The Merry Widow from Montenegro
From the time of ancient Greek comedy to the different literary, theatrical and film works of today, one of the main sources of amusement or exotic delight was the portrayal of ’otherness’, of people whose ethnical, regional, religious or linguistic provenience was different from that of the public to whom those works were dedicated. Especially attractive and effective was the portrayal of ’slight differences’, – of people who have something in common with us, but who, because of differences in behaviour, pronunciation, or beliefs, shock us, or amuse us. Even the greatest writers gave some brilliant contributions to this approach. In their works, such ’otherness’ was often treated as some error of nature, similar to such comical physical defaults as obesity or stuttering.
During its flowering the comic opera developed special interest in the Islamic Mediterranean (Mozart, Rossini). Later the comic interest was transferred to the eastern Adriatic, to the people who were in some ways similar, being Christians, but whose faith was considered exotic and heretical, and whose customs seemed strange to the superior Western civilization. Historical or ethnographic truth was not taken in account. One characteristic example of that attitude is the opéra-comic Les Monténegrins, written by Gérard de Nerval. The action of this opera takes place during Napoleonic occupation of some parts of Montenegro. Of course, the French invasion is pictured as a philanthropic sacrifice, – the occupation means freedom and civilization, the resistance means slavery and banditism. The Montenegrin touch was additionally exploited in classic operettas, most successfully, and most seductively, in the famous masterpiece The Merry Widow, by Franz Lehar.
The story of the Merry Widow became a sort of a modern myth (if myths rely, for their recognition, on the number of variations and transpositions they engender), passing through different theatrical and cinematic adaptations, with more or less clear references to Montenegro. However, Stroheim’s film went over all boundaries, so that the Montenegrin Crown-Prince succeeded in winning a court case, and in obtaining an indemnity from MGM. Also, for dynastic reasons, the film was banned for distribution in the Kingdom of SHS (Yugoslavia) and in Italy.
Despite irresistible charm, excentric humour and seductive melancholy, The Merry Widow and similar Ruritanian works express a clear colonial arrogance, which persists, and which can be traced to the present. Such ’operatic’ depiction of the Balkans is frequent in the Western media. When speaking about Asian or African states, such attitude is cautiously evaded because it would be considered politically incorrect.