Posts Tagged ‘Cyril Tourneur’

Tourneur: The Atheist’s Tragedy

February 27, 2021

The Atheist’s Tragedy
Cyril Tourneur
(Vizetilly, 1888) [c.1611]
98 p.

A play so named would seem to have a wide scope to explore: the tragedy of living in a cosmos bereft of objective goodness; the agony of the reign of will and power over truth; the madness of a rational creature in a world dissolved of intelligible natures; the absence of final justice in a world plagued by injustice; the loneliness of a being endowed with powers of love and reason adrift in infinite silence and empty darkness.

But we are here in the seventeenth century, not the twentieth, and our playwright is not Beckett but one Cyril Tourneur, a contemporary of Shakespeare whose modest legacy for the stage includes this play and, perhaps, one other.

The play focuses on the Machiavellian ambitions of a French nobleman called D’Amville, whose schemes to overthrow and assume the power of his elder brother wreak destruction on everyone who comes within range. D’Amville is an atheist, which for Tourneur seems mostly to have meant that he lived for pleasure rather than principle:

D’Am. Then, if Death casts up
Our total sum of joy and happiness,
Let me have all my senses feasted in
The abundant fulness of delight at once,
And, with a sweet insensible increase
Of pleasing surfeit, melt into my dust.

and that he believed in Fate rather than a personal Providence:

And I am of a confident belief
That even the time, place, manner of our deaths
Do follow Fate with that necessity
That makes us sure to die. (I, 2)

Just what is meant by Fate here is unclear, but in another place he relates Fate to the realm of human power and actions, saying, of a pile of gold coins,

These are the stars, the ministers of Fate,
And man’s high wisdom the superior power
To which their forces are subordinate. (V, 1)

In other words, he acknowledges no power higher than his own. Interestingly, we are told that he became an atheist, or perhaps was simply confirmed in disbelief, by the hypocrisy of churchmen:

D’Am. Borachio, didst precisely note this man?

Bor. His own profession would report him pure.

D’Am. And seems to know if any benefit
Arises of religion after death.
Yet but compare’s profession with his life;—
They so directly contradict themselves,
As if the end of his instructions were
But to divert the world from sin, that he
More easily might ingross it to himself.
By that I am confirmed an atheist.
(I, 2)

which is all too plausible. (The specific churchman in question here, a parody on a Puritan divine, turns out to be a lecherous candlemaker masquerading as a churchman.)

Be that as it may, D’Amville sets about murdering his brother, disinheriting his nephew and spoiling his engagement, on one hand, and, on the other, enriching himself, forging advantageous marriages for his sons, and then trying to rape their fiancées — all the things you’d expect an amoral French baron to do. Violence, greed, and lust run amok until by a series of chances — if they are chances — they bring about the downfall of D’Amville and all his ambitions. He suffers the indignity of undergoing one of the least dignified deaths one could imagine, accidentally hitting himself with an executioner’s axe seized in a moment of murderous rage. Says the executioner:

Exe. In lifting up the axe
I think he’s knocked his brains out. (V, 2)

It would take a good actor to deliver those lines without them being comedic, I would think, and this at the tragic climax, which perhaps hints at Tourneur’s limitations as a dramatist.

The secondary focus of the play is a love affair between D’Amville’s to-be-disinherited-or-murdered nephew, Charlemont, and a young woman called Castabella. Although they are secondary to the plot, they are central to the play’s heart, and Tourneur lavishes wonderful lines on them. Consider this passage, in which Charlemont, preparing to depart to battle, and having bidden farewell to his family, now turns to Castabella:

Charl. My noble mistress, this accompliment
Is like an elegant and moving speech,
Composed of many sweet persuasive points,
Which second one another, with a fluent
Increase and confirmation of their force,
Reserving still the best until the last,
To crown the strong impulsion of the rest
With a full conquest of the hearer’s sense;
Because the impression of the last we speak
Doth always longest and most constantly
Possess the entertainment of remembrance.
So all that now salute my taking leave
Have added numerously to the love
Wherewith I did receive their courtesy.
But you, dear mistress, being the last and best
That speaks my farewell, like the imperious close
Of a most sweet oration, wholly have
Possessed my liking, and shall ever live
Within the soul of my true memory.
So, mistress, with this kiss I take my leave.
(I, 2)

That is really lovely, and an oration containing a simile comparing an oration to an oration is rather entertaining!

I quite enjoyed, overall, the qualities of Tourneur’s verse, which is admirably clear and musical. In the first pages of this play I came upon this speech in which Charlemont’s father tries to dissuade him from going to war:

Mont. I prithee, let this current of my tears
Divert thy inclination from the war,
For of my children thou art only left
To promise a succession to my house.
And all the honour thou canst get by arms
Will give but vain addition to thy name;
Since from thy ancestors thou dost derive
A dignity sufficient, and as great
As thou hast substance to maintain and bear.
I prithee, stay at home.
(I, 1)

I knew then that I was in good hands. Or, to take another passage that I marked as I was reading, consider this outpouring of grief as an unfaithful wife, repentant, laments over the body of her dead husband:

Dear husband, let
Not thy departed spirit be displeased
If with adulterate lips I kiss thy cheek.
Here I behold the hatefulness of lust,
Which brings me kneeling to embrace him dead
Whose body living I did loathe to touch.
Now I can weep. But what can tears do good
When I weep only water, they weep blood.
But could I make an ocean with my tears
That on the flood this broken vessel of
My body, laden heavy with light lust,
Might suffer shipwreck and so drown my shame.
Then weeping were to purpose, but alas!
The sea wants water enough to wash away
The foulness of my name. O! in their wounds
I feel my honour wounded to the death. (IV, 5)

Compelling imagery and neat compression of thought combine here to create really effective, and affecting, verse. Mind you, there are some infelicities here and there too. I’ve already mentioned the tonally awkward lines around the death of D’Amville. I also laughed at this fungal simile:

The love of a woman is like a mushroom,—it grows in one night and will serve somewhat pleasingly next morning to breakfast, but afterwards waxes fulsome and unwholesome. (IV.5)

I have to be careful, I suppose, to acknowledge comedy — of which there is a good deal in this tragedy — where it appears. There are awkward points in the plotting, too, as characters come and go to, it seems, little or no purpose at times. But they did not, on the whole, greatly impair my enjoyment.

There are several elements of the plot that remind us of Hamlet, which Shakespeare had written about 10 years earlier. There is, for instance, a ghost of a murdered father, come back to ask his son to seek revenge on the murderous brother. (But he’s very much a Protestant ghost, not, it seems, confined to fast in fires.) And there is a graveyard scene in which the characters contemplate skulls, though with markedly less eloquence than did the sweet prince. I don’t know what to make of these parallels at all.

At play’s end, the atheist D’Amville lies dead, alongside many others, and Charlemont and Castabella are together, ready to live happily ever after. In an ultimate rejection of D’Amville’s philosophy, a judge upholds the triumph of Providence over the designs of men:

1st Judge. Strange is his death and judgment.
With the hands
Of joy and justice I thus set you free.
The power of that eternal providence
Which overthrew his projects in their pride
Hath made your griefs the instruments to raise
Your blessings to a higher height than ever.

Charl. Only to Heaven I attribute the work,
Whose gracious motives made me still forbear
To be mine own revenger. Now I see
That patience is the honest man’s revenge. (V, 2)

*

Tourneur is sometimes credited with writing another play, The Revenger’s Tragedy. When not attributed to him, it goes to Thomas Middleton. It is generally regarded as being superior to The Atheist’s Tragedy, and I intend to read it soon.