As some friends may know, I spent last week acting in the final six performances of The Dolphin’s Back production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank. The offer to do so came out of the blue, so much so that – as much out of surprise as anything – I initially said no.
I had seen the director James Wallace’s previous, superb revival of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon – also at the Rose – and we had got chatting after the show about early-modern drama and such. He said that he was looking for someone to play the part of Peter Ramus (actually Pierre de la Ramée), the humanist scholar; his original choice was unavailable for health reasons and James himself was playing the part until someone else came along. For reasons that are still obscure to me, James thought that someone might be me. I think the idea of a scholar (which I suppose I am, loosely) playing a scholar – perhaps particularly one who dies a bloody and painful death – amused him.
And he may have calculated that a novice’s blind terror at performing might not appear too amiss in a character who spends most of his brief life on stage being threatened with daggers, swords and a sickle.
I have, I should make clear to you, no acting experience. I may not have made that entirely clear to James. The last time I can remember acting in anything was a school production of Toad of Toad Hall. I was twelve and I played a policeman and hated every brief and brightly lit second of the experience.
Nevertheless, overnight I reconsidered my firm no.
There are lots of reasons why. One, of course, was simply the lure of being involved in the first professional revival of the play in some 400 years – and at the site of the Rose, where the play was first performed. I would, in no matter how small a way, be a part of its tradition, not merely someone commenting on it.
Also I give talks fairly often on my books and related topics – and I told myself that acting would not feel too much different. Both involve standing and talking. Or, as the case may be, walking around and talking. Basically the same thing, I thought. I soon discovered I was wrong about that. Scholars for you, I suppose: the living theatre is so much a creature of its own kind. I realise that now.
Other reasons were more private. A younger me would not have thought twice: the prospect would have terrified me too much. But the last few years have been difficult for a wide range of personal reasons – and I increasingly feel that, put simply, yes is a better answer to life than no. It was in the spirit of saying yes – to life, to change, to absurd challenges, to learning to breathe outside the somnambulant and narrow confines of my comfort zone, to being as fully, humanly present as possible, to being an actor in my own life – that I contacted James the following morning and asked if the part was still available.
It felt a very personal and necessary kind of affirmative action.
But I hadn’t seen the production at that point, and I wasn’t free to do so until half way through the run. That was probably a good thing.
The Massacre is a difficult, atypical Elizabethan play, and has long been regarded as something of an oddity. There is only one known version of it, a printed version of uncertain date, about which much has been conjectured. About the only thing that can be said for certain is that it isn’t Marlowe’s full script. It is far too short for that: at fewer than 1200 lines it is half the length of most Elizabethan plays.
For much of the twentieth century the text’s existing form was explained away as being what was called a memorial reconstruction by actors. The theory – primarily used to account for anomalies between the Quarto and Folio versions of a number Shakespeare’s plays – posited that in lean times groups of actors would sell to printers what they could remember of popular plays in which they had performed. However, there is no historical evidence that such a practice ever occurred, and some evidence that, if it had occurred, it would not have produced the kinds of texts which excited the supposition in the first place.
A much more likely scenario – although again genuine evidence is lacking – is that the existing text of The Massacre is a stripped down version of Marlowe’s original lost text created for particular performances – perhaps when on tour, for example. This theory is not without its problems, but at least it has the benefit of some documentary support in the form of a manuscript version of one scene which has sixteen lines of text for the Duke of Guise, compared to a mere four in the printed version. (The manuscript is now part of the Folger collection and can be viewed online here and here.)
Arguably, the Dolphin’s Back production is another form of evidence, in that it has decisively shown that a play which has often been denigrated for its lack of poetry and the simplistic, mindless violence of its plot is, nonetheless, a powerful, psychotically compelling theatrical experience. If Marlowe ever wrote subplots for The Massacre – my guess is that he did, but that is only a guess – they have been lost. If the Folger manuscript is anything to go by, he certainly wrote more complex, ambitious speeches for it. But what is left is a play of brutal, nakedly rapacious gusto, a vicious but often maliciously, malignantly funny race through what was to the original audience very recent French history.
It is, even in its current form, a shockingly audacious work. Its ostensible subject is the 1572 Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Hugenots in Paris and elsewhere, which began on the night of August 23 and over the next few days saw tens of thousands of Protestants butchered in the streets and in their homes by carefully orchestrated – yet perhaps carelessly unleashed – Catholic mobs. But the massacre itself only takes up the first third or so of the play. In fact, the narrative continues up to 1589 and the death of the French king, Henri III.
Marlowe was taking a huge risk here. The portrayal of contemporary politics on stage was strictly forbidden. We don’t know exactly when the play was written, but the first recorded performance of it was by Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose Playhouse on January 30, 1593. Lord Strange’s Men at that point included the two greatest of Elizabethan actors, Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage. (The troupe may also have included a young William Shakespeare.) Unsurprisingly, given the potency of its subject matter, the evidence suggests it proved to be a box-office hit.
It is also likely to have been Marlowe’s last play. He was killed four months to the day after that January performance.
But the play wasn’t merely provocative because it staged contemporary events. It staged the single most incendiary moment in contemporary European history. The massacre traumatised members of the reformed church everywhere. The reaction of Humphrey Gilbert, writing to Lord Burghley on September 6, 1572 is fairly typical: “if the opportunity favours [the Papists] there is nothing else to look for but the tragical destruction of all the Protestants in Europe”.
Sir Francis Walsingham and Philip Sidney were in Paris when it happened, cowering in Walsingham’s house in Faubourg St Germain on the left bank. They would have known many of the key figures personally. Sidney had recently become friends with Ramus – my character – and Pleshy (actually du Plessis-Mornay) who survived by fleeing to England. Indeed, Admiral Coligny – arguably the principal target of the historical massacre – was well known to many in England. A good number of Devon and Cornish seamen had sailed under his flag in the 1560s to prey on Spanish shipping in the Channel.
But there is no doubt that the butchery coloured Protestant thinking about the Catholic threat for decades, and perhaps Walsingham’s more than most. It is hard to imagine the tension and discomfort of his first post-massacre meetings with Catherine de Valois, the King’s mother, on September 14 or with the King himself on the 23rd. At the latter, the King at first would only grant him a safe-conduct to live unmolested, Walsingham reported. Walsingham’s reply, that “[the King’s] safe-conducts contain little safety, as has lately been found here” is icily contemptuous in its understatement.
If there was little comfort for anyone in the King’s assurances, there is little comfort either for the victims of violence in the play. Henry of Navarre, the political leader of the French Hugenots, may end The Massacre with the crown of France, but he does not have Paris. He does not have meaningful power. When the play was first staged, its audience would have known that Navarre still didn’t control Paris and that the religious war continued. Marlowe’s Navarre repeatedly calls on God to support his cause. The evidence of history, as the play’s first audience would have understood it, would have suggested God was at best equivocal on the matter. More importantly, perhaps, as the war was still raging, the play implied there could be no victor, no end to the blood.
And, from a Protestant perspective, things would get worse. A matter of days after Marlowe’s death Navarre abjured his faith and converted to Catholicism to secure final control over Paris and the French crown. “Paris is well worth a mass,” he is alleged to have said. Whether he actually did say that is debatable; what is certain is that the phrase neatly captured his political calculation.
I am sure that Marlowe would have savoured the irony of that betrayal. It made such pieties as there are in his play yet more delectably hollow.
But the stolidness of its supposed protestant hero is the least of play’s challenges to its audience. The Massacre inverts the accepted order, both political and dramatic. It starts with a wedding, that traditional symbol of peace and accord; but instead of bringing political and social union, harmony and closure, it is this marriage out of which the violence and chaos explodes.
And the truth is that the most interesting characters are to be found among the Catholics. The play was sometimes known as the Tragedy of the Duke of Guise to contemporaries, and it is not difficult to see why. For much of the play he is a superbly sleek and Machiavellian villain, steeped in blood and politics. But he is humiliated privately by his wife’s infidelity, and then publicly by Henri III for exactly the same thing. And although he can and does avenge that humiliation, he knows too that he cannot undo it. His rage is that of a wounded bear who knows that, being bloodied now, sooner or later the dogs will be closing in. Somehow, Marlowe contrives to give this most monstrous of killers a tragic nobility as his fall approaches and his own death becomes inevitable.
Guise’s humiliation at court adds a new kind of mercilessness to the many more obvious cruelties elsewhere in the play. Marlowe, better than Shakespeare certainly, knew that power disdained the distinction between private and public lives, and that true power enjoyed the pretence of mercy as a plaything, not an ethical position. There is no mercy for anyone in The Massacre. And the play is more honest because of it. Not because acts of mercy did not happen in reality. But once tyranny unleashes slaughter on its people, who lives or dies becomes utterly arbitrary. Much of any terror resides in the uncertainty, the paralysing fear that any chance decision could end in death. There is no place for mercy in such a world; true mercy, if it is to be itself, cannot be arbitrary or constrained.
The character of Anjou, later Henri III, is fascinating too. He begins as a whimsically cruel voluptuary – the sort who might, when a toddler, have enjoyed pulling the wings off insects – but he matures with power. His violence, once seemingly mere sadism, becomes channeled and focused as an instrument of statecraft. Implicitly, Marlowe approves of this. He too, is given a tragic death. And his relationship with Epernoun is perhaps the only genuinely loving one in the entire play.
I knew little of this – beside the bare history – before I saw the Dolphin’s Back’s Massacre. I had read the play a long time ago, and had not particularly enjoyed it. On the page, its stripped-down quality demands a lot of the reader; it is like a screenplay for an epic film that has been cut to pieces by a cost-conscious Hollywood studio.
But on the stage it is a different thing entirely. I was totally unprepared for the energy, pace and ambition of the production. James set it in the mid-20th century with strong overtones of totalitarianism, and he soundtracked it with the twisted psychobilly of The Cramps which complemented perfectly the black humour of the piece. It was a production that showed you the deepest cruelty imaginable and challenged you to take uncomfortable pleasures in the experience, laughter among them.
Alongside Ramus, James asked me to play two small speaking parts, and three non-speaking ones. I think the complexity of this – well, its complexity to me – was what scared me the most. There was the practical element – the costume changes in near darkness in the wings, plus of course checking that the right costumes and props were on the required side of the stage, getting the timing right to the second, and so on.
And then there was the challenge of how to form some kind of character – or at least a distinguishable presence – out of a few words or a gesture, or less.
I know to any actors reading this, these things will be so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. To me, the difference between knowing something intellectually, and knowing something to be ready to do it at 7.30pm every night seemed at first a vast and cavernous gulf.
Obviously, my principal aim was to copy James’s performances as closely as possible in every conceivable respect. This proved alarmingly difficult. Perhaps because the production was so quickly paced, everything was precisely timed and choreographed. When I give talks, I’m used to moving relatively freely. I’m also used to a microphone. This was clearly going to be something very different. I was genuinely taken aback to find how much effort it took to concentrate on my movements – on how I was standing, where I was standing, where I was looking, how and when I was breathing – while also trying to remember my lines and how to deliver them. It was, to me, a strange process, passing through a stage of extreme self-consciousness to get to a point where I could do things with very little conscious thought at all. It is a kind of muscle memory, I suppose, a learned instinct. I did not find taking direction easy, either – not in terms of willingness, I hope, but I simply found the specificity of it daunting, and putting it into practice with the required precision felt almost inconceivably difficult.
And of course I was painfully aware that mine was the least significant collection of roles, and that everyone else in the play was a professional actor. The standard was terrifyingly high and I was accordingly terrified of letting everyone down, or of being so painfully the weakest of links that my amateurism would somehow tar everyone else’s work with its inadequacy.
But the whole team was astonishingly gracious, kind and generous in their support. They would have been well within their rights to be suspicious, if not hostile, of someone coming in from outside with no experience and seemingly claiming to be able to perform to their standard. Not that I thought that I could – I was pitching for adequacy at best – but perhaps that could be seen as a kind of arrogance too.
Without exception, though, they encouraged me throughout the process, patiently working through hesitant rehearsals with me, prompting me about my cues off-stage, and offering many warm words of advice and praise. I don’t think I’ve ever been so touched by such warmth in a working environment before.
And it wasn’t as if they weren’t working phenomenally hard themselves. Backstage, the production was a kind of human engine. There are over forty parts in The Massacre; there were just thirteen actors in the cast, if I can count myself in that. I think I’m right in saying that there are nineteen deaths on stage. A lot, in any event. To an outsider, the meticulous industry and energy required to keep pace through the play’s 24 scenes in its 90 minutes was bewildering and alarming in equal measure.
For me, it was exhilarating. On a personal level, it was about allowing myself to commit to something without reservation or caveat, a chance to work purely in the moment, to practice setting aside the restraining, editorial voice that challenges me as I write. Plus, I got to see the play from the inside, to learn how in performance you inhabit the play and it inhabits you, and to see the sheer amount of thought and effort – line by line and word by word – that goes into bringing a 420-year-old self-consciously provocative and controversial play roaring back into vivid life.
And of course to do so at the site of the Rose Playhouse, with all those ghosts echoing happily around the theatre again, was allusively magical. To be separated from Marlowe and Alleyn and Burbage by time alone, but not by distance, brought another kind of life to each performance. You wondered with what inventions each actor in Lord Strange’s company fleshed out their parts all those centuries ago, and what hidden traces of performance history were embedded in the surviving text.
Theatre is a strange art, in some ways the most flexible and reactive of mediums. Meanings are generated not simply by the words, or how the words juxtapose or complement each other over the long arc of a play, but from the endlessly supple and pliable reality of the actors, each individual actor with their particular experiences and abilities, reacting to each other each night, performing in different productions, to a different audience in a particular place, which yet changes with each production, at a particular and precise moment in history through which the understanding of all words and actions are always refracted. The idea that you can’t step into the same river twice is an old one; but it might have been invented with the theatre in mind. I don’t think I will look at any play in the same way again.
As for Marlowe, who knows what he would have made of this production. I like to think he would have delighted at its darkness and revelled in its laughter. But perhaps he would have simply shrugged and thought the survival of his work was the least he was due, and walked off into the Bankside dusk, wondering again about a boat downriver, and a drinking debt in Deptford.
Note: I have studiously avoided singling out any particular actors for praise. It seems invidious. I would simply like to thank them all for allowing me to share their world. It was a privilege to be among them, even briefly. They were: James Askill (Duke of Anjoy – later Henry III); Ed Barr-Simm (Mugeroun, Duke of Dumaine, Prince of Condy, Loreine); Rhys Bevan (Henry, King of Navarre); Beth Eyre (Duchess of Guise, Queen Mother of Navarre, Taleus, Surgeon); Neal Gavyn (The Soldier, Duke of Joyeux, Gonzago); John Gregor (Duke of Guise); Howard Horner (Charles IX, Cutpurse, English Agent); Théo Kingshott (Cardinal of Lorraine, Retes); Richard Koslowsky (Epernoun, The Lord High Admiral, Seroune); Kristin Milward (Catherine de Medici); Ella Road (Margaret, Son to Guise, Pleshé, Wife to Seroune); David Vaughan-Knight (Cossin, Montsorrell, Bartus); Alex Pearson (Production Manager and Assistant Producer); and James Wallace (Director).