Saturday, January 5, 2008

Musings on Marlowe, Part I

While visiting my beloved Uncle Steve in Bend, Oregon over the holidays, I finally finished Park Honan's biography of Christopher Marlowe. Well-written and thoroughly researched, Honan draws upon Queer Theory and Cultural Studies while avoiding some of their methodological pitfalls. Honan's Marlowe comes off as a brash young man, brilliant in poetry and learned in the classics but a naif in regard to the treacherous world of Elizabethan spy craft.  He was a lousy spook, although he probably put his clandestine activities to good literary use.  Among other disasters, Marlowe managed to get himself arrested in the Low Countries for sharing a room with another spy who was blithely counterfeiting coins, a treasonable offense.  Ironically, utter cluelessness probably saved his life: Sir Robert Sidney (brother to Sir Philip) interrogated Marlowe, deduced his innocence, and then despatched the feckless lad back to England.  Oh, youth!

Naivete and good connections will cover only so many missteps, and Marlowe, as is well known, met an early and particularly grotesque end.  Honan's interpretation of the events leading to Marlowe's stomach-churning death (dagger plunged two inches into the bony orbital plate housing the eyeball) seems right.  Conspiracy theories abound, and it's tempting to chalk up Marlowe's demise to homophobia, religious fanaticism, or court intrigue.  He was, after all, given to "atheistical" outbursts while in his cups, and he was undoubtedly a liability to the spymaster, Thomas Walsingham, especially by 1592 when witch hunts for Catholics and atheists intensified.  I tend, however, to be skeptical about conspiracy theories.  As history teaches us, assassinations more often result from petty jealousies, political indignation, or mad musings than carefully orchestrated plots involving shadowy operatives and orders from on high.  In Marlowe's case, he probably provoked a minor operative, Ingram Frizer, not so much because of what he did, but for what he was: charming, flashy, brilliant, and possessed of a lightning wit that could pun equally well in Latin or English, much to the delight of his patron Walsingham. Marlowe's worst crime was to be everything Frizer was not; and the assassin, like most shabby little men, thought his rise depended on the poet's decline.  And the ambitious Walsingham, eyeing James VI of Scotland as Elizabeth's likely successor, didn't need to be saddled with a half-assed spy mouthing off in taverns around town.

While I find plausible Honan's account of the poet's short and violent life, I disagree with his assessment of Marlowe's artistry.  Inevitably, Marlowe is coupled with Shakespeare, and the tired literary game of "had Marlowe lived, would he have surpassed Shakespeare" continues to be played.  They're such wildly different dramatists that it seems foolhardy to compare them; they just happened to write at the same moment.  Honan, though, behaves like Frizer toward Marlowe, concluding that the rise of his biographical subject depends on the fall of his putative rival.  So even though it's a tired game, piqued as I am by Honan's assessment, I can't help but weigh in: Marlowe, a terrific poet, was as lousy a dramatist as he was a spy (and probably for many of the same reasons--John Le Carre is especially eloquent on the more literary aspects of spy craft).  

My fabulous former teaching assistant, now at Harvard pursuing a M.A. in Dramaturgy, did a first-rate guest lecture last year in Theatre History comparing Marlowe and Shakespeare from an actor's perspective.  As Sean noted, Marlowe has little feeling for the taste of words in the mouth: he's miserly with caesuras and profligate with monstrous, run-on sentences.  Worst of all, he rarely gives his actors anything to do on stage: they're passive mouthpieces for large scale, gorgeous speeches in which either nothing happens or everything happens too quickly and without any motivation or even sense.  Speeches rarely provide insight into the characters. His sense of dramaturgy is laughable, and here Honan tries to make a virtue out of ineffectual plotting, arguing that Marlowe's genius burst the trussing of dramatic form.  Thus his bitty, fragmented succession of loosely related scenes becomes evidence for some sort of proto-modernist experimentation in dramatic form.  Sorry, Honan, but I don't buy it.  Brecht's creation of an epic theatre--an aesthetic response to dialectical materialism--is a far cry from Marlowe's choppy, half-realized dramas.  The former brilliantly weds Marxist theory to practice, using a non-organic form to explore, thematically and coherently, modernist preoccupations with alienation, mechanization, politics, and aesthetic experimentation. Brecht's redaction of Edward II stands head-and-shoulders over Marlowe's original.  

I'm going to make an inflammatory statement here by asserting that Marlowe's scripts are pretty much unplayable, interesting to watch in their disjointed weirdness and flights of poetry, but unconvincing as drama.  Witness the Shakespeare Theatre Company's recent production of Tamburlaine, to be explored in Musings on Marlowe, Part II . . .

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