Thaïs (saint) - in Art and Literature - Modern Culture

Modern Culture

After the distinctive artistic lead of Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) in his La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874), there eventually followed, in a decidedly more skeptical, yet still historic-religious vein, the French novel Thaïs (1890). This inspired the French opera Thaïs (1894). Later followed the London play Thais (1911), the Hollywood film Thais (1917), and the Franco-Rumanian statue Thaïs (1920s).

France's Thaïs is an historical novel published at Paris in 1890 and written by Anatole France (1844–1924). Paphnuce, an ascetic hermit of the Egyptian desert, journeys to Alexandria to find Thais, the libertine beauty whom he knew as a youth. Masquerading as a dandy, he is able to speak with her about eternity; surprisingly he succeeds in converting her to Christianity. Yet on their return to the desert he becomes fascinated with her former life. She enters a convent to repent of her sins. He cannot forget the pull of her famous beauty, and becomes confused about the values of life. Later, as she is dying and can only see heaven opening before her, he comes to her side and tells her that her faith is an illusion, and that he loves her.

Massenet's Thaïs is an opera first performed in Paris at the Opéra on March 16, 1894. The music is by Jules Massenet (1842–1912). The libretto by Louis Gallet (1835–1898) drew upon the novel of Anatole France. The opera omits the novel's skeptical chapter on the vanity of philosophy. The hermit's name was changed to Athanaël, who is presented with greater sympathy than in the novel. The first duet between Athanaël and Thaïs contrasts his stern accents and her raillery. The last scene's duet shows a reversal of rôles, in which the pious and touching phrases of Thaïs transcend the despairing ardour of Athanaël. Chants of desolation, and later, return of the beautiful violin from an earlier symphonic méditation (first played during the intermezzo when Thaïs had converted) complete the final effect.

Wilstach's Thais is a play performed at the Criterion Theatre in London, March 14 through April, 1911 (31 performances). Written by the American Paul Wilstach (1870-1952), it starred Constance Collier (1878–1955) playing the title role and Tyrone Power, Sr. (1869–1931) as the hermit. Earlier the play had a trial run in Boston.

Goldwyn's Thais is a Hollywood film which featured the operatic soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Earlier she had performed the title role in Massenet's opera Thaïs at l'Opéra Comique of Paris. The film, produced by Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974), also drew on the novel by Anatole France. The film, however, was not considered a success. Evidently between 1911 and 1917 there were five silent movies entitled Thaïs, made in France, Italy, and the U.S.A., yet not all followed the saint's story.

The Thaïs of Chiparus is a bronze and ivory statue depicting a dancing figure, an elegant young woman in 'ancient' dress. It was crafted in France (with a limited production run) during the Art Deco era by the Rumanian artist Demetre Chiparus (1886–1947).

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