" (173).
Outland may have also had a previous homoerotic relationship with Roddy Blake. In Willa Cather and Others, Jonathan Goldberg writes that Outland's treatment of the Anasazi artifacts is "a denial of the bond of friendship and love with Roddy" (146). In the middle section of The Professor's House, Tom tells how Roddy "had been unlucky in personal relationships" with women. He continues, "He surely got to think a lot of me, and I did of him" (185). When Henry Atkins joined them, Tom recalls, "The three of us made a happy family" (198)—in a newfound male-centered Eden that is ironically destroyed by a snake bite and a betrayal. After his final argument with Roddy, Tom recalls how there "was an ache in my arms to reach out and detain him, but there was something else that made me absolutely powerless to do so" (247). Next comes the erotic "religious" rush of possession—to have the mesa to himself and to atone for destroying his friendship with Roddy. He then romances the two St. Peter girls, gets engaged to Rosamond, but rushes off to war before he has to consummate their relationship. If Outland was either homosexual or bisexual, it is also possible that his desire to join the Professor's family might have come as much from a repressed sexual attachment to the athletic-looking father (Roddy's replacement), as to his childlike daughter.
Cather then explores yet another unconventional dynamic in Lillian St. Peter's relationships with her daughters' husbands. On one occasion Lillian is described as wearing "the white silk crêpe dress that had been the most successful of her summer dresses" (reminding us of the white female tennis dress costumes of Jeux), and St. Peter is amused by her "coquetry," acknowledging that she "wouldn't have made herself look quite so well if Louie hadn't been coming" (77). She had also developed "arch and confidential relations" with her other son-in-law, Scott McGregor (78), and had "begun the game ["jeu/x"] of being a woman all over again" (79). Although her attraction to these young men is heterosexual, it is another subtly taboo portrayal of incestuous human interactions. The sexual overtones are underscored in the Professor's statement that "Beaux-fils, apparently, were meant by Providence to take the husband's place when husbands had ceased to be lovers" (160). There is no suggestion of any intentional misbehavior on Lillian's part, but her attempts to engage her daughters' partners perhaps comes from the psychological insecurity of failing to attract the dashing Tom Outland, who clearly had more interest in her husband and little daughters than in herself.
Just as the three dancers in Jeux form different homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual flirtatious scenarios, the trios in The Professor's House do likewise. Outland seems to represent a dynamic Nijinsky character, who not only weaves in and out of the central relationships but who also haunts the lives of St. Peter's family long after he is dead. So although Goldberg concludes that in this novel, "Cather does not represent the homosexual per se as a minority" because "forms of desire are not assumed to be absolutely distinct," she (like Nijinsky) does seem to have been exploring this realm of the "secret self" (144). And her daring experimentation with a combination of new and taboo relationships serves to highlight the fact that homosexuals were often the other silenced victims of patriarchy.
As The Professor's House was the first novel Cather wrote after her confirmation in the Red Cloud Episcopal Church (1922), it is not surprising to find that, as well as exploring secular ideas, the novel also deals with spiritual issues. These same concerns form her response to a third ballet influence: images from the dance version of Faust, intermingled with Goethe's play and Gounod's operatic performance, account for much of the characterization and "scene changes" detectable in the novel. The New York Times reveals that the operatic version of Faust (1859) was frequently performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, with the accompanying (incidental) ballet Walpurgisnacht included in the program. But the full ballet version of Faust (three acts and seven scenes choreographed by Jules Perrot) was first performed in Milan in 1848. No doubt Cather would have known that the role model for the original Doctor Georg Faust had the reputation of a "great sodomite and necromancer" in sixteenth-century Germany. He was also described as a "vagabond who succeeded in arousing some belief in his powers of foretelling the future," especially among "gullible university students." Over the centuries his story was retold throughout Europe, perhaps most successfully in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's two-part epic Faust (1808 and 1833). Goethe was a writer whom Cather greatly admired. Indeed, she draws a direct reference to the poet in The Professor's House when the St. Peters are at the opera and Lillian comments that the tenor "looks to me exactly like the pictures of Goethe in his youth," to which Godfrey agrees (93). This provides a clue that the Faustian theme lies at the heart of this novel.
A second direct connection to Faust appears at the start of the novel when Professor St. Peter is introduced: "His wicked-looking eyebrows made his students call him Mephistopheles—and there was no evading the searching eyes underneath them. [. . .] They had lost none of their fire" (13). This is clearly no coincidence, especially when in The Kingdom of Art Cather had already expressed very strong ideas about this particular character. She calls Mephistopheles "the spirit that denies," who is "always shrouded in mystery and doubt" (280). This mystery and doubt is the source of his power. Cather concludes that "something must be done to convey the idea of supreme evil, of more than mortal hate. This cannot be done directly. It must be accomplished indirectly and by inference" (280).
In The Professor's House Cather seems to address the challenge of portraying evil "indirectly" by having a Mephistophelian Professor educating a Faustian Tom Outland. Outland is perhaps intended to reflect aspects of Goethe's Faust: according to the description in Collier's Encyclopedia, "Faust is introduced as a general, engineer, colonizer, man of affairs, and empire builder. He is at the height of his earthly career, but the inner conflict remains as painful as ever, for he cannot achieve human happiness without destroying human lives, nor create an earthly paradise with work and plenty for all without resorting to evil means" (11:195). Unfortunately the lessons that St. Peter and his colleagues teach allow Outland to contribute to the "supreme evil" of war—an event involving "more than mortal hate" when sanctioned by a patriarchal Christian God.
The ballet version of Faust further reinforces Cather's characterization of St. Peter and Outland by casting Rosamond in the role of Marguerite, the young woman in the ballet whom Faust woos and wins with the help of his mentor. A central theme of The Professor's House is the quest for lost youth, which the Professor tries to recapture through his relationship with his student: "He loved youth . . . it kindled him" (28). He also lives in a house "painted the colour of ashes" (11), and his name suggests he is both Godfree (free of God) and that he has denied Christ (like the Biblical St. Peter). Yet Cather portrays the Professor more as Twain's fallen angel Satan rather than the shape-changing demonic dancer on stage: his "close-growing black hair threw off a streak of light along the rounded ridge where the skull was fullest," resembling a halo (13). But St. Peter's "heaven" at the top of the house might easily be interpreted as "hell" when Cather describes his study as a "dark den" in a "dead, empty house" (15-16), filled with "headless, armless female torso[s]" (17). When he tells Augusta (perhaps representing Saint Augustine, the missionary who converted European pagans to Christianity) that "You'll never convert me back to the religion of my fathers now" (24), the suggestion is that, like Faust and Mephistopheles, the St. Peter character believes himself alienated from God.
The "staging" of Cather's novel also seems to have been inspired by the ballet version of Faust. At the start of chapter 3 Cather writes, "St. Peter awoke the next morning with the wish he could be transported on his mattress from the new house to the old" (46). This image comes directly from the ballet, where Mephistopheles takes Faust to various places via his magic cloak: "He spreads his cloak on the ground and signs to Faust to stand on it, when they both disappear" (Beaumont 272). The ballet also highlights the envy Marguerite inspires when Faust and Mephistopheles endow her with special gifts and jewels, a theme Cather develops with Rosamond over the Outland royalty payments and the new wealth it bestows on her. And as Beaumont explains in the Complete Book of Ballets, Marguerite has to battle the seven deadly sins of pride, gluttony, sloth, envy, anger, avarice, and lust (274), as do the central characters in the St. Peter family.
The ballet version of Faust further explains why The Professor's House is so concerned with possessions. What people most possess is their spirituality (the soul), unless they are tempted by the seven deadly sins or they sell out for knowledge. In this latter instance St. Peter becomes like an "empty house." The Professor has spent a lifetime acquiring knowledge to fill the "upstairs room" (brain) and is described by his wife as "the wisest person in the world" (163), and yet he lacks the oldest knowledge of all—the religion of his fathers (Murphy 63). This character flaw helps demonstrate how the St. Peters' house becomes a metaphor for Godfrey himself. The Longfellow poem actually quoted in the text describes a coffin as the house promised "Ere thou wast born" and "Ere thou of woman camest" (272). Yet although St. Peter's body and house are old and empty (lacking soul), there is still time to seek salvation and refill the void with new life. The grave does not have to be the Professor's final home; his spirit can live in another dimension or cease its endless craving.
When Augusta successfully "saves" her employer, it can be interpreted as both literally from "accidental extinction" (282) and spiritually because there "was still Augusta . . . with whom one was outward bound" (281), if "outward bound" is interpreted as replacing the heaven of "the fathers" with the Buddhist concept of non-desire (Nirvana). Unlike Faust, who is damned by falling into despair (the unforgivable sin), St. Peter's near-death experience helps him find fortitude, which becomes his redeeming virtue. He finally "felt the ground under his feet. He thought he knew where he was, and that he could face with fortitude the Berengaria and the future" (283). This interpretation of the conclusion accepts that the Professor has been "saved."
So in another of her clever reversals, Cather takes the damnation of Faust and reworks the traditional ballet ending so that in her version it is Mephistopheles who is redeemed instead of being damned to eternal hell and Faust who, rather than ascending into heaven with Marguerite, is doomed to the flames, the smoke, and the terrible screams of the Great War. In this instance war represents hell, and the way to redemption is either to enter Nirvana and end desire on an individual level or to unite in civilized groups to reclaim the metaphorical soul of humanity. Scientific progress has "given us a lot of ingenious toys" but no "new amazements" or "richer pleasures"—instead it "taketh away the sins of the world" which "impoverish(es)" people. The war wipes out "the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives" (68). When the belief in God dies, so does the value of the human soul; the "house" becomes vacant.
In many complex and sophisticated ways the tripartite structure of The Professor's House helps explain Cather's views on the postwar world, and her incorporation of ballet ideas into plot, theme, and characterization provide additional layers of texture and subtlety. Cather's reversal of Excelsior's optimism highlights the battle of the sexes, suggesting that patriarchy leads to war and that women suffer the consequences of unchecked male aggression; and the dance trios of Jeux demonstrate how patriarchal culture has repressed the homoerotic or bisexual "secret self." Her use of the Excelsior theme also shows that progress and scientific knowledge inevitably end in destruction, a theme underscored by the additional use of Faust to demonstrate how knowledge and death are interconnected. She suggests that humanity makes its own hell on earth by creating full-scale technological warfare.
Interestingly, Cather chooses to reverse each of the traditional ballet endings. Excelsior's optimism in scientific progress is turned full circle back to a time of post-war darkness. Jeux's happily consensual ménage à trois situation is rewritten to display jealousy and unhappiness. And in Perrot's Faust, the protagonist ends up in heaven, while Cather's Faust is condemned to hell fire and death. Yet when synthesized together, these ballets offer an alternative ending to the usual interpretation of the novel that Godfrey St. Peter is "saved." Once these ideas are assimilated into the reading of the text, it is possible to believe the Professor is left in an "empty house," a world devoid of soul, where good and evil are no longer clearly definable. St. Peter experiences the postwar Modernist alienation from God—a position that may have been familiar enough to Cather to have prompted the author's own return to the Church in the time before writing this book. And through her skillful use of ballet themes, Cather successfully critiques patriarchal culture, modern warfare, and technological progress, highlighting how the "glittering idea" of scientific invention had suddenly lost its luster.