Monday, March 2, 2015

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. 

“THE CENCI” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (first published 1819); and “A TALE FOR MIDNIGHT” by Frederic Prokosch (first published 1955)

            Often reading is serendipity. You read a book on one topic, and your curiosity leads you to read another by the same author, or on the same topic, or on a similar and related topic.
            Here is my experience with the two works I’ve chosen as this week’s “Something Old”. For years a copy of Frederic Prokosch’s historical novel A Tale for Midnight has sat on my shelves unread – a most respectable hardback copy, printed in 1956, with its dust-jacket intact. The novel is based on a notorious murder case from Renaissance Italy. In 1599, a daughter and son, in a conspiracy with their stepmother, were accused of murdering their father Count Francesco Cenci. Because the dramatis personae were aristocrats, the case aroused much interest and partisanship. Eventually, after multiple confessions (some extracted by torture), daughter, son and stepmother were all found guilty and were all duly executed. I was about to read this novel when the dust-jacket blurb reminded me that Shelley had written a play about the same case, so I decided to read Shelley’s version first; and I deal with it first here.

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When I was a graduate student, I knew a woman who was writing a thesis on the failure of Romantic drama – this was the problem of why it was that many of the best-known English Romantic-era poets (Byron, Keats, Shelley) attempted to write verse drama, but that none of their efforts ever actually became part of the stage canon. They have tended to languish as the bits of the “collected works” of these poets that few people ever get to read, apart from Eng Lit graduate students. (Unlike the slightly later French Romantic-era drama, where verse plays by the likes of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset have held the French stage and are still often produced.) I was so in thrall to the idea that English Romantic verse plays were failures as true drama that I tended to steer clear of them. I was thus both surprised and pleased to find that Shelley’s The Cenci, if not the greatest play ever written, is still a pretty good drama. Although it has been only very, very rarely produced in the 200 years since it was written, it would probably do reasonably well if some enterprising producer were to present it in the appropriate style (uncut text, clearly Renaissance-era settings, and fair warning to the potential audience that it is both a verse play and written in 1819). At least this is my impression from reading it, although maybe I do not have the practical insight of a dramaturg.
The Cenci is five acts of blank verse. It distantly echoes the versification of Shakespeare, to whom all the English Romantic poets were on some level indebted, and it is absolutely chock-full of situations and even turns of phrase that Shelley has plundered from Shakespeare, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher and others whom the Romantics thought apt models for verse drama. The ear (or reading eye) doesn’t have to be all that keen to identify sections as near-pastiche.
In The Cenci, 26-year-old Shelley recounts a version of the Cenci family drama with his own emphases. The focus is on Count Francesco Cenci’s utter depravity and villainy in his incest with (i.e. rape of) his daughter Beatrice and his deliberate ruining of his son Giacomo, about whom he spreads false rumours in order to alienate Giacomo’s wife’s affections and deprive Giacomo of his property. Beatrice Cenci, by the Fifth Act, has become the dominant character and is promoted by Shelley to stoic tragic heroine as she walks calmly to her execution. So stoic is she that she rebukes other members of her family for being weak enough to make confessions under torture.
The Catholic faith of the main characters is not exactly caricatured in this play. The pious oaths of Giacomo and Beatrice and their sympathetic stepmother Lucretia, and their appeals to God, are things of dramatic power. Given Shelley’s declared atheism and ingrained English anti-Catholicism, however, the concept of God is subtly questioned (everybody from Cenci to Beatrice to the pope invokes God to justify his/her actions) and the institutional church comes in for much stick. Pope Clement VIII never appears on stage, but Cardinal Camillo becomes the mouthpiece of the church Although he is a reasonably sympathetic character during the trial scene in Act Five, Cardinal Camillo has in earlier acts explained greasily to Cenci’s aggrieved and anguished children that the pope cannot have Francesco Cenci punished for his many sins because that would be intervening in what should be the sacred bond between parents and children. The implication is, however, that the pope has so often received lavish gifts from Francesco Cenci that he neglects his moral duty because he doesn’t want to miss this great source of revenue. Further, one Orsini, designated a “prelate”, has romantic designs on Beatrice and connives at the Cenci offspring’s murder-plot against their father because he hopes to profit from it; but then in the last act he runs away to avoid the punishment the others are facing.
I am not trying to talk this play up too much. It has that flaw which was apparently in the DNA of English Romantic drama – characters tend to declaim at length rather than interact in real conversation. One feels sometimes that it is halfway towards being a series of dramatic monologues like the ones Tennyson and (more frequently) Browning were to produce later in the nineteenth century. I find somebody called Leonard Ashley, in a 1960s anthology which included the play, saying that the characters “move with declamatory despair in rooms interior-decorated with black velvet, in prefabricated ruins.… they are creatures escaped from Gothic novels.” Quite.
There is also the matter of a certain evasion about the incest that is supposed to have taken place. (As an essential part of the play, this element may have been another reason why it was not considered for production in the 19th and early 20th centuries).  Of course, it is not ever identified by name as incest, the closest identification being Beatrice’s complaint (Act Three, Scene One) “I have endured a wrong, / Which, though it be expressionless, is such / As asks atonement, both for what is past, / And lest I be reserved, day after day,  / To load with crimes an overburthened soul” (i.e. she is afraid that, having raped her, her father will now attempt to establish her as his concubine or mistress). “Expressionless”? Well, maybe – but the fact is that this “expressionless” crime is one that sets Shelley off, through the mouth of Beatrice, in long flights of verse about damnation, hell, desolation, and the desire for suicide – all of which are entirely appropriate to her feelings about what she has suffered, but all of which somehow avoid the brute fact of sexual violation and become exercises in the Romantic-Gothic macabre…. Or perhaps I am here unfairly criticising Shelley for not clearly naming something that simply could not be clearly named in published texts in his era.
There is too in the play the problem of the character of Francesco Cenci himself. Of course he is a heartless villain – how else can you consider a man who commits incest and, without provocation, wages war on his own children? But there is no way that such a character can be given any psychological nuance. In the first act, at a public banquet, Cenci laughs with glee when he receives news that two of his sons have been killed. One fears that this is only a step away from the cackling, moustache-twirling villain who would later appear in Victorian melodrama.
So this play is not the great tragedy that Shelley probably intended, but it is more than a dead duck and is at least worth a reading.
It has another interest, which is more purely historical. From the historical record itself (court documents etc.), it is a moot point whether Beatrice Cenci ever was the victim of incest. The story of her rape by her father was introduced, by her trial lawyers, late in the trial of Beatrice and her confederates, when they stood accused of parricide. Obviously the lawyers’ intention was to gain sympathy for her, answering one unspeakable crime (murder of a father) with another (incestuous rape). There is little doubt that the historical Count Cenci was as bad as he was generally painted, but this particular crime may have been a fiction – just as some of the characters in Shelley’s play are fictitious. But the point is that Shelley’s version of events was influential enough to lead nearly everyone who followed him to take the incest as read.

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Which brings me at last to Frederic Prokosch’s historical novel A Tale for Midnight. A brief word about the author, as is my custom. An American of Austrian descent, Frederic Prokosch (1906-89) was one of those authors who made a big reputation with his first works, was hailed by the literary elite, but then saw his reputation fade away in his own lifetime so that he is hardly remembered today. In the 1930s, his poetry and his first novels The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled were praised by the likes of T.S.Eliot, Andre Gide and (later) Albert Camus, Gore Vidal and Anthony Burgess. But gradually (and with some honourable exceptions) Prokosch’s later works came to seem like potboilers. Interest in him was briefly aroused again in the 1980s when, in old age, he published a “memoir” called Voices, supposedly based on Prokosch’s conversations with some of the greatest writers of the century. But the interest came from the fact that this “memoir” was soon proven to be largely a work of fiction, although its admirers now praise it as a great work of “fictional memoir”, whatever that may be.
Among the “honourable exceptions” in the declining arc of Prokosch’s literary reputation, I would place Prokosch’s adept historical novel A Tale for Midnight (1955), his own telling of the Cenci case so very, very different from Shelley’s version. Certainly this forgotten novel has a melodramatic opening sentence - “Our tale begins in darkness and ends in darkness.”  - which, like the novel’s title, appears to announce something Gothic. But compared with Shelley’s version, it is not Gothic at all. It is more like colourful documentary. This is in part because (again unlike Shelley) Prokosch went back to the original historical records of the trial and drew upon them extensively.
In Prokosch’s version, Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia are indeed wronged women and Count Francesco Cenci is indeed a disgusting person. He is a gross man who spends much of his time visiting whores, or paying shepherd boys and Roman rent-boys for casual sex. The lower half of his body is covered in itching sores which he makes his daughter rub when he needs relief. The first quarter of the novel deals with his murder. Cenci has fled from Rome to a distant castle in order to avoid mounting debts, dragging wife and daughter with him. The castle is cold, cheerless and forbidding. He makes his wife and daughter virtual prisoners as he goes about his immoral life. Beatrice pines for the sophisticated society of Rome. When she dares to complain, or does something that displeases him, her father beats her mercilessly. But he does not rape her. There is no incest.
Tired of continual abuse, Beatrice and Lucrezia (with the tacit approval of Beatrice’s brother Giacomo, who still lives in Rome) finally agree to kill Cenci, who is making their lives a misery. Beatrice is quite unlike the impassioned and high-principled violated virgin whom Shelley created. She is as cunning and conniving as her father – and fairly cold-blooded. She seduces a senior servant, the seneschal Olimpio, and frequently has sexual intercourse with him (she eventually becomes pregnant to him) with the specific purpose of enticing him into killing her father.
At last the deed is done. Olimpio and confederates smash in the sleeping Cenci’s head with a hammer and then clumsily attempt to make it look like an accident as they throw his corpse out a high window. But the novelist notes: “None of them paused to consider, none of them troubled to calculate, and all through the house they scattered the telltale hints of their crime.” (Book One, Chapter 10, Part iv).
It doesn’t take long before they are accused of murder and the remaining three-quarters of the novel deal with the consequences – the rounding-up of witnesses; the methodical and commonsensical investigation by the prosecutor Moscato (who uses torture as a matter of course); the mutual betrayals and accusations of witnesses and culprits; the trial; the executions. Throughout all this Olimpio (who doesn’t exist in Shelley’s more fictitious version) is as important a character as Beatrice. And, apart from a little remorse towards the very end, Beatrice remains cold-hearted and calculating. In one scene, she doesn’t even flinch when somebody who has contradicted her testimony is tortured in front of her. As for the incest, it is thought up by Beatrice’s defence lawyer as a late ploy to gain sympathy for her when the evidence against her has become overwhelming. This appears to be borne out by the trial records, where incest is mentioned only in passing and at a point where the defence was trying to make an appeal against the verdict.
As always, I do not want to talk up this novel too much. It is not great literature. There are moments, when Beatrice and Olimpia conjugate, that could win prizes in the Bad Sex Awards: “The sirocco was blowing, hot and humid, and he threw his clothes off impatiently. He hurled himself on his lady like a man athirst in the desert; his lips moved ravenously across her body, sipping the savour from her skin.” etc. etc. (Book One, Chapter 7, Part iii). Prokosch can’t resist the big descriptive passages where he wanders off into accounts of carnival time in Rome or the contents of a baker’s shop or the long procession to the scaffold. He also strives, without success, to give his tale some sort of symbolic force. A big flood washes things out into the open (like the murderers’ crime being revealed). Then the plague hits Rome (physical manifestation of the city’s moral corruption).
But in the end I liked the gallop of it, the plausibility of it, the quick staccato style of so many passages. In short, I found it a “good read” and considerably more believable than Shelley’s play.
So what are we left with here? A high-flown Romantic play, which justifies a murder and plays with one of the Romantics’ favourite interests – incest (Shelley must have been talking to Byron about Augusta…). And a competent historical novel which doesn’t see nobility in any of its characters, but which has greater respect for the historical record.
I think I’ll choose the latter.

Snarky Footnote: Some contemporary reviews saw Prokosch’s novel as slick sensationalism and, in the days when paperback reprints often had lurid covers, A Tale for Midnight was sometimes reprinted with covers offering erotica. In fact, I found a website offering for sale one such paperback reprint as an example of “classic sleaze”. On the other hand, Thomas Mann remarked of the novel when it first appeared: “This is a most impressive and powerful work. I cannot conceive of a more memorable treatment of the Cenci theme.” Find the novel if you can (probably in a second-hand bookshop) and then decide which designation you prefer.

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