Overmyer's Amphitryon: Adapting Kleist for a Contemporary Audience

By Andreach, Robert J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Overmyer's Amphitryon: Adapting Kleist for a Contemporary Audience


Andreach, Robert J., Papers on Language & Literature


In the published text of his Amphitryon, Eric Overmyer expresses his gratitude to Brian Kulick and David Esbjornson for asking him to adapt Kleist's Amphitryon for New York's Classic Stage Company. Esbjornson is the company's artistic director, and Kulick was the director of the 1995 production of the adaptation. In the playbill for the production, the Classic Stage Company (CSC) identifies its mission as a dedication to "revitalizing classical theatre for American audiences." Among its artistic goals, it lists making "classical theatre accessible to new audiences, especially young people." Given CSC's mission and goal, this article examines what Overmyer adapts in Kleist's play to revitalize it, making it accessible to a contemporary audience.

As with all CSC productions, the playbill contained an insert supplying background information. The insert retells the myth that is the drama's foundation and highlights a history of its dramatized versions from Plautus through Giraudoux and Behrman. The story is a persistent theatrical favorite. By naming his play Amphitryon 38, Jean Giraudoux in 1929 jokingly referred to 37 prior versions. In 1986 the myth was the basis of a musical not highlighted in the insert: Barry Harman and Grant Sturiale's Olympus on My Mind, performed at New York's Lamb's Theater.

The drama usually takes place in a day in the ancient Greek city of Thebes. With the Theban commander, Amphitryon, away at war, Jupiter impersonates him to enjoy a night with his wife Alcmena. The fun of a production is in dramaturgy that doubles characterizations. Sent ahead by Amphitryon to herald his return, the servant Sosia is denied entrance to the palace by Mercury in the servant's guise. When the commander arrives, he denies having spent the preceding night with Alcmena, who denies having spent the night with anyone other than him. But since her lover is a god and the play a comedy, Jupiter ends the confusion before leaving in triumph. The reunited couple are rewarded. They learn that Jupiter chose Alcmena to bear his son. Of the twins the couple will parent, Hercules is a demigod who will bring renown to them.

The above outline is fairly constant for the many versions. The shift in the story's development that affects Overmyer's 1995 Amphitryon is the one in Heinrich von Kleist's 1806 Amphitryon: A Comedy after Moliere (Ein Lustspiel nach Moliere). We must isolate the contribution the German playwright introduces into the story as Moliere dramatized it in 1668 to appreciate the contemporary American version. The playbill's subtitle for the 1995 adaptation is A Comedy after Kleist by Way of Moliere. Since the published text adds to the playbill's subtitle with a Little Bit of Giraudoux Thrown In, we also must glance at the 1929 version before we can enter the contemporary world.

With the exception of the prologue that Kleist does not repeat, the first scene of significant difference between the Frenchman's 1668 version and the German's 1806 version occurs in act 1. In Moliere's comedy, Mercury, impersonating Sosia, so pummels the servant in his attempt to enter the palace that he turns tail for the military camp. As Jupiter, impersonating Amphitryon, and Alcmena come outside, the god appeals to the wife to think of him as her lover and not her husband. To think of him as the latter implies that she yielded to him, not from passion, but from conjugal obligation. He prefers that she confine her virtue to the husband while giving her heart to the lover. She, however, cannot separate the two. Moreover, rather than inhibiting her, marriage permits her to yield to passion.

The corresponding scene in Kleist's version extends the dialogue until Alcmena promises to think of him, the lover, after the husband returns from war. She is not displeased, though. On the contrary, she attributes his insistence to the intoxication he experienced in the visit, an intoxication she shares.

The second scene of significant difference occurs in act 2.

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