1. Joseph Simons’ Leo Armenus was originally performed as a three-Act historical tragedy, at the Jesuit college at St. Omers, at some unknown date during the time of Simons’ tenure as Professor of Humanities (1623 - 1631). NOTE 1 Recast as a five-Act play and somewhat enlarged and rewritten, it was again performed at the English College at Rome during the carnival season of 1645. This, mark you, was while Simons was still teaching at the Jesuit seminary at Liège, two years before being appointed Rector of the English College. The text of the play in this latter version was printed as the fifth and final item in Simons’ Tragoediae Quinque, printed at Liège in 1656 (pp. 437 - 512).
2. Leo Armenus dramatizes the assassination of the Byzantine emperor Leo V the Armenian by his leading general Michael Balbus, on Christmas Day, 820. In its subtitle, in its concluding lines, and at many points in between, the play advertises itself as a tale of a tyrant being overthrown by a stroke of divine justice (Leo is regularly described as a tyrant throughout the play, not only by his enemies but by the shade of the dead Patriarch Tarasius). One can be more specific: when we first meet Leo Armenus, this Iconoclast emperor is entertaining himself with the sight of six icon-worshipers (Iconodules) being marched off to their execution, and these six are specifically identified as Catholici. This invites the audience to make the equations Iconodule = Catholic and Iconoclast = Protestant, insofar as, as illustrated by the policies of Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, a propensity for destroying Catholic artwork and iconography was a conspicuous feature of what a good Catholic was obliged to regard as Protestant tyranny. Then it would have been easy for the spectators to take the next step and view the play as a dramatic illustration of the Catholic doctrine that it is lawful for a people to remove their king if he comports himself unlawfully (for an enunciation of this political theory, see Francisco Suarez S. J., Defensio Fidei Catholicae et Apostolicae adversus Anglicanae Sectae Errores, 1613, III.iii.2 and 3), NOTE 2 a teaching which some Jesuit hotheads, such as Juan de Mariana, had transmuted into a justification of the assassination of Protestant sovereigns. This had proven a prominent item in the Protestant bill of particulars against the Society of Jesus, since the Jesuit hand was seen behind the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and Ravaillac’s assassination of Henri IV four years later. On a superficial reading, our play looks like an endorsement of this radical position.
3. This may be how things look on the surface. Leo indisputably is a tyrant. Not only does he take pleasure in the execution of the six Iconodules, he also kills two innocents for no better reason than that their Christian names are Michael. His language is suitably brutal for a tyrant: he is constantly issuing dire threats and swearing oaths by the Underworld. And, significantly, his characterization conforms to the portrait of the tyrannical man given by Plato in Book IX of the Republic: he is the unhappiest of men because he has to live in a constant state of fear, an emotion to which he frequently gives expression. But in Simons’ world things are rarely straightforward, and when one reads the play more carefully he quickly sees that difficulties exist. In the first place, there are two points in the play where Leo behaves in a distinctly un-tyrannical way. One is at the end of IV.i, where Leo relents and spares Theophilus’ life. The second is his agreement with his empress’ request that postpone Balbus’ execution until after Christmas Day in IV.ii. True, he does so grudgingly, in accordance with the advice of some of his counselors and against his own better judgment, but postpone it he does, and this single act of (at least outward) piety proves his undoing, since it buys Balbus time to win over Papias and his guards and set in motion a plot for Leo’s assassination.
4. Then too, the geometry of the narrative situation casts Balbus in the role of an instrument of divine vengeance, something he himself dimly recognizes (617f.). But what an unconvincing instrument he is! Presumably such an agent ought to be a man possessed of some recognizable spiritual merit and ethical virtue, but one in search of any such good qualities looks at Balbus in vain. Unlike his son Theophilus, who is — quite unhistorically, as it happens — portrayed as saintly and (as is shown by his devotion to the Virgin and to her icon in II.ii) strongly inclining towards the Iconodule persuasion, Balbus is not depicted as a pious man. The only time we see him praying is at the beginning of V.iii, but his prayer is addressed to Fortune rather than to God, and all he prays for is his own personal advancement. Throughout the play, his only visible motivation is ambition coupled with a desire to save his own skin, further fueled by resentment, provoked by the quite irrational idea that Leo should have appointed himself rather than his own son Sabatius heir-apparent to the throne (II.iv). And Balbus seems utterly devoid of any wholesome Iconodule leanings. Most of Simon’s plays (including all five of his printed ones) are chronicles of intrigue within royal courts, usually but not always played out against the background of some religious conflict, and they collectively present us with a comprehensive gallery of scheming men-on-the-make and revengers. There is very little about Balbus to differentiate him from Simons’ other such characters. Indeed, in an outburst when he is confronted with the corpse of his murdered father (1710), Leo’s son Sabatius calls Balbus a tyrannus, and one cannot be quite sure that his diagnosis is wrong: the play gives little reason for thinking that the quality of Balbus’ rule is destined to be very different than Leo’s (for one thing, the fact that he chooses to speak on behalf of the power of alcohol in the debate in I.i does not inspire any great confidence in his character). And surely even the most dedicated adherent of the theory that it was meritorious for a Catholic to assassinate a Protestant sovereign would presumably acknowledge that the motivation and spiritual condition of the assassin should count for something in assessing the quality of his deed. Then too, surely one has to take into consideration the setting in which this assassination occurs: at the high altar of Hagia Sophia during a religious observance held to celebrate one of Christianity’s most sacred days, while Leo is leading the congregation in the hymn appropriate for the occasion. All in all, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Simons is not endorsing the morality of such assassinations nearly as much as he is problematizing them, to raise questions in the minds of his spectators and readers, and possibly to provoke discussion and debate among them.
5. The foregoing appraisal of Balbus essentially expands on the verdict of James A. Parente, who concluded “Leo’s guilt did not by any means absolve Balbus from falsely usurping God’s role.... Simons was not at all interested in promoting revolution; rather, he was concerned with presenting a pessimistic portrait of history in which man’s sole comfort was his faith in divine justice.” NOTE 3 Parente made this observation in the course of a discussion of how Simons’ play influenced the writing of the 1650 historical tragedy Leo Armenus by Andreas Gryphius [Andreas Greif, 1616 - 1664]. Although this play (written in German) is substantially different from Simons’, it does inherit some of its details, most notably the appearance of the ghost of the dead Patriarch Tarasius. Parente’s comparison of the two plays (pp. 176 - 186) can be warmly recommended to the reader. NOTE 4 On p. 177 Parente made the useful observation that, since Gryphius wrote his play after Simons’ had been acted at the English College, but prior to its first appearance in print, he must have had access to a manuscript copy.
6. The present edition gives the text of the 1645 performance, as printed in 1656. The Tragoediae Quinque volume contains texts of five plays, all presumably written for production at St. Omers, but in similarly revised form. St. Omers plays were traditionally written in three, or at most four, Acts and, as befitted plays written for performance by schoolboys, were relatively short, typically running to maybe 1500 lines and certainly no more than 2000. These considerations combined to place a premium on efficient dramaturgy and terse writing, so they tend to be free of overly luxuriant rhetoric and scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. Someplays in Tragoediae Quinque are strikingly longer (Theoctistus, most notably, contains 2877 lines, and Mercia and Vitusare only somewhat shorter). It is therefore easy to surmise that, in revising his plays for revival performances, Simons not only recast them into the five-Act structure standard for Humanistic drama, but also considerably expanded them. This was presumably done, not only because he was now free of St. Omers restrictions and took into consideration the institutional needs and traditions of the English College, but because, writing for university-level students rather than schoolboys, he could rely on more capable actors. Leo Armenus is the exception to this generalization, being only 1769 lines long. This is somewhat longer than the St. Omers version (1594 lines), which is preserved in three manuscripts, but not greatly so. Simons’ only lengthy addition is the excursus about modern military life at 1086ff., written in a satirical vein which is entertaining but scarcely necessary for telling the story. It can be suspected that the reason for this is that he did not feel free to indulge in more radical revision because, before becoming Rector of the English College, he was not as familiar with College resources and did not feel as comfortable working with them.
The three manuscripts representing the St. Omers version are:
Cambridge: University Library ms. Ii vi.36 fols. 43 - 78v. First half of seventeenth century, also contains a text of Simons’ Zeno. Written in the same hand as Stonyhurst ms. A.VII.50 (2) containing the 1651 St. Omers play Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius.
Cambridge: St. John’s College ms. Aa.3, fols 82 - 114. First half of seventeenth century, written in the same hand as the following ms.
Stonyhurst, Lancs.: Stonyhurst College ms. B vi. 25, fols. 71 - 104. First half of seventeenth century, written in the same hand as the preceding ms.
Included with this edition is a Latin text of the earlier version, with hyperlinks to equivalent passages in the 1645 one. Textual variants are given in italics. These variants range from rewritten passages (typically shorter in the original) down to single-word substitutions. The most radically altered scene is V.i, which is greatly recast although some lines of the original are preserved, occasionally put to new purposes. Simons also outfitted his printed version with considerably more elaborate stage directions.
7. I am indebted to the authorities of the Cambridge University Library for providing me with a photocopy of the first of these mss., and to Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for supplying similar photocopies of the other two, and also to Dr. Allison Shell for providing useful bibliographic advice. An English translation of Leo Armenus has been published by Philip C. Fischer S. J. in Louis J. Oldani S. J. and Philip C. Fischer S. J. (edd.), Jesuit Theater Englished (St. Louis, 1989) pp. 323 - 378. The translation provided here is original, although Fischer’s has been consulted at various points and a few of his felicities have been appropriated.
NOTE 1 William H. McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (St. Louis, 1983) p. 136 was inclined to assign the play to the years 1624 - 1629, for which no dramatic records are preserved.
NOTE 2 As expressed by Suarez, Catholic thinking has a remarkable amount in common with the political ideas of the Presbyterian George Buchanan, set forth in his 1579 De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus. The primary difference between these two theories is that Buchanan argued that, since a king is chosen by his people, he is therefore answerable to them for his behavior.
NOTE 3 James A. Parente, Religious Drama and the Humanist Tradition (Leiden, 1987) p. 181. Another useful modern study of Simons as a dramatist is Alison Shell, “Autodidacticism in English Jesuit Drama: the Writings and Career of Joseph Simons,”Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 13 (2001) 34 - 56.
NOTE 4 See also J. Hermann Tisch, Andreas Gryphius: Leo Armenus (Hobart, 1968) and Michael Szurawitzki, Contra den “rex iustus/rex iniquus”? Die Einfluss von Machiavelli’s Il Principe, auf Marlowes Tamburlane, Shakespeares Heinrich V, und Gryphius’ Leo Armenus (Würzburg, 2005) pp. 155 - 179. For the possible influence of Leo Armenus on a second playwright, see the note on line 828.