As Lucia’s pen lifts from her marriage contract she glances from her new husband (Arturo) to her brother (Enrico), both of whom stand to gain political security in the unsure world of fifteenth century Scotland through this marriage. At the same time, from the farthest corner of the stage, a figure rushes into the wedding: of course, it is Lucia’s lover just returned from France, Edgardo. This scene is the hinge upon which Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), turns–Edgardo’s violence, Lucia’s realization, Enrico’s duplicity alter the opera’s trajectory, insuring the tragedy which will befall each. Yet, the true tragedy in this opera lies in the manipulation of Lucia’s hand and the confusing power of the written word to alter perceptions and fates.
There are two examples of the written word in Lucia: the forged letter Enrico gives Lucia to convince her that Edgardo has been unfaithful, and the marriage contract between Lucia and Arturo.
In the LA Opera‘s recent performance of Lucia, the letter that Enrico gives to Lucia to convince her of Edgardo’s unfaithfulness is blood red–the warmest color on stage against the shockingly neon yellow walls. Even though the audience knows from the beginning that the letter is a forgery contrived by Enrico to break Lucia free from Edgardo, it is strange that Lucia accepts it immediately as truth. On one hand, this could be interpreted as Lucia’s faith in her brother or her unfamiliarity with Edgardo’s hand; however, on the other, this could also be interpreted as a comment on the authority of the written word.
Talking about examples of the written word (inscribed texts) in Spanish drama, Charles Oriel writes that the ability to read and write was becoming increasingly common during the fifteenth century, and its “new status, authority, and widespread diffusion of written texts and books” caused confusion and “was starting to be questioned in various ways by culture as a whole.” (Writing and Inscription in Golden Age Drama, 16) Though true of the fifteenth century , by the nineteenth the written word was no longer being questioned. Putting pen to paper or type into print carried an inherent authority, because it was understood as superior and more permanent to orality.
The authority Lucia places in the written word, when combined with her trust in her brother and her lover’s protracted silence, makes sense. After reading the letter, in the LA Opera’s staging of Lucia, she crumples the letter in the claw-like grip of her left hand. For the remainder of the scene, when her brother manipulates her, he grabs her left arm, leading her across the stage exactly as he is leading her to marry Arturo. Enrico is using the written word not only as a communicative tool, but as a physical object. The letter’s meaning is derived from both uses: the letter communicated Edgardo’s supposed unfaithfulness and, after reading it, it became an artifact of the betrayal.
In a similar fashion, the marriage contract too was a tool and an artifact. By convincing Lucia to sign it, Enrico manipulates her hand to do what is best for himself–the marriage was a mechanism for his political and economic security. However, when Edgardo returns, the contract becomes the artifact of Lucia’s betrayal, one which he rips into shreds and flings into Lucia’s face.
Yet, this is merely the stage being set for the true tragedy of the play. Lucia’s hand as a vehicle for change and inscriber of texts is powerful; however, this power is only beneficial to those who manipulate her. I assert that after this lesson, she attempts to use that same hand to regain control over her life, undo what her signature had wrought: she uses that hand to kill her new husband. Hereafter she embodies madness, although the audience is led to believe the murder brought on this break with reason, I argue that really it originates from her inability to reconcile the ways the written word has been used against her and her inability to undo the damage her own hand had done.
In the end, both the letter and the contract are ripped to pieces by the men who attempt to manipulate Lucia’s hand. By destroying the letter Enrico renders it more powerful in convincing Lucia to marry Arturo; by destroying the contract Edgardo renders it more powerful in convincing Lucia to kill Arturo. (Ha! Perhaps that is the missing piece of this puzzle: Lucia’s actions are determined by the written word, but it is Arturo’s fate which is sealed by them!) The written word becomes more powerful in the void it leaves behind, at least from the perspective of the manipulated Lucia.