Thursday, 28 April 2016

28 April, 1592 - The Second Part of Tamar Cam

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at the seconde pte of tamber came the 28 aprell ... 3ll iiijs

In modern English: New. Received at The Second Part of Tamar Cam, 28th April ... £3 and 4 shillings

Today, Lord Strange's Men unveiled a brand new play: The Second Part of Tamar Cam. Just like the previous two premieres - those of Harry VI and Titus and Vespasianthis one resulted in excellent box office: 64 shillings, indicating (perhaps) an almost full theatre.

The Second Part of Tamar Cam is yet another lost play that was never published. However, it is possible to reconstruct its likely subject matter. That's because The First Part of Tamar Cam partially survives in outline form, and indicates that the two plays were about the thirteenth century Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan and his conquest of the Middle East. Hulagu Khan may not be a familiar name today, but there were good reasons why a play about him could have enticed large numbers of Elizabethan Londoners to the theatre. Let's take a step-by-step look at the process of reconstructing this play...

1. The 'plot' of Tamar Cam 1

The Second Part of Tamar Cam is entirely lost, but its predecessor partially survives via a transcript of a rare surviving document from the Elizabethan theatre known as a 'plot'. 'Plots' were tables listing the entrances and exits for each scene of a play; these documents were apparently used backstage to assist in organising the productions. You can see a transcript of the 'plot' of The First Part of Tamar Cam here (thanks to the Lost Plays Database). The 'plot' does not tell us exactly what happened in The First Part, but it does tell us the names of its characters and shows us the various configurations in which they appeared during the play.

A glance at the 'plot' of The First Part reveals that it was a play about Mongol conquerors ('Cam' or 'Cham' is a common Elizabethan rendering of the title 'Khan'), and that it involved Persia, princesses, beheadings, and the summoning of magical spirits.

2. Channelling Tamburlaine

If you were an Elizabethan playgoer and you heard that the players at the Rose would be staging a play about a conquerer sweeping across Asia, you would immediately think of one thing: Tamburlaine! Christopher Marlowe's two-part Tamburlaine the Great had been one of the mega-hits of the late 1580s. Based on the life of the fourteenth century warlord Tamerlane, the plays tell the story of a humble shepherd who rises to become a terrifying, all-conquering scourge. Filled with grand speeches that evoke epic ambition, packed with exotic images of far-off lands and peoples, and featuring an  amoral but awe-inspiring protagonist, the plays dazzled their original audiences and had become iconic by the 1590s. You can get some sense of what the Tamburlaine plays are like from this trailer for a recent production by Theatre for a New Audience:

Illustration of the historical Tamburlaine
from Richard Knolles' General History of
the Turks (1603). 
So, by staging a play about another Central Asian conqueror, Lord Strange's Men were almost by definition imitating Tamburlaine. And they may have had a very good reason to do so, for the role of Tamburlaine had in fact been created by their own star actor, Edward Alleyn, back when he was acting with a different company, the Admiral's Men. It seems that when Alleyn moved to Strange's Men, he lost the right to perform Marlowe's plays. A likely scenario, then, is that Tamar Cam was created deliberately to emulate Tamburlaine, so that Alleyn could continue barnstorming around Asia in a thinly-disguised variation on his famous role. Indeed, Henslowe's spelling of the new play, Tamber Came, shows that the two plays were barely distinguishable in his mind. And decades later, Ben Jonson would sneeringly recall "the Tamerlanes and Tamer-Chams of the late age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them to the ignorant gapers".

We can't know exactly how similar the plays were. The 'plot' of The First Part of Tamar Cam shows that it contained black magic and magical spirits, which are absent from Marlowe's play. But it certainly attempted to mimic the exoticism of Tamburlaine: it climaxed with a parade of foreign peoples, including Tartars, Amazons, "olive coloured Moors", cannibals, hermaphrodites, "the people of Bohare", pygmies, Crimeans, and Bactrians. This must have been an incredible spectacle and seems to be echoing the epic, global panorama that Tamburlaine conjured so memorably.

3. Identifying Tamar Cam

So, who was 'Tamar Cam'? W.W. Greg proposed that the name likely referred to Temuchin, better known as Genghis Khan, since he was by far the most famous of the Mongol conquerors. However, Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawence Manley's detailed study of  the evidence demonstrates that the play was more likely about one of Genghis Khan's descendants.

The 'plot' of The First Part refers to one 'Mango Cam', who is presumably Möngke Khan, Genghis's grandson and fourth emperor of the Mongol Empire. If so, then the titular 'Tamar Cam' would be the approximately contemporary Temür Khan, who became the sixth emperor. However, Temür's career had nothing to do with Persia, which appears so prominently in the 'plot'. MacLean and Manley propose therefore that the playwright took Temür's name only, and in fact told the story of Möngke's brother, Hulagu Khan, who was sent west to conquer Persia. The reason they changed the names is, no doubt, simply because 'Tamar Cam' sounds similar to 'Tamburlaine'.

Persian illustration of Hulagu Khan (the likely inspiration for Tamar Cam) and his Christian wife
Hulagu Khan is not a well-known figure to western readers today, but there are very good reasons why his story could have been attractive to an Elizabethan audience. MacLean and Manley explain that although Englishmen of this time knew little about the realities of the far-off Mongols (whom they normally called 'Tartars'), they believed that Möngke Khan had been tolerant of other religions and open to Christianity; indeed Europeans perceived the Mongol Empire as a possible ally in their conflicts with Islamic nations. As for Hulagu Khan himself (often called 'Haalon' by the English), MacLean and Manley quote Richard Knolles' General History of the Turks (1603), which conveniently summarizes the Elizabethan understanding of his career:

Mango the great Khan of Tartary ... sent his brother Haalon with an exceeding great army against the Turks and Saracens in Syria and the land of Palestine. This Haalon, converted also unto the Christian faith by his wife, setting forward with a world of people following him, in the space of six months overran all Persia, with the countries adjoining.
So, the history of Hulagu/Haalon could be dramatized as a tale about a Christianized warrior defeating infidel enemies, a popular topic in the Elizabethan theatre, and indeed one that had been played out onstage only a few days ago when Lord Strange's Men performed Jerusalem. Perhaps it could be thought of as a tamer version of Tamburlaine: instead of glorifying Marlowe's atheistical, amoral protagonist, this play could enable Londoners to cheer on a Christian hero. (Yes, I know that cutting a bloody swathe across half of Asia by bringing death and destruction to all who defy you is slightly incongruous with the teachings of Christ, but such is the world.)

4. Triumph or tragedy?

So, how exactly did the dramatist tell the story of Hulagu Khan? As far as we can tell from the hard-to-decipher 'plot', The First Part appears to have mostly been about Tamar Cam choosing the Christian princess Palmida over a Persian princess; there were also battles, a conspiracy against Tamar, and helpful spirits on both sides of the conflict, as well as a clown. The story of The Second Part is less knowable, but after Persia, the historical Hulagu went on to conquer Baghdad and Aleppo, so perhaps the sequel concerned itself with that.

From a 15th century French edition of Marco Polo:
Hulagu (on the left) orders the
imprisonment of the Caliph of Baghdad in his own
treasure-vault to starve.
The Second Part could have ended on a note of Christian triumphalism, for, as Thomas Fuller later wrote in his History of of the Holy War (1639), during Haalon's (i.e. Hulagu's) conquest of Baghdad and Aleppo, "Everywhere mosques went down and churches up", and Haalon did many "good offices" to "the Christians in  Syria". So, Tamar Cam may well have been yet another opportunity for Londoners to side with a Christian hero against Islamic foes.

However, as we've seen in Muly Molocco and The Jew of Malta, the Middle Eastern plays of the Rose were not always straightforward 'us versus them' narratives, and Tamburlaine is a defiantly un-Christian play, in which the title character spurns all gods and ultimately dies after burning, not the Bible, but the Qu'ran. And Tamar Cam could have ended on a more challenging note too. MacLean and Manley note that the historical sources record a potential downbeat ending in which Tamar's achievements are undermined by Christian intolerance: as Knolles tells it, Hulagu's successor, angered by a quarrel with Dutch soldiers over captured booty, repudiated Christianity and "he and his Tartars became utter enemies unto the Christians, doing them all the harm they could devise", an outcome that Knolles blames on "the insolency of certain Christian soldiers". If The Second Part of Tamar Cam ended this way, it would have been somewhat more like Tamburlaine, which ends with the unravelling of the title character's empire.

Whatever the exact plot and tone of The Second Part of Tamar Cam, its debut performance was a great success, making just as much money as Titus and Vespasian's premiere, although still not achieving the heights of Harry VI's. Lord Strange's Men had another blockbuster on their hands, and once again they had done so by riffing on older plays.

Further reading

Tamar Cam information

  • Richard Knolles, The General History of the Turks (1603), 113-14.
  • Thomas Fuller, The History of the Holy War (1639), 208.
  • W.W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouse (Clarendon Press, 1931)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entries 906 and 925.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 138-43.
  • David McInnis, "Tamar Cham, Parts 1 and 2", Lost Plays Database (2016). 

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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