Sunday, August 30, 2009

What on earth?

I simply must take a break from an interesting and productive morning's writing/reviewing to exclaim - what on earth is going on with Shadwell's "The Libertine?"And to answer that question, I now present a feature I'm going to call:

Vapid Reductionist Plot Summary By Someone Who Read It A While Ago!*

It has a ghost in it - seriously - the ghost of the libertine's father comes back from the dead to say "You killed me, that was TOTALLY NOT COOL!" and the libertine's friends are all "ARGH A GHOST!" and the libertine says "Oh, thank god you're a ghost. If you were really my father, then you might want your estate back. But I killed you to get it and now I've spent it and it was ALL ACE and also you're stupid and I mock your ghostliness." The ghost says something along the line of "REPENT!" and the libertine says "nope, having too much fun, now sod off" -

The libertine then kills and rapes a lot more people, (which is not rendered exciting or glamorous, and is rather horrible to read about. How was this staged so that people enjoyed it? Play was v. successful) . Eventually he and his libertine, waggish chums are invited to a dinner party by another ghost, who (with ghostly chums) drags them down to hell at the end of the play. The libertine, who is arguably the scum of the earth, and the most unsympathetic protagonist I've seen on stage, nonetheless goes down fighting with considerable verve and without any remorse or regret. A pre-Byronic hero? Not a hero in the slightest, though.
This comic by Kate Beaton comes to mind...

My point is, this is totally the weirdest play I've ever read. I'm talking Beckett weird. And written in the 1670s. And I've been obsessed with it all summer.

I am going to say something clever about authorial intrusion, particularly what the persistent deflation of audience expectations with regard to genre actually does to shape a kind of narrative voice. I really am. But right now, on re-reading my notes and work on this play, I am again struck by my initial reaction to the damned thing, which was "
Dude - WHUT ?!"

*I may need a snappier title.


Simon said...

I assume you have access to Robert D. Hume's The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (1976). If you haven't, I recommend you take a look. In the early Restoration, there was a strain of theatrical horror that has not yet been satisfactorily treated by scholars. Hume has this to say about The Libertine:

Equal genius of a different sort produced the exuberant bloodbath in Shadwell's The Libertine (June 1675), a work 'As wild, and as extravagant as th' Age', the prologue tells us. This version of the Don Juan story has attracted almost no critical discussion. Nicoll says only (I. 205) that the play is in blank verse—which it is not, save for isolated passages. Atrocities abound. Don John has killed his own father (among some thirty murders), and specializes in raping nuns. His friends are Lopez and Antonio: the former has killed his elder brother to acquire an estate; the latter has impregnated his own sisters. The three of them roar through the play, butchering, plundering, and raping. Shadwell points out in his preface that for these crimes 'a dreadful punishment [is] inflicted'. Is The Libertine then (a) horror tragedy with a tidy moral ending? (b) A serious questioning of the social and ethical values of civilization by 'a tragic rake'? (c) A sardonic comment upon both horror tragedy and the ethic of libertine comedy? Alssid is certainly right in denying that the play is a simple moral tale of crime and punishment. But I cannot take it quite as he does. What we find here are the form and devices but not the tone of a serious horror play. As in Timon (discussed in the next section), Shadwell imports the moral code of contemporary libertine comedy into a tragic structure, and the result is a sober-faced burlesque. In these satirical tragedies Shadwell hits at the values of comedy and the devices of tragedy. Especially in The Libertine (as Langbaine noted) the results are highly diverting. (p. 312)

MKG said...

Thanks for bringing that my attention, Simon - I will certainly check it out!