Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer (re)reading: A Yorkshire Tragedy

OK, so I think I'm going to teach this one in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama next semester. I will admit that I decided to teach it because it's basically a one-act, and therefore easily Xeroxable and ideal for slotting into an already-overstuffed syllabus. But I'm seeing a lot of interesting potential in it.

The play is based on the real-life case of Walter Calverley, who was apparently always something of a gambler and a drunk, and who snapped one day, murdered two of his three young sons, and attempted to murder his wife and his other son. The playwrights don't use real names -- the surviving Calverleys were naturally averse to having the family tragedy put on the public stage, and they were a wealthy family with some political clout -- but it's pretty clearly the early modern equivalent of a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law and Order.

The only named characters are three servants who appear in the opening scene, gossip a bit about their masters, and are then never heard from again. Everyone else is nameless: Husband, Wife, Son, Maid, Knight. The servants' dialogue at the beginning is the only bit resembling comedy. It's a stark play, very stripped-down, and makes you realize how overstuffed most full-length plays are by comparison. (I suspect it may be unfinished -- there are references in the first scene to an old flame of the husband's, and maybe the playwright(s) intended to develop all these loose ends, only someone else wanted the play to be rushed onto the stage while it was still topical. At any rate, it's probably fortuitous that they didn't -- I doubt that a comic subplot and a hefty load of moralizing would improve it.)

The Husband is the only character with much in the way of complexity, and you can almost see the playwrights grappling with the same questions you read in newspaper columns today after some apparently inexplicable act of violence: What would make someone do this? Where do people like this come from? Are they like us, after all? The other characters use the words unnatural, barbarous, monstrous, but these don't quite seem like answers. In his more outrageously antisocial moments, the Husband accuses his virtuous wife of adultery and his children of being bastards; at other times, when he seems at once more honest with himself and perilously close to madness, he despairs of his own prodigality and inability to provide for his family: How well was I left, very well, very well! My lands showed like a full moon about me, but now the moon's i' th' last quarter, waning, waning. And I am mad to think that moon was mine: mine and my father's, and my forefathers', generations, generations. Down goes the house of us, down, down, it sinks. Now is the name a beggar, begs in me that name which hundreds of years has made this shire famous: in me, and my posterity runs out. And these reflections lead him to the fatal conclusion that his sons would be better off dead.

I'm curious to see how it teaches. We'll be coming to it after Faustus, and after the revenge tragedies -- I think they will have the whole tortured-antihero formula down. It also seems to raise odd, uncomfortably contemporary questions about crime, media, and notoriety, in ways that (say) The Duchess of Malfi does not, even if you know intellectually that Giovanna d'Aragona was just as much a real person as the Wife of the play. I'm both looking forward to it, and apprehensive about it. We will see.

1 comment:

between4walls said...

One thing I found interesting in the fictionalization of the Duchess of Malfi was that IRL there was no Ferdinand- the second brother Carlo was already dead when the Cardinal had her killed. Which, considering how much more of a driving (and sexual) force he is in the play, is interesting.

btw your old HP parallels essay got me into Webster, thanks very much as he's awesome.