1. Joseph Simons’ tragedy Theoctistus, sive Constans in Aula Virtus was first produced at the Jesuit college at St. Omers in August 1624. NOTE 1 It then reappears in two mid-century printings, as an independent volume issued at Liège by Leonardus Streel, serenissimae suae celsitudinis typographus iuratus, in 1653, and again in Simons’ Tragoediae Quinque, printed in the same city by Johannes Matthias Hovius in 1656, where it occupies pp. 227 - 338. With one exception, and making allowance for printing mistakes and a very small number of word-substitutions made by the author as afterthoughts, these two printed editions are identical: in fact, the 1653 typographical errors that go uncorrected in 1656 strongly suggest that Simons handed printer Hovius a marked-up copy of the 1653 volume to serve as the basis for the reprint (a procedure he also adopted in the case of another play in the 1656 collection that had already been printed elsewhere, Mercia).
2. The single exception to this generalization is an important one. The 1656 title page prefacing the play contains an item of information not found in its earlier equivalent: Romae sub ferias Bacchanales anni 1654 a nobilissima iuventute Italica Seminarii Romani saepius cum plausu data [“Repeatedly given during Carnival week of the year 1654, by the right noble youth of Italy belonging to the Seminarium Romanum.”] The version of the play we have shows every sign of having been written for a revival performance at the English College at Rome, no doubt during the period 1647 - 1650, when Simons served as Rector there. It resembles the other plays in Tragoediae Quinque, which are variously known or assumed to have been expanded from their original St. Omers form: St. Omers plays were written in three or at most four Acts and tended to be short, whereas our Theoctistus is composed in five and occupies almost 2900. Sometimes it is easy to identify scenes which were added to lengthen the play: the abortive foot-race in I.ii, for example, and Stilbo’s advice to Michael about the art of government in III.i. And the final stage-directions to the first four Acts of our play contain the instruction that the Act in question should be followed by a chorus vel interludium. By interludium Simons meant the four interleaved Acts of a short comic intermedium, a performance practice evidently idiosyncratic to the English College. It would therefore appear that during his years at the English College Simons rewrote all five plays contained in his Tragoediae Quinque for revival there — or, more precisely, in that volume he only included those of his plays which he had thus rewritten, while ignoring the remainder of his St. Omers output — but that for some reason Vitus and Theoctistus were not produced during his tenure in office. Subsequently, after Simons had quit Rome for Liège and after Theoctistus had appeared in print, it was acted at Rome by students of the Seminarium Romanum, (the central seminary for the training of Jesuit priests, founded by Pius IV). It would be interesting to know how those students managed to realize the various visual effects called for by the stage directions.
3. When the Byzantine emperor Theophilus died in 842, he appointed an important court official, the Logothete of the Drome Theoctistus, together with his empress Theodora and her brothers Bardas as co-regents during the minority of his infant son Michael. As the leading member of this troika, Theoctistus virtually ruled the empire for the following fourteen years. Among his achievements during his period, no doubt the most memorable was that he and Theodora engineered the re-installation of icon worship, which involved replacing his father’s Iconoclast Patriarch John VII Grammaticus (Simons’ Jannes) with the Iconodule Methodius I (not to be confused with Theoctistus’ protegé St. Methodius). By the time his ward attained the age of sixteen, in 855, the boy had come to rely increasingly on his uncle Bardas, who was estranged from Theoctistus and Theodora, and permitted him to arrest and murder Theoctistus. Soon thereafter, with Bardas’ support, he overthrew the regency and relegated Theodora to a monastery. Such is the historical reality standing behind Simons’ entirely secular tragedy about Byzantine court intrigue and the downfall of a good man.
4. I say “entirely secular” because Simons had the option of shaping this material in a very different way. For he is not being fully candid about the historical background of the play’s action. Save for a couple of brief passages (347ff., 1687ff.), we are not informed that the reason the “pseudopatriarch” Jannes has been deposed and replaced by Methodius was his Iconoclasm, and that Theoctistus was the man responsible for this change. It would have been easy and obvious to construct the equation Iconoclast = Protestant and to write a play which resonated with contemporary religious conflicts. Simons could have stressed Jannes’ Iconoclasm and made Bardas and Stilbo his sectaries, with all three striving to convert the Emperor Michael to their persuasion. NOTE 2 Thus the power struggle within the imperial court could have been organized along doctrinal lines, and, perhaps, the theme of the conflicting claims of Church and state (a perennial Jesuit concern) could somehow have been introduced. Such a play would have been far in more in keeping with the Jesuit institutional agenda than what Simons elected to dramatize. It is therefore striking that he resolutely steered clear of writing any such thing.
5. In fact, although Theoctistus has a Byzantine setting, if Simons had any personal agenda, it may have been to exploit the resemblance of the play’s situation to a considerably more recent parallel. It is possible that the downfall of a virtuous regent, accomplished by a cabal of selfish and vicious courtiers, was supposed to resonate with events in English history. The suggestion that Theoctistus was supposed to remind the audience of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, the original Lord Protector during the minority of Edward VI, can be ruled out: surely Simons would not have created a character who, even by implication, would show this Protestant regent in a favorable light and represent him as a paragon of virtue. Not so easily dismissed is the possibility that he elected to dramatize the story of Theoctistus because he perceived its resemblance to the downfall of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, “Good Duke Humphrey,” appointed by Henry V to serve as regent of England during the minority of Henry VI, who was brought down by a court combination led by Henry Cardinal Beaufort, arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason and, at least in the popular mind, was murdered at Beaufort’s instigation. Gloucester’s downfall was widely deemed to be the beginning of the woes of Henry’s reign, and the play represents Theoctistus’ removal from office, and the end of Michael’s mother Theodora’s guiding influence, as catastrophic for the Byzantine Empire. There are several points of resemblance between between these stories: 1.) one of the members of the conspiracy against Theoctistus, Jannes, is likewise a high churchman, 2.) Gloucester was originally driven out of public life when his second wife, Eleanor Cobham, was convicted on charges of witchcraft and heresy, and dabbling in black magic figures prominently in bill of particulars drawn up by the protagonist’s enemies in our play; 3.) the Emperor Michael is, like Henry VI, portrayed as essentially a weakling, inhabiting a kind of isolated dream-world and all too ready to accept bad advice from corrupt and self-serving courtiers, and to place uncritical credence in the misinformation they give him. Indeed, Simons portrays Michael as being considerably more otherworldly and feckless than his historical equivalent actually was (even allowing for his reputed alcoholism). In history, Michael crowned his friend Basil the Macedonian, a jumped-up peasant whom he had placed in charge of his stables, co-emperor in 866, ten years after the death of Theoctistus (in the following year Basil had him assassinated and assumed sole rule), but he never abdicated all imperial responsibility, and during his reign the incursions of the Abbasid Caliphate were successfully resisted, and Bulgaria was converted to Christianity, a far cry from the disasters suffered by England under Henry VI. Simons may have represented him as a hopeless weakling in order to make him seem all the more Henry-like. By suppressing any mention of the successes of Michael’s reign, he manages to convey the compression that the predictions of bad times for the Empire uttered by some of his characters are bound to come true, so that his reign is bound to be just as much a national catastrophe as was Henry’s. One further detail suggests that Simons may have had Gloucester in mind: at 2436ff. we are given the entirely unexpected information that Theoctistus had endeared himself to the common people, to the point that those contemplating his removal express anxiety about the possibility of some sort of rioting or rebellion if they bring him down. And Gloucester likewise enjoyed great popularity with the common folk of England.
6. The play appears to contain other distinctly English touches. In I.ii a foot-race between six of Caesar’s favorite boys is interrupted by a thunderstorm, and this recalls an incident that occurred on March 24, 1621 (old style) in which Charles Prince of Wales was supposed to participate in a joust, similarly interrupted by a hailstorm. NOTE 3 In III.i Stilbo gives the young Emperor Michael cynically Machiavellian advice on how to govern, in the course of which he recommends several money-making schemes. Two of these, that he should raise funds to wage a war, then not fight it but keep the money (1353f.), and that he should compel his wealthy subjects to float him loans (1366ff.), recall two notorious dodges employed by Henry VII. Michael should also invent new ranks of the nobility and places these on sale (1364f.), an obvious allusion to James I’s device of selling baronetcies (for a fleeting moment, therefore, Stilbo becomes Sir Robert Cotton, whose brainchild this particular device was).
7. Even if I am overestimating our play’s essential Englishness, it is nevertheless undeniable that Theoctistus goes far toward establishing that, misled by his professional bias, in his lengthy appraisal of Simons NOTE 4 Father McCabe was wrong to claim him as a quintessentially Christian, and more specifically Catholic, playwright. Here we have a resolutely secular play (in fact, one of Simons’ distinctive features as a Jesuit playwright is his ability to switch on and off his Catholicism at will). For, although its protagonist is unquestionably a paragon of virtue, the kind of virtue he embodies is not especially Christian. He prays, to be sure, and gives plenty of other evidence that he is a pious man, but his piety is mostly a private affair, and, on the whole, the kind of virtue he publicly represents is civic, not religious. He is a kind of Byzantine equivalent of Cato the Elder in his personal selflessness and austerity, and in his unbending insistence on maintaining seemliness, order, and discipline in the young emperor’s person and within his royal court. Hence he has little in common with the saintly protagonists of Simons’ martyr plays, Sanctus Pelagius Martyr, Mercia and Vitus, NOTE 5 and it is even notable that the latter two of these are not straightforward dramatized hagiography or standard Jesuit martyr plays, since they also feature power struggles in royal courts, caused by the personal ambitions of unprincipled revengers and thrusters very similar to those we find in Theoctistus. For that matter, the title of Sanctus Damianus would lead one to expect a play of distinctly Christian content, but, save for a couple of scenes where the saint appears to forecast bad times for Italy (but never intervenes to influence the course of the action), this is actually a purely secular revenge play. And, unlike Mercia and Vitus, there are no angels or other celestial epiphanies in Theoctistus: such apparitions as there are — Simons was fond of using these as a means of introducing the elements of song and dance usual in Jesuit drama — are strictly of the Underworld variety (the single specifically Christian stage effect is the ring with MARIA inscribed on it, which paralyzes Stilbo in II.ii).. So this play contains no element of divine intervention in human affairs, and is devoid of any visual proof that the Christian heaven truly exists, although it leaves no such doubt about the infernal world below.
8. So court intrigue and power struggles within royal households that provides the grist for Simons’ plays. Indeed, this theme appears in his plays with greater regularity than does any Christian concern. At first sight, this might appear to reflect a special enthusiasm for history, since so many of his plays are set in such remote periods as the late Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, and, most frequently, Byzantium. But it is perhaps closer to the mark to suggest that his tales of intrigue are retrojected into the remote past as a way to avoid giving offense to contemporaries, for surely Simons was well aware that the same kind of things transpired in the royal courts of his own day. NOTE 6 Such a suspicion may be suggested by one of his lost St. Omers plays, the 1624 Paulus Iaponensis, NOTE 7 in which remoteness of space substitutes for remoteness of time, possibly to create the same distancing effect. This may also be true of another play as well. For the discovery that Simons was capable of writing purely secular plays would appear to increase the chances that he was the author of the St. Omers history play Montezuma, sive Mexici Imperii Occasus (date unknown). This fine work, an equally secular account of intrigue in the Aztec court, is preserved in a manuscript (Stonyhurst ms. B.VI.10 (2)) written in the same hand as one of the two that preserves St. Pelagius Martyr (Stonyhurst ms. B.VI.25, pp. 1 - 41), a possible hint that these plays were written within the same time-frame, when Simons was Professor of Humanities at St. Omers and therefore responsible for writing all the play produced at the College, .Montezuma is organized into five Acts, unlike the traditional St. Omers three, and Simons used a four-Act scheme in his original St. Omers version of Zeno(imitated only by the anonymous Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius of 1651). The author of Montezuma had an easy opening for inserting a distinctively Catholic note, for he could have used the European colonization of Mexico as a vehicle for praising the Catholic missionary enterprise. But, very much as in Theoctistus, he conspicuously refrained from exploiting this opportunity. In this play the evil counselor Quicuxtemocus is a highly satisfactory villain, a well–drawn counterpart of the ambitious schemers familiar from the pages of Simons.
9. One final point about the play is advanced with appropriate diffidence. Simons’ plays obviously enjoyed considerable popularity with Catholic readers throughout the seventeenth century. Reprintings of Tragoediae Quinque were published in 1657 (Liège, a reissue of the editio princeps), 1680 (Cologne), and 1697 (Cologne), so that by the end of the century Theoctistus was circulating in multiple printed versions, and it likely that copies of these found their ways into the libraries of a number of Catholic educational instuations. If it is not impossible to imagine that a Jesuit-educated writer of the next century, who served as professor of rhetoric at the seminary at Ceneda and subsequently as professor of literature at the seminary at Treviso, may have come across a copy of Simons’ plays, then it may be worth pointing out the resemblance of the ending of our play, in which the ghost of the murdered Theoctistus drags off the helplessly resisting Bardas to his doom, to the final scene which Lorenzo da Ponte wrote for Don Giovanni. Is it out of the question that da Ponte may have read and remembered Simons’ scene when he came to write the libretto for that opera?
10. An English translation of Mercia has been published by Richard E. Arnold S. J. in Louis J. Oldani S. J. and Philip C. Fischer S. J. (edd.), Jesuit Theater Englished (St. Louis, 1989), pp. 161 - 250. The translation provided here is original, although Arnold’s has been consulted at various points and a few of his felicities have been appropriated. I should like to thank the authorities of the Houghton Library of Harvard University for supplying me with a photographic reproduction of the 1653 Liège edition of Theoctistus.
NOTE 1 William H. McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (St. Louis, 1983) p. 83.
NOTE 2 Simons in fact did exactly this in Leo Armenus, in which a tyrannical Iconoclast emperor is shown to be an enemy of orthodoxy and his Iconodule victims are explicitly identified as “Catholics,” whereas the one unambiguously character in the play, Theophilus, the son of Michael Balbus, is given distinctly Catholic traits, notably his devotion to the Virgin. Nevertheless, it would be going to far to see anything “Protestant” about Leo.
NOTE 3 John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First (London, 1828) IV.659f. describes this event but mentions no foul weather, but see John Leech, Epigram III.4.
NOTE 4 McCabe’s entire Part III is devoted to a study of Simons as a Jesuit playwright. This, together with J. A. Parente’s shorter survey (see the next note) are the only two available such studies. In my opinion, McCabe’s appraisal is programmatically misguided, in two ways. First, he was (very understandably) writing from a Catholic, and more specifically, a Jesuit, perspective, and so was ill-attuned to those elements of Simons’ art that did not fit in with this understanding. He therefore exerted himself mightily to represent Simons as at all times a Catholic playwright, and failed to acknowledge any features of his work that did not agree with this portrait. Second, he spent a great deal of energy attempting to show how Simons’ plays were written so as to adhere to Aristotle’s formulae and precepts in the Poetics, whereas I do not see any reason to think that Simons was at all concerned with these (or, indeed, that he was even aware of them — how many Renaissance playwrights modeled their plays after Aristotle’s dicta at a time when Senecan tragedy supplied the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm?) In both these ways, McCabe was attempting to force Simons into an ill-fitting straightjacket.
NOTE 5 Hence I cannot agree with the sweeping generalization of James A. Parente (“Tyranny and Revolution on the Baroque Stage: The Dramas of Joseph Simons,”Humanistica Lovaniensia xxxii, 1983, p. 312) that “Simons’ tragedies easily fall within the two most popular categories of the time: tyrant and martyr plays. Indeed, in many instances tyrant and martyr dramas were not mutually exclusive, for tyranny was frequently demonstrated by the persecution of an innocent Christian.” Theoctistus does not fit comfortably into either of these classifications: its protagonist is not a Christian martyr, and Michael is portrayed as a young and impressionable weakling, scarcely as a tyrant. In him we have a ruler who, as his abdication at the end of the play shows, would prefer to amuse himself with his tennis racket than govern, tyrannically or otherwise.
NOTE 6 Consider this, for instance. Some of the villains in Simons’ plays are priests. Besides Jannes in Theoctistus, for instance, we have Theorgus in Mercia and Urbanus in Vitus. The two latter, to be sure, are pagan priests struggling to resist Christianity in order to preserve their own power and prestige, and, if pressed, Simons could have pointed out that Jannes, being an Iconoclast, was a heretic. All three nonetheless serve to illustrate the point that priests can participate in palace power struggles just as much as anybody else. Had Simons written a play about the downfall of Duke Humphrey, he would have had to portray Henry Beaufort an intriguing villain, and this would have entailed showing a Cardinal of the Church in a bad light. The device of creating a distance of time or space freed him from such embarrassments.
NOTE 7 McCabe, p. 86. In all probability, this was about the martyrdom of St. Paulo Mili S. J., who was crucified at Nagasaki in 1597, in connection with the persecutions of the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi.