The Rehearsal Studio: A Literary Connection Overlooked (or just ignored)?

The Rehearsal Studio
A place to exercise ideas before writing about them with greater discipline.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
by Stephen Smoliar

At last night's Call & Response recital by the Cypress String Quartet, there was a potentially interesting literary connection that I chose to ignore in my review because there were too many other points I felt were more important. Nevertheless, I believe it still deserves some "examination." It concerns the juxtaposition on Elena Ruehr's new string quartet, Bel Canto, based on a 2001 novel of the same name by Ann Patchett, with Franz Schubert's D. 810 D minor string quartet, best known as "Death and the Maiden."

The connection may be appreciated through the précis of Patchett's novel that Richard Scheinin provided in a preview piece that appeared in the Eye section of the February 25 San Jose Mercury News:Patchett's book is about hostage-taking terrorists and their victims: business executives, powerful politicians and a fictional world-famous soprano named Roxane Coss, who have gathered for a birthday party at the home of the vice president of an unnamed Latin American country. The terrorists creep in through the heating vents and take over -- and what happens during the next few months of terrible but rich coexistence is unexpected: a web of friendships and love affairs evolves.

The connection has to do with the fact that Death and the Maiden is also the title of a film Roman Polanski made in 1994, based on a play by Ariel Dorfman that had a relatively successful run in New York. Like Patchett's novel it is set in "an unnamed Latin American country." It also involves a hostage situation, but with a different twist. It is about a woman (Sigourney Weaver) who discovers that her neighbor is a man (Ben Kingsley) who had once tortured her for her political beliefs. She captures him and holds him hostage, and the plot revolves around whether or not she will apply to him the same treatment he had applied to her. The title comes from the fact that her most vivid memory of her experience with him was that he would play that Schubert quartet while torturing her.

From a narratological point of view, these are entirely different stories; so it would not surprise me if Patchett was unaware of either Dorfman's play or Polanski's film. On the other hand in this same preview piece, Ruehr describes herself as a pretty voracious reader; but I have yet to encounter any sign that she knew about this politically charged literary connection to Schubert's quartet. In my piece I made reference to the red hot dramatic intensity of Schubert's music. This additional connection, which may well be accidental or coincidental, knocked that temperature up a notch for my own listening experience!