Monday, May 12, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.  

“THE MALCONTENT” by John Marston (written and first performed 1603; first printed 1604)

            Sometimes old books sit on your shelves, unread for years, before you get around to justifying the shelf-pace you give them by actually re-reading them.

Consider my battered old pink-covered “Regents Renaissance Drama Series” paperback copy of John Marston’s early Jacobean play The Malcontent. I kept it for forty years, since student days, before I found an excuse to re-read it. In fact way back in student days, I never formally “studied” this play or churned out student essays on it, though I did do papers on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. But I remember one evening joining a play-reading tutorial group run by Mac Jackson at the University of Auckland, and putting my copy of the play to use by reading the role of the usurping Duke Pietro. This allowed me to show off, because Duke Pietro is at one point disguised as a hermit, so I could prove how good I was among the student-readers by putting on two separate voices: the courtly duke and the rustic, mummerset hermit.

And that was the one and only time I had read The Malcontent, nearly all of which had long since drifted out of my mind.

Then, this year, I found the excuse to read it again.

Allow me first to talk about the play and the playwright. Oxford-educated John Marston (1576-1634) flourished as playwright for just ten years from c.1599 until he took holy orders in 1609 and gave the theatre up. He’s certainly not one of the front-rankers among playwrights of his age (Bill Shakespeare, Chris Marlowe, Ben Jonson) and he’s not even one of the second-tier lot who have always had some sort of following (John Webster; Beaumont and Fletcher). Rather, he was the type of chap who wrote one or two plays that still intrigue people – like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (if Kyd actually wrote it); like Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (if Tourneur actually wrote it); like Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling (if Middleton and Rowley actually wrote it). But at least this puts him ahead of the likes of Philip Massinger who still clutter up anthologies of Jacobean drama but whose plays are hardly ever performed – or read.

Marston made his mark first as a bitterly satirical poet in university circles. When he took up writing plays he continued in the same bitter vein, and managed to get offside with Ben Jonson, whom he accused of pomposity and pedantry. The two of them ridiculed each other as characters in their respective plays. But then Marston made it up with Jonson, became his devoted disciple and even dedicated some work to him and occasionally collaborated with him. Like Jonson’s, Marston’s plays are “humorous” in the sense of being filled with characters who act out their “humours” or temperaments in obvious ways. Quite rightly, some compare them with late medieval morality plays, where virtues and vices are personified and put on display. Why Marston gave up writing plays and became a clergyman is unclear, but it has been suggested that he might have got into real trouble with a piece of satire that overstepped the mark and brought the government’s wrath down upon him.

The one play of Marston’s, which is still performed with reasonable frequency, is The Malcontent, although another called The Dutch Courtesan is still in print. (And, in a complimentary essay on Marston, T.S.Eliot chose to praise most highly a third, and frankly more obscure, play by Marston – one wonders if Old Possum wasn’t in one of his perverse moods at the time.)

First performed in 1603 and first published in 1604, The Malcontent is part revenge melodrama and part savage, satirical farce.

At the court of Genoa, Malevole is a kind of licensed fool, entitled to say the most scurrilous and nasty things about courtiers because it amuses the Duke of Genoa, Pietro Jacomo. But little does Duke Pietro know that the bitterly satirical Malevole, the “malcontent”, is really Giovanni Altofronto, the rightful Duke of Genoa, in disguise. Only Malevole’s faithful friend Celso knows this, and it is to Celso that Malevole reveals himself and speaks as himself, conveniently filling us in on the background politics to the play and how he got to be banished in the first place.

In Act One Malevole makes it clear to Duke Pietro that the duke’s wife Aurelia is having an affair with the duke’s chief minister Mendoza, and that she is also being courted by the callow young courtier Ferneze. This might seem mere trouble-making from a rumour-monger and malcontent, except that we soon discover it is true. For all his snarling the “malcontent” is really revealing the truth about a morally corrupt court. This is the method of the whole play. What appears to be angry rant is in fact truthful satire on immoral people.

Thus in Act Two we see lust acting itself out, helped by the disgusting old bawd and pander Maquerelle. Mendoza is able to persuade the duke that it is young Ferneze alone who is cuckolding him. Mendoza in effect gets Duke Pietro’s permission to kill Ferneze on the very night Ferneze is first sleeping with the duchess. Mendoza commits the murder – and at once begins to conspire with Aurelia on how to dispose of the duke and make himself ruler of Genoa.

How this over-the-top tale of bad faith resolves itself needn’t be recounted in detail. Suffice it to say that the supposedly murdered Ferneze isn’t really dead and now becomes an ally of Malevole in bringing about the downfall of the evil Mendoza. So does Duke Pietro once Malevole opens his eyes to Mendoza’s double-crossing. The upshot involves a masque, which the over-confident Mendoza thinks is in honour of his taking over the dukedom – but the figures in the masque one by one reveal themselves to be Altofronto, Pietro, Ferneze and Celso. The defeated Mendoza is harried out and (rather hastily) Altofronto, the supposed “malcontent”, retakes his dukedom.

More than one critic has called this a male revenge fantasy, and so indeed it is. The apparent outsider Malevole is vindicated; the good - or at least repentant - characters (like Pietro and his wilful duchess) are rewarded; and the wicked are duly punished. There are amusing things en route, such as Mendoza’s misguided attempt to use Malevole as one of his assassins, which leads Malevole to undercut him in an elaborate way when Duke Pietro disguises himself as a hermit to report to Mendoza on his own death. There is also the sentimental scene in which Altofronto’s imprisoned wife – the true duchess of Genoa – proves her moral mettle by swearing her undying love to him.

In all this, though, what most engages are the outbursts of venom and excess in the language. In Act One, Scene Two, Duke Pietro calls forth his pet Malevole thus: “Come down, thou ragged cur, and snarl here. I give thy dogged sullenness free liberty; trot about and bespurtle whom thou pleasest.”

Later in the same scene the duke describes Malevole to others in this way: “This Malevole is one of the most prodigious affections that ever convers’d with nature; a man, or rather a monster, more discontent than Lucifer when he was thrust out of the presence. His appetite is as insatiable as the grave, as far from any content as from heaven. His highest delight is to procure others’ vexation, and therein he thinks he truly serves heaven; for ‘tis his position, whosoever on this earth can be contented is a slave and damn’d…..”

Malevole does know the way his words unsettle others. Having robbed the duke of his peace of mind by telling him about his wife’s adultery, he soliloquizes: “Distemperance rob thy sleep! / The heart’s disquiet is revenge most deep: / He that gets blood, the life of flesh but spills, / But he that breaks heart’s peace, the dear soul kills…” (I, iii)

Malevole’s anger at others sometimes swells into an anger at the universe in general. In Act Four, Scene Five he speaks to Pietro, when consoling him for losing his wife and dukedom, with a particularly savage contemptus mundi: “This earth is only the grave and Golgotha wherein all things that live must rot; ‘tis but the draught wherein the heavenly bodies discharge their corruption; the very muck hill on which the sublunary orbs cast their excrements. Man is the slime of this dung pit, and princes are the governors of these men; for, for our souls, they are as free as emperors, all of one piece; there goes but a pair of shears betwixt an emperor and the son of a bagpiper – only the dyeing, dressing, pressing, glossing makes the difference…”

The world, in short, is a shit-heap, earthly rank is mere veneer and only the immortality of our souls redeems us.

And yet is this all rather forced? For within a page of having said this, his own fortune having changed for the better, Malevole asks “Who doubts of Providence that sees this change?” Given that Malevole is in disguise, much of Malevole’s snarling is pure play-acting and some of it becomes pure bombast.

Re-reading this play after so many years, I thought I could detect echoes of Bill Shakespeare in it – or perhaps I am simply saying that Shakespeare and Marston shared some popular Jacobean theatrical situations. At a stretch, a discontented man adopting an antic disposition, and hanging around a court plotting revenge on a usurper, could be seen as echoing the premise of Hamlet. There are moments when the duke’s troubled mind over his wife’s adultery is reminiscent of Othello – especially the duke’s wish that he had never heard of his wife’s sins. In Othello, however, Iago really is a trouble-maker weaving scandal out of fictions, whereas in The Malcontent, Malevole, for all his snarling, is telling the truth. In III, i Duke Pietro wails, Othello-like, “O, would I ne’er had known / My own dishonour! Good God, that men should / Desire to search out that which, being found, kills all / Their joy of life! To taste the tree of knowledge, / And then be driven from out paradise.” In The Malcontent, the pretended story of the duke committing suicide by jumping to his death off a cliff reminds one of the episode in King Lear where Edgar fools his father Gloucester into imagining he has attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff.

But having made these comparisons, I don’t want to “talk up” The Malcontent too much, as it has some glaring and obvious defects. There is evidence of much padding to fill out the plot. In Act 3, there is a long scene where one Lady Biancha and the foolish gentleman Bilioso discuss the costumes of the fashionable and, with the fool Passarello, make wisecracks about the follies of various nations. There is an overlong scene where the pages of Duke Pietro fool with him before a song is sung. In Act 4, it is only after a long time-wasting scene between the pander Maquerelle and various clowns, that we see Malevole’s plot worked out. There is yet another time-filling scene between Maquerelle and fashionable people in Act Five. As the text stands, it doesn’t integrate well the thrust of the plot with the painfully unfunny comic interludes. In sum, I see it as a good, entertaining, savage farce, with moments of memorable phrasing and some redundant longueurs.

Which, at long last, brings me to my reason for taking the text off the shelf and re-reading it after all these years.

The Malcontent was not originally performed with an adult cast. In 1603 it was first performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the private Blackfriars Theatre, in which Marston had shares. In other words, this play on distinctly adult themes was acted out by a troupe of boys between the ages of 12 and 16. There was, at the beginning of the 17th century, a short-lived fashion for casts of boy actors who could also sing. It was noted with some annoyance by Shakespeare in Hamlet, when he had Rosencrantz inform Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2) “there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for’t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages (so they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills and dare scarce home thither.”

However, a year after The Malcontent debuted with an adolescent cast at the Blackfriars Theatre, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, cheekily took the play and performed it at the Globe with an adult cast. Some alterations were made to the text, including additional “comedy” and a grimly unfunny “Induction” by John Webster to rub in the point that grown men were better actors than beardless boys. The play is usually printed now with Webster’s Induction and the additions. This is the way it appears in the battered old “Regents Renaissance Drama Series” copy from my student days. It seems that Marston himself had a hand in the re-write.

Recently, the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London has had an addition to it. It is a reconstruction of a “private” closed theatre like the original Blackfriars, called the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. My wife and I were in London last month (April 2014) and, thanks to the generosity of our hosts, we were able to see at the Sam Wanamaker an attempt to show how The Malcontent would have appeared to its first viewers. It was a performance of the play by a cast of young teenagers, the “Globe Young Players”, more or less the ages of the boys who would have first performed the play at the Blackfriars 400 years ago. The cast was not exactly as it would have been in 1603. It included girls as well as boys – and the female sex did not appear on stage in Marston’s day. It was in preparation for seeing this performance that I re-read the text.

So how did a story of adultery, revenge and attempted murder fare when played by young teenagers? In the interval, we turned to two English chaps sitting next to us and asked them what they thought of the show. After first cannily ensuring that we weren’t related to anyone on stage (doubtless there were some proud parents in the audience), they said freely that they thought it was “interesting, but a failed experiment” and “a bit of a school play”. Reluctantly, I would have to agree with them. While it was fun to sit in a space something like the play’s original venue – complete with lousy site-lines and chandeliers with real candles in them – it was clear that some of the young cast didn’t entirely understand the Jacobean words they were saying. The dreaded sing-song took over a few voices, and emphases were often wrong. Worse, the boy cast as the “Malcontent” was simply too young a teenager for the role. He was not old enough to snarl convincingly. When he should have dominated the stage, he was easily out-acted by the older teenage boys who played Duke Pietro and Mendoza. Most imbalancing of all was the tall chap who played, in drag, the pander Maquerelle in such a high camp style that he stole all the scenes in which he appeared.

The production wisely ditched the added “Induction” and much of the added “comedy”, paring the text back to what it would probably have been at the Blackfriars. The customary jig at the end was vigorous and an enjoyable reminder of the way plays usually did end in London playhouses when Marston was around. But as the recited lines rolled past my ears, I most often found myself asking “How much more fun would this be if it were performed by adults?

Perhaps there is simply no way of recapturing the particular skills and appeal that boy actors had four centuries ago.

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