Monday, January 21, 2008

Language - Part III: Our Latest Offense and Censorship Elizabethan Style

Posted by Bruce Miller
The following comments were phoned in to Theatre IV’s general voice mail yesterday (Sunday) by a very distressed older woman. I’m quoting the message in its entirety, word for word. “We’re just wanting to know why in the world Barksdale chose such a play as Doubt. That is obnoxious in every way. And we are grossly disappointed in the selection of that play. And we just wanted to express our sincere regrets.”


Had the distraught woman left her name and/or phone number, we would have called her back today, respectfully, and offered her tickets to Greater Tuna or some other play to replace the tickets she is apparently holding to our upcoming production of Doubt. But as is so often the case, the message was left anonymously.

As a further wrinkle, we suspect she may not have named the play she intended to condemn. In some ways, it makes more sense if she had just seen Moonlight and Magnolias and was among those who objected so strenuously to the language in that comedy. Doubt doesn’t begin performances for four weeks, and the immediacy in her delivery made it seem like she had just witnessed something horrible. Furthermore, it’s hard for me to understand what would make anyone who had read Doubt or seen it previously say that it was “obnoxious in every way.”

I guess we’ll never know … which is frustrating.

Perhaps we should take some comfort in knowing that theatre artists have been shocking audiences with “offensive language” ever since the first curtain rose on the first performance. In fact, long before theatres even had curtains, conservative playgoers were taking umbrage at some of what they heard on stage. Back in those pre-curtain days, the consequences of offending the powers-that-be were a lot worse than they are today—setting aside for the moment that little matter of “eternal damnation” mentioned in a comment to Language – Part I.

Consider the Puritans. The Puritan movement began to gain strength in England in the 1570s, about the time that Shakespeare was entering grammar school. The Puritans didn’t call themselves Puritans; if they called themselves anything, they called themselves “the Godly.” The name “Puritans” was devised and employed by their opponents, who resented their attempts to “purify” the Church of England in keeping with other Protestant reformation efforts in John Knox’s Scotland, John Calvin’s Geneva, and Martin Luther’s Germany.

Today in the U. S. of A. we tend to think of the Puritans as the guys who landed at Plymouth Rock. We should also remember that it was the Puritan Roundheads under the political and military leadership of a “born again” Oliver Cromwell (pictured to the left), who closed England’s theatres in 1642. (Shakespeare, had he lived, would have been in his 70s.) The Puritans also defeated the royalist Cavaliers during the English Civil War, and beheaded King Charles I in 1649.

Needless to say, throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Puritans were a force to be reckoned with. And they hated the theatre. They found the worldly delights of London to be so abhorrent that, during the Great Migration of 1620-43, approximately 21,000 of them crossed the ocean to establish wilderness homes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—and in communities surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.

In his new biography, Shakespeare – The World as Stage (my daughter gave it to me for Christmas and it’s a great read), Bill Bryson (pictured to the right) says, “Puritans detested the theatre and tended to blame every natural calamity, including a rare but startling earthquake in 1580, on the playhouses. They considered theatres, with their lascivious puns and unnatural cross-dressing, a natural haunt for prostitutes and shady characters, a breeding ground of infectious diseases, a distraction from worship, and a source of unhealthy sexual excitement. All the female roles were of course played by boys—a convention that would last until the Restoration in the 1660s. In consequence the Puritans believed that the theatres were hotbeds of sodomy—still a capital offense in Shakespeare’s lifetime—and wanton liaisons of all sorts.”

The good news for theatre artists during the English Renaissance was that Queen Elizabeth (pictured to the left) was relatively neutral in the religious culture wars. She returned her country to Protestantism after succeeding her half-sister, Mary, to the throne in 1558. (Queen Mary had earned from the Puritans the moniker “Bloody Mary” because of her Catholic persecution of Protestant reformers.) But despite her Protestant leanings, Elizabeth had a healthy distrust of the Puritan movement because of its anti-monarchist sentiments. Throughout the Shakespeare Era, she resisted the Puritan’s efforts to shut the theatres down while enacting rules and regulations that encouraged the Puritans to feel like their concerns were being addressed.

From all accounts, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the theatre herself, and her government certainly benefited from the substantial licensing fees that the theatres were charged. The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tylney (Tilney), licensed all play scripts at 7 shillings each. To mollify religious conservatives, he also served as the royal censor, expunging language that could be perceived as anti-God or anti-Queen. In 1592, when the Puritans convinced the Lord Mayor of London to close the theatres, it was Tylney who lobbied on behalf of the crown to keep the theatres open, protecting royal revenues and keeping Puritan power in check.

Despite his liberal use of odds bodkins, ‘zounds and ‘sbloods (blasphemies all), Shakespeare remained relatively free of official condemnation and/or punishment throughout his career. Several of his colleagues fared far less well.

Henley Street Theatre is now presenting The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, frequently referred to in theatre history texts as the “most popular play” to grace London’s stages during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Kyd heads the list of playwrights who are believed to be the author of Hamlet and King Leir, late 16th century plays that preceded Shakespeare’s revered rewrites by a decade or more. Thomas Kyd was also horrifically wrapped up in British censorship.

In the 1580s and 90s, both Thomas Kyd and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) were working under the patronage of a particular nobleman, most likely a fellow named Lord Strange. Kyd and Marlowe became roommates for a time, and both men wrote a quantity of plays that were hugely successful.

In 1593, the Master of the Revels and the Privy Council ordered the arrest of both Kyd and Marlowe on suspicion of creating “divers lewd and mutinous libels.” Tracts, it seems, had been posted all around London disparaging the Protestant refugees who had come to England to escape the Catholic societies in France and the Netherlands. One of these posters was written in blank verse, mentioned themes, characters and scenes from several plays by Christopher Marlowe (pictured above and to the left), and was signed “Tamburlaine.”

Thomas Kyd was the first of the pair of playwrights to be apprehended and sent to Bridewell Prison. Built by Henry VIII, Bridewell was London's first correction facility. The former gatehouse (pictured to the right) is all that remains today.

Under the threat or the actuality of torture—we’ll never know for sure which one—Kyd proclaimed his innocence and implicated Marlowe in the “crime.” When incriminating evidence was found among Kyd’s papers, Kyd asserted that the offending document had found its way into his portfolio by accident during that period when he and Marlowe had been roommates. He accused Marlowe of blasphemy, atheism and homosexuality.

Bill Bryson continues the story: “Marlowe was brought before the Privy Council, questioned, and released on a bond that required him to stay within twelve miles of the royal court wherever it happened to be so that his case could be dealt with quickly when it pleased his accusers to turn to it. He faced, at the very least, having his ears cut off—that was if things went well—so it must have been a deeply uneasy time for him.”

Marlowe’s biographer, David Riggs, reminds us, “There were no acquittals in Tudor state courts.”

Now back to Bryson. “It was against this background that Marlowe went drinking with three men of doubtful character at the house of a widow, Eleanor Bull, in Deptford in East London. There, according to a subsequent coroner’s report, a dispute arose over the bill, and Marlowe—who truly was never far from violence—seized a dagger and tried to stab one Ingram Frizer with it. Frizer, in self-defense, turned the weapon back on Marlowe and stabbed him in the forehead above the right eye—a difficult place to strike a killing blow, one would have thought, but killing him outright. This is the official version, anyway. Some historians believe Marlowe was assassinated at the behest of the crown or its senior agents. Whatever the motivation, he was dead at 29.

Kyd died the next year, aged just 36, never having recovered from his ordeal at Bridewell. Shakespeare would have no serious rivals until the emergence of Ben Jonson in 1598.”

And all I get is letters, voice mails and blog comments—mostly anonymous. I guess I should count myself lucky.

--Bruce Miller


Robinitaface said...

It's a shame that it seems this person has made a judgment about 'Doubt' without having seen/read it. I had the opportunity to see Florida Repertory Theatre's production of it their opening weekend, and I loved it. I admit, there was actually one phrase that, depending on how you interpret it, might be considered a "slur" - that made me sit up in my chair for a second. But I quickly remembered the context of the time period and moved on.

If you want, Bruce, I bet the guys at Henley Street might be willing to cut out your tongue for allowing the use of such horrendous language. A wee more Elizabethan? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm thrilled Barksdale is producing the Tony winner Doubt, but I can't imagine seats will sell out in this city. I guess it's too late now, but could Barksdale have afforded a shorten run? Doubt would have also played nicely in TheatreIV's little theatre space. Ah well. I'm worried the actors will have small audiences to play to. On a different note, Bruce: you write a nice variety on the blog but please, shorten the length. We now scan your blog entries, way too much to read. Thank you.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

I would be surprised if it didn't sell out...and often. Barksdale's production has a superb cast. It's an incredible script. And if Ms. Wormwald's direction of The Syringa Tree is any indication...yeah...good stuff. I can hardly wait.

I don't find the subject matter to be that put-off-ish. The language is squeaky clean and what Father Flynn is accused of is something that happens every day (1 out of 5 boys by the age of 18, according to some strong statistics).

So the content doesn't seem to be as daring as some of the other pieces of the season.

And as far as the Catholicism is concerned, Shanley has written the following dedication:

"This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes.
Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"

I think, again, that many times, we don't give audiences enough credit (I hope they don't prove me wrong).

Bruce Miller said...

I think "Doubt" is a very worthy play and I suspect it will sell well. Not as well as a comedy or musical, but nonetheless well. Of course, I'm often wrong.

I continue to believe that the woman who complained is mistaken in some way, but that's just my hunch. Maybe she thinks "Doubt" is "Agnes of God," or one of the other nun dramas that have been done in Richmond in the past and faced the wrath of the devout Catholics.

But as Billy Christopher alluded, "Doubt" is in no way anti-Catholic.

As for the length of my blog entries, I know they're long. I know that some people like to read and some don't. That's fine. But I write the number of words I need to write to say what I want to say. I know it's unbloglike, but I come from a pre-blog age and I don't want to change. I mean no disrespect when I write more than some people want to read. Like I've said before, I know folks can and will read what they want and not read the rest. I'm cool with that.

Thanks for the comments, interest, constructive criticism, etc. It's all good.

Frank Creasy said...

Good for you Bruce, to write as your wit, research, and mood should dictate! It does seem we're in an era of sound bites and attention deficit frenzy - I can hardly stand watching morning news shows anymore, which run two hours or more but cannot devote more than five minutes to any topic, no matter the subject.

Thanks for the whole discussion on censorship, and especially with regards to Thomas Kyd, whose own life was nearly as tragic as "The Spanish Tragedy" he authored. Like "Doubt", it's an important piece of theatre that should definitely be produced by theatre companies. I do suspect "Doubt" will do well at Willow Lawn, and I look forward to an opportunity to see it.

Grant Mudge said...

Shorten the run AND shorten the blog? Shall we trim down the Shakespeare while we're at it? I know, apples & oranges, but write what you feel, Bruce! Impatient readers will just have to scroll. So, Anonymous---this reply will be a bit long too, you may want to just skip to the end.

It's another great story in the litany of writers tortured and executed for their words, and comes from Michael Wood's "In Serach of Shakespeare." He received some criticsim but it too is a great read. (The PBS video is also fun.) During the same timeframe of the deaths of Marlowe and Kyd Shakespeare's distant cousin, Robert Southwell (Suh'-thl), wrote "St. Peter's Complaint" about the duty of poets. It's inscribed to "my Loving Cosen, Master W.S." and urges him (and all poets) to forgo the "feignings of love" and other such drivel fit for the playhouses. The only true fulfillment of the poet's obligation--fulfilling their potential--was to glorify God. Somehow though, I think that's exactly what Shakespeare felt he was doing.

Southwell, a catholic Jesuit, was Elizabeth's public enemy #1. (Admittedly not for "St. Peter's Complaint.") He was eventually captured after hiding out in Warwickshire--Shakespeare's neck of the woods--for a time, tortured over three years, and executed.

Friends of Southwell's brought Elizabeth a gift on the night of his execution. What did they bring? Southwell's book on the duty of poets, 'St. Peter's Complaint.' When Elizabeth read it, witnesses said, she showed signs of grief. She surely knew of Southwell's connection to his cousin, William Shakespeare. Catholic symptahies, indeed.

PS - Regarding Marlowe: anyone else see "Tamburlaine" in DC? Impressive new space, huge cast, unwieldy conflation of the two parts. Avery Brooks recovered from an accident and was pretty great.


Bruce Miller said...

Now this is the kind of blog I enjoy. Different strokes and all that. I knew nothing about Southwell (and enjoyed learnng how to pronounce his name, having only recently mastered pronouncing Southwark as Suh'-thic with a soft th as in "the" as opposed to a hard th as in "thick"). Thanks for the comments, one and all.

Robyn said...

I love when Bruce writes the blog! It's like a theatre history class with a personal twist. And not nearly as dull as the one I suffered through in college. I'm also looking forward to Doubt - even if it's not a musical.

JB said...

to Thespis' little helper - Keri's last name is Wormald. I am sure she will love the compliment though! Thank you.

Grant Mudge said...

Bruce, I get this question occasionally, as I'm sure do you, but I bet it would be interesting for B'dale blog readers: what were some of the shows you thought would sell and didn't? (I also have little doubt that "Doubt" will do well.) Cheers. -Grant