Dabbs, G.H.R., and Edward Righton. Dante: A Dramatic Poem. London: Macmillan, 1893. 23 September 2015. <https://books.google.com/books/reader?id=wWhNAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&pg=GBS.PA7>
by Kashamire Jean-Baptiste, Wendyliz Martinez, and Juan C. Hernandez
In this one-act play, Gemma, a poet’s wife, and an exiled noblewoman from Florence, Italy is discovered working in a poor Italian house in Ravenna, at a spinning wheel. Upon discovery Gemma rises and opens the window, speaking to herself while she gazes at her husband, Dante, as he daydreams in the garden. As she stares at her husband in his trance, she thinks about how much better it must be to be married to a clown as opposed to being married to a poet, who always seems to be stuck inside of a dream. After returning to her spinning wheel, she considers the self-sacrifice and virtue in being the sole provider for her family. She cannot fathom that even though she has sacrificed her nobility to be with Dante, his mind is always on another lady, her rival, whom she has not met.
As she is speaking to herself, Dante enters the room. He reveals that he was unable to find any inspiration for his work and that he has realized that he is on the verge of death. In response, Gemma tries to coax Dante to stop worrying about his inability to write and to pay attention to his family. She tells him that his “bitter tongue, and hand, and pen” has caused them to become isolated from those in Florence who were once their friends, and also has made the family so poor that they have nothing to eat. In turn, Dante voices the importance of his words. Once again he states that he is growing weak and frail and that he has to continue writing until he can write no more.
While they are speaking, he sits down to write. As he is writing, the couple continues to dispute back and forth, and Gemma repeatedly emphasizes their family’s destitution and Dante’s lack of renown. Dante responds that the nobles called his thoughts their own, accusing them of thievery. Chastening his wife for focusing only on matters of the flesh, he asks her to leave him alone. She explains to him that they had a chance to escape their current predicament, and he didn’t take it. He rebuts that the price of their status came with an unreasonably high rate of interest, that he did not want to pay and, more importantly, with the loss of his pride and honor if he were to petition his enemies to end their banishment. He says that the status and wealth that he had in Florence is no longer relevant to him, although he would not object if Gemma returned to. He is prepared to live in Ravenna for the rest of his life.
As Dante is telling Gemma that her concerns come only from her pride and that they should remain at an impasse because both of their arguments are in vain, there is a knock on the door. Folco Portinari, an old acquaintance from Florence, enters the house. Gemma welcomes him warmly, while Dante, who only vaguely remembers him, questions whether Folco will truly be received in his home. Folco addresses Dante and states that he has heard of Gemma and Dante’s plight and made the announcement that they could end their exile and return to Florence. Dante in reaction says that he’s suspicious of this news and asks Portinari what price he will have to pay in return. Although Folco voices that there’s no price to bear, Dante states that he does not want to go back to Florence as a destitute refugee. Alternatively, Gemma argues that if he dies his children will no longer remain in exile as he wishes. Pointing at a portrait that hangs on the wall of Dante’s house, Folco reveals that he is the brother of the woman in the painting and offers Dante enough money for it so that he may move back to Florence comfortably. Gemma begs Dante to accept Folco’s offer, but Dante laughs at the idea of giving up his painting. He sees Folco’s overture as a bribe, confirming that giving up the portrait would be like giving up his soul. While trying to reason with Dante, Gemma reveals her hatred of Beatrice, the woman in the painting Dante. Dante extols Beatrice’s virtues and how she understands him. Folco questions Dante’s obsession over the painting and Gemma states that it is Dante’s common night-time behavior.
While raving about the painting, Dante says “Ah, Beatrice, my heavenly Beatrice!,” and his young daughter, who is also named Beatrice, enters the room begging for some bread because she is starving. Dante states that he has no bread to offer, and Folco uses Beatrice’s hunger as a tool to lure Dante into relinquishing the painting. Dante breaks down. He says that he will give up the painting under the condition that he keeps it until his death and that payment for the painting come after his death and after all his debt has been paid off. He desires is not money but peace. Desperate for money, Gemma picks up Dante’s manuscripts and throws them on the floor, begging Folco for payment for the poet’s work. Folco refuses to pay for the poet’s work.
Dante describes his work as an expression of his communion with God, and his daughter Beatrice states that that his words have satisfied her; she is no longer hungry. Therefore, he doesn’t have to relinquish the painting of Beatrice, her namesake. Gemma criticizes her daughter for being just like her father and Folco. As Folco, following Dante’s repeated request, prepares to leave, he offers them one gold coin, which excites Beatrice as she sees it as the ability to have so much more than she has ever had in her life. She envisions the bread, figs, clothes and so much more that the one gold coin would bring them.
Dante and Beatrice converse and he asks her to recite a poem. As she recites the poem, Dante joins her. Folco leaves through the front door and Beatrice, while still reciting the poem and speaking of food, goes offstage in the opposite direction. Dante picks up his manuscript from the floor, and his eyes meet Gemma’s glare. Gemma finally confronts Dante about the identity of the other woman that he has fallen in love with, and he says that it’s too complex for her to understand. He explains that he is getting weak, and soon this woman will guide him that very night to a “brighter sphere.” Before walking away, Gemma warns Dante that his search for satisfaction will lead him to lose both his wife and his daughter.
After Gemma leaves, Dante sits to write and states that he is close to death. He laments that death comes before a poet is finished writing. He states, “The seal is graven that will close my soul.” He paces around his room until, pausing at the picture, he wonders whether he has exhausted the painting’s magical spell that has provided him with inspiration night after night. He returns to his writing but stops when he thinks his mind is playing tricks on him. Dante hears a voice, which advises him that the one thing preventing him from completing his work is his lack of love in his life. As Dante feels that his life is slowly coming to an end the figure of Beatrice, the lady in the picture, appears from the shadow. She reveals that his work is what has allowed her spirit to remain on the Earth, since the work of an artist continues to exist even after the artist has passed away. Dante questions whether these words are coming from within him or if it is truly Beatrice speaking. He decides that it is her influence. As he looks at Beatrice’s portrait, he receives more inspiration. As he writes and Beatrice dictates to him, he grows weak and speaks to her. He is happy with his exchange despite his weakness.
When he finishes his writing, he states that the “end is near” and that he can feel his end. Beatrice, illuminated, appears at the back of the stage. She calls Dante, and he s the room trying to find her. When he finally sees Beatrice, he falls to his knees. They speak, and Dante recalls the Easter morning before she died. She reminds him that he told her that they would be united in his death. Dante states that he understands why she is there and that he had called for her before. Beatrice assures him that her life truly started after death, and she was not “living” while alive. A light falls on the Virgin and child as they speak. Beatrice explains the image of the Virgin and child to Dante. She tells him that he will be content with the afterlife. She tells him that his time has come, and Dante walks towards her.
Outside the room, Gemma believes that she has discovered her rival as she opens the door. As she walks in, the room starts to feel gloomy, the apparition of Beatrice disappears, and Dante falls in front of a cross. After she calls out to her husband, she declares how strange the room looks, and little Beatrice comes into the room stating that her father called her. Gemma tells her that she cannot find Dante. Gemma walks about the room and finally finds Dante’s lifeless body. While she is looking after Dante’s unresponsive body, a vision of Beatrice and Dante appear. Little Beatrice can see the image, but Gemma cannot. Little Beatrice insists that Beatrice and her father are in the room, and Gemma begins to worry that Little Beatrice may be mentally unstable. Dante begins to speak, however, and Gemma hears his voice. Dante asks her to forgive and forget while telling her she has been a good wife and that he is leaving behind “sweet souls.”
As Gemma is holding on to Dante’s body, she vows to uphold his wishes. Dante tells Little Beatrice that she is pure and, therefore, can see his and Beatrice’s image when her mother cannot. Beatrice directs little Beatrice to tell Gemma that Dante looks full of peace. Dante then passes away after pledging to follow the spirit of Beatrice. The figures of both Dante and Beatrice ascend, and his daughter crosses her hands on her breast while her mother falls over Dante’s body.