1. The historical tragedy Mercia, sive Pietas Coronata by Joseph Simons S. J. [Emmanuel Lobb, 1594 - 1671] was originally performed at the Jesuit College of St. Omers in February 1624, one of the plays written by Simons in connection with his duties as Professor of Humanities, NOTE 1 and was revived at the English College at Rome during the Carnival season of 1648. St. Omers plays tend to be short affairs. Simon’s Zeno was originally written in four Acts entitled Protasis, Epitasis, Catastasis, and Catastrophe, a scheme imitated by the anonymous 1651 Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius, but otherwise all surviving St. Omers plays are three Act ones, and these plays rarely consumed more than 1500 lines. These considerations combined to place a premium on efficient dramaturgy and terse writing. Unlike his Leo Armenus and Zeno, likewise rewritten for revival performances, the original text of Simons’ Mercia is not preserved in the repertoire of play manuscripts presently owned by St. Omers’ successor-institution, Stonyhurst College (we only know of this performance thanks to archival evidence), but we may doubtless assume that, like those plays, it was subsequently revised and expanded to suit the tastes and requirements of the other institution where it was performed. Certainly, it is not difficult to identify some elements in the lengthy 1648 version (which occupies almost 2700 lines) which look like later additions made for this purpose, for they do nothing to advance the plot of the play. This is conspicuously true of V.v, in which the pagan priest Theorgus swindles a couple of superstitious courtiers, and of Ruffinus’ speech at 1871ff., a rhetorical set-piece in which the boy gives an exciting description of a hunt and is on the verge of relating a portentous dream afterwards seen by himself and his brother, but is interrupted by the arrival of a messenger, so that the dream’s contents are not divulged. Other scenes could easily be shortened, and plenty of rhetorical passages could be pruned. Simons may have also have revised his play in the light of the fact that in 1648 he had university-level men rather than schoolboys at his disposal, so may have capitalized on their presumably more advanced acting skills. On the other hand, it shall be argued below that he did not need to rewrite the original play in order to accommodate it to different stage resources.
2. The play tells the story of Wulfhere of Mercia [regnavit 658 - 675], the first Christian king of Mercia, and of his conversion to Christianity by the bishop St. Chad of Hereford. His two sons, Wulfhad and Rufin, secretly became Christians but were denounced by his chief counsellor Werbode. The angry Wulfhere killed his sons, but then Werbode was siezed with madness and confessed his crime. This led to Wulfhere’s repentance and conversion (the story is told by Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica III.7, 21, 24, 30, IV 3, 12, 13, 24 — one assumes that other accounts of the story, including those cited by Simons in his prose preface, ultimately depend on Bede). Obviously, a play written on this subject can be identified as a specimen of that very popular Jesuit dramatic form, the martyr play. Since Jesuit educational organizations were producing young men who might very well confront death in their chosen profession, it is understandable that the Order had an institutional need for plays celebrating and even glamorizing martyrdom (it is probably no accident that plays such as Simon’s Sanctus Pelagius Martyr, Mercia and Vitus and the anonymous Ananias, Azarias, Mizael feature child-martyrs, with whom St. Omers students could particularly identify). At the same time, Mercia is also attracted into the orbit of the revenge play (a genre to which Simons returned in his 1626 Sanctus Damianus). Verebodus is unjustly denounced as the man responsible for converting the king’s two sons and alienating them against their father, and the overthrow of Jupiter’s statue is blamed on him. Although he is subsequently absolved of this accusation and restored to royal favor, resentment at the ill treatment he has received turns him into a revenger hell-bent on bringing down Ulferus and his royal house. He becomes a manipulative schemer and finally, by his lies, contrives to enrage Ulferus to the point of killing his children. Hence the play has plenty of the kind of crafty misrepresentations, malice and courtly intrigue that contemporary English theatergoers found so appealing.
3. In many ways, Mercia reproduces dramatic situations and characters that Simons had already employed in the previous year in his Vitus. Both plays deal with the clash of nascent Christianitiy with traditional paganism, very palpably on the defensive. Both deal with the martyrdom of a devout young Christian (Vitus, Ufadus) who resolutely resists attempts of a king to deter him by threats and blandishments. But both plays tell there stories in very different terms than what would find in traditional hagiographical accounts. Both feature a pagan priest (Urbanus, Theorgus) who violently opposes Christianity, but primarily because he is interested in maintaining his own power and prestige, not because he is motivated by any genuine piety towards the ancient gods. Both plays feature a pagan ruler whose piety is more real, but whose piety only serves as a means of making him easily manipulable by those around him. In both plays, the threat created by the ardent young convert provokes upheaval in a royal court, as individual courtiers intrigue, seeking to take advantage of the conflict in order to advance their personal agendas. And in both, the harmony of a family is shattered when paternal authority is flouted and the bonds of familial pietas are broken. Hence the collision of Christianity and paganism is problematized with vastly greater intellectual sophistication than what we read in hagiographies, and its consequences are represented with much more psychological realism. It may seem surprising that Simons paid such attention to a kind of clash which, as far as Europe was concerned, lay many centuries in the past. But it must be borne in mind that in Mercia and Vitus he is retrojecting into the remote past issues that were still very much alive in other parts of the world, in connection with the Jesuit missionary enterprise, with the result that Jesuit martyrdom was a very real possibility. Hence it cannot be denied that these plays had contemporary relevance.
4. Of the various published comments on the play, NOTE 2 some remarks by one (Miola, p. 83) are of sufficient interest that they merit extensive quotation:
Simons’ Mercia has a precise, structural counterpart in English drama, Philip Massinger and Thomas Dekker’s The Virgin Martyr. This play (licensed in 1620, published in 1622) tells the tale of St. Dorothea, wooed by Antoninus, whom she turns to love of God, and confronted by Christeta and Caliste, whom she converts to Christianity. Dorothea suffers torture but remains miraculously unharmed, and finally is martyred and translated to glory. Massinger and Dekker domesticate the Senecan fantasm to a morality-play devil, Harpax, who opposes an angel, Angelo. The converts, like Simons’s princes, declare allegiance to Christianity in a dramatic desecration of Jupiter’s image: They [Christeta and Calista] both spit at the image, throw it down, and spurn it (3.2.53 S. D.). Like Ulferus, Theophilus, the enraged father of the new Christians, has his children killed for their apostasy. Villainous accomplices in both plays, Verebodus in Mercia and Harpax in The Virgin Martyr, incite the fathers to the murder, thus deflecting some of the blame and allowing for paternal reformation. Like Ulferus, Theophilus witnesses a miraculous apparition, repents, and finally converts to Christianity.
It would seem, therefore, that in Mercia we have yet another example of an Anglo-Catholic drama written on the Continent under the inspiration of the London stage.
5. The surviving text of Mercia represents the play in the form it was acted at Rome in 1648. A notice precedes both printed texts of the play tells us it received six performances at the English College during the Carnival season and was well received each time. The play is preserved by two sources. It was printed together with Simons’ Zeno at Rome in 1648, having its own title page but with continuous pagination, so that it occupies pp. 105 - 235 of the volume. Then it was reprinted in Simon’s Tragoediae Quinque (Liège, 1656), pp. 103 - 226. The texts of these two printings are nearly but not quite identical. There are four kinds of discrepancy: 1.) printing errors in the 1648 book corrected in the 1656 one; 2.) new printing errors in the 1656 book; 3.) printing errors found in both books; and 4.) a small number of places in the 1656 book where new readings are introduced (all of which are simple vocabulary substitutions). All four differences can be understood by assuming that in 1656 Simons handed his Liège printer a copy of the 1648 edition in which some but not all of the original errors had been hand-corrected and a few textual alterations were added, and that the Liège printer added some new errors of his own. All of this goes to show that both the 1648 and the 1656 printings substantially agree in preserving the text of the play as it had been acted at Rome in 1648. There are no changes that suggest that the play had been altered for subsequent performance elsewhere. If any further proof of this conclusion were needed, one could point to the instruction found at the end of Acts I, II, III and IV that the Act should be followed by a chorus vel interludium. By interludium Simons probably meant the four interleaved Acts of a short comic intermedium, a performance practice familiar at the English College at Rome but unattested for other Jesuit institutions.
6. Spelling out the considerations which go to show that the text of both printings is that of the 1648 Rome performance, and nothing else, may strike the reader as needlessly laborious. But this is not done without good reason, for, at least at first sight, the printed texts seem to contain internal evidence that points a radically different conclusion. Both the tenor of the play and its stage directions show that our version of Mercia was written to be performed on a “set” consisting of a front curtain (siparium) which opens to reveal an open acting space in the foreground. Behind it is a stage-building (proscenium) containing at least two rooms with doors (valvae) that could be opened independently to reveal interior scenes. And we learn from the final scene of Act V that this structure was sufficiently sturdy that it could support the weight of three actors in the representation of a divine epiphany.The problem is that this rather sophisticated and elaborate stage furniture, quite flexible in its ability to represent various kinds of scene, is substantially the same as that of the theater at St. Omers, as described by McCabe (pp. 124 - 129). But in other surviving English College plays no similar “set” is required, and a spy’s report submitted by someone who had witnessed the production of the tragicomedy Captiva Religio in 1614 appears to attest that that play had been performed before a simple painted backdrop. NOTE 3
7. It boggles the imagination to think that Simons would have rewritten his original St. Omers Mercia to suit the conditions and requirements of the English College in other respects, without recasting the play so as to fit the stage resources available at the College. It is equally unlikely that Simons simplified the staging for the 1648 production, but then rewrote that text so as to restore the original St. Omers dramaturgy for the play’s publication. A far more likely explanation comes to mind. Save for Simons’ plays, all surviving plays produced at the English College were presented during the first two decades of the seventeenth century (most of these plays are available in The Philological Museum). Hence we might best think that at some subsequent time the stage resources at that institution were improved and came to resemble the St. Omers ones. The St. Omers theater may well have provided the model for this project and, since Simons was Rector of the College, it is by no means out of the question that he may have personally supervised the construction of a new theater according to the St. Omers plan. According to this theory, although he doubtless rewrote the play in other respects, Simons would not have had to revise its dramaturgy to suit significantly different physical resources.
8. To sum up, Mercia’s performance history seems simple and straightforward. The play was originally written to be acted at St. Omers while Simons was Professor of Humanities there. Subsequently, during the period when he was Rector of the English College at Rome (1647 - 1650), another Jesuit educational institution with a vigorous and long-standing theatrical tradition, it was revived and adapted to suit the different requirements and resources of the English College, and it was the text of this latter version that Simons saw fit to print. In 1650 he was appointed Rector of the English Theologate at Liège, but, even if Tragoediae Quinque was printed at that city, the text of that edition gives us no reason for thinking that the play received a further revival there. Furthemore, it is striking that four of the five plays included in Tragoediae Quinque are attested to have been revived at the English College, and the fifth one, Vitus, is likewise written in five Acts and occupies more than 2400 lines long, and so has obviously has been subjected to a revision exactly similar to those of the other four, so in all probability it too was rewritten for College production. Clearly he plays Simons selected for printing, both individually and in Tragoediae Quinque, were the ones that he had chosen to revive at Rome. But he did not see fit to print other works he had written while at St. Omers (of these, the 1623 Sanctus Pelagius Martyr and the 1626 Sanctus Damianus survive, and other, lost, ones are attested by archival evidence — the guiding principle here must be that, since the St. Omers bylaws specified that all plays should be written by the Professor of Humanities, all dramatic and quasi-dramatic works produced there during Simons’ years of service must be assumed to be his in the absence of any compelling considerations to the contrary). This may be because the five revived and printed plays were the ones he liked the best. Or, more simply, he may not have retained copies of all his St. Omers works on his peregrinations after leaving that place.
9. An English translation of Mercia has been published by R. F. Grady S. J. in Louis J. Oldani S. J. and Philip C. Fischer S. J. (edd.), Jesuit Theater Englished (St. Louis, 1989) pp. 79 - 160. The translation provided here is original, although Grady’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. 85f. In Part III of this work McCabe presented the most detailed available study of Simons’ plays, written from a Catholic point of view.
NOTE 2 Recent studies include what is written about this play in the course of J. A. Parente Jr., “Tyranny and Revolution on the Baroque Stage: the Dramas of Joseph Simons,” Humanistica Lovaniensia XXXII (1983) pp. 309 - 324, who also stressed the resemblance of Mercia to a revenge play; Robert S. Miola, “Jesuit Drama in Early Modern England,” in Richard Dutton, Alison Gail Findlay, and Richard Wilson (edd.), Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare (Manchester, 2003), pp. 82 - 84; Alison Shell, “Tragedy and Religion,” in Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. (edd.) The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy (Cambridge, 2010)pp. 51 - 54.
NOTE 3 The spy’s name was named Frederico Gotardi: cf. P. R. O. State Papers Foreign, Italian States and Rome: 84/5/101, summarized by Joseph P. Fiel, “Sir Tobie Matthew and his Collection of Letters” (diss. Chicago, 1962) 78, and by Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558 - 1660 (Cambridge, 1999) 190.