History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


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Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (165 BC)

As usual the set consists of a street in Athens showing the front doors of two houses belonging to the two old geezers of the story, Laches and Phidippus. Rather than a tale of two young men, this story concerns only one, Pamphilus, son of Laches. He has married Philumena, the daughter of his neighbour Phidippus, but his real love is a courtesan named Bacchis.

The plot

Enter Philotis and Syra

Syra is an old bawd and Philotis is a pretty young courtesan. They enter complaining about men. Philotis remarks that men are all the same, making promises then breaking them. Take young Pamphilus who swore again and again he’d remain true to his courtesan Bacchis, but then got married. Syra replies that the only thing to do is make sure you fleece them for every penny they’ve got, before they dump you and move on.

This studied cynicism reminds me very much of the attitudes expressed by characters throughout English Restoration comedy.

Enter Parmeno

An old servant, Parmeno, comes out of Laches’ house. Pamphilus is Laches’ son. When he sees the ladies, Parmeno politely asks how they are. It emerges that Philotis was taken off to Corinth for two years by ‘a brute of a soldier’ and had a thoroughly miserable time. She’s only just returned to Athens and is looking up the old gang. She’s just been to see Bacchis and can’t believe that Pamphilus has gone and got married.

Parmeno settles down to tell them the story. Pamphilus has always loved Bacchis but his father was getting on and started nagging him to marry and settle down. In the end he gave in and agreed to be married to the daughter of their next door neighbour, Phidippus. It was only as the reality began to sink in that he became increasingly upset and would take Parmeno for long walks and pour his heart out.

Long story short: they got married but Pamphilus didn’t touch her that night or any other. The marriage was unconsummated. Pamphilus began thinking about how he could return the girl to her family, without shame on all sides. He continued to see Bacchis but she, learning about his wife, became more demanding and naggy. Slowly Pamphilus began to compare the two women and realise that his wife, though less sexy and exciting, was ‘modest and retiring, as a lady ought to be.’

At this point an elderly relative died in Imbros, leaving the family his heirs and Pamphilus was packed off there, protesting at having to leave his wife. The wife passed into the care of his mother, Sostrata.

Philotis, by this stage, is bored of this long exposition. Get to the point! What of the marriage?

Well, the wife, Philumena, began to conceive a dislike of the mother in law. When she came into a room, the other went out. She didn’t talk to her. After a few weeks she said she had to go and see her own mother but never returned. Sostrata issued repeated requests for her to return which have been ignored.

Just yesterday old Laches went to see Philumena’s father to have it out, and Parmeno hasn’t heard the outcome. That’s all the gossip he knows. And so they bid goodbye to each other and leave on opposite sides of the stage. In other words, this opening scene has been one long exposition of the backstory.

Enter Laches and Sosastra

Laches is furious with his wife, spouting a stream of anti-women propaganda, saying they’re all the same and blaming her for driving his daughter-in-law from their house.

Enter Phidippus

So Philumena has left Laches’ house and returned to the house of her parents, which just so happens to be right next door. Her father emerges from his house, as so often at the start of these plays, still talking to someone within. [Maybe this convention was to establish the fact that there is a within, in what was probably a very basic ‘set’. Or maybe it was a quick way of establishing which characters are where as the play begins.] He is calling inside to his daughter (Philumena) and saying he’d really rather that she obeyed his orders and that he’s too kind-hearted to her.

Laches confronts him and asks him to explain why his daughter refuses to return to Laches’ house. Is she ill? Is it because she claims to be mistreated? He takes it as a personal insult.

Phidippus for his part says he doesn’t know why, Philumena refuses to tell him. She just swore on oath she can’t bear to be in the house when Pamphilus is away. Impasse. Well, so be it, Laches says he’ll accompany Phidippus into town on business and they exit.

Sosastra is still distraught that she’s getting the blame for all this. It’s so unfair of men to label all women the same, when she knows she’s gone out of her way to treat Philumena like her own daughter. She goes back into her house.

Enter Pamphilus and Parmeno

Pamphilus is wretched. He hates coming home to find his affairs in this state. Parmeno tries to encourage him by telling him his return will bring things to a head and resolve them. Pamphilus is the first to admit his wife had a lot to put up with from him (presumably, his ongoing infidelity with Bacchis) and he came to respect and love her for it. And now he wonders what on earth can have prompted such enmity between daughter and mother-in-law.

Parmeno thinks it might all be a fuss about nothing, given that women are like children, have no self-control and squabble over trifles.

They are interrupted by the sound of cries and kerfuffle from inside Phidippus’s house. Can Philumena be ill, having a fit? Now he mentions it, Parmeno is reminded that she did say she’d been having shivering fits of some kind. Beside himself with worry Pamphilus rushes into the house proclaiming his love for his wife.

Enter Sostrata

Sostrata has heard all the rumpus and is genuinely concerned for her daughter-in-law’s health. She prays to the gods that she stays well. She sees Parmeno who mentions that a) her son Pamphilus is returned b) he’s just run into the Phidippus house to find out what’s happening. Best leave him to it.

Enter Pamphilus

Pamphilus is shocked and upset. When his mother asks him whether it’s fever or fits he agrees with whatever she says to get her to shut up, then asks her to go into their house. She does. Then Pormeno starts to question him and he angrily tells the old servant to go down to the docks to help the lads with his (Pamphilus’s) luggage.

Now alone, Pamphilus shares with the audience what he’s just seen. He rushed in and discovered that – Philumena is heavily pregnant. That’s why she fled his house, that’s why she won’t go back, that’s why she refuses to see the mother-in-law. Pamphilus shouted something at her for her wickedness, turned and ran but her mother ran after him and fell at his knees begging him to listen.

She explained that Philumena was raped before she became engaged to Pamphilus. She and her mother were too ashamed to tell anyone. Now she begs him to keep it a secret and promises that, as soon as the baby is born, she will go expose it to die somewhere. So Pamphilus gave her his word and here he is back out on the street two minutes later, dazed and confused.

Much as he loves his wife he won’t be able to live with her after she’s had the baby and so he weeps tears at the thought of his long lonely life to comer. Self-pitying, melodramatic wimp that he is.

Re-enter Parmeno

Parmeno enters with some other slaves carrying Pamphilus’s luggage. He needs to get Parmeno out the way in case he hears Philumena’s brith cries and realises what is going on.

Parmeno chats with Sosia who accompanied Pamphilus on the voyage and tells him they had terrible weather.

Parmeno says hello to Pamphilus who promptly tells him he wants to run up to the acropolis and find a man he stayed with on Mykonos. Parmeno is cheesed off with having to run all these errands. Off he goes very sulkily.

Pamphilus is worrying what to do when he sees the two fathers coming along.

Enter Laches and Phidippus

They greet each other. First Laches asks after the dead relative, did he leave much? No. Then they move onto the subject of the wife, Laches explaining she’s been staying with her family, but Phidippus is going to send her back soon, nudging him and saying aren’t you, Phidippus?

Pamphilus delivers a speech in which he says he loves and respects is wife and her decision to leave is no fault of his, and some antagonism has sprung up between daughter and mother-in-law and that, if he has to make a choice, filial duty says he must choose his mother.

The fathers both ask Pamphilus to reconsider and take his wife back. Pamphilus says he loves her but no. He hopes she will be happy with a husband who is more worthy of her. And with that Pamphilus goes into his father’s house, leaving the two old men to marvel at his obstinacy.

They quarrel. Phidippus insists Laches’ son should either take his daughter back or, if he refuses, return her dowry and they’ll marry her to someone else, and with that he disappears into his house, leaving Laches alone on stage.

Laches laments that neither his friend Phidippus not his son take any notice of him. He’ll go into his house and vent his spleen on his poor wife, and he goes inside.

Enter Myrrina

Enter Phidippus’s wife and the mother of Philumena, swiftly followed by Phidippus himself. He heard a baby cry, went in to see his daughter, and instantly saw the truth. She’s just borne a child. Now Phidippus confronts his wife: he is puzzled why she tried to hide it from him.

Suddenly he comes up with the fantastical theory that Myrrina hid the baby from him as it would strengthen the tie between the two houses and she disapproves of her daughter’s marriage to Pamphilus. She means to dispose of the baby in order to weaken those ties because she never approved of the marriage in the first place because they knew their new son-in-law was having an ongoing affair with a courtesan…

This is, of course, completely untrue and makes Myrrina burst into tears because she has to put up with this abuse, because it’s better than revealing the shameful truth, which is that their daughter was raped.

Phidippus rabbits on, enumerating the reasons why he himself forgave Pamphilus for having a mistress, including: 1. it’s only natural in a young man, and 2. if Pamphilus had abruptly dumped his mistress, Phidippus would have worried that he might end up showing the same lack of commitment to their daughter.

Anyway, Phidippus blames Myrrina for everything and this, of course, makes her miserable because she can’t defend herself. He goes into her house leaving Myrrina to lament 1. that she doesn’t want to bring up a strange man’s baby and 2. her concern that Pamphilus won’t stick to his promise but will broadcast Philumena’s shame.

But, during this little soliloquy Myrrina reveals a KEY FACT. It was too dark the night she was raped for Philumena to see her assailant, and she wasn’t strong enough to seize anything of his. But he pulled a ring off her finger and took it away with her.

(Aha. The plot device of The Token. The Token which will identify her attacker and resolve the plot.)

With that Myrrina goes back into her house to confront her angry husband.

Enter Sostrata and Pamphilus

Because she appears to be the stumbling block to Philumena returning, Sostrata nobly offers to Pamphilus to leave their house in the city and go live with her husband (who prefers living at their country farm).

Pamphilus (knowing the true reason Philumena has absented herself) tells her not to be so silly. He won’t have her missing out on her friends and family in the city just because some silly girl has run away. Plus it reflects badly on him. Still, he tells her he is lucky to have such a caring mother who would make such a sacrifice for him.

During their conversation Laches has come out the house and hears her loving offer. He says he’ll welcome her at the farm and they’ll learn to live with each other. Sostrata goes in to pack, leaving father and son on stage.

Pamphilus is agonising because he does love his wife and he does want her back and yet he feels he mustn’t deceive everyone by bringing up another man’s child. Thus he puzzles Laches by continuing to insist he won’t take her back.

Enter Phidippus

As so often, a character comes on stage through a door, while still talking to someone back inside the house. In this case Phidippus is talking back to Philumena, telling her he is very cross with her about her behaviour, and with her mother, too.

Now Pamphilus is presented with a ‘comic’ dilemma, trying to talk on the same subject to two men, one of whom is in on the secret and the other (his father) who knows nothing about it.

Laches makes a start by telling Phidippus that his wife, Sostrata, is leaving for the country and so will no longer be a stumbling block to Philumena coming home. Phidippus replies that it’s not Laches’ wife’s fault, but his own wife’s.

Phidippus then tells Pamphilus he wants their family tie to remain but even if it’s broken and he won’t have Philumena back, he at least hopes he’ll take the child. a) Pamphilus is startled to learn that Phidippus has found out about the baby and b) Laches is mystified by this.

Phidippus tells Laches straight out that Philumena has just had a baby. Laches is delighted to become a grandfather but says he thinks it was very bad form for Philumena to keep it a secret from him and his wife. They both round on Pamphilus and tell him that even if he won’t take his wife back, he must take the child. Pamphilus is still surly and reluctant.

Laches totally misinterprets his son’s attitude. He thinks he is still devoted to his mistress, Bacchis and that’s why he is against his own wife and son. Laches delivers a lecture saying he was indulgent of his son’s passion for the courtesan and even prepared to pay the high bills she ran up (!) but now it’s time for him to grow up and assume his responsibilities.

Pamphilus angrily denies all of this, so Laches asks him what the real reason is. Reasonable request. But Pamphilus has reached a kind of hysterical crisis. He feels backed into a corner and so walks away from the two fathers.

The two men make plans. Laches tells Phidippus to hand over the baby, Laches will gladly raise his grandson. He’ll also see Pamphilus’s mistress and tell her to drop her hold over him. He calls inside his house for a servant to run and fetch her. Phidippus asks whether Laches needs him to assist at this interview. Um, probably not, thank you. So Phidippus exits to find a nurse for the baby and Laches goes into his house. Empty stage.

Enter Bacchis

Bacchis is a dignified mature woman of the world. Laches comes out of his house to see her. There follows a very dignified conversation between these two people of the world. Laches apologises in advance, for he doesn’t mean to cause offence. He recaps that he knows all about the long affair his son has had with her. But now it is spoiling his marriage. Because of Pamphilus love for her, his wife has left the house and his mother-in-law was planning to destroy the baby.

So Laches asks Bacchis to find another lover. Bacchis swears on oath that she hasn’t had relations with his son since he got married. Laches solemnly accepts this and asks her to go into Phidippus’s house and make the same statement to the womenfolk within. Bacchis swears she has only Pamphilus’s best interests at heart. A woman like her wouldn’t usually confront the wife she has been wronging but she is prepared to do this for Pamphilus. Laches is very impressed by her dignity and fine sentiments. He offers her the friendship of his house.

At this point Phidippus returns with a wetnurse for the baby. Laches calls him over and introduces him to Bacchis. When Laches tells him of her promise that she has not had relations with Pamphilus since he married, Phidippus is at first dismissive of her because she is a courtesan. But Bacchis says they can interrogate he servants under torture and will find what she says is true. Then she nerves herself to her task of going to face her lover’s wife and goes into Phidippus’s house.

(Under torture!)

Once again, a Terence play is devolving its focus onto a dignified and strong female character, true and honest where all the male characters have shown themselves to be weak and error-prone.

Laches delivers a little homily about how Bacchis’s good deed will rehabilitate her with his family and society at large, then goes into his house leaving the stage empty.

Enter Parmeno

I’d forgotten about this old retainer. Early in the play Pamphilus had sent him all the way to the acropolis on a wild goose chase to find some fellow from Myconos, solely, as we know, to get him away from the crying of the baby. Things have moved on a lot since then. Now he comes wearily back onstage and delivers a long complaint about spending the whole day hanging round looking for this supposed person.

Enter Bacchis

He’s barely arrived before Bacchis comes running out of the Phidippus’s house all excited. She tells him to go and fetch Pamphilus. Parmeno is comically reluctant to go on another wild goose chase and asks why. Bacchis excitedly tells him that Philumena’s mother, Myrrina, has recognised the ring she, Bacchis, is wearing. It’s the ring the rapist took off Philumena and which Pamphilus, sometime later, gave to Bacchis as a gift. It is The Token! So Parmeno goes off to get Pamphilus, leaving Bacchis alone on stage for a long soliloquy.

The recognition scene!

Bacchis explains the whole story, supplying all the missing links in the chain. She describes how one night nine months ago Pamphilus came to her house, a bit drunk, dishevelled and excited, and told her he had assaulted a woman in the street and torn this ring off her finger, and proceeded to give it to her as a gift. She still wears it.

And it is this ring which Myrrina has just recognised on Bacchis’s finger. When she asked about it Bacchis told her the whole story of the night Pamphilus gave her the ring. So Myrrina and Philumena now know the truth.

She enumerates the blessings she has just conferred with the recognition of the ring:

  • she’s saved Pamphilus’s son, who risked being exposed
  • she’s restored his wife to Pamphilus
  • she’s removed the suspicions of Laches and Phidippus about Pamphilus being a bad husband (for refusing to take back either his wife or son)

Bacchis says she is happy to have brought him happiness. She has acted unlike ‘other women of her sort’. She could, possibly, use the situation to her advantage, but won’t. Even though Pamphilus’s marriage hurt her, he was always a kind and respectful lover, so she is happy to do him so much good.

Altogether a very noble, moving speech. As so often the play feels mistitled. It should have been called ‘Bacchis’ or ‘The Courtesan’ since she plays this swing, pivotal role.

Enter Pamphilus

Enter Pamphilus with Parmeno, pestering him that he is quite sure of this message from Bacchis. If so, he is the luckiest man alive, and Pamphilus says he’ll give Parmeno anything he wants in gratitude for this fabulous news!

They finally arrive where Bacchis is standing and Pamphilus pours out his profuse gratitude. Bacchis calmly accepts it. It was a a pleasure. Pamphilus is polite to Bacchis, saying she is as beautiful and charming as ever. And Bacchis replies as gracefully, saying he is lovely.

But then she switches tone to announce that he was right to get married. His wife is ‘a true lady’. Pamphilus then asks a big favour. He asks her not to tell anyone. There’s no need for Laches or his father or mother to know. He makes a knowingly ironic comment:

PAMPHILUS: I’d rather this weren’t like the comedies, where everyone ends by knowing everything. In our case, the ones who ought to know, know already; and the others who don’t need to know shan’t be told or know a thing. (p.329)

This isn’t funny, exactly, but must have prompted a knowing smile from the audience. And indeed the entire comedy is like this, warm and mature and knowing. It deals very well with the relations of the two married couples and peaks in the dignity and kindness of the courtesan Bacchis. As so often, the nominal ‘hero’, the young man Pamphilus, seems like a small thing beside Bacchis’ grandeur.

Bacchis adds that the Phidippus family now also believe what Bacchis assured them, that he Pamphilus never slept with her after he was married. So he is cleared on all accounts.

Parmeno

The play ends wryly with Parmeno attracting Pamphilus’s attention and so Pamphilus goes over to him and doesn’t notice the real ‘hero’ of the story, Bacchis, walk quietly offstage, pausing to look back affectionately at her former lover.

Instead the play ends with Parmeno preening himself at how he saved Pamphilus from hell, the latter’s own words. Pamphilus assures him he did more than he can imagine, and leaves Parmeno thinking he was the instrument of the happy ending, though he doesn’t quite understand why.

This is a wry inversion of the convention whereby clever slaves really do sort everything out, as in Andria, Phormio or The Self-tormentor. Parmeno asks the audience to applaud and goes along with Pamphilus into Laches’ house.

THE END.

Thoughts

Editor and translator Betty Radice spends the two pages of her introduction saying The Mother-in-law has a case for being the warmest and most mature of Terence’s plays, with beautiful insights into married life, touching scenes, and the noble behaviour of Bacchis, a wise woman who trumps all the men.

What she doesn’t mention is that the central incident in the intrigue is a rape, and that the central figure of the play, who everyone cheers and claps to see redeemed and live happily ever after…is a rapist.

Compared to this central fact, all the other subtleties and niceties…well, they’re there, I registered them, I enjoyed them locally, but…


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Terence

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto*

Terence’s texts

Publius Terentius Afer, generally known as Terence (185 to 160 BC), died at the very young age of 25, having written just 6 plays which, however, are preserved in numerous manuscripts. So, unlike Plautus (who wrote 120 plays of which only 20 survive) a) his oeuvre is very small and b) we have it all.

Not only that but some of the manuscripts contain unprecedented detail for ancient texts – a prologue by the author plus notes giving the date of the play’s composition and notes on its first production. (These notes were written in the mid second century AD by Gaius Sulpicius Apollinaris of Carthage.)

We also have a short life of Terence by the noted historian Suetonius, written about 100 AD i.e. about 250 years after Terence died, with some later additions; plus a set of comprehensive notes on the plays by a later grammarian (the Commentum Terenti of Aelius Donatus). In other words, as ancient authors go, we have an unprecedented wealth of information about Terence and his work.

Biography

Publius Terentius Afer is said to have been born in 185 BC (or 195, accounts vary). He was born either in Carthage or south Italy to a slave woman from Carthage. Romans had three names. Terence’s last name or cognomen, Afer, in Latin meant ‘from Africa’, a term which Romans applied very broadly to all the lands on the south shore of the Mediterranean, generally meaning modern Tunisia and Libya.

Terentius was a slave belonging to the senator Publius Terentius Lucanus, who brought him to Rome, gave him his forenames, a good education and his freedom. Whatever his mother or family may have called him, Terence entered Roman society bearing the first two names of his owner and a cognomen denoting his origin.

The circle of Scipio Aemilius

As a young adult Terence is said to have been a member of ‘the Scipionic circle’, a group of intellectuals who met under the patronage of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who supervised the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

The existence of such a circle is attested solely by two works of Cicero written a hundred years later in the 50s BC, and is now questioned by some scholars. If it did exist, young Terence would have been mixing with leading Roman intellectuals and philhellenes of the day, including the noted historian of the Punic Wars, Polybius.

Cicero records the circulation of scurrilous rumours that Terence’s plays were far too good for an ex-slave to have written and so must have been written by others in Scipio circle, and we also know this from the remarkable prefaces to the plays which he himself appears to have written and which cite and refute this rumour. The modern scholarly view is that Terence did write all the plays attributed to him.

Terence compared with his predecessor, Plautus

Terence adapted Greek plays from the late phases of Attic comedy, also known as the New Comedy, written by Greek playwrights such as Menander and his contemporaries. This genre of adaptation had a name of its own, fabulae palliatae (‘adaptations of Hellenistic comedies played in Greek dress’).

In this Terence was much like his famous forebear, the comic playwright Plautus (254 to 184) but with importance differences. Plautus’s plays are characterised by:

  • extensive use of complex verse forms, often intended to be sung, a little like operetta (‘the high spots of his plays are often his musical cantica‘)
  • dancing to music
  • clever comic wordplay
  • fast-moving, often slapstick plots

Plautus’s plays are loosely comparable to modern pantomime, in their zany slapdash humour and frequent speeches directly to the audience. By contrast, Terence’s six plays:

  • use simple, conversational Latin rather than elaborate wordplay for its own sake
  • have more plausible plots i.e. the characters aren’t made to do improbable things just for the momentary lols
  • place more emphasis on consistency of character, less on zany slapstick moments

More sophisticated, more philhellenic

In her introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of Terence’s complete plays, the translator Betty Radice points out that the shift from Plautus to Terence was not just a generational one (if Terence was born in 185 that was more or less the same year that Plautus died). It was a cultural shift away from the broad farce which had its roots in Italian peasant life (lots of farms are referred to in Plautus) to a much more refined and intellectual and consciously philhellene culture shared by an urban, cultural elite.

Radice emphasises the sophistication and attention which Terence plays demand of their audience. They tread a line between, on the one hand, the lowbrow, rustic humour of Italian peasant life and, on the other, the deeply conservative, puritanical values based on a reverence for family tradition exemplified by a conservative spokesman like Cato the Censor.

Terence was equidistant from both, promoting the values of an aesthetic circle which valued the merits of the Greek originals but wanted them combined with a more sophisticated reading of character and more believable plots, all conveyed in a refined and purified Latin style.

The double plot and other characteristics

Radice says that Terence’s main contribution to drama was the double plot, and that this allowed him to pursue his chief interest, which was the impact of plot on character. By having a double plot he could experiment with the contrasting impact on differing characters of the same situation. On this reading, plot isn’t something cobbled together to create as many farcical situations and lols as possible, as per Plautus; but a device to explore different types of character through a new kind of clear, expressive Latin verse. Terence:

  • created a simpler, purer Latin style than anything written before
  • made his plays more ‘realistic’ by removing the discursive explanatory prologues of Plautus – instead you have to infer the backstory from the characters’ dialogue alone
  • dispensed with divine intervention, setting his plays entirely in the human world
  • moved away from caricaturing minor characters (think of all those grumpy cooks in Plautus)
  • gave more respect to the older generation who are no longer just fuddy-duddies standing in the way of young lovers
  • was more respectful of women – for example, The Mother in Law is almost entirely a woman’s play

Stage conventions

As with Plautus, Terence’s stage sets showed the front doors of two (occasionally three) buildings. It was the convention of the day that characters exiting left were heading to the countryside or the city harbour, while exiting right was to go to the town centre or forum.

The acting style was declamatory i.e. loud and formalised, as were gestures and movements. It’s probable that, as in Greek comedy, the actors wore masks to indicate typical characters. These included the character types Terence himself mentions in a throwaway remark in his prologue to Heauton Timorumenos:

  • the running slave
  • the angry old man
  • the greedy sponger
  • the shameless imposter
  • the rapacious slave trader

Although Terence didn’t use the sung aria which was one of Plautus’s most notable features, nonetheless his spoken dialogue was entirely in verse which was rhythmically recited to the music of a pipe player. (Because of the survival of the production notes we even know the names of the composers: for example, the pipe music for Andria was composed by one ‘Flaccus, slave of Claudius.’)

The occasional aria is thought to have been mimed by the actor and performed by a professional singer who stood to one side of the stage next to the pipe player. Possibly this was the same person as the cantor who ended every play by inviting the audience to applaud.

It’s hard to think of an approach to theatre more different from our modern style of microscopic realism, where exposure to countless movies and TV dramas has taught us to look for the slightest frown or smile or movement to convey meaning. These guys wore heavy masks, stood still and bellowed at the audience, or broke into song or dance.

Terence’s huge legacy

Terence has a claim to have created ‘problem’ comedy i.e. light-hearted plays which address fairly serious issues. He is routinely described as ‘a major influence on European drama’.

The purity of his Latin quite quickly made him a model for students learning the language, in the ancient world and beyond, which helps to explain the survival of all his texts through the long Middle Ages in numerous copies. Radice gives a long, detailed and fascinating summary of the afterlife of Terence’s plays, through Late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages when they were valued enough to be extensively copied – the scholar Claudia Villa estimated that 650 manuscripts containing Terence’s work date from after AD 800.

Due to his clear and entertaining language, Terence’s works were heavily used by monasteries and convents during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Scribes often learned Latin through the meticulous copying of Terence’s texts. Priests and nuns often learned to speak Latin through re-enactment of Terence’s plays. (Wikipedia)

The dawn of the Renaissance in Italy saw the extensive revival, translation and new performances of his plays. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus included no fewer than 250 references to and quotes from Terence in his Adages, which were designed to prove that the best values of Antiquity were perfectly aligned with Christian morality. The German church reformer Martin Luther not only quoted Terence frequently but recommended his comedies for the instruction of children in school. Terence was translated by numerous eminent Renaissance authors, including Machiavelli.

* Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

This is Terence’s most famous quote, from the play Heauton Timorumenos. It means literally:

  • I am a human being; of that which is human, I think nothing estranged from me.

More smoothly as:

  • I am human, and think nothing human is alien to me.

I prefer the implications of the latter because it reinforces one of my core principles, which is a frank acceptance of human nature in all its gruesomeness. We are, after all, only animals which, through a quirk of evolution, happen to be able to ‘think’, sort of, sometimes.

Most history is horrific, most humans are disappointing, many are terrifying. We must make the best of life based on a realistic assessment of human history and behaviour. Denying these realities distorts our understanding of human nature, human history and human society, and undermines assessments of what realistic change and reform we can hope to effect.

Therefore I accept it, accept it all, all human behaviour, the killers and rapists, the paedophiles and génocidaires, the greedy billionaires and the drug addict muggers, alongside the sugar and spice and all things nice which the sentimental, naive and wilfully blind want human nature to consist of – and the huge territory between these extremes, where people are confused, uncertain, generally nice, sometimes stressed, angry or inexplicable and unpredictable. And that is what this quote means to me. It signifies a complete, Nietzschean acceptance of the gritty reality.

Radice, on the other hand, translates it as:

  • I am human myself, so I think every human affair is my concern.

Which may be a true translation but whose last few words seems to me to drastically expand the thought, making it far more pro-active and empathetic than my preferred version. Radice’s translation implies that all human affairs are my concern i.e. that I ought to be actively involved in them. Turns it from the detached and rather analytical acceptance of my version into a motto for Amnesty International.

I prefer the second translation, which implies that I should take note of and take account of all human affairs – but not be so foolish as to get caught up in them.


Credit

All page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies.

Roman reviews

  • Terence
  • Andria (The Girl from Andros) by Terence (166 BC)
  • Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (165 BC)
  • Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Terence (163 BC)
  • Phormio by Terence (161 BC)
  • Eunuchus by Terence (161 BC)
  • Adelphoe (The Brothers) by Terence (160 BC)

Plautus (254 to 184 BC)

Biography

Titus Maccius Plautus (254 to 184 BC), generally referred to as Plautus, was a Roman playwright of the Republican era. His comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to have survived in their entirety. It is said he moved to Rome and became a theatre assistant and actor who became successful with comic parts. However, as soon as he had the capital, he went into business as a merchant shipper. However, his business went bust and sometime around the age of 40 he used his knowledge of theatre to turn to playwriting. Plautus is a nickname meaning flat-footed or broad-footed.

Plautus published a large number of plays from 205 BC to his death in 184. He claimed simply be to importing and translating original Greek plays rather as a wholesaler imports Greek olives for the Roman market. However, although none of the direct sources have survived, scholars believe Plautus often amended and rewrote his models, sometimes changing the plot or combining plot elements from two original Greek works into one new play. And Plautus himself indicates as much when he refers to himself and his own practice in some of the plays’ chatty prologues.

Plautus wrote around 130 plays. Twenty of these plays survive in their entirety, with small fragments from 30 others, making him the most prolific dramatist from the entire ancient world, Greek or Roman, in terms of surviving work

Greek old and new comedy

Plautus freely borrowed his plots and characters from the Greek comedy of his day. This had come to be referred to, generically, as the New Comedy to distinguish it from the older style, which was referred to, unsurprisingly, as Old Comedy. The difference is simple: old Greek comedy tackled big political  and social issues and the new comedy didn’t. An example of Old Comedy is Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in which the womenfolk of Athens go on a sex strike to force their men to call a truce in the ruinous Peloponnesian War. That play dates from around 410 BC i.e. 200 years before Plautus.

Greek New Comedy came in about a hundred years later and is most associated with the playwright Menander (c. 342 to 291 BC). The difference is that New Comedy dropped political themes, satire and serious moral or intellectual subject matter in order to focus solely on comic situations. These are generally set in domestic households and featuring a stock set of characters, usually an objectionable father who argues with his wastrel son, a scolding wife/mother, a young woman from a neighbouring household who the son is in love with, and a clever servant who outwits his master and fixes everything. So stock and standard were these character types that the Romans had special words for them:

  • adulescens = young man, the hero
  • virgo = maiden, the love interest
  • senex = old man, generally presenting an obstacle to the true love of the young couple, often with a particular humour or foible for example the miserliness of Euclio
  • servus callidus = clever slave, whose nimble footwork in helping
  • servus stultus = foolish slave
  • parasitus = parasite or sycophant – in his introduction to Captivi E.F. Watling says a more accurate translation might be paid ‘table companion’
  • miles gloriosus = braggart soldier
  • meretrix = courtesan
  • cooks – thrown in for comic moments

E.F. Watling, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, speculates that Plautus may in fact have been a slave, when he started in theatre, which was only an occasional and low class occupation (most plays were only performed once at festivals they were written for; many actors belonged to slave masters). This would explain one of the distinctive features of his plays, which is the wide variety of slave types which appear in them, and the sympathetic lines about a slave’s miserable lot in life which he gives to many of them. And the way witty and canny slaves often come of the plays very well. Maybe. But maybe not.

Three points

1. Although Plautus was Roman and wrote in Latin and all his plays were performed in Rome, they are all actually set in Greek locations and the characters have (often ludicrously contorted) Greek names. That said, the plays freely invoke Roman ideas, customs and laws, creating a sort of cultural hybrid.

2. The plays were written in verse, quite complicated verse. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

Plautus’s plays are written in verse, as were the Greek originals. The metres he used included the iambic six foot line (senarius) and the trochaic seven foot line (septenarius), which Menander had also employed. But Plautus varied these with longer iambic and trochaic lines and more elaborate rhythms. The metres are skillfully chosen and handled to emphasize the mood of the speaker or the action. It is possible that now lost Greek plays inspired this metrical variety and inventiveness, but it is much more likely that Plautus was responding to features already existing in popular Italian dramatic traditions. The Senarii (conversational lines) were spoken, but the rest was sung or chanted to the accompaniment of double and fingered reed pipes, or auloi. It could be said that, in their metrical and musical liveliness, performances of Plautus’s plays somewhat resembled musicals of the mid-20th century.

3. As the sheer volume of his output suggests, Plautus wrote in a hurry and his plays work in a hurry. They are full of slapstick, pratfalls, ludicrous situations. Later literary critics were (and still are) snooty about this but it makes them feel incredibly modern and accessible.

E.F. Watling’s translations

Watling was commissioned to by Penguin to translate nine of Plautus’s plays, four in this volume and five in its sister volume ‘The Pot of Gold and other plays’. The two volumes were published in 1964 and 1965 (the introduction is actually dated 1963, ‘between the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP’). Penguin wanted to make the world’s greatest literature as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience. Therefore they asked Watling to produce versions which were ready to produce for the stage. So:

Prose not verse

1. All his translations are in prose. There are only occasional attempts to capture the complex verse of the originals or the comic or dramatic effects Plautus created by having characters switch between different Roman verse forms.

Rather mind bogglingly ‘a considerable part’ of the original texts were designed to be sung to the accompaniment of a flute (!). As Watling says, it’s hard to see what kind of contemporary theatrical idiom, that could possibly be translated into. So his versions for the most part don’t even try, apart from long soliloquies, such as the prologues or speeches on specific subjects, which he casts into very loose iambic verse, and for a handful of short songs. Instead they aim for a fluent, fast-moving, rangy, continuous 1960s prose and are very enjoyable for it.

No notes

2. There is a complete absence of notes or scholarly apparatus, no footnotes explaining references or indicating gaps in the text or problems with the manuscript or all the other editorial issues old texts are  so often cluttered with. You’re meant to pick his translations up and start reading them out loud and performing them straight away.

Watling explains that the plays have come down in the manuscript tradition neatly divided into acts and scenes. He thinks these are much later scholarly interferences so has dumped them. On the other hand, Watling has added stage directions and these are very useful. He points out that almost all the actions that occur in a Plautus play are described in the dialogue, so much so that, as he strikingly puts it: ‘a blind audience could follow every move in a Plautine play’ (p.17). Still. It saves time and mental effort to have them written out explicitly so you’re free to concentrate on the comic plots and witty wordplay.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


Roman reviews

Samuel Beckett timeline

A timeline of Samuel Beckett’s life and works with page references, where relevant, to James Knowlson’s 1996 biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame.

1906
13 April – Samuel Barclay Beckett born in ‘Cooldrinagh’, a house in Foxrock, a village south of Dublin (page 3), on Good Friday, the second child of William Beckett and May Beckett, née Roe. He has an older brother, Frank Edward, born 26 July 1902.

1911
Beckett enters kindergarten at Ida and Pauline Elsner’s private academy in Leopardstown. The spinster sisters had a cook named Hannah and an Airedale terrier named Zulu, details which crop up in later novels (p.24).

1915
Attends Earlsfort House School in Dublin (pages 30 to 35). Begins to excel at sports, for example, long distance running.

1920
Follows his brother Frank to Portora Royal, an eminent Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, set in a strikingly beautiful location (pages 36 to 46). During his time there, Ireland was partitioned (1921) and Portora found itself in the new Northern Ireland. Beckett excelled at sports, in particular boxing, cross country running and swimming.

1923
October – Enrols at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) to study for an Arts degree (p.47). Here he is taken under the wing of the individualistic Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Brown Rudmose-Brown who teaches him classical French and English literature, but also more recent authors. He also engages a private tutor, Bianca Esposito, who teaches him Italian, in particular they embark on detailed study of Dante (p.51). During his time as a student Beckett’s father bought him not one but two motorbikes, one of which, the AJS, he rode in competitive time trials (p.62). His father then bought him a sports car (p.49) a Swift (p.79) in which he managed to run over and kill his beloved Kerry Blue terrier dog (p.67).

1926
August – First visit to France for a month-long cycling tour of the Loire Valley.

1927
April to August – Travels through Florence and Venice, visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75).
December – Receives BA in Modern Languages (French and Italian) from TCD and graduates in the First Class.

1928
January to June – Teaches French and English at Campbell College (a secondary school) in Belfast and really dislikes it. He finds Belfast cold and dreary after lively Dublin (pages 77 to 79).
September – First trip to Germany to visit seventeen-year-old Peggy Sinclair, a cousin on his father’s side, and her family in Kassel (p.82).
1 November – Arrives in Paris as an exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure. Quickly becomes friends with his predecessor, Thomas McGreevy who introduces Beckett to James Joyce (pages 97 to 98 ) and other influential writers and publishers (pages 87 to 105).
December – Spends Christmas with the Sinclairs in Kassel (as also in 1929, 1930 and 1931). His relationship with Peggy develops into a fully sexual one, causing him anguish about the conflict (in his mind) between the idealised belovèd and the sexualised lover.

1929
June – Publishes his first critical essay (Dante…Bruno…Vico…Joyce) and his first story (Assumption) in transition magazine. Makes several visits to Kassel to see Peggy.

1930
July – Writes a 100-line poem Whoroscope in response to a poetry competition run by Nancy Cunard (pages 111 to 112).
October – Returns to TCD to begin a two-year appointment as lecturer in French. He hated it, discovering he was useless as a teacher and not cut out for academic life (pages 120 to 126)
November – MacGreevy introduces Beckett to the painter and writer Jack B.Yeats who becomes a lifelong friend (p.164).

1931
March – Chatto and Windus publish Proust, a literary study they’d commissioned (pages 113 to 119).
September – First Irish publication, the poem Alba in Dublin Magazine. At Christmas goes to stay with the Sinclairs in Kassel.

1932
January – Resigns his lectureship at TCD via telegram from Kassel, stunning his parents and sponsors (p.145). He moves to Paris.
February to June – First serious attempt at a novel, The Dream of Fair to Middling Women which, after hawking round publishers for a couple of years, he eventually drops and then, embarrassed at its thinly veiled depiction of close friends and lovers, actively suppresses. It doesn’t end up being published till after his death (in 1992). (Detailed synopsis and analysis pages 146 to 156.)
December – Short story Dante and the Lobster appears in This Quarter (Paris), later collected in More Pricks Than Kicks.

1933
3 May – Upset by the death of Peggy Sinclair from tuberculosis (p.169). They had drifted apart and she was engaged to another man.
26 June – Devastated by the sudden death of his father, William Beckett, from a heart attack (p.170). Panic attacks, night sweats and other psychosomatic symptoms. His schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, now a doctor, recommends psychotherapy.

1934
January – Moves to London and begins psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).
February – Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard includes numerous translations by Beckett from the French.
May – Publication of More Pricks than Kicks (a loosely linked series of short stories about his comic anti-hero Belacqua Shuah (pages 182 to 184).
August to September – Contributes stories and reviews to literary magazines in London and Dublin.

1935
November – Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, a cycle of thirteen poems.

1936
Returns to Dublin, to stay in the family home in uneasy proximity to his demanding mother.
29 September – Leaves Ireland for a seven-month tour around the cities and art galleries of Germany (pages 230 to 261).

1937
April to August – First serious attempt at a play, Human Wishes, about Samuel Johnson and his household (pages 269 to 271).
October – After a decisive row with his mother, Beckett moves permanently to Paris which will be his home and base for the next 52 years (p.274)

1938
6 January – Stabbed by a street pimp in Montparnasse, Paris. Among his visitors at the Hôpital Broussais is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, an acquaintance who is to become Beckett’s companion for life (pages 281 to 284).
March – Murphy, his first novel to be published.
April – Begins experimentally writing poetry directly in French.

1939
3 September – Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. Beckett, visiting family in Ireland, ends his trip in order to return to Paris.

1940
June – Following the German invasion of France, Beckett flees south with Suzanne.
September – Returns to Paris.

1941
13 January – Death of James Joyce in Zurich.
1 September – Joins the Resistance cell Gloria SMH (pages 303 to 317).

1942
16 August – As soon as Beckett and Suzanne hear that the Nazis have arrested close friend and fellow member of his resistance cell, Alfred Péron, they pack a few bags and flee to a safe house, then make their way out of Paris and flee south, a dangerous trip which involves being smuggled over the border into unoccupied France.
6 October – They arrive at Roussillon, a small village in unoccupied southern France, where they spend the next two and a half years, during which Beckett worked as a labourer on a local farm owned by the Aude family, working away at his novel, Watt, by night (pages 319 to 339)

1944
24 August – Liberation of Paris.

1945
30 March – Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his Resistance work.
August to December – Volunteers as a lorry driver and interpreter with the Irish Red Cross in Saint-Lô, Normandy. Appalled by the devastation of war and works closely with people from different backgrounds (pages 345 to 350).

1946
July – Publishes first fiction in French, a truncated version of the short story Suite (later to become La Fin) as well as a critical essay on Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde (who he’d met and become friendly with in Germany).
Writes Mercier et Camier, his first novel in French which he leaves unpublished till the 1970s (p.360).
On a visit to his mother’s house in Ireland has the Great Revelation of his career (pages 351 to 353). He realises he’s been barking up the wrong tree trying to copy Joyce’s linguistic and thematic exuberance, and from now on must take the opposite path and investigate the previously unexplored territory of failure, imaginative impoverishment and mental collapse:

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

This unlocks his imagination and from 1946 to 1949 he experiences a frenzy of productivity, writing the Beckett Trilogy of novels and Waiting For Godot, all in French, arguably his most enduring works.

1947
January to February – Writes first play, in French, Eleutheria, unproduced in his lifetime and published posthumously (pages 362 to 366).
April – French translation of Murphy.

1948
Undertakes a number of translations commissioned by UNESCO and by Georges Duthuit (pages 369 to 371).

1950
25 August – Death of his mother, May Beckett.

1951
March – Publication of first novel of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, in French.
November – Publication of the second novel of the Trilogy, Malone meurt, in French.

1952
Buys land at Ussy-sur-Marne and builds a modest bungalow on it, subsequently Beckett’s preferred location for writing.
September – Publication of En attendant Godot (in French).

1953
5 January – Premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, directed by Roger Blin.
May – Publication of L’Innommable, third novel in the Trilogy.
August – Publication of the pre-war novel Watt, in English.

1954
8 September – Publication of Waiting for Godot in English.
13 September – Death of his brother, Frank Beckett, from lung cancer (pages 400 to 402)

1955
March – Molloy, translated into English with Patrick Bowles.
3 August – First English production of Waiting for Godot in England, at the Arts Theatre, London (pages 411 to 417)
November – Publication of Nouvelles et Textes pour rien.

1956
3 January – American premiere of Waiting for Godot in Miami, which turns out to be a fiasco; the audience had been promised a riotous comedy (p.420).
February – First British publication of Waiting for Godot.
October – Publication of Malone Dies in English.

1957
13 January – First radio play, All That Fall, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme.
Publication of Fin de partie, suivi de Acte sans paroles.
28 March – Death of Beckett’s friend, the artist Jack B.Yeats.
3 April 1957 – Premiere of Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in French.
August – Publication of his first radio play, All That Fall, in English.
October – Tous ceux qui tombent, French translation of All That Fall with Robert Pinget.

1958
April – Publication of Endgame, translation of Fin de partie.
Publication of From an Abandoned Work.
July – Publication of Krapp’s Last Tape.
September – Publication of The Unnamable which has taken him almost ten years to translate from the French original.
28 October – Premiere of Krapp’s Last Tape.
December – Anthology of Mexican Poetry, translated by Beckett.

1959
March – Publication of La Dernière bande, French translation of Krapp’s Last Tape with Pierre Leyris.
24 June – Broadcast of radio play Embers on BBC Radio 3.
2 July – Receives honorary D.Litt. degree from Trinity College Dublin. Dreads the ceremony but has a surprisingly nice time (pages 469 to 470)
November – Publication of Embers in Evergreen Review.
December Publication of Cendres, French translation of Embers done with Robert Pinget.
Publication of Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies,The Unnamable soon to become known as The Beckett Trilogy (a portmanteau title Beckett actively dislikes).

1960
23 August – Radio play The Old Tune broadcast on BBC Radio.

1961
January – Publication of Comment c’est.
24 March – Marries Suzanne at Folkestone, Kent.
May – Shares Prix International des Editeurs with Jorge Luis Borges.
August – Publication of Poems in English.
September – Publication of Happy Days.

1962
1 November – Premiere of Happy Days at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
13 November – Broadcast of radio play Words and Music on the BBC Third Programme.

1963
February – Publication of Oh les beaux jours, French translation of Happy Days.
May – Assists with the German production of Play (Spiel, translated by Elmar and Erika Tophoven) in Ulm.
22 May – Outline of Film sent to Grove Press.

1964
March – Publication of Play and Two Short Pieces for Radio.
April – Publication of How It Is, English translation of Comment c’est.
April – First performance in English of Play at the Old Vic in London.
June – Publication of Comédie, French translation of Play.
July to August – First and only trip to the United States, to assist with the production of Film in New York (pages 520 to 525)
6 October – Broadcast of radio play Cascando on BBC Radio 3.

1965
October – Publication of Imagination morte imaginez (in French) (p.531)
November – Publication of Imagination Dead Imagine (English translation of the above).

1966
January – Publication of Comédie et Actes divers, including Dis Joe and Va et vient (p.532)
February – Publication of Assez.
4 July – Broadcast of Eh Joe on BBC2.
October Publication of Bing.

1967
February – Publication of D’un ouvrage abandonné.
Publication of Têtes-mortes.
16 March – Death of Beckett’s old friend, Thomas MacGreevy, the colleague who played the crucial role in introducing Beckett to Joyce and other anglophone writers in Paris way back in 1930 (p.548).
June – Publication of Eh Joe and Other Writings, including Act Without Words II and Film.
July – Publication of Come and Go, the English translation of Va et vient.
26 September – Directs first solo production, Endspiel (German translation of Endgame) in Berlin (pages 550-554).
November – Publication of No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1966.
December – Publication of Stories and Texts for Nothing, illustrated with six ink line drawings by Beckett’s friend, the artist Avigdor Arikha.

1968
March – Publication of Poèmes (in French).
December – Publication of Watt, translated into French with Ludovic and Agnès Janvier.
9 December – British premiere of Come and Go at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

1969
16 June – his 1-minute skit, Breath, first performed as part of Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta!, at the Eden Theatre, New York City. To Beckett’s outrage Tynan adds totally extraneous male nudity to the piece.
23 October – Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gets news while on holiday in Tunisia. Appalled at the loss of his anonymity (pages 570 to 573).
Publication of Sans (p.569)

1970
April – Publication of Mercier et Camier, written as long ago as 1946.
Publication of Premier amour, also written in 1946.
July – Publication of Lessness, English translation of Sans.
September – Publication of Le Dépeupleur (pages 535 to 536)

1972
January – Publication of The Lost Ones, English translation of Le Dépeupleur.

1973
January – Publication of Not I.
16 January – London premier of Not I at the Royal Court theatre featuring Billie Whitelaw.
July – Publication of First Love.

1974
Publication of Mercier and Camier in English.

1975
Spring – Directs Waiting for Godot in Berlin and Pas moi (French translation of Not I) in Paris.

1976
February – Publication of Pour finir encore et autres foirades.
13 April – Broadcast of radio play Rough for Radio on BBC Radio 3.
20 May – Directs Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls, which is performed with That Time at London’s Royal Court Theatre in honour of Beckett’s seventieth birthday.
Autumn – Publication of All Strange Away, illustrated with etchings by Edward Gorey.
Luxury edition of Foirades/Fizzles, in French and English, illustrated with etchings by Jasper Johns.
December – Publication of Footfalls.

1977
March – Collected Poems in English and French.
17 April – Broadcast of …but the clouds… and Ghost Trio on BBC 2.
Collaboration with avant-garde composer Morton Feldman on an ‘opera’ titled Neither.

1978
May – Publication of Pas, French translation of Footfalls.
August – Publication of Poèmes, suivi de mirlitonnades.

1979
14 December – Premiere of A Piece of Monologue at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York.

1980
January – Publication of Compagnie (French) and Company (English).
May – Directs Endgame in London with Rick Cluchey and the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

1981
March – Publication of Mal vu mal dit (pages 668 to 671).
April 8 – Premiere of Rockaby at the State University of New York at Buffalo starring Billie Whitelaw.
April – Publication of Rockaby and Other Short Pieces.
9 May – Premiere of Ohio Impromptu at a conference of Beckett studies in Columbus, Ohio (pages 664 to 666).
October – Publication of Ill Seen Ill Said, English translation of Mal vu mal dit.
8 October – TV broadcast of Quad (pages 672 to 674).

1982
21 July – Premiere of Catastrophe at the Avignon Festival (pages 677 to 681).
16 December – Broadcast of Quad on BBC 2.

1983
April – Publication of Worstward Ho  (pages 674 to 677).
June – Broadcast in Germany of TV play Nacht und Träume (pages 681 to 683).
15 June – Premiere of What Where in America (pages 684 to 688).
September – Publication of Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, containing critical essays on art and literature as well as the unfinished play Human Wishes.

1984
February  -Oversees San Quentin Drama Workshop production of Waiting for Godot in London, which features the best performance of Lucky he ever saw, by young actor J. Pat Miller (pages 690 to 691).
Publication of Collected Shorter Plays.
May – Publication of Collected Poems, 1930 to 1978.
July – Publication of Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1980.

1989
April – Publication of Stirrings Still with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (pages 697 to 699).
June – Publication of Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman.
17 July – Death of Beckett’s lifelong companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (p.703).
22 December – Death of Samuel Beckett. Buried in Cimetière de Montparnasse (p.704).


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 93)

Christopher Marlowe was one of the original bad boy rebels. He lived fast, died young (aged 29) and left a beautiful corpus of exhilarating plays and sensuous poetry. Marlowe’s half dozen plays are the first to use blank verse, demonstrating its power and flexibility, and so can be said to have established the entire format of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Early life

Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. There’s a record of his being baptised on 26 February 1564. He won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, then another to Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he was awarded a degree in 1584. However the authorities hesitated to award him an MA in 1587 because of rumours that he had spent time abroad, at Rheims, consorting with English Catholic exiles who were ordained as Catholic priests there before being smuggled back into England. If true, this amounted to treason. However, there’s a record of a letter being sent from the Privy Council to the Cambridge authorities to dispel this rumour and confirm that Marlowe had done ‘good service’ to the Queen. What service? To this day nobody knows, but it has prompted speculation for over 400 years that Marlowe was, at the tender age of 23, an Elizabethan spy.

The plays

Marlowe came to London and almost immediately established himself as a major playwright. He wrote six plays in his six years as a public playwright before his early death. To this day, there is debate and disagreement about the order they were written in, though most scholars agree on the following order:

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1585–1587)
  • Tamburlaine, Part I (c. 1587); Part II (c. 1587–88)
  • The Jew of Malta (c. 1589–1590)
  • Doctor Faustus (c. 1588–1592)
  • Edward the Second (c. 1592)
  • The Massacre at Paris (c. 1589–1593)

Massive success

Put simply, Marlow established blank verse as the standard medium for Elizabethan plays, an enormous literary achievement. To start reading Dido is to be immediately swept away by the combination of power and sensuality, the swaggering boom and lushness of what Ben Jonson called Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

But not only that, his most famous plays (Tamburlaine and Faustus in particular) depict protagonists of such grotesque and visionary ambition, who express their views in verse so viscerally powerful and compelling, that they established a kind of benchmark of imaginative achievement. His protagonists dominated the stage and thrilled audiences in an entirely new way, showing what theatre was capable of.

Marlowe’s plays were tremendously successful in his day, helped by the imposing stage presence of his lead actor, Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the acting company Marlowe wrote for – the Admiral’s Men. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time and gave commanding performances of the bombastic roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas (the protagonist of The Jew of Malta).

Bad boy

The obscure squabble about his Cambridge MA was just a taster for a short life packed with trouble.

Prison Marlowe was party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for at least a fortnight in 1589.

Arrest In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley), but no charge or imprisonment resulted maybe – again – because he was on official spying business.

Controversy His plays sailed close to the wind. The intensity of Dr Faustus led to accusations that Marlowe himself indulged in witchcraft and magic. Edward II presents the same-sex love of the king and his favourite Piers Gaveston in an unusually favourable light.

Atheism Worse was the accusation of atheism, technically illegal at the time. In May 1593 anonymous posters were put up around London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands. One of these was in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, ‘Tamburlaine’. On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels and they made a start with Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd, who was arrested. When his lodgings were searched a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found.

In a letter to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir John Puckering, Kyd claimed the document belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had shared a writing room two years earlier. In a follow-up letter Kyd – obviously seeking to exonerate himself – described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and ‘intemperate & of a cruel hart’.

A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18 May and he was tracked to the country mansion of Sir Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster – more fuel for all those who consider Marlowe to have been a spy throughout his career. Marlowe presented himself to the Council on 20 May and was instructed to ‘give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary’.

Details of his death Ten days later, 30 May 1593, Marlowe was killed. He spent all day in Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford talking with three other men. In the evening, after supper, the four men quarrelled, one of them Ingram Frizer drew a dagger and stabbed Marlowe to death. At the inquest, Frizer said he did it in self defence, all three had worked for Walsingham at some point or another and were acquitted. Within a few weeks Frizer returned to Walsingham’s service.

So was it really a drunken brawl, did something Marlowe say genuinely offend the others? Or was it an assassination to hush up something Marlowe may or may not have been going to divulge to the Privy Council, maybe to exonerate himself from the charges arising from the atheistical and heretical document Kyd attributed to him? Or was it just a fight which got out of hand.

We will never know.

Baines’s testimony At the time of Marlowe’s arrest in Flushing, evidence had been presented against him by one Richard Baines who the governor of Flushing identified as an enemy of Marlowe’s. After Marlowe was arrested in May 1593, Baines sent the authorities a note ‘concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God’s word’. Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items such as:

  • the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe
  • Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest
  • the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly’, ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom’, and ‘that he used him as the sinners of Sodom’.

The School of Night Baines went on to claim that whatever company Marlowe came into, he sought to persuade people to his atheistical point of view. This helped bolster the legend of what later generations have termed ‘The School of Night’ referring to a group of intellectuals centred on Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly including Marlowe, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Thomas Harriot among others. But once again it is based on the slender evidence of Richard Baines, a paid informer who, in the unsworn deposition mentioned above, claimed he had heard from another that Marlowe had ‘read the Atheist lecture to Sr. Walter Raleigh [and] others’. Rumour and gossip from a stated enemy, in other words.

Gay The damning list of atheistical statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines document overlaps with accusations that the playwright was gay, including such gossip as that Marlowe said: ‘All those who like not boys and tobacco be fools’ (which seems a very reasonable sentiment).

In fact, apart from Baines’s statement, there is no hard evidence about Marlowe’s sexuality either way, and some scholars reject reports of his homosexuality altogether. Those who want it to be true quote selected moments from his works in which characters give a favourable account of male same-sex desire (the lengthy homoerotic description of handsome young Leander in the poem Hero and Leander, the opening of Dido Queen of Carthage which finds Zeus flirting very obviously with the beautiful young boy Ganymede, in Edward II the entire treatment of the relationshiip between the king and his favourite, Piers Gaveston).

Maybe. As with the spy theories and the numerous theories which have sprung up as to the real cause of his death, it is clear that Marlowe –  like so many authors, in fact like so many eminent figures from the past – is a kind of Rorschach test, a complicated and contradictory figure onto whom later readers can project whatever fantasy feeds their needs.

Was William Shakespeare really Christopher Marlow? There’s even a group of people who believe that Marlowe faked his own death and resumed writing under the pseudonym William Shakespeare (the two playwrights were, after all, born in the same year).

People – as the internet age has shown us more clearly than ever before – will believe anything.

Banned As well as plays, early in his career Marlowe wrote some poetry, most impressively the short epyllion Hero and Leander and a translation of the Latin poet Ovid’s Amores. Copies of this latter were publicly burned as offensive in 1599, as part of Archbishop Whitgift’s crackdown on offensive material. Even after his death he carried on being a bad boy.


Marlowe’s works

Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley by W.C. Ward (1893)

Old literary criticism is often valuable because it sees works of literature in the round, as a whole. Its judgements are often mature, made by people who have seen a lot of life and often had other full-time careers, as lawyers, politician and so on. So their opinions are aware of and take into account a range of audiences and their essays are written in a language designed to be accessible to all literate readers.

All this contrasts with the highly professionalised nature of contemporary literary criticism, generally written by people who have little or no experience of life beyond the academy; written in fierce competition with other academics and so often focusing on narrow and highly specific aspects of works or genres where the author desires to carve out a niche; and written in a jargon which has become steadily more arcane and removed from everyday English over the past forty years or so.

This kind of modern literary criticism is contained in expensive books destined to be bought only by university libraries, or in remote articles in any one of hundreds of subscription-only specialist journals. It is not, in other words, designed for the average reader. Nowadays, literary criticism is an elite discourse.

Older criticism can also be humane and funny, and can afford to be scathingly critical of its authors, in a way modern po-faced and ‘professional’ criticism often daren’t.

The 1893 edition of The Plays of William Wycherley which Project Gutenberg chose for their online library includes an introduction to Wycherley’s plays by the edition’s editor, W.C. Ward, followed by an extended biographical essay by Thomas Babington Macauley which dates from even earlier, from the 1850s.

(If this appears very old fashioned a) it is, and b) several of the Wikipedia articles about Wycherley appear to be cut and pastes of the relevant articles from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Introduction by WC Ward

Comedies of Manners Ward describes the Restoration comedies as Comedies of Manners, contrasting them with Shakespeare’s plays which he calls Comedies of Life.

Aristocratic audiences Restoration comedies only illustrate one aspect of life, and that the most superficial – the courtly badinage of aristocrats having affairs. They were initially designed for a tiny, upper-class clientele, and kept that sense of targeting a select audience which ‘gets’ its attitude and in-jokes.

Displays of wit The plays were designed to display Wit and Ingenuity – all other human activities, all other human emotions and psychology, are simply omitted in pursuit of these goals. Their dialogue is not intended to reveal the characters’ psychology or development. It exists solely to display the author’s Wit and to further the ‘Plot’, which also exists solely to demonstrate the author’s ingenuity.

Robot characters The characters are not people, they are ‘simulacra… puppet semblances of humanity’. They only copy human behaviour insofar as is required to further the clockwork plots.

This narrow mechanical aspect of the characterisation is, in Ward’s view, paradoxically a redeeming factor when we come to consider the plays’ indecency and immorality.

Licentiousness always superficial The very fact that the characters are barely human, are really flashy automata, means that their licentiousness and cynicism has no real depth. It doesn’t affect us in the way the same speeches put into the mouths of real characters would affect us, because we know they are the baseless vapourings of toys.

Designed to amuse Ward also defends the plays against the frequent charge of licentiousness by pointing out that they are designed solely to amuse and make us laugh – they don’t even have the deeper ambition of Ben Jonson’s comedies, ‘to laugh us out of vice’.

Antidote to lust And, Ward says, the kind of superficial laughter they prompt on every page is in fact an antidote to lustful thoughts. The plays do not inflame the audience with genuinely licentious and immoral thoughts because the characters are so one-dimensional and the plots are so extravagantly ludicrous that real sexual thoughts never enter our heads.

Virtue triumphs Other critics charge that Restoration comedies only being Virtue on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, which is a bad thing. Ward admits that most of the characters lose no opportunity to mock honesty, hard work, sobriety, the law, business, chasteness and loyalty and fidelity and love. All true. But at the same time, love does eventually triumph (after a superficial fashion) the qualities of loyalty and virtue do, in the end, triumph.

Women of virtue And each play contains at least one female character, and sometimes a man, who is significantly less cynical than the other characters and becomes almost a defender of virtue. For example, Alithea in The Country Wife and Fidelia in The Plain Dealer are unironic emblems of Goodness and Virtue – and they and their values do, eventually, win the day.

Marriage mocked Other critics lament the way the sanctity of Marriage is routinely mocked, at length, continuously, throughout all the plays. Ward puts the defence that when you look closely, the specific examples of marriage being mocked are the marriages of ludicrous characters such as Pinchwife or Vernish. (This defence, in my opinion, is nowhere near adequate; all the characters mock marriage as a school for adulterers and cuckolds far more powerfully and continuously than Ward acknowledges.)

Wycherley’s poetry Ward goes on from Wycherley’s plays to discuss Wycherley’s poetry, which was published in two volumes late in his life and about which he is entertainingly rude. The poems are, in Ward’s opinion (and everyone else’s – he quotes Wycherley’s contemporaries) utterly worthless, beneath criticism. ‘Wycherley had no spark of poetry in his whole composition’.

It’s good to have this confirmed, as I thought the short poems which appear scattered through Wycherley’s plays were utterly lifeless.

Wycherley’s character As to his character:

It is not to be doubted that Wycherley participated in the fashionable follies and vices of the age in which he lived. His early intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland was notorious.

The success of his plays drew him into aristocratic court circles which really did value the behaviour he describes.

Alexander Pope Late in life, Wycherley became a kind of mentor to the very young Alexander Pope, when the later was only 16 or 17 years old, and their correspondence, and also memoirs written about the great John Dryden, show that Wycherley was loved as a good friend by many of his contemporaries.

Essay by Thomas Babington Macauley

According to Joseph E. Riehl’s book about Charles Lamb and his critics, Macauley wrote his criticism of the Restoration dramatists at least in part as an attack or counter to Charles Lamb’s strong defence of them. Macauley argued that Restoration comedy is degrading to human relationships, and that it promoted ‘evil, perverted or shameful conduct’. I sympathise.

In the 22-page essay on the Gutenberg website, Macauley describes Wycherley’s life and character in some detail, with comments on the plays. Key points are:

Early life Wycherley was born in 1640. Young Wycherley was sent to France as a teenager, where he converted to Catholicism. After the Restoration of 1660, he went to Oxford, left without a degree, studied law at the Inns of Court just long enough to be able to make comic butts of lawyers and their hangers-on, as in The Plain Dealer.

Religious conversion Shrewdly, Wycherley converted back from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Macauley has a droll sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase:

The somewhat equivocal glory of turning, for a short time, a good-for-nothing Papist into a very good-for-nothing Protestant is ascribed to Bishop Barlow.

The Restoration court He gives a vivid sense of the promiscuity of Charles’s court:

The Duchess of Cleveland cast her eyes upon [Wycherley] and was pleased with his appearance. This abandoned woman, not content with her complaisant husband and her royal keeper, lavished her fondness on a crowd of paramours of all ranks, from dukes to rope-dancers.

The Dutch Wars He comments scornfully on the Dutch Wars:

The second Dutch war, the most disgraceful war in the whole history of England, was now raging. It was not in that age considered as by any means necessary that a naval officer should receive a professional education. Young men of rank, who were hardly able to keep their feet in a breeze, served on board the King’s ships, sometimes with commissions and sometimes as volunteers.

The Royal Navy There’s debate about whether Wycherley – like many other completely unqualified ‘gentleman’ – volunteered for the navy, but it would be nice to think so and that it gave verisimilitude to his depiction of Captain Manly and the sailors in The Plain Dealer.

The Country Wife he describes as:

one of the most profligate and heartless of human compositions… the elaborate production of a mind, not indeed rich, original or imaginative, but ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints, and patient of the toil of polishing.

Marriage and prison Wycherley was such a royal favourite that Charles appointed him tutor to his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. However, Wycherley ruined his reputation with the king and swiftly lost the post of tutor by unwisely marrying the Countess of Drogheda, ‘a gay young widow’ in 1679. She was jealous and kept a close eye on him till she died young in 1685. He hoped he would leave her a fortune, but she left him a long and ruinous legal case. Possibly as a result of this, Wycherley was thrown into the Fleet prison where he languished for seven long years. The story goes that the newly crowned King James II (ascended the throne 1685) happened to see a performance of The Plain Dealer, asked about the author, was shocked to discover he was in gaol, paid his debts and settled an annuity on him.

Released, he was nonetheless impoverished, unable to sustain his old lifestyle, and unable to write another play. In 1704, after 27 years of silence, a volume of poetry appeared – ‘a bulky volume of obscene doggerel’.

Alexander Pope It was in the same year he formed the friendship with the young sickly hunchback Alexander Pope, who he mentored, took about town, and who in turn offered to rewrite and ‘improve’ the older man’s verse. Quite quickly Pope realised how dire Wycherley’s poetry was and that nothing could save it. Quite a few of their letters survive which shed light on both men.

Literary reputation Rests entirely on his last two plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. His characters are often little more than mouthpieces for the contrived wit of the time.

It was alleged he was a slow and painstaking author, but Pope claims he wrote The Plain Dealer in three weeks! Having just read both his hit plays, I am inclined to believe the slow and painstaking version. They both feel slow and laboured.

In truth, his mind, unless we are greatly mistaken, was naturally a very meagre soil, and was forced only by great labour and outlay to bear fruit which, after all, was not of the highest flavour.

Widow Blackacre Macauley is correct to say:

The widow Blackacre [is] beyond comparison Wycherley’s best comic character

In full flood she struck me as being almost a female Falstaff. But these few words of praise don’t stop Macauley taking every opportunity to damn Wycherley:

The only thing original about Wycherley, the only thing which he could furnish from his own mind in inexhaustible abundance, was profligacy.

Degrading French originals By which he means his low, mean, degraded subject matter. Macauley accuses him of taking the fine and graceful character of Agnes in the French play L’Ecole des Femmes and turning her into the degraded imbecile Mrs Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.

Similarly, Macauley accuses him of taking the light and chaste character of Viola in Twelfth Night and turning her into the much narrower and lewder Fidelia, an attempt at loyalty and fidelity who in fact acts as a pimp for her master; and of taking the misanthropic but essentially noble character Alceste in Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and turning him into the much cruder and more vengeful Manly.

So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings.

Wow. Not the kind of unashamed contempt a modern literary critic would allow themselves. These two pretty old essays bring Wycherely’s life and times and character and works to life far more vividly than anything else I’ve read about him. And hence the value of older literary criticism. It tends to paint a fuller picture of the man, the times and the works. And not be afraid to give pungent judgements.


Related links

Reviews of Wycherley’s plays

Other Restoration comedies

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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