Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Joanna Baillie at Red Bull

Last night, I attended Red Bull Theater Company's reading of De Monfort, the tragedy by Joanna Baillie that originally opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1800. That production starred John Philip Kemble in the title role and his real-life sister Sarah Siddons as Jane, the sister of De Monfort. An 1821 revival starred Edmund Kean in the title role.

While Red Bull couldn't supply the likes of Edmund Kean, the company found an excellent male lead in the person of Christopher Innvar, who was seen as Albany this summer in the Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear. Innvar played the complex role with just enough reserve that when De Montfort's hatred erupts it is shocking without being terribly surprising.

And of course hatred is what this play is all about, at least according to Baillie, who wrote it as part of her series of "Plays on the Passions" which explored strong emotions through both tragedy and comedy. Baillie included De Monfort in the first volume of her projected series in 1798. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the same year that Wordsworth and Coleridge anonymously published Lyrical Ballads, inaugurating the Romantic movement in Britain.

De Monfort is certainly a Romantic drama, but it is also strangely elliptical in the way it portrays action. The title character's hatred for Rezenvelt (played with joyous enthusiasm by Robert Sella in this reading) is irrational, and he seems to know that it is. For most of the play, the hatred harms himself more than anyone else. However, when he suspects that Rezenvelt plans to marry his sister Jane (the poised and collected Christina Rouner), De Monfort turns murderous.

Baillie's most curious choice is to have that murder occur offstage. After leaving Rezenvelt alone in the woods, she takes the audience to a procession of nuns in a convent, where a knock on the door reveals the recent discovery of a corpse. It's as if De Monfort's secret desires are buried so deep that not even the audience is allowed to see them brought into effect.

At the end, De Monfort seeks out self-negation, preferring to not exist than to live in a world where he feels such loathing for another, and perhaps also for himself. At the very least, he wants to be blind to the world around him. In Act V, scene iv, he calls out:

O that I ne'er had known the light of day!
That filmy darkness on mine eyes had hung,
And clos'd me out from the fair face of nature!
O that my mind in mental darkness pent,
Had no perception, no distinction known,
Of fair or foul, perfection or defect,
Nor thought conceiv'd of proud pre-eminence!

After De Monfort dies, his body is laid out with that of his victim. The monk Brother Bernard (played in the reading by Daniel K. Isaac) notes that the murderer's fate was no less horrid than that of the murdered. Baillie has the monk rhapsodize:

See those knit brows; those hollow sunken eyes;
The sharpen'd nose, with nostrils all distent;
That writhed mouth, where yet the teeth appear,
In agony, to gnash the nether lip.
Thinkst thou, less painful than the murd'rer's knife
Was such a death as this?

It is this pain, however, which redeems De Monfort, at least in the eyes of his sister. Jane points out that her brother felt true remorse, a passion Coleridge would later dramatize in his own play at Drury Lane. In the final scene, Jane says of her brother:

He died that death which best becomes a man, 
Who is with keenest sense of conscious ill
And deep remorse assail'd, a wounded spirit.
A death that kills the noble and the brave,
And only them. He had no other wound.

In the world of this play, hatred is an affliction, and those who have it deserve our deepest sympathy.