The film REVENGERS TRAGEDY is based on a play first performed in 1606 or thereabouts. Put this way it sounds just about as tedious as can be, doesn’t it? ‘Old play’ aka ‘the Elizabethan stage’, aka unintelligible language, hose and doublet, improbable sword fights, and tedious clowns. All of those things exist in Renaissance Drama, but they are overwhelmed in Revengers Tragedy by the blood-lusting, religiously-deranged sadistic vengeance of one poor man against an aristocratic family. When I first saw the script, by accident, in 1976, it seemed to me completely modern. There is a reason for this. The regime of James I saw a loosening of the reins of power. Though he had inherited the first English super-state — church and monarchy consolidated, with a powerful network of spies — James was less of a control freak than Elizabeth or either Hank Tudor had been. The theatre — already original and innovative, relying on scenes of female impersonation and hyper-violence to excite the audience — became increasingly rebellious and iconoclastic. This happened at a time of social unrest, particularly in the provinces, and of the sudden and horrific rise of syphilis, previously unknown. The short history of revenge plays — which is the story of the origin of English theatre — runs like this:
1587-8 THE SPANISH TRAGEDY by Kyd establishes conventions of revenge, delay, play within play, and on-stage violence. “The bold way in which scenes of violent crime were treated on the Elizabethan stage appears to be directly owing to the example of Kyd’s innovating genius.” (Britannica). Kyd is 29 years old.
1588 DR FAUSTUS by Christopher Marlowe — gay, atheist, rebel, and friend of Kyd.
1589 The lost HAMLET play, by Kyd•, THE JEW OF MALTA by Marlowe.
1593 TITUS ANDRONICUS (sensational revenge tragedy by a young actor/writer, Shakespeare); arrest and torture of Kyd; murder of Marlowe.
1594 RICHARD 111 by Shakespeare; death of Kyd.
1601 ANTONIO’S REVENGE by Marston.
1602 The revised, “madder” SPANISH TRAGEDY with additions commissioned by Ben Jonson, possibly done by John Webster (age around 21).
1602 Five-year-old Irish war ends.
1603 James I becomes King, and ends war with Spain; THE MALCONTENT by Marston.
1604 OTHELLO is performed before James I in November. Discovery of plots against James.
1605 Gunpowder Plot, against James and Parliament, discovered. Jonson, Marsden and others briefly imprisoned for their involvement in a play, EASTWARD HO!
1606 REVENGERS TRAGEDY is first published. MACBETH, written to flatter James (a descendant of Banquo!), is published the same year.
1607 The Midlands Insurrection occurs. Thousands of northerners occupy the land of the rich and demand economic redress. Unlike the Northern Rebellion of 1569, which had religious overtones, this insurrection is wholly political. It is also disorganised, and suppressed with great violence. This context of class struggle and imminent rebellion is that of REVENGERS TRAGEDY (1606) and CORIOLANUS (probably 1607). Note the difference of approach: Shakespeare addresses the grievances of the rebels (shortage and/or high price of corn) but his hero is Coriolanus, who disdains and suppresses them. Vindici in REVENGERS TRAGEDY (at least to a modern reader) is a social rebel, seeking to bring his betters down.
1608 KING LEAR: after five years of peace, James I has indulged in the lavish creation of new peers, and doubled the debt left by Elizabeth after 17 years of war.
1611 THE ATHEIST’S TRAGEDY by Tourneur. Under-powered, it relies on providence and disdains heroic action. No revenge save God’s.
1612 THE WHITE DEVIL by Webster. Fresh blood!
1613 THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, and Webster’s lost tragedy THE GUISE.
1618 James’ subservience to upstart favourites increases; he executes Walter Raleigh under the influencer of the Spanish ambassador, Gondomar, and plans for a magnificent (and unaffordable) Spanish throne.
1621 THE CHANGELING, by Middleton and Rowley.
1623 WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, Middleton’s masterpiece. THE DEVIL’S LAW-CASE, by Webster a clumsy, involved tragicomedy — marks the transition to the later, and worse, fashion for Caroline Drama.
1624 Middleton’s A GAME AT CHESS (not a tragedy but scandalously funny at the expense of Gondomar) plays for 9 days and is banned; Middleton, summoned to appear before the court, hides.
1625 James dies.
1628 TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE by Ford. Gradually the popularity of SPANISH TRAGEDY wanes in England; it continues to be performed in Germany and Holland for another hundred years.
1642 Civil War — theatres are closed.
1662 Theatres open again; two are officially “licensed.”
1681 KING LEAR is rewritten by N. Tate — with a happy ending! This version remains in use until 1843. REVENGERS TRAGEDY is unperformed for many years. By late 19th/early 20th century it is viewed as a grotesque horror-show, the unfortunate product of a diseased mind. After World War II, REVENGERS TRAGEDY is rediscovered as a black comedy. It is performed various times in Britain from the 1960’s on.
2003 It is released as a feature film.
Alex Cox, Director
The soundtrack to Revengers Tragedy was recorded by Chumbawamba in 2002 at Shabby Road Studios, Bradford, down the road from The Fighting Cock. It was written, arranged and produced by Chumbawamba. Sleeve design by Baader-Meinhof. Cover photograph by Casey Orr. Images, dialogue and effects. 2002 Revengers Ltd. All music published by EMI Music Publishing Germany GMBH 2003 Chumbawamba.
Mutt Records Ltd 2003