Each age furnishes new material for its own Dunciad, Alexander Pope’s great satire in which the world is ruled by the goddess of “Dulness” and the King of Dunces, an “Antichrist of wit.” In the poem, an “endless band” of Grub Street scribblers, poets, critics, and booksellers abase themselves in “high heroic games” to prove “who the most in love with dirt excel/Or dark dexterity of groping well.” The competitions for these hacks include: an attempt to drown out a braying donkey with their jabbering (“So swells each windpipe; ass intones to ass”); a foot-race whose eventual winner is reenergized after falling into a sewer (“Renew’d by ordure’s sympathetic force/ As oil’d with magic juices for the course”); and a dive into the Fleet Ditch, a contest wherein “Who but to sink the deeper, rose the higher.”
Pope’s “true dunces” display a heroic devotion to abjection that has its own kind of purity, a purity that rivals (even as it parodies) the dedication of a talented writer in thrall to the “reckless consciousness of art” (as Henry James puts it in “The Next Time.”) We take for granted the difficulty of ascending to the empyrean heights of genius, but descending into the “majesty of mud” poses its own challenges for those unpure hacks not blessed “with all the might of gravitation.” Or to put it in distinctly non-Augustan terms, hackin’ ain’t easy.
Take Wilton Barnhardt’s ruefully comic Lookaway, Lookwaway. Its self-loathing antihero, Gaston Jarvis, is a boorish and once-acclaimed novelist who has stooped to drunkenly dictating a series of historical adventures about Cordelia Florabloom, a Confederate heroine dodging Union perfidies to locate her missing husband. Presiding over a bourbon-fueled, one-man Algonquin Roundtable at an elite Charlotte country club, Gaston gets on his high horse to justify being a hack (incidentally, a word derived from hackney, an “ordinary,” and presumably not so high, horse):
You arteeestes ever wonder with whose profits the Germans (who run all of American publishing) pay for your little literary exercises? It takes a Gaston Jarvis or two to pay for your little writing hobby, your linguistic divertissements, to underwrite your little post-divorce, post-modern, post-plot-and-character twaddlings…
But behind Gaston’s bluster lies his failure to write his arteeestic masterpiece, a Trollope-like tale of the rise and fall of a family in the New South that was to lay bare the contradiction at the heart of Southern life: “There’s something fatal from what the slave trade fostered, a kind of barbarism side by side with civility.” Lookaway, Lookaway ends in a pathetic duel between Gaston and his best friend over the “dereliction” that led to the project’s abandonment, a spectacular parody of the genteel, chivalrous culture that Bernhard has so spectacularly debunked throughout his novel.
His earlier defense of hackwork notwithstanding, Gaston is ultimately ready to die for his betrayal of his talent and of the conundrum-filled South he so loves. The moral stakes of such a betrayal are clear because Gaston is a successful hack, but what if his conscious turn to schlock produced a masterpiece that troubled the easy distinction between high and low art?
Such is the premise of two studies of the writerly life: Mark Haskell Smith’s latest novel, Raw: A Love Story, a satirical journey into the “slaughterhouse of ideas and origination,” and Henry James’s “The Next Time,” a short story about the “age of trash triumphant.” Pitched in very different comic registers, each features a hack manqué and considers the morality, and frustrations, of hackwork that transcends its own limitations.
Mark Haskell Smith’s dark, priapic satires (Moist, Delicious, Salty, Baked) are marked by a Waugh-like callousness towards the grotesque deaths that result as his plots gather their murderous momentum. The gods of comedy can be as cruel as the gods of tragedy, and satirists like Smith, however anarchic or amoral their works may appear, are ultimately concerned with the inescapable forces of retribution. How a perverse comic justice applies to those who engage in “shitting on the altar of literature” is the subject of Raw, his latest novel presided over by a particularly vengeful “Book Goddess” (one character suspects her of cursing him with impotence).
In Raw, Curtis Berman turns to celebrity ghostwriting after failing to sell his epic, “Malamudesque” novel about the Ethiopian Jewish Diaspora. “Writers have been doing stuff life this for hundreds of years. Kingsley Amis, Larry McMurty, H.P. Lovecraft. There are lots of great writers who have worked ghosting. For chrissakes, Dickens wrote newspaper ads”: So does Curtis, who has a tattoo of Beckett’s dictum Fail Better “emblazoned in a font called American Typewriter on his right bicep,” defend his hackwork from his literary crush and avenging angel, Harriet Post.
Harriet is a high-minded literary critic determined to discover who has ghostwritten the bestselling roman à clef for Sepp Gregory, a vapid reality television star famous for his abs, which he gleefully displays to legions of adoring fans and high-culture radio hosts alike. She decides to expose this “callithump of fraud” by tracking Sepp to California, where the star of Sex Crib is promoting the book he didn’t write and dispensing surprisingly deep statements about the nature of reality to fans seeking the secret behind his physique: “Crunches are real. Even on TV.”
The book in question, Totally Reality: A Novel, is a commercial and critical success, “a Heart of Darkness for the realty TV generation” written so well that Harriet wonders at one point if Michael Chabon could be the ghostwriter. Totally Reality, we are made to believe, is both dreck and not dreck, “actively accelerating the culture toward the trash heap” even as it is the Great American novel and a work of cultural anthropology in the tradition of Margaret Mead. Referring to his follow-up project, a novelization of another reality star’s life, Curtis muses: “Sandy Panties could be an important book.”
The descent into hackwork frees Curtis from his sclerotic, self-defeating devotion to the high literary that produces its own kind of dreck. What stains Curtis is not so much the glorification of his new vocational path as his growing preoccupation with the very recognition and material goods his reality-star subjects crave. Flush with cash after signing a new book deal, Curtis considers getting trashed at a bar, as “that’s what a lot of writers do when they sell their souls, that’s what he imagined Faulkner or Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis would do.” Instead, he goes to the Mac Store: “If he was going to produce dross, he’d at least write it on a nice laptop.” For reasons I won’t disclose here, that purchase will prove to be a fateful decision, reminding all aspiring hacks that the Book Goddess is better appeased with libations than electronics.
Harriet is at risk of angering the Book Goddess as well — especially in one fantasy involving Sepp and a first-edition DeLillo as a sex prop — but this is all part of her liberating embrace of genre fiction and their attendant clichés. She first fancies herself an existential heroine from a Camus novel or as a proto-feminist character out of Charlotte Brontë. But when thrown into Smith’s raw comic world, Harriet makes a “mental note to add some genre books to her reading list” and by necessity learns how to pleasurably inhabit different genres: pulp fiction, the western and the erotic novel. The last is particularly important in this “Love Story” since amid the novel’s competing realities, Smith locates the most stable truth in the kind of ecstatic sex that makes one forget the distinction between hackwork and high art.
Henry James might blush to be compared to so ribald a writer as Smith, but the Master also profiles (albeit less louchely), an author turning to “gutter-pipes and slop-buckets.” In “The Next Time,” Ralph Limbert, whose writing is “as fine as the spray of a lawn-irrigator,” justifies his new and hopefully better-paid style to his adoring friend: “What is ‘success’ anyhow? When a book’s right it’s right — it brings money like potato or bee. Success be hanged! — I want to sell…Of course I’ve everything to unlearn.”
Unlearn it he can’t. Limbert would like nothing better than to devote his considerable talent to selling out and achieving an economic, rather than an artistic, success. Alas, he fails, and fails better each time — a feat he manages even without a tattooed reminder to help him. His journalism, which he tries desperately to make “chatty” and “vulgar,” always “reeks of the literary.” Desperately needing to support a wife and children, he attempts to write popular novels, but each heroic effort to be bad yields a “magnificent mistake,” a “grand…collapse,” a “hideous…triumph” more radiant and unpopular than the last. (Limbert’s sister-in-law, Jane Highmore, is by contrast a successful novelist who yearns to produce a Limbert-like “exquisite failure” and escape just once from the “doom of popularity.” She is a figure differently blessed but as comically cursed as Limbert.)
James’s tale, melancholy ending aside, justly proclaims its own “excellent comedy.” Limbert’s repeated “miscarriages” have a certain farcical quality — the narrator, who is even more “splendidly unpopular” than Limbert, must pretend that each new masterpiece is actually rubbish to appease him. And Limbert is not without a Wildean irony toward his plight: “‘He wrote to [a literary journal] that such work as he has done is the very worst he can do for the money.’”
But “The Next Time” is more broadly a fable about the laws of talent, one might say the tyranny of talent. There is much talk of “sacrifice” in the story, the notion that the journalistic and novelistic hackwork Limbert does is a betrayal of his genius. However, as the narrator points out, “what was talent but the art of being completely whatever it was that one happened to be? One’s things were characteristic or they were nothing.” Talent, maddeningly, is precisely that which refuses to be betrayed. This is comforting for Limbert’s small group of adoring fans but tragic for the genius himself.
Time and again, Limbert’s efforts to betray his talent are sabotaged by “some obscure interference of taste, some obsession of the exquisite” that reveal his genius no matter with what “infernal cunning” he tries to disguise it. A touch of the common and the vulgar, such as Highmore has, comes not through works but “by grace.” James confines Limbert to his ruinously high eminence while bestowing true hacks with a kind of election denied to Limbert and, presumably, to James himself, an author T.S. Eliot famously described as having “a mind so fine no idea could violate it.”
Ultimately, an ailing Limbert blissfully retreats “into grand indifference” and produces “Derogation,” whose title reflects on his career-long, cruelly ironic and ultimately fruitless pursuit of abjection. The fatal effort of producing his final “splendid fragment” grants Limbert, if not grace, then a merciful release from his tyrannical talent, which proves as powerful as Pope’s “Dulness” over her legions of pure hacks.
Image Credit: LPW
William Shakespeare hasn’t had a new play since 1612. But last month in the UK and this month in the US, Arden—one of the most respected publishers of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays—published a “new” play by Shakespeare, edited by Brean Hammond: Double Falsehood, a play that has been lost and found and lost again.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays are lost, never printed or else destroyed by either fire or time: Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. Almost nothing is known about Love’s Labor’s Won, though presumably it was a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost. But there are records of payments to Shakespeare and his fellow actors for two performances of Cardenio during the summer of 1613 for the court of James I. 1613 was at the end of Shakespeare’s career; he would soon retire to Stratford-upon-Avon, then a two-day journey by horseback from London, where he would die three years later in April 1616. In 1613 he was writing his last plays, including Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, who was being groomed to replace Shakespeare as the main dramatist for the King’s Men.
Cardenio is the name of a character from an inset novella in Don Quixote by Cervantes, the first part of which was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. The story was possibly familiar to Londoners as early as 1605, when Spanish culture and literature came into vogue following James’s Treaty of London, which ended Elizabeth I’s Spanish wars. Cardenio is in love with Luscinda, but before he can get her father’s permission to marry her, the nobleman Don Fernando orders him away to court as a ruse so he can marry Luscinda himself. Luscinda writes to Cardenio about the scheme, but Cardenio arrives, he thinks, too late. He goes mad and runs into the Sierra Morena, where he meets Dorotea, a woman who had been raped by Don Fernando after a fraudulent marriage ceremony. The two of them travel to an inn, where they find Luscinda and Don Fernando and each couple is paired up correctly.
This is likely the story Shakespeare used for the 1613 play written in collaboration with Fletcher, but it was never printed. The manuscript still existed in 1653, when the printer Humphrey Moseley recorded his ownership of the copyright. But Moseley did not publish it either, and Cardenio disappeared.
Then in 1727, the lawyer and playwright Lewis Theobald announced that he had found not just one, but three manuscript copies of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, which he promised to adapt for the stage. His play is remarkably similar to the Cardenio story in Don Quixote. The names are different, but Julio is recognizable as Cardenio, Leonora as Luscinda, Henriquez as Don Fernando, and Violante as Dorotea.
But Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:
one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.
For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?
Parliamentary edict forbade the performance of plays from 1642, on the eve of the Civil Wars, until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. By then the outdoor playhouses had been pulled down and most actors from before the edict were aging or had died. Two new theatre companies formed, each under the management of a Royalist courtier-playwright: the King’s Men, under Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men under Sir William Davenant. Killigrew’s King’s Men recruited most of the experienced actors and claimed ownership of all the old plays that Shakespeare’s company, the former King’s Men, had owned, leaving Davenant with no plays and no actors.
Davenant trained a group of recruits—including the Thomas Betterton Theobald’s preface mentions, who would be compared with Shakespeare’s own star actor, Richard Burbage—and, for the first time, actresses, but he had to beg Killigrew for a few plays. Killigrew gave him the worthless ones, by a playwright who was already considered old-fashioned: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the Jacobean stage, were widely considered to be more modern, more fashionable, and more gentlemanly. Killigrew didn’t expect he could make much money by performing Shakespeare. Among the second-string plays Davenant was given were Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet,and Henry VIII.
William Davenant was the son of a wine tavern owner in Oxford, John Davenant, who was a lover of plays and a friend of Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare stayed with the Davenants as their guest whenever he passed through Oxford on his way between London and Stratford. William was Shakespeare’s godson. In his later years, Davenant was happy to let others think he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Though the rumor was probably nothing more than a marketing ploy, Davenant did successfully make himself and his company into Shakespeare’s theatrical heirs, adapting and updating many of Shakespeare’s plays for the changed tastes of the Restoration audience.
Theobald’s claim that one of his manuscripts, “above sixty years standing” and in the handwriting of Davenant’s prompter, John Downes, puts the creation of this manuscript squarely in a period when Davenant might indeed have been interested in adapting an old play of Shakespeare’s to add to his thin repertoire. Davenant never produced Cardenio, but his adaptation would have stayed in his theatre’s library. Thus Theobald’s odd story that Shakespeare wrote the play for his “Natural Daughter” might have some truth behind it—in Theobald’s time Davenant’s claim to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son was still generally believed, so Davenant’s third wife Henrietta Maria, who succeeded him as theatre manager, might by association—however strange this sounds today—have been called Shakespeare’s “Natural Daughter.” Thomas Betterton, Davenant’s star actor, whom Theobald says later owned the manuscript, succeeded Henrietta Maria as theatre manager. Manuscripts from Betterton’s library were purchased from his estate sale by Charles Gildon, who in 1710 used them to publish a Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton and in 1719, published The Post-Man Robb’d of his Mail, which contained a letter written to The Tatler magazine complaining about ignorant theatre managers who rejected good plays, using as example a play written by Beaumont, Fletcher, and Shakespeare a few years before the latter died and never printed. It sounds suspiciously like Cardenio. Gildon and Theobald both were patronized by Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery, and both knew that family well, making it possible that Gildon’s Shakespeare manuscript, purchased from Betterton’s estate, made it to Theobald by way of Boyle, the “Noble Person” he mentions in his preface.
Brean Hammond relates this history in the new Arden edition, with more research than has ever been afforded to a play previously considered merely an “agreeable cheat.” But the real worth of his research lies in accounting for the afterlife of Theobald’s adaptation, why it was labeled a forgery and forgotten so soon after publication. To do this, Hammond takes care to situate the play in the literary climate of the time, especially in the battle between Pope and Theobald over the right to edit Shakespeare.
In the early eighteenth century the copyright—and thus monopoly—of Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the printer Jacob Tonson. In 1709 a copyright act was passed by Parliament to end eternal copyrights; all new copyrights would expire after fourteen years. To protect their monopoly, the Tonson family issued a continuous succession of editions prepared by new editors, claiming that the new editorial apparatus of each—the introductions and commentary—conferred a fourteen-year copyright not just on the new material but to the original plays as well. The Tonson family were responsible for all the great eighteenth century editions of Shakespeare’s plays: Rowe’s, Pope’s, Theobald’s, Warburton’s, Johnson’s, and Capell’s. They held onto their Shakespeare monopoly until 1772, when their direct line died out.
In 1727, Theobald was in the midst of a bid to be the Tonsons’ next Shakespeare editor, a lucrative job to have. Alexander Pope, the famous poet, satirist, and translator, had published his Shakespeare edition in 1725, one of a line of poets who claimed the authority and privilege to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s edition is famous for demoting lines he didn’t like to small print at the bottom of the page. In 1726, Theobald had earned Pope’s eternal enmity by publishing Shakespeare Restor’d, exposing the many errors in Pope’s Hamlet. Theobald, with access to early editions of the plays and knowledge of secretary hand, the style of handwriting used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was the first to bring standards of classical and biblical scholarship to the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare Restor’d was Theobald’s application for his own chance to edit Shakespeare’s plays. Hammond considers Theobald’s adaptation of Double Falsehood in 1727 to be part of this campaign. It worked: Theobald’s own edition—which did not include Double Falsehood, since the Tonsons controlled the table of contents to preserve their copyright—appeared in 1733.
But in the meantime Pope had censured Theobald as the mock-hero of The Dunciad—Pope’s famous satire celebrating Dullness, published in 1728—and had suggested that Double Falsehood might be a forgery. In the end, though Theobald replaced him as editor, Pope emerged as the real winner: later generations remembered the “piddling Tibbald” of The Dunciad and not the accomplished editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s claim that Double Falsehood was little more than an interesting forgery has been long unchallenged.
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.
Finding Cardenio has been something of a cottage industry among Shakespeare scholars recently, with both Stephen Greenblatt and Gary Taylor “writing” Cardenio again, Taylor attempting something like facilitated communication to do so. But unless a manuscript of Cardenio—not baked into a pie after all—is found, Hammond’s edition is the closest we can get to a new Shakespeare play. If Double Falsehood is Cardenio—and Hammond shows almost beyond doubt that it is—it is Cardenio as adapted by Davenant as adapted by Theobald, a play lost and yet, tantalizingly, not.
Bonus Link: Ron Rosenbaum dissents at Slate.