Continuing its policy of publishing more obscure but provocative examples of early modern drama, The Island Princess offers the work of John Fletcher at the height of his powers, if dating is correct, during the period when he’s been installed as Shakespeare’s successor as the in-house writer for the King’s Men and at liberty to experiment with dramatic forms, in this case continuing his investigations into the possibilities of the tragicomedy. Opening as a kind of swashbuckling romance in which the titular royal offers one of three suitors her hand in marriage if they’re capable of rescuing her brother the king from captivity, the story slowly becomes a disturbing discourse on corruption, conspiracy and religious intolerance.
Covering similar themes to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Fletcher’s own The Sea Voyage, the story takes place against a backdrop of the spice-trade and islands in and around Indonesia, and the colonial clash between Christianity and Islam. In her introduction, editor Clare McManus explains how the playwright utilises this exoticism to reflect back to the audience the ongoing cross-cultural clash between Catholic and Protestantism and how even more than most plays of the period, our appreciation of the work has been diminished across time because of changes in our world view, how elements of language, even the removal of a beard however innocuous now, then carried great meaning.
McManus also moves to reclaim Quisara, the princess herself, as one of the great theatrical female heroines, noting that she may well have originated with Richard Sharpe who also premiered the title role in The Duchess of Malfi, indicating they’re roles of similar complexity. Throughout the play she oscillates between Amazonian confidence and victimhood, attempting to force a potential husband into converting for her benefit before agree to the same for him, sometimes feigning madness or at least giving the impression of such. This seems like another of those roles which is almost being held away from female actors because the repertory of plays still performed from this period is generally exclusive to one genius.
Nevertheless, McManus is able to dedicate a fifth of her introduction to the play's lack of theatrical history, at least in its purest form. Soon after Fletcher’s death, it found itself adapted under Charles II with the inclusion of allusions to topical events like the Great Fire of 1666 (which was the version Samuel Pepys saw three times). French Huguenot Peter Motteux then utilised it as a source of a semi-opera, which due to its popularity became the form on which all subsequent revivals were based and is generally thought of as being enmeshed in the history of opera in that period, or until 1739 when it was retired from the stage taking the original with it, its bawdiness falling out of fashion.
There are only two recent revivals of note. In 1995 it heralded the beginning of the modern Shakespeare's Globe’s Read or Dead series starring Mark Rylance and Josette Simon and seven years later, an RSC production directed by Gregory Doran, a risky prospect in the wake of 9/11. McManus excellent commentary on this production demonstrates that theatre does not occur in a vacuum with scenes of Portuguese colonial violence that in the period of writing provided a context to the plays later descent into religious fanaticism being cut in case they're seen as being a “racist stereotype”. There’s an undercurrent of disappointment in McManus's tone, of how a play which has not been produced in many years was potentially undermined by the period of its staging.
The introduction concludes with what’s always my favourite section, the publication history. The Island Princess was published posthumously in the humongous first folio or "The Comedies and Tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher" (1947) which as the academic notices includes the work of about nine playwrights since it includes their collaborations with others, though not, curiously Shakespeare (we'd presumably still have Cardenio if it had). This play seems to be the work of a printing house owned by Susan Islip, one of two houses whose labours are only recently being given critical focus. Perhaps, as more and more of the plays from this volume become available, their work will be illuminated too.
The Island Princess (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Clare McManus. Methuen Drama. 2013. RRP: £13.99. ISBN: 978-1904271536. Review copy supplied.