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ONLINE BENEFIT READING

THE WONDER OF WOMEN 
(THE TRAGEDY OF SOPHONISBA)

by John Marston
MONDAY, JANUARY 31, 2022
7:30 PM EST | LIVESTREAM

This benefit reading is Pay What You Can. All of our current online programs are free. But this is only possible through the support of people like you. Please consider reserving your ticket with a tax-deductible donation.

Directed by Nathan Winkelstein

Featuring Ro Boddie, Robert Cuccioli, Reynaldo Piniella, Cara Ricketts, Derek Smith, and Sarin Monae West

“The more cold fate, the more thy virtue burned”

Sensational melodrama, overt eroticism, and splashes of wry wit color John Marston’s grimly dark Jacobean tragedy–inspired by events from Roman history. A dauntless princess is tested in a crucible of moral absolutes, ruthless ambition, and utter depravity. After her wedding night is interrupted by the onset of war, Sophonisba emerges from a series of conspiracies with heroic virtue as the “just shame of men” and multi-faceted “wonder of women.”

This event will premiere LIVE on Monday, January 31, 2022.

A recording of that livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EST on Friday, February 3, 2022

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BULL SESSION | THE WONDER OF WOMEN

LIVESTREAM 
Thursday, February 3, 2022 | 7:30 PM EST

An interactive discussion of the play and its themes with director Nathan Winkelstein, a noted scholar, and members of the company. More information soon.

THE CAST

Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.

ABOUT THE PLAY

The Wonder of Women; or The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1606) showcases Marston’s penchants for sensational melodrama, overt eroticism, and splashes of wry wit. The play dramatizes a contest for the hand of the Carthaginian princess Sophonisba during the Punic Wars, drawing on a wide and often conflicting range of sources including Polybius, Livy, Petrarch, and many Renaissance playwrights. In their bedchamber on their wedding night, Sophonisba and her new husband Massinissa, King of Libya, are interrupted by the announcement that the Roman general Scipio is preparing to attack Carthage. Like Othello, another North African newlywed, Massinissa responds heroically to the threat by rushing off before consummating his marriage. Complications ensue: conspiracies, threats of poisoning, obligations to military honor, and an attempt by the rival suitor Syphax to win Sophonisba by commissioning a witch to drug her into compliance.

 

Written and staged between severe plague outbreaks, The Wonder of Women joins a cluster of contemporary tragedies in abandoning England for remote worlds. Like King Lear (1606), Timon of Athens (1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1606), and Pericles (1607), it takes place in a distant pagan past; like some of these plays, as well as Othello (1604), it also conjures the foreign spaces of the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. These plays offer, in the words of Coriolanus (1608), the possibility of “a world elsewhere” – an alternative to the claustrophobic urban spaces of plague-ridden London. For better and for worse, these other worlds prove unruly, racially mixed, and unbound by conventional gender norms. Among their marvels – especially in The Tragedy of Sophonisba – is a new model of heroism embodied by women.


Borrowing elements of Cordelia, Cleopatra, Marina, and Desdemona, Marston’s Sophonisba is bold, passionate, and defiant. Although she is virtuous, she revels in frank proclamations of lust, like the witch Erichtho, who briefly becomes her uncanny body double. Sophonisba offers a new hybrid merger of classical female icons: her battle-provoking beauty recalls Helen of Troy, while her steadfast response to the threat of rape echoes Lucretia, and her instinct for grandeur aligns her with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Closer to home, her chastity and fearlessness evoke Elizabeth I, whose death three years earlier had marked the end of an era already viewed with nostalgia by the plague-weary English. For all its dark tragic turns, The Wonder of Women sounds a note of triumph in its portrait of a woman whose glory cannot be dimmed. Originally performed by child actors playing incongruously adult roles, the play offers a model of tragedy both familiar and strange, inviting its audiences to revisit their own recent past alongside remote foreign worlds.

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

John Marston (1576-1634) brought to his writings an elite education, a sardonic wit, and a taste for sexually explicit banter. An Oxford graduate and member of Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, he made his mark first with nondramatic poetry – the pornographic Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and the satiric Scourge of Villainy – before turning to plays after the 1599 Bishops’ Ban on verse satire. Marston wrote primarily for the boys’ companies, especially the edgy, sophisticated Children of the Queens Revels. Both writer and shareholder in the company, he had an important role in developing the dark, experimental wit that came to distinguish their upmarket Blackfriars Theater from the more inclusive open-air amphitheaters like the Globe. Like many of his characters, he had an antagonistic streak. He has been credited with sparking the feud known as the war of the theaters, and he and Ben Jonson notoriously attacked each other both onstage and off; at one point Jonson claimed to have physically beaten him and taken his pistol. Yet Marston also praised Jonson in print, and worked collaboratively with him and George Chapman on the 1605 comedy Eastward Ho, which got all its authors except Marston in prison for libel. The near escape didn’t stop him from continuing to court controversy; in 1608 James I had Marston imprisoned after further theatrical scandals and offenses. Around this time, Marston retired from writing for the theater, and surprised his contemporaries by spending the rest of his life as a priest. With its unpredictable mix of competition, friendship, aggression, and reflectiveness, his life – like his writings – embraced contraries.

TANYA POLLARD | Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY