Play for Today

Adam Smyth

  • Spring by Ali Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp, £16.99, March, ISBN 978 0 241 20704 8
  • The Porpoise by Mark Haddon
    Chatto, 309 pp, £18.99, May, ISBN 978 1 78474 282 9

Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inn (1629) was, by all accounts, a theatrical disaster: ‘negligently played’ at the Blackfriars Theatre, according to its title page, ‘and more squeamishly beheld’. The actors were hissed off stage, but Jonson, possessed of what the Renaissance scholar Joseph Loewenstein has called a ‘bibliographic ego’, was not a man to walk away. The printed text of 1631 includes sustained criticism of the audience (Jonson prefers ‘fastidious impertinents’) and a verse with the title ‘The just indignation the author took at the vulgar censure of his play by some malicious spectators begat this following Ode to Himself.’ Here he takes aim at a variety of theatrical taste favouring plays that resemble, in Jonson’s judgment, undesirable organic matter (mould, leftover food, discarded fish).

No doubt some mouldy tale,
Like Pericles, and stale
As the shrieve’s crusts, and nasty as his fish –
Scraps out of every dish
Thrown forth, and raked into the common tub,
May keep up the Play-club:
There, sweepings do as well
As the best-ordered meal.

By the time Jonson wrote these lines, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre – or, as almost everyone now agrees, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, co-written by Shakespeare and the nastiest man in Jacobean theatre, George Wilkins (a pimp charged in 1611 with kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach) – had been a hit for more than twenty years. The play is a series of episodes as much as a unified drama, spread over 14 years, a tale of flight, family separation and reunion scattered across the waters and cities of what Richard Halpern called ‘the decaying Hellenistic world’. At its core is the romance arc of a prince, Pericles (whose motto, In hac spe vivo, means ‘In this hope I live’), losing and then finding his wife and daughter: a wife seemingly buried at sea, but washed ashore at Ephesus to a life as a priestess of Diana; a daughter (‘My gentle babe Marina, whom,/For she was born at sea, I have named so’) apparently murdered, but captured by pirates and sold into prostitution, who wins escape through her rhetoric and virtue. The play is dramatically uneven – the early scenes, usually attributed to Wilkins, dispense couplets of stale political wisdom (‘Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will;/And, if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?’) – but the Act 5 recognition scene between Pericles, broken by his losses, and Marina is a gripping performance of a kind of staggered anagnorisis, with Pericles terrified at the prospect of joy as he begins to perceive the possibility of reunion: ‘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.’

Jonson’s swipe at Pericles as an alehouse offcut or ‘sweeping’ was a petty attempt to reverse the flow of popular acclaim. The play was (according to its 1609 title page) ‘divers and sundry times acted by his Majesties Servants, at the Globe on the Banck-side’. It was a court hit, too. If you wanted to say goodbye in style to a French ambassador in 1619, Pericles was your play of choice. Sir Gerrard Herbert described the opulent theatrical event ‘in the kings greate Chamber’ at Whitehall: ‘After two actes, the playeres ceased till the French all refreshed them with Sweetmeates brought on chynay voiders [trays], and wyne and ale in bottelles. After, the players begann anewe. The Imbassadour parted next morninge … full well pleased.’ When the plays returned after the Interregnum in 1660, Pericles was the first Shakespeare play to be performed, with a youthful Thomas Betterton, aged 25, celebrated in the title role at the Phoenix in Drury Lane.

In fact Pericles was more than simply popular: the play became a byword for audience appeal and recognition. In The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl (c.1613-14), Robert Taylor speculates, ‘And if [this play] prove so happy as to please,/We’ll say ’tis fortunate, like Pericles’; and 25 years later Pericles was still immediately recognisable in James Shirley’s sledgehammer puns in Arcadia (1640): ‘Tire me? I am no woman. Keep your tires to yourself. Nor am I Pericles Prince of Tyre.’ Indeed, one way to suggest a noisy crowd circa 1609 was to invoke an audience for Pericles: describing a packed inn, the anonymous author of the pamphlet Pimlyco or Runne Red-cap is ‘Amazde … to see a Crowd/… stretch out so lowd …/So that I truly thought all These/Came to see Shore [Thomas Heywood’s Edward IV] or Pericles.’ On the page, as well as the stage, Pericles flourished: there were six typically error-stuffed quartos by 1635 (the first, of 1609, spelled Marina’s name incorrectly on the title page, and muddled verse with prose), meaning Pericles was the only late play to be printed while Shakespeare was alive. There are few Shakespeare plays for which we have such full evidence of early popularity.

Times change, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Pericles sank to the bottom of the sea. ‘Not much to our taste,’ William Hazlitt wrote in the Edinburgh Review in 1816, and ‘not like Shakespear’. We tend now to call Pericles a late work but Dryden thought its weaknesses signalled an early play, even a kind of apprentice piece. ‘A slender poet must have time to grow,’ he wrote, trying to forgive. ‘No man can be Falstaff-fat at first.’ The near-total theatrical neglect was partly a result of the play’s exclusion from the 1623 First Folio; it wasn’t included in the canon-defining format until the supplement to the Third Folio’s second issue (1664), into which it was tipped, in a spirit of concession, alongside six other plays not by Shakespeare.

Much of the critical distaste was due to the themes of prostitution and incest (the play opens as Pericles discovers the incestuous relationship between King Antiochus and his daughter, and has to flee the murderer dispatched to silence him). The versions of Pericles that were performed or printed tended to cut out, or minimise, these elements. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) has an Antiochus who commits ‘a shocking deed … in secret’ that is never specified, and a Marina who is sold into slavery, not prostitution. George Lillo’s theatrical redaction-adaptation, Marina, based on Acts 4 and 5, which played at Covent Garden in 1738, reduced Shakespeare’s sprawling story into (in Lillo’s proud words) ‘a single tale’ of Marina, and cut out ‘some mean scenes’ which were deemed ‘injurious’ to Shakespeare’s ‘matchless wit’. Samuel Phelps’s Sadler’s Wells production in 1854 was the only notable 19th-century performance of the play, and sought to dazzle audiences away from incest by presenting a series of spectacular scenic displays, including (in the words of the Examiner’s theatre critic Henry Morley) ‘splendid trains of courtiers’, ‘shining rows of vestal virgins’, ‘characters who appear to have stepped out of a Greek vase’ and a ‘Dioramic View of the Passage from Tharsus to Ephesus’ of such effect that ‘the whole theatre seems to be in the course of actual transportation to the temple at Ephesus.’ The brothel scenes were heavily pruned: this was a Pericles, in the words of Douglas Jerrold in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, ‘disinfected of its impurities in a manner that would win the praise of the most fastidious member of the most moral Board of Health that ever held its sittings within the camphored precincts of Exeter Hall’.

But Pericles has risen again. It returned to moderate visibility on the stage after the 1940s, part of a broader postwar interest in the late plays as works offering visions of suffering and rebirth; but it is in the second half of the 2010s that the play seems to have found its moment. There has been a flurry of performances: in the last year alone, Cheek by Jowl’s French-language Périclès, Prince de Tyr, directed by Declan Donnellan (the Mediterranean sea voyages were turned into the wanderings of Pericles’ diseased mind); Chris Bush’s musical adaptation with a community chorus of two hundred amateurs of all ages, directed by Emily Lim (the debut production of the National Theatre’s Public Acts, which went all out for joyful uplift); and a stripped-back production from the Globe’s Touring Ensemble, directed by Brendan O’Hea (staged as a 17th-century provincial performance might have looked).

Why now? Pericles is a play about migration, about storm-tossed passengers who risk their lives travelling across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas between Turkey, Lebanon, Libya and Greece. The geography of the play is the geography of our migration crises; the medium of hope and of tragedy is the sea. Marina is abducted by pirates in Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, and sold into prostitution in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where, from 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arrived in a situation of ‘total chaos’ as the United Nations described it, ‘unbearable’ and ‘shameful’. Pericles is also a drama of climate: the towering Act 3 storm is a scene of such intensity that most critics believe this was the moment when Shakespeare took over the writing. He had previously narrated sea storms but here he brings the ship and the storm on stage. On board ship, amid ‘deafening dreadful thunders’ and ‘nimble sulphurous flashes’, Marina is born at the very moment when her mother seems to die, and the play raises, but never quite answers, the question of the relationship between human action and malevolent weather. Marina recollects years later:

                              Ay me! poor maid,
Born in a tempest, when my mother died,
This world to me is like a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends.

*

Ali Smith’s Spring is patterned with references to Pericles and has, at its heart, narratives of migration against the odds, and family separation and reunion. It isn’t an adaptation because Pericles is only the loudest in a chorus of voices from the past – Rilke, Katherine Mansfield, Percy Shelley, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, Beethoven – which Smith uses to organise the torrent of the contemporary, but the stories of Pericles and Marina provide something like a shape for the two most compelling characters in the novel.

Richard Lease, a sixtysomething TV and film director (‘for my sins’), is broken by the death of his scriptwriter friend, sometime collaborator and, on one occasion only, lover, Patricia (Paddy). Richard is drained of the capacity to love: he is ‘Pericles of Tired’, exhausted, off the pace, self-loathing (‘the sound of his own voice in his ears saying stuff disgusts him’). Like Shakespeare’s prince, Richard has lost his wife and daughter, but he has conversations in his head with the child he last saw thirty years ago. He asks her about contemporary things he doesn’t understand, like #MeToo (‘It means you’re implicated, his imaginary daughter told him’); in his head she accompanies him to exhibitions, musicals, ‘too many Shakespeares’. In his grief, Richard hears a homeless girl ‘singing a song to nobody’ on the Euston Road and something in him trips. He dumps his mobile phone in a bin, ignoring the calls about a meeting with a fatuous scriptwriter, takes a train as far north as he can, and lies down on the track. ‘What a relief, to be finished, finished with it all for good.’ But then suddenly, a 12-year-old girl: mixed race, clothes ‘too thin for the north of Scotland’, crouching on the edge of the platform and looking directly into his eyes. ‘I really need you not to do that, she says.’

The schoolgirl is Florence Smith, a refracted version of Shakespeare’s Marina, who is in Scotland to find her refugee mother, helped (it gradually emerges) by a network of volunteers working to free migrants from detention centres. Both Florence and Marina are figures of calm virtue progressing steadily through bad worlds: ‘thou dost look/Like Patience,’ Pericles says of his daughter, ‘gazing on kings’ graves and smiling/Extremity out of act.’ Because she is young and black, Florence is invisible to many white people, but this doesn’t make her powerless. She walks into a ‘purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design’ run by the private security firm SA4A and tells the management to clean the toilets. Adults are stunned to find themselves complying. In a brothel in Woolwich, Florence persuades the clients ‘out of doing what they were in the middle of doing’, unlocks the front door, and ‘15 teenage and younger girls got free and ran for it, ran for their lives.’ In a Mytilene brothel, Marina is visited by the city’s governor, Lysimachus, in disguise, but she talks him out of his intentions: ‘If you were born to honour,’ she says, ‘show it now.’ Lysimachus, jolted into reform like Florence’s detention centre workers, calls Marina ‘a piece of virtue’. Florence (one of those workers observes) is an ‘old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life any more. She is good.’ Inconsistent stories about Florence’s origins circulate: she comes over in a dinghy from Greece; her mother drowned in a boat off Italy; she’s crossing the world in her little brother’s Manchester United football shirt. ‘My story is lost at sea, she says. The end.’ The motto on her school uniform, Vivunt spe, means ‘In hope they live.’ Florence says she wants to ‘humanise the machine’. She journeys towards her mother from London to Scotland with steady resolution. At Culloden, she runs across the grass and leaps into the arms of the young woman who is her mother (‘Can you imagine seeing a heart leap? That’s what it looks like’) until the security guards close in, separate them, handcuff the mother, drive them away in different vans.

‘The poet’s first business is mentioning things,’ Louis MacNeice wrote. Spring is possessed of a spooling, associative structure which, as a kind of fiction of rapid response, gets down on paper much that was humming and raging in the UK in 2018, before history or even a particular literary form could be agreed on. This means migration, detention centres, populism, Twitter hate, climate change, the banality of political discourse (‘Tell us what Brexit means to you’), Grenfell, Windrush, the Irish border. The result is a sense of manifold connection without explanation, and also a deep scepticism about story, even as a story is used (in a scattered form) to organise the book. At times this inclusive sweep is threatened by an oddly schematic morality – the past is about books, knowledge, ‘years of reading’: the present is CCTV cameras, disastrous TV adaptations, and the internet’s ‘stupid new way of knowing everything’ – but Smith’s novel has an almost explosive vitality that stems from its restless relation to its own form. Spring is a story that doubts the efficacy of story as a means of ordering recent experience; a novel of characters trying to throw off the restrictions of being in a tale that isn’t theirs, trying to resist the quiet violence of having their experience arranged by someone else, a before connected to an after, through time, the whole patterned to produce something like a moral, in a culture where Facebook wants ‘to narrate your life … to be the book of you … to be the only connection that matters’. Distributed across Spring are other ways of ordering relations between experiences: refrains; coincidences that send ‘electricity through the truths of our lives’; images that ‘radiate’; postcards, shuffled and dealt, that offer ‘very slight moments from their lives that will act as revelations of depth’; afterlives (the book is full of people lingering despite death, and ‘what looks fixed and pinned and closed in a life can change and open’); the loop of the seasons. ‘There’s ways to survive these times,’ Paddy says, ‘and I think one way is the shape the telling takes.’ The low-level but discernible presence of Pericles is one of these shapes: not a source, or a key, or a commentary, but a partially visible precedent tale which, as it emerges into 2018 then recedes again, nearly but not quite looking us in the eye, offers another way of navigating the contemporary.

*

Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise is a very different thing: a head-on engagement with Shakespeare’s and Wilkins’s play, and a work committed to the transporting power of storytelling. In Pericles, Antiochus’ daughter is locked in an incestuous relationship with her father. He will only give her in marriage to a man who can solve the riddle he sets, but the answer betrays the nature of their relationship. Pericles, solving the riddle, forgets the words of love still warm on his lips, and runs. The daughter is given no name, and only two bland lines that hint at a desire for escape. Wilkins (if it was Wilkins who wrote this opening scene) portrays her as participant, not victim (‘Bad child; worse father!’). Then she disappears from the play, as if she should be forgotten, until we hear, at the end of Act 2, of the offstage death of father and daughter:

A fire from heaven came and shrivell’d up
Their bodies, even to loathing; for they so stunk,
That all those eyes adored them ere their fall
Scorn now their hand should give them burial.

Haddon reverses this neglect, to riveting effect: he takes the flickering, near silent presence of Antiochus’ daughter and makes her the source of his narrative, beginning the tale in the contemporary world of the super-rich (houses in Sri Lanka, Berlin, Skiathos; weekends away at friends’ French vineyards; lives arranged so there is nothing that needs to be done), but then tumbling back into Pericles’ world. Maja is 37 weeks pregnant when she dies in a helicopter crash along with the pilot and the pilot’s nine-year-old son. Her unborn daughter is saved.

Maja’s fabulously rich husband, Philippe, is used to getting exactly what he wants from the world (‘Philippe hasn’t stood in a queue or waited in a public place since Cambridge’). Faced with this tragedy, he retreats to one of his five properties – an Amyas Connell-designed mansion called ‘Antioch’, shielded from the world by trees and hills – and brings up his daughter Angelica with a fierce protection that soon becomes something else: ‘If Philippe gives it any name, he calls it love … He will refrain from full intercourse until she is 14.’ Philippe tells Angelica that her mother ‘flew away and didn’t come back’, and won’t let her have contact with the outside world. The staff ‘both know and do not know that something is not right’. When the ‘almost comically handsome’ art dealer Darius visits Antioch and flirts with Angelica, he senses ‘something is very wrong in this house and if he stays any longer he will become entangled’ – he has to flee the henchman dispatched to silence him. Angelica, understanding that ‘this is the moment upon which her entire life pivots,’ stops speaking, and her silence becomes a source of power: ‘She walks away without saying a word. It is exhilarating.’ And then the narrative falls back in time: Darius, sailing from the south coast in 2018 in a bid to escape Philippe’s enforcer, awakes to find that the boat is suddenly bigger and there is a smell of tar and wet wood and his head is full of memories of a cupola atop a tower and of Latin although he never learned Latin. He has become Pericles, in motion somewhere on the Mediterranean in the second or third century bce, inside a version of Shakespeare and Wilkins’s watery tale.

Haddon’s narrative transports us between these two worlds; we also pause briefly in the London of 1618 to meet the ghosts of Wilkins and ‘his offensively prolific one-time collaborator’, Shakespeare. In the present, Angelica, silent and now refusing food, rejects her father’s advances (‘She acts as if he does not exist’) and immerses herself in old stories, ‘those that set deep truths ringing like bells’. And then we realise (though the metafictional framing is lightly done) that Angelica is telling or imagining the story we are reading of Darius- transformed-into-Pericles, and that the silenced, shamed daughter of Antiochus, whom Wilkins and Shakespeare never liked, has become, in Haddon’s Angelica, the teller of the tale she conceives as both a version and a counter-version of her own traumatic life.

*

Haddon conveys all this with startling granularity: the stinking, seething Jacobean London traversed by the ghosts of Wilkins and Shakespeare; the sudden strange images that flash through Pericles’ ‘shattered and feverish’ brain as he hovers between life and death (‘a blue box stands on a beach below pine trees’); the rammed alleys of the old market at Tarsus, with their smells of cardamom, turmeric, aniseed, the sound of a psaltery, ‘trained monkeys … ferrying cash to upper windows’. The Porpoise is so rich with event that at one point the narrative breaks off and we’re offered an overview of the history of the tale and the way Shakespeare and Wilkins turned John Gower’s story of Apollonius of Tyre into Pericles. This momentary stepping back is a shame: for the rest of the book we are flung violently into Haddon’s worlds and his achievement is to make us feel – like the ghost of Wilkins gazing at the tops of the Bear Garden for the last time – a ‘desperate, sick sadness’ at the prospect of one day having to renounce the ‘joyous, gaudy, vulgar human swill of it all’.

Haddon’s novel creates, throughout, a looming sense that something very bad but not quite perceptible is in the process of unfolding: a terrible half-glimpsed fate that the characters are powerless to resist. Perhaps this effect seems natural in a contemporary novel that is a rewriting of an earlier play. But in fact, it isn’t quite right to think of Pericles as source and The Porpoise as rewriting or response: in 1608, Pericles appeared not as an origin or starting point but as only the latest iteration in a long history of versions of the wanderings of the Prince of Tyre. The story of Apollonius circulated for at least eight hundred years before John Gower’s account in his Confessio Amantis (1393), which in turn shaped Shakespeare’s and Wilkins’s play; there may have been an even earlier Greek original. Pericles begins with a stark declaration of this longue durée: John Gower, risen from his tomb in Southwark Cathedral and speaking in a 17th-century version of something like late medieval English, tells the theatre audience that he has come ‘To sing a song that old was sung’: a story that has been sung at popular festivals, and that has been read by elites, too. ‘And lords and ladies in their lives/Have read it for restoratives.’ It’s an old tale already, half familiar in 1608 when it was first performed and ‘much admired’ at the Globe, presented by Gower ‘in these latter times/When wit’s more ripe’.