1. Introduction: Yourcenar, Antinous and Hadrian
In January 1952, while she was staying in Paris following the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote to the Greek composer Louis Nicolaou about a ballet based on the Antinous sections of her book. Yourcenar suggested they meet to discuss the ballet, possibly at the Louvre: ‘We could meet there on Friday evening at 9 o’clock, as the Greek and Roman rooms will be open; if you agree, I suggest we meet in the Antonines Room, which is easy to recognise because of the large head of Antinous in the middle of the room – opposite it there is a very handy bench.’ We do not know for sure if they met at the museum, but in any case it seems that Nicolaou’s unbridled enthusiasm for Antinous alarmed Yourcenar, since she wrote to him again two weeks later: ‘You worry me greatly when you start talking about inspiration, which is a word I fear. In my view, once you’ve been excited by a project, inspiration then comes from concentration, hard work, organisation and an alarm clock.’
The ballet was a project initiated by the Chilean George de Cuevas, founder of a company in New York in 1944 and, after a spell in Monte Carlo, the director of the Paris-based ballet company bearing his own name. The ballet was premiered on 14th May 1953 at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, with choreography by Victor Gzovsky, but the creation was short-lived. The relationship between Yourcenar, Cuevas and Nicolaou was not always easy and Cuevas became interested in other projects. We have an outline of the ballet in a letter from Yourcenar shortly before the first performance: its three scenes comprised of ceremonies and games in Athens, hunting in Bithynia and a festival on the banks of the Nile prior to Antinous’s death.
Yourcenar was generally interested in collaborations with artists and musicians, but when it came to an opera proposed by Wells Hively in 1956, she declined to write a libretto since she argued that it would be impossible to get the dialogue right, an argument that she would develop in her essay ‘Tone and Language in the Historical Novel’. Furthermore she said that she saw the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous in epic rather than dramatic terms, so she considered an opera quite a challenge. But she also stated to Hively that Antinous was a subject open to everyone. It was a subject that she herself had grappled with for over thirty years. She’d known Hadrian for even longer, first encountering him in 1914, when she was 11, in the bronze head in the British Museum, during the 14 months she spent in England, after fleeing Flanders with her father and half-brother. However, Yourcenar first intended to write about the relationship between Antinous and Hadrian mainly from Antinous’s perspective. A poem, ‘L’Apparition’, probably written when she was 16, features Antinous in the gardens at Tivoli. Then between 1924 and 1926, in her early 20s, Yourcenar wrote a dialogue entitled ‘Antinoos’ and submitted it to the publishers Fasquelle, now partners of Grasset. The manuscript was rejected by Fasquelle and destroyed by the author.