1. Britanniae Primitiae (authorship and date unknown) is a play produced by the Jesuit gymnasium at St. Omers (now in France, but then belonging to the Spanish Netherlands), preserved by Stonyhurst MS. A.VII.50, vol. 2 (b) and Bodleian MS. Rawl. Poet. 215. It belongs to a very popular dramatic genre among the Jesuits, the martyr play. Such plays serve to honor the memory of individual martyrs and at the same time celebrate and even glamorize the idea of martyrdom. Since in the parlous times of the seventeenth century martyrdom was a very real prospect for many audience members (either returning to England sub rosa or engaging in missionary activity in faraway places), the way in which such plays served the institutional interest of the Order is self-evident. This particular play is not without its felicities. One remembers such scenes as the hunt in Act I (which would have particularly pleased the plays’ spectators inasmuch many of them were recruited from the upper classes and at a time when organized team sports had not yet been invented hunting was a principal form of recreation for such young men — hunting scenes were therefore rather frequent in academic plays, the most famous perhaps being the lengthy description of the killing of the Calyidonian Boar in William Gager’s Oxford tragedy Meleager, and the amusing scene (III.i.) in which the play’s protagonist and a shepherd swap costumes.
2. But the feature that most sticks in the mind is the remarkable characterization of Proteus. This is a play in which several characters are given meaningful names. The soldier who is so impressed by Alban’s’ piety that he becomes a Christian convert and undergoes martyrdom together with him is named Agatho, which simply means “Good Man.“ The pagan priest is Capnodes (“Smoky“) to indicate the beclouded condition of his mind. A beggar is called Artotrogus (“Bread Muncher”), and so forth. But no name is richer in significance than Proteus, for this is meant to remind us of a famous character in classical mythology. Proteus is best remembered from the fourth Book of the Odyssey, who inhabits the island of Pharos lying off the coast of Egypt (destined to become the site of the city Alexandria), tending his flock of seals. The Odyssey is largely populated with character-types drawn from the realm of pan-European folklore (the witch Circe, the wayfarer-molesting Cyclops, etc.) NOTE 1 and Proteus is one such, the shape-shifter. In Homer there is nothing sinister or malevolent about him, in fact in Homer Menelaus recalls the rather genial reception he was given by this individual. He reappears in Greek drama, in Euripides’ Helen (where he is already dead) , as well as in his satyr play Cyclops, and in the regrettably lost satyr play which was produced together with Aeschylus Oresteia trilogy. NOTE 2 But over the centuries his original characterization underwent a transformation, so that is name became a byword for malevolent deception. Thus, for example, in 3 Henry III.ii Richard Duke of York (the future Richard III) is made to boast:
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’d pluck it down.
In the literature of this period he is often mentioned together with Sinon, the inventor of the Trojan horse, who is cited as a prime example of depraved intellectualism. For example, in another St. Omers play, the 1654 Innocentia Purpurata by Father Francis Clarke, we find this mordant appraisal of Boldus (236ff.):
Omnes ad ungues pecudis ignavae notas
Dudum tenemus. Corda Thersitis gerit,
Pedes Achillei. Moribus Phrygium Parin,
Pectore Sinonem, Proteum vultu refert.
Terentianum lingua parasitum probat.
[“For a long time I have thoroughly understood how he bears the marks of an ignoble beast. He has the heart of a Thersites and the feet of an Achilles. In his manners he resembles Trojan Paris, in his heart Sinon, in his appearance Proteus. His tongue reveals him to be a parasite out of the pages of Terence.”]
3. Our playwright had this modernized Proteus in mind when he named this character, for this was his device for identifying him as the villain of the piece (and he is a memorable one indeed) and specifying the nature off his wrongdoing. The contrast between the two men who bear most of the responsibility for Alban’s killing is impressive. The Roman prefect Marcellus is by no means a bad man. He is kindly and affectionate by nature, and his action is motivated by mindfulness of his official duty (at lines 394ff. he acknowledges an awareness that, if he does not kill Alban, Caesar will kill him), and also by as close to feelings of piety as a Catholic was willing to concede might exist in a pagan. Thus he is genuinely shocked by Alban’s desecration of the Sylvanus statue. Even so, when it comes to actually ordering Alban’s execution he wavers until Proteus eggs him on to give the fatal command.
4. Proteus’ motivations are quite different. He never expresses any sentiment of pagan piety or indignation at the overthrow of the statue. At first sight the insults he hurls against Alban and his disparaging remarks about Christ Himself would seem to indicated he is animated by a genuine hatred of the Christian religion. But even this is fraudulent. It is true that he prides himself on his ability to deceive. At lines 345ff. for example, he says to Marcellus:
Proteus non sum nisi
In mille facies lubricus migrem, nisi
Artes Sinonis mille formoso tegam
Virtutis ore. Quisquis nequit
Velare fuco cordis arcanum nequit
Honoris apicem scandere.
[“I am not Proteus unless I can be slippery by shifting into a thousand appearances, unless I can conceal the arts of a Sinon behind a facade of virtue. Whatever man cannot hide the secrets of his heart by adopting misrepresentation cannot ascend to the pinnacle of honor.’”]
Even this seemingly candid confession is at best a partial truth. At lines 265ff. he reveals his true ambition in remarks made to his brother Capnodes: NOTE 3
Tuum est beato quicquid Albani domus
Gremio coercet. Adde praeterea soli
Uber fidelis. Arva rubicunda nitent blue
Amicta partim cerere, pecorosis tument
Superba partim collibus. Tondent greges,
Ubi non aratris utiles glebae. Novum blue
Opima dominum terra cognoscet brevi.
[“A great matter is afoot. If one manages the business cleverly whatever Alban’s house holds in its happy bosom is his. Add to that the fertility of his reliable acres. His lands are aglow, partly covered with ruddy wheat, and partially where they proudly abound with sheep-bearing uplands. His flocks crop it where its soil cannot be worked by the plow. Soon his fine land will know a new master.”]
Here, obviously, tuum is being used in the abstract for “whoever succeeds in achieving this,” and Proteus is scarcely dangling this prospect before Capnodes’ eyes. Rather, he is articulating his personal ambition, and even his seeming opposition to Christianity is in truth a second layer of deception underlying his pretended interest in becoming a Christian convert. Nor can we think that he is moved by any Iago-like enthusiasm for doing evil out of pure malice. Rather, his real aim is simply to lay hands on Alban’s estate (in he course of the play we are given plenty of evidence that Alban was a well-to-do young scion of an ancient noble British family). One cannot help admiring the deftness with which our playwright handles Proteus’ characterization.
5. Interestingly enough, there is another Jesuit play originally written for production at St. Omers that dramatizes a martyrdom resulting from the scandalization of a pagan population by a Christian’s overthrow of a pagan statue, which also occurs in close conjunction with a hunting scene in a forest location, and both are set in early England, Joseph Simons’ Mercia sive Pietas Coronata (only available in an expanded version that Simons subsequently saw fit to publish, in 1648). Neither the date of the Britanniae Primitiae nor that of Mercia in its original form are known, and it would be rash to assume that Britanniae Primitiae was suggested by Mercia merely because Simons is a better-known playwright. But it certainly seems that we can assume there was some influence obtaining between these two efforts, no matter in which direction it ran.
6 It is necessary to explain for the reader the physical layout of the St. Omers Great Theater. NOTE 4 It possessed a common forestage (theatrum) used to represent streets and open areas such as military camps. Jesuit plays regularly featured dancing, and obviously the open space of the theatrum would have been needed for this purpose. Behind it was a structure containing three alcoves (scenae), a larger central one flanked by two smaller ones, most often used to represent interior scenes. Each was equipped wtih a curtain (variously called a aulaea, siparium or proscaenium) which could be opened and closed, so that a given alcove could be used to represent more than one location during the course of a play he common roof of these three alcoves furnished a second floor, used sometimes in its entirety, sometimes only at one spot. Here were the walls of the palace of the palace confines, where a funeral procession might pass, here a pergola or a garden, but that feature is not used in the present play.
7. When it comes to representing the play’s text there is not much to choose between the two mss. that preserve it. For the most part they only confront one with differences in punctuation and the occasional word-substitution. I have rather arbitrarily given preference to the Stonihurst one simply on the grounds that is complete whereas the Bodleian one is not. Their stage directions are a somewhat different matter. Experience editing other plays (particularly Thomas Legge’s trilogy Richardus Tertius) has taught that some copyists diligent enough in reproducing the words of the play were capable of taking liberties in including such extra-textual material in a considerably more periphrastic manner. Such, to a limited extent, appears to be the case here. Each ms. appears to preserve authentic details about how the play was enacted which the other lacks, and so in a number of instances I have given preferences to the more informative version, and in a few cases have even combined verbiage taken from both.
8. The text presented by Catherine Houlihan (a. k. a Sister Winefride) in a doctoral dissertation NOTE 5 is different from that for the history play Innocentia Purpurata, seu Rosa Candida et Purpurata by the Jesuit Francis Clarke included in the same study. In the latter, she partially presented a critical edition by correcting some (but scarcely all) of the copying mistakes in a very bad manuscript. This time, although she wrote (p. 79) “The text of the ms. has been followed, and the spelling and punctuation retained . . . obvious errors have been corrected and signaled in the textual Notes,” in reality she made little if any attempt at editorial intervention. Even the St. Omers copyist’s most obvious and most frequent kind of error, punctuating questions as if they were declarative sentences, almost always remains unremarked. What we are given is in truth a competent diplomatic transcript (for the availability of which I am very grateful), but it still leaves plenty of room for a critical edition of the play.
NOTE 1 The folklore elements in the Odyssey have been discussed in detail by D. L. Page. The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford, 1955).
NOTE 2 Cf. D. F. Sutton, “Aeschylus’ Proteus,” Philologus 128 (1984), 127 - 130.
NOTE 3 For Capnodes as Proteus’ brother see the commentary note on lines 243f.
NOTE 4 Described by William H. McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (St. Louis, 1983) pp. 125 - 127.
NOTE 5 Catherine Houlihan (a. k. a. Sister Winefride), Three Jesuit Plays (diss. Birmingham, 1967).