Ford, John (Drama Criticism)
John Ford 1586?-1640?
Writing in a period when dramatists used sensational themes and bloody spectacles rather than dramatic quality to attract audiences, Ford developed a reputation as decadent playwright. Indeed, his dramas appealed to the most degenerate tastes of playgoers during the reign of Charles I. They offered Caroline audiences a frank representation of the taboo theme of incest and the onstage dramatization of shocking violence. Perhaps the most striking instance of the joining of these devices occurs in the final act of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore: here, Giovanni murders his sister Annabella, whom he has secretly wed, to prevent her from marrying a rival suitor; he then interrupts a dinner hosted by the suitor by walking into the room covered with blood and holding up a dagger with Annabella's heart stuck on the point. For centuries, literary scholars have struggled to comprehend Ford's interest in such subject matter: while many have argued that Ford willingly catered to the decadent tastes of his Caroline peers, others have contented that the playwright's use of the medium of tragedy suggests that there is subtle, didactic moral philosophy at work in Ford's plays.
Little is known about Ford's life and career. There is record that he was baptized on 17 April 1586, to Thomas and Elizabeth Ford. The Fords were members of the gentry class from area of Islington, Devonshire, and it appears that John received a good education during his formative years. There is evidence that a John Ford from Devon enrolled in Exeter College, Oxford, in 1601. The next year, Ford matriculated at the Middle Temple, one of the law schools known as the Inns of Court; contemporary documents indicate that he remained affiliated with the Inns of Court until about 1605 or 1606, when he was expelled from the school for not paying his buttery bill. He was not readmitted to the Middle Temple until 1608. Ford encountered trouble again in 1617, when he and forty other students were suspended for wearing regular caps instead of traditional lawyer's caps. If Ford's experience as a student at the Inns of Court was lackluster, his contributions to the London theater scene proved to hold more promise. During this time and throughout his career, Ford worked with Christopher Beeston's acting company at Drury Lane, the King's Majesties Servants (the company with which Shakespeare had been affiliated), and he collaborated with such prominent Jacobean dramatists as Thomas Dekker and John Webster. Ford's dramatic career spanned from about 1612-1613, when An III Beginning Has a Good End, attributed to Ford, was staged at London's Court theater, until 1639, when The Ladies Triall, the last work bearing his name, was printed. It is not known when Ford died.
Before embarking on his career as a dramatist, Ford tried his hand at several other literary forms, including narrative poems, prose works, and pamphlets. He also honed his literary skills as an apprentice collaborator on plays composed by more seasoned playwrights. From this experience came The Witch of Edmonton, written by Ford, Thomas Dekker, and William Rowley. This play features sensational themes—including witchcraft, bigamy, and murder—that no doubt influenced Ford's theatrical style in his later plays. In The Lover's Melancholy, probably Ford's first individual effort, he experiments with the theme of jealousy in the context of tragicomedy; ultimately, Ford achieved a masterful depiction of this theme and its tragic consequences in two of his greatest dramas: The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In The Broken Heart, Ford introduces the theme of brother/ sister relationships that will also manifest itself in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Love's Sacrifice. While the siblings' relationship in The Broken Heart is not as overtly incestuous as that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, there nevertheless exists a latent sexual tension between brother and sister—and by extension their lovers—which generates jealousy, revenge, murder, and ultimately tragedy. These same themes inform the dramatic events of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, but Ford's forthright and unflinching representation of them—especially the incestuous relationship between Giovanni and Annabella—is what makes the work such a controversial play. This relation-ship and the shocking theatrical effect of Giovanni taking stage with Annabella's heart on his dagger represent the pinnacle of decadent excess in Caroline theater. Love's Sacrifice was written about the same time as The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and, while it contains many of the same sensational themes, it nevertheless displays a lack of consistency which makes it less compelling than the other two tragedies. Critics point to Ford's last great tragedy, Perkin Warbeck, as evidence that the dramatist ultimately matured beyond the sensational decadence of The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In this play, Ford dramatizes the political conflicts among Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne, Henry VII, and James IV of Scotland. Here, Ford is at the height of his dramatic powers in that he creates a tautly balanced tragedy with well-defined characters.
In the centuries that followed the Caroline era, critics either dismissed or disdained Ford's work as an example of an age which glorified the theatrical representation of sensational sexual themes and graphic violence. Further, Ford could not avoid comparison with Shakespeare, his illustrious predecessor. In most cases, critics harshly judged Ford as an inferior dramatist who rewrote many of Shakespeare's plays to meet Caroline sensibilities. Such parallels were drawn between 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Romeo and Juliet, Love's Sacrifice and Othello, and Perkin Warbeck and Richard II. In recent years, literary scholars have begun to reexamine Ford's works as complex documents that contain not only ingenious manipulations of traditional dramatic devices but also a whole subtext of information relating to Ford's views on religion and morality. For example, Ford teases playgoers with the character of Giovanni in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by giving him all of the characteristics of a conventional stage villain and then transforming him into the protagonist of the play. Similarly, in Perkin Warbeck, Ford shows dramatic insight in ignoring the megalomaniacal depiction of Warbeck in historical source material for the sake of dramatizing the pretender as a foil to Henry VII. There is a growing school of critical thought that believes that a skeptical Ford placed his dramatization of aberrant sexual behavior and the shocking blood spectacle within the tragic model as a didactic tool to instruct his audience about the dire consequences of such degenerate behavior. As Irving Ribner has argued, "Ford does not hold up incest or illicit love for the admi-ration of his audience; he is not a champion of moral anarchy. … Ford's moral position is far more subtle and complex than his critics generally have been willing to allow. It is the product of a skeptical age which can no longer accept without question the doctrine of a human law reflecting the will of God in a perfectly reasonable and harmonious universe."
The Witch of Edmonton [with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley] 1621
The Lover's Melancholy 1628
The Broken Heart c. 1630-1633
'Tis Pity She's a Whore c. 1630-1633
Love's Sacrifice c. 1632-1633
Perkin Warbeck c. 1633-1634
The Fancies Chaste and Noble c. 1635-1636
The Lady's Trial 1638
The Queen, or The Excellency of Her Sex 1653
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Fames Memoriali, or The Earle of Devonshire Deceased (poetry) 1606
Honor Triumphant. Or the Peeres Challenge, By Armes Defensible, At Tilt. Also the Monarches Meeting (prose pamphlet) 1606
Christes Bloodie Sweat. Or the Sonne of Gode in His Agonie (poetry) 1613
A Line of Life. Pointing at the Immortalitie of a Vertuous Name (prose pamphlet) 1620
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Overviews And General Studies
Clifford Leech (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: "Fordian Tragedy," in John Ford and the Drama of His Time, Chatto & Windus, 1957, pp. 67-98.
[In the following essay, Leech contends that despite displaying a generally refined dramatic technique, Ford nevertheless is unable to imbue the tragic events in Love's Sacrifice, The Broken Heart, and Perkin Warbeck with an overall significance.]
The totality of human perception embraces several levels of experience. Because, as we live from moment to moment, we have a strong sense of the actual, of 'now', we establish mental relationships with people, things, situations within the shortest period of time in which it is possible to apprehend them. We respond to, we evaluate, these objects of our perception as if their basic character were static, not subject to the principle of growth or to modification by circumstance, proof against the shifting of viewpoint or other change in ourselves. We know, of course, that this mode of perception is partial, but we commonly act upon it when the objects presented to our consciousness are not such as to call memory powerfully into play. If we are marginally aware of mutability, that may serve only to give an emotional intensity to our response. So we may pass judgment on a new acquaintance or a situation suddenly encountered, or yield to the immediate charm of a landscape. If we are Romeo or...
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'Tis Pity She's A Whore
'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE
Alastair Macaulay (review date 8 May 1992)
SOURCE: Review of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, in Financial Times, 8 May 1992, p. 15.
[In the review below, Macaulay questions the viability of David Leveaux's interpretation of Giovanni and Annabella's incestuous relationship in his 1992 staging of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at London's Pit Theatre.]
The strange thing about David Leveaux's staging of 'Tis Pity for the Royal Shakespeare Company is that the central brother and sister are played as the least polished people in this Italian society. Even the ninny Bergetto has a certain public-school edge to him. But not so Giovanni and Annabella. Jonathan Cullen, first seen in a coat whose sleeves are too long for him, underplays Giovanni's academic flair and gives him, unlike anybody else, a York-shire accent. He (especially) and Saskia Reeves's Anna-bella have the worst posture onstage.
But all of this adds up to a kind of artlessness in them. Their hot incest (the axis of the plot) becomes not the depths of privileged decadence but a helpless continuation of nursery delights, a retreat from the demands of the sophisticated adult world. I cannot say that this is the correct reading of the play, but it is here propounded with considerable urgency. Since Leveaux...
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The Broken Heart
Nicholas de Jongh (review date 6 June 1995)
SOURCE: Review of The Broken Heart, in Evening Standard, 6 June 1995. Reprinted in Theatre Record, Vol. XV, No. 12, 10 July 1995, p. 736.
[In the review below, De Jongh applauds Michael Boyd's 1995 staging of The Broken Heart at London's Barbican Theatre as "a spectacular but truthful performance, brimming with sardonic humour and emotional dynamism. "]
Three hundred and sixty-two years after its London premiere, John Ford's revenge drama of arranged marriages and refined cruelty, with women at the mercy of male power, still speaks with rare immediacy.
And Michael Boyd's enthralling Royal Shakespeare Company production, greatly admired at Stratford last autumn, reaches London further improved. The memorable acting of Iain Glen and Emma Fielding as the lovers doomed never to have their fill of each other, or indeed to have each other at all, ought to wring even metal-plated hearts. The excitement of Boyd's production depends upon the way it represses and controls high emotion through dance and ritual ceremonies.
Tom Piper's pillared, curtained stage, with horizontal aluminium shutters, reveals frozen tableaux—from orderly court life to the spectacle of Ithocles (Robert Bowman) and his veiled sister Penthea (Emma Fielding) frozen in...
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Donald K. Anderson, Jr. (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Kingship in Ford's Perkin Warbeck, in ELH, Vol. 27, No. 3, September, 1960, pp. 177-93.
[In the essay below, Anderson examines the theme of kingship in Perkin Warbeck, particularly focusing on the political interplay between Warbeck, Henry VII, and James IV.]
John Ford is not generally considered a political dramatist, but he would seem to be one in Perkin Warbeck (first printed in 1634). Illustrating the pragmatic viewpoint of such theorists as Machiavelli and Bacon, Ford portrays his ideal king in the person of the wise and eminently practical Henry VII, and so considerable is the playwright's attention to competent and incompetent governing that Perkin Warbeck might well be called a lesson in kingship.
This aspect of the play has been overlooked by most students of Ford, denied by some, and thoroughly discussed by none. Several of its probable causes have never been noted. Furthermore, some scholars who do recognize the political nature of Perkin Warbeck see the drama as a protest against Stuart absolutism and Divine Right, but there is evidence mat casts some doubt on this interpretation.
Although the romance of Warbeck and Katherine is prominent in the play, also important are the politics of Henry, James IV of Scotland, and Warbeck....
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OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Davril, R., "Shakespeare and Ford." Shakespeare Jahrbuch 94 (1958): 121-31.
Argues that while many themes and devices in Ford's plays parallel those of Shakespeare, Ford succeeded in creating a distinct oeuvre containing substantial lyrical and psychological qualities.
Farr, Dorothy M. John Ford and the Caroline Theatre. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979, 184 p.
Examines Ford's plays in relation to the tastes and sensibilities of Caroline playgoers.
Hopkins, Lisa. John Ford's Political Theatre. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, 196 p.
Interprets Ford's dramas and stage devices in the context of the political and religious issues of the Caroline era.
McMaster, Juliet. "Love, Lust, and Sham: Structural Pattern in the Plays of John Ford." Renaissance Drama New Series II (1969): 157-66.
Explores various kinds of sexual relationships in the main plots and subplots of Ford's plays as a key to understanding the dramatic structure of his tragedies.
Neill, Michael, ed. John Ford: Critical Revisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 287 p.
Collection of essays that strives to reevaluate Ford's place in the English literary canon using postmodern critical techniques.
(The entire section is 664 words.)