Friday, February 5, 2016

Reading The Bad Plays - Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is what happens when a fairy tale dies on stage and goes to hell.  I actually don't think it's a bad play, though it has its problems.

The story is simple, Timon, an Athenian aristocrat gives away is fortune to people who he wants to be his friends, to people who flatter him.   In fact he give more than that away and builds up huge debts.  When the rainy day comes and his creditors come a calling, en masse, he asks those who he gave it all away to to bail him out, only to be refused.  At first he tries to blame his steward but he's able to point out that he was warning Timon that he was giving more than he had to give.  Timon, of course, loses it all and takes it on the lam and the last act is one, long misanthropic tirade by the former philanthropist.   He's such a misanthrope that the town cynic, Apemantus goes looking for him, accusing him of stealing his shtick and finds that the former philanthropist has outdone him with his disdain and hatred of humanity.   There is a side plot Alcibiades, "an Athenian captain" who is done dirty by the "Senate" and banished raising an army of mercenaries to attack the city he had once given service to.  He finds Timon in the woods outside of Athens and finds that even though Timon supports his attack he hates Alcibiades even as he tries to commiserate with him.   Of course such things as the infamous name, Alcibiades being some kind of patriot when the real guy was a back stabbing creep and there being a "senate" in Athens and other such things show this is not exactly historically informed drama, it's a fairy tale.  As such I wouldn't hold it to the same standards as even a play like King John should be.

As always, there is some good poetry in the play, if you were hard up for fancy insults the fifth act is a really good place to go looking for them.  If I were directing it I'd cut a lot of that act, even reading it on the page fast the pace sags after a few minutes.  The scene where Apemantus goes to tell off his rival misanthrope only to get back better than he gives could be rather funny.  I can think of a number of contemporary pop culture figures he could be made up as, a conceited jerk whose act is to be a smart guy on TV.    Unlike the truly awful Pericles, I would probably pay to see it acted.  

One really nice scene is where Timon's servants are losing their position, their work and their homes and wondering what's to become of them, they show more concern for each other than the aristocrats do, Flavius, the steward, shares his little money with them, presenting them as more noble than the nobility.  If I were interested in trying to identify who wrote the plays, I'd look for something like that in his other writing.  It certainly isn't in keeping with that stingy creep. the illiterate most people were taught wrote them.

Update:  I'm Definitely Going To Have To Re-read it Now

We're having a snow day here and my brother is mostly sleeping so I've got time to play online.  I just found this article about Timon of Athens


The "Shakespeare" Play, Timon of Athens, was never printed in quarto and, so far as is known, never produced on any stage, previously to its appearance in the First Folio of 1623. Contemporary literature gives no hint of its existence prior to 1623. The question may therefore be asked ''If this play was written by Will Shaksper, where was the manuscript during the period between Shaksper's death in 1616 and its appearance seven years afterwards in the Folio?"

If it was sent by Shaksper to Heminge and Condell, then it is remarkably strange that they did not inform the literary coterie in London that they had in their possession a brand-new play by Shaksper which had never been heard of before! If for some unknown reason they wished to keep this fact secret, then surely when they were gathering together the plays for publication in the Folio they would have been only too delighted to have informed the Reader that they were printing for the first time a Shakespeare play which had never been performed on any stage.

On the other hand, they give the reader the impression that all the plays printed in the Folio were known to the public, because in their preface

"To the Great Variety of Readers'' they state that ''these Plaies have had their triall alreadie and stood out all applause" and "before you were abused with diverse stolne and surreptitious copies."

They also say 'What he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers,'' which implies that they had received the manuscripts of the plays direct from the author's hands.

Will Shaksper having died seven years before the publication of the Folio, this must mean that Shaksper had handed over this play of Timon of Athens to Heminge and Condell in his lifetime, and if this was so it is certainly extraordinary that Heminge and Condell never mentioned this fact to anybody.

Ulrici referring to this play, writes that ''no one could have painted misanthropy with such truth and force without having experienced its bitter agony." Yet Sir Sidney Lee writes that "Shakspere's career shows an unbroken progress of prosperity and there is no support for the suggestion of a prolonged personal experience of tragic suffering."

On the other hand, the experiences of Francis Bacon after his fall from power are precisely similar to those of Timon in this play, because he suffered from the ingratitude of a great number of his so-called friends who deserted him, as witness his letters to Buckingham and King James. It must be remembered that Bacon fell from power in 1621, and the play of Timon is first heard of two years afterwards, in 1623.

If that's the case then I'm betting that a lot of what was said in Timon's long diatribes and in the way that his "friends" brushed him off, perhaps the noble character of Timon's steward, Flavius might carry clues about Francis Bacon's own experience.   It might make it a whole other play from what a surface reading of it would show.  I wonder if the name of the cynic who accuses Timon of stealing his act only to be upstaged by him, "Apemantus" (ape man to us?) might have some relation to the famous poem by Ben Jonson "Poet ape"

On Poet-Ape
Ben Jonson, 1572 - 1637

 Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief, 
   Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit, 
From brokage is become so bold a thief, 
   As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it. 
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean, 
   Buy the reversion of old plays;  now grown 
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene, 
   He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own: 
And, told of this, he slights it.  Tut, such crimes 
   The sluggish gaping auditor devours; 
He marks not whose ‘twas first: and after-times 
   May judge it to be his, as well as ours. 
Fool!  as if half eyes will not know a fleece 
   From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece? 

I seem to recall reading that Jonson was staying with  Bacon when he wrote his gushy and only mention of William Shakespeare.   As I recall the person who mentioned that noted that Jonson was one of the most sarcastic writers who ever lived.   As I also recall the (in)famous effigy bust of Shakespeare is known to have been altered, it originally had him holding a sack of what is presumed to be wool, only later altered to have him holding a pen.

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