The Atheist’s Tragedy

More Jacobean drama.

Raw Feed (1989): The Atheist’s Tragedy, Cyril Tourneur, Jacobean Tragedies, ed. A. H. Gomme, 1969.Jacobean Tragedies

Tourneur, in this play, produces some fine poetry on lust, revenge, and the atheistic, naturalistic view of the world versus the religious view. However, this play has none of the verve of Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (if indeed he wrote it and not Thomas Middleton). [Middleton did, in fact, write The Revenger’s Tragedy.]

Charlemont is an amazingly passive hero. He is hardly an avenger but (to borrow a phrase from Michael Moorcock) merely a sailor on the seas of fate.

His father, Montferrers, comes back from the dead as a ghost and urges his son to avenge his death yet reminds him, unlike Hamlet’s father in Hamlet, that vengeance is God’s. Charlemont willingly goes to jail and his execution. The only effort he puts forth is to take the gifts of fortune since he views them as signs from God as to what direction he should take. 

The play concludes with the blatantly stated moral that patience is the honest man’s revenge.

It is a moral lesson I’ve never encountered in any other Elizabethan or Jacobean drama.  Usually heroes and villains are all too willing to take up vengeance.

There are other Christian themes at work as in John Marston’s The Malcontent.

D’Amville wants to provide for himself and his family. A noble goal perverted into murder and incest. His proposal of incest to Castabella is couched in terms of man being the pinnacle of nature and not denying himself something animals do (a subtle perversion of the concept of the Elizabethan Chain of Being) and providing an heir. Sebastian is lethally punished for his lecherous ways by Belforest. Snuffle is punished for his hypocritical pretense of virtue. (Is his presence a satirical jab at Puritans?) Levidulcia tries to convince Castabella to marry Rousard and uses sexual pleasure as the bait. For her part, Levidulcia repents of her ways after her lechery leads to Sebastian’s and Belforest’s death and kills herself. Her repentance and suicide seem too abrupt and unlikely.

Yet, as Gomme reminds us in the introduction, we’re dealing with a symbolic tale here, a morality lesson. The history of western literature for at least the past 300 years is an attempt to provide a more realistic narrative with devices like interior monolog and stream of consciousness. A story can never truly be a realistic depiction, in terms of the movement of time and space, of an event and trying to make it such is, beyond a certain point, usually counterproductive.

The scene in the courtyard with its mistaken identity and all too easy concealment may be rather silly when staged (an even more extreme example is D’Amville axing himself in the climax), but it is a curious juxtaposition of death (the graveyard, skulls, and Borachio’s corpse) and life and generation (in all its strange and frustrated forms:  Charlemont’s and Castabella’s failed romance, D’Amville’s incestous proposal to the latter, and Snuffe and Soquette’s trist) as well as some good poetry.

Borachio the henchman is not the villain of this drama. D’Amville is. It is interesting to note that, when he seems to go mad with the death of his son, the perception of the natural world, his wisdom, that he prides himself on begins to fail him when he perceives a glass of wine as blood It could almost be a scene out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Here is another play (a preeminently Christian one like The Malcontent) with comedy, lust, adultery, perverse sex (or, at least, the desiring if not the doing on D’Amville’s part), and vengeance. Oh, and, of course, frustrated love.

I wonder, given this play’s references to incest and male homosexuality, how squeamish Jacobean audiences were and what topics were forbidden on religious and/or political grounds. Were they forbidden to more blatantly mention sex or did the playwrights and audience just love sexual puns and double entendres and innuendo? I suspect the latter.

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