On wit too much . . . with foolish grounds of art
Discover'd first the nearest way to Hell.
--John Ford, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
A young man starts sleeping with his sister, and she gets pregnant. When she marries another guy, her brother kills her, and strides into a banquet with her heart on the end of a spear.
A young woman arranges to have the man her father wants her to marry assassinated. The hit man kills the intended, and cuts off the dead man's ring finger to prove it. He shows the finger to the woman, then extorts sexual favors from her by threatening to squeal on her about the plot.
A young man poses as a pimp, leads the rich guy who killed his beloved into a secluded place, and there, with the help of his brother, forces the rich guy to kiss the dead woman's skull, which he has smeared with poison.
Can there be much doubt that right now in Hollywood a young filmmaker could easily get a meeting by pitching any of these plot lines? Yet these synopses aren't of Quentin Tarantino's next three projects. Rather, they sample--without doing justice to the convolutions of--the plots of three of the greatest tragedies of 17th-century theatre: respectively, John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Thomas Middleton's The Changeling and The Revenger's Tragedy, an anonymous play often ascribed to an obscure writer named Cyril Tourneur.
For the 20th-century audience, the movies have clearly taken the place that the theatre held for people of earlier centuries as a populist art, more or less equally accessible to all social strata. If you dispense with fancy literary formulas and define "tragedy" simply as a harsh story with a downbeat ending, then genre pictures--crime dramas and horror films, shoot-'em-ups and postapocalyptic sci-fi actioners--are the closest that current film culture comes to producing popular tragedy.
Reviewing Alien in 1979, the great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael referred to it in passing as a "Jacobean space opera."
I think she was right, and I think she was prescient. The gleefully graphic sex-and-blood school of filmmaking that has been so important to the American cinema in the last couple of decades parallels--at times almost uncannily--popular tragedy in the Jacobean theatre. In fact, I would propose a term for this period in movie history: the neo-Jacobean age.
The term "Jacobean," derived from the Latin Jacobus, or James, refers to the reign of King James I of Great Britain, he of the famous Bible, son of Mary, Queen of Scots and nephew of Elizabeth I. Since James reigned from 1603 to 1625, Jacobean drama would technically include many of Shakespeare's late works, and Ben Jonson's best plays as well.
But as a literary term, it is usually associated with less highbrow works of the time--with the brutal yet poetically splendid shockers of John Webster (such as The Duchess of Malfi), or Middleton's brooding sexual tragedies and hard-edged satires, or the frothy, courtly comedies of Francis Beaumont and Shakespeare's sometime collaborator John Fletcher. Ford came later; he, technically, would be regarded as a "Caroline" dramatist (after James' son, Charles I), but as a dramatic style, "Jacobean" loosely covers the entire first half of the 1600s.
The elements most often associated with Jacobean tragedy are bloody violence, elaborately plotted revenge and obsessive, often incestuous, sexuality. Of course, these themes were far from unknown on the English stage before James' reign, any more than they were unknown in the movies before Tarantino.
The earliest tragedies of the secular English stage, such as Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, were full of grisly murder and vengeance. Shakespeare's early hit Titus Andronicus, one of the most popular plays of its time, is a potboiler of rape, mutilation and cannibalism.
The difference that the Jacobeans brought into vogue was the gleeful, almost reveling tone with which these atrocities were presented, often with a tinge of sardonic black comedy. The grand tragedies of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe use the horror to illuminate the human soul, while the Jacobeans seem simply to wallow in mad lust and murder, hatred and conspiracy, to delight in villainies for the theatrical potential of their wicked energy--exactly what the detractors of Tarantino and his ilk dislike.
Consider movies that have been onscreen within the past year. Out currently is Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, a blood-soaked actioner about a man seeking revenge on the drug lord who caused the death of his beloved. Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions, about a cult leader rising from the grave to take revenge on the magician who sent him there abounds in ghastly violence from stabbed cheeks to supplicants kneeling on broken glass. Tales From the Hood has gruesome retribution from beyond the grave as well.
Species has endless eviscerations, all linked to a woman's attempts to get pregnant. Sister My Sister involves lesbian incest and climaxes with a gory murder. Heavenly Creatures climaxes with matricide, and Braveheart climaxes with the extended torture of its hero.
Some of these are highbrow pictures, some are lowbrow, some are good, some dreadful. All of them seek not only to frighten the audience and move us to pity, but also to captivate and seduce us with the dark side of human nature--and, thus, they all qualify as neo-Jacobean.
What can we learn from this comparison? Two things, maybe. First, those who fret, sincerely and not for political reasons, about how sex and violence and ugliness in movies and TV might be a sign--or even a cause--of a final moral breakdown in our culture should relax a bit.
While the neo-Jacobean movement may be unpleasant and tedious at times; it's probably a sign of aesthetic rather than ethical exhaustion. Again and again throughout the history of drama, the presentation of sex and violence cycles from modest to extreme, until it reaches a sort of critical mass, at which point it renews and reinvents itself. It can even be seen in Greek drama--the sternly moralistic works of Aeschylus give way to the humanistic ironies of Euripides. The real danger is the artistic repression that sometimes interferes in this process.
Indeed, those who bemoan the violence and aberration depicted in current films may not know how easy they have it. Consider the plots described at the beginning of this piece. If they would have anything working against them in Hollywood now, it's that they're too lurid, too outr.
If John Ford were to pitch 'Tis Pity today, one can hear a movie executive stroking his chin and saying, "I like it, but why does it have to be his sister? Do you want to turn everybody off? Why can't it just be some other chick he digs? Also, why does the end have to be so depressing?"
Second, and more seriously, we would do well to remember how the Jacobean movement in English theatre ended up. The Puritans in the British government had always hated the secular theatre--they were especially powerful in London, and had managed to keep commercial theatres like the Globe across the Thames and outside the city. But they especially loathed the decadent interests of the Jacobean playwrights.
The reigns of King James and King Charles were periods of great social unrest in England--both leaders were seen, not altogether wrongly, as arrogant in their antagonism of Parliament, out of touch with the common people, inept in their foreign policies and far too fond of taxation. Sound familiar?
When Charles was deposed and executed in 1649, the Puritans took control of the British government, and the public theatres were closed. For 18 years, theatre was legally practiced only in the form of "drolls," brief playlets performed by amateurs as a social recreation. No professional playhouses. No Shakespeare epics. No Marlowe tragedies, no Jonson satires, no nothing.
The excesses of the Jacobean theatre had not been the cause of the Puritan revolution, of course. But once the Puritans were in power, the theatre was an old score they were eager to settle. A less severe version of this cycle has already been seen twice in American film history, when periods of greater frankness about sensitive subjects (the '20s and the '60s) saw the adoption of various industry codes--which have, at least, kept the government out of the process so far.
This, perhaps, is the real lesson that the Jacobean theatre offers to those of us who love and value a free environment for our drama, even at its bloodiest and most perverse: Enjoy, but watch out for the Puritans.