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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Blood on the Snow (or The Old Crimes are the Truest)

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

Generally, I regard the television as a mind-rotting menace. In fact, I only acquired a set for the first time about a decade ago when I got tired of the licensing people refusing to believe that I wasn't either watching one in secret or accessing the BBC's priceless programmes online. Once I had it in the house, I made a vow - which I have found very easy to keep - to limit my viewing to one show and one news bulletin a day at the very most, plus the odd sporting event or film (if I can find one worth watching that isn't on in the middle of the night as accompaniment to advertisements).

During lockdown, however, I've been slipping. I still spend far more time with my nose in a book than glued to a screen - not to mention the time I devote to music - but, especially in the late evening, I have increasingly surfed the channels in search of something tolerably diverting. Most of what I come across barely seems worth the trouble of paying attention to, though I have been alert enough to notice that there appears to be a near insatiable public appetite for improbably intricate, ultimately undemanding crime dramas playing chiefly on middle-class family anxieties. Perhaps because I'm neither properly middle-class, nor married, I find these uninvolving. More rewarding have been patient dramatizations of true-life crimes.

Two of these last which did intermittently engage me were Des, boasting a remarkable (and scarily look-alike) portrayal of Dennis Nilsen from David Tennant, and The Investigation, featuring the ubiquitously excellent Soren Malling in an admirably sober (if overlong) procedural account of Denmark's 2017 "Submarine Murder". For all the care and scrupulosity these serials showed, I found the cases dealt with too appalling to entertain much. Still, both were superior pieces of work, absorbing, instructive, responsible and deserving of the plaudits they received.

Yet the most enjoyable true crime I came across lately was not on TV, but radio. It went out on Radio 3 on a Sunday evening in late January, which means it has probably disappeared from the BBC i-player by now. Don't worry; the uncut text of the anonymous Elizabethan play, Arden of Faversham - every bit as compelling to read as it is to listen to - is widely available, both on its own, and as part of several lively published selections of Renaissance drama. You will also find it placed after The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the second play in the chronologically ordered 2016 New Oxford Shakespeare. Yes, it is now near-universally accepted as part of the Shakespearean canon; at least, five or possibly six of its eighteen scenes are. The senior collaborator who provided the remainder continues to elude identification, though claims have been made for Marlowe, Kyd and, most lately, the obscure Thomas Watson. Whatever, Arden doesn't need any of these names attached to it - even the Bard's - to justify its continued reprinting and revival; nor need it flaunt it's quadruple distinction of being not only the earliest surviving English crime drama, but the first Elizabethan "domestic tragedy", arguably the first modern "black comedy", and the first play to paint a realistic picture of London city life. It is, quite simply, a work of extraordinary directness and stark vigour; an evident sensation in the Sixteenth Century that still grips and fascinates today.

Most likely dating from the late 1580s, Arden recounts, with considerable fidelity, events surrounding the violent killing of Thomas Arden - a well known Kentish land-owner and property speculator - in his house in the village of Faversham, on February 14th,1551. This notorious crime was certainly alive in the memory of older Elizabethans, having attracted attention partly for the surprisingly large and motley group of accessories who were deemed to be involved, but chiefly because the prime instigator appeared to be Arden's own wife, Alice. Also it turned out the eventual murder was not the first attempt on the victim's life, but came after an astonishing series of grimly comic blunders.

Thomas Arden was a man on the make who had acquired fortune - and royal favour - through fairly unscrupulous dealings involving former monastic properties made available by Henry VIII's dissolution. His own fine house (still standing in Faversham) had been converted from part of the site of the town's abbey. In the months leading up to his death he was involved in several feuds over disputed land rights. At 33, Alice was not youthful by Tudor standards, but still evidently considered "well favoured" and had been conducting a very public affair with one Mosby, a local tailor. (Or more accurately, and appropriately, "botcher" - someone who patches up clothes rather than designing them.) It is hard not to feel considerable sympathy for her. Certainly in the play her husband comes across as unappealing and neglectful, utterly unsympathetic to those whom he was dispossessing, always looking towards the next deal and often travelling away from home in pursuit of it, dismayed not so much that his wife might be cheating on him as that she might be doing it with a man of low status. ("She's no companion for so base a groom".) He also seems to spend an awful lot of time in the company of a chap called Franklin.

This Franklin seems to be the only major figure in the play for whom there is no obvious real-life equivalent. His precise occupation is not clear but he appears to be Arden's trusted friend, adviser, and confidant, and somehow involved in his business ventures. Modern stage directors find it very hard to interpret the two men's relationship as entirely innocent, though Sixteenth Century audiences probably saw nothing that exceeded the elaborate expressions of closeness that could often accompany homo-social friendships. That aside, there is certainly something off-putting about the smugly superior role Franklin assays throughout, both in the moralising glosses that he often insinuates between the action and the audience and the gratuitous marriage advice he pompously dispenses. (If he has a wife himself, he never refers to her.) In one hilarious moment, he suggests to Arden that he not mention to Alice the hospitality the two of them have just enjoyed at the estate of Lord Cheyne, comptroller of the Cinque Ports, whose patronage they are keen to cultivate, "[f]or that will make her think herself more wronged/In that we did not carry her along". Quite.

It is hardly surprising that Alice's passion for Mosby has blossomed into true amour fou, a self--advertising and self-destructive assertion of will, pursued in open defiance of the codes that constrict and police her identity as a respectable provincial wife. If Shakespeare did indeed co-author this play, then hers is one of the most extraordinary female roles he ever had a hand in writing, exceeded in length only by Rosalind in As You Like It. (Though, of course, both would have been played by boy actors on the Elizabethan stage.) Some have seen in her a precursor to Lady Macbeth, though her crime is far more limited in ambition and specific in focus, driven by desire on the one hand and loathing on the other. If the verbal texture of her part is less poetically rich than that of the Scottish Dame, the fluent verse idiom it is written in, moving with pace between realistic dialogue and confessional soliloquy, enables her to emerge as a presence both vital and plausible. Her scenes with the no doubt sexy but none too likeable (and alcoholic) Mosby carry real erotic charge, even after we have had our suspicions confirmed that his chief interest is in acquiring her husband's estate.

Alice is a remarkable theatrical creation, affording great opportunities to a modern performer, but neither she, Arden, Mosby, or Franklin monopolizes attention. Instead, this central quartet interacts with a sharply drawn rogues gallery of minor conspirators. Here two small but shrewd liberties taken by the authors prove crucial. Firstly, they make Alice's servant, Susan, Mosby's sister, giving the latter an excuse of sorts for hanging around the Arden household. Secondly, and even more tellingly, they expand upon a hint in the historical accounts of the crime to create one of the first great double acts of English drama.

After an attempt to dispatch Arden with a poison obtained from a painter fails - it's strong taste puts the intended victim off his broth - Alice enlists one of her husband's many litigants to get the job done, giving him £10 (around 2.5k at today's value) to obtain "professional" help. This outwardly respectable (indeed, sanctimonious) man, Greene, clearly lacking experience in engineering villainy, is directed towards a disreputable former soldier known as Black Will. (The way in which this happens, via a hapless character named Bradshaw who is attempting to prove himself innocent of handling stolen goods belonging to Lord Cheyne and subsequently duped by Greene into carrying an incriminating letter back to Alice, is another example of the play's unusually tight and tidy plotting.) We know that the real-life Black Will had an occasional accomplice - George Shakebag - in a stroke of genius here promoted to the status of omnipresent sidekick.

Will and Shakebag (the names have often been taken a pointer to authorship, but are in fact authentic) first attempt to assassinate Arden whilst he promenades in London, but are thwarted when a shopkeeper's awning comes down on Will's head, provoking a brawl. They then persuade Arden's nice but dim servant, Michael (in competition with the painter for the favours of the fair Susan), to let them into the house at night, except that he has an attack of conscience and leaves them locked out in the cold. Following this, they wait in ambush along the wrong road and are redirected, only to be spotted as up to no good (by the aforementioned Lord Cheyne - I said it was tightly plotted) and sent packing. Later, having again missed their man at a ferry crossing, they blunder around in fog and Shakebag falls into a ditch..."When was I so long in killing a man?", Will muses, as well he might.

The inept antics of Will and Shakebag - the one all mouth and no codpiece, the other tight-lipped and vicious - strikingly anticipate those of that other pair of murderous buffoons for hire so indelibly played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo. Ever since its release in 1996, admirers of the Coen Brothers' movie have puzzled over its opening scroll -

This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

No convincing original for the tale the film tells has, in fact, ever been unearthed, in 1980s Minnesota, or anywhere else. It could be that the brothers are merely creating a spurious excuse for placing the action before universal mobile phone ownership. But I do wonder if Joel and Ethan weren't teasingly putting viewers off the scent of a more distant factual basis for their elegant fiction. (It would not, after all, be the first time they had "supressed" an underlying source text; Miller's Crossing is a disguised elaboration of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929), an endlessly giving genre prototype, already purloined by Kurosawa and Leone for their own dynamic purposes.) True, the intended crime in Fargo is kidnapping rather than murder, but the incompetence of its execution leads to seven deaths. In Arden, a seemingly simple murder plot results in eleven killings, five of them judicial and several of them - as in Fargo - "collateral". Compared with Fargo's unassumingly courageous Marge, Franklin may be an unappealing symbol of virtue, but his function within the drama is not dissimilar to hers, both imposing a glib interpretative view upon happenings and motivations whose messy destructiveness is beyond their comprehension. Shep Proudfoot, the Native American parolee who acts as increasingly reluctant middleman, is an interestingly robust parallel to Bradshaw.

More generally, Arden and Fargo share a careful control of tone and characterization, a sense that the people involved in this mayhem are not deviously monstrous, so much as - to appropriate another Coen title - blood simple. Alice's scheming against her husband's life may not be as obviously harebrained as Jerry Lundegaard's wheeze to extort money from his bullish father-in-law, but it is similarly doomed to instant discovery. Aside from the absurdly proliferating group of people she lets in on the act, her widely-known association with Mosby makes (and made) the two of them prime suspects. In the case of both film and play I am reminded of the moment in An American Tragedy, where the ambitious but fundamentally ordinary Clyde Griffiths decides to dispose of his inconveniently pregnant working-class girlfriend by drowning her in a boating lake, after coming across a newspaper report of someone being charged with a near identical crime. Dreiser's great novel - in itself inspired by real events - is perhaps the most monumental contribution to a genre arguably instigated by Arden and of which the Coen's are perhaps the leading modern exponents; one where human desperation and all too human stupidity walk hand in hand.

Where the 20th Century film shows most of its killings and all its corpses, the Elizabethan play contents itself with the direct presentation of just one. (If you really don't want me to spoil things for you, stop reading now. Though I would point out that the original audience new exactly who'd done it and what happened to them.) In a brilliantly tense and matter-of-fact climax, Mosby, with help from Will, overpowers Arden, striking him vengefully on the head with his "botcher's" pressing iron, whilst Alice and Shakebag finish him off with daggers. Almost immediately it becomes apparent that none of them has any idea what to do next, but their various comeuppances I won't spoil.

Arden of Faversham is deservedly revived with some frequency on the modern stage and has been turned into a German-language opera (Arden Muss Sterben) by Alexander Goehr. Its variety of settings and strong implied contrast between indoor and outdoor spaces present today's directors and designers with interesting choices and challenges. In 2001 it was actually staged in the garden of Thomas Arden's house. Quite an experience for those present, I'm sure, though an inappropriately summery one. On Valentine's Day, 1551, the body was taken out and dumped in nearby fields during a snowstorm, leaving a tell-tale trail of blood and footprints.

Of course, there can hardly be a background that shows up blood as well as snow and the juxtaposition of the two has clear symbolic possibilities. Presumably Fargo's snowbound setting is purely coincidental.

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19 févr. 2021

"a near insatiable public appetite for improbably intricate, ultimately undemanding crime dramas playing chiefly on middle-class family anxieties" is a perfect description. Thanks for this on a play unknown to me, reminding us that the "true life crime" drama is very long in the tooth.

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