The Cenci, A Tragedy, in Five Acts
(1819) is a verse
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...
in five acts by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...
written in the summer of 1819, and inspired by a real Italian family, the Cencis (in particular, Beatrice Cenci
Beatrice Cenci was an Italian noblewoman. She is famous as the protagonist in a lurid murder trial in Rome....
, pronounced CHEN-chee). Shelley composed the play at Rome and at Villa Valsovano near Livorno, from May to August 5, 1819. The work was published by Charles and James Ollier, in London in 1819 (see 1819
Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature .-Events:* The period from September 1818 to September of this year is often referred to among scholars of John Keats as "the Great Year", or "the Living Year", because during this period he was most...
), the Livorno
Livorno , traditionally Leghorn , is a port city on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western edge of Tuscany, Italy. It is the capital of the Province of Livorno, having a population of approximately 160,000 residents in 2009.- History :...
edition, printed in Livorno, Italy by Shelley himself in a run of 250 copies. Shelley told Thomas Love Peacock
Thomas Love Peacock was an English satirist and author.Peacock was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley and they influenced each other's work...
that he arranged for the printing himself because in Italy "it costs, with all duties and freightage, about half of what it would cost in London." Shelley sought to have the play staged, describing it as "totally different from anything you might conjecture that I should write; of a more popular kind ... written for the multitude." Shelley wrote his publisher Charles Ollier that he was confident that the play "will succeed as a publication." A second edition appeared in 1821, his only published work to go into a second edition during his lifetime.
The play was not considered performable in its day due to its themes of incest
Incest is sexual intercourse between close relatives that is usually illegal in the jurisdiction where it takes place and/or is conventionally considered a taboo. The term may apply to sexual activities between: individuals of close "blood relationship"; members of the same household; step...
Parricide is defined as:*the act of murdering one's father , mother or other close relative, but usually not children ....
, and was not performed in public in England until 1922 when it was staged in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
. In 1886 the Shelley Society had sponsored a private production at the Grand Theatre, Islington
Islington is a neighbourhood in Greater London, England and forms the central district of the London Borough of Islington. It is a district of Inner London, spanning from Islington High Street to Highbury Fields, encompassing the area around the busy Upper Street...
, before an audience that included Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning, and George Bernard Shaw. Though there has been much debate over the play's stageability, it has been produced in many countries including France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...
, Czechoslovakia, and the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
. It was included in the Harvard Classics
The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, is a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W...
as one of the most important and representative works of the western canon
The term Western canon denotes a canon of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the "greatest works of artistic merit." Such a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the...
The horrific tragedy, set in 1599 in Rome, of a young woman executed for pre-meditated murder of her tyrannical father, was a well-known true story handed down orally and documented in the Annali d'Italia
, a twelve-volume chronicle of Italian history written by Ludovico Antonio Muratori
Ludovico Antonio Muratori was an Italian historian, notable as a leading scholar of his age, and for his discovery of the Muratorian fragment, the earliest known list of New Testament books....
in 1749. The events occurred during the Pontificate of Pope Clement VIII
Pope Clement VIII , born Ippolito Aldobrandini, was Pope from 30 January 1592 to 3 March 1605.-Cardinal:...
Shelley was first drawn to dramatize the tale after viewing Guido Reni
Guido Reni was an Italian painter of high-Baroque style.-Biography:Born in Bologna into a family of musicians, Guido Reni was the son of Daniele Reni and Ginevra de’ Pozzi. As a child of nine, he was apprenticed under the Bolognese studio of Denis Calvaert. Soon after, he was joined in that...
's portrait of Beatrice Cenci, a painting that intrigued Shelley's poetic imagination.
The play opens with Cardinal Camillo discussing with Count Francesco Cenci a murder in which Cenci is implicated. Camillo tells Cenci that the matter will be hushed up if Cenci will relinquish a third of his possessions, his property beyond the Pincian gate, to the Church. Count Cenci has sent two of his sons to Salamanca, Spain in the expectation that they will die of starvation. The Count's virtuous daughter, Beatrice, and Orsino, a prelate in love with Beatrice, discuss petitioning the Pope to relieve the Cenci family from the Count's brutal rule. Orsino withholds the petition, however, revealing himself to be disingenuous, lustful for Beatrice, and greedy. After he hears the news that his sons, Rocco and Cristofano, have been brutally killed in Salamanca, the Count holds a feast in celebration of their deaths, commanding his guests to revel with him. Cenci drinks wine which he imagines as "my children's blood" which he "did thirst to drink!" During the feast, Beatrice pleads with the guests to protect her family from her sadistic father, but the guests refuse, in fear of Cenci's brutality and retribution.
Count Cenci torments Beatrice and her stepmother, Lucretia, and announces his plan to imprison them in his castle in Petrella. A servant returns Beatrice's petition to the Pope, unopened, and Beatrice and Lucretia despair over the last hope of salvation from the Count. Orsino encourages Cenci's son, Giacomo, upset over Cenci's appropriation of Giacomo's wife's dowry, to murder Cenci.
Beatrice reveals to Lucretia that the Count has committed an unnameable act against her and expresses feelings of spiritual and physical contamination, implying Cenci's incestuous rape of his daughter. Orsino and Lucretia agree with Beatrice's suggestion that the Count must be murdered. After the first attempt at parricide fails because Cenci arrives early, Orsino conspires with Beatrice, Lucretia, and Giacomo, in a second assassination plot. Orsino proposes that two of Cenci's ill-treated servants, Marzio and Olimpio, carry out the murder.
The scene shifts to the Petrella Castle in the Apulian Apennines. Olimpio and Marzio enter Cenci's bedchamber to murder him, but hesitate to kill the sleeping Count and return to the conspirators with the deed undone. Threatening to kill Cenci herself, Beatrice shames the servants into action, and Olimpio and Marzio strangle the Count and throw his body out of the room off the balcony, which is entangled in a pine. Shortly thereafter, Savella, a papal legate, arrives with a murder charge and execution order against Cenci. Upon finding the Count's dead body, the legate arrests the conspirators, with the exception of Orsino, who escapes in disguise.
The suspects are taken for trial for murder in Rome. Marzio is tortured and confesses to the murder, implicating Cenci's family members. Despite learning that Lucretia and Giacomo have also confessed, Beatrice refuses to do so, steadfastly insisting on her innocence. At the trial, all of the conspirators are found guilty and sentenced to death. Bernardo attempts a futile last-minute appeal to the Pope to have mercy on his family. The Pope is reported to have declared: "They must die." The play concludes with Beatrice walking stoically to her execution for murder. Her final words are: "We are quite ready. Well, 'tis very well."
- Count Francesco Cenci, head of the Cenci household and family
- Beatrice, his daughter
- Lucretia, the wife of Francesco Cenci and the stepmother of his children
- Cardinal Camillo
- Orsino, a Prelate
- Savella, the Pope's Legate
- Andrea, a servant to Francesco Cenci
- Marzio, an assassin
- Olimpio, an assassin
- Giacomo, son of Francesco Cenci
- Bernardo, son of Francesco Cenci
1935 Production at the Newcastle People's Theatre
In February, 1935, Shelley's play The Cenci
was staged by the People's Theatre, Rye Hill, Newcastle on the Tyne, in the UK, directed by Cecil McGivern. The role of Cenci was played by McGivern, while William Wilson played Orsino, Louise Smith played Beatrice, Winifred Eddy was Lucretia, and R. J. Perring was Savella. In 2001, the play was again staged by the People's Theatre in a version directed by Christopher Goulding.
Antonin Artaud Adaptation
Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, more well-known as Antonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director...
staged his adaptation of Shelley's The Cenci
in 1935, but his extensive use of surrealism in the performance meant that the production was shown only 14 times before closing. Antonin Artaud
Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, more well-known as Antonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director...
used highly graphic and disturbing images that were meant to release the audience from their current state of mind, especially during the murder scene where the main character Count Cenci (the role that was played by Artaud) is murdered by his two servants. These images were supposed to release the 'Savage under the skin', an aim that was commonly used by Artaud in many of his performances.
The German composer Berthold Goldschmidt
Berthold Goldschmidt was a German Jewish composer who spent most of his life in England...
composed an opera in three acts based on the Shelley play in 1949 entitled Beatrice Cenci
with a libretto by Martin Esslin
Martin Julius Esslin OBE was a Hungarian-born English producer and playwright dramatist, journalist, adaptor and translator, critic, academic scholar and professor of drama best known for coining the term "Theatre of the Absurd" in his work of that name...
"after Shelley's verse drama The Cenci
". The opera won first prize in the Festival of Britain
The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition in Britain in the summer of 1951. It was organised by the government to give Britons a feeling of recovery in the aftermath of war and to promote good quality design in the rebuilding of British towns and cities. The Festival's centrepiece was in...
opera competition in 1951. The opera was first performed in 1988. The first staged production of Beatrice Cenci
in the UK was by the Trinity College of Music
Trinity College of Music is one of the London music conservatories, based in Greenwich. It is part of Trinity Laban.The conservatoire is inheritor of elegant riverside buildings of the former Greenwich Hospital, designed in part by Sir Christopher Wren...
on July 9–11, 1998.
In 1951, British classical composer Havergal Brian
Havergal Brian , was a British classical composer.Brian acquired a legendary status at the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s and 1960s for the many symphonies he had managed to write. By the end of his life he had completed 32, an unusually large number for any composer since Haydn or Mozart...
composed an opera based on the Shelley play entitled The Cenci
, an opera in eight scenes. The opera premiered in 1997 in the UK in a performance in London by the Millennium Sinfonia conducted by James Kelleher..
In 1971, Beatrix Cenci
was premiered, an opera in two acts by Alberto Ginastera
Alberto Evaristo Ginastera was an Argentine composer of classical music. He is considered one of the most important Latin American classical composers.- Biography :...
to a Spanish libretto by the composer and William Shand, based on the Shelley play.
A reviewer writing for the Literary Gazette
in 1820 wrote that the play was "noxious", "odious", and "abominable". Alfred and H. Buxton Forman, on the other hand, praised The Cenci
as a "tragic masterpiece", elevating Shelley into the company of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare. Leigh Hunt, to whom the play was dedicated, effused over Shelley's "great sweetness of nature, and enthusiasm for good." Mary Shelley, in her note on the play, wrote that "[u]niversal approbation soon stamped The Cenci
as the best tragedy of modern times." She critically assessed Act V: "The Fifth Act is a masterpiece. It is the finest thing he ever wrote, and may claim proud comparison not only with any contemporary, but preceding, poet." She noted that "Shelley wished The Cenci
to be acted", intending the work, which she wrote was of "surpassing excellence", to be an acting play, not a "closet drama". Shelley sought unsuccessfully to have the play staged at Covent Garden. Byron wrote his criticisms of the play in a letter to Shelley: "I read Cenci
- - but, besides that I think the subject essentially un-dramatic, I am not a great admirer of our old dramatists as models. I deny that the English have hitherto had a drama at all. Your Cenci
, however, was a work of power and poetry." Byron told Thomas Medwin in conversation: "The Cenci
is ... perhaps the best tragedy modern times have produced." William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was a major English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with the 1798 joint publication Lyrical Ballads....
reportedly called the play "the greatest tragedy of the age." After seeing a performance of the play in 1886, George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60...
commented that "Shelley and Shakespeare are the only dramatists who have dealt in despair of this quality." The taboo subjects of incest, patricide, and parricide, as well as the negative depiction of the Roman Catholic Church, however, prevented The Cenci
from being staged publicly. The first public performance in England was in 1922.
was staged, in the Artaud adaptation, in 2008 at the Ohio Theater, located at 66 Wooster Street between Spring and Broome in Soho, New York, performed by the Hotel Savant Company, directed by John Jahnke. Count Cenci was played by Anthony Torn while Beatrice was played by Lauren Blumenfeld.
Productions of Shelley's The Cenci
- (1886) Grand Theatre, Islington, London, UK (private production)
- (1891) Paris, France
- (1919) Moscow, Russia
- (1920) Moscow, Russia
- (1922) Prague, Czechoslovakia
- (1922) New Theatre, London, UK
- (1926) London, UK
- (1933) Armenian Cultural Society of Los Angeles, California (in Armenian)
- (1935) People's Theatre, Newcastle, UK
- (1936) Yale University
- (1940) Bellingham, Washington
- (1947) Equity Library Theatre, New York
- (1947) BBC radio production
- (1948) BBC radio production
- (1948) Princeton University
- (1949) Mt. Holyoke College
- (1950) Walt Whitman School
- (1950) University of Utah
- (1953) Company of the Swan, London, UK
- (1953) Oxford, UK
- (1985) Almeida Theatre, London, UK
- (1991) Lyric Studio, London, UK
- (1995) Spotlighter's Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland
- (1995) Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL
- (1997) North Pole Theatre, Greenwich, London, UK
- (1997) El Teatro Campesino, San Juan Bautista, California
- (2001) People's Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
- (2003) Hayman Theatre, Perth, Western Australia
- (2005) The Lizard Loft and Cruel Theatre, Honolulu, Hawaii
- (2008) University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada
- (2008) Vassar College, New York
- (2008) Red Bull Theater, Theatre at St. Clement's, New York
- (2008) Shakespeare Troupe, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
- (2009) Mestno gledališče ljubljansko, Ljubljana, Slovenia (in Slovenian)
Other Works Titled The Cenci
Other works titled "The Cenci" include an 1837 novella by Stendhal
Marie-Henri Beyle , better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French writer. Known for his acute analysis of his characters' psychology, he is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism in his two novels Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme...
, Marie-Henri Beyle, Les Cenci
, and an 1840 true crime
True crime is a non-fiction literary and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people.The crimes most commonly include murder, but true crime works have also touched on other legal cases. Depending on the writer, true crime can adhere strictly to...
essay by Alexandre Dumas, père
Alexandre Dumas, , born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was a French writer, best known for his historical novels of high adventure which have made him one of the most widely read French authors in the world...
, included in Volume 1 of Celebrated Crimes.
- Introductory Note at Bartleby
- The New York Times review of the 2008 performance based on the Artaud adaptation: http://theater2.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/theater/reviews/13cenc.html?ex=1360645200&en=32148682b52ffb56&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
- A 2008 New York Times review, "It’s Not Just Cruel; It’s Unusual, Too", of the Artaud adaptation: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/theater/10blank.html?fta=y
- 2008 University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada production of Shelley's The Cenci: http://www.theontarion.ca/viewarticle.php?id_pag=2071
- Vassar College production of The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley, directed by Michael Barakiva: http://drama.vassar.edu/facilities.html
- The premier of the Havergal Brian opera based on the Shelley play in 1997: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/classical-the-new-life-of-brians-cenci-1289602.html