I recently taught Shelley’s play The Cenci for this course at the University of Washington. It struck me as “unstageable” for the same reasons it did so for the play’s early readers: the sexual episodes are too extreme for the (especially late-Romantic) stage, and the characters deliver exhausting monologues that would bore any live audience. Besides, the language is to full, so intellectual, that hearing it spoken by an actor, one loses half of the meaning. I know, Shakespeare managed to write just as rewardingly for the page and for the stage, but then, he was Shakespeare, wasn’t he?
But what a relevant play. The Cenci is a play about a corrupt Pope and bishopric turning a blind eye to sexual abuse in the parish. It’s about the powerlessness of victims and uneven appointments of justice based on gender and age: young people not able to stand up to their elders. So far, so applicable. It’s also a play about paintings, having been inspired by Guido Reni’s portrait. In that, it’s a play about ekphrastica, and historical reconstruction, which are at least as relevant (if less exciting). A recent debate about the painting’s provenancegave the class a kind of detective function, assembling the opposing arguments and adjudicating a real contemporary dispute.
Thank God, it seems like the Catholic church is coming out at last from a dark period in her history. For awhile there, the news had it that the church’s main business was settling abuse claims from 30 years ago. One hears less of that now, and more about the humble, graceful actions of Pope Francis.
The Cenci isn’t read much these days, I fear, neglected even among Shelleyan’s in favor of the weightier Prometheus Unbound, but short, provocative, and immensely rewarding, it should be.