Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Judeo-Christian Apocalyptic Literature and John Crowne's the Destruction of Jerusalem

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Judeo-Christian Apocalyptic Literature and John Crowne's the Destruction of Jerusalem

Article excerpt

John Crowne followed his first comedy, The Countrey Wit (1676), with the two parts of The Destruction of Jerusalem, arguably two of his finest works. The first part premiered on 12 January 1677 and the second part one week later. (1) Neither play has received much critical attention, and those critics who have offered commentary have either condemned it out of hand simply for being a rhymed heroic drama or have been content with discussing Crowne's sources. Capwell, who first noted this tendency to criticize the genre rather than the work, (2) chose to respond by limiting his discussion to Crowne's departures from his sources without ever engaging directly with the implications of the play itself. White demonstrates beyond doubt that Crowne combined elements drawn from Racine's Berenice, Josephus's The Wars of the Jews, and Suetonius's account of the relationship between Titus and Berenice. Capwell criticizes White for simply listing these sources and then attempts to explain Crowne's alterations. However, he seems to regard the romantic plots to be the chief focus of the play: "The historical material, however, primarily supplies merely background for the love stories, and Crowne's skill in weaving the fortunes of Phraartes and Clarona and Titus and Berenice into the historical material is notable." (3) While these plots and characters are significant and can certainly provide insight into characters Crowne subsequently created, the center of the play (4) is, as the title suggests, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

A cursory reading of Racine's play or of Otway's Titus and Berenice, (5) which is much closer to the French original than Crowne's work, reveals them to be works nearly devoid of dramatic action. Indeed, Berenice has been held up as an exemplar of the tendency of seventeenth-century French drama to employ simple plots. Racine himself noted that he wished to follow the "simplicite d'action qui a ete si fort du gout des anciens." (6) Crowne's spectacular stage effects and supernatural events could not be more different. The prologue to the first part of The Destruction of Jerusalem announces that the purpose of the play (or, at least, the purpose of the "damned playwright") is to "reveal hid treasure" (a literal [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), offering the first hint that we should recognize the strong element of apocalyptic literature within the drama. Although it seems unusual that Crowne's earlier critics chose not to comment on this element, perhaps it is simply the reemergence of apocalyptic themes in the last days of the twentieth century that make them stand out so clearly now. As we enter the new millennium and have become accustomed to apocalyptic themes in virtually every area of popular culture, it seems appropriate to look at an apocalypse from an earlier period that was also known for its political and religious schisms and excesses.

Given this cultural preoccupation with the ending of the second millennium, it is not surprising that scholars have recently turned their attention to the question as well. Most of these scholars have been theologians, but literary critics have also been among their number, often attempting to apply the findings of the theologians to their own discipline. Bernard McGinn is one such scholar. In his historiographical survey of the origins and current state of the scholarship of apocalypse and apocalypticism, he offers this method of approaching the question of genre: "I would suggest the following five questions as a useful introductory tool for this task: who reveals? to whom? how, or under what circumstances? what? and for what purpose?" (7) Likewise, Brian Stiegler's examination of Cervantes' La Numancia (8) uses the definition of apocalyptic vision set out by the theologian Klaus Koch. These elements are as follows:

1. Urgent expectation of the overthrow of all earthly things in the immediate future

2. The end a vast cosmic catastrophe

3. …

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