John Crowne Essay - Critical Essays


John Crowne wrote seven tragedies and five comedies, frequently repeating character types, plot devices, and thematic concerns from play to play. His method and his achievement can be best understood by a close analysis of three plays. The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian was his most popular tragedy and remains a good example of the peculiar type of Restoration tragedy called heroic drama. In Sir Courtly Nice, Crowne’s most successful comedy of wit, clever men and women of fashion compete with one another in wordplay and intriguing. City Politiques is unlike Crowne’s other comedies; it relies on farce and on the ridicule of specific contemporary personalities for its impact, but even the modern reader who does not understand the political allusions can appreciate Crowne’s ability to keep the stage filled with interesting characters and action.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian

Like Restoration tragedies in general, The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian interweaves complex love plots and complicated political plots. The complexities of love Crowne borrowed from the same source that all of his fellow dramatists used: French romances and tragedies of the early and middle 1600’s. The political complications Crowne took from the world around him. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had neither ended the competition for power between the king and Parliament nor stilled the loud debate over whether the English throne should be occupied by a Protestant or a Catholic monarch.

Crowne’s The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian was patterned after John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, which had been a great success in the early 1670’s. Like Dryden, Crowne wrote his play in rhyming couplets (imitating the French tragedies that Charles II loved) and doubled the normal length to ten acts. In both plays, the action centers on several monarchs who are caught in a maze of political and romantic obligations. Finally, Crowne followed Dryden in using special stage effects to heighten the tension. If Crowne had lived three centuries later, he could have easily written scripts for cinema epics.

The action of The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian, Part I commences on the eve of Passover, 72 c.e. The city of Jerusalem awaits the arrival of a Roman army under Titus Vespasian. The city’s high priest and governor, Matthias, works to prepare the defenses, but he faces insubordination from John, leader of the Pharisee party, who believes that Matthias is secretly in the Romans’ pay. Matthias governs in place of the Jewish king, recently killed under mysterious circumstances. The dead monarch’s sister Berenice, appointed by the Romans to rule, has returned to the city in the hope of preventing resistance to the imperial army. Berenice’s heart, however, is not in her mission, because she is in love with Titus, the son of the Emperor Vespasian.

Also present in the city are two exiled monarchs, Phraartes and Monobazus, who have fallen in love with Jewish noblewomen. Phraartes, who believes that religion is a myth supporting the divine right of kings, loves Matthias’s daughter Clarona, a vestal virgin of the temple. Clarona is attracted to Phraartes but refuses to violate her vow of eternal virginity. Monobazus loves Berenice, but his ability to woo is inhibited by his secret knowledge that he is her brother’s murderer. Berenice, smitten by Titus, hardly notices Monobazus.

Though neither king makes progress in courting his beloved, both use their swords effectively. First they fight off the Edomites, a neighboring tribe invited by John to invade the city on the pretext of forestalling the Romans. Next they rescue Matthias when John leads the Pharisees in open rebellion and captures the temple. Phraartes demands from Matthias Clarona’s hand in marriage as his reward. The high priest is willing if a legal loophole can be found that would release Clarona from her vows. As they deliberate his daughter’s fate, a messenger announces that the Roman army has made camp on nearby hills. On this ominous note, part I ends.

Part II opens with Titus pacing in his tent, torn between his love for Berenice and his duty to the empire. Titus’s second-in-command convinces him that duty is superior to love, and two allied kings convince Titus to conquer before the Jews can rally under a new leader. Berenice arrives at the Roman camp soon afterward, but after a long and passionate interview, Titus pushes her away.

Inside Jerusalem, conditions worsen as food supplies dwindle. John continues his efforts to kill or capture Matthias. Phraartes is wounded in a second skirmish against the Pharisees. As Clarona binds his wound, she admits her love and hints that if the two of them can save the city, she might renounce her vow. In the meantime, the Jews lose an ally: Monobazus follows Berenice to the Roman camp.

Phraartes departs in search of food supplies. Returning with some provisions, he finds Matthias again in the hands of the Pharisees and once more rescues him. Phraartes now promises Clarona that he will bring in his own Parthian troops to save the city. Titus acts to counter Phraartes’ plans even though Berenice attempts to distract the Roman general by threatening to kill herself if her love is not requited. With a heavy heart, Titus chooses duty over love. Berenice fails to carry out her threat.

Monobazus, now ashamed of his beloved and his love, returns to join Phraartes in the city’s defense. The two kings find the temple desecrated by John’s forces and discover Matthias and Clarona mortally wounded. After his beloved dies in his arms, Phraartes decides to give up his life fighting the invaders. Monobazus decides to do the same after passing up the chance to flee the doomed city. They die like brothers, side by side in combat.

Titus enters the city in triumph and spares the survivors. Berenice visits him one last time, and when he again refuses to return her love, she goes into permanent and secret exile. As the play ends, Titus stands alone onstage, still agonizing over whether duty can be worth such a sacrifice.

It is easy to discern political themes in the play in which the Restoration audience could see their own concerns reflected. The Jews face aggression from the greatest power in the world, Rome, just as England feared domination by neighboring France, which, under Louis XIV, was Europe’s most powerful nation. The Jewish resistance against the invader is hampered by internal dissension, just as Charles’s policies were hampered by opposition from anti-Royalist groups.

The most important political theme centers on the rulers in the play: Phraartes, Monobazus, Matthias, and Titus. The hero is not any of these but rather the institution of kingship itself. The four represent facets of Charles II, his life, his obligations, and his privileges. Phraartes and Monobazus are kings in exile, echoes of the Charles who was in exile in the 1650’s. Although they have no kingdoms that obey them, Phraartes and Monobazus speak and act with a natural and convincing authority; clearly, they believe that the authority of kingship flows from divine approbation rather than from popular will. Matthias represents the besieged ruler who struggles bravely against the odds when domestic rebels join foreign enemies in threatening the state. Titus shows the personal sacrifice that kingship demands: For the good of the state, he must deny the longings of his own soul and reject the woman he loves. There is not a consistent political allegory in the play; rather, Crowne presents several vantage points from which to survey the character of a king.

All of the rulers speak eloquently about political obligation: Their diction is elegant and their imagery rich in metaphor. Phraartes and Titus speak with the same poetic force about love. Phraartes with Clarona and Titus with Berenice engage in lengthy debates that reveal the depth of their commitment. What makes the lovers’ anguish such good stage business is that each pair is caught in an inescapable dilemma: Clarona has made eternal vows to a religion Phraartes despises; Berenice and Titus must be traitors in order to be lovers. As Crowne devises the situations, lifelong doubt, exile, or death are the only solutions.

Spectacular staging heightens the emotional impact of the play’s political themes and romantic dilemmas. An angel appears against the ceiling of the temple to prophesy the doom of the city, and the ghost of Herod walks abroad to do the same. The laments of enslaved citizens and dying warriors are heard offstage, and there is an abundance of swordplay, chases, and stabbings onstage. In the tenth act, the temple catches fire, and Phraartes and Monobazus (seen in silhouette) fall from a prominent battlement as they are fighting Romans. The stage itself is an ambitious multilevel setting from which Matthias can look down at rebel Pharisees, the exiled kings can glare down at invaders, and the nightdress-clad Clarona can...

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