Shakespearing #34.1 by David Foley
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Note: Another interlude as the Shakespearing project heads into the final stretch…
When I went to see Red Bull Theater’s production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, I’d just begun my Pericles posting, and therefore had the issues of academicism and problematic old plays in my head. I was also quite tired (theater may be the only art form we consistently go to when we’re exhausted). And both of those circumstances may have had something to do with my cranky response. As we left the theater I said to my friend, “I imagine that’s a really hard play to do, but it’s gotta be impossible if you don’t have some idea about it.”
Now, a couple of weeks later and having just read the play for the first time, I’m feeling more sympathetic. As Marion Lomax suggests in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, it’s hard to get the balance right on this one. Like some of Shakespeare’s plays, it offers no comfortable readings, only warring uncomfortable ones. The incestuous love affair between siblings Giovanni and Annabella is both a form of nihilistic madness and the only convincing expression of love and mutuality in the play. The representatives of the church serve as both voices of the moral universe and guarantors of sin. And though most everybody in the play gets some version of the “wonderful justice!” that they acclaim when Hippolita (adulterous would-be murderess and wronged woman) is poisoned, justice is disconcertingly relative when every avenger is also a villain.
I read the play in an online version published by the University of Adelaide, which includes entertainingly waspish notes from an unidentified 19th century editor. The editor takes issue both with the play and with his previous editors: “This tragedy was selected for publication by Mr. Dodsley. The choice was not very judicious, for, though the language of it is eminently beautiful, the plot is repulsive.” And later, in a note on one of Annabella’s lines: “The insulting and profligate language of this wretched woman…is perfectly loathsome and detestable.”
What to do with a play like this? Red Bull took the not uncommon approach of what you might call grab-bag relatability, a moment-to-moment attempt to make the play accessible to a modern audience. The costumes were the po-mo hodgepodge that’s the go-to design choice for a production like this. The actor in the comic role was given free range and a curly blond wig, and the sex-and-violence quotient was upped. (An eye-gouging, offstage in the original, happened in full view, and there was an awkwardly staged nude scene, though, to be fair, a quick internet search indicates that a nude scene is almost required for contemporary productions of the play.) That this worked up to a certain point was attested to, the night I saw it, by the enthusiastic response of a group of students house right.
But relatability has its limits, and the production most obviously ran into them in the character of Giovanni. You can’t play Giovanni as Romeo. At best, he’s a sexed-up Hamlet, his intellectual rebellion soldered to his desire, a Lucifer of love. I don’t know if there’s a way to make him relatable to an audience for whom sin has no metaphysical or intellectual weight.
This presents a conundrum for companies like Red Bull. Their admirable project is to keep Jacobean theater alive on the New York stage, but such projects are always going to be dogged by questions about why and how you revive plays that no longer translate readily to a modern audience. It’s hard for such a project not to slip into academicism.
And it presents a mystery. Why do Shakespeare’s plays still translate? I think of Stephen Greenblatt who writes that “works of art…contain directly or by implication much of [their] situation within themselves, and it is this sustained absorption that enables many literary works to survive the collapse of the conditions that led to their production.” I’ve always liked that, but now I wonder if it’s true. It’s not because Shakespeare pulls so much of the Elizabethan “situation” into his plays that we still revere him. It’s because he gets to something at the heart of the Elizabethan situation that still resonates today.
Ford’s world is alien to us, and not just because of what our 19th century editor calls the “detestable set of characters [he has] sharked up for the exercise of his fine talents.” It’s alien because it’s hard to find modern equivalents for the passions driving these people. They are rooted in a world—in a situation—we no longer comprehend.
It’s not, however, unplayably alien. That was my surprise on reading the play—what a brisk, involving play it actually is (and, to be fair, easier to follow sitting well-rested on a sofa than frazzled and dragging in a theater). Tamburlaine, too, is alien to us. The things that thrilled his Elizabethan audience now appall us. The recent gorgeous TFANA production didn’t make him relatable. It created a world in which we could imagine him, a world that refracted our vision so that we began to see our own world through new eyes.
So maybe what ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore needs is not an idea, but a world, a world in which the play can happen. That’s a tall order, and I’m not sure how you would go about creating that world. But it might give shape to the project of reviving such plays: not to make them relatable but to dazzle us with new seeing.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.