Christopher Marlowe and Two Singers

Christopher MarloweToday is the anniversary of the birthday post. I made it! But the truth is that it evolved over time. At first, I just focused on a single person and then went on to do multiple people. The format we have today is probably only about six months old. I think I would like to go back to the single narrative, and I’ll start that on the first of March. Sometimes that will be a regular article and other times it will just be a paragraph. I’m not going to sweat it. And most of all, we will continue my usual style of using birthdays to go off on tangents. If you want to read biographies, there’s always Wikipedia and the local library.

Fats Domino is 86 today and still performing. He was the first person ever in the birthday post. Basically, it was just a video of him performing “Blueberry Hill.” Here is his first hit, “The Fat Man”:

Johnny Cash was born in 1932. He did some great work, but he is wildly overrated. But the world would be a poorer place without “Folsom Prison Blues.” I especially like when he performed it on At Folsom Prison. After the line “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” the prisoners cheer. It’s horrible and humorous at the same time. I think some people miss the pedagogical point of the song. Oh well. Here’s Cash on television four years later doing it to screaming teen fans:

Other birthdays: the great novelist Victor Hugo (1802); blue jean tycoon Levi Strauss (1829); cowboy showman Buffalo Bill (1846); actor Jackie Gleason (1916); actor Tony Randall (1920); art director Dante Ferretti (71); singer-songwriter Mitch Ryder (69); and musician Jonathan Cain (64).

The day, however, belongs to the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe who was baptized on this day in 1564. His best known play is Doctor Faustus. This is a shame because in many ways, it is his weakest. I think the reason people still do it is because it is fun to stage. When Orson Welles directed the play in 1937, he let fly all of his interest in magic and turned the play into a magic show. But the language in Doctor Faustus is still very strong. I would say that Marlowe was a far more consistent writer than Shakespeare in that regard.

The thing is, Shakespeare was a slightly later writer than Marlowe. And as such, his plays are less poetic than Marlowe’s. If you watch a Marlowe play, you can actually hear the poetry. That isn’t often the case with Shakespeare, whose poetry is more like natural language. As a result of this, many scholars claim that Shakespeare is better. But playwrights after Shakespeare, like John Webster and Thomas Middleton, wrote in an even more natural style. None of them wrote anything like what one would consider natural dialog, however. So for my money, it is better to have poetry that sounds like poetry rather than vaguely stilted dialog. I recommend checking out Derek Jarman’s filmed version of Edward II. It is very good.

Unfortunately, Marlowe barely lived to the age of 29. He got in a fight and ended up being stabbed in the eye. This has caused some amount of speculation. He was awaiting trial for heresy. It was not the first time he had been arrested; Marlowe lived a colorful life. But given that he had done some spying for the court when he was at university, people speculate that he was “gotten rid of.” And it could be. Then again, Marlowe ran with a rough crowd, and it is easy to imagine them all getting drunk and ending up fighting. I tend to go with the more obvious theory. Of course maybe Marlowe faked his death and then went on to write Shakespeare’s plays for him!

(For the record, there is the ultimate reason why we know that Marlowe didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays: their styles are nothing alike. If there is one thing that all these years of reading and watching and memorizing Shakespeare have taught me, it is that Shakespeare repeats himself a lot. He has very definable cadences. He reuses the same phrases. His wit is quite distinct. Marlowe is nothing like that. I wish people would stop reading about these conspiracy theories and just read some of the actual playwrights. All of this discussion would go away.)

The following are two brief scenes from a production of Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The first scene is standard, in all versions of the play. The second scene is from the later version of the play and may or may not have been written by Marlowe. Regardless, the company has changed the scene a lot to rather good effect.

Happy baptismal day Christopher Marlowe!

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