Fawning

The Globe regularly produce stage readings of rarely performed plays from the period, under the banner ‘Read Not Dead’. Considering I claim to like a broad range of Renaissance drama it is perhaps a bit shameful that, until this month, I’d never been to one of their productions. I shudder to think of all the stuff I’ve missed since I started my PhD in 2009, but I’m glad, at last, I got to see one their productions. I’m glad, too, it was a play I’d already read; indeed, it was one for which I have a good deal of affection: John Maston’s early Jacobean disguised duke drama, The Fawn.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost my programme and I can’t find a cast list on the internet so I can’t properly praise the actors for a variety of entertaining performers (though I can credit James Wallace with a strong performance as the disguised Duke Hercules). What I can do, however, is praise the play and, in particular, Marston’s brilliant, perverse poetry of the body.  Here’s Herod, talking about Hercules, not realizing he is also talking to him:

By this light, I’ll swear he said his father had the hipgout, the strangury, the fistula in ano, and a most unabideable breath; no teeth, less eyes, great fingers, little legs, an external flux, and an everlasting cough of the lungs.

And here’s Hercules, proposing to find a ‘modest, matron-like creature’ for the jealous Don Zuccone:

She has three hairs on her scalp and four teeth in her head, a brow wrinkled and puckered like old parchment half burnt. She has had eyes. No woman’s jawbones are more apparent. Her sometimes envious lips now shrink in, and give her nose and her chin leave to kiss each other very moistly. As for her reverend mouth, it seldom opens, but the very breath that flies out of it infects the fowls of the air, and makes them drop down dead. Her breasts hang like cobwebs. Her flesh will never make you cuckold. Her bones may.

‘She has had eyes’ earned a great laugh, as well it might, though I was especially enamoured with the image of halitosis so bad is causes birds to fall from the skies. And yet, while The Fawn is interested in the lecherous, the ugly, and the corrupt, it also celebrates the young love of Tiberio and Dulicmel. At the start of the play, Hercules resolves not to be ruled by ‘nice opinion’ and hopes to enjoy the ‘wild longings’ of youth by temporarily divesting himself of power and travelling in disguise to a foreign land. His son, Tiberio, is sent to win Dulcimel’s love for his father, so, initially, Hercules does not seem quite so different from the lusty figures that fill Duke Gonzago’s court (perhaps that is why he is able to play the part of the fawn so well). But Hercules genuinely learns about himself by pretending not to be himself. In a funny and tender scene, Tiberio shows Dulcimel a picture of his father as Hercules watches on in disguise. In the Read Not Dead production, the picture was an old cover shot of Wallace; rather wonderfully, Hercules had to look back at a younger version of himself, as his poor lovesick son tried to pass off the image as ‘the perfect counterfeit’. Later, Hercules wistfully acknowledges he ‘never knew till now how old I was’. It’s a poignant tonal shift which offers a striking reminder of Marston’s ample dramatic talents. Just as well that there will be more Marston soon, as the Globe’s fully-mounted production of The Malcontent opens at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse next month.

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