Monday, March 19, 2012

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - B4

B4. Marlowe and Beethoven

Let’s further imagine, that while Shakespeare died at 35, Christopher Marlowe lived well into his 56th year. Marlowe’s early plays were already noted for their violent appetites, their strongly political overtones, and their maximally dramatic rhetoric.The audience is seduced by Shakespeare’s language, they are assaulted by Marlowe’s.

But nothing could have prepared his public for what followed. After Marlowe escaped an assassination attempt from the English government disguised as a bar fight and a host of following attempts, he went into hiding until the death of Queen Elizabeth I and for the next decade worked upon a cycle of plays which dramatize all the political conflicts from the ascension of Henry VIII until his own day as they were happening - including a number of scenes that either called for or dramatized the execution and imprisonment of many famous courtiers of this period. Shakespeare’s Henry VI was a three-play cycle, whereas Marlowe’s Henry VIII was a cycle of six full plays - one for each wife. Marlowe followed this with a drama called Thomas Cramner which documents the regency council of the Boy King, Edward VI and another called ‘The Nine Days Queen’, about the nine day rule of Lady Jane Gray.

The women of Shakespeare are generally stale - virgins or whores and too rarely anything between. They pale in comparison to the vital gallery of women drawn by Kit Marlowe. Each wife of Henry VIII is a personage to the flesh in her own right, their solilioquies all but upstaging the perhaps bombastic theater-isms of Henry. But still more astounding is the eloquence of Lady Jane Grey, whom many feel is the greatest character in fiction next to Hamlet.

By 1603, the dust had sufficiently cleared that Marlowe was not only considered such a lionized institution that he could walk freely around London, but for the government to assault him would cause a revolt. It was in 1603 that he began his series of four plays plays on the reign of Elizabeth I. The first was technically the Tragedy of Bloody Mary. Many scholars consider it a step backward after the metaphysical profundities of Lady Jane Grey, in which Marlowe resorts to the sort of Grand Guignol bloodbath which made his name - some scholars even dispute its authorship. The only truly fleshed out character is Elizabeth, Mary’s rival and half-sister - whose soliloquies and Machiavellian manipulation rivals Iago’s in subtlety of thought. Bloody Mary ends with her imprisonment and Elizabeth’s coronation. Elizabeth would become a leading character in the four more plays about her long reign. The first is called Robert Dudley - a romance about the Queen’s suitors and her unconsummated relationship with the Earl of Leicester - ending with his death in 1588 and the Queen’s decision to be a lifelong virgin. The second is Mary, Queen of Scots, which is really about the Babbington plot, and contains the great scenes between Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, which many feel sum up 2000 years of accumulated knowledge of statecraft with the highest possible drama. The third, called Sir Francis Drake, deals with the battles against the Spanish Armada and of course has Elizabeth’s famous speech to the troops transcribed word for word. The last play, Robert Cecil, is a scathing indictment of the second Lord Burghley’s deviousness with James I and his rivalry with Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex whom he forced into open rebellion.

It was after writing Robert Cecil in 1520 that Christopher Marlowe died - it was probably due to natural causes, but at the time many people suspected foul play. Many historians feel it largely due to Christopher Marlowe’s final play that King James I was overthrown and beheaded. He was replaced by a series of military, theocratic, and oligarchical dictatorships, culminating in William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and a constitutional monarchy for England.

In such a scenario, Christopher Marlowe would be considered something like a prophet, the epochal artist of his time and standard bearer for all drama which followed him. But Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in a bar fight at the age of 29 in what may or may not have been a government assassination. It was Beethoven who lived to be 56. Temperamental men like Beethoven and Marlowe would not have the constitution to thrive in a more restrictive era like Elizabethan England when diplomacy and tact was paramount. In 1600, the world was ready for a Shakespeare, but not for a Marlowe.

Shakespeare and Mozart both thrived from working within the parameters of patronage. Mozart might have bristled at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s strictures and he might have been unable to obtain many Royal Commissions from Emperor Joseph II, but at least gainful employment kept him alive. Had Mozart not tried to make his own way as a (in some ways the first) freelance composer, he might have lived long enough to give us the tragedies we needed. But in the era of the French Revolution, no patron was willing to take on a talent as explosive and challenging as Mozart’s. Had Mozart lived another ten years, he’d have found himself worshipped as a living God.

Beethoven had the great fortune of taking flight after the French Revolution. The artist was expected to be Individual with a capital I, Explosive with a capital E. Much of the aristocracy had by then accepted that they did not have the natural right to consider themselves greater than common men, and looked to prove their merit by virtue of their taste and generosity. A composer like Beethoven, who as an artist considered himself to have the highest possible calling, was like manna from heaven for the new generation of Aristocrats. For perhaps the first time in recorded history, it was considered an honor and privilege to patronize artists, and to patronize Beethoven was perhaps the highest of all possible honors.

But Marlowe did not live in such democratic times. Most scholars think that he was not assassinated by the English Crown, but simply died in a knife fight (see Shakespeare in Love for the bare bones details). But there are many other scholars who believe that he was assassinated. There is much evidence to show that Marlowe was a government spy, and these scholars allege that Marlowe was assassinated because of allegations of heresy. Marlowe described himself as an ‘atheist,’ a belief so revolutionary in his time that few would believe him. He would be suspected by Protestants for being a Catholic, and by Catholics as for being Protestant. These scholars ultimately allege that Marlowe was assassinated by the Crown for holding Catholic sympathies, and therefore being liable to give sensitive information to Queen Elizabeth’s enemies.

There are many conspiracy theories about Christopher Marlowe (including that he is the author of Shakespeare’s plays), but a brief glance at the facts and speculations about Marlowe’s life makes one thing abundantly clear: Marlowe was firstly a man of commitments, action, and ideals; only secondly he was a man of the theater. In 29 years, he managed to gather more of a verifiable biography than Shakespeare did in 52. The ever cautious Shakespeare never wrote anything which resembled contemporary events too closely, whereas Marlowe wrote The Massacre at Paris, a play about a Catholic mass murder of Protestants which occurred when he was already eight years old.

Marlowe, like Beethoven, could not help living dangerously. Caution was not in his nature, and if he wasn’t assassinated by the English Crown, it’s highly possible he would have been eventually. There was something in the historical era in which he lived that could not hold his talent for long, and perhaps something in the genre itself with which he worked. The Renaissance was not a democratic era, it was an era of enlightened aristocrats who needed to be flattered in order to make them act benevolently. Marlowe was not a man for this era.

Mozart was not a cautious man. But nor was he particularly political. When he adapted the Beaumarchais original play, The Marriage of Figaro, for opera, he downplayed all the play’s dangerous political elements. The reason Figaro appealed to him was because its political controversy made it all but a guaranteed hit. The ‘offensive’ political monologues were replaced with arias in which characters comment upon sex, love, and human emotion. Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays are great plays (and still funny), but Mozart took his play to still a higher level by replacing any transient political commentary with commentary upon human nature; commentary as relevant today as it was in 1786. When he joined the Freemasons in 1790, it was probably more an effort to network with wealthy and progressive noblemen than it was any philosophical conviction.

But in flattering aristocrats and despots, Mozart was no more a man of his era than Marlowe was of his. But no Austrian aristocrat of Mozart’s time wanted entertainment of Mozart’s quality. Emperor Joseph was a very thrifty ruler who decreed that composers only write Comic Operas because Opera Seria (serious opera) was much more expensive. Perhaps the Hapsburg Monarchy survived the French Revolution’s onslaught by not living as lavishly as the Bourbons in France.

Mozart trained his entire childhood for the sole purpose of pleasing aristocracy, but the aristocracy which he was trained to please was gone by the time he was an adult. And by the time it was considered the acme of enlightenment to patronize a great artist, Mozart was dead.

Then again, perhaps the relative success of these four geniuses was determined by the genres in which they worked. Theater is, first and foremost, an expensive undertaking - requiring lots of money to secure a performance space, rehearse actors, and pay reliable technicians. For hundreds of years, theater companies could only survive with the patronage of aristocrats (arguably they still can’t). Music, on the other hand, is democratic to its very marrow. A good melody only requires ears to be understood. It transcends all boundaries of ethnicity, social class, and even language. Theater requires enlightened aristocrats, so perhaps it was a given that it finds its greatest flourish in the era of Gloriana. Music requires a passion to communicate with other people. All it takes to produce is a single voice or instrument and no further expense. So perhaps it was a given that the first flowering of modern democracy would coincide with the existence of the two most universally known and beloved composers. But the lives of these four epochal artists were textbook demonstrations of what it took to succeed and fail in their particular times and places. Shakespeare and Beethoven were temperamentally suited to reap the benefits of their eras, Mozart and Marlowe were not.

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