John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012
Dear friends and readers,
This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”
Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).
Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:
This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)
The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:
The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.
As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:
The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:
The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.
The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.
Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.
During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.
In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.
It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.
Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.
Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart
I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.
So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.