Of all John Ford’s plays, only ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore has kept a place in the repertoire. His other plays are less sensationally titled and, until the final volume of Oxford University Press’ Collected Works appears in 2018, many of them are in effect unavailable.
However, 2014-15 has brought us productions of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Broken Heart and The Witch of Edmonton and, extraordinarily, two of Love’s Sacrifice, one by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the other a staged reading at Gray’s Inn as part of the Globe’s Ford Experiment, which also offers staged readings of The Queen, The Lover’s Melancholy, Perkin Warbeck and The Fancies Chaste and Noble. This will culminate in September with a full performance of Ford’s last play, The Lady’s Trial, by Edward’s Boys, the excellent all-boy company from the King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon.
So what does this sudden wealth of opportunities to hear and see Ford reveal about his work? It confirms our sense of him as a playwright who consistently takes his audiences to the edge of their tolerance, flirting with blasphemy and taboo. It also shows that the reticence of his characters is not the problem it may appear on the page, because so much of the effect is achieved by gesture, tableau and lighting.
More surprisingly, it reveals the powerful aesthetic impulse which accompanies Ford’s sensationalism. He insistently reuses the word “heart”, and his most shocking and transgressive moment is when the incestuous brother Giovanni in ’Tis Pity interrupts a banquet with his sister’s heart impaled on his dagger. When I did a talk to sixth-formers who had seen the play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, they didn’t know whether to be more horrified by the idea that what they saw was Annabella’s heart or the fact that it was actually the heart of an animal; several were electrified to learn that you can buy hearts at the butcher’s because some people eat them, which troubled their sense of what can and can’t be consumed almost as much as incest challenges perceptions about who can and can’t be slept with.
Yet Ford habitually rhymes “heart” with “art”, perhaps suggesting a tension between the two. One set of people who must have been left very disappointed by the year of Ford is fight arrangers, for the duel avoided is a recurrent motif in his work. At the end of The Queen, there are four men holding swords but no fight (underlined in the staged reading by the fact that all had their swords in their left hands, reserving the right for the scripts which they really did need). This on its own would help confirm the place of the anonymous, posthumous The Queen in the Ford corpus, even without its debt to Othello, since so many of Ford’s plots are Othello-with-a-twist (the twist in The Queen being that the Iago figure is well-intentioned).
The prologue to Perkin Warbeck assures the audience that the play contains no “Unnecessary mirth”, and the established critical consensus is that Ford’s comic scenes are not funny. Several of these productions have shown that actually they can be; at both Gray’s Inn and Stratford the vain elderly lover Mauruccio, an unpromising character on the page, proved a star turn as he postured and preened, discovering too late that the entire court was watching him. Humour is not at the heart of Ford’s work, though, and the season’s only misfire has been The Broken Heart at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The director Caroline Steinbeis, who had no previous knowledge of the play and had never before directed anything other than modern work, opined in the programme that “Ultimately we are dealing with a Caroline soap opera” and had everything possible played for laughs (Nearchus channelling Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart by entering with a loud “Hello, Sparta! Ding-dong!”). Only at the end did the production briefly do justice to the austere beauty of the play, when Sarah MacRae’s excellent Calantha was strapped into a terrifying golden carapace in order to be crowned, allowing us to see that Ford is responding for once not to Othello but to The Winter’s Tale: instead of the statue coming to life, the characters freeze into statues, speechless, immobile, bloodless and ultimately lifeless.
What Ford is really about is perhaps shown best in Love’s Sacrifice, a play that has a very specific and suggestive source. On 16 October 1590, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife, Donna Maria D’Avalos, and her lover Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria, having first pretended to go hunting so he could secretly return and catch them together. The two bodies were then publicly displayed, the Duke’s still wearing Donna Maria’s nightdress. Ford reassigns the names so that “D’Avalos”, with its obvious suggestion of the diabolic, is transferred to the villain, but otherwise follows this story closely.
Gesualdo was famous for his spiritual madrigals, which offer something of the same blending of the erotic and the holy as Ford does in Love’s Sacrifice, where the platonic love affair between the Duchess Bianca and her husband’s best friend Fernando constantly trembles on the edge of consummation but leads ultimately to her virtual canonisation after the jealous Duke, having murdered her, is persuaded too late that she was technically chaste. Seeing Ford staged draws attention to how much music he uses in his plays, and the characteristic Renaissance pun on “death” as “orgasm” informs both Gesualdo’s madrigal Moro, lasso, al mio duolo and the end of Love’s Sacrifice, which pairs bodily death with sublimated spiritual consummation.
It is this pushing at the boundary between sacred and secular that lies at the heart of Ford’s art. The Tenebrae Responsoria, Gesualdo’s 1611 collection of madrigals, were written for the Easter Week Tenebrae services, marked by the ritual extinguishing of candles until the church is completely dark. As the production of ’Tis Pity in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse showed, Ford mimicked this effect by choreographing for light. The Friar began to describe hell to the terrified Annabella and two attendants slowly and systematically doused every candle in all four candelabra until the stage itself was the lightless space of which he spoke, with only one taper burning. In the next scene, that last candle was extinguished so that the murder of Annabella’s suitor, Bergetto, could be played out in absolute darkness until the call of “Lights!”
This brought appropriate characters rushing on to the stage with torches before a strategic placing of the interval allowed the candelabra to be relit for the second half. There followed the scene in which the civic powers pursue the murderer, Grimaldi, but are baffled when he crosses into the territory of the Cardinal, who shelters him: sacred and secular meet head on, and we stand on the border between the two.
Something similar happens in Love’s Sacrifice as the stage is darkened for Bianca’s funeral, which has been pointedly deferred for three days and is disrupted by the astonishing emergence of her dead “lover” Fernando from Bianca’s tomb. This seems deliberately calculated to evoke the idea of the Resurrection and Easter week, when the Tenebrae mass was held. Easter affords two ways of thinking about bodies, the corporeal and the spiritualised, and this is a division echoed in Love’s Sacrifice, a play about platonic love in which the words speak of chastity but the actions and body language speak of passion, as powerfully demonstrated in Matthew Dunster’s production. Paradoxically, an unprecedented season of bringing Ford bodily to life through the presence of actors on stages helps us better understand his spiritual power.
The Ford Experiment, which is organised by Globe Education, continues with a staged reading of The Fancies Chaste and Noble on 6 September 2015 and concludes with Edward’s Boys performing The Lady’s Trial on 26 and 27 September, both at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Lisa Hopkins is professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University and co-editor of Shakespeare, the journal of the British Shakespeare Association. Her books include John Ford’s Political Theatre (1994) and Renaissance Drama on the Edge (2014). She edited John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial for the Revels Plays and is currently editing The Broken Heart and The Fancies Chaste and Noble for Oxford University Press’ The Collected Works of John Ford.