'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai.



The Arden Early Modern Drama edition of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore isn’t the easiest book to read on the bus.  As ever, the noise of the other passengers calling work to tell them they’re late or the sound of some teenager playing Beyonce through the speaker on their phone simply aren’t conducive to concentrating on an academic text. But there’s also the self-consciousness of watching the not so subtle glances of my fellow passengers, the double take in which they have to look again to make absolutely sure that they did see “whore” the first time peeping just above my index finger.

All of which is utterly crazy and probably says more about me than the book, not least since the same title with the same pejorative as plastered all over Liverpool during the Everyman production I missed last year due to it being sold out on the days I wanted to go. On the basis of this splendid edition (and the reviews of the production) I missed something of a treat, a potent investigation into human sexuality, morality and taboos (if my fellow bus passengers are anything to go by) that still resonates in modern society.  ITV’s Midsomer Murders utilised the story as the basis for the their first ever episode.

Editor Sonia Massai confronts these issues head on, beginning with the play’s central storyline, the disastrous incestuous relationship between brother and sister before dollying outwards to show the stunning effects that has on society, in this case the city of Parma. The play is often thought of as a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet, but as Massai notes, whereas Shakespeare’s text retains its comedic structure because the death of the lovers still has the power to unify the Montagues and Capulates, ‘Tis Pity falls into utter tragedy, as Annabella and Giovanni’s indiscretion leads to the wrecking of not only their own family but that of those for which they’re intended.

Massai demonstrates that the play is both very simple but also utterly complex, oscillating between the monosyllabic lust which grips the siblings and the intellectual justification offered by Giovanni (which essentially amounts to “Well, we’re already of one flesh so …”). As with other Arden Early Modern Drama editions, her textual notes show once again that it wasn’t just Shakespeare who was capable of creating a text rich with allusion, who was influenced by Ovid and other classical authors. Even less is known about Ford (born in Devon in 1586, matricated in Oxford in 1601) but he was clearly just as well read.

The content of the play has kept it in relative obscurity up until very recently. After a burst of contemporary productions, it was left largely unproduced for centuries (with the exception of a few private shows, one of which was attended by Samuel Pepys and an “ingenious lady” in the 1660s) until a strong unbroken run in the past sixty years where it’s generally been edited to focus on the incest plot, generally portraying the lovers as victims of circumstance. Which isn’t to say their haven’t been some spectacular performances. The book includes photos of the set used for Alan Ayckbourn’s 1988 NT production, a Renaissance urban landscape on many levels.

About my only criticism of this edition is that it's so brief.  The introduction is afforded just ninety pages, and Massai must be sitting on a wealth of research which she hasn't the room to fully explore  Some of the best material is in the footnotes, the reference to Pepys diary, comparisons with modern media (the aforementioned visit to Midsomer and a useful comparison to Stephen Poliakoff's film Close My Eyes) and seems to tease a longer more baroque, more comprehensive text.  But what is here is enthralling and I look forward to seeing what other non-Shakespearean dramas Arden will be publishing in the future.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Sonia Massai. Methuen Drama. 2011. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1904271505. Review copy supplied.

No comments:

Post a comment