Here is the story of Philaster. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result. The titular young Sicilian prince has usurped from the throne by “the king of Calabria” but continues to abide in court where he resists the urge to retake the crown. Arethusa is in love with him, and a page acts as a go-between, but Philaster through misunderstanding and distrust decides she’s being unfaithful with the page and stabs the both of them. But this being a tragicomedy, they both live and it’s revealed that the page was a girl all along and marriage and geographical recovery ensue.
I can’t believe it’s not Shakespeare, which it isn’t. It’s John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, writing at the same time as the Bard and it’s suspected giving the crowd what they want in the Jacobian period when the master’s work flow had slowed to a couple of plays a year. The blurb on the back of this Arden Early Modern Drama suggests this is a “Hamlet rewrite” but as its editor Suzanne Gossett identified, “the play is built from plot elements familiar from Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Pericles” as well as a number of plays by the same authors.
A modern comparison would be Miami Rhapsody or Far From Heaven which attempt to mimic the film-making styles of Woody Allen and Douglas Sirk respectively. But the approach is also positively post-modern even at the level of speeches, some of which are so suggestive of Cymbeline that there’s been some chatter over the years of which play influenced which, a chicken and egg scenario which can never be entirely resolved. Nevertheless it’s another work which ignorance has left sorely neglected, despite the participation of a Shakespeare collaborator.
Gossett employs a four pronged attack in attempting to rescue the play from obscurity. First there’s the usual contextual business and this case parallels with the politics of King James’s court. James’s rule over England and Scotland is paralleled in the Calbrian King and though the writers are generally thought of as royalists, it’s impossible not to see them suggesting that their new king was something of the usurper. Another strand of Philaster shows the king attempting to find strategic marriages for his children and that also reflects James seeking a union and so alliance in Spain.
Next there’s a short investigation into the form and style of the play. Fletcher claimed that tragicomedy “wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie”, which is a fair description of some of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, especially Measure for Measure, which should also demonstrate the difficult of keeping within that tone. In Philaster, that’s communicated through pathos and melancholy, that life’s too short (even shorter then) and that happiness is relative.
This (too) soon this gives way to the usual production history, the transformation of Philaster into a ladies play during the restoration period due to the unusual number of female roles (making the page’s role a twist in plain sight), its three adaptations undertook at a time when these authors were better thought of than Shakespeare and most interestingly its single broadcast performance in the US as part of a public radio series created by directors and writers blacklisted by UnAmerican Activities Committee of the House of Representatives.
The final sections deal with the play's wayward textual history. Ironically, like Hamlet, the play has a substantially corrupted Q1 and more substantial Q2 (which forms the basis of this edition) and a Folio (although that was printed fifty years after the play was written) and debate rages about how the first printed quite got into that state (censors? rewrites?) and yet why it contains better stage directions than Q2 (readers copy?). Side by side passages of both are included in the appendices so we can to make up our own minds. Or at least have a go.
Philaster (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Suzanne Gossett. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £11.99. ISBN: 978-1904271734. Review copy supplied.