Exile and Restoration in John Crowne's the Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian

Article excerpt

"Banished" is banish'd from the world, And world's exile is death: then "banished" Is death mis-term'd.

(Romeo and Juliet, 3.3.19-21)

IN JANUARY 1677, The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian, written by John Crowne in two parts, premiered at the Theatre Royal. (1) Performed by His Majesty's Servants, and later dedicated to Charles II's Catholic mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the play is set against the backdrop of the siege of an insurgent Jerusalem and the capture and destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, and tells the story of star-crossed lovers: Titus, the Roman commander soon to be emperor, and Berenice, a Jewish princess. A tale of exotic cultures in conflict, with a hero divided between the contradictory claims of desire and empire, Crowne's drama exhibits the stock elements of heroic tragedy in the style of Elkanah Settles Empress of Morocco (1673) and John Dryden's Conquest of Granada (1670-71), widely regarded as the greatest of the "love and valor" plays popular on the Restoration stage. The story of the ill-fated affair between Titus and Berenice was something of a theatrical fashion in the 1670s, with Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine in France producing plays on the subject in the same year (1670). Crowne's model was Racine, whose Berenice had been adapted by Thomas Otway for the Duke's Company only the previous year. (2)

Both parts of The Destruction of Jerusalem met with such "extravagant applause" that the play supposedly aroused the envy of Crowne's patron, the Earl of Rochester, who promptly "commenced an enemy to the bard he before had so much befriended." (3) Stuart Gillespie and David Hopkins describe it aptly as a "heroic extravaganza" replete with sieges, battles, and feats of martial valor. (4) It boasted a stellar cast, with Edward Kynaston and Charles Hart playing Titus and Phraartes, and Mrs. Marshall and Mrs. Boutell in the roles of Berenice and Clarona. The play incurred "vast expense in scenes and cloathes" with a series of magnificent sets: the lavish Temple gates, the chaotic streets of "starving Jerusalem" and "the blazing Temple sinking to destruction in a sea of fire." (5) Despite its theatrical success, The Destruction of Jerusalem has been dismissed as a cheap derivation lacking both Racine's complex psychology and Dryden's mastery of verse and dramatic structure. Consequently, scholars of Restoration drama overlook the singular achievement of Crowne's tragedy: the setting.

The Destruction of Jerusalem is the only play to set the interracial love story of Titus and Berenice in war-torn Jerusalem. Unlike the French plays and Otway's translation, which are set in Rome after the events of 70 CE, Crowne's play positions the doomed romance in Jerusalem during the fall of the Temple. (6) Historically, the two events--the siege and the affair--were not coterminous. The latter occurred a few years after, in Rome. Unlike Corneille, Racine, and Otway, who meticulously follow the historical accounts, Crowne deliberately replaces Rome with Jerusalem so that the fractured love story is superimposed upon the saga of the beleaguered city rife with conspiracy and rebellion. Furthermore, The Destruction of Jerusalem is only one of two seventeenth-century English plays--William Heminges's The Jewes Tragedy (1662) is the other--to juxtapose Roman and Jewish society in Judea. (7)

It is curious that the scholars who express bafflement at the success of Crowne's play should have neglected the import of Jerusalem. (8) The editors of Crowne's works in the nineteenth century attribute the choice of setting to the success of the Conquest of Granada, surmising that Crowne hoped to be "as successful with the Jews and Romans as the Laureate [Dryden] had been with the Moors and Spaniards." (9) Even critics who acknowledge the play's theatrical appeal tend to dismiss the setting as mere excuse for the flashy denouement. Arthur Franklin White identifies the spectacular burning of the Second Temple orchestrated with the help of William Davenant as the reason for the play's early popularity, but exhibits little interest in what Jerusalem may have signified for Crowne's audience. …

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