Passion – "Unhappiness can be seductive"

In October last year, we went to see Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical Passion (based on Tarchett’s epistolary novel Fosca, written in 1869) at the Donmar Warehouse (as part of the Sondheim at 80 season).1

I am surprised how this production still lingers on my mind. The story, back then, struck me as unconvincing: a dashing Italian army officer (Giorgio – played by David Thaxton) falls in love with a diminutive, sickly and unattractive woman who dies at the end of the play (Fosca – played by Elena Roger), despite the fact that he has a very beautiful and voluptuous, albeit already married, lover (Clara – played by Sarlett Strallen).

At first, Giorgio is disgusted with Fosca; he sings:

Giorgio
Is this what you call love?
This endless and insatiable
Smothering pursuit of me.
You think that this is love?

I’m sorry that you’re lonely,
I’m sorry that you want me as you do.
I’m sorry that I fail to feel
The way you want me to feel.

I’m sorry that you’re ill,
I’m sorry you’re in pain.
I’m sorry that you aren’t beautiful.

But yes, I wish you’d go away
And leave me alone!

Everywhere I turn, there you are
This is not love
Just some kind of obsession.

Will you never learn when too far is too far,
Have you no concern
For what I want, what I feel?
(pointing at Clara’s letter)
Love is what you earn and return
When you care for another
So much that the other’s set free.
Don’t you see?
Can’t you understand?

Love’s not a constant demand,
It’s a gift you bestow
Love isn’t sudden surrender
It’s tender and slow, it must grow.

Yet everywhere I go,
You appear or I know you are near
This is not love just a need for possession.

Call it what you will
This is not love, this is a reverse
Like a curse, something out of control
I’ve begun to fear
For my soul…

But Giorgio’s feelings towards Fosca eventually change. The following exchange between the two of them on the train (Giorgio is on his way to Milan to meet Clara) seems vital:
Giorgio
How could you? How dare you follow me?
Fosca
You needn’t speak to me. You could pretend that I’m not even here.
Giorgio
 I am sick, don’t you understand?

Fosca
I understand all too well. I could attend to you.
I could help you get better.
Giorgio
I don’t want you to help. You’re the reason I’m sick.
Fosca
I apologize. Nothing could be further from what I
wanted for you. That is why I want to follow you to Milan.
To see that you are well.
Giorgio
Fosca, you can’t do this.
Fosca
I heard what you said, Giorgio. I’ve come to tell you that
I will keep my distance. I will stay out of your path. But
I can be nearby, I can be quietly watching.
Giorgio
And you think that this will make me love you?
Fosca
No, no. I am doing this because I love you.
Giorgio
My heart feels nothing for you.
How many times do you have to hear this?
Fosca
This has nothing to do with your heart. This has
to do with your eyes. What you see. If I were
beautiful. If I were warm and soft to your touch –
you would feel otherwise.
Giorgio
(firm)
No. Your appearance is no excuse for the way you behave.
My feelings towards you are because of your relentlessness,
your constant selfishness and insensitivity.
Fosca
I’m sorry. No one has ever told me how to love. I know I
feel too much, Giorgio. I often don’t know what to do
with my feelings. You understand that, don’t you?


It turns out that Giorgio does understand Fosca. The theme for “You think this is love”, formerly associated with Fosca, is now used in Giorgio’s response to Clara’s decision not to leave her family for him:

Clara
It seems to me the answer rests with you.
Yes, I have obligations at home, Giorgio,
but my heart is yours. When my son is older,
when he goes off to school, there is the
chance for us to be together. I will make
the sacrifice you ask of me then. Please
understand why I can’t now. Will you wait
for me, Giorgio? I have to know. We both
have to know.

[…]
Giorgio
You think that this is love?
Love isn’t so convenient.
Love isn’t something scheduled in advance,
Not something guaranteed you need
For fear it may pass you by.
You have to take a chance,
You can’t just try it out.
What’s love unless it’s unconditional?

Love doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow
And neither do I!

‘What’s love unless it’s unconditional // Love doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow’ — wow. Fosca’s foolish and headlong love for Giorgio has changed the man. In comparison, Clara now seems inferior and dull. Giorgio proclaims his love for Fosca in the following:


Giorgio
No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now:

Not pretty or safe or easy
But more than I ever knew.
Love within reason –
That isn’t love.
And I’ve learned that from you…
Are you cold?
Fosca
No, I’m afraid.
Giorgio
Of what?
Fosca
All this happiness,
Coming when there’s so little time.
Too much happiness
More than I can bear.
I pray for the strength to enjoy it.
You’ll leave tomorrow.
This is the only time we have.
You do love me, don’t you?
Giorgio
Yes, I love you.
Fosca
Say it again.
Giorgio
I love you.

When I was watching the musical, I thought Giorgio’s change of heart — from hating the ugly Fosca to loving her — was too quick. But after mulling the musical over for three months, I see that the first scene between Clara and Giorgio (I must add that they make the most exquisite and suggestive love on stage and better still, the act is accomplished without any vulgarity) already foreshadows what will happen between Giorgio and Fosca:

Clara
Then inevitable, yes,
But I confess it was the look
Giorgio
The look?
Clara
The sadness in your eyes
That day when we glanced at each other
In the park.
Giorgio
We were both unhappy.
Clara
Unhappiness can be seductive.
Giorgio
You pitied me…
Both
How quickly pity leads to love.

AFTERWORD

Of the entire musical, I like the following lines best, sung by the adulterous Clara to Giorgio: ‘I can visit you at night, / We’ll be lighted by the moon, / Not a shuttered afternoon.’

“How quickly pity leads to love”



1Listen to this wonderful Fresh Air interview “‘On Sondheim:’ The Musical-Theater Legend At 80” and then explore the full archive

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