Genre and Audience Reception in The Rake's Progress

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W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto for Igor Stravinsky's 1951 opera The Rake's Progress has challenged audiences' expectations since its premiere, especially concerning its narrative arc. These frustrations resolve in Auden's cultivation of two endeavors integral to his larger oeuvre: inspiration from medieval literature, and a desire to represent the manifold, contradictory experience of the individual in modern existence. Rake’s expression of these purposes bypasses opera’s typical emotional intensity and forthright characterization, but the fifteenth century morality play Everyman reveals a dramatic foundation for its narrative. Far from the overwrought, haphazard assortment of literary allusions its critics often assume, the libretto sets four traditions in counterpoint: medieval, fairy tale, eighteenth-century, and existential. These sometimes reinforcing, sometimes contradictory referents account for the work’s narrative tensions and continue Modernist experiments Auden attempted in other major works of the 1940s while anticipating the ironic embrace of indeterminacy and multiplicity that characterizes postmodernism, reclaiming a great twentieth-century collaboration for fresh appreciation.

W. H. Auden, The Rake's Progress, Opera, Medieval Drama