Recent Work


for a production of
John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
at the University of Hartford April 2003

When the young Italian nobleman Giovanni and his spiritual father the Friar launch into a debate about the constraints on love, a battle is joined that extends to the final scene of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. The battle is not about incest, although Giovanni and his beloved Annabella are brother and sister, but about the life of the senses and the ineffability of romantic love. Arrayed against the forbidden love of Giovanni and a rather more ambivalent Annabella are the moneyed classes of Parma with their dynastic maneuvers: Soranzo (with his servant Vasques), Grimaldi, and Bergetto (with his servant Poggio) compete for Annabella's hand and a share in her father Florio's wealth. But each of these suitors is compromised in some way: we discover that Soranzo has broken his promises to the apparently now widowed Hippolita, Grimaldi will be protected from the law by the Pope and his representatives, and only the efforts of Donado make his simpleton nephew Bergetto an even conceivably worthy suitor for Annabella. Grimaldi's botched attempt on Soranzo's life, egged on by Richardetto, Hippolita's husband who has returned to Parma in disguise, results in the killing of Bergetto, removing both Bergetto and Grimaldi from the field and concentrating the action on the triangle Soranzo, Giovanni, and Annabella. Annabella marries Soranzo after she is threatened with hellfire by the Friar. The carnage of the play's ending emphasizes that this is a battle for the possession of Annabella's heart - a battle in which the entire social structure is destroyed in a final paroxysm of violence.

The playwright John Ford was a member of the next generation after Shakespeare. Born thirty years after Shakespeare, he wrote this play around 1630. This was a time of massive social upheaval, in which many of the old assumptions about family, political authority, and religious belief were in question. The parliamentary system of government was temporarily in abeyance, as Charles I sought to govern without parliament. By 1642, the country descended into the horrors of civil war, in which unprecedented violence and destruction turned families into warring camps, completed the obliteration of the church ornaments of the middle ages (already compromised by the religious reformation a hundred years earlier), and culminated in the execution of the King and the introduction of a republican form of government. The discussions in the Army Council in 1647-49 were the most radical debates over systems of government ever to occur in England, and ideas raised then inspired much of the constitutional debate in post-revolutionary America.

Decline in confidence in political and social institutions is already discernible in Shakespeare: Edmund, the new man who cares only about himself, betrays Edgar, the believer in traditional values, in King Lear; Duke Frederick cares nothing for family responsibilities in As You Like It, while Duke Senior upholds the old beliefs. The extreme skepticism and cynicism about established institutions that increasingly prevailed in Ford's time finds voice in this play.

Incest is a more extreme way of expressing the violation of social taboos that lie at the heart of a play like Romeo and Juliet, where the young lovers' defiance of marital obligations concerned more with the transfer of wealth from generation to generation than with love leads to their destruction like moths in a flame. There are many parallels between the two plays (and also echoes of Othello and Hamlet -- the latter also concerned with violation of the incest taboo in the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius, since in Shakespeare's day the taboo extended to brothers and sisters-in-law as well as brothers and sisters by blood). Incest figures in the first act of Shakespeare's Pericles, in Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy and in several other works of the period, but as an audience we are not asked to endorse incest, only to understand that it is tragically and destructively at odds with the established order.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our culture that we are apt to forget that he was one hard-working dramatist among many. Professional plays in professional theatres got going in London when London's population grew large enough to sustain them, in the 1570s. Theatrical performance remained a mainstay of the cultural life of the city from then until the closing of the theaters in 1642. Between 150 and 200 play texts survive from this period, and they are a small fraction of what was produced. Shakespeare learned above all from Marlowe and Kyd, he competed with younger contemporaries like Middleton and Jonson, and he helped inspire such successors as Webster and Fletcher, all of whom wrote fine plays overshadowed today by our emphasis on Shakespeare. Indeed, most plays (even some of Shakespeare's) were more like films than like modern plays: they were collaborative efforts involving many hands, and they were chopped and rearranged in production to suit actors and audiences or to take care of the censors. As the seventeenth century progresses, we see the theatre reaching after effect by moving to greater and greater sensationalism, intended perhaps to squeeze out the competition. It is out of this potent brew that plays like Ford's emerged.

The competition for Annabella's heart evokes images of the era that we easily forget. Executioners regularly dismembered and disemboweled the bodies of criminals for shocked but enthusiastic crowds, following a ritual that grew up over a century or so of public executions in city settings. Love poems dwelt on the ability of the lovers to see through one another's eyes into their hearts. "My true love hath my heart and I have his," wrote Sir Philip Sidney, in a delicately modulated love poem, and John Donne wrote of lovers' hearts exposed for all to see, the image of the beloved etched upon them. The cult of St. Theresa in the seventeenth century stressed her heart aflame with the power of God, and Bernini depicted her as religious mystic seized with an emotion akin to the erotic. The cult of the bleeding heart, image of the Virgin Mary, was a customary element in the Baroque style now being born across Europe. In his love of extremes, Ford raises for us issues deeply relevant to our own time, not least our distrust of established institutions, our questioning of received belief, and our romantic obsession with erotic transgression.

Humphrey Tonkin 2003

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