Monday, December 1, 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 four or more years ago. 

“A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS” by Thomas Heywood (first performed 1603; first published 1607)

            When a character in a play delivers himself of such a self-satisfied speech as the following, then we can be sure his happiness is about to crumble and his peace of mind be shattered:
How happy am I amongst other men,
That in my mean estate embrace content!
I am a gentleman, and by my birth
Companion with a king; a king's no more.
I am possess’d of many fair revenues,
Sufficient to maintain a gentleman;
Touching my mind, I am studied in all arts;
The riches of my thoughts and of my time
Have been a good proficient; but, the chief
Of all the sweet felicities on earth,

I have a fair, a chaste, and loving wife, —
Perfection all, all truth, all ornament.
If man on earth may truly happy be,
Of these at once possest, sure, I am he.

This is Master John Frankford soliloquising at the beginning of Act Two of Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, first performed in 1603, the year James I took the throne of England, but rightly regarded as a thoroughly Elizabethan play in its dramaturgy. Thomas Heywood was born some time in the 1570s but died in 1641, at a ripe old age for his times. He was essentially an adept hack, who churned out plays and pamphlets with equal facility and was apparently most famous in his day for his comedies. The domestic tragedy A Woman Killed With Kindness is sometimes called his masterpiece, which does make me wonder how bad most of his output must have been, for this lumpy and uneven play is no masterpiece. Heywood outlived both Shakespeare and Jonson, but never came near their skill and subtlety in characterisation. Yet a recent re-reading reminds me that I have an odd sort of affection for this play. It does not have the rough, almost documentary, vigour of the anonymous Arden of Feversham [look up my comments on it via the index at right], which preceded it by a decade. Its characters are thin and often act without clear motivation. Its two separate plots do not fit together easily. But for all its crudities, much of it works and it has scenes that can play well on the stage and move an audience.
To get back to John Frankford’s hubristic invitation to nemesis.
Frankford has married Mistress Frankford. She is usually called just that in the play – Mistress Frankford. Feminists could justly complain that such nomenclature signifies a woman seen as a man’s property. Mistress Frankford is, however, addressed as “Nan” a number of times in the latter half of the play, so critics usually designate her Anne. John Frankford is a generous hearted man who feels that God has been good to him. Out of the goodness of his heart, Frankford invites a pleasant, but impoverished gentleman, Wendoll, to live with him and his wife. But when Frankford is away Wendoll, although he knows Frankfort is his benefactor, although he is aware that what he contemplates is sinful, embarks on an affair with Mistress Frankfort.
And how does Frankfort react when his faithful servant Nicholas tells him of this?
First with disbelief; then with prudence.
Unlike Othello, who is more easily confounded by Iago’s fabrications, Frankford will not believe what he has been told until he has real proof. So he pretends to go off on urgent business in order to come back and spy on his wife and his friend. He finds Wendoll and Anne in flagrante. Wendoll flees in panic. Mistress Frankford expects the severest of punishment from her husband. Instead, Frankford acts in a way that would seem mild in a husband four hundred years ago. In tears of sorrow, he takes exclusive custody of the couple’s children, then gives Anne every luxury and servants to attend her, but banishes her from his sight forever by making her live in one of his distant properties.
He declares:
My words are regist'red in Heaven already.
With patience hear me! I'll not martyr thee,
Nor mark thee for a strumpet; but with usage
Of more humility torment thy soul,

And kill thee even with kindness.  (IV, v)
So, in the last act, the banished Anne Frankford dies in sorrow and remorse, starving herself, but not before one final scene where she and John reach some sort of reconciliation. Reiterating the play’s title, the final words of the play are spoken at Anne’s deathbed by her brother Sir Francis Acton, and her husband. They go thus:
Sir Francis: Peace with thee, Nan! Brothers and gentlemen, All we that can plead interest in her grief,
Bestow upon her body funeral tears!
Brother, had you with threats and usage bad
Punish'd her sin, the grief of her offence
Had not with such true sorrow touch'd her heart.
Frankford: I see it had not; therefore, on her grave
Will I bestow this funeral epitaph,
Which on her marble tomb shall be engrav'd.
In golden letters shall these words be fill'd:
Here lies she whom her husband's kindness kill'd.
This is an admission by Frankford that there has been a real cruelty in his “kindness”.
If this were the play’s sole plot, it could have been developed as a tense psychological drama. Unfortunately there is another strand of plot, which it is hard to call a “subplot” as it takes up as much of the play as the Frankfords’ marital problems do. Never – except in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling – have I met a play where there is such disjunction between two threads of plot.
The second plot of A Woman Killed With Kindness concerns a quarrel between Sir Francis Acton, Mistress Frankford’s brother, and Sir Charles Mountford. They fall out in a brawl over their respective falconry skills. The brawl leads to the death of some of their servants. Sir Charles Mountford is hauled before a sheriff and is financially ruined by a sharper called Shafton. Sir Francis Acton, after first gloating over Mountford’s ruin, falls in love with Mountford’s sister Susan and, in the hope of sweetening her feelings for him, tries to buy Mountford out of jail. In the end, despite the initial misgivings of Susan and Mountford, Sir Francis and Susan are wed. One could say that, in effect, Susan is sold to buy Mountford out of debt. There is possibly an intentional sense here too of a “woman killed with kindness” in the way Sir Francis lavishes unwanted attentions on Susan.
Given that both strands of plot concern, ultimately, marriage and the relationships of men and women, A Woman Killed With Kindness has been a happy hunting ground for critics and exegetes who want to explore the play as an exemplar of proprietary male attitudes towards women and (implicitly) also want to condemn the play’s antiquated male chauvinism. Go on line and you can read reviews of a recent London production of the play. The woman who directed it chose to costume the play in early 20th century style, with a set that placed the John-and-Anne Frankford plot, and the Sir-Francis-and-Susan plot, side-by-side to point up parallels in these two examples of men treating women as property. Of course this is a legitimate reading of the play, though I think the most fruitful thing in this line is an article by Jennifer Panek called “Punishing Adultery in A Woman Killed With Kindness” (which you can also find easily on line). Panek’s view is that the play is really a sophisticated critique of John Frankford’s behaviour. As Panek reads it, Frankford does not treat his wife as a companion and equal, but instead chooses a male to fill this role. The male is Wendoll. By his foolish choice, Frankford invites into his home the very thing that destroys his marriage. Therefore failure to treat a spouse as an equal is the real enemy of marriage.
On the printed page such arguments are persuasive. And yet there is a great difference between what can be perceived rationally in a play by a critic, and the dramatic impact that a play actually has when read or performed. After reading ingenious efforts to fit the two plots thematically together, I still end up agreeing with T.S.Eliot (in his 1931 essay on Heywood) that the play has brilliant moments but the subplot is mainly padding.
I could note the play’s crudities. There are dead obvious attempts to appeal to the whole audience – hence the play opens with dancing among the gentlefolk just after the wedding of Frankfort and Mistress Frankfort (I, i), but then follows it with a scene of servants and others having a knees-up (I, ii) for no other purpose than to appeal to the groundlings. Characters change suddenly only because the plot demands it. Shafton treats the disgraced Sir Charles Mountford as a friend (II, i) and then (III,i) suddenly turns the law on him to cheat him out of his property. Sir Francis Acton gloats over Mountford’s fall and has lustful thoughts about raping and dishonouring Mountford’s sister Susan; then suddenly, in the same scene, he falls genuinely in love with Susan. In scenes like these, the play is almost like a medieval morality play where, subtlety and psychology be damned, characters wear signs around their necks saying “Villain”, “Dupe”, “Victim” and act strictly according to the exigencies of the plot. There are also uncomfortable leaps in time. The Frankfords are newly married in Act One, but in Act Four, when Frankford is parting from his adulterous wife, there are children to consider. It has not been clearly marked to us that years have gone by in the story’s unfolding.
So why do I still like this play?
Despite everything, its broad-stroke and slapdash technique does allow moments of wit and brilliance. The scene of falconry, which turns into a bloody and lethal fight between the followers of Sir Francis Acton and the followers of Sir Charles Mountford, could almost be seen as symbolic of a rapacious society where human animals prey upon other human animals. The scene where Frankfort plays cards with Anne and Wendoll, after his servant Nicholas has advised him of their adultery, shows the language of card-sharping becoming code for sexual betrayal. The suddenness with which Anne is seduced has troubled many commentators, but dramatically it is offset by Wendoll’s full awareness (in the play’s most famous speech) that he is committing sin as he moves to seduce her:
O God, O God! With what a violence
I'm hurried to mine own destruction !
There goest thou, the most perfectest man
That ever England bred a gentleman,

And shall I wrong his bed ? —Thou God of
         thunder !
Stay, in Thy thoughts of vengeance and of wrath
Thy great, almighty, and all-judging hand
From speedy execution on a villain, —
A villain and a traitor to his friend. (II, iii)
There is also the careful prudence of Frankford, who does not immediately accept Nicholas’s report of the adultery:
Away ! Begone ! —
She is well born, descended nobly;
Virtuous her education; her repute
Is in the general voice of all the country

Honest and fair; her carriage, her demeanour,
In all her actions that concern the love
To me her husband, modest, chaste, and godly.
Is all this seeming gold plain copper?
But he, that Judas that hath borne my purse
Hath sold me for a sin. O God! O God!

Shall I put up these wrongs? No! Shall I trust
The bare report of this suspicious groom,
Before the double-gilt, the well-hatch'd ore
Of their two hearts? No, I will lose these thoughts;

Distraction I will banish from my brow,
And from my looks exile sad discontent.
Their wonted favours in my tongue shall flow;
Till I know all, I'll nothing seem to know

It is in moments such as these that the play is capable of grabbing an audience (or a reader). And this is why the play appeals to me. For all his many faults, Heywood in his best moments can manipulate an audience like a skilful screenwriter. In the last act, a tearful Frankford clears the house of all his wife’s effects and lingers over her lute, recalling its harmonies. This is just like the larmoyant manner of Beaumont and Fletcher in a play like The Maid’s Tragedy, soliciting an audience’s tears by theatrical tricks. It isn’t Shakespeare, but it does work.

Idiotic footnote:Comparisons are odorous”, says Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. I did know that Shakespeare was having fun with a saying that was already a commonplace in his day, but it’s nice to find a contemporary of Shakespeare proving how commonplace the saying was. In A Woman Killed With Kindness the servant Jenkin says (I, ii), in the “comic” scene of servant revelry: “O Slime! O Brickbat! Do not you know that comparisons are odious? Now we are odious ourselves, too; therefore there are no comparisons to be made betwixt us.” Just thought you’d like to know.

No comments:

Post a Comment