An exploration of camp aesthetics in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Alex Cox’s 2002 film adaptation, Revengers Tragedy – Georgia Tindale

Georgia Tindale is a recent graduate in English with Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham and will be starting an MPhil in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge in October. Her particular interests lie in early modern drama, poetry, adaptation, metaphor and cognitive readings of literature. Georgia is the founder and editor-in-chief of Porridge.

RT_luss_supervacEddie Izzard as Lussurioso and Marc Warren as Supervacuo in Alex Cox’s 2002 film, Revengers Tragedy. Image credit: Cable Hogue Co.

An exploration of camp aesthetics in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Alex Cox’s 2002 film adaptation, Revengers Tragedy

The description of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy as having an aesthetic of ‘black camp’ was first formulated by Jonathan Dollimore in his influential 1984 study.[1] However, Susan Sontag’s earlier essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964) is a highly useful framework through which to explore this attribution.[2] This essay develops this discussion further by applying this description to Alex Cox’s 2002 film adaptation Revengers Tragedy[3] and by exploring comparisons between the works.

Most importantly, Cox uses a post-apocalyptic punk setting to develop and expand upon the bleak, camp vision of Jacobean society already found in Middleton’s play. This essay examines this development in relation to its ‘campness’, using Sontag’s ‘Notes’ as a framework. The key notes used to inform this essay are the definitions of camp as the furthest extension of theatrum mundi, camp as an aesthetic of excess and camp as being irreconcilable with the tragic genre.      

Firstly, camp is defined by Sontag as ‘the furthest extension of life as a theatre[4] (the theatrum mundi) and this can be applied to The Revenger’s Tragedy. The language of costume and disguise pervades the play. Although Vindice himself will pretend to be Piato, he refers to the Duke’s family as ‘four excellent characters’[5] in his opening soliloquy, (1.1.5) thus creating metatheatrical expectations for the audience of a society in which everyone is acting. Vindice’s position examining the play’s action from the outside also suggests his role as its director. He is the most self-consciously theatrical character, as evident when he asks Hippolito ‘What brother? Am I far enough from myself?’ (1.3.1).

That said, however, Vindice does manage to get lost in his own attempts at theatrical creation. As Emma Smith notes, Vindice is unable to successfully perform the role of the ‘bawd’ (1.3.45) for Lussurioso as he cannot match the other character’s level of depravity. Vindice’s attempts at masculine bravado with Lussurioso are comic, as evident from his anti-climactic listing of sexual sins: ‘some uncles are adulterous with their nieces,/Brothers with brothers’ wives…’ (1.3.61-2) By ending the list with ‘brothers’ wives’, not the anticipated ‘Brothers with brothers’, Vindice seems too afraid to suggest homosexual incest as a sin, settling for the tamer option of adultery.[6]  Here, Vindice is presented as attempting to direct the theatrical world he exists within, but Middleton makes his failure all too obvious. Vindice can be seen to personify another of Sontag’s definitions: camp as ‘passionate failure’.[7]

Cox’s Revengers Tragedy extends this camp, self-aware theatricality, introducing the medium of film as a replacement for theatre through satellites, television and CCTV.  Maximilian Le Cain’s 2003 review of Cox’s film helps to illustrate a possible reason behind this as ‘the transformation of event into spectacle by […] forces within the movie’.[8] In this manner, the theatricality of Middleton’s play is expanded upon by Cox, thus bringing the concept of spectacle into the modern era.

Perhaps most notably, Antonio’s stageddiscovery’ of his wife’s dead body is transformed into public spectacle by Cox when he turns it into a news broadcast. In Middleton’s play, there is already evidence that Antonio’s grief is false. Although he claims that the sight of the corpse ‘strikes man out of me’ (1.4.5), his verse speeches seem too carefully constructed to be signs of genuine grief. He even manages to remember truisms like ‘Judgement in this age is near kin to favour’ (1.4.55) [italics in original] during his impassioned outbursts. Furthermore, Antonio’s failure to rhyme correctly in a couplet referring to his happiness because ‘[it] will be called a miracle at last/That being an old man, I had a wife so chaste…’ (1.4.76-7) is suggestive of a failure to impose dramatic closure onto his wife’s suicide.

This moment in Middleton’s play can already be seen as a spectacle of sorts, as Antonio performs his sadness to his courtiers in order to gain their support. However, Cox makes this moment all the more sinister through the addition of news cameras which Antonio manipulates during his discovery. Cox presents us with a panel of television screens playing out and multiplying Antonio’s staged sorrow to thousands of viewers. As Gretchen E. Minton highlights, Cox’s addition of a scene immediately after this where crowds of people are seen chanting Antonio’s name indicates that Antonio is cynically ‘playing with the public’s sympathies… using Imogen’s [Antonio’s wife’s] death to his own political advantage’.[9] Indeed, there are obvious parallels between Imogen’s and Princess Diana’s deaths here as scenes are added by Cox depicting children leaving toys and flowers at Imogen’s memorial. This demonstrates Cox manipulating the existing self-conscious, camp theatricality of Middleton’s play and using the medium of television to critique the cynical nature of politics and public grief in his 20th century society.

Secondly, Sontag defines camp as an aesthetic of excess and ‘too much’.[10] This can be be connected to the Senecan influence behind Middleton’s play. Seneca was a key model for early modern tragedy, due to the translations of his works into English by Jasper Heywood and others from 1559 onwards, and this is evident in The Revenger’s Tragedy. In Seneca’s Thyestes, the excessive pleasure that Atreus takes in his vengeance against his brother Thyestes can be compared with Vindice’s torture of the Duke. In Thyestes, Atreus revels in describing his gruesome murder of Thyestes’ sons to their father: ‘I cut the arms and legs and muscles off/while they were still alive, and skewered them/on nice slim spits[11]’ (5, 1062-4). The terrible precision of detail here and the sibilance of ‘nice slim spits’ serves to highlight the excessive attention given to vengeance in Seneca’s play.

Similarly in The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice is determined to take his revenge against the Duke to its furthest limits. Although Vindice’s poisoning of the Duke via the Duke’s kissing of Gloriana’s skull would seem to be a fitting, symmetrical revenge – as it was the Duke’s lust towards Gloriana which caused him to poison her – Vindice desires a revenge which exceeds this. He tortures the Duke psychologically in his dying state, saying, ‘Puh, ‘tis but early yet, now I’ll begin/To stick thy soul with ulcers’ (3. 5. 174-5). This physical metaphor is realised emotionally when Vindice forces the Duke to watch the incestous adultery between the Duchess and Spurio. The precision and sibilance of Vindice’s medical metaphor here – ‘stick thy soul with ulcers’ – can be compared back to Seneca and indicates that, for both Vindice and Atreus, vengeance must be taken to its most gruesome limits.

In Cox’s Revengers Tragedy this excessive aesthetic towards revenge is developed even further. Notably, Cox modernises the Duke’s torture scene through his inclusion of a camera which films and projects Spurio and the Duchess having sex, thus transforming the Duke’s suffering into a perverse public humiliation. However, Cox’s most daring addition to this aesthetic can be found elsewhere; the director adds a scene before the beginning of Act 5 in which the Duke’s decapitated head is discovered by a troop of children bringing flowers to Imogen’s memorial, thus causing them to scream and run away. Maximilian Le Cain calls this working in of Diana and the public mourning of 1997 as the film’s ‘funniest stroke’ in a film characterised by ‘demented, bloodthirsty playfulness’.[12] This bloodthirsty playfulness is epitomised in this scene. Firstly, the camera pans across the memorial, creating a surreal, comic comparison between the corpse and the toys, and secondly, the melodramatic close-up of the children’s screaming faces is written to provoke uncomfortable and therefore excessive laughter.

In addition, Cox optimises the greater visual potential of film as opposed to theatre to present the Duke’s court with an extravagantly camp aesthetic. Designer Miguel Sandoval explains the reasoning behind the modern-day setting in Liverpool, stating that: ‘We imagined a world shocked and frozen in time- a glorious dissection of humankind’s grandeur and folly.[13]’ The tattoos and gaudy clothing of the Duke’s family are at odds with the poverty of the rest of Liverpool, thus fitting the early modern concept of clothing as an indicator of status: what Michael Neill describes as the ‘vestimentary [class] system’.[14] Middleton’s play is already obsessed with status and clothing, as evident from Hippolito’s description of the court to Vindice as ‘In silk and silver brother; never braver’ (1.1.52), but Cox superimposes his own futuristic, ‘Glam’ aesthetic onto Middleton’s original.[15]

Finally, Sontag describes camp as the antithesis of tragedy, arguing that camp prioritises ‘…aesthetics over morality, irony over tragedy’.[16] I would argue against Sontag’s antithesis here, as although neither work is particularly preoccupied with morality, both Middleton’s play and Cox’s film are definitively tragic works which are characterised by their distinctively camp aesthetics. Along these lines, Alex Cox claims that his film is simultaneously a ‘black comedy’ and a ‘hard-edged film noir’.[17] There are also important indications that Middleton’s original text problematises our distinctions between tragic and comic, serious and camp. Although the play contains features typical of revenge tragedy – the masque, the emblem of the skull and the brooding revenger – it parodies its own tragic devices.

This is clear at the play’s opening when Hippolito follows Vindice’s impressive soliloquy by asking him whether he is ‘Still sighing over death’s vizard?’ (1.1.49).  For Middleton’s contemporary audience, this reference would have strengthened the play’s connection to the tragic genre – audiences had probably already seen the King’s Men playing the grave-digging scene from Hamlet that year – whilst simultaneously undermining it through the comedy of Hippolito’s line.

The self-consciousness displayed by Middleton here is directed towards a ‘Revenge Tragedy’ genre which was was becoming outmoded by 1606. This heightened self-awareness seems to epitomise, not to contradict, the definitions of camp explored earlier.  Jonathan Dollimore describes the play as ‘radicaltragedy characterised by a ‘subversive’ camp, and these would seem to be the key terms here.[18] Rather than acting as an antithesis to tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy and its successor Revengers Tragedy parody expectations of what tragedy ought to be and present this through a self-conscious, theatrical, and excessive aesthetic of camp.

In conclusion, although Cox’s Revengers Tragedy seems camper overall than Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, both works largely fit Sontag’s definitions of ‘camp’ in their aesthetics. That said, however, although the works exemplify her ideas of self-conscious theatricality and an excessive aesthetic, they also contradict her assertion that tragedy is irreconcilable with camp. With this in mind, Dollimore’s more recent study offers a more helpful and accurate reading of camp in relation to these works. Their blatant shattering of the audience’s expectations towards tragedy through self-parody seems to be the essence of radical and subversive camp.

 

Endnotes

[1]Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 3rd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.139.

[2] Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’ in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2009) pp. 275-292.

[3] The Revengers Tragedy, dir. by Alex Cox (Bard Entertainments, 2002).

[4] Sontag, p.278.

[5] Thomas Middleton and Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, ed. by R.A Foakes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) p. 1. All future references will be from this edition.

[6] Emma Smith, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy: Thomas Middleton’, Not Shakespeare: Elizabethan and Jacobean Popular Theatre, (2009) <http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/revengers-tragedy-thomas-middleton> [Accessed 11 December 2014]

[7] Sontag, p. 290.

[8] Maximilian Le Cain, Revengers Tragedy, (2003)  <http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/alex-cox/revengers/> [Accessed 17 December 2014] (para. 8 of 11)

[9] Gretchen E. Minton, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy in 2002: Alex Cox’s Punk Apocalypse’, in Apocalyptic Shakespeare: Essays on Visions of Chaos and Revelation in Recent Film Adaptations, ed. by Melissa Croteau and Carolyn Jess-Cooke (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), pp. 132-147 (p. 138).

[10] Sontag, p.282.

[11] Seneca: Six Tragedies, trans. by Emily Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 210.

[12] Le Cain, para. 4 of 11.

[13] Alex Cox, Revengers Tragedy Production Information for the Pathé Film Distribution – Creating the Look: Design (2008) <alexcox.com/rt/prodinfo.html> [accessed 14th December 2014] (para. 1 of 3).

[14] Michael Neill, ‘Death and The Revenger’s Tragedy’ in Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, ed. by Garrett A. Sullivan and others (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006) pp. 164-176 (p. 166).  

[15] Le Cain, para. 2 of 11.

[16] Sontag, p. 285.

[17] Alex Cox, My Older Films: Revengers Tragedy (2014) <alexcox.com/rt/prodinfo.html> [accessed 2nd January 2015].

[18] Dollimore, p. 139.

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