Cyril Tourneur c. 1580-1626
English poet and dramatist.
Tourneur was a Jacobean playwright whose fame largely rests on a single play, The Revenger's Tragedy, which many critics claim he did not author. The similarities between that work and The Atheist's Tragedy, which Tourneur unquestionably did write, are striking in their treatment of the morality and psychology of revenge and the intricacies of plot and counterplot, and for this reason most critics believe both plays are indeed written by the same hand. Both these works present a world that is inherently corrupt and evil, and their emphasis on death, the macabre, and sexual perversions (Tourneur deals with, among other indecencies, necrophilia and incestuous rape) have prompted critics to compare them to modern-day horror films. But while the dramas are certainly intentionally shocking, their author has a clear moral purpose and offers penetrating insights into the psychology of revenge, and The Revenger's Tragedy in particular has been seen as playing a key role in the development of the genre of the revenge play. Little is known of Tourneur's life, and the attribution of The Revenger's Tragedy to him will most likely never be settled, but for many Tourneur is the quintessential Jacobean playwright, an elusive figure whose work presents a dark and malignant universe in which tragedy is inevitable and moral chaos reigns.
Almost nothing is known about Tourneur's early life. He was most likely born between 1575 and 1585 in Essex. It is speculated that in 1596 he joined an expedition to Càdiz, and around the same time he served as secretary to Sir Francis Vere. The following years, including those during which he wrote his major works, are shrouded in mystery. Tourneur was probably employed as a minor civil servant and courtier, and his writing was merely a sideline that did not capture the attention of the literary establishment; his name is certainly not one that was well known to the Jacobean stage. It seems clear that around 1613 he began work as a diplomatic courier, carrying official papers from London to Brussels. In 1617 he was arrested for unknown reasons and released into the custody of Sir Edward Cecil, who was known for his dealings in espionage. In 1625, while Tourneur was serving as secretary to Cecil, he participated in the second expedition against Càdiz, a ill-conceived raid that saw English forces turning back from Spain after failing in their objectives. Tourneur grew ill and on his way home to England stopped in Ireland, where he died in February, 1626.
In addition to The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy, Tourneur wrote several poems, and at least one other play, The Nobleman, of which there is no extant copy. His first published work, The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), deals with Tourneur's favorite theme of political corruption. The poem is an allegorical satire, but critics have disagreed as to the subject of the allegory. In 1605 Tourneur wrote a prose pamphlet entitled Laugh and Lie Down that again inveighs against the corruption of the state and the world. His two other known poems, elegies on the deaths of Vere and Prince Henry VII, are more interesting for the insight they provide into Tourneur's courtly associations than they are for their literary merit.
The Revenger's Tragedy was probably written and first performed in 1606, and was published anonymously the following year. It was not until 1656 that the play was attributed to him, by the dramatist Edward Archer. In the nineteenth century scholars began to question Tourneur's authorship of the play, with many critics arguing that it was in fact written by Thomas Middleton. While most scholars accept that Tourneur is the likely author, the issue has never been settled. The Revenger's Tragedy, set in Italy, centers around Vindice, a man wronged by the Duke many years before the opening of the play. Vindice's wife, Gloriana, had refused to sleep with the Duke who, in a fit of rage, killed her. Vindice's hatred for this Duke has never subsided, and he vows to punish him for his sins. He goes about his revenge by exploiting the tensions in the Duke's household, pitting the Duke's children and wife against each other. The action of the play is breathless and the plot and subplots intricate, and the audience sees how the revenge of the protagonist is a corrupting force that eventually destroys him.
The Atheist's Tragedy was published in 1611 but, because it is inferior to The Revenger's Tragedy, critics speculate that it was written earlier than the other play but perhaps completed and published later. It tells the story of D'Amville, an atheist and naturalistic skeptic who tries to prevent his brother's son from inheriting his legitimate fortune so that he can confer it to his own children. Like The Revenger's Tragedy, the play has a considerable number of twists and turns and erotic entanglements as well as gruesome and lewd exchanges. In the course of the play D'Amville loses his sons and kills himself, and at the end the rightful inheritor declares that the Christian renunciation of revenge is greater than the aristocratic ideal of vengeance as displayed by D'Amville.
There is no evidence that either The Revenger's Tragedy or The Atheist's Tragedy enjoyed much popularity in their own day. It is uncertain that The Atheist's Tragedy was even staged in Tourneur's lifetime. Beginning in the nineteenth century Tourneur began to receive some critical admiration, including praise from the poet A. C. Swinburne. In the early twentieth century T. S. Eliot revived interest in the dramatist with an essay that noted the shortcomings of Tourneur's adolescent obsession with the macabre but praised The Revenger's Tragedy as a work of genius and sophisticated versification. Much subsequent discussion of Tourneur's two plays has centered around the question of their dating and authorship. Most critics have agreed that The Atheist's Tragedy is an inferior work to The Revenger's Tragedy, but many have pointed out their similarities in theme and subject matter, their common emphasis on the gruesome and horrific, and their underlying moral and Christian concerns. The Revenger's Tragedy in particular has elicited considerable commentary, and recent critics such as Karen Robertson and Karin S. Coddon have been interested in the author's use of irony, sexuality, and death to comment on what he viewed as the corrupt moral order of the Jacobean world.