Bright Lights Film Journal

Going to Extremes, Part One: Pericles (Some Mouldy Tale)

Drama is about extremity. This can centre on one person, or on his/her society or both. Without it drama cannot exist. But what if the world’s greatest dramatist starts testing Extremity to destruction, ripping apart its role in drama, in dreams, in life? This is pretty much what Shakespeare does in his four last plays, a closely connected group starting with Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608).

Here, in Act One alone, we have a rapid series of wild ups and downs that make Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu seem uneventful. Even if we trust the older Shakespeare the way we trust late Beethoven or Picasso, we might still pity those trying to produce such stuff for modern audiences. The same could be said of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest where, pursuing Extremity from top to bottom and back again, Shakespeare continues to risk the viability of his own dramas.

Add to this the problems of adapting Shakespeare for the screen and only blind masochism explains why, more than thirty years ago, the BBC and Time-Life agreed to make TV Movies of all the plays. Inevitably, crude battle lines were instantly drawn between American Pragmatism and European Imagination. Meanwhile, no cold muzzles were pressed against hot temples. Back in reality, producer/directors like Jonathan Miller, went their own sweet-and-sour way while, not always with deep sincerity, doffing their hats to heroic fund-raisers.

Though spread over many years, my watching of the series is incomplete. Yet, for general audiences and specialists – and overlooking some storm damage – I’ve seen nothing so far that totally rules out honest praise. It’s also good to learn that efficient global distribution systems have turned the series into a steady earner – a fact that should please all true bardophiles.

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The 1609 quarto edition title page

Speaking of commercial success, Pericles was “by some way the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays before the theatres closed in 1642” (Tony Tanner, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1992-1996). Not that it was deeply beloved of speak-the-way-men-do-speak Ben Jonson (“some mouldy tale”). A bit later, exhibiting a fine sense of Augustan balance, here’s Sam Johnson: “This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation”!

If we didn’t know better we’d suspect Sam of watching too many bad films; and as for getting to the point, Ben beats Sam hollow. He also provides a way to understand why the punters loved Pericles so much and why most critics (up until T. S. Eliot) so firmly resisted its charms. For “mouldy tale” read “medieval romance”: a form of story-telling that can actually be traced back to the fourth century CE and whose formulaic requirements include parent/child incest, famine, cannibalism, princely gifts of food, shipwrecks, lost loves, and – if that’s not enough – daughters not just lost but trafficked by pirates into prostitution; but – wait for it – at the last minute the moral order is restored and love, believed lost forever, is rediscovered and renewed.

As narrative arc, this is very old indeed: in raw terms it’s Trajan’s Column, Triumph at the end of Much Dangerous Struggle. It’s also Capra’s Hollywood and – yes, of course – it’s always newer than that. (More on George Bailey later).

Magnolia

However, despite the Capra overtones, Shakespeare’s deconstruction of Extremity also fits rather snugly with anti-Hollywood – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) for example, or David Fincher’s Benjamin Button (2008). Now we’re looking at a Pericles where “stuff happens” – the random, often harsh contingencies we try to make sense of when there’s no obvious tie-back to our own behaviour. Among the classic moral problems that follow, one stands out: Extremity becomes an excuse for irresponsibility. And right from the start, critics of Shakespeare’s Pericles do, indeed, complain of the hero’s guilty passivity.

The most bizarre instance of this comes in a contemporary “novelisation” of the play by George Wilkins. In rather dull prose, this Pericles follows Shakespeare very closely in all but one important detail: the hero is now expected to bemoan his own failings in precisely the way that, for once, a Shakespearean tragic hero does not! In fact, Shakespeare’s character gets so used to being hit all over the park he finally sinks into a prolonged, deeply melancholic silence – an extreme emotional reaction, no doubt, and one that doesn’t consciously express guilt or win very much sympathy.

John Fletcher

One possible reason for this “new” take on character is Shakespeare’s growing awareness of “tragi-comedy,” whose own ground rules were being laid via the plays and theoretical writings of John Fletcher. But Fletcher’s breakthrough moment was still a couple of years off, so it’s far from clear whether one of the better documented collaborations of the period had already begun.

By long tradition, the “unshakespearean” scenes of Act One have been attributed to an innkeeper/pimp with a record of violence against women – our “shadowy” friend George Wilkins, whose own writing career was as brief as it was unremarkable. That he tried to cash in on the play after it was written and that he displays no awareness of the subtleties in Shakespeare’s take on the hero hasn’t dampened support for his candidacy as co-author. Before plumping either way, however, some caution is required. Script collaborators – in Jacobean drama or modern cinema – don’t necessarily get to see the other guys’ work; and strange patch-ups, then as now, are all too possible.

Meanwhile another tradition, almost as old, accepts Pericles as 100% Shakespeare. Here, another noted playwright, John Dryden, confronts us with the sensational news that, sometimes, the mighty Bard could be a bit hurried – even, heaven forbid, a touch careless, just like the rest of us! All right, perhaps Dryden is being extreme. Or just extremely sensible.

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Before returning, I hope, with more on the Last Plays, I conclude with more specific thoughts on the TV movie as given by a cast and crew led by David Hugh Jones. Among the cast and without prejudice to the rest I’ll single out two actors, latterly best known in Britain for their work in successful sitcoms: Annette Crosbie (One Foot in the Grave) and Trevor Peacock (The Vicar of Dibley). Respectively, “Dionyza” and “Boult,” they prove the old adage that good comedians are often the most undervalued of serious actors.

At the thematic level, Jones has not been afraid to draw out a Morality Play lineage, specifically the widely scattered references to Patience. Better still, he has not tried to “modernise away” an unexpectedly positive view of medieval thought absolutely at the heart of Shakespeare’s design. By re-exploring medieval traditions so intimately Shakespeare was primarily resisting the demands of Ben Jonson and other younger rivals for a more localised contemporary Drama. In a deeper sense, he was also simply staying in character as the cannily ambitious wordsmith who had never been keen on tying his work to come-day-go-day topicality. (He’d never been especially anxious, either, to attract the attention of the wonderfully misnamed Master of Revels, whose job it was to spot any signs of fun at the expense of state security!)

But however much of a survivor he wanted to be, it’s unlikely Shakespeare foresaw the artistic extremes toward which his own deepest character traits would lead. Among these, the Miracle Play heritage sums up the best and worst of Being William. A wife and daughter suddenly back from the dead? No wonder the long-silent hero reacts rather badly at first. This is surely a cruel confidence trick? And even when Pericles “gets it,” he’s still trapped in the confines of emotional burn-out. Recovering somewhat from the first shock of his daughter’s survival and encouraged by the one steady friend through all his trials, this is what he says:

O Helicatus, strike me, honour’d sir;
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. (Act V Sc I)

I think original audiences would have heard echoes of Saint Sebastian here. Such medieval hints would have gone well with earlier echoes of Saint Agnes, she whose virtue-testing sojourn in a brothel had just been re-enacted by the hero’s own “dead” daughter, Marina. That these nuances would have been easily accessible in their own time doesn’t, of course, help the modern film viewer or play watcher. Nowadays, I think, it’s an often ill-defined self-harming element (Give me a gash!) that best connects us to Pericles, not least via Capra’s George Bailey. (I said I’d get back to that).

George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

Bailey meets a point in his own life – and, as with Pericles, it is a Life we’re looking at – where suicide, that ultimate expression of self-harm, seems an inviting option. True, Shakespeare’s character sinks passively into what we might call clinical depression. But is this in response to plain old-fashioned grief at the “loss” of wife and child? Or is it also a case of Survivor’s Guilt? If my instincts are right, the latter interpretation offers a very close parallel with Bailey’s non-combatant role in World War Two. Recall that, for Shakespeare’s Pericles, everything harks back to his decision to run away from a threat on his life. In Bailey’s case, in order to preserve the family business he has to give up a promising career in architecture. Not only that, he has to stay home and watch while his younger brother joins up to fight the foe.

Extreme passion and extreme, if enforced, passivity? This level of emotional complexity might explain the need for a guru figure in renaissance play and 1940s film: respectively, Gower and the Angel Clarence.

After seeing things this way, the “miraculous” denouements of play and film come – as they’re surely intended to – as simple relief! And whether it’s George and Mary or Pericles and Thaisa, when the lovers are finally restored to each other, it’s always extremely moving.