Monday, October 27, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“REFORM – A Memoir” by Geoffrey Palmer (Victoria University Press and the Law Foundation, $NZ80)
Geoffrey Palmer’s memoirs were released a number of months ago and have already been reviewed in all the literary and professional magazines, not to mention the shorter notices in newspapers. Why, then, have I taken so long to produce a review of them on this blog, when I pride myself on (often) getting my word in before most of the print media have fired a shot?
Incredibly simple, really.
Reform – A Memoir is so long that it took me a great deal of time to plough my way through it, and I met weekly deadlines with other books while I was doing so. A heavy hardback, Reform – A Memoir comes in at 800 large and closely-printed pages, with the very occasional illustration. That’s 750 pages of text before the index. Its sheer weight would make it a lethal weapon if thrown across a room, or an excellent doorstopper.
I wax facetious here when I shouldn’t. As you may have noticed, I am always ready to review biographies of, or autobiographies by, New Zealand prime minsters because, regardless of their quality, such books will always tell us something about how this nation has been run. [Check the index at right for my appraisals of A Great New Zealand Prime Minister?, a symposium on William Ferguson Massy; The Mighty Totara, David Grant’s biography of Norman Kirk; and Tom Brooking’s magisterial Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own]. So I was anxious to see what Geoffrey Palmer, deputy prime minister for five years and [unelected] prime minister for 13 months, had to say about himself.
And the first and most obvious point is that he has plenty to say.
After an opening introduction, it takes a chapter of fully 33 large and tightly-printed pages to establish all of Palmer’s ancestors and his parentage. Then there is another 33-page chapter on Palmer’s Nelson upbringing and education, which Palmer begins with the words “Here I try to analyse the education I received and my reaction to it” (p.50) as if he is preparing a legal brief. He proceeds into a long account of Nelson College, but it is mainly in the form of a general critique of the school’s values, which now seem quaint. Of course young Geoffrey comes across as a studious and likeable young man – but one wonders whether he had to produce the whole text of a schoolboy speech he gave in a speech competition to show us the values that had been instilled in him? And so (Chapter 4) to a 30-page chapter on his time as a student at Vic. Yes, we hear what he studied and his interest in politics and in law and in literature and how his ideas were formed – but goodness, once again we have to ask if we really have to have Aristotle’s philosophy summarised for us over three pages as if he is reproducing old lecture notes. And there is a not a great deal of raffish student life, but once again the sense of a thoughtful and dutiful young man who keeps his nose to the grindstone, although we are touched to learn that he lost both of his amiable parents by the time he was 21. We cover (Chapter 5) his time as a law clerk and being admitted to the bar in 1965 and marrying and buying a house. We are told in great detail (Chapter 6) how he won a scholarship to study in Chicago, and went off with his wife Margaret and their infant son in 1966; and how he won a Doctor of Law cum laude. He dutifully discusses how he became interested in the whole American concept of the maintenance of free speech and how this influenced him as both a government minister and a prime minister when conceiving a Bill of Rights for New Zealand. Then it’s on (Chapter 7) to lecturing in law and politics at Vic and gaining a tenured academic position at Iowa. And here he insists on plodding through the textbook cases his students studied in the matter of property. However, at pp.179-180 he does at least tell how he was drafted into protecting university property at Iowa when anti-Vietnam War protests on campus got out of hand. Then it’s back to a chair in law at Vic. and he wraps up by telling how his legal training had an impact on his later political life and the causes he espoused. So (Chapter 8) to an account of how he became interested in the whole topic of accident compensation, about which he later wrote a detailed book and upon which he helped legislate in 1990 when he was a government minister. This includes a 23-page thesis on what can be learned about accident compensation from the last 40 years of New Zealand history.
Now I am not for one moment saying that there is nothing revealing in this book up to this point. There is the occasional interesting anecdote as when Palmer tells us that as a child
“On Sundays I was sent to the Cathedral Sunday School and later Bible Class. I was not happy about this because my parents usually stayed in bed but insisted I go. They seldom went to church and I suspect my mother was a non-believer. She was certainly opposed to organised religion; she believed only the Salvation Army did any good because they were practical.” (p.59)
This chimes very much with the common belief, among church historians, that Sunday schools were one of the reasons Protestant church attendance dropped off so quickly in New Zealand. Many Protestant kids wised up to the fact that their going to Sunday school was simply an excuse for Mum and Dad to have a Sunday snooze – so they gave up any church attendance once the childhood compulsion of Sunday school was past. Church was seen as kidstuff.
I am also interested in Palmer’s contrasts of New Zealand and American student life, as when he writes of his first impressions of Chicago:
“I could not believe how hard the students worked. It was very competitive. The weekend before classes started I went along to the Law School to have a look and was amazed to see the library full of students hard at work. I had never seen such a thing in New Zealand. I had to take a very heavy load of courses and I had never worked so hard as I did at Chicago. The fact that the year was organised in quarters meant there were examinations and papers due at the end of every quarter and this added to the pressure.” (pp.134-135)
Given that he is writing of a time about half a century ago, he is really encountering That system of semester tests and regular course appraisals that has now become ubiquitous in New Zealand universities too.
Interestingly, in the matter of teaching methods he later remarks:
“I taught in both the United States and New Zealand by the case method, also known as the Socratic method. Teaching New Zealand students by this method was something of a challenge in the 1970s when students were not selected and the classes were big. Students often found it intimidating to be questioned in a big class, and they were not as verbally dextrous as the Americans nor as confident, though they wrote better English.” (p.186)
But what I do find questionable is that it takes Palmer 226 closely-printed pages – the equivalent length of many other eminent peoples’ entire memoirs – to at last get to his launching into politics, seeking selection as a Labour candidate and finally being awarded the prize of a safe Labour seat.
The book is called Reform, is it not? And surely the promise it holds out to readers is that it will focus on Palmer as the public political figure who was in a position to bring about some reform. When we do at last get to his political life, Palmer’s style is to discuss general issues and legislative responses to them, not personalities or the rough and tumble of politics. Palmer was an early signatory of the “Citizens for Rowling” campaign before the 1975 election. He spends some pages (pp.232 ff.) telling us (reasonably enough, I think) why Robert Muldoon offered the country very little; but alas, he does not examine why, therefore, Muldoon still proceeded to win the election handsomely. This is one of many instances where it seems to me that Palmer’s essential decency and his academic bent are at odds with the brute realities of politics and how appeals are made, for good or ill, to the general electorate.
In the event, Palmer was elected to Christchurch Central in 1979, and launched into some years in opposition and attempting to argue against the type of resource management the Muldoon government promoted. He produced his book Unbridled Power on how parliament alone [i.e. the prime minister and ruling party] pushed through too much legislation without adequate time for it to be considered, and how cabinet often ruled by regulation rather than legislation. He notes how Muldoon personally attacked him as a “trendy-leftie” academic and how “the most mournful and dispiriting time I spent in politics” (p.274) was during the 1981 Springbok Tour.
We are up to the Page 296 mark, well over a third of the way through this long book, before Palmer is Attorney-General in the David Lange government which, given the book’s title, is what we have been waiting for.
From this point on, most chapters begin with a neat Introduction to the issues with which Geoffrey Palmer grappled, and end with a neat Conclusion summing it all up, like a well-wrought sophomoric essay.
Palmer tells us (Chapter 12) what the functions of an Attorney General are and what his relationship with the judiciary is and what his recommendations regarding judges were. He narrates (Chapter 13) his time as Minister of Justice and reforming prisons after the Roper Report and supporting the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and redefining rape to include rape in marriage. He discusses (Chapter 15) reforming parliament and bringing in MMP. He devotes Chapter 16 to the Treaty and Maori and the constitution, Chapter 17 to the Resource Management Act, climate change and opposition to drift-net fishing when he was Minister of the Environment, and Chapter 18 to foreign affairs. He was never Minister of Foreign Affairs but sometimes deputised in that role for David Lange. Much of this chapter is light globetrotting and glad-handing. It includes mention of Robert Mugabe’s thanks for New Zealand’s strong communiqué against apartheid (Palmer quickly notes, on p.451, that this was before Mugabe had reached his “extremist phase”) and encounters with that old charlatan Rewi Alley, whom Palmer sees as an “asset” in New Zealand’s relationship with China. The Fourth Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policy and its repercussions for ANZUS and relations with USA are the subject of Chapter 19. This includes Palmer’s part in dealing with the fallout from the “Rainbow Warrior” affair in 1985. To me at least he seems altogether too detached and phlegmatic when he declares of this affair that “while intrinsically interesting, [it] was also a fertile field for the application of dispute settlement techniques. It was in the end completely resolved and put behind the nations involved…” Was it really? Palmer praises Mitterand’s prime minister Michel Rocard for the reconciliation between France and New Zealand.
Least revealing about what is down and dirty in politics is Chapter 20, concerning Palmer’s role as Deputy Prime Minister for five years and his brief (13 months) tenure as Prime Minister.
After he leaves parliament, the remaining chapters (over 200 pages of them) chronicle his continued involvement in law (he is now a Q.C.). Chapters 21,22 and 23 cover his interest in free speech and reforming libel laws; his time in private practice; the work of the Law Commission and the abolition (which he heartily approves) of the “provocation defence” in criminal trials. Chapter 24 concerns laws pertaining to alcohol. Palmer has very mixed feelings about the drinking age having been reduced to 18, he wants alcohol policed the way tobacco is, but says real reform (despite the binge-drinking culture that is clear for all to see) is blocked by alcohol interests and the Business Roundtable. When he covers the International Whaling Commission in Chapter 25 he gives it a negative report, claiming it is essentially not doing the job it is set up to do. The final chapters are on the long-term project of reforming local government.
By this stage you are probably as weary as I am of this bland and mechanical summarising of the book’s contents. But there is reason in my blandness. I have faithfully presented Geoffrey Palmer’s memoirs in the way he himself presents them – rationally, methodically and one topic at a time. If it is a chore to read a book review written in this style, then believe me it is even more of a chore to read a whole book managed thus.
I do not dismiss the moments of insight that Palmer provides. Note, for example, his rather cautious comment on the difficulties of running enterprises in partnership with iwi:
“Then there were problems with the control of money. Maori projects had a habit of causing political embarrassment to central government due to what appeared by Pakeha standards to be lax financial administration. Somehow the New Zealand government has never been able to run things in a way that is both sensitive to Maori cultural needs and satisfactory from the point of view of Pakeha financial practices. Sir Apirana Ngata had to resign as a minister in 1934 because of this and little has changed in that respect. I also had occasion while a minister to investigate a couple of Maori Trust Boards for irregular financial administration.” (p.412)
A whole chapter, which Palmer doesn’t venture, could be written about this issue.
But, while appreciating Palmer’s methodical and legalistic approach, I am annoyed that he devotes only ten pages in this extremely long book (pp.500-510) to the Fourth Labour Government’s economic policies. Surely that government’s turn to economic neoliberalism was its most lasting legacy? Not only is Palmer’s account brief, but it shows him trying to perform the impossible task of both dissociating himself from Rogernomics and claiming that at first what Roger Douglas did was necessary and non-ideological. Later, he presents himself as the moderate voice between Douglas and those who wanted to maintain the welfare state. Whether it was his intention or not, the impression he creates is of a Labour front-bencher quite out of touch with the main thrust of what his government was doing. Similarly, Palmer rushes in a page or so past the matter of his being, pre-election, rolled in the party leadership by Mike Moore and resigning as Prime Minister. This is another instance of these memoirs avoiding the rough and nasty side of politics. It means that Palmer does not have to analyse in any detail why so much of the party saw him as unelectable as prime minister and as a liability.
The nearest Palmer comes to a general political credo in Reform is this:
“As I contemplate my political career in retrospect I should try to sum up what my political philosophy is. I do not think it changed much over the years. I am very much in the middle of the political spectrum in terms of the range of New Zealand politics. In many ways I am close to being a classical liberal of the John Stuart Mill variety. I do believe in social democracy and the state being used to advance the common good and the public interest. The state can be a great force for social good but it must not become too powerful and abuse its power over people. Freedom and liberty are very important democratic values. So are tolerance and freedom of expression. I have always been sceptical about economic theory, and I supported the economic changes made by the Fourth Labour Government not for ideological reasons but because I thought the New Zealand economy was seriously out of balance with the principles of orthodox and mainstream economics. No country in the free world was being governed like New Zealand at the height of the Muldoon ascendancy. I am a strong believer in the doctrine that constitutional lawyers call the rule of law. I prefer comprehensive and carefully thought through reform policies as opposed to fiddling, which seems to be the current fashion.” (pp.237-238)
There are so many internal contradictions in this statement that it falls very flat. A classic liberal AND a social democrat? A man sceptical of economic theory AND supporting economic change in the name of economic orthodoxy? In spite of his legal training, Palmer’s statement is more an expression of vague goodwill than anything else.
It would be wrong to say that Palmer was a man entirely without a sense of humour, but he is certainly not the man for one-liners, aphorisms or pithy witticisms. I chuckled at the pungent comments (pp.312-313) he makes on the politicised judiciary in America, where judges are elected. I smirked at his pale attempt at a joke when he compares the New Zealand constitution to Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark because it is “both imaginary and illusive” (p. 338). It somehow seems typical of this author that he methodically shoehorns all his amusing anecdotes into a final chapter called “Some Lighter Moments”.
How, in the end, do I judge this overlong and solid tome?
Reading it has not in any way changed my basic impression of Geoffrey Palmer – that he is a decent, intelligent and honest man who genuinely wants what is best for the community. I deeply regret his evasions (about his government’s economic policies) and his failure to engage with the tougher and more personality-laden aspects of politics. I applaud him for writing a very readable prose, which may have been honed by years of reading and commenting on legal cases. The best lawyers are, after all, very clear prose stylists. But I am sorry that his tone is often that of a textbook, explaining things to us and drawing neat conclusions about issues. One has the sense that he is methodically ticking off topics, like the dutiful schoolboy that he once was, producing a watertight argument for a speech competition. In this sense, and despite its subtitle, Reform is not a memoir as we are rarely given what Palmer felt (as opposed to thought) about any matter. He is professorial. He is explaining things to us and expecting us to be good students.
I can honestly say that this book will be a great resource for historians and other researchers – but then you see that in saying that, I am really damning it with faint praise. Inadvertently, this book by a thoughtful academic tells us why the public could never elect Palmer as prime minister.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“ARDEN OF FEVERSHAM” An Anonymous Play (first published 1592)
Very occasionally, and especially when the holidays give me time to do so, I like to re-read some of those Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that I studied as a sophomore and then write about them on this “Something Old” spot. [Look up George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois and John Marston’s The Malcontent via the index at right.] Yes, I do take the odd whack at Shakespeare too, but I’d never be so gauche as to give you my thoughts on him, as the internet is already awash with Shakespeariana, exegetes have chewed his plays to death and I probably wouldn’t have much original to say about him anyway. But as for the other playwrights of the era – I regard them as open territory, and am happy to wallow in them.
And Arden of Feversham is especially attractive to me.
To deal with the factual stuff first. It has become the fashion to refer to this anonymous shocker as Arden of Faversham rather than Feversham, because Faversham is, after all, the received spelling of the town in Kent, west-north-west of Canterbury, where some of the action takes place. But I prefer to call it Feversham, as that is the spelling given in all but the most recent printings of the play. Arden of Feversham was first printed in 1592, and had probably first been performed not too long before that. The events of the play are based on a true crime that had taken place about forty years before, in 1551, in the short reign of Edward VI. Even if you didn’t have footnotes to tell you this, you could work it out from the text itself because, in the very first act, we learn that Arden, the play’s murder victim, has recently been granted, by the Lord Protector Lord Somerset, rights to land that used to belong to a recently dissolved abbey. Somerset was the guy who ran England, and vigorously Protestantised the country, when Edward VI was under-age.
Nobody knows who wrote this play, although there have been game academic attempts to examine style and count key words and assign parts of it to Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe or young Shakespeare (who was still a relative beginner when the play appeared and who did do collaborative and patch-up jobs with other people’s texts). But as always, such attempts are inconclusive. And I must admit that I prefer it to be anonymous. It reminds me that this was when the best late Elizabethan drama was just beginning and it makes me indulgent of the play’s flaws. All agree that the play’s key events are based very closely – almost documentary style – on the factual story as told in Holinshed’s Chronicles.
Okay – now for the play. Remember in the earliest phase of book-printing, the titlepage functioned as a “blurb” as much as simple identification of the book, so you know what you’re in for when you read the original title page which, in the original spelling, runs thus:
“The lamentable and true Tragedie of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent. Who was most wickedlye murdered, by the meanes of his disloyall and wanton wyfe who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hyred two desperat ruffins, Blackwill and Shakbag, to kill him. Wherin is shewed the great mallice and discimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of fithie lust and the shamefull end of all murderers. Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the lyttle North dore cf Paules Church at the signe of the Gun. 1592.”
Got it now? This is a play about lust, murder and retribution, three of the things that make drama worthwhile.
Essentially its plot runs thus: Alice Arden is adulterously in lust with Mosbie, who is clearly of a slightly lower class than the Ardens. At play’s opening Arden is about to go on a business trip to London and is already lamenting to his friend Franklin that his wife Alice is being unfaithful to him with Mosbie, because he heard her utter Mosbie’s name in her sleep. (Franklin has little role in the play other than to converse sympathetically with Arden – a little like Horatio to Hamlet). However, off the two of them go and at once Alice is conspiring with various confederates over how she can have her husband bumped off.
At first she and Mosbie consort with a painter called Clarke who suggests various ingenious poisons. Clarke also has his eye on Mosbie’s sister Susan; and Alice promises him that Susan will be his so long as he helps to murder Arden. Complicating factor is that she makes the same promise to her household servant Michael, who also has his eye on Susan Mosbie. In the event, neither Clarke nor Michael is much help in getting Arden killed, though Michael (who every so often has severe pricks of conscience) does act as what gangster thrillers would later call a “finger man” – the guy who opens the doors and sets up the scene so that hired killers can do their work.
More helpful to Alice and her lover Mosbie is a guy called Greene, who has a grudge against Arden because Arden took over some land Greene laid claim to. Greene hires two cut-throats called Black Will and Shakebag and sends them off to rub out Arden in London.
Interplaying with conversations between Arden and Franklin (when Arden does, and then does not, and then does again, doubt his wife’s fidelity) what follows in the last three acts is grotesque and funny and sad. Repeatedly Black Will and Shakebag try to kill Arden and fail. They try to accost him in his lodgings in London, but instead the waiting Michael has a nightmare and his shoutings wake the house, while one of the cut-throats has a window-sash fall on his dead. Foiled! They try to ambush him on the road back to Feversham, but at the crucial moment Arden is met by a travelling nobleman and his retainers and the ambush has to be called off. Foiled again! Again they try to ambush Arden on a foggy night, but they get lost in the fog and one of the cut-throats falls in a ditch. Foiled yet again! This begins to sound like the Keystone Krims, or Coyote failing to get the Roadrunner. When Arden is at last nearing home, he is attacked but the assailant runs away and his wife Alice is able to soothe him yet again with words about how innocent her relationship with Mosbie is.
Finally, in a scene that was often reproduced in a crude woodcut in early editionsof the play, Arden is murdered in his own home. While Arden is playing a game of backgammon, the cut-throats (who have been concealed by Alice in a closet) rush out and restrain his arms with a cord. Then Mosbie and Alice and the cut-throats stab Arden to death. Retribution comes quickly, however, for in attempting to leave the corpse in an outdoors spot (to pretend that somebody had mugged Arden to death), they neglect to note that their footprints in the snow lead to and from the house where they have murdered Arden.
In no time they are arrested and hanged, to the great satisfaction of the Elizabethan audience and of this reader.
There are some side-issues worth noting in this play. One is that there are scuffles between Michael and Clarke (over their rival claims to Susan Mobie) as an occasional subplot. Another is that there is a scene where Black Will and Shakebag fall out and start brawling, and have to be steeled to their task by Greene. [By the way, in Holinshed’s original account, Shakebag was called something else, and there has been the claim that, what with one of the crims being called Will, the other was re-named Shakebag as a crack at this young Will Shakespeare fellow.] There is also a scene with a low comic character, the Ferryman who transports Arden and Franklin on the foggy night when Arden once again fails to be murdered. A bit like the gravedigger in Hamlet this Ferryman comments on the thick fog thus:
I think 'tis like to a curst wife in a little house, that never leaves her husband till she have driven him out at doors with a wet pair of eyes ; then looks he as if his house were a-fire, or some of his friends dead. (Act 4 Scene 2)
“A curst wife in a little house”? I know the Ferryman is making a (typical male chauvinist!) crack at whining women, but this phrase does neatly link back to Alice Arden.
Speaking of whom, the play basically sees Alice as a wicked, conniving woman who foresakes her sacred marriage vows and plans the murder of her own husband. She soliloquizes:
Sweet Mosbie is the man that hath my heart
And he [Arden] usurps it, having nought but this:
That I am tied to him by marriage.
Love is a God, and marriage is but words;
And therefore Mosbie's title is the best.
(early in Act One)
Later, she persuades Mosbie of her love thus:
What? shall an oath make thee forsake my love?
As if I have not sworn as much myself
And given my hand unto him in the church!
Tush, Mosbie ; oaths are words, and words is wind,
And wind is mutable : then, I conclude,
'Tis childishness to stand upon an oath.
(later in Act One)
For aught I know, there may be some academic bore somewhere who sees this as a woman asserting her independence and sexual freedom, but I am sure that is not how the playwright sees it. The play’s morality is quite conventional – and yet of course, like juicy tabloid journalism, it revels in the vice it exposes.
Arden’s outrage is the righteous outrage of a wronged husband, as when he declaims to Franklin at the beginning of Act 3:
No, Franklin,no: if fear or stormy threats,
If love of me or care of womanhood,
If fear of God or common speech of men,
Who mangle credit with their wounding words,
And couch dishonour as dishonour buds,
Might join repentance in her wanton thoughts,
No question then but she would turn the leaf
And sorrow for her dissolution;
But she is rooted in her wickedness.
Perverse and stubborn, not to be reclaimed;
Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds,
And reprehension makes her vice to grow
As Hydra's head that plenished by decay.
Her faults, methink, are painted in my face,
For every searching eye to overread;
And Mosbie's name, a scandal unto mine,
Is deeply trenched in my blushing brow.
Ah, Franklin, Franklin, when I think on this,
My heart's grief rends my other powers
Worse than the conflict at the hour of death.
And yet there is something slightly off with this outburst. Arden is as much outraged by the damage to his public reputation (“her faults are painted in my face”; “a scandal unto mine”) as he is by the violation of his marriage bed. The fact is, while the play sympathises with Arden’s position and condemns his murder, it does not really present Arden as a very sympathetic character. Note he has clearly swindled Greene out of some land (giving Greene at least a motive to hate him) and later in the play (Act 4) he is accosted by a sailor called Reede, who complains that Arden has swindled him out of land too and left his family to starve. (The play’s epilogue confirms that Reede is telling the truth). So Arden was apparently some aggressive property-developing sharper of the mid-16th century.
One can speculate that this true story could have been told in ways that would not make Arden look so innocent.
So to the question: Why do I like this grotesque and funny and tragic old play? Partly because I like the very excesses of it, which sometimes strike gold in terms of imagery. Take the early moment where Mosbie reports that the painter Clarke can kill somebody with the absurd device of a painting giving off toxic fumes:
I happened on a painter yesternight,
The only cunning man of Christendom;
For he can temper poison with his oil,
That whoso looks upon the work he draws
Shall, with the beams that issue from his sight,
Suck venom to his breast and slay himself.
Sweet Alice, he shall draw thy counterfeit,
That Arden may, by gazing on it, perish.
This is supremely silly as a means of murder, and yet the idea of looking on and admiring the image of a loved one, when it is in fact lethal, is a nice metaphor for Arden’s trusting relationship with his murderous wife. Later, there is talk of a similarly toxic crucifix, which could be seen as a metaphor for religious duties (the sacrament of marriage) gone badly wrong.
Even more attractive to me, however, is how this tale of murder really does read so much like the old films noirs. The adulterous lovers planning to bump off the husband? Yep – Fred MacMurray and Barabara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. When you get to Act 3, Scene 5 of Arden of Feversham, you have the inevitable scene where the adulterous couple doubt each other and each begins to wonder if the other will rat on him/her once the murder is done, like the way Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor don’t trust each other in The Maltese Falcon. There are moments when the weak and conscience-stricken Michael, set up and threatened by the other conspirators, looks like the patsy Elisha Cook Jr. role. Then there’s the wicked femme fatale who sweet talks the poor male sap into doing what she wants, like Jane Greer leading Robert Mitchum along by the nose (before he wises up) in Out of the Past. “Ah, how you women can insinuate/ And clear a trespass with your sweet-set tongue!” exclaims Mosbie to Alice in Act 3, Scene 5.
The scene where Alice suckers Greene into helping her is a model of this sort of thing. She tells him that her husband is slapping her around and cheating on her and planning to have her killed and is generally a filthy brute. I’m sure she has most appealing tears threatening her eyes as she says so:
Ah, Master Greene, be it spoken in secret here,
I never live good day with him alone:
When he 's at home, then have I froward looks,
Hard words and blows to mend the match withal;
And though I might content as good a man,
Yet doth he keep in every corner trulls;
And when he's weary with his trugs at home.
Then rides he straight to London ; there, forsooth,
He revels it among such filthy ones
As counsels him to make away his wife.
Thus live I daily in continual fear,
In sorrow ; so despairing of redress
As every day I wish with hearty prayer
That he or I were taken forth the world.
(late in Act One)
Now I grant you that this play does not have a well-wrought plot. There is no carefully staged climax. Instead there are all those messy attempts at murder until we come to the bloody outburst of the last act. This has usually been explained on the grounds that it is, after all, chronicling a real case from a (sort of) factual source, and hence it is intent on not leaving any of the details out. The play’s epilogue is spoken by Arden’s friend Franklin and goes thus:
Thus have you seen the truth of Arden's death.
As for the ruffians, Shakebag and Black Will,
The one took sanctuary, and, being sent for out,
Was murdered in Southwark as he passed
To Greenwich, where the Lord Protector lay.
Black Will was burned in Flushing on a stage;
Greene was hanged at Osbridge in Kent;
The painter fled and how he died we know not.
But this above the rest is to be noted:
Arden lay murdered in that plot of ground
Which he by force and violence held from Reede;
And in the grass his body's print was seen
Two years and more after the deed was done.
Gentlemen, we hope you'll pardon this naked tragedy,
Wherein no fil’d points are foisted in
To make it gracious to the ear or eye;
For simple truth is gracious enough,
And needs no other points of glosing stuff.
You’ll note how this neatly ties up all the loose ends. It’s like one of those running titles at the end of a crime reconstruction that hastily tells us what happened after the dramatised part. This makes me wonder if Arden of Feversham isn’t the ancestor of docu-dramas as well as of film noir. As for the last five lines, they are really pleading “We’re giving you the facts, Ma’am, nohing but the facts”. But delightfully, this is not the case, for most of Arden of Feversham jogs by on most acceptable blank verse.
I’d certainly rather read this than the convolutions of poor George Chapman.
FOR THIS WEEK'S "SOMETHING THOUGHTFUL", HIT THE "OLDER POSTS" BUTTON.
FOR THIS WEEK'S "SOMETHING THOUGHTFUL", HIT THE "OLDER POSTS" BUTTON.