The theme of love is one of the most worked over storylines throughout history. Hardly a movie, novel, sociology, psychology, neuroscience study today does not get back to human relationships and love. Literature from the Hebrew scriptures through Greek and Roman poems and dramas followed up by the Renaissance and chivalric legends to the Romanic and Victorian drawing-room novels and contemporary movies of every sort spin yarns of love. Shakespeare is credited with taking love from the sphere of the divine, the Greek/Roman pantheon of Ovid or the Catholic devotion to Mary and Jesus, and bringing it to the human level (read Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human for some late-night study). Other playwrights of the Elizabethan to Jacobean to Restoration era of the 16th and 17th centuries followed up on Shakespeare’s transformation of love. In a week’s time, we saw three plays by these other playwrights at the Blackfriar Theatre in Stauntan, VA: The Sea Voyage by John Fletcher and Phillip Massinger, Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton, and Love for Love by William Congreve.
As a reminder about the winter season at the Blackfriar Theatre. The company produces a Renaissance Season, putting up five plays in four month’s time. This is quite a feat for a dozen actors to run five shows at the same time. It is quite a feat for us audience members to fit them into their schedules. We opted to see the three plays not written by Shakespeare this round. As each revolved around the theme of love, I thought that I would save my readers from reading three separate reviews.
In 1607, the Virginia Company established a colony at Jamestown, on what would become the Virginia Commonwealth in the United States. In 1609, a provisioning fleet came upon a storm that shipwrecked a portion of the ships on what would become one of the island of the Bahama’s. This became the news of the year in Europe, their shipwreck, rebuilding a ship from the timbers of the wreck and rescue. In 1611, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, a story about a shipwrecked father and children on a magic island. In 1622, John Fletcher (a collaborator with Shakespeare) and Phillip Massinger produced The Sea Voyage, about two shipwrecked groups that meet on a not-so-magical island. None felt the need to include, “based on a true story” to make their plays seem more authentic.
A driving force of The Sea Voyage is the desire to re-unite loved ones. The first group shipwrecked on this island includes two men (Sebastian and Nicusa), who are divided from the women by a fast-flowing river. The men do not know that the women survived, but the do hear sounds and voices which they can never verify. The woman, also not knowing that the men survived and set up a tribe to provide food and shelter for themselves.
The second group shipwrecked include the crew and several merchants. They find Sebastian (Rene Thornton, Jr.) and Nicusa (Chris Johnston), who entice them to seek the treasures from the first shipwreck, while they slip away on the ship that has risen from the sandbar with the tide. The merchant’s desire to be re-united with their wealth and status, which they had to toss overboard during the storm, allows Sebastian and Nicusa seek their desire to return to their homeland.
The captain, Albert (Chad Bradford) and crew cross the river to find the women, whom they label as Amazons. They young women have become hot and bothered for the love of a man, though only the Governess, Rosellia (Allison Glenzer), has known this with her husband, whom she believes to be lost at sea. With the realization that there is a group of men on the island, their desire for husbands is stirred up. Rosellia concedes to allow each of her virgin charges to take a husband for a month. Should he prove worthy, she can keep his as a servant and for procreation purposes. An unworthy man will be killed.
Many scenes of hilarity, prat-falls, witting exchanges of wooing ensue. Eventually, Sebastian and Nicusa return to rescue the group. Rosellia and Sebastian recognize each other as the separated husband and wife. The other couples have been paired off, and the merchants shown to be heartless in their love of their wealth and position. All is well.
Women Beware Women, produced by 1624, does exactly what the title proclaims: cat fight. This is set in Florence. Each character desires someone else, but rather than acting in love, each spins the ideal narcissistically. Leantio (Chad Bradford), a Florentine merchant, has eloped with Bianca (Lexie Braverman), from a Venitian elite family, but without her dowry. The Duke (Rene Thornton, Jr.) spies Bianca, and seduces her to by his mistress. Livia (Ginna Hoben), a rich widow, seduces Leantio. Liva (also the woman to beware of), convinces her niece that she was fathered by an affair, and therefore can have an affair with her uncle.
You can see where this is going is going. Yes, by the last scene everyone is dead on stage in a morality play of the wages-of-sin-is-death. Only the Lord Cardinal (Jonathan Holtzman), who for a change is not corrupt and has been warning everyone about their errors, and a few Florentine bystanders are left alive. Of course, as with the original “It’s her fault” story, the women of the play are at fault. Desire corrupted.
As did the theatre of the 17th century, we jump to the end of the century for a Restoration Comedy, Love for Love, from 1695. This is a drawing-room farce. Allegorical characters, such as the love-interests, Valentine (Chris Johnston) and Angelica (Lexie Braverman), the buffoons, Tattle (John Harrell) and Foresight (Aidan O’Reilly), and the schemers, Scandal (Rene Thornton, Jr.), Mrs Foresight (Allison Glenzer) and Mrs. Frail (Ginna Hoben), rant, rave, spoon, and swoon with two hours of zinger lines. In a farce, love is as shallow as the characters on stage. Cuckolds are made and matched. Lust is married to lust. And, the true lovers are united, but with little more dimension than the two-dimensional page on which the lines are printed.
Such is our literary heritage. Take your pick: gods sneaking about doing the nasty with humans, a Virgin and her son rising above the bondage of the human condition, virtue of the commoner, the re-union of separated lovers, corruption of that virtue, and triviality of superficial love. Go to any movie or e-book download to find the same repeated over and over. Or, kick off your shoes and dance your own love in the kitchen on a Saturday night.