THE MASK IN THE MIRROR—a chamber opera in three acts by Richard Thompson—depicts the courtship and failed marriage between the famed African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) and novelist Alice Ruth Moore (1875–1935). The opera follows their relationship from Dunbar’s initial letter of introduction to Alice, to Dean Howells’s watershed review of Dunbar’s work in Harper’s Magazine, through Paul and Alice’s secret engagement, marriage, and difficult married life together in Washington, D.C., ending with their final estrangement and Paul’s death at his home in Dayton OH.
THE MASK IN THE MIRROR is a historically accurate portrait of Dunbar and Moore’s relationship, with Thompson’s libretto structured using primary source material—most notably the hundreds of letters exchanged between Dunbar and Moore during the course of their relationship. The letters reveal Dunbar and Moore’s individual psychologies and interpersonal dynamics with the pivotal moments in their lives that emerged from these letters, and other extant documents, becoming the foundation of THE MASK IN THE MIRROR.
Dunbar’s short life was marked by great triumph in the face of adversity and by great tragedy. He was the first African-American man of letters to achieve national and international fame and financial success. As the son of illiterate and extremely impoverished ex-slaves, his literary success would have seemed highly improbable.
Paul Dunbar’s swift rise to national and international fame and recognition did little to heal the wounds of his dysfunctional and scarred childhood. He battled with the “glass ceiling” of his world, which allowed him recognition, but only within the value system of a culturally and racially divided America. Dunbar also struggled with what may have been bipolar disorder, as well as tuberculosis. As was common at that time, he drank heavily to suppress the symptoms of his illness. Dunbar died at the age of 33 from a combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism, and was estranged from his wife by the time of his death.
Alice Ruth Moore was close in age to Paul Dunbar. She was born in 1875 in New Orleans. Unlike Paul, she was college educated to a high degree. She studied at Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she specialized in education. Like Paul, she was a writer, although she was not particularly successful.
Being unable to distinguish between sexual desire and a more lasting loving relationship, Dunbar frequently romanced several women at the same time—professing undying love to each. Despite his success and determination, he was also confused about his identity as a black man in America, being ashamed of his dark complexion. Moore had similar problems with her racial identity: as the product of a casual interracial sexual relationship, she preferred to re-invent herself as a Creole from Louisiana, rather than face the shame of her illegitimacy. She also suffered from racist attitudes, looking at dark-skinned African Americans with disdain.
The Dunbars wanted to promote themselves as role models for a new black middle class, comparing themselves to the English writers Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Sadly, Dunbar and Moore lacked the psychological strength to live up to their ideals. Both had conflicted ideas about race and gender-based roles in their contemporary middle-class American society. The relationship between Dunbar and Moore was explosive and short-lived, based perhaps on the idea of love as opposed to its reality.
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