“[W]e had never chosen a Byzantine subject … or one from Alexandria”: Emancipation Through Desire and the Eastern Limits of Beauty in Michael Field’s Verse Dramas
In June 1894, writing in the collaborative journal kept by Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper to record their working lives as the poet and playwright “Michael Field,” Cooper recounted a discussion with two new friends, the aesthete designers and publishers Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, about the subject matter of their plays. “When we were talking with Ricketts and Shannon about Stephania [a play published by Field in 1892,] they said that naturally and inevitably they saw [the main characters] Otho and Stephania in the dresses of Byzantine mosaics—they appeared to them like some of the great figures at Ravenna. It was impossible to see them in the garb of the 10th century. Our new friends wondered we had never chosen a Byzantine subject — or one from Alexandria. The moment when the world was [Chris]tian and the few were still Pagan and still clung to the grape-god—was a moment of such tragedy” (Ms. 46782). Although Ricketts and Shannon questioned why Field had never published a play about Byzantium or Alexandria, in fact Bradley and Cooper had just completed Equal Love, a play about the Byzantine empress Theodora. They relayed their “joy” at finishing the play to Ricketts and Shannon and also talked about their recent letter to the actress Ellen Terry, expressing their interest in having her take the lead role (Ms. 46782). Though the play was never staged, Ricketts and Shannon published it in their magazine The Pageant in 1896, alongside poems by Algernon Swinburne, Paul Verlaine, and John Gray and paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones.
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