This article on Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is a continuation of the series devoted to ‘neglected’ plays.
Of all the ‘neglected’ plays so far discussed Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682) is by the far the best – it is truly one of the great English tragedies. Extremely popular as well as controversial, and with a performance history that spans centuries, it is somewhat bizarre that this brilliant play has relatively dropped out of fashion. There have been the occasional revivals and reinventions, notably the National Theatre Company’s in 1984 and the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre Company’s in 2003, but nothing like the enormous popularity and frequency that it previously enjoyed.
I first was introduced to Venice Preserv’d whilst a young directing student at The Drama Centre, London. I was assigned the play by Christopher Fettes to work with a student designer from the Motley Design Course, under the auspices and guidance of Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986) and Margaret (‘Percy’) Harris (1904-2000) no less. Amazing when I think back on it. Furthermore, it was through working on Venice Preserv’d with the students and teachers at the Motley Design Course that I discovered the work of Edward Gordon Craig who had done numerous stage design concepts for the play. Looking at more modern stage designs for Venice Preserv’d it is interesting noticing Craig’s great influence.
I have no idea why Christopher gave me this play – maybe he knew that I would love it. He was right – I did – and still do. Of the plays that still sit on my ‘I wish’ list Venice Preserv’d and Lope de Vega’s Fuenteojveuna are definitely the top two. This says a great deal about me and my particular tastes; namely that I like political theatre that has function in dealing with social injustice and crimes against humanity. It gives a ‘purpose to playing’.
Set in Venice in the late 17th Century Venice Preserv’d is a play about love, death, friendship and betrayal. It is a highly political play involving intrigue, rebellion, corruption and deceit, encapsulated by its subtitle – Venice Preserv’d, or A Plot Discovered. Whilst possible inspired by the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, nonetheless, at the time it was first produced in 1685 it was seen as an attack on the despised royalist government of the recently deceased Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83). The elderly, scurrilous and decadent Venetian Senator, Antonio, was regarded as a satiric portrait of Shaftesbury. Antonio’s scenes with the courtesan Aquiliana, with his constant referring to his ‘Nicky-Nacky’, whilst hilariously funny also caused controversy, especially considering that ‘Nicky Nacky’ was contemporary slang for a woman’s genitalia. Furthermore, a century later, in 1795, performances of Venice Preserv’d at Richard Brinsely Sheridan‘s Drury Lane Theatre, featuring John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, were involved in notorious ‘theatre riots’ and other disturbances in the wake of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. The play was seen as ‘disgraceful to public morals, and so inimical to order and government’. The play continued to provoke strong reactions – an American production was banned in 1798, and there were further public demonstrations when the play was revived in 1809 and again in 1848, the year of numerous riots and rebellions throughout Europe.
Maybe this is why Venice Preserv’d is no longer often performed – it has the potential to excite heated and demonstrative passions. We have, overall, as audiences, become too passive. The popular drive is for harmless and diverting ‘entertainment’, hence the universal popularity and international success of musicals such as The Lion King, Wicked and Matilda. However, there are ‘political’ and ‘satiric’ musicals as well, exemplified by Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. The political and satiric message, however, has been filtered through comedy, making and criticism seemingly palpable and acceptable to modern audiences. Venice Preserv’d is something completely different. For a start, for centuries many of the respective audiences knew the play, often quoting from it, and/or saying lines along with the actors as they performed the play.
Venice Preserv’d has a very large cast of characters, which would make any theatre company’s General Manager, HR, and Board, gulp in fear and apprehension. Nonetheless, how thrilling it could be if done well. I have only ever been in one incident that could be called a ‘theatre riot’; when an audience erupts in fury and anger at what is being presented on stage. This was, for me, years ago when Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company did a production of Edward Bond’s Lear, where the blinding of Gloucester was so realistic and gory that most of the audience stood up, shouted and left in disgust. I remember I lent over to my naturally concerned mother and said, ‘We’re not going!’. Haha.
Essentially, Venice Preserv’d involves four young people, Jaffier and his newly married wife Belvidera, Jaffier’s revolutionary friend Pierre, and Aquilina, a courtesan in love with Pierre. Due to his scandalous marriage to Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, Jaffier finds himself and Belvidera ostracised and impoverished, with little sympathy from Belvidera’s autocratic father, Senator Pruili. In despair Jaffier seeks consolation from his dear friend Pierre, and subsequently becomes involved in a plot by Pierre and his fellow conspirators to overthrow the Venetian Senate. The price for Jaffier’s involvement and silence is for Belvidera to be made hostage by the conspirators. The price for his silence is that Belvidera must be held as a hostage. Jaffier agrees and makes a sacred vow to assist the conspiracy and conspirators. Meanwhile, Pierre has his own personal problems. He loves the beautiful courtesan Aquilina, but she has as a client the corrupt old Senator, Antonio. Aquilina loathes Antonio and loves Pierre, but she will not give up her financial independence. She is suspicious and concerned, however, about Pierre and his secretiveness – she suspects the worst – and she is right.
Belvidera is held hostage by one of the conspirators, Renault, who attempts to rape her. Unsuccessful, he vows revenge. Belvidera is desperate. She confesses to Jaffier who is outraged and is persuaded by Belvidera to go to Venetian Senate and reveal the conspiracy, betraying his friend Pierre. Jaffier agrees and informs the Senate, being given a promise that he, Belvidera and Pierre will not be harmed. The Senate, however, breaks its promise and all the conspirators are condemned to death. Feeling the depths of guilt and dishonour, Jaffier threatens to kill Belvidera unless she can persuade her father not to execute Pierre and his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Aquilina is doing her best to save Pierre in her dealings with Antonio. Belvidera, however, is successful – but the pardon arrives too late. Jaffier visits Pierre in his cell to beg forgiveness from his friend. Pierre forgives him but asks if Jaffier will kill him so that he does not suffer an ignoble public death. On the scaffold, Jaffier stabs and kills Pierre, and then kills himself in atonement. In the final scene, the insane Belvidera sees the ghosts of Jaffier and Pierre rise from the dead and subsequently dies of grief, guilt and shame.
Full on stuff, eh? It is! Despite the 3.5hrs length of the play (another potential drawback for modern productions) the play moves along at a hectic and fast pace. In his assessment of the 2003 Glasgow Citizen’s production The Guardian theatre critic, Mark Fisher wrote ‘so speedy and intense are the exchanges that they leave no space for distraction; all that matters is the passion of the moment’.
For centuries Venice Preserv’d held equal status with the most popular and esteemed plays by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Thomas Otway (1652-85) did not benefit from the success of his play, nor of his other success The Orphan (1680). Otway fell in love with Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713), for whom he wrote most of his main female characters, including Belvidera. Mrs Barry, however, did not return his love, preferring the advantageous attention of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Tragically, Thomas Otway died in abject poverty. There is an apocryphal story about his death first noted by the actor Theophilus Cibber (son of Colley Cibber) in his Lives of the Poets. The destitute and starving Otway was begging near Tower Hill. When he received a guinea from a passing stranger he rushed to the nearest baker, and due to his haste in eating choked on his first bite and died.
Part of the reason why Venice Preserv’d enjoyed its long popularity is due to the fantastic roles and the opportunities they offer to great actors. Some of the greatest English speaking actors have performed successfully in this play. The original cast included Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) as Jaffier and Elizabeth Barry as Belvidera, and their respective success in these roles, which they played for many years, greatly assisted in establishing the plays celebrated status.
In the 18th Century the play was so popular that audience members knew respective speeches by heart, just like today some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches are known (e.g. ‘To be or not to be”). James Quin (1693-1766), David Garrick (1717-79) and later John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) respectively played Jaffier for many years. Susanna Maria Cibber (1714-76) and Sarah Siddons (1755-1823) scored big hits playing Belvidera. In many ways Sarah Siddons‘ Belvidera became the centre of the play and a major reason for its continued popularity. Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera took on full responsibility for the fates of Jaffier and Pierre. How Sarah Siddon’s performed the final scene in which Belvidera goes mad and dies was recorded in 1808 – ‘her ravings, wild, terrible, desperate, were rendered more awful and impressive by the strong exertions in which her mind struggled from time to time to recover its balance and the evanescent glimpse of reason which glimmered doubtfully through the darkness of the soul’. When Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera died, ‘the terrible agonies of her death closed a representation of suffering nature almost too real and too dreadful to be borne’.
In the 19th Century Eliza O’Neill (1791-1872) and Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) respectively scored considerable success as Belvidera. Audiences rose to their feet and cheered Eliza O’Neill’s Belvidera’s death scene. Fanny Kemble wrote that she that she was so overwhelmed by Belvidera that she had to be stopped from rushing screaming from the theatre (bit O.T.T. maybe). Edmund Kean (1787-1833) and Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) were also notable Jaffier’s in respective productions of Venice Preserv’d.
In the 20th Century Jaffier has been played by John Gielgud (1953), Alan Bates (1969), John Castle (1970) and Michael Pennington (1984). Belvidera has been played by Cathleen Nesbit (1920), Barbara Leigh Hunt (1970) and Jane Lapotaire (1984). Pierre has been played by Paul Schofield (1953), Julian Glover (1970) and Ian McKellen (1984). Notable Aquilina’s include Dame Edith Evans (1920) and Stephanie Beecham (1984).
This relatively small list of past great actors hints at another reason why Venice Preserv’d is now somewhat ‘neglected’ and unknown – it no longer attracts the contemporary ‘star’ actor; and yet this, the ‘star’ actor is what is needed for this play to work. The is partly due to the heightened emotions and passions that the respective roles require. Reducing these down to mere naturalism is not enough. The so-called ‘truth’ of the play does not lay with modern notions of naturalistic truth; the play has it’s own truth, for which is remains uncertain as to whether or not modern actors can match.
Whilst the characters may be something out of synch and/or out of reach of most modern actors, the theme and subject matter of Venice Preserv’d remain universal. It’s revolutionary political force against decedent authoritarian control is still extremely relevant. Furthermore, as evident in the relatively few productions in the 20th Century, the relationships, sexual, sensual and romantic, have been placed under post-20th Century psychoanalysis with startling results. For example, there is the sadomasochistic- masochistic aspect of the respective relationships, which may be a product of and comment on living in such a decadent world. Furthermore, the friendship between Jaffier and Pierre is more like a modern-day passionate ‘bro-mance’, equally as intense and romantic as Jaffier’s relationship with Belvidera.
I hope this rather lengthy post will encourage you to read Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. It is just one representative of what could be called ‘Restoration Tragedy’, complementing the more well known genre of ‘Restoration Comedy’. It does not sit alone – there are many other such wonderful tragedies, including John Dryden’s All for Love (1677) and John Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731). Furthermore, they complement other great tragedies of the times that are also relatively ‘neglected’ in Australian theatre (at least), such as Jean Racine’s, Andromache (1667), Britannicus (1669), and Phedra (1677). It can only be hoped that someone somewhere (including myself) will produce these ‘neglected’ classics and great plays, such as Thomas Otway’s magnificent Venice Preserv’d.