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Volume 1 9 1 COMPARATIVE drama Fall 1985 Building a Scene: Number 3 The Text and Its Representation in The Atheist's Tragedy William E. Gruber There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way or other affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences, and inde.ed that says something for it. -Bertolt Brecht, "Two Essays on Unprofessional Acting"! Scholars now agree that Renaissance playwrights' numerous "faults of inconsistency" are in most cases integral to contem­ porary dramatic technique.2 This essay extends the concept of a "discourse of inconsistencies" to include the relationship between the text of Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy and its prob­ able representation on the Renaissance stage.3 What follows results from my curiosity about a stage direction (rather, about the lack of a stage direction) at the climax of the play's sub-plot in Act IV: a reader, looking solely at the spoken words, cannot determine precisely the relative timing of an entrance and a WILLIAM E. GR.UBER (Department of English, Emory University) is com­ pleting a study of performance ethics in Brecht and Craig. His Comic Theaters is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. 193 1 94 Comparative Drama death. The approach is dialectical rather than Aristotelian or formalist. I do not propose an exhaustive reading of Tourneur's play. Instead, discussion is focused on a single scene in order to develop a method which enables the text to be explored for its gestural value. "Gesture" in this sense does not refer simply to the expressive movements of the actors or to their deployment within the playing space, but describes in addition the play's ideological "story" by foregrounding the contradictions of the social reality in which the play is produced. "Gest," therefore, is both an aesthetic and a political term. Any play, according to Brecht, is readable in terms of its "basic gest" (Grundgestus), a concept which opens to view not only the fictive world of the text but also the various relationships between the text and its historical audience.4 I Why Must Levidulcia Die? Parody and Patriarchy. At the end of Act IV of The Atheist's Tragedy, Levidulcia ("light" and "sweet") arranges to meet with her lover, Sebastian. But a servant accidentally reveals the assignation to her husband, the baron Belforest. Enraged, Belforest summons the Watch and rushes to Levidulcia's room. Meanwhile, Levidulcia has learned of her husband's discovery, and she and several companions flee even as Belforest is pounding on her door. Belforest and the Watch burst into the room; the Watch immediately takes off in pursuit of the women; and Sebastian, who had remained be­ hind in order to give the ladies more time to escape, challenges Belforest. They fight; each is mortally wounded; and Levidulcia returns moments later to discover her lover dead and her hus­ band dying. The unfortunate woman is instantly morbid with guilt. She pauses long enough to speak a lengthy moralizing soliloquy on lust, shame, and female honor. Then, in what seems almost an act of ritual exorcism, she stabs herself to death. It is a remarkable scene, consummately theatrical, and the text considered in isolation seems to carry explicit didactic value. Up until this point in the play, Levidulcia has made a fool of her husband, repeatedly cuckolding him; now, however, she kneels by her dead husband, confesses her sins, and requests a last kiss. The emblematic significance of such a visual arrange­ ment would have been instantly apparent to seventeenth-century audiences. On the relatively bare Renaissance stage, the group­ ings of the characters, their social and private selves, and addir I j William E. Gruber 1 95 tionally their costumes and gestures all could readily take on iconographic significance.5 One is tempted to read in that pathetic tableau Toumeur's lesson for erring wives; given the sight of all the spilled mascu­ line blood, one could even supply an instructive caption: the Wages of Woman's Lust. But the scene does not end quite yet. No sooner has Levidulcia stabbed herself than the Watch, a servant, two women, and Languebeau...


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