Archive for the ‘Tragedy’ Category

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

“The White Devil” by John Webster

Before engaging with the play itself, the reader of The White Devil would be well advised to read Webster’s preface to the first printed edition, especially if the reader likes, as I do, to get some impression of the authorial persona.  Here, Webster, still a relative novice in the craft of playwrighting – having at the time written plays only in collaboration – and following, as he himself acknowledges, in the immediate footsteps of some of the very finest practitioners of the art of drama (including Shakespeare), lays the blame for the failure of the production of The White Devil fairly and squarely on the audience, and the audience alone:

…since it was acted, in so dull a time of winter, that it wanted a full and understanding auditory: and since that time I have noted, most of the people that came to that playhouse, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to enquire for good books, but for new books) I present it to the general view…

It must surely have crossed Webster’s mind that the play he is now presenting to the reader is also a “new book”, but he seems to harbour not the slightest doubt that this new book of his is several cuts above those other new books that those “ignorant asses” so hanker after. For he is not finished with those “ignorant asses” yet, who dared dislike his work. He goes on to list the various qualities that pertains to a great tragic work, and then continues:

…yet after all this divine rapture … the breath that comes after the uncapable multitude is able to poison it …

I don’t think I have ever come across such unmitigated disdain on the part of an author for his public – or, at least, for a sizable section of his public; and neither have I come across a self-belief so extraordinary as to be virtually indistinguishable from megalomania. For which other author speaks of “divine rapture” in reference to his own work? Even Shaw at his most provocative never quite attained this level of self-regard. I can’t help wondering whether Webster actually meant this, or whether he was being tongue-in-cheek: either way, one gets the impression of an authorial presence that is colourful and tremendously flamboyant. And one starts the play hoping that after such a striking preface, the drama itself does not prove anti-climactic.

To anticipate my conclusion, it isn’t. It may not quite justify the epithet “divine rapture”, but it is nonetheless magnificent.

We are, from the start, in familiar territory – a Mediterranean court (Italian in this case: in a revenge tragedy, if it isn’t Spanish, it’s Italian), peopled with powerful and corrupt rulers and cardinals and, in this instance, even a Pope; there are political factions, lust in action, jealousy, Machiavellian unscrupulousness, amorality – all the necessary ingredients for a successful revenge tragedy are here, all present and correct. There is also, inevitably, murder in the air; indeed, it comes as a bit of a surprise that we are well into Act Two before the murders actually take place. But in these first two acts, it isn’t just a case of waiting for the killings: a very large cast of extremely colourful characters is presented with the utmost dramatic skill; even when reading rather than seeing the play, each of these characters is distinctly characterised, with no two in danger of being confused with each other; and the relationships between the characters too are presented with perfect clarity. I cannot frankly think of any other play in which so complex an exposition, both in terms of situation and of character, is achieved with such clarity and with such regard for dramatic flow. There is no long narrative speech explaining the necessary background facts for the benefit of the audience (Shakespeare was doing this even as late as The Tempest); there is no stock device such as a newcomer who needs things explained to him. This may have been Webster’s first play without a collaborator, but the stagecraft is as assured as I have encountered from anyone.

This level of technical skill is maintained throughout. One danger of introducing so large a cast of characters is that it becomes difficult to keep them all simultaneously at the centre of the action, and that, as a consequence, some who had been introduced as major characters end up falling, as it were, by the wayside, while others splinter off from the central action into subsidiary plotlines, which then need to be resolved separately from the principal action. But once again, such is the quality of Webster’s stagecraft, there is no danger of any of that happening here. The seamless incorporation of each of these characters into the central plot is achieved so unobtrusively, that playwrighting is made to appear quite easy, and one wonders why other dramatists seem to make such heavy weather of it all.

But of course, technical skill, even of this order, is not enough to create a work of art: there needs to be what I call, for want of a better term, an “artistic vision”, a view of human life that penetrates beyond the mere surface. The vision that Webster presents here is one of unmitigated human evil. The evil that men do – and women do as well, for that matter – is presented not merely to titillate, or to make our flesh crawl: the horrors are not piled on merely for effect. They are presented quickly, and then we move on: there is no extended dwelling on the horrors, because, despite Webster’s reputation as a purveyor merely of sensationalist and grisly effects (“Tussaud laureate”, Bernard Shaw called him), he seems uninterested in depicting horror for its own sake: his interest seems to be the murky human soul from which such evil arises.

All the traditional set-pieces of revenge tragedy are there, but, rather than being there for their own sake, they are integrated into the whole. Thus, for instance, when characters express loss and grief, and their determination to be revenged, they do not do so in long, extravagant rants: instead of the action pausing to accommodate, as it were, solo arias, here, each voice, whatever it expresses, is invariably integrated into a larger ensemble that is constantly moving forward in dramatic terms. Even when Cornelia is given her mad scene after one of her sons gratuitously murders the other, the scene is dealt with swiftly: Cornelia’s madness is but one of several other things happening at almost the same time. Throughout, there is a refusal to dwell, to linger, on scenes that, given the tastes of the time, were potential showstoppers.

Not that the plot is without sensation. Indeed, it is the very presence of sensational elements that makes Webster’s reluctance to milk them so remarkable. At the centre is an adulterous affair between the Duke of Brachaino, and Vittoria, originally from a somewhat lower rank of nobility, but now married to the foolish Camillo, nephew of a cardinal. And for this adulterous couple to come together, two murders need to be committed – that of Brachiano’s wife, and of Vittoria’s husband. Camillo’s murder is the more straight-forward of the two: while exercising on his vaulting horse, his neck is broken, and the killing made to appear an accident; but the murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, is altogether more intricate, and – it has to be admitted – delightfully sensational: the painting of her husband that she kisses every night – the very husband who murders her – is coated with a deadly poison. The two murders are presented in a single scene in a superb coup de theatre, as a conjurer allows Brachiano, not present at the scene of either murder, to see both in a vision.

Of course, it would have been easy to have enlisted audience sympathy on behalf of the murdered pair, but Webster is careful not to do that – at least, not in the case of Camillo, who is presented as something of a fool: one can even, up to an extent, at least, sympathise with Vittoria for being married to him. As for the grievously wronged Isabella, Brachiano’s wife, it would once again have been very easy to have presented her merely as a passive victim, but Webster is having none of that: he endows her with as intense a passion as that of the guilty lovers. Her fury on discovering her husband’s adultery is quite magnificent:

Isabella: O that I were a man, or that I had power
To execute my apprehended wishes!
I would whip some with scorpions.

Francisco: What! turn’d fury!

Isabella: To dig that strumpet’s eyes out; let her lie
Some twenty months a-dying; to cut off
Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth;
Preserve her flesh like mummia, for trophies
Of my just anger! Hell, to my affliction,
Is mere snow-water. By your favour, sir;—
Brother, draw near, and my lord cardinal;—
Sir, let me borrow of you but one kiss;
Henceforth I ‘ll never lie with you, by this,
This wedding-ring.

It is indeed a shame that so magnificently spirited a character plays no further part in the drama, but one feels the loss of this character to a greater extent than one would, I think, have done had she been depicted but as a stock pallid sufferer and passive victim.

The movement to the double murder takes up the first two acts; the elaborate revenge, the last two. In the third act, bridging these two dramatic movements, is a magnificent court scene, in which Vittoria is put on trial for having instigated the murder of her husband.  Once again, Webster refuses to guide the reader’s (or the audience’s) sympathy: her accusers and judges are themselves corrupt, and, despite the lack of any evidence against her, she is found guilty and sentenced:

Monticelso: … Hear your sentence: you are confin’d
Unto a house of convertites, and your bawd——

Vittoria: A house of convertites! what ‘s that?

Monticelso: A house of penitent whores.

Vittoria’s defiance is splendid:

Vittoria: Die with those pills in your most cursed maw,
Should bring you health! or while you sit o’ th’ bench,
Let your own spittle choke you!

Monticelso: She ‘s turned fury.

Vittoria: That the last day of judgment may so find you,
And leave you the same devil you were before!

Vittoria is soon out of the “house of penitent whores”, and lodged in Brachiano’s court; and then, starts the second arc of dramatic action – the Revenge. Except that, in Webster’s vision, the revengers are as morally corrupt and as evil as those they seek to destroy. The evil in this play seems all-encompassing.

Over the course of this long play, a picture emerges of passions that are neither controllable nor sought to be controlled; of remorse disjoined from power; of humanity ruled merely by lust and depravity and cruelty. This picture is painted on a large and immensely colourful but poison-coated canvas; and so oppressive is this image of evil, that the effect, despite the largeness of the canvas, is claustrophobic: it is a human inferno with no hint in sight even of a purgatory in which sins may be suffered away. Were it not for the tremendous theatrical vigour and exuberant energy with which this vision is presented, the whole thing would be a deadeningly depressing affair – a picture of life enmeshed in darkness only. Nihilism is not a way of looking at the world that I find myself attracted to, but I do find it hard, at least while experiencing the work, not to be drawn into Webster’s nihilistic vision.

One cannot help feeling, perhaps, that Shakespeare’s vision of evil, at least in his greatest plays, was even deeper, and even more terrifying. In Webster’s play, evil is something done by evil people, and this leads to a circular logic: why do people do such evil things? because they are evil; and why are they evil? because they do evil things. In Macbeth, the evil is not a monster that is out there, but, rather, a monster that lies latent within ourselves. But Webster’s vision of the monster out there is terrifying enough. From the preface, it is obvious that Webster knew full well he had written a masterpiece: he was not wrong. It is a tremendous achievement.

The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony end reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is the human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.