The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great by Henry Fielding.

The Tragedy of Tragedies is a marvellous play (first performed in 1731) by Henry Fielding, better known for his 1749 novel Tom Jones. It is a rewritten and reworked edition of an earlier play, Tom Thumb, first performed a year earlier in 1730.

Fielding aside for a moment, Tom Thumb is a character in English folklore, though perhaps more associated with the German writers the Brothers Grimm his story in fact was one of the first English fairy tales - Thomas Langley's The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthur's Dwarfe: whose Life and adventures containe many strange and wonderfull accidents, published for the delight of merry Time-spenders (1621). It's even thought he was based on a real person: in the Holy Trinity Church at Tattershall, Lincolnshire, there's a grave, about 16'' long, engraved with the inscription "T. Thumb. Aged 101 Died 1620." Returning to the fairy tale, Tom Thumb was said to be the size of his father's thumb and, as Langley's title would suggest, a favourite of King Arthur's.

Fielding's play is, as he described, "a laughing tragedy", which, Fielding argued, was superior to a Classic tragedy. In it, Tom Thumb we learn was born with the intervention of Merlin. As an adult he serves King Arthur, and Queen Dollallolla, Arthur's wife, falls in love with Tom however is unable to tell him lest he think less of her. King Arthur, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Queen Glumdalca whose subjects, ten thousand giants, Tom subdued in battle. As a reward, King Arthur promises to grant Tom a request, and Tom asks that he might marry Princess Huncamunca, with whom he is love. The requested is granted at Queen Dollallolla's fury but King Arthur, usually so terrified of his wife, stands up to her and the marriage, he says, will go ahead. She then enlists the help of Lord Grizzle, who is also in love with Princess Huncamunca so he is naturally eager to be of assistance. He plots to kill Tom, and tragedy does indeed ensue, but not quite how one would imagine...

What surprises me the most is that The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great could be performed: one of my favourite elements of the play were Fielding's footnotes, of which there are a great many: tongue in cheek, very sérieux, and mocking the pomposity, I presume, of some critics at the time. Here's a few examples that made me chuckle:
Qᴜᴇᴇɴ: - Oh! ye gods! 1
1 A tragical exclamation.
Tʜᴜᴍʙ: Trust me, my Noodle, I am wondrous sick;
For though I love the gentle Huncamunca,
Yet at the thought of marriage I grow pale;
For oh! - but swear thou'lt keep it ever secret, 1
I will unfold a tale will make thee stare.
1 This method of surprising an audience by raising their expectation to the highest pitch, and then balking it, hath been practiced with great success by most of our tragical authors.
Hᴜɴᴄᴀᴍᴜɴᴄᴀ: Oh, Tom Thumb! Tom Thumb! wherefore  art thou Tom Thumb? 1
1 Oh! Marius, Marius: wherefore art thou Marius? Otway's Marius.
Gʀɪᴢᴢʟᴇ: Oh! Huncamunca, Huncamunca, oh! 1
1 This beautiful line, which ought, says Mr W-, to be written in gold, is imitated in the new Sophonisba:
Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, oh!
Oh! Narva, Narva, oh!
The author of a song called Duke upon Duke hath improved it:
Alas! O Nick, O Nick, alas!
Where, by the help of a little false spelling, you have two meanings in the repeated words. 
There is also an equally self-important preface purported to be written by H. Scriblerus Secundus, which begins,
The town hath seldom been more divided in its opinion than concerning the merit of the following scenes. Whilst some publicly affirmed, That no author could produce so fine a piece but Mr P[ope], others have with as much vehemence instead insisted, That no one could write anything so bad but Mr F[ielding].
I did enjoy this satirical element of The Tragedy of Tragedies; the footnotes were genius. As I'm sure if obvious I read primarily for enjoyment but I do frequently check out the odd note when I'm reading and some of them are so beyond pompous: I remember reading a novel by Virginia Woolf, possibly Jacob's Room, and there was a footnote to a passing comment by a character, and the footnote added that Vanessa Bell had once said something similar: it was so excessive, I thought, and so over the top. There's another book I remember, Dante perhaps, in which whoever introduced it seemed hell bent on putting readers off it, as though one needed a Masters to even begin to enjoy it. Footnotes aside, this is a fun play. I should read more of Fielding; I always mean to.

And that was my final title for this year's Deal Me In Challenge. Will there be another one next year? I don't know, but if there is I'll be sure to join it!


Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.