Turandot and narrative failure

I'm working on a game that is based loosely -- very loosely -- on Puccini's opera Turandot. This post is not about that game. It is about the opera itself, which is an absolutely fascinating example of a writer (in this case the librettist Giuseppe Adami) setting himself up for narrative failure. But first, a quote from a recent piece in the Guardian:
I’ve always hated “Irish jokes”. Having an Irish mother, I’ve always been aware how they were used to denigrate Irish people and undermine the cause of Irish nationalism. There’s one joke, though, I’ve always enjoyed. It’s the one where the guy asks the Irishman for directions, to which he replies: “Well, if I were you I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
Why is this relevant? Well, if your aim is to write a story that ends with the boy and the girl getting married and living happily ever after, then the place that you really don't want to be starting out from is the end of Act 1 of Turandot. The background to the plot is this. Turandot is a princess who does not want to marry. Her father doesn't agree, naturally, but has committed himself to the following scheme. Any prince who wants to marry Turandot must solve three riddles. If he fails even one of them, he is executed. If he succeeds, he gets to marry the princess. Since Turandot is exceedingly beautiful, and since the riddles are extremely hard, the walls of the city are adorned with numerous decapitated remains of royal suitors.

The hero of the opera is prince Calaf, exiled from his own country by an evil usurper. In Act 1 he witnesses the execution of the prince of Persia, who has just failed the trial by riddles. Calaf curses the cruel princess, but when she appears on the balcony, he is smitten, falls hopelessly in love with her, and rings the gong that means he too wants to attempt the challenge of the riddles. (There's an important subplot involving Calaf's father and the slave girl Liu, who is in love with Calaf. But we can ignore this for now.) That's the end of Act 1.

Where can you go from here, as a writer? You have to go on to the riddle ceremony, of course. But how should it end? If Calaf fails at one of the riddles, he will be beheaded. That's not the satisfying romantic ending Adami is aiming for. But what if he succeeds? Then Turandot will have to marry him, but against her will. There's no way you can sell that as a happy romantic ending either. In other words: Adami has written himself into a corner and seems to be headed for massive narrative failure.

There is, perhaps, no way to really fix the problem. But Adami does make a valiant effort. He first does all the things he has to: give us the riddle ceremony and have Calaf succeed. He now has to face the problem of a forced marriage head-on and, to his credit, he does precisely that. Turandot is given the space to express the problem in the clearest possible terms:
August father! No!
Don’t cast your daughter
into the stranger’s arms!

The oath is sacred!

No, don’t say it!
Your daughter is sacred!
You can’t give me to him, to him
like a slave, ah no!
to die of shame!
(to the Prince)
Don’t look at me like that!
You, who mock my pride!
I shall not be yours! No, I will not!


You are the reward of his daring!
He offered his life for you!
The oath is sacred!

Would you have me in your arms
by force, reluctant and enraged?
Obviously, that is not what the prince wants. But how can the narrative move forward? Adami does the only thing he sensibly can: he plays for time. Calaf gives the princess another chance: if she manages to find out his name by dawn, he will consent to die. If not, they will marry. Here ends Act 2.

By itself, this solves nothing. We are still left with the unpalatable choice between death and rape. But at least it gives us some room for a plot twist. (And for one of the greatest and most famous opera arias ever written, Nessun dorma.) That plot twist takes the form of the slave girl Liu -- who knows the prince's name -- killing herself when Turandot orders her tortured to find out Calaf's name. As Liu dies, she prophesies:
Yes, Princess, listen to me!
You, who are enclosed in ice,
conquered by such flame,
you will love him, too!
Before the dawn,
I will wearily close my eyes,
so he can win again...
And I’ll never see him more!
How does this help? Logically speaking, it doesn't. But dramatically, it generates a moment of large and complicated emotions. The prince is filled with anger against Turandot, even though he is also, at the same time, still in love with her; the princess is shocked and confused, not only at having lost the opportunity to find out the prince's name, but also at the act of selfless sacrifice she has just witnessed. And this moment of instability creates dramatic room for the move that Adami now makes: Calaf, overcome by emotion, moves in for the kiss, and indeed kisses the protesting Turandot -- who ends up submitting to this treatment with what does, in the end, look like some enthusiasm.

Clearly, this is extremely problematic. It takes very good acting to make the scene so much as watchable -- you'll really have to play down the protests and act up the enthusiasm if you don't want the audience to think about #metoo more than they are thinking about the opera itself -- but it is hardly possible to make it a success. The trope of the woman who says 'no' but really means 'yes' is too problematic. Morally problematic, certainly, but also aesthetically problematic: it's not real, it's not true, it's not believable. If this is where the opera had ended, its failure as a narrative would have been more or less complete.

Luckily, Adami too senses that he has fallen into a narrative abyss. And while he cannot precisely undo the damage, he can at least mitigate it by giving Turandot's agency back to her. Obviously, the prince's justification for kissing Turandot, even though she said 'no', was that he knew for certain that she wanted to be kissed. That's what all #metoo men would say, wouldn't they? "I saw that she wanted it." But Calaf now does something that few other men would be willing to do: he bets his life on the claim that he was right. Even though it is not yet dawn, he tells his name to the princess, essentially allowing her to kill him at her whim.
My mystery?
I no longer have one!
You are mine!
You who tremble if I touch you!
You who pale when I kiss you,
can destroy me if you will.
My name and my life
I give you together.
I am Calaf, son of Timur!

I know your name!

My glory is your embrace!

Listen! The trumpets blare!

My life is your kiss!

Lo, the hour has come!
It’s the hour of the trial!

I do not fear it!

Ah, Calaf! come with me before the people!

You have won!
It really is the only course of action that can somewhat justify Calaf: he makes his dubious kissing move, but then he is at least willing to die if he has wronged Turandot by doing so. And of course it ends well.
August father...I know the name
of the stranger!
His name is...Love!
(Calaf rushes up the steps. The two lovers are locked in
an embrace.)
It is damage control, to be sure, but it is good damage control. And part of me wonders whether it wasn't precisely the sheer impossibility of getting from the narrative's starting point to its end point that attracted the librettist -- and perhaps also the composer -- to this particular story. There's something enticing about taking a story that cannot possibly work and then pushing it as far in the right direction as it can possibly go. That's certainly part of my own attraction to the story, and hence part of the reason why I opted to base an interactive fiction off of it. Though I should stress that it moves far from the original and most certainly does not involve a forced kissing scene. Whether it too ends up as a narrative failure is something we'll have to see!


  1. So it is a flawed narrative, but has withstood the test of time (I'm assuming that the opera or some of its pieces are still performed today?) I guess some things go on to be popular even if they aren't a 100% masterwork.


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