Introduction


spacer1. The anonymous tragedy Basilindus sive Ambitio Summum Gentis Humanae Malum, preserved by Stonyhurst College Library ms. A.VII.50 (1), fos. 63v - 85v, was performed at some unknown date at the Jesuit College of St. Omers. NOTE 1 It belongs to a familiar category of early seventeenth century English drama. In writing of Thomas Tomkis’ Cambridge comedy Lingua, or The Combat of the Tongue and the five Senses for Superiority (first printed in 1607) in vol. VI.2 of the TheCambridge History of English and American Literature, F. S. Boas wrote that Lingua “falls in with the contemporary fashion of personifying or allegorizing the parts and faculties of man, which finds its chief expression in Phineas Fletcher’s Purple Island.” Two contemporary Latin plays of the same kind are already included in The Philological Museum, the anonymous Stoicus Vapulans produced at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in late 1618, and also the Jesuit comedy Psyche et Filii Eius (this play has been doctored so as to introduce a strong element of Catholic propaganda, but in its original form it may not have been of Jesuit provenance, and may in fact been written under the influence of Stoicus Vapulans). In Basilindus, as is carefully spelled out in the initial roster of dramatis personae, each character represents some moral quality, good or bad, so that the story of King Basilius’ dethronement and murder by his brother Basilindus is an easily-deciphered psychagogic allegory for the derangement that occurs within an individual human personality when ambition displaces reason as its guiding principle. As such, the play is a wholesome and effective vehicle for moral instruction. At the same time, its author writes in his initial Argument that he has composed his play ex mente Aristotelis De Arte Poetica, quo etiam tristiores habet exitus [“in accordance with the intentions of Aristotle’s Poetics, and in this way my play has a sadder outcome.”] On the level of an individual personality, ambition is the catastrophe-creating ἁμαρτία or tragic flaw. On a narrative level, the career of ambitious Basilindus is shaped so as to adhere to the familiar dramatic parabola of the rise and fall of a tyrant or similarly flawed central character.
spacer
spacer2. Basilindus contains a number of detailed stage directions that indicate how the physical resources of the St. Omers theater were to be used, and it will prove helpful to say a few words about what the stage was like. NOTE 2 There was a common forestage running the entire width of the visible acting area, used to represent street scenes, great halls of palaces, forests, gardens, military camps, and so forth. Behind it three alcoves, a wide central one flanked by to side ones, and each outfitted with its own curtain. The central one was used to represent a wide variety of buildings and, no doubt, to facilitate interior scenes, and all threealcoves were variously employed to stage tableaux vivantes, and to represent homes of minor characters, prison cells, places where characters could retire and hide, and other such convenient secondary locations. All three alcoves were covered by a common roof that could be used as another acting area for angel-appearances, etc. The Basilindus stage directions clearly refer to an arrangement essentially identical to that available to Joseph Simons in the next decade. But these stage directions present an interpretational problem: we must attempt to associate what look like more or less technical words and phrases in our playwright’s vocabulary with the physical features of the stage. The words in question are:

ab alto latere (II.iii)
angulum theatri
(after 324)
extra scenam (III.v)
in reducto angulo a latere theatri
(after 162)
media cortina (after 21)
medium ciparium
(III.i, after 568)
scena
(I.i, 19, after 872, after 889)
siparia (after 864)
sublime (after 31)
theatrum (after 574, after 872)
velum (after 21, after 31, after 288)

spacer3. It is obvious that latus refers to a side alcove, and I would hazard the guess that angulum means the same thing. Sublime refers to the roof, where Superbia sits on her throne (descendit in the direction after 42 probably only means she gets off the throne, not that the actor playing Superbia comes down to ground level). According to McCabe various terms are used indifferently to designate the curtains before the alcoves, and that it probably equally true in Basilindus for ciparium, cortina, siparium, and velum (ciparium and siparium are obviously two spellings of the same word, but since it is uncertain whether this is a simple scribal error or the author’s own responsibility, I have not altered the ms. text). The word medium or the context of other individual directions suffice to indicate which curtain is intended. Scena is used for an alcove and theatrum for the forestage. This interpretation of scena is proven by those stage directions which specify that it is to be opened or closed, which show that this stage-feature is outfitted with a curtain. On the other hand, the word scena is not reserved for the central alcove. At the beginning of I.i a scena is opened to show a tableau featuring Virtus, Sapientia, Voluptas and Pecunia. Then the scena closes at line 19, and the central curtain is drawn to reveal a second tableau only lines later. Since it would be impossible to introduce the necessary change in a single alcove in such a short space, it is clear that the first tableau was shown in side alcove, and the second in the center one. The phrases angulum theatri and in reducto angulo a latere theatri cast no doubt on the idea that the theatrum is the forestage: they simply designate an alcove behind the forecourt on one side of the visible acting area, i. e., a side-alcove. The interpretations suggested here are of course provisional and liable to change or improvement in the light of evidence from further St Omers plays, but they will be adopted for the purpose of the present translation.
spacer4. Dr. Anne Prescott points out that the character Panourgus in this play (the name comes from a Greek word for a rascal who is prepared to do anything at all to achieve his ends) is very likely suggested by Rabelais’ character Panurge. Certainly both share common characteristics: their unprincipled cleverness and boldness in wrongdoing, occasionally varied by abject descents into cowardness (as can be seen particularly in I.ii).
spacer5. I would like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing Basilindus to my attention and supplying me with a photograph of the manuscript.

 

Notes

spacerNOTE 1 Basilindus is noted by Alfred Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” PMLA 53 (1938) 628, Albert Harbage, Silvia S. Wagonheim, and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama 975 - 1700 (London, 1989) 208, and William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre (St. Louis, 1983) 102.

spacerNOTE 2 Here I am summarizing the facts set out by McCabe, op. cit. 125 - 27, based on what he deduced from the stage directions in the plays of the St. Omers playwright Joseph Simions, which cover the period 1623 - 31.