—- Mistake me not: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus —- John Dennis: The Invader of His Country (1719), Parte I – di Germana Maciocci

Great Britain has but little Reason to boast of its Natives

Education, since the same that they had here, they might

have had in another place.

But it may justly claim a very great share in their Nature

and Genius; since these depend in a great measure on the

Climate…1

 

Nel 1682, dopo la morte di Davenant e Killigrew, le due compagnie dei King’s Men e dei Duke’s Men si riunirono sotto l’egida di Thomas Betterton, il più famoso attore dell’epoca. Nel 1695, in seguito a screzi con Christhopher Rich,2 nuovo direttore del Drury Lane, Betterton formò un’altra compagnia con alcuni dei migliori colleghi e scelse di recitare nella vecchia sala da tennis trasformata in teatro da Davenant, a Lincoln’s Inns Field, ribattezzandola New Theatre e debuttandovi quello stesso anno con Love for Love di Congreve.3

In seguito, nel 1705, si spostò in un nuovo teatro progettato da Vanbrugh a Haymarket, il Queen’s Theatre, e Congreve e Vanbrugh riuscirono perfino ad ottenere una patente di gestione dalla regina Anna; ma ben presto si ritirarono, e Betterton tornò a recitare al Drury Lane.

Dopo la sua morte, avvenuta nel 1710, e dopo l’espulsione di Rich dal Drury Lane – che acquistò la sala di Lincoln’s Inn Fields e la fece totalmente rifare dall’architetto Edward Sheperd, – Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks e Barton Booth furono incaricati di riorganizzarne la compagnia; dal 1714 ‘governatore’ del teatro fu il drammaturgo Richard Steele.

Il teatro inglese, che in quel momento attraversava una situazione piuttosto critica, potendo contare tra l’altro su un’unica compagnia legale di attori, si ritrovò ad essere coinvolto in un evento ben più rilevante: Carlo II, patrono del teatro e delle arti, era morto nel 1685, e il suo successore, Giacomo II, aveva restaurato il cattolicesimo, provocando dissensi in società e in politica; il suo regno terminò con la Gloriosa Rivoluzione del 1688, e con un colpo di stato furono posti sul trono i protestanti Guglielmo e Maria.

I nuovi sovrani e la loro corte non condividevano lo stesso entusiasmo per gli spettacoli dei loro predecessori, al contrario giudicavano tutte le opere teatrali, e in particolare quelle della Restaurazione, licenziose e immorali. Il teatro perse quindi popolarità in tutti gli strati sociali, e si parlò addirittura di ripeterne la chiusura come nel 1642. Di conseguenza, ‘the theatres must either make themselves palatable to middle-class Protestant taste or close, if not by legal proscription then by commercial starvation.’4

Gli attacchi contro le rappresentazioni furono innumerevoli, e tra questi si distinse in particolare A Short View of the Immorality  and Profaneness of the English Stage di Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), che ebbe ben tre edizioni solo nel 1698.

Collier era un ex sacerdote anglicano, il quale era stato espulso dalla chiesa per atti d’aperta ostilità nei confronti del nuovo sovrano, motivati principalmente dal suo pensiero politico apertamente conservatore. Egli era un appassionato di teatro, e nel suo libello non attaccò quindi l’istituzione in quanto tale, ma la morale degli spettacoli, a suo avviso decaduta o addirittura ignorata dopo l’avvento della Restaurazione, e l’allontanamento di questi dai canoni artistici tradizionali dell’antichità, che esaltavano la virtù e condannavano il vizio, e che si sarebbero dovuti prendere pertanto come modello per un teatro decoroso e istruttivo.

Collier procede analizzando diverse commedie della sua epoca, e nota come in queste venga adoperato un linguaggio profano, si offenda la religione e si fomentino il vizio e l’indecenza, premiandone, invece di punire, i protagonisti più abietti.5

La polemica scatenata dal pamphlet durò per tre decenni, soprattutto a causa della provocazione che questo costituiva nei confronti di chi ancora credeva nell’utilità e nell’importanza culturale del teatro inglese. Numerose furono le risposte di chi si opponeva alle opinioni di Collier;6 tra queste spicca quella del drammaturgo John Dennis (1657-1734), pubblicata nel giugno del 1698 con il titolo The Usefulness of the Stage.

John Dennis s’impegna a smontare minuziosamente tutti gli esempi utilizzati da Collier a sostegno delle accuse poste nel suo trattato. Egli cerca in primo luogo di chiarire il pensiero degli antichi citati da quest’ultimo attraverso una traduzione ed un’interpretazione più corretta dei testi originali, in lingua greca e latina, per  provare quanto il teatro sia fondamentale per la felicità del genere umano,7 non essendo per nulla indecente, non inducendo al vizio e accrescendo il livello culturale di una nazione.8 Egli sostiene inoltre che il teatro è perfino utile al governo e non è offensivo nei confronti della ragione umana o della religione.

Secondo Dennis, ‘…Mr. Collier is so far from having shewn in his Book, either the Meekness of a true Christian, or the Humility of an exemplary Pastor, that he has either the Reasoning of a Man of Sense in it, nor the Style of a Polite Man, nor the Sincerity of a Honest Man, nor the Humanity of a Gentleman, or a Man of Letters.’9 Dal tono di questa affermazione, è evidente che John Dennis aveva preso tremendamente sul serio le parole di Collier.

L’unica concessione che il critico sembra fare a quest’ultimo riguarda la diffusa corruzione nel teatro della Restaurazione, dovuta però a suo giudizio ai disordini generali dell’epoca in questione: ‘…The Corruption of Manners upon the Restoration appear’d with all the Fury of Libertinism, even before the Play-House was re-estabilish’d, and long before it could have any Influence on Manners; so that another Cause of that Corruption is to be inquir’d after, than the Re-establishment of the Drama; and that can be nothing but that beastly Reformation, which, in the Time if the late Civil Wars, was begun at the Tail, instead of the Head and the Heart; and which opprest and persecuted Mens Inclinations, instead of correcting and converting them, which afterwards broke out with the same Violence, that a raging Fire does upon its first getting Vent…So that nothing among us that was considerable, was produc’d in Poetry, in the Times of the late Civil Wars, if you except but the first Part of that admirable Satire against the Muses mortal Foe, Hypocrisy, which yet neither did, not durst appear, till the Restoration of the Drama;’10 mentre si può affermare che il dramma, e in particolare la tragedia, è utile al governo, in quanto tiene la popolazione lontano dalla ribellione e dalla disobbedienza, soprattutto in Inghilterra, i cui abitanti, secondo il parere di Dennis, sembrano essere notoriamente propensi alla rivolta; egli si preoccupa, al contrario, del pericolo costituito da colui che: ‘…now discovers so great and Aversion to the Stage’, il quale ‘has notoriously done all that lay in his little Power, to plunge us in another Civil War.’11

Dennis ritiene che la tragedia sia una materia più istruttiva rispetto alla storia, poiché universalizzando e compendiando quest’ultima, ne arricchisce il significato.12 Figura chiave del messaggio tragico è l’eroe, il quale non deve essere rappresentato né come troppo virtuoso, né come un vizioso, giacché mostrare un uomo buono che cade in disgrazia non provocherebbe nello spettatore compassione o terrore, ma piuttosto orrore, e, al contrario, la caduta di un malvagio provocherebbe piacere, ma non orrore o pietà: ‘The hero must be one “who keeping the middle between these extremis, is afflicted with some terrible calamity, for some involuntary fault”…[which] are not only those caused by invincible ignorance but those faults to which we are strongly inclined “either by the bent of our Constitution, or by the force of prevailing Passions.”’13

John Dennis cita come periodo di maggiore fioritura del teatro inglese i regni di Enrico VIII, Elisabetta I e Giacomo I: ‘…immediately upon the Establishment of the Drama, Three Prodigies of Wit appeared all at once, as it were so many Suns, to amaze the learned World. The Reader will immediately comprehend that I speak of Spencer, Bacon, and Raleigh; Three mighty Genius’s, so extraordinary in their different Ways, that not only England had never seen the like before, but they almost continue to this very Day, in spight of Emulation, in spight of Time, the greatest of our Poets, Philosophers, and Historians.’14

Chi si trova a leggere questo brano non può fare a meno di riflettere sulla considerazione di cui godono attualmente nella veste di drammatisti i  tre Prodigies of Wit, e soprattutto non mancherà di chiedersi: perché Dennis non nomina Shakespeare?

Il pensiero di John Dennis riguardo le opere del Bardo può essere sintetizzato ben rappresentato da alcune sue affermazioni datate 1719: ‘A very great Part of those who pretend to be in Love with Shakespeare, if he were now living, and his most celebrated Plays were to be acted De novo without a Cabal, without Character or Prepossession, wou’d Hiss and Damn the very Things of which they are now the fashionable admirers; which seems plain to me from this very Reason, because the modern Plays which they most approve of are the very Reverse of Shakespeare’s, with respect either to his Excellencies or his Faults.’15

Le critiche del drammaturgo non riguardano quindi la sostanza delle opere di Shakespeare, che egli sembra al contrario apprezzare, ma i numerosi errori di ordine storico, formale e linguistico che, a suo parere, abbondano in esse. Tra tutte le tragedie, poi, il Coriolanus sembra essere particolarmente privo del fuoco che altrove possiede l’autore: ‘There are in his Coriolanus, among a great many natural and admirable Beauties, three or four of those ornaments which Horace would term ambitious, and which we in English are apt to call Fustian or Bombast. There are Lines in some Places which are very obscure and whole Scenes which ought to be alter’d…’16

La riscrittura del Coriolanus di Shakespeare da parte di Dennis sembra essere quindi motivata, come nel caso di Nahum Tate, dalla necessità di rendere l’opera del Bardo più accessibile ai gusti culturali dei suoi contemporanei, soprattutto tramite una sorta di correzione mirata del testo originale.

Inoltre, anche in questa circostanza, sembra essere presente nell’adattamento un messaggio di carattere politico, benché in totale contrasto con quello precedente.

 

1 John Dennis, The critical works, ed.by E.N.Hooker, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1967, vol. I p. 15.

2 ‘…Christopher Rich, a moneylender and financial manipulator who had little interest in aesthetic values and no respect for actors. In 1694 Rich tried to cut costs by squeezing out the company’s star names, replacing them with younger performers who afford to be thus relegated, and in December 1694 he led a walkout. London again had two companies, at a time when public interest would hardly support one. Rich enjoyed a virtual monopoly on spectacular opera for the following decade, importing foreign virtuoso singers and dancers; and he tried to run his competitors out of business by feeding and developing the public taste for musicals and magicals.’ Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare, op. cit. p. 56.

3 Per le informazioni riguardanti il teatro inglese, ove non altrimenti specificato, vedi Masolino D’Amico, Dieci secoli di teatro inglese: 970-1980, op. cit.

4 Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare, op. cit. p. 54-5.

5 ‘Collier’s Short View was by no means the first book published in England that expressed dissatisfaction with the looseness of the stage. Among its predecessors were works by Sidney, Prynne, Gosson, Evelyn, Burnet, Samuel Wesley, Baxter, Horneck, Bray, Tillotson, Blackmore, James Wright, and Gould…Some of the dramatic poets themselves had commented on the looseness of the stage; Collier was able to cite Ben Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher to strengthen his case….even a warm admirer of Congreve had felt impelled to beg him to leave off ‘serving a Senseless debauch’d Stage’ and to undertake, instead, and epic poem or a translation…when Collier wrote, the subject was in the air…The government of William III was interested in promoting the work of reform, as Collier must have known; and when the Short View was published, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to thank him for his efforts…moreover, the stage had been set by a spirited controversy over the theatre that had been conducted in France since the beginning of 1694; a controversy in which the chief forces engaged were Father Caffaro’s Letter and Bossuet’s Maximes et Réflexions, both of which were know in England at the time o f the Collier-controversy.’ John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit., Explanatory Notes vol. I p. 467.

6 E.N. Hooker cita, tra le altre, quella di Gildon, apparsa nell’aprile 1698 nella prefazione al suo Phaeton, e le anonime  Vindication of the Stage  e Defence of Dramatick Poetry (probabilmente di Settle), uscite nelle settimane immediatemente successive al saggio di Collier. John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit., Explanatory Notes vol. I p. 466.

7 ‘Now, there is no Nation in Europe, as has been observ’d above a thousand times, that is so generally addicted to the Spleen, as the English. And which is apparent to any Observer, from the reigning Distemper of the Clime, which is inseparable from the Spleen, from that gloomy and sullen Temper, which is generally spread through the Nation; from that natural Discontentedness, which makes us so uneasy to one another, because we are so uneasy to ourselves; and lastly, from our Jealousies and Suspicions, which made us dangerous to the Government, and, by consequence, to ourselves. Now the English being more Splenetick than other People, and, consequently, more Thoughtful and more Reflecting, and therefore, more Scrupulous in allowing their Passions, and, consequently, Things seldom happening in Life to move their Passions so agreeably to their Reasons, as to entertain and please them; and there being no true and sincere Pleasure, unless these Passions are thus mov’d, nor any Happiness without Pleasure; it follows, That the English, to be happy, have more need, than other People, of something that will raise their Passions in such a manner, as shall be agreeable to their Reasons, and that, by consequence, they have more need of the Drama.’ John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I p. 151.

8 ‘…if Mr. Collier would infer from hence, that our Theatres are Hindrances to the Advancement of Learning, we have nothing to do, but affirm, what all the World must consent to, that Learning is now at a greater Height, than ever it was known in England.’ John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I p. 159.

9 John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I p. 147.

10 John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I pp. 154 e 161.

11 John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I pp.167-8.

12 John C. Grace, Tragic Theory in the critical Works of Thomas Rymer, John Dennis and John Dryden, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,New York, 1975, p. 72.

13 John C. Grace, Tragic Theory in the critical Works of Thomas Rymer, John Dennis and John Dryden, op. cit. p. 79.

14 John Dennis, The critical works, op. cit. vol. I p. 160.

15 John Dennis, in Vickers, Shakespeare – The critical heritage 1623-1801, op. cit., vol. I, p. 350. Il brano in questione, tratto dalla Letter to Judas Iscariot [al secolo Barton Booth] , Esq.: ‘On the Degeneracy of the Publick Taste’, 25 May 1719, merita di essere citato per intero: ‘Shakespeare is very justly celebrated for the Truth and Justness of his Characters, for the Beauty of his Sentiments, for the Simplicity and Dignity of his Dialogue, and for his moving the Passions powerfully by the meer force of Nature. But the present Spectators of Tragedies approve of those most in which the Passions are mov’d least. They will endure no Modern Tragedy in whose principal Character Love is not the predominant Quality. Now Love predominating in the principal Character too often falsifies and confounds those Characters, and by Consequence but too often destroys the Beauty of the Sentiments, because no Sentiment can be beautiful which is improper in him who speaks it. Besides, there are not three of our modern Tragedies which have any thing like those Sentiments which abound in Shakespeare sentiments which, at the same time that they shew Sagacity and Penetration, are easie, just and natural. The modern Readers and Spectators of Tragedies will endure no Tragedy which has the Simplicity and naivetè of Shakespeare’s Dialogue; a Simplicity, wherever the occasion requires it, attended with Force, and Dignity, and Pomp, and Solemnity. Instead of that noble and natural Dialogue they are for a flatulant Style, in which the Poet puts the Change upon himself and speaks almost always himself, instead of making his Characters speak. But at the Readers and Spectators of Modern Tragedies approve of those most which are the very reverse of Shakespeare’s with respect to his  Beauties and Excellencies, so they declare very loudly against his Faults. The Faults of Shakespeare, which are rather those of the Age in which he liv’d, are his perpetual Rambles, and his apparent Duplicity (in some of his Plays) or Triplicity of Action, and the frequent breaking the Continuity of the Scenes. The present Spectators declare against this in appearance, but at the same time approve of this Multiplicity of Action in some Modern Plays, concealed by a Jumble and a Confusion which is incomprehensible and altogether unintelligible. Another of Shakespeare’s Faults is the Length of Time employ’d in the carrying on his Dramatick Action. The present Spectators are extreamly shock’d at this in a modern Tragedy, but at the same time approve of those in which the Unity of Time is preserved by offending all Common Sense. If a Modern Poet in one of his Tragedies should shew any Thing like Shakespeare’s Rambles, should introduce a Tragedy upon the Stage which should begin in Europe and end in Asia, like the Moor of Venice, that Play would be exploded and damn’d with very great Damnation. But the Modern Spectators of Tragedies greatly esteem and are fond of those in which the Unity of Place is preserv’d, sometimes by whimsical comick Absurdities, and sometimes by dreadful and prodigious Extravagancies. From all this I conclude, as I said before, that the Spectators of modern Tragedies, having the greatest Esteem for those which have least of Shakespeare’s Excellencies, and declaring loudly against his Faults, would damn Shakespeare, if living.’ John Dennis, in Vickers, Shakespeare – The critical heritage 1623-1801, op. cit. pp. 350-1.

16 John Dennis, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespear, 1712; in Vickers, Shakespeare – The critical heritage 1623-1801, op. cit. p. 293.

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