Q. How do you make an obscure 400-year-old play relevant to today?
A. Put it on stage.
That’s my feeling after seeing Red Bull Theater‘s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s 17th-century masterpiece. [Full disclosure: I am a board member of Red Bull Theater, and consequently have a considerable emotional interest in the production. No pecuniary interest, though; it’s a not-for-profit theater.]
Actually, the play is especially relevant for some TAC writers and friends. In particular, I would love to go back and see the show again with Rod Dreher and Damon Linker in tow. Because the play dramatizes a scenario close to the heart of both of their perennial concerns. And I’d be curious to see how they respond to a dramatic, as opposed to expository, exploration thereof.
The premise of the play, revealed in the very first scene: Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) is in love with his full-blood sister, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow). Like Romeo, he’s got a friendly neighborhood friar (a sober and solid-minded Christopher Innvar) to whom he confesses his love, and said friar has prescribed prayers and fasts and the like to rid him of this forbidden passion, but these regimens are unavailing. As Giovanni tells us in soliloquy:
The more I strive, I love; the more I love,
The less I hope: I see my ruin certain.
What judgment or endeavours could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain.
O, that it were not in religion sin
To make our love a god, and worship it!
I have even wearied heaven with pray’rs, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starv’d
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or art
Could counsel, I have practised; but, alas!
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales,
To fright unsteady youth; I am still the same:
Or I must speak, or burst. Tis not, I know,
My lust, but ’tis my fate, that leads me on.
Keep fear and low faint-hearted shame with slaves!
I’ll tell her that I love her, though my heart
Were rated at the price of that attempt.
Well, he does, and it turns out that she shares his incestuous passion, even declares that hers exceeds his. Before too long, they have consummated their love – and thence proceed the inevitable complications. Annabella has suitors, of course, who she can only put off for so long without arousing suspicion. Her father is far more understanding, and concerned for her happiness, than is Juliet’s – but even he has limits. And then there are the complications of the other subplots – all of which turn on the dark point of love, at the intersection of romance and revenge.
The play reads very luridly, and one could approach it in the spirit of pure camp and have a great deal of fun. But director Jesse Berger has tried for a more complicated effect. He has Amendt and Pedlow play the leads with total sincerity, as if they were playing Romeo and Juliet – and these two beautiful and talented young people have such chemistry that I found their love entirely plausible. Meanwhile, most of the other players are encouraged to lend a camp edge to their performances – in some cases, as with Marc Vietor’s scheming Richardetto or Rocco Sisto’s sinister Cardinal, a bit more than an edge.
The result is to create a fruitful division in the perceptions of the audience, or at least that’s what I felt. Many of the characters – Clifton Duncan’s and Kelley Curran’s estranged former lovers, Soranzo (who seeks Annabella’s hand) and Hippolita (whom Soranzo had previously seduced from her husband, but now has abandoned, and who plots her revenge) for example – are overtly calculating in how they present themselves. Others, like Philip Goodwin’s Florio, father to Annabella and Giovanni, or Everett Quinton’s Donaldo, father to one of Annabella’s less-plausible suitors (Ryan Garbayo’s foppish and sweetly imbecilic Bergetto), are fundamentally tender and good-hearted but have the civilized-person’s appreciation for the necessity of polite deception. Derek Smith’s delicious Vasquez is the purest exponent of this world’s values, inasmuch as his total loyalty and his total deceptiveness are both consequences of his own determination not to be deceived, nor moved, by anyone – possibly rivaled by Franchelle Stuart Dorn’s perfectly named Putana, the nurse, who, like Juliet’s, is an unshockable confidante, disturbed not at all by Annabella’s carnal desire for her brother, nor particularly disapproving of her acting on it, but blind to the possibility that it could be motivated by more than desire – by love.
Because only Annabella and Giovanni are themselves in themselves; only they are fundamentally capable of feeling the kind of love they feel, and are therefore incapable of deceiving themselves about it, or of hiding the love that comes to define them. (Indeed, the only reason their secret is not exposed much sooner is that nobody who isn’t already in on it ever considers the possibility.) Of course, their love is tragic, ending in slaughter – but the juxtaposition of their tragedy with their quality as the only fully genuine people onstage ties those qualities together in our minds.
In this sense, the play goes beyond Romeo and Juliet. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, the audience can console itself in the same limited terms that the Prince and the two patriarchs, Capulet and Montague, do, and blame the tragedy entirely on the feud. These lovers were not truly star-crossed, it’s just the crossed nature of their parents that ushered in tragedy. That’s certainly what Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents did with Shakespeare’s material – they made it a story of the struggle for supremacy between hate and love. And if that’s the contest, then of course we stand for love – and calls ring out to tear down the hateful barriers that stand in its way.
But love is a jealous emotion; it stands not only against its opposite, but against all other ties, against the world and life itself. ‘Tis Pity gives the audience a pure expression of this jealous power, because it gives us a pair of sympathetic lovers for whom one can neither say, “if only the hateful world would end its disapproval, there would be no tragedy,” nor “this isn’t really love, but some kind of warped mockery thereof.” Because it is true love, but a true love that cannot be accommodated. It cannot be accommodated – and yet, we are loathe to banish it from our republic, for fear of banishing what is best in all of us, what is better than many of us will prove capable of feeling. It’s a tragedy in the classic sense, because it admits of no escape – and tragedy of that sort is as anathema to the Christian view of our common nature as it is to the modern progressive view.
On the other hand, you don’t have to take the proceedings as seriously as I do above to be moved and exhilarated by the play. The cast is phenomenal from end to end. The set and costumes (designed by David M. Barber and Sara Jean Tosetti respectively) do a perfect job of bridging the 17th and 21st centuries, and look gorgeous doing it. There’s not a moment that goes by without soaring passion, low humor, or the pathos of mere humanity – or all three at once. Even if you are not inclined to meditate on what the play is saying, it’s a great evening of theater.
So in spite of my previously-disclosed conflict of interest, I am not at all conflicted about saying – go see it, while you still can.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore runs at the Duke Theater in New York through May 16th.