Monday 5 September 2016

A Neglected Source for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

The Most Shocking Tragedy?
You can still get a ticket for Lazarus’ Theatre’s flamboyant production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity she’s a Whore, as adapted and directed by the inventive Ricky Dukes, at the central London Tristan Bates theatre. This play notoriously features brother-sister incest before its gory denouement.

On Wednesday I was on a panel at the theatre discussing plays that break taboos. I had to remind everyone that ancient Greeks dramatists were braver than any subsequently.  Euripides’ Aeolus was the most shocking tragedy in world history, beating every Jacobean gorefest. It makes ‘daring’ modern authors like Edward Bond and Sarah Kane feel like Alan Ayckbourn in comparison.

with Ricky Dukes, Sonia Massai, Timothy Sheader, Terri Paddock
In Ford’s play, Giovanni may get his sister Annabella pregnant. But she does not live to give birth. In Euripides’ Aeolus, the incestuous sister gave birth in the middle of the play, her screams shocking the Athenian audience.

Aeolus, god of the winds, had several sons and daughters by the same mother. In the tragedy, one son, Macareus, had got his sister Canace pregnant. He gave a famous speech in which he defended the principle of moral relativism: there is no absolute right and wrong, he claimed. It is only human thought that determines what is right or wrong. Socrates stood up in the audience and exploded with moral outrage.

Baby already disappeared. Macareus in BIG trouble with their dad.
Aeolus then ran a lottery deciding who his children would marry. Macareus did not get allotted Canace. She went into labour. Canace killed herself with a sword sent by her father;  her brother probably followed suit on discovering her corpse. 

One of my favourite Greek vase-paintings gives pride of place to Canace, lying on a couch, holding the suicide weapon, her hair and clothing loosened (often a sign of recent labour), dishevelled and drooping in death. There is no sign of the baby, who may have been discovered by her father and exposed by the time of Canace’s death. Aeolus stands behind Canace, hurling insults across her limp body at Macareus; also present is Canace’s nurse, who had helped her; her grey head is covered and she has been arrested.

Euripides’ Aeolus did not survive to be read except in fragments today. But it was well known to Roman authors and inspired some including Ovid in his Heroines’ Letters no 11 to retell the story. The theatre-mad emperor Nero liked acting the leading role in Canace Parturiens (Canace in Labour). Ovid inspired Renaissance Italian playwright Speroni to write an influential tragedy Canace; it is a major source of Ford’s tragedy, although he gave the characters modern Italian names.

I am not remotely defending sibling incest. But when we discuss Giovanni’s taboo-breaking speech defending his right to enjoy love with his sister, let us remember who got there first. I am not sure a sister would be allowed to give birth to her brother’s child even today in a TV drama, although please correct me if I’m wrong. 


  1. "I am not sure a sister would be allowed to give birth to her brother’s child even today in a TV drama" Is the American series "Ray Donovan" shown in the UK? There has been no childbirth from incest on the show, but in the latest episode a boxer, a former world champion, who had been involved in a long-term incestuous relationship with his sister, killed her, and his friend Ray, the title character of the show, a Los Angeles fixer, made it look like a suicide. She had first seduced him when he was a small child, as soon as the priest who had molested him before that was sent to prison, and despite repeated pleading and large gifts of cash from him, she would not leave him alone, and finally, she announced their relationship publicly on a celebrity-sleaze TV show. Just one instance of "Ray Donovan" portraying sexual subjects most shows wouldn't. It may not be Classical tragedy which will last for thousands of years, but it's a pretty good show.

  2. sophocles oedipus & oedipus rex =death of jesus XAIPE