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. After the husband and wife in Moliere's version exchange angry words about the preceding night, they part, he to secure a witness who will testify that he could not have been with her, she to be alone with her thoughts. When Jupiter as Amphitryon reappears to appease her, she lashes at him for his monstrous injury to her love and honor. He admits that the accusation of infidelity hurled at her was criminal but pleads that the husband and not the lover is the guilty party. She weakens as he submits. She forgives. Yet she cannot separate husband and lover. They are the same man, the one to whom she remonstrates.
The corresponding scene in Kleist's version is fundamentally different and follows from a scene Kleist introduces into his version. In the interim between Amphitryon's leaving to secure a witness and Jupiter's reappearance, Alcmena begins to doubt her senses. She now sees a J, where she saw an A, engraved on the gift that she had received the preceding night and that she used as proof in the angry scene with Amphitryon that he had given it to her. As a result of her doubt, the relationship between her and Jupiter reverses that of the two in the corresponding scene in Moliere's version.
Kleist's Alcmena apologizes to Jupiter as Amphitryon because she fears she has compromised their marriage. He does not remonstrate, but after persuading her that Jupiter visited her and gave her the gift, he leads her through an argument until she is forced to choose between the lover and the husband. He poses the following question: Suppose she discovers that the person she is embracing is the god and her husband appears; which one would she choose? After repeating the question to grasp its import, she replies, though still considering the argument hypothetical:
I'd be so very sad, oh so dejected, and wish that he could be the god and you would go on being my Amphitryon forever, as you are. (Kleist 56)
While there are other differences this essay will examine, this one deserves careful attention as it is the main difference between the two versions.
In the judgment of Martin Greenberg, Kleist's translator, "Kleist's Amphitryon starts out in the beaten path too, of translation of a classic. Perhaps that is all he meant it to be at first, a translation of Moliere, but then it turned-twisted-under his hand to become this unexampled work. . ." (xxix-xxx). By leading the wife through the argument until she can choose the god whose presence she feels, Jupiter empowers Alcmena to liberate herself from her maritality, that is, from a devotion to Amphitryon and marriage that borders on idolatry. In the scene in which she confided her doubt about the engraved monogram to her servant Charis, Sosia's wife, she also confided her perception of a difference in Amphitryon the preceding night:
I might have thought he was a portrait of himself, a painting by a master's hand showing him exactly as he is, and yet transfigured, like a god! (Kleist 44)
Separating the lover from the husband terrified her because it would mean she had committed adultery. She can separate them in the later scene only because Jupiter as Amphitryon assures her that since the god visited her in the guise of her husband, she is innocent and she thinks she is embracing Amphitryon. Nevertheless she does separate them.
Liberated, she senses, as she did the night before, something in the man she thinks is Amphitryon that exceeds Amphitryon. Now she can choose, for in the hypothetical question, were the husband to suddenly appear, she would choose him whom she is embracing. The something is divinity, which transcends earthly experience while being incarnated in it. Jupiter is the divine element in love, marriage, and husband which transcends them although experienced in them. In other words, whereas Moliere is a farceur, Kleist is a Romantic.
As skeletal as the summary is, it leads us to discuss Overmyer's adaptation of Kleist's Amphitryon by way of Moliere with a little bit of Giraudoux thrown in. Kleist's Amphitryon opens in act 1 with Sosia before Amphitryon's palace in Thebes, to which the servant has come from the military camp and where he pauses to rehearse his description to Alcmena of her husband's victory. Overmyer's Amphitryon opens with a prologue in two scenes, the second of which recreates the scene of Moliere's prologue, which Kleist does not repeat. The first scene recreates some of the atmosphere of the opening scene of act 1 of Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38.
Giraudoux's opening scene takes place outside the palace but does not involve the servant. Jupiter and Mercury are watching the shadows of Amphitryon and Alcmena move as the husband and wife embrace. Since Jupiter desires the wife, Mercury advises the senior shape-shifter to assume the husband's form after having a nation declare war on Thebes to draw the commander away from home. He, the junior shape-shifter, volunteers to assume the servant's form. Overmyer relocates the scene on a cloud with the two deities looking down upon Alcmena as she passes by the window, alone because Amphitryon is away at war. Mercury suggests that Jupiter assume the absent husband's form. The senior god then tells his junior to assume Sosia's form. As the former leaves to transform himself, the latter descends into the prologue's second scene to intercept the Goddess of Night.
The CSC production had a single set consisting of a rotating gazebo-like structure in the performance space. When on the roof, the actors playing Jupiter and Mercury were on a cloud. When they climbed down the sides, they were outside the palace, two sides of which were open. Actors and actresses wore Napoleonic costumes appropriate to the era in which Kleist wrote. The set had a more pronounced debt to the German Romantic, however. On the interior walls of the building's closed sides was printed a prayer Kleist wrote for the newspaper he edited. The prayer was reproduced, with a context, in the program insert.
When Mercury intercepts the goddess, they are in Overmyer's second prologue scene, which corresponds to Moliere's prologue. In the Frenchman's prologue, on Jupiter's behalf Mercury requests that Night slow down her appointed round so that the father of the gods, already with Alcmena, can prolong their night of lovemaking. Of course, there is more than the request. With Mercury's complaint against poets for denying him a vehicular conveyance-Night has a chariot-and the two deities' sly comments about sexual matters and the liberties the nobility, unlike the lower classes, can take, the 1668 prologue sets the tone for a witty, courtly comedy.
Overmyer's prologue sets the tone for another kind of comedy. The prevailing tone of Kleist's play is ambiguity. Overmyer captures a contemporary ambiguity in the Goddess of Night's opening statement. She cannot stay and chat, she tells Mercury, because she is late: "It's that damn full moon, it messes me up every month" (Overmyer 4). She subsequently refers to tides and the cosmic timetable, but when she makes the statement, it suggests that since she is a feminine personification, her monthly period is affected. Jupiter also affects her. In her dalliances with him, he is no mere courtly monarch but a power she cannot deny. When Mercury inquires about his performance, she replies, "Insatiable. . . . They don't call him father of the gods for nothing, you know" (5). As the second prologue ends, the power is already on earth. The Napoleonic costumes notwithstanding, the destination is the contemporary world. The goddess sends a sleepy Mr. Dawn, who enters carrying a container of coffee from a deli, back to bed for a few more hours.
Overmyer's prologue establishes not only the presence of the divine but some of its properties. It intrudes in human affairs by changing or transforming itself at will. That is, it is supernatural, since it can intervene in nature. It also is promiscuous and insatiable. Divinity's intrusion is the source of ambiguity in Overmyer's adaptation, an ambiguity that the playwright introduces in the prologue. And he reinforces the ambiguity in the first available opportunity in the play proper. The three versions-by Moliere, Kleist, and Overmyer-begin act 1 with Sosia before the entrance to his master's palace. In each version act l's second scene begins when Mercury as Sosia comes out of the palace and, unseen and unheard by the servant, remarks that he must get rid of Sosia before he bursts upon Jupiter and Alcmena in bed. Overmyer adds a series of questions. Addressing the audience, the contemporary Mercury ponders the gods' penchant for sleeping with mortal women. "Peculiar, don't you think? I mean, what is this fatal flaw? Aren't goddesses good enough? It's a puzzlement" (8). Mercury himself does not know the answer.
Mercury's questions take us into the play proper. We can put side by side the texts of Kleist's and Overmyer's plays, just as we can Moliere's and Kleist's, to determine where the adaptation diverges from the earlier version. In general Overmyer shortens long passages between god and wife and husband and wife. The result is more rapid reaction to each other and therefore interaction between them. The interaction allows the playwright to change the emphasis from that of the version he is adapting. For instance, believing that they were together the preceding night, Overmyer's Alcmena praises Amphitryon's performance: "You made love to me like a god!" (34). The wording is slightly different from that of the corresponding scene in Kleist's version, where Alcmena reminds her husband of what she believes was his excitement the preceding night: "You said you were a god" (36).
The slight change in emphasis to how the wife feels supports the major change in this act-1 scene. When Kleist's Amphitryon approaches Alcmena after a five-month absence, he is disappointed to discover that she is not overjoyed to see him and launches into a complaint against her lack of ardor. Stung by his reproach, she counters by reminding him that her lack of ardor is understandable given their night of lovemaking. Having discharged her conjugal debt the night before, she is spent.
Omitting all references to conjugal obligation, Overmyer shortens Amphitryon's reproach. He does not shorten Alcmena's defense; he makes a dramatic shift midway through it. After she reminds her husband that she gave all of herself during their night of "vigorous and joyful lovemaking," she suddenly begins to flirt. Aroused, she suggests that if he feels "so inclined-" (29). He interrupts her before she can finish the thought.
The dramatic shift to the revelation of the wife's erotic nature epitomizes the contemporary adaptation of the Romantic adaptation of Moliere's courtly farce. Kleist's Alcmena feels spent after a night of lovemaking. So does Overmyer's Alcmena. But as she and Amphitryon interact, she begins to feel aroused because the "miracle of love" renews (Overmyer 29). Love renews in the early 19th-century Amphitryon and the late 20th-century Amphitryon. How it renews each heroine is the difference between the two adaptations.
Kleist's Jupiter is pantheistic love. In the act-2 scene in which the deity leads the wife into a choice, Kleist's Jupiter as Amphitryon instructs Alcmena in a sermon that the god visited her because she ignores his divinity, his "handiwork" (51), manifest in nature. She confuses the force creating the universe with the emotion she feels for her husband. Creative love transcends conjugal love and conjugal obligation. Although it is experienced in the sensory world, it is not limited to marriage. By the scene's end, he triumphs because she chooses the love she feels in the embrace over that of her husband should he appear in the hypothetical situation. Her senses did not betray her the preceding night; her judgment did. Jupiter's presence renews her so that she can feel his divinity: the power of universal, creative love.
Overmyer starts with the assumption that a contemporary audience would find a sermon on pantheism somewhat daunting. It certainly would find laughable the invoking of conjugal obligation as an authority for intimacy. More to the point, though, is the strong strain of surrealism in the playwright's work.
Overmyer's Jupiter is surrealist love: eros, or desire, defined by surrealism's founder as the "only motive of the world" (Breton, Mad Love 88). Hence we can appreciate the contemporary playwright's reason for opening his adaptation with a two-scened prologue. Desire is divine. Intruding in human affairs, it liberates the person receptive to its power. Insatiable, it increases rather than depletes. Promiscuous, or irrational, it is mad love (l'amour fou).
In the act-2 scene, Overmyer's Jupiter as Amphitryon explains to Alcmena that the god visited her because he felt ignored. She confuses the only motive of the world, the motive creating the world, with the emotion she feels for her husband. Erotic love is creative love because it is life-affirming. It transcends conjugal love. Although it is experienced in the sensory world, it is not limited to marriage. By the scene's end, he too triumphs but even more so than his Romantic counterpart.
In each version the wife feels the love. In the angry scene, Amphitryon accuses her of adultery. Jupiter returns in the husband's guise to calm her and assure her that she cannot be blamed for the god's deception the preceding night. When she tries to flee in shame, he restrains her by holding her lovingly in his arms to make her feel worthy. The difference is in a passage Overmyer adds. Not only does Alcmena choose the god, but she takes on his power. She completes the thought her husband interrupted in the act-1 scene. "Tell me you're my Amphitryon," she says, "and let's go back to bed-" (50).
The next time she must choose is the final time in the play. Amphitryon returns with people loyal to him for a confrontation with the impostor. When Jupiter as Amphitryon and Alcmena come out of the palace, the commander's supporters are confounded. Once again, the wife chooses the god but not because of his divinity so much as because of the lack of it in her husband. Amphitryon in each play is a jealous husband come to claim his possession-his conjugal right-and Overmyer's Alcmena rejects him as "rank and gross" (72).
The mortal man does distinguish himself in each version. He reveals a nobility of character. He is not, however, the drama's artistic center. Moliere's Alcmena does not appear in act 3. Kleist's Alcmena does for the choice referred to in the preceding paragraph, and she remains onstage after Jupiter's epiphany, annunciation of Hercules's birth, labors, and apotheosis, and ascension to Olympus. Amphitryon then speaks to his wife, who is reviving after having fainted in his arms. Her response is the ambiguous "Ah!" (84).
Alcmena has had a lover, a divine one but a lover nonetheless. She has been instructed to realize that love transcends maritality. Whether she feels love's power in Amphitryon's arms, as she did in Jupiter's embrace, and reconciles with him or, having lost her innocence, will pursue love's power outside of marriage is for the individual spectator to decide. Greenberg sees her "back safely in the arms of her husband" (xxxv). For the two translators of a volume containing three dramatized versions of the story, the actress who plays the role "can turn this entire work at the very last second into a shattering tragedy or into a conciliatory comedy," although in their opinion Kleist "intended the latter" (Mantinband and Passage 207-08). In the judgment of another translator, the 1806 "play could more properly be called a tragedy with comic scenes" (Sonnenfeld xi).
Overmyer maintains the shift to Alcmena as the drama's artistic center but in contemporary terms, just as he maintains the maritality in contemporary terms. Before the god visits, the woman does not submit to conjugal obligation, but she defers to the male initiative. The visit liberates her. One passage can indicate the maritality and the shift away from it. In the angry scene between the husband and wife in Kleist's Amphitryon, he asks her to relate what happened the preceding night. She does. In the corresponding scene in Overmyer's Amphitryon, before she does, she teases him for wanting her to feed his ego:
Not content with hearing me call your name to heaven over and over while we made love, or showering you with compliments after, or singing your praises to anyone who will listen, without a shred of matronly modesty or shame? (33)
While ostensibly praising her partner's performance, Alcmena really reveals her uninhibited enjoyment of the intimacy. She reveals her sexual appetite, increasingly so until she takes the initiative and makes an explicit proposal to the god in the guise of her husband that they "go back to bed" (50).
In the contemporary scene in which the gods depart for Olympus, the husband and wife embrace, speak each other's name, and kiss. Yet their relationship is altered. Equal partners, Amphitryon adjusts to Alcmena's reality. To her announcement that she is pregnant, he responds, "We'll work it out" (75). There is no ignominy in their situation, not because they will parent Hercules, but because the love they bear is life-affirming. Their desire to be together heals the division they suffered. Theirs is not the sole situation in the surrealist adaptation, however.
It is Moliere who develops Charis, Sosia's wife, into a character who interacts with her husband and Mercury as her husband. Kleist continues the development, coarsening it. Moliere, Kleist, and Overmyer utilize the same dramaturgical principle of alternating scenes refined or coarsened depending on the participants. For the spectator or reader coming upon the dramatizations for the first time, paying attention to the way in which a scene elevates or lowers the concerns of the adjacent scenes provides entrance into the subtleties-of Jupiter's arguments, for example.
For some Kleist scholars, the Romantic's coarsening of the Sosia-Mercury-Charis interaction while elevating Jupiter, especially in the scene in which he delivers his pantheistic sermon, creates a "loss of unity" (Greenberg xxx) or a "disharmony" (Mantinband and Passage 206) in the 1806 play that is not in Moliere's 1668 play. Overmyer emphasizes the disharmony. Mr. Dawn enters the prologue carrying a container of coffee from a deli. The stage directions for the set specify a "palazzo in Thebes-which looks surprisingly like Venice" (7). When the characters speak a foreign word, they speak Italian.
The language of the 1995 adaptation is jarringly disharmonious. A word with an archaic flavor, "unbeknownst" (15), coexists with one from today's newspaper, "consensual" (21). The characters indulge in poetic devices such as alliteration in "convoluted conceit" (35), "celestial cobwebs" (45), and "purloined pork products" (34). Their vocabularies include words not in everyday conversation. "Addled" (46), "dallied" (51), "colluding" (55), "cosseted" (60), "folderol" (63), "conundrum" (64), "suzerainty" (64), "flummoxed" (65), "mendacity" (70), and "cozzened" (73) are ten such words distributed among six characters. None is exempt from the most pedestrian clich,s either: "lay low" until the disturbance "blows over" (14), "pop a gasket" (23), and "ball and chain" (27). Charis is tired of hearing the "old song and dance" (37) from Sosia, who wants to carouse "until the cows come home" (65). When a subordinate officer enjoins Amphitryon to "hold" his "horses" until the assemblage has proof of his identity, the commander dismisses him: "You're not the only oyster in the stew" (65). God that he is, Jupiter has the locution that climaxes the wit pervading the play. Before granting a wish to the couple in whose palace he dallied, he directs them to "pack up" their "cares and woes" (74), invoking American popular music ("Bye Bye Blackbird") while signaling his ascent to Olympus.
Developing Charis as a character in her own right and the disharmony between her and Sosia, Overmyer builds a parallelism into the play's structure. Act 1 of Kleist's Amphitryon ends with Charis alone onstage. As an attendant upon her mistress, she was present when the departing Jupiter as Amphitryon asked Alcmena to reserve her virtue for her husband but her heart for him. After Mercury as Sosia rejects her in the subsequent scene, the servant's wife fantasizes splitting virtue and love in her own life. She fantasizes taking a lover. Act 2 also ends with Charis alone onstage. She overheard the explanation of Jupiter as Amphitryon that the god visited Alcmena the preceding night. After the couple leave, she suspects Sosia may be a god in disguise, but once he reveals that he is her husband, she resolves not to be the doting wife anymore. Today his dinner will be cold. In act 3 she comes out of the palace with her mistress and Jupiter for the final scene, but she does not speak. Kleist is not interested in her.
Overmyer is. In Kleist's act 3, Mercury as Sosia tells the servant that he, the god, and Charis are on good terms again, but he does not elaborate beyond the fact that the wife is cooking his favorite meal. The audience can imagine whatever it chooses to. The contemporary playwright makes the corresponding material explicit by creating a scene in which the attendant can reveal her erotic nature. After Mercury leaves, Charis enters. She is happy to be cooking for a man who works "hard," she tells Sosia, mistaking him for her divine partner. Patting his bottom, she kisses him and thanks him for not being "quick" this evening (68).
Overmyer also creates a second scene for Charis. After the gods ascend and the reconciled couple go into the palace, she remains onstage in a scene that parallels the closing scenes of acts 1 and 2. But she is not alone. She kisses Sosia to get rid of him and then turns to the subordinate officer who shares the stage with her. They will share in another sense too. As they smile amorously at each other, Charis remarks that "once the gods have stirred the pot, things are never the same afterwards" (75). She will take a lover.
About Kleist's play translator Greenberg (xxxiv-xxxv) asks where the story happens. His answer is the modern soul. So, too, is the modern soul the site of the contemporary adaptation. Kleist's Amphitryon reconciles himself to his situation, but Alcmena's spiritual state is ambiguous. Overmyer's husband and wife reconcile themselves to their situation and each other, but Charis's spiritual state is ambivalent. Just as the contemporary adaptation separates the attendant for a choice of action independent of that of her mistress, so it separates her internally. She splits virtue and love, dividing her soul or self between husband and lover.
Charis blames the gods for the division, a consequence of their having "stirred the pot." They do cause the division in the Romantic and surrealist plays. There is no division in Moliere's play-Alcmena does not participate in act 3-which is why critics argue against reading the modern crisis of metaphysical identity into the courtly farce (Howarth 181). Not only do the gods cause the crisis in Kleist's and Overmyer's plays, but they cure it.
Jupiter appears in Kleist's dramatization of the myth to awaken Alcmena to his omnipotence. Since she worships her husband and marriage, the god separates her from them, dividing her soul and allegiance, to make her aware that Jupiter as love is divine. By themselves the husband and marriage are not; they are divine only because they partake of love's divinity. For Greenberg the play is a comedy because Alcmena awakens. About the closing scene, he writes, "But she is back safely in the arms of her husband, who caught her as she fainted, an innocent and doting wife (thank god) no longer. For innocent means ignorant" (xxxv).
In Overmyer's surrealist adaptation, Jupiter actualizes his omnipotence to a greater degree than does Kleist's Jupiter. By deleting the Romantic sermon as the god's explanation of his power and by having him feel his power more so than does his Romantic counterpart, Overmyer emphasizes love's irrationality: its inexplicable power to motivate. The divine messenger admits to the "puzzlement" (8) in the gods' desire for mortals. The father of the gods is actually discomposed by desire. Momentarily frustrated before Alcmena chooses him, because he believed she would fall in love with him, Kleist's Jupiter says in an aside, "Damn the deluded hope that tempted me / down here!" (54). In the corresponding contemporary scene, Overmyer's Jupiter is more emphatic: "Damn! I've fallen in love with her, but her love for me was an illusion after all" (49).
Surrealist love awakens Alcmena to the realization that in deferring to the culturally sanctioned gender roles, she divided her soul as evidenced by her conflict of allegiance. Having awakened her, Jupiter as l'amour fou liberates her from this constraining disharmony to recover her repressed nature. Discovering herself-her freedom to choose-she discovers divinity. She discovers the "miracle of love" that renews her the morning after the night of lovemaking. That miracle also renews the marriage on a new basis. She and Amphitryon reconcile, even though she is pregnant by a lover. Surrealist love having healed the disharmony within them, they will "work . . out" the disharmony between them.
In healing the division in modern man's soul, Romantic and surrealist love address the crisis of metaphysical identity, but the 1995 adaptation works out the issue more fully than does the 1806 dramatization. When in act 3 Amphitryon first comes face to face with Jupiter, Kleist's commander cries out in shock, "Almighty gods! Who are you?" (66). Overmyer's commander also suffers shock but expresses it differently: "Ye gods! My mirror image!" (62). To the forces he gathered for an entry into the palace, Kleist's Amphitryon refers to the impostor as the "son of darkness" (75). Overmyer's Amphitryon uses the complementary postmodern term for mirror image: "the other" (69).
When in the mirror stage of development the subject encounters his mirror image, he has a shock of recognition and alienation. He sees who he is and who he is not; he encounters himself and his other. No extended scene between Amphitryon and Jupiter ensues because such a scene would shift the artistic center from Alcmena to Amphitryon, yet what does ensue is consistent with the subject-other encounter in postmodernism and surrealism. In Richard Foreman's The Universe, a 1996 play by the founder of the experimental Ontological-Hysteric Theater, James, the subject, and Mary, the other, recoil when they look into each other's eyes. When after a series of comic attempts to possess Mary, James realizes that he cannot, he yields to the reality she embodies as his unconscious and descends into the ground of his being to generate the contents of creating.
Overmyer's Amphitryon experiences a comparable realization. To feel desire is to feel possessed by love as opposed to feeling that love, conjugal or otherwise, gives one the right to claim another as one's property. Every person embodies the mystery of love: the divinity that possesses or motivates but cannot itself be possessed.
Jupiter and Mercury are the other for the two couples in Overmyer's Amphitryon. They incarnate a desire that obeys no rules or regulations. Alcmena is the first to encounter the god. Excited by what she thinks is a desire so strong in Amphitryon that he would risk his military career to be with her, she relates to him the next day how she never before "experienced such joy, such transports of physical ecstasy, such sheer connubial bliss-" (29). With each subsequent encounter with the god, she becomes stronger. She comes to accept the other's power in her person, and that is the power to create oneself and the world one wants to inhabit. As Jupiter is about to depart, the husband offers him his "thanks" for the seed implanted in the wife, who adds two words not found in Moliere or Kleist: "And mine!" (74). By reconciling with Alcmena, Amphitryon is the second to accept the other: the god in his wife's person, the love that liberates from a culturally prescribed form. With the gods departed, Alcmena and Amphitryon will be each one's other.
Accepting the power to create one's life and relationships involves risks, but to avoid risks is to live life meanly, to coarsen it as Sosia does-comically, but he does. The telling difference between Sosia and Charis is that she wanted her husband to be the god whereas he is content to settle into himself and foreclose the encounter with the other in his wife. Act 2 ends with his admission that he is "just Sosia, the same old jackass" he has "always been" (53). Act 3 ends with his acknowledgment of his identity: "It's me" (75). Disappointed, Charis resolves to find the other elsewhere.
Ironically Sosia has lines early in the play that suggest that he is more receptive than his master to the presence of the irrational. In the initial encounter with Mercury, who has appropriated his identity, the servant questions his own existence. He also has one of the drama's great lines regardless of the version. The first time the audience meets Amphitryon, before he learns of Alcmena's night of lovemaking, he interrogates his servant for a rational explanation why he returned to the military camp without having completed the mission of informing his mistress that her husband would be returning to her. No matter how hard he tries to account for his mirror image's driving him away from the palace, Sosia has to reduce the explanation to this line: "I swear to you that I set out from camp for Thebes, a single Sosia, as there has been all my life, so far as I knew, and upon my arrival met myself. . ." (25). The line in Kleist reads, "I swear to you / I left the camp a single soul, and arrived / in Thebes a double. . ." (26).
The line is a surrealist's delight, for the encounter with objective chance-the other-irrationality overcomes individual solipsism. Surrealism is a collective movement. It needs pairs of antinomies to create metaphors and relationships; it needs pairs of communicating vessels for reconciliation. Love is mankind's most fulfilling experience, the one most infused with divinity, for the reason that it effects reconciliation:
I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions of that kind[outside of ordinary logical attitudes], being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions. (Breton, Mad Love 42)
Yet of the two couples, Sosia is the one not receptive to love's power, the one whose sexual relationship with his partner is perfunctory, and the one who does not change. To Charis, on the other hand, Overmyer not only gives one of surrealism's great images, but he dramatizes her receptivity to the power to change. That receptivity justifies her presence in the drama's closing scene. Looking in act 2 at the monogram whose changing letter has thrown Alcmena into a state of panic, the attendant says, "It must be some alchemical property in the stone itself which tricks the eye" (42). Alchemy is a quintessential surrealist image for the transforming power of language and love.
Whether Charis and Sosia can heal the division between them only the future can tell. Yet whereas he in his coarsening cares only about his stomach, she arrests her coarsening by taking the first step toward healing the division in herself. By putting herself in act 3 in a state of readiness for mad love, she is aware of that part of her nature she repressed under the conjugal obligation to cook for her husband. Like Alcmena and Amphitryon, she, too, is free to "work . . . out" a reconciliation, at least with herself in a surrealist adaptation for a contemporary audience of an ageless myth.
 Die Berliner Abendblatter was a daily newspaper for which in 1810-11 Kleist reported events and wrote editorials until he was forced to discontinue publication on March 31, 1811.
 In Overmyer's best known play, On the Verge, three time-travelers must seize contents of the unconscious (Terra Incognita) in order to proceed into the future. For an epigraph to a statement of aesthetic principles in "The Hole in the Ozone," the playwright paraphrases a passage in Andre Breton's 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism.
 In Breton's two best known surrealist narratives, Nadja and Mad Love, the woman either approaches him or ensures that the encounter will occur.
Breton, Andr,. Mad Love. Trans. Mary Ann Caws. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
--. Nadja. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Grove, 1960.
"Bye Bye Blackbird." 1926 popular song with lyrics by Mort Dixon and music by Ray Henderson.
Greenberg, Martin. Introduction. Heinrich von Kleist: Five Plays. Trans. Greenberg. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. xxix-xxxv.
Howarth, W. D. Moliere: A Playwright and His Audience. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
Kleist, Heinrich von. Amphitryon. Heinrich von Kleist: Five Plays. Trans. Martin Greenberg. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Mantinband, James H. and Charles Passage. Introduction. Amphitryon. By Heinrich von Kleist. Three Plays in New Verse Translations. Trans. Mantinband and Passage. University of North Carolina Studies in Comparative Literature 57. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1974. 200-208.
Overmyer, Eric. Amphitryon: After Kleist by Way of Moliere with a Little Bit of Giraudoux Thrown In. New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1996.
--. "The Hole in the Ozone." 7 Different Plays. Ed. Mac Wellman. New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1988.
--. On the Verge. Eric Overmyer: Collected Plays. Newbury, VT: Smith and Kraus, 1993.
Sonnenfeld, Marion. Introduction. Amphitryon. By Heinrich von Kleist. Trans. Sonnenfeld. New York: Ungar, 1962. iii-xvi.…
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Publication information: Article title: Overmyer's Amphitryon: Adapting Kleist for a Contemporary Audience. Contributors: Andreach, Robert J. - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 36. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2000. Page number: 158. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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