Monday, August 10, 2015

Death's Jest-Book

While still in his teens, the Thomas Lovell Beddoes published his first play, The Bride's Tragedy. At the time, Beddoes was a precocious student at Pembroke College, Oxford. His dream, however, was to write for the stage.

In his dedication of the play to one Rev. H. Card, Beddoes expressed his admiration for contemporary plays and praised "the flourishing condition of dramatic literature" in Britain. But alas, in spite of favorable reviews in the press, the theatres did not rush out to produce The Bride's Tragedy.

After leaving Oxford, Beddoes went to Germany to study anatomy, and there, in 1825, he began a new play, one he would continually rework and revise until his suicide in 1849. That play, Death's Jest-Book, Beddoes obsessively rewrote in reaction to the comments of his friends,.

The play pays homage to Jacobean revenge tragedy, including the work of Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton, or John Webster. Beddoes's uncompromising portrayal of characters descending into death and madness led the critic Alan Richardson to conclude the play "can be placed as one of the first major responses to English Romanticism, anticipating a tradition that embraces The City of Dreadful Night and The Waste Land."

Death's Jest-Book is subtitled "The Fool's Tragedy," so I will concentrate on the character of the fool, Isbrand. Brother to the knight Sir Wolfram, Isbrand is brought into the service of the Duke of Munsterberg as a jester. The Duke has wronged their family, and Isbrand seeks revenge, but the forgiving Wolfram has reconciled with the duke and is even setting off to the Middle East to rescue him after an ill-fated expedition during the Crusades. In a brilliant prose passage, Isbrand mocks his brother:

Stay: you have not my blessing yet. With what jest shall I curse you in earnest? Know you this garb, and him who wears it, and wherefore it is worn? A father slain and plundered; a sister's love first worn in the bosom, then trampled in the dust: our fraternal bond, shall it so end that thou savest him whom we should help to damn? O do it, and I shall learn to laugh the dead out of their coffins!

Though Wolfram saves the dukes life, the two men are in love with the same woman, and the duke basely murders his rival. Wolfram is so honorable, he will not name his murderer even as he lies dying. When the duke returns, however, Isbrand is plotting. In Act II, the jester bequeaths his fool's cap to Death, in a passage that gives the play its name:

Let him wear the cap, let him toll the bells; he shall be our new court-fool: and when the world is old and dead, the thin wit shall find the angel's record of man's works and deeds, and write with a lipless grin on the innocent first page for a title, 'Here begin's Death's Jest-book.'

This idea, that death makes a cosmic joke of all earthly existence, pervades the play. The knowledge that life is a joke, however, does not prevent Isbrand from getting caught up in his own delusions of grandeur. Though he sometimes speaks in cynical prose, his language also rises into verse, as in this passage from Act III, where a ruined church-yard leads his to rhapsodize:

                                                            This is a sweet place methinks:
                    These arches and their caves, now double-nighted
                    With heaven's and that creeping darkness, ivy,
                    Delight me strangely. Ruined churches oft,
                    As this, are crime's chief haunt, as ruined angels
                    Straight become fiends.

As Isbrand plots, the Roman Mario offers his services to help overthrow the duke and establish a republic. Isbrand plays along, but secretly plots to make himself duke. His ambition rises higher than to be a mere duke, though. At the close of Act IV, Isbrand dreams of mastery over the entire universe:

                    And man is tired of being merely human;
                    And I'll be something more: yet, not by tearing
                    This chrysalis of psyche ere its hour,
                    Will I break through Elysium. There are sometimes,
                    Even here, the means of being more than men:
                    And I by wine, and women, and the sceptre,
                    Will be, my own way, heavenly in my clay.
                    O you star-mob, had I been one of You,
                    I would have seized the sky some moonless night,
                    And made myself the sun; whose morrow rising
                    Shall see me new-created by myself.

Even in death, Isbrand tries to remain defiant, but as he lies stabbed and bleeding at the end of the play, he sees that he, too, is nothing but a fool. His last lines are:

                    I jest and sing, and yet alas! am he,
                    Who in a wicked masque would play the Devil;
                    But jealous Lucifer himself appeared,
                    And bore him--whither? I shall know to-morrow,
                    For now Death makes indeed a fool of me.

As Richardson comments, "the attempt to rise above others demands a psyche continually at war with itself" and eventually "Isbrand himself perceives the emptiness of his pretended autonomy." A bleak ending for a bleak play.