Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

'Tis Pity She's a Whore is one of the most controversial plays ever staged in the English theatre. In this illuminating Handbook, Martin White:
• offers an in-depth, moment-by-moment analysis of the play, looking at how it might be performed on stage
• provides vital contextual material on John Ford's social and literary influences
• reconstructs the play's performances in Ford's own time and examines later stage, television and film productions
• guides the reader through the often heated critical and theatrical responses to the dramatic work.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
John Ford was christened in St Michael’s Church in his home village of Ilsington, in Devon, on 12 April 1586. His father Thomas was a local landowner, and his mother Elizabeth (née Popham) was a niece of John Popham, a successful lawyer who a year after John’s birth presided at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and later became Elizabeth I’s Lord Chief Justice. In 1600, John’s older brother Henry left Devon for London and the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court, where, after a brief period at Exeter College, Oxford, John joined him two years later. Middle Temple was one of the law schools which together made up what Sir Edward Coke described in 1602 as ‘the third university’, after Oxford and Cambridge. But as well as training those who would make the law their career and educating the sons of the nobility and country gentry, the Inns were also a vibrant centre of literary and dramatic activity. The Hall of Middle Temple (destroyed in the Second World War but fully restored) was the venue for plays and masques, where, for example, on the feast of Candlemas, 2 February 1602, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company, with the writer himself probably among the cast) staged Twelfth Night.
Martin White

2. Commentary: the Play in Performance

Abstract
In rehearsal, however well some of those involved might know the text (and everyone will, of course, have read the whole text), it is also important not to get ahead of ourselves but to play (at least at first) only what is happening at that precise moment. What has gone before may, of course, shape the action – but not what is to come. Of course, once we get to the end of the play, we can look back at those earlier signals that prefigured what was to come – some of which we might not have noticed at the time – and, where necessary, adjust. But it is important, I think, to allow unexpected turns in the plot or a character’s behaviour to take the performers by surprise, as it were, and see what follows; trying to smooth out what may seem like inconsistencies can often reduce the intentionally complex fabric of a play. So in this Commentary, as far as possible, I have tried not to get ahead of the action, but to wait for events to occur before discussing them. However, as in rehearsal, it is sometimes useful to observe a developing pattern in the action or language of the play, or to pause to consider some wider implication of an idea that the play has raised, or to explore something that helps explain what’s going on, or why. I hope the distinction is clear – and that I can keep it that way – as we proceed, so these comments are printed in italics.
Martin White

3. Intellectual and Cultural Context

Abstract
Originality seems to have mattered to John Ford. In the prologue to what is very likely his first independent play, The Lover’s Melancholy (1628), Ford declared that ‘in the following scenes he doth not owe/To others’ fancies, nor hath lain in wait/For any stol’n invention’, and 20 years later, in the prologue to The Fancies, Chaste and Noble, published towards the end of his career, he still thought it necessary to refer to ‘his free invention’. However, although he does not claim as much for ’Tis Pity, and while no particular source for the play has been identified, Ford was clearly influenced not only by a number of works of poetry (including by John Donne, whose lines are often directly echoed in the play) and prose, but also by the plays of dramatists who preceded or worked alongside him. Moreover, ’Tis Pity closely resembles other of his own plays in putting his characters in complex, seemingly intractable, personal relationships, and making the obstacles they face in negotiating those even more complicated by the particular social or family setting in which the action unfolds. Indeed, when Richard Crashaw wrote ‘Thou cheat’st us, Ford: mak’st one seem two by art: / What is Love’s Sacrifice but The Broken Heart’, he could as well have added ’Tis Pity to his list. And Julie Sanders could be referring to Ford when she writes:
Texts feed off each other and create other texts, and other critical studies; literature creates other literature. Part of the sheer pleasure of the reading experience must be the tension between the familiar and the new, and the recognition both of similarity and difference, between ourselves and between texts. The pleasure exists, and persists, then, in the act of reading in, around, and on (and on). (2006: 14)
Martin White

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
’Tis Pity remained in the repertoire of Christopher Beeston’s company until his death in 1638, and was then included in the plays protected by the Lord Chamberlain for Christopher’s son, William, who succeeded his father as manager of the Phoenix playhouse (see pp. 5–9) where he ran the King and Queen’s Young Company. All the London commercial playhouses were closed by Order of Parliament in 1642, but ’Tis Pity was among the first plays to be revived when they reopened following the restoration of Charles II. On 9 September 1661, the avid play-goer Samuel Pepys, after lunching rather too well (‘I drank so much wine that I was not fit for business’), ‘walked in Westminster Hall awhile, and thence to Salisbury Court playhouse, where was acted the first time [i.e. since the theatres re-opened] ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a simple play and ill-acted’. Pepys’s disappointment was mitigated by the presence of a ‘most pretty and ingenious lady’ sitting near him, but it is especially frustrating for us that he failed to record exactly who he saw perform the play, as this production featured the first women to play the female roles but who these actresses were is not known. The company at Salisbury Court was led by George Jolly, who in 1662 took his company out of London to tour its repertory of pre-Interregnum plays, and there is a record, though no detail, of a performance of ’Tis Pity at the King’s Arms in Norwich later that year. However, responses throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the content of the play, and in particular to Ford’s handling of his material (see Chapter 6) helped keep ’Tis Pity off the stage for another 250 years, until it was revived in November 1894 in Paris.
Martin White

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Compared with the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted to the cinema or television screen, the work of his contemporaries has been ignored in a similar fashion to the neglect it suffered for years on stage. Within this sparsely populated area, therefore, ’Tis Pity’s three adaptations for the screen (in 1971, 1978 and 1980) make it one of the most filmed of early modern non-Shakespearean dramas. In addition, it also figured in Badger’s Drift, the pilot episode of what became the long-running British television series Midsomer Murders. Throughout the episode, Cully, the aspiring actress daughter of the leading character, Detective Inspector Barnaby (played by the onetime Shakespearean actor John Nettles), is rehearsing for the part of Annabella, and a knowledge of the play’s plot and characters (the first murder victim dies with the name ‘Annabella’ on her lips) helps tie up a loose end at the conclusion (see Wilkinson 2010: 55 for a full analysis).
Martin White

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Baldly stated, critical responses to ’Tis Pity for the past 400 years have returned time and time again to two linked issues: Ford’s attitude to the incestuous relationship of Giovanni and Annabella – perceived by many to be at best ambivalent, at worst sympathetic – and the extent to which Giovanni can be considered a heroic figure or Annabella a victim. (There are, of course, notable exceptions to these preoccupations, especially the essays included in the collections edited by Anderson (1986), Neill (1988) and Hopkins (2010), and the book-length studies by Sargeaunt (1935), Oliver (1955), Leech (1957) and Stavig (1968) – though these rightly touch on those questions.) While it is true, as McCabe notes, that a ‘tone of moral insecurity … pervades the entire text’, it is equally important to recognize that incestuous love ‘is its theme, not its platform’ (1993: 229) and that its strength as a play derives precisely from Ford’s refusal either to exonerate or condemn Annabella and Giovanni. However, critics have repeatedly confused sympathy with approval, so that until comparatively recently the word most often used to describe author and play has been ‘decadent’, which as Wymer notes, ‘conveniently combine[s] moral and aesthetic implications’ (1995: 87).
Martin White
Additional information