On the face of it, Charles Marowitz’s play Murdering Marlowe has more than a little in common with Clemence Dane’s Will Shakespeare.
Like Miss Dane, Marowitz goes for blank verse. Like Miss Dane, he places young Shakespeare firmly in the shadow of young Marlowe. Like Miss Dane, puts a woman between the two – more or less torn. Like Miss Dane’s, his Anne Hathaway is left-behind and whiny. Like Miss Dane he explores themes of artistic individuality and finding one’s space – and then some. Like Miss Dane, he puts Shakespeare behind the deadly accident in Deptford – except it’s no accident at all, and it’s less direct.
Here ends the likeness and, in everything else, it would be difficult to find two plays that are more different.
For one thing, Marowitz writes no nice, tormented lads. His Will is an insecure and mean-spirited genius, so consumed with envy that homicide seems to him a perfectly reasonable way of getting rid of a rival. And while I’m sure Marlowe must have been uncomfortable competition, it’s hard to like a Shakespeare obsessively repeating to himself and any who’ll listen that oh, if only there were no Marlowe… Then again, Kit is full of hubris and self-destructive, and entirely unpleasant, written so to offer Will every reason to do him in – and good riddance. The contended woman is Emilia Lanier, jumping from bed to bed as she tries to manipulate into some semblance of love – or at least some reaction – two men who have little time for her. Anne should be the one made dull and narrow-minded by poverty, frustrations and marital neglect, but she turns out rather flat.
And then there is the matter of the blank verse. I have nothing against modern plays in blank verse, when it’s done well. And I’m sure doing it well – in a way that sounds duly Elizabethan without grating on the modern ear – must be devilish hard. Somehow, Clemence Dane barely manages it without grating too much. Or perhaps I’m just more indulged because she wrote it in 1921, and it was the way of the times. Marowitz’s blank verse, on the other hand, makes me a little unhappy. I never heard them played, but to the reading his lines manage to feel both wooden and bland. That the author claims to have deliberately tried not to imitate Shakespeare, doesn’t help all that much. Then again, he also claims that he wrote the play more as a thriller than a period piece… Considering how tangled and confusing the murder reads, I couldn’t bring myself to say he succeeded spectacularly in that quarter, either.
I won’t say that Murdering Marlowe is a complete disaster. There are a few good things, such as the bleak, stifling atmosphere, a general sense of menace, Emilia’s bursts of impatience, and the flash of clarity when Will realises he is less smart than he thought. All the more pity that the whole doesn’t work.