Sunday, 3 June 2018

Campaspe by John Lyly.

Campaspe taking off her clothes in front of Apelles 
by order of Alexander by Auguste Ottin (c. 1883).
Campaspe, or to give it its original title, A moste excellent Comedie of Alexander, Campaspe, and Diogenes is quite probably John Lyly's first play first performed in 1580-81, and performed again at court in front of Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. It's set in 4th Century B.C. Athens after Alexander the Great has conquered Greece and tells the story of how he fell in love with Campaspe.

It's based on the true story of Alexander and Campaspe, his mistress, as told in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (1st Century A.D.). In Lyly's play, having conquered Thebes Alexander takes Campaspe as prisoner. He returns with her to Athens where we see some of the most famous Greek philosophers - Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, all of whom admire Alexander with the exception of Diogenes. Meanwhile, Alexander isn't the only one to fall in love with Campaspe - a painter, Apelles, loves her too. He is painting her portrait and every time it nears completion he starts over, claiming he needs to spend more time with her. As this pans out, Alexander spends less and less time working on his campaign against Persia and more time with the philosophers.

It's a fun play that certainly passes the time (and I would add that I think I would have got more out of it had I not have read the bulk of it in the dentists' waiting room), but other than that I wasn't particularly struck by it. It's importance lies in its departure from previous plays: there's no moral message or instruction, merely a historical play with the primary purpose of entertaining. And it does just that, laying the way of later writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and the rest of the Elizabethan crew. In my mind, though, his later play Endimion is far superior.

And that was my 23rd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another play - Hercules Furens by Seneca the Younger.

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