Among all the excerpts of Petronius' Satyrica (c. 60 ad) which have survived, it is undoubtedly the story of the Widow of Ephesus, related in the course of the novel, which has aroused the interest of later generations of writers to the greatest degree. The tale treats of a widow who, watching inconsolably in the vault where her recently dead husband has been laid, is induced by a kindly soldier to take food, and presently to accept him as her lover. Ever since the Middle Ages, the racy anecdote has become one of the most popular themes in European literature. From medieval moralising interpretations and eccentric adaptations in Elizabethan England to the polished and cavalier renderings in eighteenth-century France, the simple story has inspired an astonishingly wide variety of versions and interpretations. Authors like Houdar de la Motte, La Fontaine, Lessing, Weisse or Chamisso, to name just a few, all have tried to adapt the famous tale in (either tragic or comic) plays, stories, ballads or poems.
It is less known however that in the twentieth century, contrary to general scholarly opinion, the story of the Widow of Ephesus has not disappeared from European literature at all. In this essay, three examples of twentieth-century adaptations of the tale for the stage (by J. M. Synge, Jean Cocteau and Christopher Fry) are presented and contrasted with earlier versions from the Baroque or the Enlightenment period. Each of the three plays refers to and reinterprets one specific (French or English) tradition of the tale canonised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thereby transforming the story into a parable of female emancipation, a bawdy farce or a Christian mystery play, respectively.