RADICAL DRAMA: ITS CONTEXTS AND EMERGENCE
Writing of Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht – major exponents of what he calls ‘critical theatre’ – Jean-Paul Sartre declares: ‘these authors . . . far from being afraid of creating a scandal, want to provoke one as strongly as possible, because scandal must bring with it a certain disarray’. Theirs, adds Sartre, is a theatre of refusal
(Politics and Literature
, pp. 39, 65, 66). The disarray generated in and by Jacobean tragedy has likewise scandalised, then and subsequently. Few writers have provoked as much critical disagreement as, say, John Webster, who has been acutely problematic for a critical tradition which has wanted to keep alive all the conservative imperatives associated with ‘order’, ‘tradition’, the ‘human condition’ and ‘character’.1
It is no accident that Artaud and, to a much greater extent, Brecht were indebted to Jacobean drama. Brecht in fact figures prominently in my argument to the effect that a significant sequence of Jacobean tragedies,2
including the majority of Shakespeare’s, were more radical than has hitherto been allowed. Subsequent chapters will show how the radicalism of these plays needs to be seen in the wider context of that diverse body of writing which has been called ‘the greatest intellectual revolution the Western world has ever seen’3
and also identified as ‘the intellectual origins’ of that actual revolution in the English state in 1642.4
Some forty years before this event, as Raymond Williams has reminded us, we find in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama ‘a form of total crisis’: in the ‘formal qualities of the dramatic mode . . . real social relations were specifically disclosed’ (Culture
, pp. 159, 158). Is it too ambitious to see such a relationship
between the drama and the English revolution? Analysing the causes of the latter, Lawrence Stone insists that the crucial question is not war breaking out in 1642 but why ‘most of the established institutions of State and Church – Crown, Court, central administration, army, and episcopacy – collapsed so ignominiously two years before’ (The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529–1642
, p. 48).5
If the causes of that collapse can be discerned in the previous decades then, at the very least, we might postulate a connection in the early seventeenth century between the undermining of these institutions and a theatre in which they and their ideological legitimation were subjected to sceptical, interrogative and subversive representations.
In the hundred years up to 1629, Stone identifies the four most salient elements in the manifold preconditions of the war: first, the failure of the Crown to acquire two key instruments of power – a standing army and a paid, reliable local bureaucracy; second, a decline of the aristocracy and a corresponding rise of the gentry; third, a puritanism which generated a sense of the need for change in church and state; fourth, a crisis of confidence in the integrity of those in power, whether courtiers, nobles, bishops, judges or kings (Causes
, p. 116). Each precondition constitutes a social and political reality addressed by Jacobean drama. The lack of such things as a standing army rendered effective ideological control the more imperative – and its interrogation the more challenging (interestingly, Althusser’s rather crude distinction between repressive and ideological state apparatuses seems to be a more tenable one under such conditions).6
The crisis of confidence in those holding power is addressed in play after play. Moreover, the corrupt court is, of course, a recurrent setting for the drama; far from being (as is sometimes suggested) a transhistorical symbol of human depravity, this setting is an historically specific focus for a contemporary critique of power relations.7
In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that this was a drama which undermined religious orthodoxy. My aim is to show that its challenge in this respect generates other, equally important subversive preoccupations – namely a critique of ideology, the demystification of political and power relations and the decentring of ‘man’. Emerging from the interaction between these concerns
was a radical social and political realism characterising plays as diverse as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
and Webster’s The White Devil
I draw selectively on recent advances in historical methodology and critical theory which, having significantly illuminated the nature of ideology and literature’s relationship to it, are especially relevant to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.8
Additionally, they have established new criteria for exploring the relationship of literature to its historical context, and for understanding the importance of literary structure in this respect. In this introduction I indicate the significance of these advances for this study, summarise in the process its main themes, and set out some of the important historical and ideological parameters of the Jacobean theatre.
Literary Criticism: Order versus History
The main tradition in Anglo-American literary criticism has been preoccupied, aesthetically and ideologically, with what Raymond Williams has called (quite simply) ‘a problem of order’ and John Fekete (with more complexity) ‘a telos of harmonic integration’ (The Critical Twilight, pp. xii and 195). It is, adds Williams, a preoccupation deriving from a social and cultural crisis ‘in which the limits of current religion and science, but also the probable disintegration of an inherited social and cultural order, were being sharply experienced’. This preoccupation has been particularly distorting for Jacobean tragedy. The reason is not difficult to see: that drama emerged from a sense of crisis similar to that which Williams here describes in relation to the modern period. However, unlike the influential movements in recent literary criticism, the response of the drama to crisis was not a retreat into aesthetic and ideological conceptions of order, integration, equilibrium and so on; on the contrary, it confronted and articulated that crisis, indeed it actually helped precipitate it. Every major theme of the plays which I explore in this book transgresses or challenges the Elizabethan equivalent of the modern obsession with a telos of harmonic integration.
The result was a dramatic structure which has been notoriously controversial. T. S. Eliot, in a now famous essay, disapproved of
the Elizabethan dramatists ‘impure art’, their attempt ‘to attain complete realism without surrendering . . . unrealistic conventions’. It is a confusion which for Eliot makes for ‘faults of inconsistency, faults of incoherency’ (Selected Essays
, pp. 111, 114, 116). But Bertolt Brecht, himself much influenced by Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, approved
this impurity, particularly its elements of experiment, and ‘sacrilege’, and its dialectic potential (The Messingkauf Dialogues
, p. 60). Eliot’s formalist views were tremendously influential in constituting the subsequent critical tradition, but Brecht’s dialectical conception of theatre provides much the more illuminating perspective. Brecht recognised in Jacobean theatre a prototype of his own epic theatre, one where the refusal and disarray of which Sartre speaks involves a positive rejection of ‘order’ – in the universe, society and the human subject – as ideological misrepresentation. What is at stake here, as we shall see, is nothing less than opposing conceptions of reality and, even, of rationality.
The view that Shakespeare and his contemporaries adhered to the tenets of the so-called Elizabethan World Picture has long been discredited. Yet we still do not possess an adequate conception of their actual relationship to it. In the rest of this section I want to explore aspects of that relationship which have hitherto been ignored or oversimplified.
The ideology of the Elizabethan World Picture was built around the central tenet of teleological design: the divine plan informed the universe generally and society particularly, being manifested in both as Order and Degree; further, identity and purpose were inextricably related, with both deriving from the person’s (or any thing’s) place in the design. Critics who have rightly repudiated the claim that this world picture was unquestioned orthodoxy have tended also to give the misleading impression that it survived, if at all, only as a medieval anachronism clearly perceived as such by all Elizabethans. In fact, it survived in significant and complex ways – that is, as an amalgam of religious belief, aesthetic idealism and ideological myth. Thus at the same time
that it was unthinkingly (and perhaps sincerely) invoked by the preacher it was being exploited by the state as a ‘creed of absolutism [serving] chiefly to bolster up a precarious monarchy which lacked a
standing army or an efficient police force’ (J. W. Lever, The Tragedy of State
, p. 5).
To understand how this could be we need the kind of nonreductive approach to historical process advocated by, for example, E. P. Thompson. History is not a unilinear development; on the contrary, at any historical moment ‘there will be found contradictions and liaisons, dominant and subordinate elements, declining or ascending energies. [That] moment is both a result of prior process and an index towards the direction of its future flow’ (The Poverty of Theory, p. 239). Raymond Williams, with specific reference to literature, has analysed the same complex historical process in terms of the residual, dominant, and emergent elements which coexist at any cultural moment (Marxism and Literature, pp. 121–7). The residual is not to be confused with the ‘archaic’ (elements of past culture which survive but are obsolete nevertheless); it denotes instead experiences, meanings and values which have been formed in the past, which cannot be expressed in terms of the dominant culture and may even be in opposition to it, yet are still active. Emergent culture involves the finding of new forms, in the process of which there occurs ‘Pre-emergence’, that is, an expression which is ‘active and pressing but not yet fully articulated’ (p. 126). If we further recognise that there also exist subordinate and repressed cultures, then we see very clearly that culture itself is not a unitary phenomenon; non-dominant elements interact with the dominant forms, sometimes coexisting with, or being absorbed or even destroyed by them, but also challenging, modifying or even displacing them.
An historical perspective like that advocated by Thompson and Williams further avoids the naive error, common in literary studies, of describing the inception of a particular movement in terms of its subsequent historical development; that is, of telescoping the development back into its inception and reading it off as already contained (‘encoded’) there, and, simultaneously, ignoring elements contemporary to the inception which were working against, perhaps even contradicting it. So, in resisting the view that Elizabethan/Jacobean drama simply conforms to the Elizabethan World Picture – itself a blend of the dominant and residual cultural elements – we need also to resist the temptation to align it
reductively with the emergent. To take a simple example: it is wrong to represent the (emergent) Marlovian atheist repudiating (dominant) religious orthodoxy from a position of atheistic independence and modernity. Sometimes the subversiveness of Jacobean tragedy does work in terms of outright rejection. Generally, however, this procedure was, apart from anything else, thwarted by the censorship which I discuss later in this chapter. More often, Jacobean tragedy discloses ideology as misrepresentation; it interrogates ideology from within, seizing on and exposing its contradictions and inconsistencies and offering alternative ways of understanding social and political process. This is not a transcendent awareness; the drama may incorporate the contradictions it explores. It is, then, a tragedy which violates those cherished aesthetic
principles which legislate that the ultimate aim of art is to order discordant elements; to explore conflict in order ultimately to resolve it; to explore suffering in order ultimately to transcend it. All three principles tend to eliminate from literature its sociopolitical context (and content), finding instead supposedly timeless values which become the universal
counterpart of man’s essential
nature – the underlying human essence. Measured against such criteria much Elizabethan and Jacobean drama does indeed lack aesthetic completeness and ethical/metaphysical resolution. But perhaps it has to be seen to lack these things in order to then be seen to possess real (i...