- The Unnatural Tragedy by Margaret Cavendish
Director Graham Watts is the first person to direct a professional play by Margaret Cavendish. Watts, who has extensive experience directing Shakespeare productions and has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, brought Cavendish’s The Unnatural Tragedy to life with immense energy and wit. While Cavendish’s title refers to itself as a tragedy, the play does not fit well within generic categories. During this wonderfully acted performance, I found myself laughing, nearly crying, and biting my lip with horror all in a space of about two hours. It is an emotional rollercoaster of a play when performed, and the intensity of the comedic and tragic elements were heightened by superb acting on the part of the cast.
The Unnatural Tragedy was first published in 1662 when there were no female authors writing for public theatre in England, and the play was never performed during Cavendish’s life. So, it is not surprising that Cavendish, who published twenty-one plays, offers an introduction to her first published collection of plays with a group of gentlemen discussing the audacity of a woman playwright: “A woman write a Play! Out upon it, out upon it” (Cavendish, B1v). Watts ironically and wittily opens the play with this dialogue. One notable difference from the original text is that one of the male characters—only designated as a “gentleman”—is played by a woman, Charlotte Monkhouse, who provides priceless expressions of disbelief and annoyance that amusingly counter her companion’s misogyny. The play adeptly shifts from this ‘meta’ question about the relationship of women to playwriting, surely a burning issue to the author, to people dancing to loud, festive, modern music. It is notable that the music playing is “Jump Around” by House of Pain, which contains lyrics that encourage violence against women. This sly choice foreshadows the later tragic elements of the play and highlights the continuation of these problems into contemporary society. While the lyrics may be sinister, the music and festivities introduce the carefree life of the protagonist, Monsieur Frere, acted by Jack Ayres.
Frere seems to have everything a young man could possibly desire. We are introduced to him dancing and drinking with a good supply of money courtesy of his father. He also seems to have more than sufficient knowledge of courtesans in Italy. Although Watts did not make any alterations to the original language of the play, the party ends abruptly with a message from Frere’s father amusingly performed as a text message. Frere reads his text in dismay, explaining [End Page 135] that the message informs him that he must leave this carefree life because his sister, whom he barely knows, has been married off and his father now wants Frere to marry next. So the young man must now sober up and settle down into a married life. Initially Frere is dismayed by the prospect of this arranged marriage. His good luck continues, however, as the woman turns out to be beautiful, wealthy, and kind. Further, she has fallen passionately in love with him.
So, why is this play a tragedy? While Frere seems to have everything a young man could desire, he unfortunately falls desperately in love with his newly wedded, pregnant sister (named Soeur). Thus, the play is an unnatural tragedy. The production emphasizes Soeur’s pregnancy by having her look through a book of baby names. However, fortunately for the audience, the sister is not interested in Frere’s “unnatural” affections.
Jack Ayres gave a compelling performance of Frere, a challenging role since Frere transforms from a carefree youth, to a tortured soul that inspires a degree of sympathy, to an outright creepy stalker, rapist, and murderer. The choice to have him lurk outside of the bathroom while Soeur showers (the audience hears the running water) was particularly unnerving and eerie.
So, where is the comedy? The main plotline of Frere and his sister is often interrupted with two seemingly unrelated subplots that only begin to intersect towards the middle of the play. One of these...