Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cenci”

I came across this obscure play while reading The Dancing Faun by Florence Farr. Florence Farr was an actress closely associated with William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. In the novel, the actress practices her craft by reciting lines from the play. I was sufficiently intrigued to read the play.

Eventually I might have read the play because in studying the work of William Butler Yeats I have learned that he was heavily influenced by Shelley. You have to become familiar with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley to understand the poetry of William Butler Yeats, if only to catch many references. I am reading the book The Romantic Imagination by Cecil Maurice Bowra and I intend to explore the work of many of the Romantic poets; Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Robert Browning in particular. Technically Robert Browning is a Victorian poet but his dramatic monologues are worth studying.

I think The Cenci is one of the great tragedies, comparable to Greek tragedies or Shakespearean tragedies. I’m glad I came across this play but most people are never destined to read the play and almost nobody will ever see it performed on stage. That is because the play is considered a “closet drama” fit only to be read in the study. The play itself has suffered a tragic fate which is traced in the book Shelley’s Cenci: Scorpions Ringed With Fire by Stuart Curran.

Shelley's Cenci: Scorpions Ringed With Fire
Shelley’s Cenci: Scorpions Ringed With Fire

I highly recommend this book because it will help you to appreciate the play. It is a rare book in that it traces the fortunes of a literary work. Very few books have been written about how changes in taste have caused some works of literature to be forgotten while others may become more popular. The book also analyzes the imagery in the play which is invaluable for any writer. And the book considers what makes the play fit for the stage and what does not work. This is of immense interest to any playwright.

On page 33 Stuart Curran tells use “Never intended as a closet drama, Shelley’s tragedy has descended to our time marked with that categorical stigma.” The play deals with sensitive subjects like incest and patricide. Although modern audiences should have no trouble with these subjects, and might even approve of a play that considers the tyranny of the father figure, this was taboo in Shelley’s times and the censors would not allow the play to be performed. Without a history of successful performances the play could only be read in the study or read aloud before a small audience. Being a play in verse (blank verse) has also contributed to its falling out of favor.

Florence Farr admired the play and often attempted to mount a production according to this book. On page 195, “Shaw craftily offered the reigning actor of the British stage, Beerbohm Tree, the part of Cenci opposite Florence Farr’s Beatrice if he would secure the Haymarket Theatre for the production. Tree, according to Shaw, “was on the point of lending … the Haymarket,” when the Censor, E. F. S. Pigott, called upon him; and though the actor emerged still “sympathetic, and offered to lend … the scenery &c …. it was quite evident that he had been effectually bound over by the censorship.” And on page 196, “On the afternoon of 14 July 1892, three weeks before Shelley’s centenary, Florence Farr and a small group of actors enacted the final scenes of the tragedy at “The Club” in Bedford Park, a small private theater with which Yeats had shortly before been associated.” And finally page 197, “In 1905 Florence Farr considered reviving the play, but was presumably dissuaded by Shaw’s predictable broadside: “I strongly deprecate the Cenci. It is out of date, false in sentiment, and ludicrously unreal to the sort of audience you want.” During these thirty years the play’s banner was periodically hoisted for a joust with the censor, but it took another great leading lady, Sybil Thorndike, to make the play a theatrical issue once again.”

The only lavish production the play ever received was in 1959 at the Old Vic. I found a production photo of the actress Barbara Jefford in the book. I love production photos which are often highly suggestive of some great drama being played out. In this photo the actress is pensive and looking away from the Count who seems to be grabbing at her. I wish I could find this photo online but it can only be found in the book Shelley’s Cenci: Scorpions Ringed With Fire.

This book contains a remarkable passage which describes why it is a problem to be a blind fool. I think about this a lot because these days many people can be considered to be blind fools and nobody seems to realize what the problem with that might be: “He is so inured to himself as to be blind; and, being blind to himself, he cannot see the true condition of things in the world. If all he encounters is to be considered only as it relates to his own self-interest, then all will be distorted. His mask renders his true face less readily apparent to the outside world, but in turn it restricts his vision of that world. Thus, seeing in Beatrice only the object of his lust, he is unaware of her real danger, just as he is unaware of her capacity for sensing the furtive anticipations of her father better than he can. What at first seems to Orsino’s credit, that he alone is not in awe of Cenci’s power, on second thought becomes the measure of how far his self-seeking has led him astray. He does not fear Cenci, because he never sees him and greatly underestimates him: “Old men are testy and will have their way” (I,ii,74). Orsino’s self-confidence, then, is itself hypocrisy, or at least self-delusion, as foolhardy as Giacomo’s impassioned decision to take his father’s life by himself – and a great deal less honest.” This is a very profound insight into the dangers of being blinded by self-interest. You will underestimate other people and develop a poor understanding of the world you live in.

Finally I want to reflect on how unlikely it was for me to ever come across this play. This is something I think a lot about. You cannot rely on this society to bring things to your attention. There a few outlets for theater reviewers and I would question their good taste even if their reviews were being published. The true connoisseur of dramatic literature must venture out into the world and make his own discoveries. Some effort must be made to find the world’s great tragedies or they will disappear from your world as you become ever more distracted and neglect to make theater a part of your life. Fortunately, I have within me fine qualities which occasionally remind me of what is missing in my cultural life. And when I am reminded of my deeper self I seek to hold onto a sense of the profound. Only the superficial will be satisfied by a superficial culture. Character is destiny so I am destined to cross paths with fine plays like The Cenci even if they have been forgotten for I will never completely forget myself.

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