- The Massacre at Paris dir. by Jeremy L. West
It is not easy to see a production of The Massacre at Paris. Little fêted and much maligned by theatre companies and critics alike, the play is too often consigned to the same ignominious midden in which it was tossed by one of its early editors, William Oxberry. Famously reluctant to edit its text, Oxberry introduced the play with withering invective: "There is little, if nothing in this tragedy deserving praise; the language seldom rises above mediocrity, the characters are drawn with the indistinct faintness of shadows, and the plot is contemptible" (see H J Oliver, ed., Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris [London: Methuen, 1968], 1; all subsequent references to the play will be to this edition). It was in some ways a remarkable choice, therefore, to produce The Massacre at Paris (as opposed to the well-prized Dr Faustus or Edward II) in conjunction with the Seventh International Marlowe Conference, the delegates of which would comprise the majority of the audience. Indeed, the specially commissioned, [End Page 130] fully mounted, one-night-only production was introduced with the dubious byline, "rarely performed yet often contested."
Inherent to the play's well-documented deficiencies are problems of textual integrity, a consequence of which is that the play can too easily seem to fall into disjunctive episodes: scenes 1 to 9 dramatize events in 1572 France (scenes 5-9 take place on the same night), while scenes 9 to 24 move the action into the end of the next decade. Under Jeremy L. West's direction, however, the cast threw themselves into sixty minutes of theatrical bravura. The vaulting pace, the rapidity of stage traffic, and the extreme gusto (and, at times, intense sensitivity) of the performances resulted in a surprisingly coherent and often moving piece.
The subtlety and complexity with which the actors characterized what could easily become caricatured parts was remarkable. Stephanie Howieson's Queen Catherine moved skillfully across a scale of the crudely Machiavellian, the cold-heartedly malignant, and the pathetically vulnerable; her disconsolate "who will help to build religion?" (21.155) on hearing of Guise's assassination, and her resolve that "since the Guise is dead / I will not live" (21.161) were extremely affecting, throwing the force of her earlier, brazen appeals for murder and massacre into sharp relief. Similarly, the equivocal nature of Daniel Burrows's King of Navarre turned on his moral ambiguity: is this a hero or a scoundrel I see before me? Beautifully spoken by Joshua D. Brown, the knotty, anaphoric cadence of Guise's scene two soliloquy confirmed, for this spectator at least, that "Now Guise, begin those deep engendered thoughts" (2.31) is among Marlowe's mightiest lines.
Monica Cross and Melissa Huggins created a visual taxonomy that denoted national borders and religio-political alliances even as it connoted the characters' ethical probity. They costumed the play simply but effectively, with military-style, red-accented black blazers, and scarlet robes for the Medici and Guisian forces...