Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kit Marlowe

While there are a ton of books about William Shakespeare, books about Marlowe are few and far between, never mind plays or films about him.  (You can get a complete list of recent works here.) For non-fiction, there's nothing better than The Reckoning (Charles Nicoll), which has a dizzying amount of detail on Marlowe's espionage connections. I don't know if I agree with Nicoll's theory as to why Marlowe was killed, but he sure provides a ton of evidence that something shady was behind the murder. For something a great deal less conspiratorial, there's Kind Kit (Ross Williamson) and The World Of Christopher Marlowe (David Riggs). In the fiction aisle, I'd recommend A Dead Man In Deptford (Anthony Burgess) and Entered From The Sun (George Garrett). Tamburlaine Must Die (Louise Welsh) is pretty good, while The Marlowe Papers (Ros Butler) is pretty bad, not least because it's entirely written in blank verse which ranges from serviceable to stultifying. The Elizabeth Bear fantasies are fun, as is The Armor of Light (Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett). The Herbert Lom novel is a little thin, even for a prose version of a screenplay, and Rodney Bolt's History Play is full of so many scholarly and literary in-jokes that it's both delightful and insane.
Marlowe shows up for about five minutes in Shakespeare In Love, where he’s embodied so well by Rupert Everett that you wish somebody had greenlit a full-length Marlowe pic for him. He shows up for considerably longer in Anonymous, where he's played by Trystan Gravelle and, before he's killed, manages to watch performances of Henry V, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night, which is kind of like making a movie about Orson Welles in which he gets to watch American Hustle before he dies. 

And as for the stage, there was a Broadway rock opera about Marlowe in 1981, which ran for about a month . . .

. . .  and a Public Theatre play about him around the turn of the century. 

That one I saw.  Here’s my (poetic) review:

at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, 11/11/00


The play's first words, said by a whining runt,
are "I am the world's biggest (rhymes with punt)!"
Ten seconds later, naked as a grape,
the title character swings like an ape
from stage left to stage right, more pale than pink,
displaying washboard abs above his dink.
"I'm so sorry already," whispers Kay
two minutes into this atrocious play.
I nod.  If Marlowe wrote this bad, he'd be
deservedly ignored by history --
no poetry, no glory and no sense
of what it means to give direct offense
to piety with Faustus or to kings
with Tamburlane and Edward.  Nothing sings;
lines limp (as Marlowe did, they say) or worse
their blandness puts the blank into blank verse.
No high astounding terms to stun the age --
just infinite blather on a little stage
about a man whose verse was writ in flame,
a man who made the rules that made the game,
a poet who in every five-beat line
wrote nothing less than something rich and fine.
Just like a jeweler flakes away the chips,
so he from prose carved diamonds for lips,
mouth-filling jewels -- but none of them are here;
just coal and ashes, which deserves a tear
or two from those who love a verbal kiss
or think that he deserves better than this.
Direction (Brian Kulick) was the same
as all the rest I've seen by him -- a game
of sliding panels, moving forth and back
to mark a scene change, and disguise the lack
of thought behind the rest of what we see --
a trick that he falls back on constantly.
Panels are what he does, and does to death --
the staleness of a once-original breath.
Stale is the word here, like two-week-old chips.
(Is this the lunch that's faced a thousand lips?)
The actor playing Marlowe rides his lines
so fast that he got 19 speeding fines.
The old man playing Walsingham did gawp
and cock his head each time he spoke the slop
the playwright fed him, just to demonstrate
the foulness of his portion as he ate.
The whining runt, Tom Walsingham, is Kit's
young lover--he speaks in long whining fits
of jealousy and ranting about life
while being forced to wed a noble wife.
The rest -- an Essex more fop than a man,
a Raleigh duller than a faded tan
who feeds Marlowe a wicked spliv of hemp --
have all the depth of Larry, Moe and Shemp.
It makes me wonder how, under the sun,
a steaming piece of crap like this gets done?
Do they go nose it out, like hungry flies?
Do they seek out dreck that confounds the wise?
Alas, they must to their own name be true:
The Papp -- it's who we are; it's what we do.


What is it about playwrights writing plays
about the theatre?  Every time they do,
you see the same old cliches: pompous farts
pretending to be actors, with their taste
down in their toenails; questions of
identity a six-year-old could answer --
and not a bit of knowledge of how the stage
works, as if they're strangers in the country
that gave them birth--as if they must make fun
of what they love to be loved by the masses.
You'd think these writers never saw a stage
or never liked an actor, and if plays
like this are any indication, they
can only write a cipher, whose sole reason
for living is to spout an argument
more suited to the study than the theatre
or drag a gate from stage right to stage left
like a good supernumerary sport.
At least when God wrote us, he made us free
to spout our own drivel, and not repeat
his rantings, if we so choose or desire.
And when God made Marlowe, he used both hands,
unlike these so-called writers, who think that
quoting the title of a Harry Levin book
(The Overreacher) and yet never showing
us any overreaching, makes him real.
If I had time, I'd sing Marlowe myself,
not that I know him any better than
the next man, but that I think I could write
a play where you might nod your heads and say,
so this is he whose brief words Shakespeare echoed
all his long life, the man who single-handed
invented what we think of as high drama
and from poor speech created a pure line
that was to sing much better in the throats
of his betters, but still sings out
as clear as when he first put quill to paper.
Not a bad legacy for a man to have,
even if he must die just short of thirty
knifed in the eye because of God knows what
conspiracy or bar brawl.  Not at all
a bad end when you leave behind great words;
but bad indeed when so much is unsung,
and it’s your fate to be the ghost who haunts
your followers, as both a lost soul and
a guide, like Virgil to young lovesick Dante,
showing them hell but barred forever from
the summit of the sunlit stage of Heaven.
From Shakespeare’s dream book
August 11, 1601
        No man has yet or ever will produce the play I had in mind when first I faced blank paper.  
        Marlowe said that.  Christopher Marlowe.  Machiavelli to the scabbled world, but Kit, kind Kit, plain Kit, cold Kit, Kit the vision, Kit the rake, Kit the hedonist, hyperpobolist, diabolist, delusionist; Kit the father, Kit the son, Kit the litany hypocritical--firebrand Kit, the flaming Icarus of sunny London, shy Kit Marlowe to his friends.  Not that he cared for friendship--the flirt friendship, he called her--swoon at the flirt friendship but once, he'd say, and ever after she's a slut with airs, courted in competition like Helen of Troy to sneak off finally with a fair-faced stranger.  Marlowe was never so jilted; Marlowe wooed Marlowe, like a man far gone from want of the wench.  His muse red flame and air, burning and breathing, feeding the very fire that burned itself. 
        Christopher Marlowe.  The poet of the pure, unbroken line.  Fame's ticing dainty at twenty-five, worm's meat at thirty.  The man pissed ink as soon as ever he was born.  Died in a puddle of it.  Black and unreadable.  Marlowe.  He said of me once in my own hearing that if I was given the choice between dreaming and waking, I would choose to dream that I was awake.  Clever man.  He said of me also in the hearing of tiny Tom Nashe, who was never happier than when he was violating a vow of secrecy, a gleeful imp with the ears of a changeling and a bee-sting for a tongue; Marlowe was in The Anchor Pub one night, with the three Toms, Tom Nashe, Tom Watson and Tom Kyd, and a few other companions besides, perhaps even the same ones who were with him on the last night of his life, the night he died; and they were all passing drunken judgment on everyone who was not in the room, which is an old theatrical custom, and someone asked Marlowe, and what do you think of sweet Will Shakespeare then, and Marlowe said, the man's a prick, and so am I; but whilst I've been pricking out couplets, sweet Will's been pricking twins.  And who's to say, said Marlowe, who's to say, which issue of these pricks will outlive the other.  My couplets, or his twins?  My twins.  Hamnet and Judith.  Judith the tiny mirror of her mother; Hamnet my little son.  Forever my little son.  Dead now these five years. 
        I dreamed of him again, last night, Kit Marlowe.  In this dream, I am walking Tinker's Lane in Stratford, on a bright sunny summer afternoon, and round a corner comes young Marlowe, dead.  "Will!" he cries as he catches my eye.  And then as I look at him he says, "Now why do you look at me like that?"  "Well," says I, staring at my shoes, "the fact is, that is, well; you're dead, y'know."  "Ah well,"  says Marlowe, "you know how it is.  Sometimes I forget." 
       I look off to one side.  Spread my hands.  Look to the ground.  And stare at Marlowe's shoes.  Why is it I can never meet this poet's eyes?  Not once in all the times we've met--outside the Rose; in a Lord's manor, with shining wood and candles around us, and the flicker of firelight on the long fingers of his pale hands--"I have the Queen's hands," he says with a smirk, and displays them regally--not once have I looked up at him and met his eyes and smiled.  Instead the man has always smiled at me, with the brash bright grin of my brother Edmund, when he asked me for a player's spot among the Men.  The grin of one who has no power here, who hands his helpless self into the will of another.  A trusting smile.  A boy's smile. 
        "You look disturbed," says Marlowe.  "You must be thinking of your Stratford wife."  And then he quotes himself, from his play THE MAID'S COMEDY, the one Sir Edmund Tilney censored and suppressed after one performance; he quotes himself and says: "Never put faith in things you cannot trust: Time brings them all, like chimney sweeps, to dust."  Time brings them all, like chimney sweeps, to dust.  The words fill me with a curious sweetness, like the perfume of temptation. 
         I raise my head and force myself to look at Marlowe, avoiding his eyes with all the skill of a born liar avoiding the truth.  "Well, Kit," says I, "you look quite debonair for a man who's spent a decade decaying in a shallow grave."  "Decade decaying," says Marlowe, "oh Will, Will, if I were alive a phrase like that would kill me."  He laughs and shakes his head, dead Kit Marlowe, laughing and talking despite the broken line of his life.  It baffles me that a corpse can quit its grave so casually, but I have learned long ago that in England there is no accounting for taste.
        So we fall in with each other, Marlowe and I, strolling down Tinker's Lane.  As in many of my dreams, the scene once set, the backdrop disappears, so that there is no setting; only two men, heads down, walking side by side, with yet a distance between them.  "The mind of man swims a wild, strange river," Marlowe says as we stroll along.  "A leaky boat in which one day we find ourselves, and call it home.  And if ever we know the art of freeing ourselves from it, why, contentment and laziness soon please us to ride the river, and forget all but the fiery, fleeting, pleasure of the flesh."  I nod at this, and see in my mind the boatman Peter Tuppence, who has ferried me ah, many the time from London town proper to the Bankside.  Beside me in the boat is Marlowe, eyes wide, unblinking, as we swoop down and under London Bridge.  Why does this man fear water so?  He swam enough at Cambridge.  Black gowns on river bank, pale bodies splashing.  The thin shell we ride lurches down; shadowed now the rush of water, spray on our faces, the clawing of his hand on my shoulder.  His voice calm as he talks of boys and tobacco, but under his voice I hear the words:  "He speaks to find his courage in the noise," the words whispered in my ear, as always, in a boy's voice.  We are riding the river past huge cliffs; atop them castles spire up into the clouds.  "A paltry thing to trust, the mind," says Marlowe.  "Because of it we know no more than that we woke one day into our separate bodies envenomed with life; and found, in sickness, such a soothing warmth, that we soon lost the trick of getting well.  And yet there are sweet moments when the trick is there at hand, when all I've done in this odd body's but a strange and fearful dream, and when I wake all ties to it will end."
         "And like all dreams," I say to him, "you soon discover that, when you try to put your vision into words, there is a spell about beauty, a magic spell that prevents you from communicating anything deeper than the surface of its ocean; so that there hovers, in your restless head one thought, one grace, one wonder at the least, which into words no virtue can digest."  Marlowe's words, leaping as easily to the tongue as fish to the baited hook.
        My dead companion favors me with a smile.  Teeth crooked, black.  In his hands is a freshly-plucked daisy.  He pinwheels it.  "The words of youth," Marlowe replies.  "I too was young once.  I thought that I could flout the doom of using words, so I strutted to and fro in the earth with my eyes screwed shut, complaining that the world was not worth seeing, that the world within my mind was worthier of my allegiance.  Only thus may boys live out their youthful lives with their coltish dreams unshattered, free of the doubtfulness and discontent of manhood, and make some mark upon the tables of time.  And that story has but one ending, however it is told."
        Slowly he turns to me.  In his hands is an object all in flames.  He holds it out to me.  I turn my head.  I wave the gift away, as one who in his sleep shoulders away some fearful dream.  And then he smiles, and then I groan, because it is my own heart that I have thus refused.  And sadly then does Marlowe eat up my burning heart, until there is no part of it left anywhere, and sadly does he say:  "From far away I come to grant you a life, only to steal it back again for my own service.  Helpless and unsettled are you now by my will; through me and mine alone will you ever after find comfort, for in me and mine alone will you fulfill your promise, and yearn with me for treasures we will always feel the lack of.  So will this make of your daily life forever after nothing but a foil, and a hindrance, and a dark dream from which is no true waking." 
      He stands in front of a low hill.  Behind him, in the bright green bushes, a dark door opens wide, a door that reveals a torchlit tunnel which leads down into the hill, down into darkness.  “But if you would wake,” says Marlowe, “truly wake, then come live with me.  Come live with me and be my love,” he says.  And the dark door beckons, and Marlowe grins, and I awake in my London bed to the distant echo of a dying roll of thunder in the dark.
Come live with me out on the edge
And dare the drop beyond the ledge
Where we will turn our backs upon
The mortgage and the seeded lawn.

Come live with me against the grain
Far from the homes of the mundane
Whose eyes glaze over when they see
That we’re not what they’d have us be.
They look at us and shake their heads
And ponder in their featherbeds
What flaw leads us to live a life
Of insecurity and strife.

It irks them that we do not face
A comfortable living space;
They see us thriving on the verge
And blame a self-destructive urge.

Ignore their condescending tsk
Each time we take a little risk --
They think the wild, from beast to bird,
Must be a member of some herd.
For they are three rooms, we are four --
And all behind that extra door
That we must furnish, rent and show,
They'll never have, they'll never know.
But we, we know it in our bones --
We were not made for monotones;
We'll slip each pigeonhole and label
And run like colts far from the stable,
Taking the road less traveled by,
For we are different, you and I --
That is our fate and privilege,
So come live with me on the edge.
If you prefer to dance and sing
And play from night to bright morning
And keep your soul's unspoken pledge,
Then live with me out on the edge.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

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