Monday, December 2, 2013
“BUSSY D’AMBOIS” by George Chapman (first performed c.1603; first published 1607; revised version published posthumously 1641)
Way back in the early 1970s, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, I was doing a postgrad degree in English and I took a paper on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (excluding Shakespeare, of whom we got a fair whack at all levels anyway). I remember enjoying Marlowe’s mighty line and Jonson’s scrupulous plotting; the worm-gnawing horrors of Webster seeing the skull beneath the skin; the lip-smacking decadence of Ford; the forced pathos of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; the snarling of Tourneur’s revengers and the genuine oddity of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling [if indeed Middleton and Rowley wrote it – apparently scholars have recently reassigned the play to other people, just as they have stripped Tourneur of his plays].
We had a lecturer who liked to remind us that bloodstained Jacobean carve-ups resembled Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s, complete with husband-betraying femmes fatales, hitmen, piles of corpses and cheap theatrical tricks to keep the audience buzzing. The Changeling was his piece de resistance with its plot of a hitman getting it on with the murderous woman who has employed him. Think Double Indemnity and you’re in the right ballpark. This play also allowed the lecturer to indulge in some obvious Existentialist comments, Existentialism then still being trendy in Academe. In the play, one character says to another “Thou art the deed’s creature”. The concept of character being formed by action is, apparently, the essence of Existentialism. I would have thought it was also the essence of platitude, but what do I know?
Anyway, in my later memories of this course, there was something that really puzzled me. One of the plays we studied was George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois. I remember finding Chapman’s language difficult, but oddly memorable in places. So much so, indeed, that, years later, I could still remember almost word-for-word the opening soliloquy of the title character.
Bussy D’Ambois, an impoverished French nobleman, steps forward and gives vent to this speech:
Fortune, not Reason, rules the state of things,
Reward goes backwards, Honour on his head,
Who is not poor is monstrous; only Need
Gives form and worth to every human seed.
As cedars beaten with continual storms,
So great men flourish; and do imitate
Unskilful statuaries, who suppose
(In forming a Colossus) if they make him
Straddle enough, strut, and look big, and gape,
Their work is goodly: so men merely great
In their affected gravity of voice,
Sourness of countenance, manners cruelty,
Authority, wealth, and all the spawn of Fortune,
Think they bear all the Kingdom’s worth before them;
Yet differ not from those colossic statues,
Which, with heroic forms without o're-spread,
Within are nought but mortar, flint and lead.
Man is a torch borne in the wind; a dream
But of a shadow, summ'd with all his substance;
And as great seamen using all their wealth
And skills in Neptune’s deep invisible paths,
In tall ships richly built and ribb’d with brass,
To put a girdle round about the world,
When they have done it (coming near their haven)
Are fain to give a warning piece, and call
A poor staid fisherman, that never past
His country’s sight, to waft and guide them in:
So when we wander furthest through the waves
Of glassy Glory, and the gulfs of State,
Topt with all titles, spreading all our reaches,
As if each private arm would sphere the earth,
We must to virtue for her guide resort,
Or we shall shipwrack in our safest port.
On its own, this speech still strikes me as being almost as good as much that Bill Shakespeare did in the same line, setting up the theme of a man who relies on his personal “virtue” (i.e. will-power and strength) as his only moral compass. But here’s what puzzled me. Why did I hardly remember anything about the rest of the play? (Apart from an angry husband’s accusation to his wife “The chainshot of thy lust is yet aloft,/ and it must murder; ‘tis thine own dear twin”, which our lecturer again insisted on linking to Existentialism.) And why was Chapman, who clearly had great verbal skills, virtually unknown in modern performance? Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson are always on the boards. Webster, Tourneur and Middleton and Rowley get a fair number of revivals. (In the last couple of decades, I have seen on stage here in Auckland productions of The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling). I believe that even Beaumont and Fletcher are performed every so often. But Chapman? I’d be happy to be corrected by somebody who knows more about these things than I do, but I have never heard of a modern stage performance of Chapman. Why is this?
In an idle time a few months ago, and burning to answer these questions, I sat down and re-read Bussy D’Ambois for the first time in nearly 40 years. And I think I found the answer to my questions.
Let me say a few words about George Chapman (c.1560-1634). He was a good poet and it is not his fault that he wasn’t as good as his contemporaries Shakespeare and Donne (how many poets are?). He has the misfortune to be remembered now only in relation to other people. There used to be the theory that he was the “rival poet” mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but modern scholarship seems to have debunked this. However, Shakespeare and Chapman did know each other’s plays and there are a few little textual points where the one seems to be imitating the other. In his own day, Chapman was famous for completing Marlowe’s long poem Hero and Leander after Marlowe was murdered. Apart from that, he is mainly remembered now because John Keats wrote a sonnet about him two centuries later, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, praising Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chapman version of the latter sits, as yet unread, on my shelf. Chapman wrote comedies, but [again in his own day] was better known for a series of four or five “tragedies” drawn from very recent French history. The first and (according to general repute) best of them was Bussy D’Ambois, first performed in 1603 or 1604. The man upon whom it is loosely based, the French aristocrat and brawler at the court of King Henry III of France, Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, was murdered at the age of 30 in 1579, so Chapman was dramatizing events from a mere 25 years previously.
Now let me say a few words about his play and its plot. Bussy D’Ambois is lured to the court of King Henry III by the king’s brother “Monsieur”, who has his eye on the throne. “Monsieur” wants a band of trusties to surround him as he makes his own bid for power, and he knows Bussy’s reputation as a swordsman. But once at court, Bussy proves too choleric for his own good. He takes offence at remarks made by three courtiers and, with two of his mates, challenges them to a duel. Five of the six men wind up dead, Bussy having personally killed all three of the opposing faction after they had first killed his two mates.
More dangerously for himself, however, he has an affair with Tamyra, wife of the Count of Montsurry. By this stage he has alienated his patron “Monsieur”, so “Monsieur” allies with Montsurry and the Duke of Guise to corner and punish Bussy. First “Monsieur” tips off Montsurry about his wife’s adultery. Montsurry has his wife tortured to reveal who her lover is, and then has her write a letter in her own blood luring Bussy to a tryst. Despite being warned (the conjuring-up of soothsaying spirits comes into the play) Bussy walks into the ambush that is prepared for him, because his pride and “virtue” will not let him run away from danger. He is duly murdered. In his dying speech he declares:
Here, like a Roman statue, I will stand
Till death hath made me marble. O my fame
Live in despite of murther!
This is a play that could have been a good study in hubris and vainglory. Like Coriolanus (“Alone I did it!”), Bussy is the model of the ego-driven man of violence whose dignity resides in his complete self-assurance. In some ways splendid (roll on Rostand’s unhistorical version of Cyrano de Bergerac) but in some ways very scary (roll on Nietzsche’s self-ordained supermen), he is big only because he is surrounded by nastier, smaller and more calculating people.
Yet the play never reaches great tragic heights, even though Chapman clearly sees Bussy as a hero. There is one extraordinary feature of the play. The historical events to which it alludes took place right in the middle of France’s Wars of Religion. The historical Bussy was murdered a mere seven years after the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre, in which Bussy had been one of the Catholic bravos who set upon and murdered Protestant Huguenots. In Protestant England, the French situation was always ripe for pro-Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, such as Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Yet in Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, there is virtually no reference to the religious situation at all. Possibly the friar who conveys Bussy to his adulterous mistress could be seen as a pandar, and later the same friar conjures up spirits – with a pagan prayer – to help Bussy understand what he is walking into. Maybe a Protestant London audience would see this as confirming all their suspicions of devious Catholic clergy; and yet – amazingly – Chapman depicts the friar in a positive light, and the friar dies sympathetically, properly disgusted by Montsurry’s use of torture. Dare I suggest that, by reading recent French history, Chapman was more aware than most of his English contemporaries of how ambiguous the religious situation in France really was – how many policy-plays, betrayals and acts of volence there were on both the Catholic and the Protestant sides. He could not present France in simplistic black-and-white propagandistic terms, so he ignored the religious situation altogether and focused his play solely on the matter of power.
So – at last – why does this play not live as theatre, when it has such a strong story and such tragic potential?
There are some good theatrical moments – coups de theatre, as the French would say. The reported account of Bussy’s heroic duel. The scene where the friar leads Bussy up, through an under-stage trapdoor, to Tamyra’s room. The torture of Tamyra by her husband in which she piteously pleads that her husband could not treat her so, and that some evil spirit must have taken his place (“husband, oh, help me, husband!”). The friar conjuring up the spirits so that he and Bussy can see “Monsieur”, Guise and Montsurry plotting. And, of course, the final cutting-down of Bussy by ambush.
But, dammit, the play just doesn’t work. Coming back to it after all these years, I am more alert to its failure. The failure is in the language. Too often, Chapman stops the action so that characters can deliver themselves of sententious thoughts. I am not talking here of soliloquies, arising from characters’ circumstances, as in Shakespeare, Jonson et al. I am talking of set-piece speeches, which Chapman has forced into characters’ mouths for our edification. Consider this exchange (Act Two, Scene One) between King Henry III and the Duc de Guise, which is really just an excuse for the king’s set-piece speech on envy:
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 healthful; 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 strait;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not her self;
Whither soever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still clasped in her own arms:
And therefore, cousin Guise, let us avoid her.
The length of this speech is totally disproportionate to the dramatic situation that called it forth. Or again, consider the moment (Act Three, Scene One) where Bussy preaches his Machiavellian values when Tamyra has just expressed misgivings about their adulterous sin:
Sin is a coward, madam, and insults
But on our weakness, in his truest valour:
And so our ignorance tames us, that we let
His shadows fright us: and like empty clouds
In which our faulty apprehensions forge
The forms of dragons, lions, elephants,
When they hold no proportion, the sly charmes
Of the witch policy makes him like a monster
Kept only to show men for servile money:
That false hag often paints him in her cloth
Ten times more monstrous than he is in troth.
(Chapman’s reference to cloud-shapes here has led some to suggest he knew the “very like a whale” scene in Hamlet).
In both cases, Chapman can’t refrain from launching into over-long metaphors and similes, developed in more detail than the dramatic situation requires. And, alas, this applies even to what should have been some of the play’s best moments. In Act Four Scene Two, Bussy is quarrelling with “Monsieur”. All the dramatic situation requires him to say is something like “I don’t care what a big shot you become. If you treated me that way I’d still belt you one”. But Chapman being Chapman, he can’t resist getting Bussy to say:
Were your King brother in you; all your powers
(Stretch’d in the arms of great men and their bawds)
Set close down by you; all your stormy laws
Spouted with lawyers’ mouths, and gushing blood,
Like to so many torrents; all your glories
Making you terrible, like enchanted flames,
Fed with bare cockscombs and with crooked hams,
All your prerogatives, your shames, and tortures,
All daring heaven and opening hell about you—
Were I the man ye wrong'd so and provok'd,
(Though ne'er so much beneath you) like a box tree
I would out of the roughness of my root
Ram hardness in my lowness, and, like death
Mounted on earthquakes, I would trot through all
Honours and horrors, through foul and fair,
And from your whole strength toss you into the air.
Shakespeare would have tossed this off as a neat one-liner. (Something like his magnificently scornful “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” in Othello). I’m not saying Chapman was totally incapable of pithy expression. There’s a great line in III i of Bussy D’Ambois where Montsurry describes Bussy as “Fortune’s proud mushroom shot up in a night.” But even so, Chapman suffers badly from that loquacious, pedantic, stiff circumlocution, which I think was called the Euphuistic style.
When I came back to this play after all these years, I looked up John Dryden’s opinion of it [given in an epistle dedicatory which Dryden affixed to one of his own plays in 1681]. Dryden says:
“I have sometimes wondered in the reading what has become of those glaring colours which amazed me in Bussy D’Ambois upon the theatre; but when I had taken up what I supposed a fallen star, I found I had been cozened with a jelly; nothing but a cold dull mass, which glittered no longer than it was shooting; a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words, repetition in abundance, looseness of expression, and gross hyperboles; the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten; and to sum up all, incorrect English, and a hideous mingle of false poetry and true nonsense; or, at best, a scantling of wit, which lay gasping for life, and groaning beneath a heap of rubbish. A famous modern poet used to sacrifice every year a Statius to Virgil’s manes; and I have indignation enough to burn a D’Ambois annually to the memory of Jonson.”
Certainly Dryden goes a little over the top here (and there are always those querulous critics who want to remind us that Dryden’s own plays aren’t so hot in the prolix sententiousness department). But where Bussy D’Ambois is concerned, I can’t help agreeing with him when he speaks of “a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words” and of “the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten ”. Chapman’s play is wordy and ranty and its speeches over-long and sometimes pompous, filled with redundant examples and similitudes.
A poet who is remembered after 400 years deserves some credit, and Chapman really does have his moments. But I think I now know why he no longer holds the stage. Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe wrote plays. Regrettably, Chapman wrote long sermons and lectures linked by dramatic situations.