Saturday, October 15, 2011

First-Person: Dan Bray on Vile Passéist

Just Another Renaissance: Vile Passéist’s Theatre of the Obscure
by Dan Bray

The first thing anyone asks me when they hear about my theatre company is always the same: why is is called “Vile Passéist Theatre”? 

Sebastien Labelle as Hippolito and Matthew Peach as Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy
(2011, dir. Dan Bray) Photo by Clare Waqué.

The name itself was conceived in 2009 when, working at the University of Toronto Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, I was introduced to the Futurist movement. I learned that one hundred years earlier, Filippo Tomaso Marinetti and his buddies had written a manifesto in which they condemned most traditional forms of theatre, particularly that of the early-modern era, as “vile” and “passéist.” However, the more I studied this radical movementwith all its fervour and noise and absurditythe more I found myself missing the very practices he had ridiculed. Thus, VPT was born, embracing the works of early-modern dramatists who, like Shakespeare, helped to shape theatre as we know it today. It is important to keep in mind that the name is more than just an ironic repossessing, though. By omitting the Bard’s canon and focusing exclusively on the works of his colleagues, we are forcing our audiences to redefine terms like “vile” and “passéist,” as well as question why so many of the period’s plays remain unproduced and ignored outside of academia. 

Hannah Christine as Hippolita and David Rossetti as Vasques in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
(2010, dir. Dan Bray). Photo by Yuen-ying Carpenter.
The early-modern period was one of great artistic colour and growth, and the dramatic sphere was no exception. No longer relegated to touring companies and religious pageantry, the theatre was legitimized in England by the erection of permanent playhouses and sponsored companies. With the increased presence of this art form in London, so changed its use and the way it was perceived. Plays were given greater depth and scope by Renaissance dramatists, many of whom relied on ancient Greek traditions as their models, the same way that the work of these Elizabethan and Jacobean writers continues to mold and influence the plays written today. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I said that Shakespeare is the most lasting and famous writer to have emerged from this period, although it would be a great falsehood to say that he is solely responsible for the many benefits with which the Renaissance left us. Shakespeare was not the first early-modern writer to challenge his audience, nor was he the last. (He wasn’t even the most popular!) Yet, frustratingly, his plays largely survive as the only performed examples of the period’s work (and only the same stale handful, lamentably). This is problematic for anyone who has ever wondered how his plays came to be, or how his works affected his colleagues’. These are the questions that VPT is interested in, and the ones that it continuously explores. Our 2012 season is dedicated to staging two works by Christopher Marlowe (The Jew of Malta and Edward II), who was arguably one of the most important writers of Shakespeare’s time; his career and canon shaped the way that subsequent dramatists, especially the Bard, thought about writing and theatre in general.
Padraigh MacDonald as Touchwood Jr and Kaleigh Fleming as Moll in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
(2011, dir. Dorian Lang). Photo by Clare Waqué.

In many ways, I think that the beliefs of the futurists, at least on an immediate level, can be applied to the work of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, in particular Marlowe whose work is unapologetically bold. Marinetti’s infamous manifesto states that, “The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.” Marlowe’s works, as well as those of the other authors whose work VPT has staged or is planning to stage, have also been fuelled by these essential elements. Theatre should always provoke. Theatre should always inspire revolution and response. This is what the Renaissance wits believed, and this is what VPT tries to pack into every production. The Renaissance in particular saw many writers, including Marlowe, receive harsh repercussions for being too radical. Thomas Middleton (the focus of our last season) was banned from playwriting after his drama, A Game of Chess, offended Spain; even Shakespeare’s company found itself in hot water after a foiled rebellion was prefaced with a special performance ofRichard II. Marlowe’s personal life has always been steeped in mystery, though his controversial works are thought to have led to his early murder in 1593, and there is absolutely no doubt that his works positively emanate the “courage” and “audacity” for which Marinetti craves. Edward IIthe eponymous and emotional king, defies rebellion with a mighty roar: 

My swelling heart for very anger breaks.
How oft have I been baited by these peers,
And dare not be revenged, for their power is great. 
Yet shall the crowing of these cockerels
Affright a lion? Edward, unfold thy paws,
And let their lives’ blood slake thy fury’s hunger.
If I be cruel and grow tyrannous,
Now let them thank themselves and rue too late. (II. ii. 199-206)

Marlowe’s language, as this excerpt demonstrates, thrills us with its unrelenting passion  and its ability to transcend the time for which it was initially penned: like the lines of Shakespeare, the emotions and intentions behind passages such as this need not be reduced to a single period for attentive audience members, this line should resonate as strongly in their chests as much as it would have in that of a Marlovian audience member’s. Marinetti goes on: “We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.” So does Marlowe. In his grotesque revenge-tragedy, The Jew of Malta, the sinister malcontent defies religious and social conventions with diatribes as striking and haunting as anything ever seen in a Shakespearean tantrum; exploited by the Christians’ unfair and discriminatory policies, Barabas, the titular hero-villain, hisses,

Ay, policy? That’s their profession,
And not simplicity, as they suggest.
The plagues of Egypt and the curse of heaven,
Earth’s barrenness, and all men’s hatred,
Inflict upon them, thou great Primus Motor!
And here upon my knees, striking the earth,
I ban their souls to everlasting pains,
And extreme tortures of the fiery deep,
That thus have dealt with me in my distress. (I. ii. 162-170)

There have never been poets as unafraid to “exalt the fist” (as it were) as those of the early-modern era, and never was there a group of people who could do it more skillfully. After all, a play could get you killed back in Marlowe’s day: therefore a word must never be wasted. 
Eric Fitzpatrick as Bartholomew Cokes and Christine Daniels as Mistress Overdo in Bartholomew Fair
(2011, dir. Dan Bray). Photo by Clare Waqué.
Anyone who classifies the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries as being dull or inferior has been greatly uninformed. Our past three seasons have been met with great acclaim: I can’t count the amount of times I’ve had an audience member tell me, upon exiting the theatre, that they “thought that was going to be really boring but it wasn’t” (always a dubious but welcome compliment). Shakespeare is a fantastic writer whose work deserves the credit it has garnered over the past four hundred years, but it is time for modern theatre-goers to realize that his canon is improved and expanded by examining his marginalized colleagues. These plays, like Shakespeare’s, were written with performance in mind, and to restrict the presence of Marlowe’s works (among others) to the printed page is to do a great disservice to the author, to Shakespeare, and to potential audiences. Jacobean and Elizabethan playwrights share a symbiotic relationship with Shakespeare: they exist because of the other, and their value and brilliance is accentuated by the existence of the other. To simply label these plays as “passéist” is to take part in the short-sighted theatrical genocide proposed by the futurists. To put on a show like Hamlet while ignoring, for example, how it was influenced by Dr Faustus or how it came to shape The Revenger’s Tragedy is to present but one fragment of a beautiful, kaleidoscopic tradition. Only by reviving the plays that others have dubbed “vile” and “passéist” will people be able to appreciate how wonderful and vital the entire period was. Shakespeare wrote during a golden age of collaboration, where authors were invested in their colleagues’ work, where they helped one another to create. So too should modern theatres, like VPT, stage plays with the same sense of community, without any predilection for one single component of an otherwise grand and expansive tradition.
Eric Fitzpatrick as Pulcinella, Jocelyn Conway as Colombina, Jesse Robb as Arlecchino-Pierrot,
Heather Beresford as Signora, and Keith Morrison as Duke Pantalone
 in Vindice’s Folly (2010, dir. Dan Bray and Colleen MacIsaac). Photo by Dan Bray.
VPT’s mandate is to stage early-modern, non-Shakespearean drama of exceptional quality, and the company is run by Artistic Director Dan Bray and Executive Director Colleen MacIsaac. They are currently working on its fourth season, two plays by Christopher Marlowe staged in repertoire: Edward II (directed by Luciana Fernandes) and The Jew of Malta (directed by Dan Bray). Next season will include two plays by Beaumont & Fletcher: A Woman’s Prize (or The Tamer Tam’d) and The Maid’s Tragedy. To see videos and images from past seasons, please visit or

N.PN.P., Filippo Tomaso Marinetti. The Futurist Manfesto. Atheneum Library of Philosophy, 1999.  8 Oct 2011.
Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Ed. Michael Cordner. Oxford: Oxford UP,  1998. Print.

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