Thursday, 26 January 2017

26 January, 1593 - The Massacre at Paris

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

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at the tragedy of the gvyes 30 ... iijll xiiijs

In modern English: New. Received at The Tragedy of the Guise, 26th ... £3 and 14 shillings

Boring stuff first: Henslowe's dates have become garbled again. They make the most sense if we assume that he has somehow gotten four days out of sync, so that's what I'll do.

But on a more exciting note, today Lord Strange's Men premiered a new play! Even more excitingly, this is a play that actually survives to the present day (although under a different name, The Massacre at Paris). And not only that, it's by Christopher Marlowe, the most brilliant of the early Elizabethan playwrights. Marlowe's Jew of Malta was one of the company's most popular plays, and the box office return for this premiere of his latest work represents an almost full theatre.

The subject

Marlowe's play retells the story of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, a bloody event of 1572, in which members of a Protestant minority known as the Huguenots were attacked by Catholics in a series of bloody events that began in Paris and spread out into other French cities. Marlowe depicts the Duke of Guise as the instigator of the massacre. The play then goes on to dramatize the reign of King Henry III, who assumes the rule of France and gets into a power struggle with the ambitious Guise. It ends with the assassinations of both the Guise and Henry.

These events are full of colourful characters - the devious, power-mad Guise, the two embattled kings, and the powerful women of the court - and they have been retold by storytellers many times since. On film, you can see them in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916):

Or, for a more modern version, you could look at Patrice Chereau's 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' La Reine Margot:

The Massacre on page and stage

Despite the different title, no-one doubts that Henslowe's Tragedy of the Guise is the same tragedy of the Guise that now survives in print as The Massacre at Paris: in later documents, the titles Guise and Massacre seem to be used interchangeably for the same play.

Lord Strange's Men must have been excited to present a new Marlowe play to their audience, and the impressive box office shows that it had the desired effect. For the modern reader, however, the play is less rewarding; Massacre is rarely spoken of in the same breath as classics such as Dr Faustus, Tamburlaine or The Jew of Malta. The reason is that - as with one of the company's other plays, A Knack to Know a Knave - the printed text does not appear to be based on a complete manuscript, but rather to have been put together by actors remembering (or half-remembering) their lines. As a result, the play is unusually short and filled with awkward grammar, muddled verse, and lines borrowed from other plays. It is not as rich or as pleasurable to read as Marlowe's other works.

Still, despite its messy surviving text, the play is still occasionally performed today and it often proves itself stageworthy. For readers of this blog, the most interesting recent production was staged by The Dolphin's Back in 2014 amid the foundations of the Rose Playhouse itself; you can read Steve Orman's review here.

The play

Henri, Duke of Guise. Has anyone in history
ever looked a more obvious Machiavel? 
The Massacre at Paris opens with King Charles of France arranging for his sister Margaret to marry the Protestant King of Navarre. But amid this peace-making union, there is a fly in the ointment: the Duke of Guise, who, aided by his two brothers, is plotting to take the crown for himself. Early in the play, Guise has a long soliloquy in which he unveils his Machiavellian nature: he is so ambitious that for him, "peril is the chiefest way to happiness", and, he adds, "that like I best that flies beyond my reach". His plan is to set off religious conflicts by assassinating prominent people.

Guise has the Queen Mother of Navarre assassinated with poisoned gloves and the Admiral of France shot. The blame falls on the Huguenots, and despite the King's disquiet, Guise and the Queen Mother of France plot their massacre. They are aided in this by Henry of Anjou, the heir to the throne.

The massacre itself is staged very powerfully. As Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth Maclean note, it uses the resources of the Rose playhouse to the full: assassins bang on doors and murder innocent householders in a fast-paced series of brutal acts. There is horror in the dialogue too. "There are a hundred Protestants," complains the Guise toward the end, "which we have chased into the River Seine, / That swim about and so preserve their lives". His brother Dumaine replies, "Go place some men upon the bridge / With bows and darts to shoot at them they see / And sink them in the river as they swim."

Francois Dubois, The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Shortly after the massacre, the distraught King Charles dies, and Henry of Anjou becomes King Henry III. Henry proves a weak king, however, overly fond of frolicking with his minions (as Marlowe put it in Edward II, another play about a king devoted to his favourites). While he does so, the Queen Mother and Guise plot to be the powers behind the throne and to ensure that Catholicism will dominate.

King Henry III
Meanwhile, Navarre, who believes himself the heir to the throne but knows that the Guise will never allow him to be king, leaves to muster an army and form a Protestant alliance with England.

The Guise's plan to manipulate Henry is undone when he learns that his own wife is having an affair with one of Henry's minions. After the King mocks him in public, the humiliated Guise has the offending minion murdered. He then gathers an army to take control of Paris while pretending to Henry that he's only doing so to cleanse the city of Puritans. Henry affects submission to Guise, but he has seen through the Machiavel's scheming and sends assassins who stab him to death. "To die by peasants, what a grief is this?" cries Guise as he expires, but he remains proud to the end, comparing his fall to that of Julius Caesar.

Henry and Navarre join forces to lift the occupation of Paris by Guise's forces. But Guise's brother Dumaine hires a friar to assassinate the king. The friar approaches Henry with a letter but then stabs him with a poisoned knife.

The assassination of Henri III in a Dutch engraving by Frans Hogenberg
Henry dies cursing the Catholic church:
Navarre, give me your hand, I here do swear
To ruinate that wicked Church of Rome
That hatcheth up such bloody practices,
And here protest eternal love to thee
And to the Queen of England specially.
So, Navarre is now King Henry IV of France. He listens to his predecessor's dying words, and then tells the French court,
     I vow for to revenge his death,
As Rome and all those Popish prelates there
Shall curse the time that e'er Navarre was king
And ruled in France by Henry's fatal death. 

What we learn from this

At first glance. Marlowe's play appears to teach us that anti-Catholicism was a popular topic on the Rose stage. Certainly, Guise's sectarian plotting against the Protestant minority and the ultimate ascension of Henry IV would have seemed very topical to the January 1593 audience: English forces were at that moment currently aiding Henry in his struggle for control of his kingdom, while Huguenot refugees were a visible presence in London.

However, this kind of simplistic jingoism is alien to Marlowe's other drama and some scholars today perceive the play as a more sceptical work.  For example, in their book on Lord Strange's Men, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth Maclean note that the murders committed by Protestants and Catholics echo each other; similarly, Navarre's Machiavellian tactics parallel Guise's and he appears just as fanatical as the Catholics. Perhaps then, this lively play could have been performed more in the style of the comical satire in The Jew of Malta. Had he lived to see it, Marlowe would certainly have been amused when, in 1594, Henry IV decided to convert to Catholicism to settle the dispute over his crown.


Massacre at Paris information

  • Edward J. Esche, "The Massacre at Paris, with the Death of the Duke of Guise", in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, vol. 5 (Clarendon Press, 1998)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 947.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 88-90.

Henslowe links


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