1. The Jesuit tragedy Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius is preserved by Stonyhurst College ms. A.VII.50 (2), pp. 16 - 44. According to the collegiate Registrum, it was produced at the Jesuit college of St. Omers on 17 August, 1651. NOTE 1 The St. Omers Constitutiones (§ A.3) specified that the production of college plays was the Professor of Humanities: Professor Humanitatis (etsi Ratio Studiorum nihil praescribat) praeter comoediam vel tragoediam sub finem studiorum ad praemiorum distributionem, habeat etiam in aula mense februario declamatoriam actionem, ad quam invitari poterunt externi). Although this was usually understood to require that the Professor write the plays himself, the current occupant of that chair twice reinterpreted it to mean that the Professor was responsible for their production, but he assigned their writing to his students as collaborative efforts, so that the plays Felix Concordia Fratrum sive Ioannes et Paulus (1651) and Gemitus Columbae, sive Theophili Lachrymae (1650 or 1652?) were student-written.
2. This nameless individual wrote the present play himself, but in it he indulged in a different kind of innovation. He eschewed both the standard three-Act structure of St. Omers plays and the five Acts normal and Humanistic drama elsewhere, and wrote a four-Act play. His Acts are labeled Protasis, Epitasis, Catastasis, and Catastrophe. Three of these terms are taken from Aelius Donatus’ On Comedy and Tragedy, in which it is stated that all dramatic plots can be analyzed into four parts, the Prologue, Protasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe, an organizational scheme that had already been used in Joseph Simons’ 1631 Zeno. The Prologue introduces the plot. In the Protasis, the action begins and “part of the play is developed, and part withheld in order to create suspense.“ In the Epitasis there is an ascent, with further plot-development and new difficulties introduced. The Catastrophe provides a satisfactory resolution to the play’s problems and clarifies everything that has preceded it. Our anonymous author (who did not start with a Prologue) inserted a fourth section, the Catastasis (“establishment, institution”) to indicate the Act in which the play’s central problem, Bellisarius’ alleged treason, is introduced. Another seeming form of innovation is that both this present play and Gemitus Columbae begin with spectral apparitions from the Underworld, and stage directions show that these were meant to employ some kind of trap-door in the stage. In his description of the St. Omers stage and its furniture, NOTE 2 William H. McCabe S. J. mentions no such feature, and I do not recall having encountered it in any St. Omers play written prior to this time. If this impression is right, it would appear that this trap-door was a new addition and that playwrights of the time were experimenting with its use.
3. The play dramatizes what is generally regarded as a medieval legend NOTE 3 about how the sixth century general Bellisarius, whose brilliant military successes had shored up the tottering Byzantine empire, was falsely accused of treason by his enemies at court. Believing these slanders, the emperor Justinian sentenced his erstwhile favorite to have his eyes removed, and he dragged out his old age as a beggar in the streets. The story of the downfall of a great man always provides suitable material for a tragedy, and in some ways Fortunae Ludibrium is a satisfactory play. It certainly succeeds in catering to an audience’s interest in plots involving intrigue at a royal court, and (less creditable, and highly untypical of St. Omers drama) also in catering to any spectator’s relish for onstage gruesomeness, when Bellisarius’ sons are presented with a box containing their father’s blood-red eyeballs (the amount of blood imagery in the play is also remarkable).
4. Nevertheless, Fortunae Ludibrium is conspicuously marred by three serious dramaturgic faults. At the beginning of the play he invests a great deal of energy in informing us that Justinian’s court is teeming with heretics, and we are led to expect that their heresy will be the prime motivation for the noblemen who engage in a conspiracy to assassinate Justinian, or, failing that, to bring down Bellisarius. Indeed, in the play’s initial Argument we are explicitly told that such is their motive. But when the conspirators get down to business, their sole reason for acting seems to be that they chafe under Justinian’s rule, which they regard as tyranny, and begrudge Bellisarius, whom they regard as arrogant, his high standing with the emperor. None of the conspirators utters any sentiment that could be regarded as heretical, and indeed they express no interest in religion whatsoever. It looks as if the author started to write a play set against the background of the Monophysite controversy that wracked Justinian’s reign and filled his imperial court with factionalism and intrigue, but, as his writing progressed, for some reason changed his mind and discarded this idea, but did not bother to go back and revise his first two Acts to eliminate traces of his original intention. Had the author followed through on his first plan, the result might have been interesting and powerful for a Catholic audience. But, whatever the history of the play’s writing may have been, as matter stand, all that is said about heresy in its first two Acts constitute a sign pointing nowhere.
5. Next, there is the matter of the emerald ring with its inscription COR UNUM, given Bellisarius as a pledge of Justinian’s affection at 184ff. When Bellisarius is accused of being the arch-plotter of the assassination attempt and Justinian produces the ring at 1011f., found on the hand of one of the conspirators, Sergius, and Bellisarius can give no account of how it had come into Sergius’ possession, he stands convicted in the emperor’s eyes. At the time this transaction occurs, the audience must be mystified about how Sergius had gotten it. Only later in the play (1132ff.) are we told that the ring had fallen off Bellisarius’ hand when he and Sergius engaged in an onstage tussle at 584ff. Even worse, during his trial, at 1132ff,. Bellisarius is able to explain how Sergius acquired the ring, but at 1014ff., when confronted with the ring by Justinian, he is amazed and tongue-tied, and cannot produce a satisfactory answer at a time when it might have saved him. The use of the ring as a plot-device is a good one, but it is impossible to avoid concluding that the playwright has seriously bungled its execution. He would have done better if during the struggle between Bellisarius and Sergius he had inserted a stage direction indicating that the transfer of the ring should be shown to the audience by a bit of stage business, so that both viewers and readers of the play would have been able to comprehend the situation. There is no visible advantage in deliberately mystifying us.
6. Then too, I doubt I shall be the only reader troubled by the play’s conclusion. Throughout the play, although Bellisarius’ pride is resented by the rival noblemen who bear false witness against him as the alleged ringleader of a plot to assassinate the emperor Justinian, in all the scenes when he is onstage and we are able to judge him by his own words and actions, he seems like an essentially good man, and certainly not like one who deserves a downfall. Nothing we ourselves see verifies his enemies’ appraisal of his character. He says nothing that strikes us as hubristic or indicative of a tragic flaw, so that in this important sense Fortunae Ludibrium does not qualify as a true tragedy, and his injunction to his sons at 912ff. that they should go through life fearing God and remaining loyal to their emperor is thoroughly moderate and sensible. The play therefore seems to tell the story of an innocent man traduced by his enemies, whose life is senselessly ruined by an emperor over-hasty to put his trust in slander.
7. It is therefore a considerable surprise when St. Sylverius appears in a concluding epiphany (1338ff.) to announce that what has happened to Bellisarius is, in effect, an act of divine retribution for his acquiescence when the empress Theodora deposed him as Pope and relegated him to the life of an exiled monk for his refusal to join the Monophysites (she commanded Bellisarius to remove Sylverius, and to facilitate this he concocted a charge that the Pope had treasonably supported the Ostrogoths). This provokes a compete reassessment of Bellisarius’ character and the play’s action, but this a reassessment that appears unsupported by anything in the play itself and therefore strikes us as unwarranted. It would seem that this final passage was tacked on the play as an afterthought, either because the playwright himself had second thoughts about the ethical and theological implications of showing a virtuous man’s life ruined for no good reason, or because others in the St. Omers community were scandalized and insisted on this change. If this suggestion seems far-fetched, one should reflect on the play’s title, for, without this final passage, Bellisarius indeed is a plaything of fortune. But if the play was seriously meant as an illustration of divine justice being executed, then the title makes no sense. Furthermore, if Bellisarius’ noble enemies indeed are heretics, as is strongly implied in the play’s early scenes and explicitly stated in the Introduction, then it might be considered troublesome that these heretics are, in effect, chosen to serve as instruments of God’s vengeance.
8. The play’s four-Act stucture, its Byzantine setting, and its emphasis on courtly intrigue might otherwise raise the suspicion that play was actually revival of an earlier one written by Joseph Simons himself, revived in 1651. But the dramaturgic problems raised here assuredly rule this possibility out of court. But it may be closer to mark to suggest that it is the work of a lesser playwright who has studied Simons’ works — this would have been easy to do, since by 1651 Leo Armenus and Zeno had appeared in print — and done his best to imitate him, without conspicuous success.
9. Appended to the initial Argument is a list of the playwright’s sources: Procopius’ Wars of Justinian (and Secret History?), Zonaras’ Epitome Historiarum, Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos’ Historia Ecclesiastica, Paul the Deacon’s Historia Romana, and Book VII of Caesar Cardinal Baronius’ Annales Ecclesiasticae. A conceivable source of a different kind is not mentioned, the 1607 Belisarius by the prominent German Jesuit poet and dramatist Jakob Bidermann S. J. [1578 - 1639]. This play, to be sure, was available in print it was included in the collection of Bidermann’s Ludi Theatrales Sacri issued at Munich in 1666, but in view of Bidermann’s reputation, the possibility that manuscripts circulated widely enough in Jesuit circles that our playwright was familiar with it perhaps requires a moment’s consideration Both plays dramatize the same story, and there are some points of resemblance: some of the same noblemen of Justinian’s court, for example, appear in both plays (such as Ablavius, Marcellus, Sergius, and Eusebius), and there is a scene in Belisarius which shows its protagonist forestalling being stripped of his sword, at the time of his formal disgrace, by voluntarily handing it over (compare Bidermann’s p. 66 with Fortunae Ludibrium 1024f.) But such similarities can probably be explained by the fact that both playwrights depended on the same sources, since Bidermann lists Procopius and Baronius among his. And the differences between them are considerably more striking than the similarities. Among these, Bidermann identified his play as a Comico-Tragoedia, whereas there are no comical elements in Fortunae Ludibrium. Belisarius is made unnaturally long and cerebral by being cluttered with a large roster of personified abstractions, mercifully absent from Fortunae Ludibrium. Belisarius gives its protagonist a single son, Arcadius, distinctly a “bit part,” whereas Fortunae Ludibrium features two, Smaragdus and Hyacinthus, which are important roles, and their reaction to their father’s downfall provides the play with a great deal of its pathos. Belisarius contains no equivalent of the plot-device of the emerald ring. Whereas Belisarius acknowledges the part played by Bellisarius in the deposition of Pope Sylverius, there is no appeal this fact as an explanation or justification of his downfall. That play ends with a kind of epilogue exclaiming about the capricious role played by fortune in human affairs, as if this is the only lesson the preceding action has to teach. In sum, the difference between Fortunae Ludibrium and Belisarius far outweigh the similarities, so Fortunae Ludibrium cannot be described as any kind of adaptation of that previous Jesuit play written on the same subject.
10. I would like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius to my attention, supplying me with a photograph of the manuscript
NOTE 1 Its existence has been noted by Alfred Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” P. M. L. A. 53 (1938) 628. Albert Harbage, Silvia S. Wagonheim, and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama 975 - 1700 (London, 1989) 150 268, and William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre (St. Louis, 1983) 93, who cites the evidence for dating.
NOTE 2 McCabe, 125 - 27.
NOTE 3 But his nineteenth century biographer the Earl of Stanhope, was prepared to accept the truth of this tradition in his Life of Belisarius (London, 1829, repr. Yardley, Pa., 2005).