Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

October 5, 2021

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Francis Beaumont
(Methuen, 2002) [c.1607]
224 p.

Chivalric romance is the genre of The Knight of the Burning Pestle — or, better, chivalric romance is the target, for this play is a good-natured satire on the genre. For modern readers it is bound to remind us of Don Quixote, and perhaps with very good reason: the first part of that great work was published in 1605, and (I am told) Beaumont was an adept in the Spanish tongue. Although I gather that some controversy swirls around the question, I think it plausible that the play was inspired by Cervantes.

But it is more than just a quixotic satire: it’s a fun meta-play too that experiments with the conventions of play-going. The Don Quixote character, Rafe, isn’t even part of the play that the other actors have come to perform — that play, called “The London Merchant”, is a romance about a young couple planning to elope. But early in the play a boorish grocer and his wife, in the audience, clamber on stage, interrupting the show and asking if their young apprentice, Rafe, can join the play. He, dubbing himself a ‘Grocer-Errant’, likes the idea and wrangles two friends into being his squire and dwarf — indispensable accoutrements for any chivalric knight:

My beloved Squire, and George my Dwarfe, I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name, but the Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle, and that you never call any Female by the name of a Woman or Wench, but fair Lady, if she have her desires; if not, distressed Damsel; that you call all Forrests and Heaths, Desarts, and all Horses Palfries. (1.1)

And so, for the remainder of the play, Rafe, as the valiant Knight, embarks on a variety of adventures to rescue ladies in peril, adventures which periodically bring him back to the playhouse, where he interrupts the action of the play the other actors are trying to perform. It’s a nice re-imagining of Don Quixote’s delusional tendencies for the play-house.

I will admit that the convention of having on-stage characters comment on the action of another play, as happens, on a lesser scale, in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one that I grudgingly accept rather than appreciate, and here too I found the stream of commentary from the grocer and his wife kind of annoying. But I didn’t feel the same about poor Rafe, whose commitment to his role, and success in assuming it, was sufficiently gallant and sincere as to exclude criticism:

Ralph. My trusty Dwarf and friend, reach me my shield,
And hold it while I swear, first by my Knighthood,
Then by the soul of Amadis de Gaule,
My famous Ancestor, then by my Sword,
The beauteous Brionella girt about me,
By this bright burning Pestle of mine honor,
The living Trophie, and by all respect
Due to distressed Damsels, here I vow
Never to end the quest of this fair Lady,
And that forsaken Squire, till by my valour
I gain their liberty. (2.1)

*

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play unlike any other that I’ve encountered in this reading project, and I’m pleased to have read it. It would be fun to see staged (and it has been occasionally revived).

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.

Marston: The Malcontent

December 15, 2020

The Malcontent
John Marston
(Bloomsbury, 2014) [c.1603]
176 p.

Well, this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear, or great men use,—
Free speech: and though my state’s usurp’d,
Yet this affected strain gives me a tongue
As fetterless as is an emperor’s.
(I.1)

John Marston, about ten years younger than Shakespeare, was a successful playwright for the London stage, and a few of his plays recur in anthologies of the period. The Malcontent is one of them.

It is an entertaining play. Set in the court of Genoa, it tells a story in which the duke of Genoa, having been overthrown by a rival and sent into exile, returns disguised as a crabby, frank-talking jester, — the ‘malcontent’ of the play’s title — intent on protecting his wife and winning back his position. In a series of lively comedic scenes he worms his way into the court’s good opinion, meanwhile laying traps for his enemies.

One of those enemies, Mendoza, is a ladder-climbing sycophant willing to do anything to protect and advance his position:

I’ll be reveng’d. Duke, thy suspect;
Duchess, thy disgrace; Ferneze, thy rivalship;
Shall have swift vengeance. Nothing so holy,
No band of nature so strong,
No law of friendship so sacred,
But I’ll profane, burst, violate, ’fore I’ll
Endure disgrace, contempt, and poverty.
(II.1)

He reminded me of Iago in some respects — one of his lines (“Fortune still dotes on those who cannot blush.” (II.1)) might have come from Iago’s mouth without incongruity — though ultimately he is not nearly so vivid nor dangerous. (Othello is also a c.1603 play.)

The pleasure of the play, however, is not so much in the characters as it is in Marston’s clever plotting, in which disguises proliferate, false pretences spread thickly on the ground, and double-crossing is the order of the day. The plotting is not tight, exactly, for there were some scenes for which the purpose was obscure to me, but it is absorbing and moves swiftly to its happy conclusion.

This is the first of the Elizabethan/Jacobean plays I’ve read in this project that has been mostly prose. Verse pops up here and there, mostly at moments of high import or eloquence, but it is the exception.

In his study of the plays of this period, Swinburne finds Marston an uneven playwright, complaining that

the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge

yet concluding that despite his defects there are still good reasons to read him:

But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles…

I don’t know whether I should agree with Swinburne here or not. A possible example of a cactus hedge might be this passage, in which the villain Mendoza erupts in a diatribe against women:

Women! nay, Furies; nay, worse; for they torment only the bad, but women good and bad. Damnation of mankind! Breath, hast thou praised them for this? and is’t you, Ferneze, are wriggled into smock-grace? sit sure. O, that I could rail against these monsters in nature, models of hell, curse of the earth, women! that dare attempt anything, and what they attempt they care not how they accomplish; without all premeditation or prevention; rash in asking, desperate in working, impatient in suffering, extreme in desiring, slaves unto appetite, mistresses in dissembling, only constant in unconstancy, only perfect in counterfeiting: their words are feigned, their eyes forged, their sighs dissembled, their looks counterfeit, their hair false, their given hopes deceitful, their very breath artificial: their blood is their only god; bad clothes, and old age, are only the devils they tremble at. (I.6)

It’s crass and stupid, of course, but consider who’s saying it, and I think it could be played to good comedic effect on stage, so I’m not sure it deserves outright censure. On the other hand, an example of Marston’s “pure and noble simplicity” might be this moral reflection:

Favours are writ in dust; but stripes we feel
Depravèd nature stamps in lasting steel.
(II.3)

Overall I found Marston remarkably amiable, and certainly less thorny-going than I found Jonson or Chapman. Perhaps further acquaintance would firm up my views; the other of his plays that I’ve seen anthologized is a tragedy, The Dutch Courtesan, and perhaps I’ll read it. We shall see.

Chapman: Bussy d’Ambois

November 6, 2020

Bussy d’Ambois
George Chapman
(D.C. Heath, 1933) [c.1604]
36 p.

Chapman is best known today because Keats once looked into his Homer; fewer readers will have looked into his Homer themselves, and fewer still, I imagine, will have read this, or any other, of his plays for the Jacobean stage. Yet he once enjoyed a high, or reasonably high, reputation, and this play, in particular, has been remembered as a good example of his art.

The play is a “contemporary drama”, being based on true and timely events –in this case, on the life and death of Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, a Frenchman who had risen high in the French court in the 1570s before carrying on an affair with the wife of a Count, for which transgression he was slain. Chapman takes the tale, amps it up with some lurid supernatural elements, complete with Latin spells and ghostly friars, and fashions from it a quite entertaining tale. (Chapman was not the only author who found in Bussy’s life a worthy subject: Dumas also wrote a novel about him.)

As a dramatist I didn’t find Chapman particularly adroit though. The mechanics of the plot moved along briskly enough, but his characters did not emerge very clearly for me as individuals. When, in the third Act, I came across this description of Bussy, I felt I was getting to know him for the first time:

MONS. I think thee, then, a man
That dares as much as a wild horse or tiger,
As headstrong and as bloody; and to feed
The ravenous wolf of thy most cannibal valour
(Rather than not employ it) thou would’st turn
Hackster to any whore, slave to a Jew,
Or English usurer, to force possessions
(And cut men’s throats) of mortgaged estates;
Or thou would’st tire thee like a tinker’s strumpet,
And murther market folks; quarrel with sheep,
And run as mad as Ajax; serve a butcher;
Do any thing but killing of the King.
(III, ii)

And it is true, on reflection; he is a social climber, and not scrupulous about how he gets to the top.

The introductory notes to the play in my anthology express Chapman’s distinctive strengths well:

Chapman was not dowered with the penetrating imagination that reveals as by a lightning flash unsuspected depths of human character or of moral law. But he has the gnomic faculty that can convey truths of general experience in aphoristic form, and he can wind into a debatable moral issue with adroit casuistry. This gnomic faculty is active throughout this play. There are, for instance, these lines in which a character gives a back-handed compliment to the righteousness of princes:

That Prince doth high in virtue’s reckoning stand
That will entreat a vice, and not command.

(II, ii)

Or consider this brief passage in which one nobleman criticizes another for promoting Bussy to a position of influence, which ends neatly on an aphoristic note:

GUISE.Y’ave stuck us up a very worthy flag,
That takes more wind than we with all our sails.
MONS. O, so he spreads and flourishes.
GUISE. He must down;
Upstarts should never perch too near a crown.
(III, ii)

He experiments with longer set-pieces too, as in this passage about envy. (Whether this is an example of adroit moral casuistry or a example of failed moral illumination, I leave as an exercise.)

HENRY. This desperate quarrel sprung out of their envies
To D’Ambois sudden bravery, and great spirit.
GUISE. Neither is worth their envy.
HENRY. Less than either
Will make the gall of envy overflow;
She feeds on outcast entrails like a kite:
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
Corruption is her nutriment; but touch her
With any precious ointment, and you kill her.
Where she finds any filth in men, she feasts,
And with her black throat bruits it through the world
Being sound and healthfull; but if she but taste
The slenderest pittance of commended virtue,
She surfeits of it, and is like a fly
That passes all the body’s soundest parts,
And dwells upon the sores; or if her squint eye
Have power to find none there, she forges some:
She makes that crooked ever which is straight;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not herself;
Whithersoever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still claspt in her own arms.
(II, i)

Actually, I think that’s rather good — I think. There is a density of thought and a readiness of expression that appeals to me. But I’ve read it a few times over, and typed it out, and there are still portions of it that I can’t quite follow. By the end I’m no longer sure what is being said.  This illustrates a general problem I had while reading the play: I found it hard to follow the development of the story. I was glad to find a decent scene-by-scene synopsis, which I fell to reading before tackling the same scene in Chapman. It helped me keep my bearings, and improved my appreciation of what I was reading. That said, I can’t say that I will be in a hurry to re-visit this play, or Chapman’s plays more generally. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll look into his Homer.

Heywood: A Woman Killed with Kindness

September 16, 2020

A Woman Killed with Kindness
Thomas Heywood
(Applause, 1967) [1603]
65 p.

Thomas Heywood was a somewhat younger contemporary of Shakespeare who had a long and successful career writing for the London stage. He claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a maine finger” in writing over 200 plays, but the one that has survived into anthologies of the period is this one, A Woman Killed with Kindness, a so-called “domestic tragedy”. (We have seen another example of this genre before, in Arden of Faversham.)

**

The main thread of the play is about a woman tempted into an infidelity who, when her deed is discovered, is unexpectedly forgiven by her husband, but who is nonetheless consumed with guilt and (spoiler alert) dies. A secondary plot concerns a man who commits murder but is then ransomed by a man desperately in love with his (the murderer’s) sister. The only way the killer can conceive to repay this debt is to offer his sister to the man as a prostitute — an offer she fights to resist.

It is, therefore, a play very much concerned with the demands of conscience, and in particular with what happens to conscience when one is forgiven or otherwise evades punishment. Theories of punishment are various, but the leading thread in the Western tradition is that punishment is first and foremost retributive — the punishment is not imposed on the wrongdoer as something alien to him, but rather the punishment is what he deserves; it is what is due to him in justice, and to deny it upsets the moral order and, paradoxically perhaps, insults the wrongdoer’s dignity as a free, responsible being.

The play endorses this view of punishment. When she succumbs to temptation and is unfaithful to her husband, our adulteress stops and, in what I think would be a dramatically effective move in the playhouse, addressed the audience directly:

O women, women, you that have yet kept
Your holy matrimonial vow unstained,
Make me your instance. When you tread awry,
Your sins like mine will on your conscience lie.
(Sc. 13)

She is burdened by the weight of what she has done. Her husband responds with leniency, so she undertakes to punish herself, voluntarily starving herself. Her death is the endpoint of the downward spiral she enters, and afterwards her sister-in-law attributes her demise precisely to the mercy shown her:

All we that can plead interest in her grief,
Bestow upon her body funeral tears.
Brother, had you with threats and usage bad
Punished her sin, the grief of her offence
Had not with such true sorrow touched her heart.

And the woman’s husband concurs:

I see it had not; therefore on her grave
I will bestow this funeral epitaph,
Which on her marble tomb shall be engraved,
In golden letters shall these words be filled:
“Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness killed.”
(Sc. 18)

This raises all kinds of difficult questions. The harmonization of justice and mercy has been a preoccupation of Christian moralists down the centuries. When Jesus showed mercy to the woman at the well he prevented her being stoned, but we are not led to believe that she then went to another well and threw herself in. We can at least say this: for mercy to be just, the weight of the sin cannot be downplayed. Grace ought not to be made cheap. One must stand condemned before one can be ransomed. The play is putting its fingers on that tough knot where conscience, justice, and forgiveness tangle together.

The verse of A Woman Killed with Kindness is not particularly excellent, but it does have its moments. There is a nice scene, for instance, in which the characters are discussing card games and, according to this volume’s notes, engaging simultaneously in a long sequence of puns about adultery. I also noted, which may be of interest to collectors of the provenance of proverbs, that the saying “When the cat’s away the mouse may play” occurs in this play — though I’ve no reason to think it originated here.

Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

January 14, 2020

The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster
(Bloomsbury Methuen, 2014) [c.1613]
192 p.

This is auspicious. Almost my first steps off the beaten trail in seventeenth century drama have turned up a play that seems an outright masterpiece.

**

The Duchess is a young widow. She falls in love with a man below her social class, and marries him in secret. Meanwhile her brothers, anxious to avoid just such a demeaning connection, forbid her to remarry. When the marriage is eventually discovered, violence erupts, and, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play ends with the stage littered with bodies.

The play has wonderful characters. The Duchess herself is a strong and noble character, winsome and beautiful, and the arc she follows from admirably strong woman to tragic heroine over the course of the play is wonderfully handled. Her elder brother, a Cardinal, is a fine model of the worldly and corrupt Renaissance churchman (and not only of the Renaissance!). Her younger brother, Ferdinand, is a piece of work: prone to fits of violent emotion, there is something unsettlingly carnal and possessive about his guarding the Duchess against remarriage. The Duchess’ secret husband, Antonio, is open-mannered and honest, a man whose entry into the Duchess’ orbit puts one in mind of a lamb going to slaughter.

But perhaps the play’s greatest character is Bosola, a servant of the Cardinal who begins by spying on the Duchess and ends drenched in blood. His deeds are evil, but he has doubts and misgivings about them that flower into tragic regret. He is one of those rare birds: a sympathetic villain. Here, for example, is his speech at the death of the Duchess:

BOSOLA.  O, she’s gone again! there the cords of life broke.
O sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps
On turtles’ feathers, whilst a guilty conscience
Is a black register wherein is writ
All our good deeds and bad, a perspective
That shows us hell!  That we cannot be suffer’d
To do good when we have a mind to it!
This is manly sorrow;
These tears, I am very certain, never grew
In my mother’s milk.  My estate is sunk
Below the degree of fear:  where were
These penitent fountains while she was living?
O, they were frozen up!  Here is a sight
As direful to my soul as is the sword
Unto a wretch hath slain his father.
(IV, 2)

It is a great moment: the villain weeps at the state of his own soul. And it is a great speech too, seeming to burst from him in a moment of passion and moral clarity.

I remarked when I read a few of Ben Jonson’s plays that the poetry seemed world’s away from Shakespearean verse. Not so in this play; on the contrary, I was again and again reminded of the Bard. Here, for example, is an exchange between the Duchess and her brothers in the first Act, in which the Duchess says she’ll not remarry, and the brothers, for their own reasons, doubt her:

DUCHESS.                          Will you hear me?  I’ll never marry.
CARDINAL.           So most widows say;  But commonly that motion lasts no longer
Than the turning of an hour-glass:  the funeral sermon
And it end both together.
FERDINAND.                 Now hear me:
You live in a rank pasture, here, i’ the court;
There is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly;
‘T will poison your fame; look to ‘t.  Be not cunning;
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.
DUCHESS.  This is terrible good counsel.
FERDINAND.  Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan’s engine: yet, believe ‘t,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privat’st thoughts,
Will come to light.
CARDINAL.            You may flatter yourself,
And take your own choice; privately be married
Under the eaves of night——
FERDINAND.                  Think ‘t the best voyage
That e’er you made; like the irregular crab,
Which, though ‘t goes backward, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way:  but observe,
Such weddings may more properly be said
To be executed than celebrated.
(I, 3)

Even just from this short segment, we have three well-delineated characters with definite points of view. We have neat concision (“The funeral sermon / And it end both together.”), a memorable simile (the crab), an aphorism (“For they whose faces…”), and some delightful wordplay (the last two lines). It is very good poetry and very good drama, and to me, at least, it feels quite close to the verse Shakespeare wrote.

One difference, though, between the two is that Webster’s characters (in this play) generally have short speeches; as a rule, no one character holds the stage for very long. The few exceptions to this tendency are interesting though. In this one, for example, the Duchess tells a moralistic fable to illustrate the fickleness of worldly judgments of rank and worth:

DUCHESS.  I prithee, who is greatest?  Can you tell?
Sad tales befit my woe:  I’ll tell you one.
A salmon, as she swam unto the sea.
Met with a dog-fish, who encounters her
With this rough language; ‘Why art thou so bold
To mix thyself with our high state of floods,
Being no eminent courtier, but one
That for the calmest and fresh time o’ th’ year
Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself
With silly smelts and shrimps?  And darest thou
Pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’
‘O,’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace:
Thank Jupiter we both have pass’d the net!
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown:
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valu’d high, when they’re most wretched.—
But come, whither you please.  I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;
Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will:
There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.
(III, 5)

**

It would be an interesting exercise (which I’m sure has been done) to go through the play cataloguing references to death. My guess is that it is saturated. Death lurks from behind curtains and casts its shadow from the footlights before eventually assaulting and conquering the stage. Here’s one example, spoken by the play’s truest and gentlest man as he stands in the ruins of a church:

ANTONIO.       I do love these ancient ruins.
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ‘t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day.  But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.
(V, 3)

But though death snatches away most of the principal characters by the end of the final Act, the very last speech, by Bosola, rescues the play from mere despair and destruction by pointing up a larger moral:

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.  I have ever thought
Nature doth nothing so great for great men
As when she’s pleas’d to make them lords of truth:
Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.
(V, 5)

Alas, but few of these characters can claim that crown!

*

The play premiered at Blackfriars in London, and played also at the Globe Theatre. Apparently it was one of the first English plays to be performed indoors, with lighting effects. (One scene takes place in complete darkness.) So, at least, was the claim made by the producers of a filmed stage performance that I had the benefit of seeing, and which I highly recommend.

It might be that The Duchess of Malfi is not quite up to Shakespearean tragic standards, but I’d need to spend more time with it before I’d be confident about that. In the meantime, it has been an altogether marvellous discovery for me.

Jonson: Plays

November 26, 2019

Volpone, or The Fox
The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
(Random House, 1938) [1606, 1610]
225 p.

With these two plays I launch a modestly scaled reading project in early(ish) modern drama which begins in Shakespeare’s London and will eventually spread to cover England, France, and perhaps Spain up to roughly 1800.

Jonson was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and the two were, I am told, rivals to some extent. (“Volpone” actually premiered in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London.) I wanted to read a few of his plays in part because I am interested in getting to know Jonson for his own sake, but also, I admit, as a roundabout way of getting to know Shakespeare better, by seeing how his own style and approach differed from those of a close contemporary.

These two plays were written when Jonson was in middle age, already an accomplished playwright and poet. Both are classified as comedies, although the comedy on offer is far removed from the happy whimsy of plays like “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; a closer Shakespearean analogue might be “Measure for Measure”, inasmuch as the comedy is often dark and admixed with serious dramatic material.

In a certain sense, “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are the same play — which surprised me. In both, a scheming pair, master and servant, attempt to con a variety of gullible parties in a bid to enrich themselves, and in both they are eventually discovered and undone.

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, have amassed immense wealth, and use the promise of a future bequest to lure sycophants into giving them more and greater gifts. They accept bribes and are not above a cunning extortion. Mosca, in the traditional role (traceable all the way back to Plautus, whose influence on these Jonsonian comedies is striking) of smooth and crafty servant, is a wonderful creation, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago for the depravity of his imagination, shamelessness of his impostures, and creativity of his conniving; he is the character whom I think I will best remember from these plays.

In “The Alchemist” the artful pair are Subtle, a pretended alchemist, and Face, his confidence man. Dangling the conventional alchemical promise of transmutation into gold before their clients, they too amass gifts and goods on credit. They seem much less intelligent than their counterparts in the earlier play, having (for instance, and as far as I could tell) no clear escape plan from the web of contradictory promises they make to all and sundry. As in “Volpone”, Jonson mercilessly skewers the grasping greed of his characters, none more memorably than Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon on whose hypocrisy and narrow moralism Jonson plays with a cackling delight that feels personal. (Jonson had converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, although he returned to the Church of England at around the time “The Alchemist” was first staged.) All of Subtle’s subtle subterfuges come to nought, however, when the master of the house returns unexpectedly from foreign lands.

Coleridge apparently praised this play for having what he considered to be one of the most perfect plots in all literature, but I thought it was ripping off Plautus’ “The Haunted House”.

*

Comparisons to Shakespeare are inevitable, since he is our pole star for the drama of this period. I have already said that I found Jonson notable darker and more malicious than Shakespeare. There is a difference in the language too; they both wrote in iambic pentameter, but Jonson feels more cramped, lacking the airy spaciousness and aphoristic wealth of Shakespeare’s verse. I also found Jonson’s verse, on the whole, more difficult; one of those Shakespearean scenes of lower-class characters (think of Falstaff at play) in which the jargon and repartee are so quick and opaque that we’re puzzled to death gives an exaggerated but decent idea of how Jonson’s plays read. I was fortunate to find a filmed performance of “Volpone” from London’s Greenwich Theatre, which I watched as I read the play, and this improved by enjoyment and understanding of the play immensely.

Jonson doesn’t rely on soliloquy as Shakespeare does (at least not in these plays), but he does rely on the play-concluding address to the audience that is familiar from Shakespeare:

VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play, is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,
He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,
For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

This must have been a convention of the theatre at the time.

*

I have enjoyed this brief sojourn with Jonson, and might consider reading another or two of his plays in the future, should they come recommended.

Dramatic reading project

July 3, 2019

Seeking advice from readers: I am planning a slow-boil reading project in early(ish) modern drama — say, 1500-1800. Here are the plays I am currently planning to read:

Doctor Faustus (Marlowe) – c.1590
Volpone (Jonson) – 1606
The Alchemist (Jonson) – 1610
The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) – 1612
Life Is a Dream (Calderón) – 1635
Le Cid (Corneille) – 1636
Tartuffe (Molière) – 1664
The Misanthrope (Molière) – 1666
The Country Wife (Wycherley) – 1675
Phèdre (Racine) – 1677
All for Love (Dryden) – 1677
The Way of the World (Congreve) – 1700
The Beggar’s Opera (Gay) – 1728
The School for Scandal (Sheridan) – 1777
The Marriage of Figaro (Beaumarchais) – 1778
Wild Oats (O’Keeffe) – 1791

No Shakespeare because the point is to get to know playwrights other than Shakespeare.

Any suggestions for additions or deletions?

Stoppard: The Hard Problem

April 8, 2019

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard
(Faber and Faber, 2015)
76 p.

Tom Stoppard has always had a reputation as a playwright with an intellectual bent, bringing science and philosophy to the stage in a way that is accessible to audiences and infused with personal significance for his characters. The Hard Problem, his first play in nearly a decade, continues this tradition, though perhaps not as successfully as in earlier plays. The “hard problem” is the famous problem of consciousness: both whether and how conscious experience can be given a scientific explanation.

The play’s central character is Hilary, a young brain science research scientist, who has been well catechized. She knows that science is the privileged means of knowing the world and ourselves, that we are material in every aspect of our being, and that there are no mysteries in the world, but only problems to be solved. The trouble is — and this is what makes her an interesting central character — she doesn’t believe it, and is adept at ferreting out the cracks in the explanatory facade. She asks awkward questions. She calls bluff. She even prays.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is hard for a variety of reasons. One is that there is an explanatory gap between the kinds of entities that science deals with and the phenomena of first-person experience. One can know everything there is to know about the neurobiology of how photons of a particular energy incident on retinal cells trigger electrical signals to certain regions of the brain, but nothing in that body of knowledge tells us anything about what it is like to experience the colour blue, nor is it clear how knowledge of matter — which, according, at least, to the reigning scientific paradigm for the past 500 years, is defined to be essentially mathematical in structure and devoid of all mental properties — ever could tell us anything at all about conscious experience, or indeed why it ever could or would produce something like conscious experience in the first place. Given our understanding of what matter is, we can’t get there from here.

I am sorry to report that Stoppard does not solve “the hard problem” in the course of the play. Nor, to be honest, is the play much concerned with the problem of consciousness in particular. It comes up now and then, but the play’s interest is more broadly in whether scientific claims to complete or exclusive explanatory authority are justified. Are we really convinced by the portrait science paints of us? Thus in addition to the problem of consciousness, the play devotes quite a lot of time to the “problem” — for Darwinists — of altruism, and hints here and there at deeper problems posed by moral claims in general, which creep into our thinking and acting, and into the very practice of science itself, in ways that are subtle and often overlooked. In one funny scene Hilary asks an atheist character to pray for her, and, when he protests that doing so would compromise his moral and intellectual integrity, she asks, rather pointedly, “And that’s a problem, is it?” It is amazing how bags of chemical reactions get uppity when provoked.

The play therefore takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to its subject matter. I note with pleasure that a review of the play at New Scientist complains of the “great shame” that Stoppard is interested in “what he sees as the limitations of science”. Clearly he’s doing something right. That said, the philosophical wealth of the play is more pauperish than princely. Even within the ambit of “the hard problem”, there is so much more that might have been said — about the common view that consciousness is like software running on brain hardware, for instance. And the play leaves untouched other aspects of mental life at least as difficult to account for in materialist terms, such as intentionality and even conceptual thought itself.

However, a play with a running time of 90 minutes cannot do everything. Its main purpose, of course, is to tell a compelling human story, and Hilary’s story, leaning heavily but effectively on dramatic irony, was interesting to me, and if the play raises provocative questions along the way, and does not presume that the received answers are the right ones, so much the better. Tom Stoppard hasn’t let me down yet.

Terence: The Comedies

March 5, 2018

The Comedies
Publius Terentius Afer
Translated from the Latin by Peter Brown
(Oxford, 2006) [c.160 BC]
xxvii + 338 p.

Terence was a talented young playwright whose literary career, though brief, nonetheless earned him an enduring place in the history of Western literature. Seutonius tells us that he was from Carthage, originally a slave but freed “because of his intelligence and good looks”; in his notes, Peter Brown counsels skepticism about this biography. But we can be more or less confident about his end: he died at an early age (of either 25 or 35, depending on whom you believe).

He left us just six plays, all comedies, and all based on Greek originals from a century earlier. In this tradition of adapting Greek drama he belongs to the same stream of Roman literature as Plautus, and his was an honourable vocation, for Greek literature was considered the gold standard by the Romans, even as Greek territories, during Terence’s lifetime, were increasingly found to furnish a different, more literal, kind of gold. His plays have many of the same features as did Plautus’: Greek settings, Greek characters, scheming slaves, dimwitted soldiers, wayward sons, and the comedic situations typically revolve around the love lives of young men and the conflicts they engender with their fathers. The plays were originally produced for audiences of men, and though there are women in the plays, none have leading roles.

Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

**

Terence’s first play was The Girl from Andros, first staged in 166 BC. Adapted from two plays of Menander, it tells of a young man whose marriage has been arranged by his father, but who meanwhile has conceived a child with a prostitute whom he loves and wishes to marry. A clever household slave tries to help him, opposing the father, to weasel out of the planned marriage. Things look up when a traveller arrives from across the sea saying that the prostitute is actually a Greek citizen (and therefore marriageable). In fact, she turns out to be a long lost sister of the girl the young man was originally supposed to marry! This being discovered, her father grants permission for the young man to marry her instead of his previously-intended daughter, and they live happily ever after.

We see in this play one of the common devices in Terence’s plays: the reveal, in which one of the characters turns out to be someone other than whom we had thought.

**

If we are looking for a good example of how the moral universe of the Romans differed from ours, we might well consider The Mother-in-Law, an amusing comedy in which the central conflict is resolved by the happy discovery that the protagonist is a rapist.

Pamphilus and Philumena have been married for less than 9 months, and he has been away for a few months on business. Returning, he finds that his wife is pregnant, and in fact she gives birth on the very day of his return. Who is the father? What will happen to Philumena now that her disgrace has been discovered? Parents, children, and slaves scheme, at cross-purposes, to control this delicate situation. But then, ever so happily, it falls out that — well, don’t you remember that night, shortly before the wedding, when Pamphilus had been out on the town and had raped that girl in the dark? That was his bride-to-be! The baby is his, and all is disconcertingly well.

Running in parallel to this story is another, in which Philumena has left the home of her husband not because she wants to conceal her pregnancy, but because she cannot stand to live with her mother-in-law. Terence was in fact known and admired for his “double plots”; Shakespearean comedy would eventually inherit this feature, with happy results.

**

Fathers, take care when you offer your sons advice, lest they heed it. In The Self-Tormentor, first staged in 163, a father upbraids his son for failing to make a name for himself, noting that at the same age he, the father, had already fought abroad in a war, whereupon the son, taking the lesson to heart, enlists and is sent to the front, leaving his father behind, aghast, fearful for his son’s life. Thinking only of the hardships his son must be enduring, and angry at himself for his rash counsel, the father vows to enjoy nothing in life until his son’s safe return — he, then, is the “self-tormentor” of the title. All this in the first few pages. Soon enough the son returns, perfectly well, and the play develops into a comedy of situation in which various friends, slaves, and lovers scheme to — you see, they’re trying to… — of course, I’m sure they’re up to something. The play is based on an original by Menander, now lost, though not so lost as I became as the machinations of the plot spooled up. I even read the plot summary at Wikipedia a few times, and I still can’t untangle what happened, or why. I’m afraid to try again.

**

As in The Mother-in-Law, rape is central to the plot of The Eunuch, and in an even more disturbing way. A young man falls in love with a slave girl, disguises himself as a eunuch to gain access to her home, and rapes her. It is later revealed that she is, in fact, the long-lost daughter of a distinguished Athenian family, and so a citizen. This is an awful realization, of course, because to rape a girl citizen is a crime, but it’s also a happy realization, because the young rapist, also a citizen, can now marry her. And so they live happily ever after.

There are other plot lines intersecting with this one, involving a jealous soldier, another young man in love with another slave girl, and so on, but Terence makes the rape central to the action and to the happy resolution of the various knots the characters must untie to find happiness. In his notes, Peter Green comments on the centrality of rape in this play and others. He says that, paradoxically, having a female character suffer rape was, for the Romans, a way of saving her honour; an unmarried woman who consented to sex was shameful, whereas a woman who was raped, though of course she suffered, committed no personal fault. She would have, in their minds, been more tarnished had she consented. This is logical, on its own terms, but, speaking for myself, I would still rather not have rapes in my comedies.

It is worth nothing that Romans felt otherwise; The Eunuch was Terence’s first major success. This good opinion lasted, and then did not last; more than 500 years later St Augustine was made to read the play in school, but he remembers the fact only to criticize it, and by the time we reach Erasmus we find him defending the play, and others by Terence, on the weak grounds that they teach us how not to act.

**

Phormio, from 161, is an amusing play in which two fathers, who are brothers, attempt to thwart the intended marriages of their respective sons to unsuitable women. One son they instead plan to marry to an illegitimate daughter of one of the fathers, who has just come to Athens disguised as a slave girl. The title character, Phormio, is a trickster recruited by the sons to thwart the fathers’ plans. Much of the amusement comes from the fact that the daughter whom the fathers want to marry to the son (her cousin) is already, unbeknownst to the fathers, the woman whom that son wants to marry. The fathers are therefore unwittingly trying to prevent the very marriage they are trying to arrange. The play is a good read, with many funny situations.

**

Parenting raises certain perennial questions, and among them are these: how much freedom should I allow my child, and how much discipline should I apply? In The Brothers we see two fathers who take opposite approaches to rearing their sons: Demea is strict, and raises a son who is respectable, while Micio is permissive, and raises a son who openly commits follies and crimes. The former hopes that his son will learn good habits and stay on the narrow path, while the latter hopes that his tolerant attitude, and the absence of subterfuge or deception in his relationship with his son, will eventually bring his son around to an honourable adulthood. The joke is on Demea, whose son is outwardly obedient but secretly just as debauched as the other. This occasions some good comedy, although, as Peter Green says in his introductory notes, while you laugh you cannot help but think.

****

Terence’s fame lasted as long as did Rome. His Latin style was admired by the medievals, and it is perhaps because of this that we have his plays today. Alas, this aspect of his art is closed to me. The morality of his plays has been debated, and not without reason. St Ignatius of Loyola proposed making expurgated versions for use in Jesuit schools; Cardinal Newman actually did so for his school. For centuries, knowing Terence was part of being educated.

In the prologue to one of the plays, he remarks that a production of his previous play had been abandoned because a gladiatorial combat nearby had distracted the audience. The twentieth century was, insofar as Terence was concerned — though also in certain other respects — much like a giant gladiatorial combat. It is rare to find the plays staged today, but they remain interesting and enjoyable to read, even if, as is true, I myself did not enjoy them quite as much as I enjoyed reading Plautus’ plays. I am nonetheless glad to have made their acquaintance.