Sunday, November 25, 2012
The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I wonder if Dr. Eliot ordered this volume advisedly so that this would come directly after She Stoops to Conquer to contrast a work of merely adequate writing against a work of truly excellent writing. Shelley was one of the greatest writers the language has ever known. He sort of needs to be for such dark material.
I was reminded, in reading this, of a friend of mine who had worked in theater for many decades. He told me that he only ever turned down a part in a play once. If memory serves, it was a play about Vlad the Impaler and he said that it was a play entirely void of hope. It was as bleak, dark, and amoral a play as you could imagine on that subject and he didn't want to be a part of it. He said that he had certainly been a part of plays that dealt with very dark material before, but this was downright nihilistic and not something he could associate himself with in good conscience. I think that this is an important distinction to make as artist, especially as artists in collaborative media. I think it is an especially brave act for those who, as it were, rely on singing for their suppers to have this kind of integrity. No one should ever align themselves with something morally reprehensible.
The Cenci (in case you're interested, pronounced chen-chee) is not without hope and certainly not nihilistic. I would argue that it is a highly moralistic play, albeit one that travels through some grim territory to drive the point home. Cenci is an old man and a father to relatively grown children. He is also one of most horrible human beings you'll ever hear of. He murders and then pays off the Pope to get away with it (and you begin to see Shelley's worldview peeping into his choice of material. Oh, by the way, it is based upon actual events). The Pope senses a source of steady income and keeps on absolving away. This is frustrating to, well, everyone in the play, but I meant to say Cardinal Camillo. Cenci is just as awful to his family, and they live in terror. He commits an unspeakable act with his daughter (well, unspeakable in 1819. Today we would just say rape and incest). Naturally, his family decide to kill him, but they are unwilling to do the dirty work (save for the daughter Beatrice who seems perfectly willing, but she goes along with the hired-hand plan). Fortunately, there is no shortage of other people willing. The two hired goons strangle Cenci and throw him off the balcony to make it look like a murder. He lands in a tree just below the balcony and so when the police arrive they immediately know it was murder. Why did the police arrive? They had an order to immediately execute Cenci because he had been out a-murdering again. The conspirators are not adept at hiding their guilt and the remainder of the play is a bit like watching a snuff film. You know what's coming and you pretty much just have to sit and watch it play out.
We as the audience are faced with the problem of being put in the position of rooting for the murder. There are questions raised about justice and certainly questions about the role of the church in civilization. It would seem to suggest a belief in an ordered universe as it seems to suggest that Cenci would have reaped what his behavior had sown. If only the family had dithered for one-half of an act longer, the police would have come and done the job for them legally, leaving them to live presumably long and deeply emotionally scarred lives.
There is also a moral issue reminiscent of Hamlet. I think Lucretia brought up the issue of Cenci's death in his sins. Were he given the opportunity, she suggests, he may have repented and amended his ways (bear in mind that this is a severely abused wife talking). Especially in light of the death sentence that was looming unseen, this further illuminates the iniquity of the act of murder. This may seem an odd stance for Shelley to take, but morality is not a movable feast.
In the end, I feel like this is a great play. It would provide hours of discussion material among fellow theater-goers. A word on that: both Eliot and Shelley mention in introducing the material that it seems unstageable to them what with all of the rapid cuts between locations. I should probably mention that scripts for plays that were never meant to be produced is an established form of literature, one that Shelley seems to have had in mind. However, the unproducibility of this particular script is no longer the case as theatrical conventions have changed. I am surprised that it is not performed more often as it is a meaty work of theater which does not let the audience off of the hook (vague connotation in my metaphor of torture devises entirely intentional).