04 July, 2006

Sleep of Reason

Henry Carey, Chrononhotonthologos: the Most Tragical Tragedy That ever was Tragediz'd by any Company of Tragedians (1734) in Dramatick Works (1743, Olms reprint 1982).

I don't like drama. I like literature which is self-contained, complete, microcosmic. This is why my favourites are Joyce and Rabelais—the 'anatomies' described by Frye. I think of literature as private and intimate, even solipsistic. It's therefore understandable that drama should upset me: the writing is only ever half the work. The idea of performance as interpretation is blissfully exciting to some; horrific to me.

There are exceptions, though. Some drama, Beckett being the obvious example, tends towards solipsism, and this I generally find more palatable. I'll accept some Shakespeare, just because. Closet-drama, again, or plays for voices (eg. Under Milk Wood), have their merits. Finally, I enjoy burlesque farce, which brings the artifice of dramatic form close to the brink of meaninglessness. This is to be distinguished from bedroom farce, which is always excruciating, and also from satire, which is often disastered by its own sanctimony. While satire and bedroom farce are ancient, burlesque is principally a modernist (because nihilist) invention: I'm thinking of Jarry's Ubu plays, or Picasso's Desire Caught by the Tail. But the 18th century, for many the bête noire of English literature, saw some stones thrown in that direction. A masterpiece is William Blake's almost forgotten An Island in the Moon (1784), which contained the memorable verse:

Lo! the Bat with leathern wing,
Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Like Dr Johnson.

High burlesque was in the prose of Sterne and Smollett (Historie and Adventures of an Atom, a work of condensed genius), but it had reached the theatre even before that. Fielding's farcical Tom Thumb, whose hero is swallowed by a cow at the finale, was a big hit in 1731, despite being not very good. Much better is Henry 'God Save the King' Carey's Chrononhotonthologos, produced in 1734 and reprinted for his Dramatick Works 11 years later. I discovered this work through a footnote in a Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt—from which I also unearthed the intriguing Lord Monboddo, parodied as Sir Oran Haut-Ton—and have since discovered references to the play in Edward Lear and, er, Terry Pratchett.

There is a satirical element to Chrononhotonthologos, as the excellent Wikipedia article explains; but in the main it's an operoarious burlesque of post-Shakespearean dramatic bombast, with silly names and overwrought heroic couplets. The play's linguistic energy is most appealing; it has a brilliant first line:

Where left you Chrononhotonthologos?

Carey also has frequent fun with polyptoton, or the variation of word-forms:

Let the singing Singers
With vocal Voices, most vociferous,
In sweet Vociferation, out Vociferize
E'vn Sound itself.

Some Joycean nonce-portmanteau:

. . . all the magic Motion
Of Scene Deceptiovisive and Sublime.

The physiological comedy of Rabelais:

King. What ails the Queen?

Aldi. A sudden Diarrhaea's rapid Force,
So stimulates the Peristaltic Motion,
That she by far out-does her late Out-doing
And all conclude her Royal Life in Danger.

Scriblerian Bathos:

Day's Curtain's drawn, the Morn begins to rise,
And waking Nature rubs her sleepy Eyes:
The pretty little fleecy bleating Flocks,
In Baa's harmonious warble thro' the Rocks

There is even some yummy period slang:

Say she has got the Thorough-go-Nimble.

Whole Magazines of galli-potted Nostrums

Pity that you, who've served so long, so well,
Shou'd die a Virgin, and lead Apes in Hell.

Mrs. Roth and I have discussed staging it in Arizona; that'll almost certainly never happen. People just don't enjoy this kind of humour any more. But for me, the silliest works achieve maximum impact when read with the most seriousness; so I'll conclude this article with Carey's self-parodying verses on sleep and slumber. Aldiborontiphoscophornio says of his master, Chrononhotonthologos:

He sleeps supine amidst the Din of War:
And yet 'tis not definitively Sleep;
Rather a kind of Doze, a waking Slumber,
That sheds a Stupefaction o'er his Senses;
For now he nods and snores; anon he starts;
Then nods and snores again: If this be Sleep,
Tell me, ye Gods! what mortal Man's awake!

(Rigdum-Funnidos, another courtier, replies to such hifalution with his usual prosy humour: 'I say he sleeps Dog-Sleep'—for which see Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898): 'A pretended sleep. Dogs seem to sleep with 'one eye open'.') Is the king perhaps suffering from some sort of mild hypersomnia? However jocular, the courtier is asserting that all men suffer this condition, albeit metaphorically. For slumber, surely, is more sweet than toil. Is the play itself the fantastic nightmare of a half-awake king, just as Finnegans Wake reconstructs the dream of a publican?

¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida es Sueňo

Carey reconstructs the classical Sleep as Mr. Somnus, with his 'sable plumes', the brother of Mors, children of Chaos and Erebus, and related also to Night, who 'gathers up her shades in sable shrouds'. But this is only for show: the sleep of Chrononhotonthologos is a modern sleep, a sleep of reason, as would be imminently illustrated by Goya. The king goes on to outlaw slumber, just as his courtier had given orders to fill the soldiers' baths with coffee:

Henceforth let no Man sleep, on Pain of Death:
Instead of Sleep, let pompous Pageantry
Keep all Mankind eternally awake.

As with the Lotophagi, so poetically described by Tennyson, sleep is intoxicating and dangerous, a sweet threat to the established order: order among men, order in drama, order of language and reason itself.

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

It's fascinating, the relationship between sleep and reason, the skeptical fears that we all may be dreaming, yet how the chronic lack of sleep forces hallucinations upon us.

Great work!