Edgar Degas, one of the most renowned and beloved of the French Impressionist painters and sculptors, is often associated with paintings and drawings of the dance. His pale ballerinas in pink, blue, green and white tulle evoke an ethereal world of striking, still points of movement, a delicate gossamer loveliness of bodies twirling, bending, stretching, leaping, pirouetting, balancing, posing and dressing. His dancers spark fantasy and mythic beauty. There is not a pose, position or action of the mystic ballerinas that Degas has not rendered in painting or drawing, so avidly possessed was he by this subject.
Why did ballerinas stir him? The haunting melodies and poignant story of the musical Degas in New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, with music and arrangements by David Temple suggest a reason. When Degas visited his brother René and beloved sister-in-law Estelle, her daughter Jo danced on point and dreamed of being a ballerina in Paris. This and other symbols whisper through the characterizations, songs, direction and staging in what can only be described as a consummate production, incisively directed by Deborah Temple, which connects the tragic time Degas spent with family in New Orleans before he was famous to the evolution of his greatness as a founder of Impressionism.
The musical premiered at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore in New York City in a one-night showcase. It opens with the spotlight on Degas the painter reminiscing about his visit to America. He begins with a song of remembrance about the time he lived in New Orleans, where his mother was from. He sings of the key family members with whom he lived and the unreconciled relationships he had with them which would impact his life and art after he returned to France. Degas (Trevor Kowalsky in a sterling and evocative portrayal of the painter) sings Temple’s wistful, melody of nostalgic longing, “I have a picture in my mind,” as the play flashes back to the roiling events in the Degas family household.
The in-laws/cousins, the Musson-Degas, live on Esplanade Avenue in a New Orleans of 1872 that is raging against the carpetbaggers in the last days of Reconstruction. It is the beginning of the racial terrorism that blossomed like deadly nightshade and continued into the twilight of the 20th century. During Degas’ introductory song, which sets the events and succinctly reveals the backstory of his visit to the most French city in America, we see the interior rooms of the Degas house. It is here the painter stayed with his brother René, painted 24 paintings, and tried to help out the family financially. He was also there to escape the tumultuous events occurring in France during the days of the Paris Commune.
For this memorable opening scene, which also serves as the closing scene of Degas’ flashback, director Deborah Temple cleverly stages a tableau of the characters who are instrumental in spurring on the transformation of Degas’ personality and art: his brother René Degas (Tom Bloxham is wonderful as the arrogant, cruel and duplicitous brother); René’s father-in-law Michel Musson (Patrick O’Shea rings out this sexist, racist, humorous curmudgeon); Mathilde Musson Bell (Elizabeth Lococo in a superb and well-grounded performance); Didi Musson (the excellent Natalie LaBossier); Rene’s wife Estelle Musson Degas (the exquisite actor and operatically talented Lucy Makebish); and most poignantly the budding ballerina Josephine (Jo) Balfour, Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage (in a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Newcomb).
Together, the sisters (Didi, Mathilde and Estelle) and René subtly effect the influences that sideswipe Degas’ interior scenery to devastate his emotions. O’Neill and the Temples have deftly drawn Degas’ family trials; one cannot help but intuit that this period in his life greatly influenced his career and was a turning point. The superb production clearly emphasizes the import of Degas’ stay in New Orleans as a time of sorrow, loss, and pain which ultimately served to strengthen him and, no doubt, contributed to paving the way for his successful entrance onto the art scene.
Of the three Musson sisters, Estelle, who remains loyal to Degas’ adulterous brother René, is the one who breaks Degas’ heart. Degas is unable to shake his lifelong love for her which he nobly expresses and which he more nobly understands will never be consummated because of Estelle’s integrity and sanctity. O’Neill with the help of Deborah Temple’s direction and the adroit actors brilliantly weaves Degas’ love into a force which compels him toward a spiritual attachment with Estelle and her daughter, ballerina Jo. Jo is always practicing her positions as she dreams of flying away, perhaps to Paris to one day join the ballet. Jo also hopes with a great and tender love that her mother Estelle, who has become blind and attempts to hide this fact from Edgar, will one day see again. In Temple’s haunting and beautiful song, “I Dreamed That I Could Fly,” Estelle and Jo sing to each other echoing these and other yearnings which we later discover never come to pass: Jo is sent away by René to a convent where she dies of malaria; Estelle remains blind for the rest of her life.
The play develops smoothly following the arc of human foibles and is faithful in following the history of Degas’ life when he visited New Orleans. In the flashback Degas arrives at the house. and there is great joy and a sense of wonder and appreciation for this painterly cousin, brother-in-law and brother. As the action progresses, we learn why. The family perceives Degas to be the savior who will make everything right for them, for they are in a state of physical, mental and emotional deterioration. Unaware of this situation, Degas is happy to see the one he has always loved, Estelle, whom he knew when she and her sisters visited in Paris. This is his first time in the New World and he has a positive and promising outlook about America and New Orleans which family letters have kept alive for him.
But family was not forthcoming about their condition or the cultural circumstances of New Orleans after the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more his awareness grows; he begins to understand the darker elements consuming the city and his family. O’Neill’s play and the production masterfully reveal the series of devolving pictures the situations paint for Degas. He will try to vitiate the misery he sees and experiences through his art, but his life suggests – he never married – that he was unable to. The economic picture of the family in its cramped quarters is borderline-squalid, especially in the second act when New Orleans floods, rats drop from trees around the house, and the family takes in as many homeless neighbors as they can. The city is reduced to a fetid swamp whose filth can’t been expunged or wiped away. The song “Rats” sung by America, a married woman who tutors the children (a terrific job by Mickey Lynch and the company), is humorous, dark, foreboding, and revelatory of the city’s torpor, want, and financial devastation.
By degrees reality paints its terrifying pictures: Degas discovers Estelle is blind and pregnant though they can’t afford another baby; René has not paid off the debts, which are increasing exponentially; René and Michel seek the oblivion of drink and are becoming alcoholics; cousin Norbert Rillieux, who is mixed-race and was a wealthy free man of color before the Civil War, is being threatened daily by the White League.
What horrifies Degas most is that René has “turned his back” on beloved, beautiful Estelle and is having an affair with America, who has gradually insinuated herself into the family and by the play’s conclusion is ruthlessly running the household, the sisters and René as she arrogantly steps around Estelle who “sees nothing.” Didi who loves Degas and wants to be with him in Paris tells Estelle that René is cheating on her. She does this in a jealous fit of rage after Didi discovers Degas loves Estelle. Estelle remains stoic but confronts René who lies to her. She is a tragic figure caught in circumstances which, as a woman, she will never escape or rectify. She must hold on and try to survive and prevent her newborn from dying. Degas is appalled at the devolving situation and Estelle’s state. All the joy of his first weeks with them has changed, symbolized by a song sung to unmarried Didi for her birthday celebration (“The Sunny Side of Thirty”). Now there is only chaos, argument, racial tension, and impoverishment.
O’Neill has created interesting parallels between the family’s declining situation and the economic decline of New Orleans, angrily blamed by its white citizens on Reconstruction politics. Degas learns that many of the men have joined a White League and the Knights of the White Camellia to take the city and the South back from the Northern marauders. René, Mathilde’s husband Will, and Father/Uncle Michel are important leaders of the White League and they have shunned Norbert from their family and most probably would not stop his being lynched.
As Norbert’s wife Emily (Liz Louie gives an exceptional performance and sings with power and angry sorrow) sings of the felt racial hatreds in Act I (“Don’t Matter If You’re Free”) and in Act II when she tells Degas she and Norbert are leaving for Paris in fear for their lives (“Time to Say Goodbye”), the impact of how the city has changed is realized by Degas who is disgusted by the racism which is absent in France. Degas is further enraged when a letter he receives announces that his father has been imprisoned because of René’s importunity with money. When Degas confronts his younger brother, they argue and he nearly pummels him but restrains himself. He is not a brutal man; he will use his hands for painting. René kneels to him for forgiveness, but Degas is powerless to change his brother or the situation, so he must leave to help one whom he can help, his imprisoned father.
At the end of the play in a song reprise when Jo leaves for the convent, Jo and her mother again sing “I Dream.” It is a magnificent and heartfelt moment for we understand the tragedy of hopes never realized: Jo dies of malaria at 18; Estelle, having never regained her sight, is abandoned by René who marries America and goes to Paris. Only Degas’ dream is realized, a dream in which he becomes a world-class Impressionist painter. As O’Neill implies and the production so beautifully reveals, the fires of his greatness have been stoked in New Orleans from his regrets with Estelle and the sorrow of his failure to stop his family’s and especially Estelle’s decline.
This intriguing and memorable production creates a new vista for understanding Edgar Degas’s life and work. In appreciating the impact and importance of the painter’s time in New Orleans, the production reveals the extent to which influences born of tragedy can be translated into great good, and spiritual love and remembrance can be translated into artistic genius. Whether or not the symbolism of Jo’s wish to go to Paris to be a dancer is rooted in fact, O’Neill’s characterization of Jo coupled with the music and direction anchor Degas’ love for Estelle and her daughter, which is historically accurate. The work illuminates the idea that Degas’ ballet dancers are a tribute to Estelle’s daughter, who “flies” in the still points of his artistry. In his work during the time he was in New Orleans and his work afterwards, he remained inspired and he dreamed. Through these dreams he was able to direct his career onto a completely new path helping to establish an artistic trend which is globally loved today.
Clearly, he carried to his grave his love for Estelle and Jo. After seeing this incredibly realized production, we know that if not for that fateful visit, we would not be able to appreciate the 24 works he painted in New Orleans, such as “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” or his three paintings of Estelle done at the Degas House. As for Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage, Jo, whose wish to go to Paris and be in the ballet was cut short, perhaps she got there after all, in Degas’ remembrance of her love for ballet manifested in his numerous paintings of ballerinas.
The production was awarded a generous grant from Red Hook School District in New York and was produced by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Company.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0754823881][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0764138529][amazon template=iframe image&asin=3791338439][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1607101343][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00EHAGZNK]