Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Cataclysm, an Opera

‘Floreat’ – and then a date. It usually means a writer only known of from a solitary publication: in that year, through the kindness of the bibliographer’s usage, he ‘flourished’, he briefly bloomed.

Edward Ecclestone, floreat 1679, produced one work, which rather amazingly appealed enough to his age to be printed three times (1679, 1685 and 1690). The middle edition uses the terrific title The Cataclysm, or the General Deluge of the World, an Opera, and added to the proud author’s usual tarantara of an oleaginous dedication and stupefied commendatory verses a set of specially commissioned woodcuts, one of which forms my image for this posting.

As Ecclestone ingenuously says in his introduction, each act of his Opera, though based on no less a book than Genesis, only took him a week to write. Much the most studied part of his composition is in fact his dedication to the Duchess of Monmouth, which surely ranks with the most shamelessly flattering dedications of an era which specialised in the mode (“You may justly Challenge, to Your self, the Title of a visible deity”).

His friends, in that befuddled age, are genuinely unable to make a proper literary judgement, and all agree that Ecclestone’s masterpiece combines all that was good in Milton and Dryden (“Had Milton liv’d to see how thou hast writ, / He’d, for the Charms thou giv’st it, Rhime admit” … “Milton reviv’d, or rather Dryden trac’d” … “We plainly see, / In every individual line of thee, / Milton and Dryden in Epitome”). These commenders of the work would have been thinking of Dryden’s The State of Innocence: an Opera (1674) which was not performed, but became a great success in print - with nine editions by 1700 it vastly outsold Milton’s poem, and probably made literary ‘Opera’ a form that attracted Ecclestone.

His Opera is full of treasures: my favourite bit is a description by Noah’s son Shem of an elderly and previously wise elephant getting fatally drunk on grape-like but noxious berries (this cleverly prepares for the discovery of wine, and Noah’s drunkenness):

He had not long fed on this fatal food,

But that his Eyes grew dim, he trembling stood;

His Legs like Pillars that might even Towers bear,

Were, like a Bulrush, waver’d by the Air:

His nimble Trunk that cookt him all his meat,

Hung dangling down, and trail’d beneath his feet:

On’s Ivory Teeth he lean’d his drowsie Head,

Then on a sudden reel’d, and fell down dead

But the best sense of Ecclestone’s unique theatrical vision is perhaps conveyed by a selection of his wondrous stage directions:

Enter several pious men …Enter divers fair women in wanton Garments, they pass over the Stage Singing and Dancing…

As they advance towards them, great flashes of Lightning are seen breaking from the Cloud that covers the Sun, after which dreadful claps of Thunder are heard, the Cloud breaks in two, and a shower of fire falls on 'em and destroys 'em…

Enter Despair melancholy…

Throws himself from a precipice into the sea…

The Scene opens, and discovers several horrid Murthers, drinking to Excess, Quarrels, Broils, Rapes, &c.

Lightning and Thunder falls down upon Lucifer, with which he sinks, after which, a horrid noise is heard.

Scene, the Deluge, representing Men and Beasts, of all sorts, promiscuously swimming together…

The Scene changes, and discovers a throng of Women and Children on the highest Mountain, who on a sudden are all overwhelm’d with the Waves …

Here they all assault the Ark, and almost overturn it. Several Flaming Chariots full of Angels fly down, from whence breaks Thunder and Lightning, which drives them headlong into the Deep…

Enter Sin and Death

The Dove with an Olive Branch flies cross the Stage.

Enter Ham with a Bough of Fruit bleeding in his hand … all his hand turns black.

They all draw and fight, and mortally wound each other; then reel to several places, and on a sudden sink…

The Scene shifts, and represents the building of Babel, some digging, others making of Brick, and tempering of Mortar…

And, closing the action with the last fireworks left in town:

They all disperse themselves to several parts of the Earth, but as they go, with amazement they look back on their Tower surrounded with bellowing Thunder and flakes of Lightning. – The Angel flies to Heaven.

Could it ever have been meant to be good, or is it Restoration camp, like Dryden casting Nell Gwynn as a virgin martyr? There’s a ripping speech about the evils of drink (causes lots of incest, apparently) which would go well either to earnest shuddering or raucous hooting.

But one thing: in the course of the varied action, we see Ham start to turn black. I expected the worst, but even ahead of Behn’s Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, Ecclestone rather meritoriously opts to make Ham, black and under his father’s curse, proud and defiant:

Since I am curst, and curst a Slave to be,

Ile reign a Royal one with Majesty ..

'Tis brave to live Magnificently great;

So though a Slave, yet will I rule in State…

1 comment:

Decidedly Bookish said...

Hmmm... I wonder if we could put on a production of this in the English Department. I'll be one of the "fair women in wanton Garments," and you can be the drunken elephant :o) I'm sure the SU will cough up a few billion for special effects.