The Broken Heart begins with a wail; a bow dragged across a waterphone lends a hauntingly ethereal and discordant note to begin on and the players are summoned to the stage, draped in black. John Ford makes no pretense about the somber tale to follow. “The title lends no expectation here/Of apish laughter, or of some lame jeer…” the prologue tells us. But despite its unremittingly dour circumstance, Theater for a New Audience’s current production of this lesser known Ford play retains a pallid beauty engineered by a skilled director and an exceptional cast of actors.
Ford began his career as a playwright around 1620. Most well known for his work ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford wrote in a time when England was on the verge of shifting away from the days of theatre’s exaltation and when the growing Puritan movement was becoming steadily more wary of the art form and the unholy subject matter it seemed to have a habit of addressing. Ford certainly did nothing to calm their spirits with his affinity for exploring the dangerous and lurid ends of human love, especially when those incorrigible emotions are ensconced in the pressure cooker that is the priestly decorum of the Nobel class. The central incestuous relationship of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore has shocked audiences and critics up to the current day and has even caused its omission from several Ford anthologies not to mention the various attempts by editors to provide it a more palatable title.
The Broken Heart, probably written just before ‘Tis Pity is rarely produced, perhaps overlooked due to Shakespeare, whose overwhelming dominance Ford was writing so closely in the wake of. Whatever the reason, Theater for a New Audience – who consistently seems to do immaculate productions of smart, sophisticated, somebody-should-really-produce-that-even-though-there’s-probably-a-very-limited-audience theater, has recruited Dublin-based director Selina Cartmell to head up this attractive and arrestingly poised production.
The place is “Legendary Sparta” and Orgilus has faked his departure to Athens disguising himself as a student of philosophy under the teacher Tecnicus. His betrothed Penthea was snatched from him by the debauched, abusive, and jealous Bassanes whom Penthea’s brother Ithocles thought a more socially advantageous match. Both emotions and societal expectations run high as the characters sort through their tangled lines of love, honor, and revenge. Several broken hearts and a mad scene later, and most of the characters have wound up in the usual state such classical tragedies leave them in.
The Broken Heart is a story of love, anger, jealousy, and honor. Indeed each of its characters has one such human epithet ascribed to their name by the playwright: Bassanes, vexation; Ithocles, honor of loveliness; Penthea, compliant, etc. But its pathos resides primarily in how these messy human emotions are subsumed and force-molded into the high code of virtue expected from the courtly class. Penthea shuns Orgilus after his furtive yet passionate confession of deep love later lamenting, “Honour,/How much we fight with weakness to preserve/thee!”
The actors play upon a slab of black marble evoking an elegant chessboard where characters are carved pieces, only permitted to move about their world in accordance with painfully polished codification. (Note however, the chess metaphor should not be extended to Cartmell’s staging which handles the challenging three-quarter thrust space with economic ingenuity and grace.)
Ithocles, in a soliloquy where he struggles to cope with the toll of ambition and morality, reminds himself pithily, “Morality, appli’d/To timely practice, keeps the soul in tune, /At whose sweet music all our actions dance.” Music is perhaps an apt metaphor with its ability to find expressiveness under strict meter; and Cartmell has brilliantly seized on the musical motif. She threads the play with the ubiquitous presence of an eerie musician, sometimes scoring events amongst the characters on stage, sometimes clattering with chimes and bells in the scaffolding above it. But the music the characters of The Broken Heart play to is atonal rather than “in tune” and it is in its strict meter that they find their madness. From that initial tuneless cord of the waterphone (a strange instrument which has the appropriate aesthetic of some Jacobean torture device), the characters start their dance through Cartmell’s rich world painted in black and white. In the final moments of act two, even as surprising deaths are announced and shouted into the crowd the characters keep on dancing (quite literally) only stopping to deal with the emotional fallout after they have finished the necessary steps. The great (and maybe expected) irony of Ford’s play however, is that in the characters’ attempts to uphold their great honor and morality lay the festering seed of madness that drive them to their most inhuman and dishonorable ends.
*Columbia students can purchase $10 tickets for this Theater for a New Audience production. (There is, however, a $5 service fee… still a good deal!)
Zachary Lindberg, CC ’13