By Greer, Herb
The World and I , Vol. 19, No. 5
Herb Greer is a contributing editor to the Arts section of The World & I.
The glories of Elizabethan age theater succumbed to Jacobean works ripe with torture, hatred, and revenge. Such human flaws are not lost on a new generation of playwrights.
It sometimes happens that an aesthetic pattern of one age in the arts is repeated, striking similar chords in a later age, sometimes centuries on. This is rare in the theater because writing style and conventions of performance can change radically from one century to the next. But the last half-century has seen the steady growth of such a parallel, most strongly highlighted in British theater but with unmistakable traces on the American side of the Atlantic.
A few summers ago, a relatively small theatrical event in the United Kingdom inadvertently cast light on this parallel, displaying and even stressing a peculiar set of qualities and tastes that contemporary British society (and, to some extent, America) shares with the England of the early seventeenth century. This occurred in a provincial British theater, the Salisbury Playhouse: a tight, exciting production of a Jacobean classic, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.
This play is typical of its age. The story is a morally chaotic alloy of cruel political and personal deceit, sadistic torture, sexual brutality, multiple murder, hatred, revenge, madness, and betrayal. It catered to an uncannily familiar set of audience tastes at a time in British history--the early seventeenth century--when the public's worldview shared many aspects and concerns of our own society and body politic. It was called, after King James I, the Jacobean period.
During the Elizabethan age that preceded it, the work of writers (above all, Shakespeare) rested on an accepted image of mankind as the noblest work of God, set at the center of the universe in a society whose written and, more important, unwritten rules turned on order, degree, hierarchy, and discipline. Those who, through a tragic flaw, violated the pervading scheme of things incurred disastrous consequences; those who survived the consequent disaster were left to carry on, shoring up and confirming the traditional scheme of things. As the literary historian Una Mary Ellis-Fermor put it, Elizabethan writers were in love with life.
The death of Elizabeth I and the accession of King James I altered this mood radically. The shock of a change in reign upset many old certainties; gradually, a pervasive spirit of disillusion set in. James, though popular at first as a strong king who forged the nations of the British Isles into a united kingdom, later became unpopular. The old respect for a certain order of society was no longer taken for granted, foreshadowing a sort of thrashing about for new values and ideals to replace those that were seen to have vanished. It was the time of the famous Gunpowder Plot, still recalled today in the British verse:
"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
We know no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."
The anxious and sometimes violent groping for new certainties was not immediately successful. But it did foreshadow an attitude, uncomfortably familiar today, in which acceptance of the order of things was replaced by an emphasis on rights, individual conscience, and skeptical reason.
Jacobean tragedy embodied this new anxiety, along with a certain unreality. Plays of John Webster such as The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, seething with immorality, arbitrary violence, lethal enmities, underhand plotting, broken faith, and an almost total lack of moral framework, adumbrate a conviction that it does not matter what men do. In these scenarios, the consequences of human action are a matter of the artists' arbitrary choice and furthermore may or may not relate to the real world. An oddly positive spin on this is given in Irving Ribner's Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order: "John Webster creates a world which is incompatible with any system of religious belief. …