Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Apostate

Richard Lalor Sheil's play The Apostate, based loosely on Pedro Calderón's Amar después de la muerte, opened on May 3, 1817 at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. The play was a success, thanks to Eliza O'Neill's performance as Florinda. Most critics, however, did not think much of the script.

"Of those to whom the tragic drama may look with hope of its revival, we confess we cannot regard the author of the Apostate as likely to be one," wrote a reviewer in The London Quarterly Review. He went on to claim that the piece "savours more of the experience of the machanist than of the inspiration of the poet." Ouch.

Sheil's poetry isn't terrible, though. When Hemeya, the descendant of Moorish kings, falls in love with the Spanish (and Christian) Florinda, his friend Hamet rebukes him, saying:

                                                        This Spanish woman 
                    Has banish'd from your soul each nobler care.--
                    The daughter of Alvarez--she alone 
                    Possesses all your being! You can think 
                    And speak but of Florinda--When the Moors 
                    Weep o'er their cruel wrongs....

Even more powerful is the voice of the elderly Moor, Malec, who in spite of his age, urges on a fierce battle. Hemeya, originally played by Charles Kemble, converts to Christianity so he can marry Florinda. His old mentor Malec rebukes him for his apostasy, and calls for him to instead wage war against the Spanish and the dread Inquisition they have begun. Malec calls out in Act II:

                    Art thou afraid? Look at yon gloomy towers! 
                    Has thy fair minion told thee to beware 
                    Of damps and rheums, caught in the dungeon's vapours? 
                    Or has she said those dainty limbs of thine 
                    Were only made for love? Look at yon towers!--
                    Aye! I will look upon them, not to fear, 
                    But deeply curse them. There ye stand aloft, 
                    Frowning in all your black and dreary pride, 
                    Monastic monuments of human misery, 
                    Houses of torment, palaces of horror! 

The play also provides a suitable villain, Pescara, originally played by William Charles Macready. At first, Macready was disappointed with the role, but he made the best of it and turned it into an opportunity to shine. Having captured Malec and handed him over to the Inquisition, Pescara promises Hemeya a grotesque wedding present:

                    I tell thee, music--thou shalt have the groans 
                    Of grey-hair'd Malec ringing in thine ears!--
                    The crackling flames in which he perishes
                    Shall hiss upon thee when thou art softly laid
                    Within the bosom of the amorous fair!

Hemeya takes the high ground, though, and promises Pescara he will never escape his own conscience. In one passage, he contends:

                    Bind me upon your beds of burning pain,
                    Here on my limbs waste all your arts of agony,
                    And try some new experiment in torture--
                    Yet, even then, the pangs that rend my body
                    Will be heav'n's bliss to torment such as thine--
                    Guilt's poison'd shaft shall quiver in thy heart!
                    And in Remorse's fires thy scorpion soul
                    Shall writhe and sting itself!

Pescara cruelly forces Florinda to marry him, and Hemeya unfairly accuses her of falsehood, not knowing she drank a slow-acting poison before marrying the villain. Learning this, Hemeya stabs himself, but Florinda, gradually losing her senses, tries to stem the flow of blood with her hair. Dying, Florinda refuses to leave the corpse of her lover, saying:

                    You shall not tear me hence--No!--never! never! 
                    He is my lord!--my husband!--Death!--'twas death!--
                    Death married us together!--Here I will dig 
                    A bridal bed, and we'll lie there for ever!

Sheil's play definitely has its moments, in spite of the negative reviews almost 200 years ago.