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Monday, June 5, 2017

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.

“’TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE” by John Ford (probably first performed in 1629; first published in 1633)

As you may have noticed before on this blog, one of my pastimes is reading Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline plays written by playwrights other than Shakespeare. Hence, on this blog, you can find postings on George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, the anonymous Arden of Feversham, John Marston’s The Malcontent, Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness and Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor. The attractions of these plays for me are obvious. They are short enough to be read at a sitting or two, and no matter how convoluted, bombastic or melodramatic they (all of them) can get, they are written in a robust language that (more frequently in some than in others) can rise to poetic heights.
So on a recent holiday, as I basked in a folding chair on the black sands of a beach on the North Island’s west coast, I took out a copy of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and read it with considerable pleasure. It was the first time I had encountered the play since seeing an execrable film version of it in the early 1970s – of which more later.
In my usual pedantic way, I begin with a few words on the author.
John Ford (c.1568 - c.1640) trained as a lawyer, did not begin any sort of literary career until he was well into his 30s and did not begin writing plays until he was about 50 (in other words, he began writing plays at the age when William Shakespeare ended his writing career and died). Even then, he apparently spent some years in the 1620s writing plays in collaboration with the prolific hack Thomas Dekker.
According to Keith Sturgess’s introduction to his Penguin edition of Three Plays by John Ford, there are seven or eight plays by Ford alone which survive. Four of his plays (including ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore) were published first in the one year 1633-34 and were apparently seen through the press by Ford himself, which means there are few controversies about their texts. This year was not, however, the year when the plays were first written or performed. It is probable that ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was first performed in 1629. Anyway, it is clear that Ford was mainly a Caroline playwright, flourishing in the two decades before the civil war and the Puritans shut down the theatres.
So to the play itself.
Popular in Ford’s own time, and revived in the Restoration period, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore basically disappeared from the published canon and was not regularly performed again until the mid-20th century. The reason is obvious. Its central subject is incest.
In Parma, in Italy, Giovanni is madly, passionately, carnally, wilfully and incorrigibly in love with his sister Annabella. He cannot be argued out of his passion by his confessor Friar Bonaventura. Bonaventura presents all the arguments against the perversity of incest, counsels Giovanni to fast and pray, and threatens him with hellfire. Giovanni persists, claiming that erotic love alone is his moral criterion and it trumps all other arguments. It is clear that Annabella (encouraged by her lewd – and appropriately named – maid Putana) reciprocates Giovanni’s love and is a willing partner in incest. They sleep together a number of times. As Giovanni says to Annabella at the beginning of Act Two:
“Come, Annabella, no more Sister now,
But Love, a name more gracious; do not blush,
Beauty’s sweet wonder, but be proud to know
That yielding thou hast conquer’d, and inflamed
A heart, whose tribute is thy brother’s life
.” [Act Two, Scene 1]
Speaking to Annabella, the lewd maid Putana encourages incest thus:
“Nay, what a paradise of joy have you past under! why, now I commend thee, charge. Fear nothing, sweet-heart; what though he be your brother? your brother’s a man, I hope; and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take any body, father or brother, all is one.” [Act Two, Scene 1]
Going once again to Friar Bonaventura, Giovanni refuses to repent of the carnal delights he has enjoyed with his sister. Thus the essence of Acts One and Two as I understand them.
But in Act Three comes the inevitable climax. Annabella is now pregnant to her brother. What to do? Earlier in the play, Giovanni had already suggested that, for respectability’s sake, Annabella could marry somebody else while continuing to be his mistress. Now the need to marry and provide a pretext for her pregnancy becomes urgent.
As we have known since the beginning of the play, Florio, the father of Giovanni and Annabella, is already seeking a suitable husband for Annabella. There are two chiefs suitors. One is a nitwit called Bergetto, who provides the play’s (forced) comic relief by his inept wooing, which greatly embarrasses his uncle, the level-headed Donado. Bergetto is so inept that at one stage his idea of paying court is to tell Annabella that he loves her almost as much as Parmesan cheese. Annabella definitively rejects clownish Bergetto at the end of Act Two and later Bergetto is killed in a brawl with a third possible suitor called Grimaldi. The more serious suitor is the stern and wealthy nobleman Soranzo. In Act Three, the pregnant Annabella visits Friar Bonaventura and, unlike her brother, seems now to repent sincerely of her incest. She follows the friar’s advice that it is her duty to marry, to be a good wife and to raise her child. She has already confessed that if she were to marry anyone, it would be Soranzo.
So she chooses to marry Soranzo.
But she is not aware that there are strings attached to Soranzo. For years he had had as his mistress a married woman called Hippolita. Now Hippolita’s husband is dead and Hippolita has expected Soranzo to marry her. Knowing that Soranzo is about to marry Annabella, Hippolita plans to poison him. Her plan is thwarted by Soranzo’s loyal servant Vasques, who tricks her into drinking her own poison in a spectacular wedding-feast scene (Act Four, Scene 1) where Hippolita dies in front of all the guests assembled for the nuptials of Soranzo and Annabella. It is at this point that the play descends into sensational melodrama. I agree with T. S. Eliot, in his 1932 essay on John Ford, that “The subplot of Hippolita is tedious, and her death superfluous.” The tedium is extended by a further element of the subplot in which we discover (yawn!) that Hippolita’s husband Richardetto is not really dead and has business of his own to attend to and fiddle-dee-dee and who cares?
Let us get back to the central matter of Giovanni, Annabella and Soranzo.
Once Annabella’s pregnancy become obvious, Soranzo is aware that he has been cuckolded. In a scene of considerable violence (Act Four, Scene 3), Soranzo rages:
Now I must be the dad
To all that gallimaufry that is stuff’d
In thy corrupted bastard-bearing womb! —
Why, must I?
He slaps Annabella about and drags her by her hair as he tries to get her to divulge the name of her lover. But she refuses to give it, and indeed taunts him. For the second time in the play, it is his servant Vasques who comes to Soranzo’s aid. Vasques advises Soranzo to treat Annabella more gently, and when the married couple have left the stage, Vasques quizzes Annabella’s lewd accomplice Putana. Vasques pretends to be as appreciative of salacious gossip as his fellow-servant Putana is, and easily gets her to reveal that Annabella’s brother Giovanni fathered the baby. At once, Vasques whistles up a troop of hired banditti who haul Putana away and (offstage) torture her and have her eyes put out for encouraging the crime and mortal sin of incest. (I could stretch a point and see blinding linked with incest as being an echo of Oedipus, but if it is, it is not emphasised by the playwright.)
Act Five gives us the outcome. Annabella is now completely and sincerely disgusted by her incest and has no desire to renew her love for Giovanni. This is made clear in two scenes between them. More to the point, on the occasion of their father Florio’s birthday, Vasques is arranging for Giovanni’s sin to be revealed and Giovanni to be killed. Getting wind of this, Giovanni has his last long conversation with his sister. He rebukes her for betraying their love. Then he stabs her to death, also killing the baby in her womb. At Florio’s birthday feast, he appears before the assembled party with, dripping on his dagger, the heart of Annabella, which he has ripped out of her copse. General melee, wherein both Giovanni and Soranza, the brother and the husband, are killed, and the servant Vasques is banished to his native Spain for his part in the violence.
It is left to a Cardinal to speak the play’s last words, describing Annabella and giving the play its title:
We shall have time
To talk at large of all; but never yet
Incest and murder have so strangely met.
Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,
Who could not say, ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore?
[Act Five, Scene 6]
What can one make of this melange of tragic moments, melodrama, clumsy comedy, sheer sensationalism and much robust poetic dialogue? At the least I can say that it kept me reading and would doubtless have kept Caroline and Restoration audiences watching, but I’d be dodging my duty if I did not say something about that central matter of incest.
T. S. Eliot commends the play for not being prurient inasmuch as it deals with incest directly and openly and therefore does not indulge in the sly nudge-and-wink insinuations found in other plays by Ford. More recent commentators have taken Giovanni’s passionate declarations of love for his sister at face value, and have concluded that John Ford is morally neutral in the matter of incest.
My own reading of the play makes me reject both views.
Pace Eliot, nobody in 1629 would have written a play about incest without wanting to attract an audience by the sheer audacity of the subject – in other words, by its sensationalism. In that respect it is a prurient play. As for moral neutrality – it depends on how you read the character of Giovanni, and I read him as an intelligent, articulate and self-centred young man who borders on being a psychopath. Again and again he blames fate or destiny for his choices. In a soliloquy (Act One, Scene 2) he declares that “ ‘tis my fate that leads me on” to commit incest with his sister. He morally blackmails Annabella by telling her  ‘tis my destiny that you must either love or I must die” (also Act One, Scene 2). He sounds the same note elsewhere when Friar Bonventura attempts to reason with him. The argument is, in effect, that he is not responsible for his own actions – that he is compelled by forces he cannot control. This is the psychopath’s standard reasoning for doing what he knows to be vicious. More tellingly, note how in the last two acts, Giovanni brushes aside all of Annabella’s remorse and real concern for him, as if she is merely ruining his own feelings.
When she is locked up by her angry husband, the soliloquy with which Annabella opens Act Five makes her own feelings plain:
Beauty that clothes the outside of the face,
Is cursed if it be not cloth’d with grace.
Here like a turtle, (mew’d up in a cage,)
Unmated, I converse with air and walls,
And descant on my vile unhappiness.
O Giovanni, that hast had the spoil
Of thine own virtues, and my modest fame;
Would thou hadst been less subject to those stars
That luckless reign’d at my nativity!
O would the scourge, due to my black offence,
Might pass from thee
, that I alone might feel
The torment of an uncontrouled flame!
(Act Five, Scene 1)
She, in other words, still has some regard for her brother’s feelings and the danger he is in. But he, in his murder of her and her child, does not reciprocate such feelings. Her rejection of him is an offence to him. The clear characterisation of such an egomaniac is no endorsement of incest. And yet, as a last thought on this matter, is John Ford pulling the old Cecil B. de Mille trick of attracting an audience by the depiction of lurid vice and then preaching a moral lesson on it? (Have the exciting orgies in The Ten Commandments and then have Moses coming in to condemn them.) For all that, the conversations between Giovanni and Friar Bonaventura, and Giovanni and Annabella, are dramatically the most arresting scenes in the play.
As I feel about so many other plays of the late Jacobean and Caroline periods, there is in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore the sense that John Ford is plundering and copying theatrical tricks from earlier plays. To that extent ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a “decadent” play. Putana’s scenes with Annabella are like the (forthright, but far less corrupt) Nurse’s scenes with Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Indeed the whole situation of Florio trying to marry off a daughter without knowing that she is already involved in a love affair echoes Romeo and Juliet, just as the scene in which Friar Bonaventura, in his cell, pronounces Annabella and Soranzo officially engaged echoes Friar Lawrence’s secret wedding of Romeo and Juliet.
Friar Bonaventura on the whole is treated as a positive character. However, in an English play written in the 1620s, you can expect at least one anti-papist dig. It happens when a Cardinal takes Grimaldi under his protection, even though Grimaldi had just killed the foolish Bergetto. Florio gets to say to Bergetto’s grieving uncle Donado:
O impudence!
Had he the face to speak it, and not blush?
Come, come, Donado, there’s no help in this,
When cardinals think murder’s not amiss
:
Great men may do their wills, we must obey,
But Heaven will judge them for’t, another day
. (Act Three, Scene 9)
            Of course the play, being set in Italy, assumes that Italians are tricky, devious and morally lax – but then that is a convention of the dramaturgy of the age, allowing English audiences to pretend that they didn’t share the same vices.
I could stretch a point and see a vague imitation of the “echo” scene in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy in Act Three, Scene 2, where Annabella turns down Soranzo, but their conversation is overheard by Giovanni, allowing for the sort of three-way ironical dialogue that B. and F. used. But that is it for my comments on the play itself.
It read easily. It held my attention as I sat on a folding chair over black sand and saw the Tasman breakers come crashing in. I cannot be ungrateful to a 400-year-old play which does that, can I?

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Now for that execrable film version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore which I mentioned early in this notice.
There’s no way of escaping the fact that the main thing attracting film-makers and theatre producers to this play now is the subject of incest, and the possibilities of showing it explicitly on stage and screen. A number of films (including the Scandinavian My Sister, My Love) have been very loosely based on Ford’s play. All of them titillate audiences with the promise of “forbidden love” and then proceed to show Giovanni and Annabella bonking and fondling and rutting. The same is true of modern stage presentation. Google ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and look at the images associated with it. They are mainly theatre posters and stills of bums, boobs and bonking. Of course this would not have been possible in John Ford’s day (all female roles were played by boys or young men, remember?) and the text of the play naturally keeps all sexual intercourse offstage.
In 1971, the Italian Giuseppe Patroni Griffi directed a film version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which was called in Italian Addio, Fratello Crudele (Farewell, Cruel Brother). Charlotte Rampling played Annabella with her usual icy demeanour, and the very minor English sex-symbol Oliver Tobias played Giovanni. Only a limited part of the dialogue (in the dubbed version I saw) belonged to John Ford, most of it being Hollywoodese. Visually, its Italian Renaissance setting was okay, but its emphasis was the “forbidden love” titillation angle. So roll on Rampling and Tobias shagging in various angles and positions against moans and seductive music. The aesthetics of a smutty magazine basically.

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