1. A comparatively unexplored chapter in the history of English literature is the dramatic life of the English College in Rome. Although some achival work and secondary scholarship exists, as nearly as I can determine, none of the plays performed there has been edited; this is in striking contrast to the amount of scholarly interest that has been shown in theatrics at the English College of St. Omers. NOTE 1 And yet the surviving English College plays have a distinct claim on the interest of students of academic drama. Especially because some of the men at the English College had previously studied at Cambridge or Oxford, where they no doubt were exposed to contemporary dramatics there, in many ways these Jesuit plays resemble English ones. And some of the English College playwrights were no less talented than their Oxbridge counterparts. And so, in the hope of stimulating interest in the theater of the English College, here I present the text of one representative play, the anonymous tragedy Thomas Cantuariensis of 1613. NOTE 2
2. If written in England, Thomas Cantuariensis would, no doubt, be identified as a history play. In a Jesuit context, however, it is preferable to assign it to a special category acknowledged by McCabe (pp. 170 and his index s. v.). A sufficient number of Jesuit plays were written to celebrate the careers of martyrs that it is possible to speak of martyr plays as a distinct dramatic category. Indeed, at least one other such play was written about Thomas à Becket. NOTE 3 From a Jesuit viewpoint, the play’s centerpiece is the passage in IV.ii (1208ff.) in which the Angel shows Thomas a vivid glimpse of the future of the English Church: how it will briefly be vexed by John Wycliffe, then oppressed by the plague stirred up by Martin Luther. But then Religion will arm a noble band of martyrs to defend the Church against this assault. In so doing, they will be replicating Thomas’ own struggle (1234f.), being just like him in all but their identities:
Ad vestros aspirans agmen honores
Quantum subsequitur mutata non nisi fronte!
(“How great a company will aspire to your honors, having changed nothing except their faces!”)
This, in turn, invites us to regard Thomas’ contention with Henry II as a prototype for the contemporary struggle against Protestantism, or at least against what the Church regarded as the illegitimate claims of the English state, including its assertion of independence from Rome. In that sense, Henry II becomes an exemplar for his like-named descendent who broke with Rome and for his Protestant successors, just as Thomas becomes a forerunner for contemporary Jesuits and others who suffer martyrdom because their faith and their loyalty to Rome compel them to struggle against a Protestant English government. The glorification of martyrdom, therefore, is central to the play’s program, and appears as a leitmotif throughout it. This is especially true, of course, because it must have been plausible to anticipate that some members of the audience would be called upon personally to replicate Thomas’ career of returning home from a Roman exile to suffer martyrdom. No wonder, then, that some of the plays produced at the English College (including tragedies about Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, produced at about the same time) dealt with this same subject of martyrdom. Likewise, of course, the issue of the clash of religious values and royal supremacy was still a very live subject in England, especially in the years of harsh anti-Catholicism that followed the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, so that the theme of this play would have resonated with contemporary interests.
3. Thomas Cantuariensis is a highly competent play, with good plotting and memorable characters. One of the felicities of having a play written by a priest, is that the author is able to enrich his characterizations by drawing on his professional understanding of sin, repentance, and redemption. Becket was killed on December 29, 1170, and earlier in the same year Henry II had allowed his eldest son Henry to be crowned king, so that at the time of the play England had two simultaneous sovereigns. Since the long-running quarrel between Henry II and Becket is the play’s subject, it may seem astonishing that Henry II does not appear in it, but rather that to a remarkable extent the play focuses on Young King Henry. During the first part of the play, this Henry functions as a kind of surrogate for the elder king and simply serves to enunciate his fathers grievances against Becket. Henry admits so much when he later ruefully exclaims (1013f.):
O vox parentis, unde per fauces meas
Es nacta transitum?
[“Oh my father’s words, how have you issued from my mouth?”]
Yet hostility toward Becket is about the only subject on which father and son agree. Henry is madly ambitious and eager to supplant his father, as is expressed in a magnificent soliloquy when we first meet him in I.iv. When he subsequently learns from the angel that Thomas indeed is holy, and hears forecasts of the dire consequences which will result from his opposition to the archbishop (in III.iii), he merely digests this information and incorporates it into his scheme to overthrow his father, coming to the optimistic conclusion (1023) occasio nostra dabitur armis pia [“a pious opportunity will be given me to take up arms”]. Yet when he is informed of Thomas’ murder (in V.i) his angry indignation, and his desire to apprehend and punish the murders, seem genuine, and his insight into Thomas’ holiness appears considerably deepened. If one were to read this scene in isolation, it would appear a fine demonstration of piety. But in view of his earlier scheming in III.iii, considerable ambiguity hovers over his performance in this scene, and his final statement in the play at 1640f., caesum Thomam / Armata sumptis Anglia lugebit sagis (“an armed England will mourn Thomas, having put on martial cloaks”) ominously points to the unsuccessful civil war which the historical Henry did in fact eventually launch against his father. Are piety and repentance, one may well ask, genuine when they are convenient and agreeable to one’s ambitions?
4. If Henry’s actual spiritual growth over the course of the play appears questionable, no such doubts can be entertained about that of the four assassins. In the play’s final scene (V.ii) we see them after the implications of their deed have sunk in, they are fully aware of their sinfulness. Their first reaction is to commit suicide, and when they fail in this thanks to a clear instance of divine intervention, they are genuinely repentant and ready to do acts of contrition. This scene is engineered in a remarkable way. Their botched suicide attempts make the play unexpectedly veer toward comedy, and, much to his surprise, the reader finds himself liking the four villains. So this scene graphically illustrates the Christian doctrine that no sinful soul is hopelessly beyond redemption.
5. And so the final line of our text (1866), the repentant murderers’ Votivi hic esto primus itineris gradus (“Let this be the first step of our pilgrimage”) spoken as they begin their Romeward journey, makes a fine conclusion. There are nevertheless two reasons for doubting that the play as we have it is complete, or least that we have all the author originally wrote. In the first place, it is usual for an academic tragedy to end with either an Epilogue or a concluding choral passage. In Thomas Cantuariensis the Chorus is withdrawn from the play at the end of Act IV. Evidently the idea is that, being cleansed souls newly released from Purgatory, they cannot be present at a scene of bloodshed. Thus the Chorus is unavailable to conclude the play. But the play begins with a Prologue spoken by Joseph of Aramathea (for some reason the author chose to number it Act I, scene i, rather than identify it as the Prologue it actually is). One would therefore expect a balancing Epilogue at the end. Then too, the initial list of dramatis personae contains at its end two characters who do not appear in the play as we have it, Raymond and the Earl of Cornwall, and this suggests that Act V originally may have contained more material.
6. As I argue in an Introduction to it, internal evidence strongly suggests that the 1612 tragedy Thomas Morus, also produced at the English College, was written by the same author. The text of that play has been drastically altered, primarily in the interest of shortening it by approximately ten percent for the third of the three performances attested by its concluding colophon, and verbiage is cut out in such a way that a number of incomplete lines are created, which the individual responsible for these excisions, for some reason (perhaps in imitation of the incomplete lines of the Aeneid) did not trouble himself to revise. It is striking that Thomas Cantuariensis also contains such half-lines (133, 441, 575, 1513, and just possibly 902). Archival evidence, discussed below, shows that Thomas Cantuariensis was the subject of a second performance, and so it is tempting to think this play was subjected to a similar shortening process.
7. Thomas Cantuariensis is preserved by English College (Rome) Archives ms. 321, fols. 61r-101v; a photographic copy has been furnished me by the good offices of Dr. Martin Wiggins of the Shakespeare institute (I am also indebted to Dr. Wiggins for his valuable suggestions for ways in which this edition could be improved). The manuscript dates the play to 1613, a dating confirmed by the allusion in 1255 to the martyrdom of the English College member Richard Newport, which occurred in 1612, and also by archival evidence which attests to the performance of the play on the Monday of Carnival week, 1613, and also to a revival performance in early 1617. NOTE 4 The text of this play is occasionally corrected in a second hand, presumably on the basis of collation against another copy. But, perhaps because these features were also present in that second manuscript, plenty of errors and omissions remain to confront a modern editor. Some but not all of these are corrected here; other disruptions of sense or meter cannot be corrected with security, and these are indicated by cruces in the present text.
8. The same manuscript (fols 102r - 121r) contains Minutum, a set of interludes (collectively designated as an intermedium) written to be performed between the acts of Thomas Cantuariensis, preserved in the same handwriting as Thomas Cantuariensis. The text of Minutum is virtually devoid of copying errors, and so seems to be an author’s fair copy holograph. It would therefore seem that our text of Minutum is likewise a fair copy produced by that same individual (there is no reason to think that the author of Minutum also wrote Thomas Cantuariensis). Two alternate songs found at the end of Minutum Act II seem to indicate that that Minutum was performed more than once, which would appear to indicate that it accompanied Thomas Cantuariensis in both the 1613 and 1617 performances.
9. The reader's attention is further directed to an Appendix to Thomas Morus in which is provided a more comprehensive overview of the contents of ms. 321.
NOTE 1 For example, in his synoptic study of Jesuit drama, William H. McCabe, S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (published posthumously as edited by Louis J. Oldani, S. J., St. Louis, 1983), the author devoted four chapters of Part II to St. Omers, and the ten chapters of Part III to the most conspicuous St. Omers playwright, Joseph Simons (1593 - 1671). There is no index entry for English College at Rome. Likewise, Simons’ plays (or at least the five printed in his lifetime) have been translated by Richard E. Arnold under the title Jesuit Theater Englished: Five Tragedies of Joseph Simons (St. Louis, 1989), and Edmund Campion’s Ambrosia (written for production at Prague) has been edited and translated by an individual coincidentally named Joseph Simons (Assen, 1970). These appear to be the principal English Jesuit plays available in print.
What scholarship is available, at least through 1985, is registered by Nigel Griffen, Jesuit School Drama (Research Biographies and Checklists 12, London, 1976) and Jesuit School Drama: A Checklist of Critical Literature, Supplement 1 (London, 1986), with the guidance of the Cumulative Index entry for Rome on p. 214 of the latter volume. These items are listed in a special bibliography here.
NOTE 2 I emphasize that this is the correct form of the title, since some standard reference works (such as Alfred Harbage and S. Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama, 975 - 1700, revised ed., London, 1964) give the title as St. Thomas Cantauris or Thomas Cantaurus. Thomas Cantauriensis, incidentally, was performed five times during the 1613 Carnival according to Nathaniel Southwell as cited by Suzanne Gossett, “English Plays in the English College Archives,” The Venerabile 28:1 (1983) 23.
NOTE 3 Thomas Cantuariensis, in Nicolas de Vernulz [Nicolaus Vernulaeus, 1583 - 1649], Tragoediae Decem (Louvain, 1631), pp. 547 - 614. The only Becket play prior to this one of which I am aware (thanks to Dr. Martin Wiggins) is John Bales’ De Traditione Thomae Becket, otherwise known as De Thomae Becketi Imposturis, written during the 1530’s and taking a decidedly Protestant view (Bale was a dramatic propagandist in the employ of Thomas Cromwell).
NOTE 4 Gossett, op. cit. 1973, 91.