1. Artaxerxes, produced at the Jesuit gymnasium of St. Omers at some indeterminate date in the early seventeenth century, is preserved in Stonyhurst MS. A.VII.50 (1), fols. 100v - 105v. NOTE 1 It deals with the events leading up to the assumption of the throne of Persia by Artaxerxes I, in 464 B. C. These events are variously recorded by different historians, and Artaxerxes follows that of Justin in his epitome of Pompeius Trogus’ Philippic History III.1 (with John Selby Watson’s 1853 Bohn Classical Library translation):
Xerxes, rex Persarum, terror antea gentium, beIlo in Graecia infeliciter gesto etiam suis contemptui esse coepit. Quippe Artabanus, praefectus eius, deficiente cotidie regis maiestate in spem regni adductus cum septem robustissimis filiis regiam vesperi ingreditur — nam amicitiae iure semper illi patebat — trucidatoque rege voto suo obsistentes filios eius dolo adgreditur. Securior de Artaxerxe, puero admodum, fingit regem a Dario, qui erat adulescens, quo maturius regno potiretur, occisum; inpellit Artaxerxen parricidium parricidio vindicare. Cum ventum ad domum Darii esset, dormiens inuentus, quasi somnum fingeret, interficitur. Dein cum unum ex regis filiis sceleri suo superesse Artabanus videret metueretque de regno certamina principum, adsumit in societatem consilii Baccabasum, qui praesenti statu contentus rem prodit Artaxerxi, ut pater eius occisus sit, ut frater falsa parricidii suspicione oppressus, ut denique ipsi pararentur insidiae. His cognitis Artaxerxes, verens Artabani numerum filiorum, in posterum diem paratum esse armatum exercitum iubet, recogniturus et numerum militum et in armis industriam singulorum. Itaque cum inter ceteros et ipse Artabanus armatus adsisteret, rex simulat se breviorem loricam habere, iubet Artabanum secum commutare, exuentem se ac nudatum gladio traicit; tum et filios eius corripi iubet. Atque ita egregius adulescens et caedem patris et necem fratris et se ab insidiis Artabani vindicavit.
[“Xerxes, king of Persia, once the terror of the nations around him, became, after his unsuccessful conduct of the war against Greece, an object of contempt even to his own subjects. Artabanus, his chief officer, conceiving hopes of usurping the throne, as the king’s authority was every day declining, entered one evening into the palace (which from his intimacy with Xerxes was always open to him), accompanied by his seven stout sons, and, having put the king to death, proceeded to remove by stratagem such of the king’s sons as opposed his wishes. Entertaining little apprehension from Artaxerxes, who was but a boy, he pretended that the king had been slain by Darius, who was of full age; that he might have possession of the throne the sooner, and instigated Artaxerxes to revenge parricide by fratricide. When they came to Darius’s house, he was found asleep, and killed as if he merely counterfeited sleep. But seeing that one of the king’s sons was still uninjured by his villainy7, and fearing a struggle for the throne on the part of the nobles, he took into his councils a certain Bacabasus, who, content that the government should remain in the present family, disclosed the whole matter to Artaxerxes, acquainting him by what means his father had been killed, and how his brother had been murdered on a false suspicion of parricide; and, finally, how a plot was laid for himself. On this information, Artaxerxes, fearing the number of Artabanus’s sons, gave orders for the troops to be ready under arms on the following day, as if he meant to ascertain their strength, and their respective efficiency for the field. Artabanus, accordingly, presenting himself under arms among the rest, the king, pretending that his corslet was too short for him, desired Artabanus to make an exchange with him, and, while he was disarming himself, and defenseless, ran him through with his sword, ordering his sons, at the same time, to be apprehended. Thus this excellent youth at once took revenge for his father’s murder, and saved himself from the machinations of Artabanus.”]
2. Especially because it features the ever-interesting element of court intrigue, this story could be adapted for the stage. Surely this would entail filling out Justin’s rather simple story with sufficient plot-complications, and populating it with an adequate number of characters, to make a satisfactory play, something the author of Artaxerxes has conspicuously failed to do. It is remarkably short, by far the shortest surviving play in the St. Omers - Stonyhurst repertoire, and its dramatis personae contains the bare minimum of roles necessary to dramatize the tale (Artabanus’ two sons can be considered necessary inasmuch as his ambitious scheming is brought out in his initial conversation with them). The only innovation our author has made is the addition of the ghost of Xerxes. This has the merit of catering to the taste for ghost-apparitions in late Tudor and early Stuart drama, but this particular ghost makes a very brief appearance, says and does nothing, and this incident has no effect on the course of the plot. Furthermore, Artaxerxes makes no use of the rather elaborate furniture of the St. Omers stage. Its one scenic requirement is a throne, elevated on a dais and accessible by stairs. All and all, someone reading this work might pardonably wonder whether it deserves to be considered a play at all.
3. The proper explanation is that Artaxerxes was probably written for performance by one of the lower classes at St. Omers. In 1640 the school presented a kind of dramatic festival, in which performances by different classes were spaced out throughout the year. NOTE 2 It is impossible to shake off the suspicion that Artaxerxes was included in the surviving MS. collection of St. Omers plays as an example of such lower-form play. This diagnosis is recommended by its short length, its use of prose, its lack of characteristic St. Omers music and dance, its failure to employ stage resources (it would seem likely that it was performed in a classroom or some other venue, rather than in the St. Omers theater), and probably also by its small cast of characters. One textual feature appears to point to the same conclusion. Artaxerxes is divided into three scenes, and these are not articulated into any subdivisions. Had he been writing a standard Jesuit play, its author would probably have adhered to the standard practice of academic dramatists and identified these scenes as acts, and then he would have subdivided each act into individual numbered scenes each time the grouping of onstage speaking characters changed. So, although Artaxerxes is something less than a normal Jesuit play, it is none the less interesting for that, since it provides an illuminating glimpse of an otherwise unrepresented feature of St. Omers theatrics.
6. I would like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing this play to my attention and supplying me with a photograph of the manuscript.
NOTE 1 Its existence has been noted by Alfred Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” PMLA 53 (1938) 628. Albert Harbage, Silvia S. Wagonheim, and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama 975 - 1700 (London, 1989) 208, and William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre(St. Louis, 1983) 102.
NOTE 2 McCabe, pp. 90f.