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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

George Chapman, The Gentleman Usher (1606): "a fine taste of Chapman at his strangest"

Showing dogged determination after I initially, and inadvertently, ignored an earlier submission, Spurio contacted BtR again with this delightful summary of Chapman's The Gentleman Usher. This is yet another play I've never read, but with a hook like "a fine taste of Chapman at his strangest," I assume it'll soon be showing up on graduate reading lists across the world (it's now on my play reading list).

I present you, Spurio...

The Gentleman Vsher by George Chapman (London, 1606).

(This play has a fine taste of Chapman at his strangest -- see also his Widow's Tears -- and is, as far as I know, the only one of his plays in which Stoicism leads to the ability to see the future. Anyone interested in play-within-a-play scenes, or looking to supplement Hamlet's advice to the players, will benefit from the first two acts; and the comic scenes with Bassiolo in Acts 3 and 4 are priceless. And *what* is going on with the widow Corteza?)

Dramatis Personae
Alphonso, the Duke -- in love with Margaret
Vincentio -- Duke's son, also in love with Margaret
Sarpego -- a courtier
Medice -- a courtier, the Duke's favorite, unable to read and write
Strozza -- a courtier, Poggio's uncle, Cynanche's husband
Cynanche -- Poggio's aunt, Strozza's wife
Poggio -- the foolish nephew
Lasso -- Margaret's father
Corteza -- Lasso's sister, Margaret's aunt, a widow
Margaret -- fair lady under dispute
Bassiolo -- Lasso's "gentleman vsher"; he is described as ambitious and convinced of his own worth, and has an endearing habit of taking to heart even the most ironic flatteries
Doctor Beniuenimus
Enchanter -- a character in the masque; later characters in later shows include Broom-wench, Rush-wench, Sylvan, Nymph, and "Man-Bugge" with his female counterpart
Pages, maid(s) servant(s), huntsman

Act 1
Strozza and Cynanche enter to Poggio, who tells his dreams. We discover that Vincentio loves Margaret although she is being courted by his father (Alphonso the Duke); Strozza advises Vincentio to get an attendant to woo her. Alphonso comes on with Sarpego and Medice, and announces he wants not to hunt but to see a play: various courtiers show off their elaborate writing and acting skills (an example from the writing: "The busky groues that gag-tooth'd boares do shrowd / With cringle crangle hornes do ring alowd."; an example from how the acting was played: "When I in Padua schoolde it, / ... I acted, / Projecting from the poore summe of foure lines, / Forty faire actions."), and Vincentio mocks Medice for not being able to read and write.

Strozza and Vincentio plot to "ouerthrow" the upcoming show that the Duke will stage to express his love for Margaret, and they heckle Medice so much that he forgets his part and Strozza his understudy takes over. The Duke comes on stage bound with the Enchanter, and there is an "amorous deuice" directed towards Margaret; in the end, Vincentio asks Margaret as she is leaving who he could corrupt in her household, and she tells him to seek out the usher, Bassiolo.

Act 2
In the incredibly strange scene which starts the act and which first brought me to the play, Medice comes on stage determined to get Corteza drunk, to flirt with her, and to get her to tell him whom Margaret loves (as she has been coy with the Duke). Corteza tells him that since she started drinking,
I haue been hanted with a horson paine heere,
And euery moone almost with a shrewd feuer,
And yet I cannot leaue it: for thanke God,
I neuer was more found of winde and limb.

Enter Strozza. A great bumbasted legge.

Looke you, I warrant you I haue a leg,
Holds out as hansomly. Med. Beshrew my life.
But tis a legge indeed, a goodly limbe.

[anyone with a guess as to what is going on in these lines, I'd love to hear it -- I have a few ideas but suspect I might just be twisted]

The leg is then dropped, so to speak, and Medice learns from Corteza that Margaret has eyes for Vincentio.

The show follows, including a prologue describing who is who, an encomium to brooms then rushes, a dance of sylvans and nymphs, and a song by the he- and she-bug.

Act 3
Medice charges his servant to "accidentally" shoot Strozza during the hunt later. Vincentio goes to Bassiolo, befriends him, bejewels him, and gets him to woo Margaret. The hunt begins, with Corteza making moves on Medice and eventually being sent home for being too drunk and randy (although the Duke concedes that, to drink, "Tis good ... sometimes"). Bassiolo begins to ply Margaret to respond to Vincentio's letter of love, and they play a very amusing game where Margaret confuses him while he tries to write a letter on her behalf, then teases him while she writes her own letter.

Act 4
Strozza has been shot with an arrow while hunting; the doctor advises that Strozza just wait for it to fall out, and Strozza complains about how much it hurts. Cynanche tells him he is being a wuss and needs to stop his whining (although in pleasant Stoic metaphors).

Bassiolo brings Margaret to Vincentio, and gives him tacky pickup lines to use to court her (the modern-day equivalents to which would be along the lines of, "there's a party in my pants and you're invited"). Margaret and Vincentio decide to marry unofficially before the Duke gets back from hunting.

Meanwhile, Strozza has quit whining and embraced Stoicism, and claims that his Stoicism has given him an ability to predict the future! He claims to know that the arrowhead will fall out in seven days, and that his physician and Vincentio are coming to visit, which they do promptly; Strozza predicts that Vincentio will be in great danger.

Alphonso and Medice convince Corteza to find evidence of wrongdoing and she finds Vincentio's letter; Lasso tells Margaret he will punish her panderer and Bassiolo gets squeamish, but remains true to Vincentio when Margaret threatens to blackmail him.

Act 5
Alphonso, Medice, Corteza, and Lasso lie in wait and watch Bassiolo, Vincentio, and Margaret together. Bassiolo, keeping watch, gives a false alarm to toy with the two kids, so when he gives a proper alarm ten lines later they don't believe him and are caught and carried away. Alphonso orders Vincentio's death but quickly changes his mind.

Strozza's arrow falls out as predicted, and he says he will carry it to Rome and then gives a long justification about why doing this will not be superstitious.

In an incredibly bizarre scene, Corteza tells Margaret that Vincentio is dead, and tells her "not" to kill herself. Eventually Margaret says she wishes she was not so pretty, and Corteza tells her "not" to mutilate herself ("That were a cruel deed; yet Adelasia / In Pettis Pallace of Petit pleasure, / For all the worlde, with such a knife as this / Cut off her cheeks, and nose, and was commended / More then all Dames that kept their faces whole; / O do not cut it."), then gives her an ointment that will allow her to do so. Margaret's face becomes blistered and gross.

Medice has badly wounded Vincentio, and Strozza tells Alphonso he's being a jerk. Alphonso admits this is so, and gives Margaret to Vincentio. Vincentio nobly says he loves her even when she's gross, and we then learn the physician can reverse the ointment's effects. Bassiolo gets promoted to Alphonso's usher, while Medice is sentenced to death. He confesses that his name is actually Mendice and that he grew up with Gypsies and tried to have Strozza killed; his sentence is reduced to banishment.

  • At 8/29/2007 07:09:00 AM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    My initial guess about the "bumbasted legge" (which has got to be in the top ten of Great Early Modern Stage Directions, along with the mutual cannibalism of Claudius Tiberius Nero and the soggy Horse-Courser of Dr Faustus) is that Corteza is trying to show how "sound of winde and limb" she is by making a leg. The bumbast would be the padding that the boy actor is wearing.

    My great disappointment when I first read the play was realising that the he- and she-bug are bugbears (OED: "A sort of hobgoblin [presumably in the shape of a bear] supposed to devour naughty children") rather than bugs with antennae. Which would have been cool.

    Chapman's comedies are really underrated - along with this one and Widow's Tears I'd say to read Monsieur D'Olive (it features a wife who imprisons herself because her husband is insanely jealous, and a husband who refuses to let his dead wife be buried, plus a crazed would-be ambassador who steals every scene he's in). Really lovely stuff.


  • At 8/29/2007 09:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I'll second that "bumbasted legge" reading. It's in line with the ways I'd already pictured "horeson paine" and "shrewd feuer" being staged.

    Does anyone know of a good, still-in-print edition of Chapman's plays?


  • At 8/29/2007 03:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Crispinella -- yes, it's a great stage direction. Another of my favorites at the moment is from A Larum for London: "A great screeke heard within." Probably just a compositor's misreading for screech, but still, I can't say I've ever heard a screeke before. I'm sad to learn that we didn't have a pre-Kafka man-bug thing going on, but if they were shaped vaguely like bears that's not so bad, either -- lets you tie in Mucedorus, at least.

    You have to wonder, what if we retitled plays in the mode of Friends episodes: "The one where Ross and Rachel kiss." "The one with the bumbasted leg." "The one with the mutual cannibalism." (I could make a pseudo-plausible argument for Henslowe doing this in his diary, given the time and inclination.) Classes would be swollen with students!

    Chapman's comedies truly are great. Widow's Tears was the first text to make me laugh out loud in years (the previous being Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods). I haven't gotten to D'Olive, but want to soon -- isn't that "the one with the character named 'Dildo' in it"?

    Speaking of which, your explanations of the leg sound much more plausible and chaste than mine! It does seem likely that Corteza is gesturing towards her own leg -- perhaps the implication is that all that drinking is making her a bit gouty?

    Anon -- I had trouble finding good edited editions of Chapman. Widow's Tears is done by Revels, but otherwise I drew most of my Chapman excerpts from EEBO. For the record, the only edited edition of GU I could find changes the stage direction to She shows a great bumbasted leg. and declines to footnote -- still leaving it vague whether it's her own leg or a fake leg.

    Sorry for the length -- apparently I, like Corteza, am fond of [long]wind[ed responses] and limb.


  • At 8/29/2007 11:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I was imagining a more matronly Corteza, and thought that a few cups of sack might have her playing the soft and buxom widow -- you know, using some gesture to suggestively locate the "horeson pain" that comes on when she drinks.

    I hadn't thought about gout here, but I like it. Corteza's leg could look like an elephant took a load of buckshot to the kneecap; Medice's line looks like "Beshrew my life" gets shocked out of him, and "goodly limb" makes me think that the shock comes from the condition of Corteza's leg rather than her showing it in the first place.

    Just out of curiosity, how would you read this scene out with a fake leg? I'm interested in wildly speculating about the property history of the fake leg that played in Faustus (like how Bottom's head from Midsummer got recycled for Merry Wives).


  • At 8/30/2007 05:58:00 AM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    Anon, I think you're right about the "Beshrew my life" demonstrating Medice's shock. And the more horrible and gouty Corteza is, the funnier her attempts at playing the alluring widow get (especially, I guess, if the whole cast are boys, which they probably were).

    And yes, Monsieur D'Olive is "The one with the character named Dildo in it" (at least he calls himself that, though one SD calls him "Digue" and his SP is "Dig.". There's also May-Day, aka "The one with so much cross-dressing in it that your head starts to spin".

    Chapman hasn't been well served by recent editors. There's the 1970s/80s 2-volume old spelling edition (gen. ed. Allan Holaday), which is impossible/expensive to get, and most of the single volume editions are out of print. Penguin had a go at publishing a collection of some of the plays and poems (inc., if I remember correctly, Bussy D'Ambois, All Fools and The Widow's Tears) in the late 90s, but the series folded very quickly (largely, I think, because it consisted of paperback, old-spelling collections). I have heard that Revels have a couple of Chapmans in preparation, but I'm not sure which ones.


  • At 9/04/2007 04:02:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Oh, this is excellently done, Spurio. Your own summary is hilarious. I've had to close my office door because I don't want my colleagues to hear me snorting and snickering.


  • At 9/04/2007 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Muse, I aim to please. If you wish to maintain a somber front amongst your colleagues, I recommend getting in your car and driving a few miles away before reading the play itself.

    Anon, I have decided after careful thought during my long weekend away from the internets that my reading of that scene with a fake leg is not ready to be shared with the world ... or perhaps, the world is not ready for it. But fake legs appear in a number of plays in some really wacky uses -- some of my favorites being when Orlando in his Furioso mode tears a guy's leg off and claims he is Hercules and the leg is his "massy club", or when, in Yarington [aka Day and Haughton, according to Greg]'s Two Lamentable Tragedies, a guy gets entirely dismembered only to have the parts brought back onstage, mused over, mixed in with firewood, carried off, brought back on, tripped over ... and then have the shoes and hose be of more interest than the legs and feet themselves! Fake limbs, as well as heads, were considered a basic property to have in stock, but how much a certain body part would call up its use in another play is an interesting line of thought ... oh, I could go on ...


  • At 9/04/2007 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Shoot, given the context, I should have said "a Stoic front," then mixed in a crack about arrowheads somewhere in there. I blame my exhaustion from the start of classes. But rest assured such a slip will never happen again.


  • At 9/09/2007 12:37:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Don't forget the fake leg in Faustus!


  • At 9/12/2007 07:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Does anyone have a gloss for Corteza's very rude-sounding lines
    Nay my Lord Medice, I thinke I told you / I could do prettie well in these affaires: / O these yong Girles engrosse vp all the loue / From vs, (poore Beldams;) but I hold my hand, / Ile ferret all the Cunni-holes of their kindnesse / Ere I haue done with them.


 Scribble some marginalia

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