1. According to collegiate records, Joseph Simon’s Vitus was first performed at the Jesuit College of St. Omers in May 1623. NOTE 1 The text of the play in its original form does not survive, and what we possess is an altered and no doubt considerably expanded one written for a revival performance. Acts I - IV lack the stage direction found in some other plays printed in Simons’ 1656 Tragoediae Quinque, Chorus vel interludium, where the word interludium refers to an intermedium, a short four-Act farce written to be interleaved with the Acts of a tragedy, a performance practice evidently idiosyncratic to the English College at Rome. Nevertheless, it is likely enough that Simons revised his earlier Vitus for performance there sometime during the period 1647 - 1650, when he was Rector of the College. But there is no record of its performance there, and his Theoctistus, likewise rewritten for College use, was never performed at the English College, but only acted elsewhere in 1654, after Simons had left Rome and after the play had already appeared in print. Tragoediae Quinque contains no notice of Vitus having been performed anywhere, so it is permissible to think that Simons had rewritten the play but that it too was never acted at the College and, at least prior to the appearance of the 1656 volume, had not been produced anywhere.
2. As he tells us in a brief prose introduction to the 1656 collection of five of his plays, Simon’s dramatization of the legend of the martyrdom of St. Vitus, is based on Laurentus Surius’ De probatis sanctorum historiis, partim ex tomis Aloysii Lipomanni...collectis (evidently first printed at Cologne in 1571) and Cesare Cardinal Baronio’s Martyrologium Romanum ad novam kalendarii rationem et ecclesiasticae historiae veritatem restitutum (Rome, 1586). With two exceptions, he adheres to the traditional story. Although he retains Vitus’ traditional tutor, Modestus (himself canonized), Simons eliminates Vitus’ other martyred traveling-companion, his servant St. Crescentia. His reason for this decision doubtless was the Jesuit rule against the use of female characters in plays (first encountered in the 1591 version of the Order’s Ratio Studiorum). And he manages to combine the story of Vitus’ martyrdom at the hands of the emperor Diocletian with that of another victim of Diocletian’s persecution, St. Genesius, the subject of IV.iv.
3. Vitus obviously deserves to be categorized as an example of that very familiar Jesuit dramatic form, the martyr play (the Jesuit Order had an institutional need to celebrate and even to glamorize martyrdom, and found drama useful for this purpose). Nevertheless, the observations of J. A. Parente are worth quoting at length: NOTE 2
A brief comparison of Simons’...martyr drama on St. Vitus...and a near contemporary work, Felicitas (published 1620) by the French Jesuit Nicholas Caussin can serve to demonstrate the effect which Simons’ importation of Elizabethan characterizations had on Jesuit martyr tragedy. As a strict imitator of Senecan form, Caussin concentrated on a single dramatic action: the martyrdom of St. Felictas and her sons by the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Beginning with the arrest of Felicitas and her family, the tragedy was primarily concerned with the Roman High Priest’s persuasion of the emperor to execute the Christian prisoners and the ensuing nobility of their deaths. Characters were derived from hagiographic conceptions of pagans and Christians so that the audience might best be encouraged to emulate the martyrs during the present era of religious persecution. Simons was likewise attracted to the martyr topic for inspirational reasons since most of his students would one day participate in the trials of the English Mission where they might well be compelled to perish for the Church. Simons’ mode of presentation, however, revealed an intricate secular motivation for the protagonist’s suffering rather than the customary animosity between Christians and Romans. Simons was not content to concentrate on a martyrdom alone; he was interested, rather, in presenting a panoramic view of Diocletian’s court and the influence of Christianity on it. To this end, Simons focused on Diocletian’s amorous passion for the boy Vitus and thereby shifted a major portion of the drama away from the martyrdom and onto the schemes of the emperor’s jealous courtiers to regain his favor. In contrast to Caussin’s adherence to his hagiographical source, Simons invented three different intrigues against Vitus, none of which were motivated by religion. The high priest Urbanus detested Vitus because the saint’s cure of Diocletian’s son threatened his own power and influence. Three of Diocletian’s former lovers (“ephebi”) were similarly troubled that the Christian boy might lure the emperor away from them. In contrast, the courtier Lupus (who, with Urbanus, shared a revealing name) hoped to exploit Diocletian’s passion for the youth by converting him to paganism and thereby advance his standing at court. The dangers posed by each of these various plots, not the threat of paganism, resulted in the martyr’s downfall. Tragedy no longer arose from the mere persecution of the defenders of the just faith, but from the unreliability of the world in which honest men perished because of political intrigue.
4. In introducing Simon’s Mercia, produced at St. Omers less than a year after Vitus, I have pointed out how some of the dramatic situations and characters in that play duplicate elements already contained in Vitus. NOTE 3 Mercia, to be sure, is cast in the mold of an Elizabethan - Jacobean revenge play more than is Vitus, but both are largely plays that deal with courtly intrigue, a subject ever dear to contemporary English audiences. And Simons had an obvious penchant for such situations: some of his plays have Byzantine settings, and others that do not still have a distinctly “Byzantine” character. Although both Vitus and Mercia, obviously, are pietistic martyr plays, viewed from this angle the introduction of Christianity looks more like a football over which rages the complex of ambitious strivings and personal grudges which largely drive their plots. Simons presents the conflict between Christianity and established paganism with an intellectual sophistication thoroughly foreign to hagiography, since he explores how the advent of Christianity disrupts royal courts and established social arrangements by creating new frictions, challenging vested interests and existing power structures, and also by undermining paternal authority and dissolving bonds of familial pietas. The introduction of Christianity has the capacity to bring out the best in some people, but the worst in others, and here we have the stuff of drama.
5. A modern reader might well wonder why Simons would take the trouble to write plays about battles that had been fought and won many centuries in the past. Why, one could ask, did he not choose subjects which could be pressed into service to represent the contemporary conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism or that between the Church and the modern secular state? The answer to such questions, I submit, is that what Parente wrote was not quite right: “Simons was likewise attracted to the martyr topic for inspirational reasons since most of his students [my italics] would one day participate in the trials of the English Mission where they might well be compelled to perish for the Church.” This manages to neglect the fact that a Jesuit’s martyrdom could equally well be achieved in connection with the Order’s missionary enterprise in the world’s far-flung places, where it would have been easy to imagine that the kind of disruptions and conflicts created by the introduction of Christianity into new and potentially unreceptive cultures might occur. In this sense, Vitus and Mercia retroject into the distant past issues very much alive in the contemporary world, and therefore were of interest to Simons and his Jesuit audiences.
6. But for the modern secular reader, probably the most interesting feature of Simons’ art revealed in Vitus is his interest in metadrama, i. e., in “any moment of self-consciousness by which a play draws attention to its own fictional status as a theatrical pretence” (so the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms). The commonest way in which he does this, here and in a number of his other plays, is by using theatrical object correlatives for metaphors. Examples of this from Mercia, for example, include these:
Scenaque frontis luserat Charitum lepos (1205, with a pun on scenae frons)
[“the elegance of the Graces sported on the stage of his brow”]
Alia nunc rerum subit
Facies, theatrum, scena. Personam novo
Uterque cultu fingat. (1419ff.)
[“Matters take on another aspect: our stage has a shift of scene. Let each of you undergo a change of costume.”]
Sic est. Supremus fabulae ultricis mihi
Peragendus instat actus. (2216f.)
[“Thus it stands. Now I must stage the final act of my revenge play.”]
Vitus contains similar metaphors. A couple of examples are:
Agis Catonem (1114)
[“You’re acting the part of a Cato”]
Exutus arte, iam tuas partes agis (1939)
[“Discarding your art, now you are playing your own role”]
Another metadramatic tactic is employed at Mercia 2175f., where the stage direction specifies that these lines are to be addressed directly ad spectatores, so that the theatrical convention of the “fourth wall” is deliberately violated.
7. But the most memorable manifestation of Simons’ bent for metadrama is the play-within-a-play enacted in IV.iv, a protracted scene in which the mime-actor Genesius and his troupe are supposed to act out a burlesque of the Christian sacrament of baptism in the presence of Diocletian and his court, a tactic designed to deter Vitus from his stubborn insistence on remaining a Christian. But, surprisingly, when a stooge mock-priest splashes him in the face with “holy water,” Genesius undergoes a genuine conversion to Christianity and is sentenced to death on the spot by the irate emperor. What would in any event be a distinctly metadramatic scene becomes considerably more so when one realizes that it is representing the martyrdom of St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors and the theater. NOTE 4 In one sense, of course, this scene represents a Christian miracle (as is underscored by the addition of a pair of intervening angels), an example of God’s power. But at the same time Simons offers a tribute to the power of the theater itself: the “holy water” of the stage-play has an efficacy of its own, equal to the real thing. Such is is the potency of dramatic illusion. So, in a sense, this scene is can be read as an apologia for Simons’ self-appointed mission: to harness this power of the theater in God’s service. It also can be read as an apologia for the Jesuits’ institutional commitment to dramatics as a vehicle for teaching and preaching.
8. The sole surviving text of Vitus appears in Simon’s Tragoediae Quinque (Liège, 1656), pp. 339 - 436. Each of the five plays included in this volume is prefaced by a prose argumentum, and some of these specify the circumstances of the play’s production (in revival). That for Vitus does not. The other plays in this volume are St. Omers ones, subsequently rewritten and expanded for performance elsewhere, and it was these latter versions that Simons elected to print. In a couple of cases (Leo Armenus, Zeno) we possess texts of both the St Omers original and the revised version, and can observe the differences: St. Omers plays were short and composed in three or at most four Acts, whereas the revival version is expanded and turned into a full five-Act drama. Since Vitus is composed in five Acts and is more than 2400 lines long, there is no room for doubt that in this case too we have the text of the play in its revised form.
9. An English translation of Vitus has been published by Edward W. Burke S. J. in Louis J. Oldani S. J. and Philip C. Fischer S. J. (edd.), Jesuit Theater Englished (St. Louis, 1989) pp. 251 - 322. The translation provided here is original, although Burke’s has been consulted at various points and a few of his felicities have been appropriated. For further thoughts about the importance of the theme of palace intrigue in Simons’ plays, see this brief essay.
NOTE 1 William H. McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (St. Louis, 1983) p. 83. In Part III of this work McCabe presented the most detailed available study of Simons’ plays, written from a Catholic point of view.
NOTE 2 J. A. Parente Jr., “Tyranny and Revolution on the Baroque Stage: the Dramas of Joseph Simons,” Humanistica Lovaniensia XXXII (1983) pp. 315f. Another useful modern study of Simons as a dramatist is Alison Shell, “Autodidacticism in English Jesuit Drama: the Writings and Career of Joseph Simons,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 13 (2001) 34 - 56.
NOTE 3 Simons also recycled an important element from Vitus in a play written a few months later in 1623: in Sanctus Pelagius Martyr he tells how Caliph Abderramenus is likewise smitten with a pederastic infatuation for the young Pelagius, and promises to free him if he agrees to convert to Islam. When the boy remains steadfast in his Christian faith, the Caliph has him tortured to death.
NOTE 4 Sometimes St. Vitus is regarded as the patron saint of actors and entertainers as well as, of course, dancers. Probably in order to protect the status of St. Genesius, Simons includes no elements in his portrayal of Vitus that might encourage any such associations. (It should be added that Simons’ Leo Armenus contains an equally elaborate play-within-a-play at III.ii in the 1645 version subsequently printed in Tragoediae Quinque).