To commemorate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Marlowe, Fourth Monkey Theatre Company embarked on an ambitious project to stage three Marlowe plays in a month. All three were performed in Marlowe’s native city, Canterbury, two at the theatre which now bears his name and one at the majestic Canterbury Cathedral. Opening with Doctor Faustus, the young company then took on The Massacre at Paris and The Jew of Malta. It’s not too hard to find a production of Doctor Faustus so I decided against the journey from Stratford, but The Massacre at Paris and The Jew of Malta are much less commonly seen (although, remarkably, there was also an excellent production of the former at the bankside Rose by The Dolphin’s Back in the same month). In this post, I wanted briefly to comment on how Fourth Monkey used (or did not use) comic elements in the two productions I saw and what this might suggest about the plays and about wider attitudes towards non-Shakespearean Renaissance tragedy.
I’ll begin with a contention: although tragedies are often funny, when Renaissance tragedies are read or performed, they frequently generate laughter which seems, to me at least, unhelpful and unfortunate. It’s easy to view tragedies of the period as comically excessive and melodramatic and while this isn’t a problem in itself, it’s a shame if it becomes the predominant way of viewing the genre, not least because it seems to imply that the plays are poor in quality and unable to move their audiences. I don’t want to push this point too far, partly because I don’t want to suggest that tragedies can’t be funny, and partly because I don’t think that comic elements debase a tragedy and make it less serious or worthy. However, there is a difference between laughing at the grim comedy of a tragedy and laughing at a tragedy because it is thought to be crass and unShakespearean, (a point recently made by Holger Syme in his blog post about The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). I think non-Shakespearean tragedy is often patronised by laughter.
Because of this, I actually found it quite brave of Fourth Monkey to play The Massacre at Paris as unremittingly bleak. Sure, the production ran out of steam towards the end, but the extraordinary sequence of scenes that comprise the massacre proved to be exciting and frightening drama. Played, atmospherically, in the Cathedral crypt, yards from the Huguenot Chapel (which the audience members were invited to explore pre-show) the production made striking use of incense, candles, and music. The Rose production, mentioned above, showed that the scenes can be very effectively staged in a stylized, Tarantino-esque fashion, but Fourth Monkey proved that a more sombre approach can also work. In the end, a virtually humourless approach misses the tonal complexity of Marlowe’s play, and this was one of the reasons why The Dolphin’s Back production was superior, but Fourth Monkey are to be applauded for their bravery in accepting The Massacre at Paris as a serious play about a terrible and significant event in European history.
Unfortunately, I found their Jew of Malta less successful. Again, the company seemed determined to emphasize the sombreness of the tragedy, but in this case, I thought it was a miscalculation. The Jew of Malta is a brilliantly funny play, but the production didn’t do enough to bring this humour out; instead, it seemed to push the play in a direction it didn’t want to go. The text tells us that Barabas dies by falling into a cauldron: a death which seems by turns preposterous and oddly fitting. In the Fourth Monkey production, Barabas, high up on the stage with his arms chained to the scaffolding, was effectively crucified. Perhaps the crucifixion image was an attempt to force the play to become what the prologue (omitted in this production) describes as ‘the tragedy of a Jew’. By having Barabas killed in a religiously sensitive way the production seemed to invite an unusual degree of sympathy with the character, while reminding us that the Christians of the play world are far from honourable. But this seemed overstated: the irony, that the Christian Ferneze is the most Machiavellian character, is already well established, and the production’s final image, echoing the opening scene, called attention to the similarities between Barabas and the Maltese Governor. There’s certainly something sinister about the ending, but the desire to make the play more like a conventional tragedy actually robs it of many of its greatest and most distinguishing features. The French lutenist disguise was terrific fun, and some of the lines hit home (they’re too good not to) but many went for nothing. Treating The Massacre at Paris reverentially had some striking benefits, but The Jew of Malta needed to be much more playful.