If you’re looking for something to do in Melbourne, and you think an evening of exasperation and vexation might be fun, might I suggest the Gustave Moreau-John Ford double?

First, head to the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road and spend the afternoon admiring inscrutable virgins, oracular nymphs and haughty queens at Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine. If you happen to have a couple of ‘x’s on your sex chromosome, you may want to try a bit of virginal fluttering of your own as you delicately trip between the gallery halls. If it’s ‘x’ and ‘y’, I recommend studious chin-stroking in fixed contemplation of the eternal goddess.

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Next, amble down the hill to the Malthouse Theatre for John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Pursing of lips and shakings of head are encouraged on all sides as ye think upon the rapacious carnality of womanhood and the fathomless evil it doth inspire. Folded arms and crossed legs are also apt, though some rearrangement of the junk mayhap be needed where the evil is too fiercely inspired.

Then go for a drink, why not, at a bar, whereat to appropriately lament the tiresome generics of Western Art, for the opposites presented by these two artists, one a Romantic painter, the other a Jacobean playwright, perfectly delimited the artistic types into which post-Renaissance Europe has been able to imagine the feminine: the whore and the virgin.

Moreau’s idealised allegories and saccharine symbolism, his ‘spiritual masturbation repeated in chaste flesh’, we can leave for another age. He is too insipid to inspire us to anything more than groaning and the rolling of eyes. Ford, on the other hand, is still a provocation. His somewhat controversial thesis on woman is that, from womb to wizening, she is a whore. Needless to say, Ford was a melancholic of the deeply misogynist vein.

A brief survey of the dramatis personae in Ford’s most famous play will serve as well as a summary of the plot: Annabella, the main protagonist, is apparently innocence and light … but Ford finds her out. Yes, sir, she is a whore. Youth and inexperience count for nothing: the whoredom is innate. Giovanni, her lover and twin, even accuses her of whoring when she and he were in utero together. Hippolata, on the other hand, has plenty of experience. She is mature and independent, wealthy and noble. She does not need men. But need means nothing: Ford knows that whoring is even more essential to women than desire itself. Lastly, there is Putana,  a loyal servant and a kind governess. She didn’t, strictly speaking, do anything, but wise Ford still burns her at the stake, because her tolerance is but another kind of whoring.

As for the men, being sons of women, they are all real whoresons: bastards through and through. But that’s more of an excuse for brutality, not a fault in itself.

Pretty clearly, I loathe the play. But it’s not just the misogyny — which I admit can be turned to impressive and powerful artistic use when in the hands of the right sad genius — it’s the relentless narrowness of Ford’s imagination.

I can’t stand the hackneyed smut which he litters through his lines, double entendres that were worn out well before his own time and crude clichés that probably never passed as wit; I can’t stand the trashy Jacobean violence, so inevitable and conventional; and I can’t stand the cynical smoothness of the verse, his boring rhetoricism and addiction to fancy verbal formulas. Ford’s ‘great’ play lacks everything that made his influences great. His humanity is deathly pale when compared to even second-rank Elizabethans like Kyd. His tragic plots have a kind of nihilistic nastiness when compared to the gung-ho revenges produced in the decades immediately before ‘Tis Pity.

In short, I quite understand what the Puritans were upset about, though I think civil war is excessive as a critical response. What I would prefer is that we all just shut our historical eyes and pretend this embarrasing play was never written.

And yet, this vile thing will be ever be revived, over and over. Why? And why, especially, Marion Potts, as your first play in your first season as artistic director?

Is it a case of “new artistic director, same old Malthouse”? More shits and giggles? Vide Potts in her little Malthouse-produced YouTube video (see below). In describing what the show is about, her response is: “When is it OK to fuck your brother?” A profound question for our time. For me, this leads directly to the cynical supposition that it’s all just branding, really, retailing a hoary piece of sexed-up arcana as a sleek piece of taboo-busting sophistication.

“What are you seeing tonight?”
“Oh, you know, the incest play.”
“The incest play? Tell me everything about it. Now.”
“Well, it’s called ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore–”
“I must see this play.”

But then, if it is only branding, why isn’t the production itself more exploitative? Why is it so grim and serious and harsh? What else is going on here?

The first thing to note, I think, is that the tradition in which this revival occurs is highly academic. We can see, by comparing production notes and reviews, similiarities between this performance and performances in England, America and famously in France, too, as Dommage qu’elle soit une putain, from the ’70s right through to today. There is an abstract quality to them. The drama itself is not unifying. Disparate production elements, most often multimedia, are brought together, collected (with varying degrees of success) by a heavy moral tone. Not necessarily moralising, per se, but certainly weighted with an apparently portentous moral significance.

That heaviness and portentousness makes me think the periodic re-appearance of this play is memorial in function. The idea is precisely not to ignore this play, however much it offends us. Rather, to expose it — reminding us, not letting us forget, that this whole sluts and nuns architecture is what Western represenational art is built on and is irrevocably implied through everything that is dependent on it. It is structural to all that we take for granted in the canon.

Ford’s is the chosen memento because his play is a near-pure articulation of one pole in that structure. Moreau persists, probably, for his articulation of the other. And thus they are periodically re-inserted into the present. (Although I’m sure that the nudity and incest are powerful reasons also.)

Not that an impressive and affecting production of this play is inconceivable. I’m sure it could succeed on its own terms and not be a mere dreary submissions to the duty of remembering. Ford’s play does have one exceptional quality, which is its relentlessness. But a really successful production would need to fathom that relentlessness, to exercise Ford’s extremity of hate and the erotic violence he not only depicts but suggests.

How this could be done without wholesale deconstruction of the text is not for me to say. But, I would say that such a hypothetical production would have no coy stabbings with stagey clutches, no parsimony of fake blood; no modesty in its treatment of the sex; no demure blackouts. It would be serious in the ways that this production is not.

Still, there is a hard edge to this show that makes it watchable, if a little dreary. There is a grittiness and brutality in the swift treatment of the script and in the performance of the violence. But the effort to situate it in the now, the present, the striving toward ethical relevance, has perhaps compromised the full aesthetic exploration of Ford’s hate. And as such, that hate has come off as somehow boring, old fashioned, a little bit funny, comparable only to the pseudo-psychological reductions of a blithering bogan, the character described as ‘B.’ in the program, who wanders on, now and again, to offer hints in the art of modern seduction: in other words, a stereotype.

The details: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore is at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until March 5. Tickets through M-Tix.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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