“‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by John Ford

I don’t think I’m quite getting it, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting anything of the level of a Hamlet or a King Lear – that would have been foolish – but I was expecting something.  So far, I have read two revenge tragedies, one from either end of the era during which the genre of the Revenge Tragedy was popular: The Spanish Tragedy, written when Shakespeare was still a young man and before his literary career had taken off; and now, the splendidly titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, first performed in 1633 some seventeen years after Shakespeare’s death. But, different though these two plays are, what I am getting are no more than exciting stories, excitingly told, well crafted, and displaying a theatrical bravura: all well and good, one may say, but I am getting nothing so far of anything resembling a tragic vision. Are my expectations too high? Or is there really nothing more to these plays other than a finely tuned stagecraft? Should I just tune my expectations down to expecting no more than an exciting story? Perhaps. But I am not prepared to give up on this yet, by any means: I am particularly keen, amongst other things, to renew my acquaintance with John Webster. Maybe there is a tragic vision in there somewhere – but just not in the two plays I have read so far.

If we do lower our expectations somewhat from the ridiculously high levels set by Will, what we find is entertaining enough. The title of this play, sadly, doesn’t have too great a bearing on the action: it is, one suspects, little more than a ploy to hook the paying audience. However, although the leading lady of this piece, Annabella, is no whore – in that her sexual desires are not conspicuously displayed, nor her sexual favours prodigally given – the sensation-seeking audience has little reason to demur: right from the opening scene, in which the young Giovanni argues with a friar that his passionate sexual desire for his sister Annabella cannot be immoral or irreligious, we know we are in for juicy stuff. The friar, of course, is outraged, but that’s friars for you: no sense of adventure. Undeterred by fears of hellfire, Giovanni announces his passion to his sister, and she doesn’t require much persuasion to jump into bed with him. This doesn’t, admittedly, make her a “whore”, as the title declares, but it doesn’t, shall we say, make for the kind of sweet and wholesome role for which Julie Andrews might have been suitable. (Although, having said that, such casting against type might have been interesting.)

In The Spanish Tragedy, much time was taken up between the crime and the revenge by Hieronimo going mad, and indulging in some quite splendid lunatic rants. Possibly that sort of thing was a bit out-of-date by Ford’s day: he fills in the time between set-up and pay-off by introducing various subsidiary characters and sub-plots, all quite ingeniously woven into the main fabric of the play. The characters are adroitly presented – from the villainous Donado to the imbecilic Bergetto, from the loyal but brutal servant Vasques to the passionate and vengeful Hippolita – and the various strands of the plot are presented with great clarity, so that they all complement each other rather than get in each other’s way. It would be unfair of me to give away the plot details: there was one especially that even I, who like to think of myself as cynical and jaded, had not expected. I must admit it gave me quite a jolt. And, even while reading this as I did on my commuter train, it’s hard not to feel a thrill of horror when Giovanni enters in the final scene with a still warm human heart skewered on his dagger. So what if it’s a rubber stage prop? By this stage you’re so involved in the story it doesn’t matter.

So all in all, it’s tremendous fun. But where is the tragic vision I had been promised? I haven’t seen any so far, but I am but two plays into my project: let’s read on a bit more. Even if I do not end feeling exalted, I shall certainly be most royally entertained.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Who promised you a “tragic vision”? What did he or she mean?

    Reply

  2. Oh, I see, Tucker Orbison promised it. He (or she) has a great name. You may have to read the book.

    Reply

    • No, it wasn’t Tucker Orbison: I would certainly have remembered a name like that. Problem is, I can’t remember who it was who promised me a “tragic vision” from these works. If I could, I wouldn’t have put it in the passive – I’d have said “XYZ promised me these works will impart a tragic vision” if I could only remember who XYZ was.

      I was, for whatever reason (possibly my own imagination), expecting the revenge tragedies of this era to be major works of tragic drama, but from the two I have read so far, I don’t really get that: there is nothing I can see in these plays beyond the plot, and I’m afraid I don’t generally find plotting that interesting. With a very few exceptions (something like The Count of Monte Cristo, say) who-did-what-to-whom-and-why and what-happens-next aren’t really enough to set my literary pulses racing.

      So what more is it that I want from these plays? You may well ask. Well, I’d answer weakly, I want a tragic vision. Right now. Here. On a plate. And what is this “tragic vision”? you ask, quite reasonably. It’s not, of course, an easy question to answer, as, first of all, I’d need to define what I mean by “tragedy” – an issue that even the finest of literary critics, Aristotle included, have struggled with; and then, I’d have to distinguish what distinguishes works with “tragic vision” from those more ordinary tragedies that don’t possess such a vision. I could say that a tragic vision is more easily recognised than defined, and list a whole lot of works that, in my view, possesses it, but to do so evading the issue. No – the challenge you set me is worth rising to, or, at least worth attempting to rise to. I’ll fail, no doubt, as may better critics have failed before me, but as long as it’s an honourable failure, I’ll be content with that. I’ll get back to you on this.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Michael Harvey on February 16, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    You must be tired of my saying this, but these Jacobean, Elizabethan plays like ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’ usually come to life in performance, but not very well on the page. I remember a good production of ‘Tis Pity’ by Alan Ayckbourn (fine director) at the NT. I’ve always tried to collect these rarely done plays, because they can really only be judged fairly in performance. I also rememember productions of Beaumont & Fletcher’s ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’,’The Maid’s Tragedy’ and ‘The Chances’. And John Ford’s ‘The Broken Heart’ (with Olivier), Thomas Dekker’s ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, ‘The Fair Maid of the West’ and others. I miss the excitement of actors trying out forgotten plays like Ben Jonson’s ‘Sejanus’ or ‘Eastward Ho!.

    Reply

  4. I don’t know why they would come across worse on the page than Shakespeare or “Volpone.” You just learn how to read them. Elizabethan experts typically read all 200 or so extant plays but hardly see any of them. Maybe they are judging unfairly.

    The gap between “tragic vision” and “just plot” is enormous. Lots of room in between.

    “‘Tis’ Pity” does suggest a dramatic vision or over-arching ethos; it is not tragic but rather decadent. The play itself is the decadent end of the revenge tragedy tradition. It is a vision of exhaustion and collapse, a vision of going-too-far for no purpose. They couldn’t close the theaters too quickly.

    This is the piece where more than one character flees the play.

    Reply

  5. I have actually seen both The Spanish Tragedy and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in performance – the former at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the late 70s, the latter in a BBC production from the early 80s. I don’t remember much about them, other than having enjoyed them both. It is certainly true that certain plays come to life in performance in a way that one can’t always envisage when reading; but having said that, there are a great number of plays that have affected me deeply even when encountered in print. These frankly didn’t.

    I did actually enjoy reading both The Spanish Tragedy and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, but I enjoyed them in the way I enjoy, say, Puccini operas: I enjoyed the craftsmanship, and found it all tremendous fun; but I can’t say either delved deeply into serious matters in a manner I would expect from major works of literature. Yes, I know, that’s vague: as I said in my previous comment, I’ll return to the theme of “tragic vision” some time in the next few weeks, and try to identify a bit more precisely just what it is I find missing in these works.

    I agree with Tom, by the way, that ‘Tis Pity is decadent, but decadence need not, of course, preclude tragedy: the numerous lives untimely cut short in the course of the play does indicate a tragic ethos. And yes, I agree also that there s a sense of collapse and of exhaustion, but both the sense of collapse and of exhaustion seem to me to be reflections of the jaded sensitivities of the author, and possibly of his audience, bored as they all are with a genre that has possibly played itself out, and desperately looking for something novel to titillate the fancy. The fancy is undoubtedly titillated – no doubt about that. But I nonethless found myself wondering by the end “Is that it?”

    I’ll return to this later once I have thought it out a bit. There is definitely something missing here, I feel, but so far I find myself unable to articulate to any degree of precision what this is.

    Reply

    • Puccini!

      Is it possible that you do not put literature about literature in the category of “serious matters”?

      Reply

      • Literary criticism excepted … guilty as charged, m’lud!

      • Incidentally, when I put up a tweet linking to this post, someone in Twitterland going by the name @feministhiss, who, it claims, “automatically responds to sexist tweeting with hissing”, saw fit to hiss in response to me. “HSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” she/he tweeted. (I may have got the number of Ss not quite right.) Presumably my tweet was deemed sexist because it included the word “whore”.

        Well, @feministhiss, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, your hiss should be directed towards John Ford, not me. Don’t shoot the messenger!

      • It’s a bot. Auto-hissing. What an odd thing to bother to create.

        I have the crackpot theory that a form is more about itself at the beginning and end of its history. At the beginning, artists are concerned with what the form could be, while at the end the make art about what it has become, its accumulated history crushing the poor artist. Revenge tragedies are one of the clearest examples – the rise and fall happens so fast.

        In between, maybe artists can take the form for granted a little more and see what they can do within it, which is more likely, in the right hands, to lead to the kinds of major works you are describing.

        Etc. etc. etc.

        And in conclusion, this explains why today’s novels, movies, poems, paintings, operas, and on and on are not that great. Decadent phase.

      • Your theory, far from being crackpot, seems to me entirely plausible. Now that I have bookended the Revenge Tragedy genre by reading an example from either end, I look forward to reading what came bbetween, with your theory in mind. I am currently taking a break by re-reading some Dostoyevsky (and poems by Donne), but Webster beckons strongly now, I think,

  6. I’ve seen it in performance, in English with French subtitles. It was a modern direction by Declan Donnellan and I thought it was fantastic.

    I had a lot of fun. I didn’t expect anything when I started reading the play before going to the theatre.

    (my thoughts in a billet on my blog, if you’re interested)

    Reply

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