JOOST VAN DEN VONDEL (1587-1679)
Joost van den Vondel stands as a major Dutch poet and dramatist. His times were marked by the nascent Dutch Republic’s wars of liberation but also by internal strife over religious and political issues (often connected).
Vondel took the plots of his plays from biblical stories and classical models but also from events that happened in his lifetime. (He wrote a play about Mary Queen of Scots, in which she was portrayed as heroine and martyr.) As regards the format and style of his dramatic writing, he was much influenced by the Bible, and the classical writers, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle and Seneca. It is Christian thought, however, that is central. Lucifer is widely regarded as his masterpiece.
Vondel is not well known outside the Low Countries: he wrote in Dutch and few of his works have been translated (apart from into German). It appears that, at home, he is little performed or read, nowadays – perhaps because his themes are of less interest and his diction is old-fashioned; but he remains of interest to scholars.
(‘Lucifer’ means, primarily, “light-bearing”, and secondarily, the morning star.)
Lucifer is a neo-classical drama, termed by Vondel a tragedy, in verse. Only two or three principal characters are on stage at any one time.
In accordance with the title, Lucifer himself is the tragic hero. At the commencement of the drama, he is God’s “stadhouder” or lieutenant, above all the other angels.
Lucifer is a hero characterised by pride, envy and ambition. He does reveal some self-doubt in Act IV.
The conflict in the play comes down to one between Good and Evil – God and the Devil. The rebellious angels receive justice, as seen from God’s standpoint: but, just before war breaks out, they are offered mercy, but on condition of surrender. The reader has to consider whether either Satan or God, or both, is an autocratic ruler – and to what extent this is acceptable. (Compare John Milton’s Paradise Lost.)
The play has these features:
– The setting is heaven; the characters are angels – some act as a chorus, commenting on the action
– The principal angels are: Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Apollion (rebellious); Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel (loyal)
– Although conceived of as incorporeal spirits, all the angels appear masculine, (referred to as “he”); and so, implicitly, there is no room for women on the stage
– God does not appear in person
– Adam and Eve do not appear in person
– Debates about God’s plan, and the rebel angels’ response, take place on stage; but the war in heaven is waged off stage
– The temptation of Adam and Eve takes place off stage
– Such action as there is, then, to be found in the energy the characters put into their debates, which are of a rhetorical, declamatory nature
– Lucifer’s first appearance is delayed to Act II (we have heard about him in Act I), and this delay is dramatically effective
– There are symmetries: for example, the rise of Adam and Eve is described early in Act I, and their Fall is portrayed late in Act V
– The drama climaxes in the defeat of the rebels, and the temptation of Adam and Eve, but also the promise of future redemption.
(The spelling of the Dutch quotations, here, reflects the practice of the late 19th century – contemporary, indeed with the English translation of L C van Noppen, used here.)
Apollion reports to his friends on his visit to the newly created Garden of Eden. “The world’s delights, yea, Eden’s fields/Alone, our Paradise excel,” he says. Adam “rules even like a god whom all must serve”: the animals look up to him – and he in turn looks up to God. The beauty of both Adam and Eve is praised: “Perfect are both man and wife.” They are happy in their marriage, while the angels are “poor” in their “loneliness”. Although made of “clay and bone”, their power will surpass that of the angels.
Gabriel arrives, confirms God’s decree, and expands upon it. The seat in heaven has already been prepared for man (“de mensch”); he will rule over the whole world, including the angels; they must serve him. He urges them to remain loyal.
Now Lucifer joins his supporters. He addresses the new situation with vigour: “our slavery now begins,” he says; but he will “to no usurper bow”; he will resist the change, even if he fails in the attempt, as failure is more honourable and glorious than submission. His speech culminates in the telling phrase:
“En liever de eerste vorst in eenig lager hof
Dan in ‘t gezaligd licht de tweede, of nog een minder.”
“To be the first prince in some lower court
Is better than within the Blessed Light
To be the second, or even less.”
(Compare Satan’s “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” Paradise Lost, I, 263.)
Gabriel returns, with no comfort for Lucifer. He urges him to obey God and to comply with His will (however inscrutable). He cautions against rebellion: “Genoeg u met uw lot/En staat en waardigheid, u toegeleid van God” (“Content thee with/Thy lot, the rank and state and worthiness/Once granted thee by God”).
When Gabriel has left, Lucifer (influenced by Beelzebub) remains defiant. He lets his supporters work out the details of the revolt. They decide to win over angels to the cause by appealing to their pride, encouraging contempt for the new creation, and saying that mankind should be kept in its place, on earth. Rebellion is now afoot.
Now the angels are divided: the rebellious demand “justice”; the loyalists speak up for continued obedience to God’s will, as whatever He ordains is right.
Michael, aroused by the “tumult and dispute” of the contending angels, comes to find out what is going on. He listens to what the rebels have to say but orders them to lay down their weapons. He goes to report to God; and he leads the loyalists away.
As Michael leaves, Lucifer arrives and puts his case to his supporters. He makes the audacious claim that he is “constrained by necessity and compulsion” to take up arms, in order to defend the status quo.
The rebel forces move off to war.
Gabriel and Michael discuss the outbreak of the war. God has weighed mercy against righteousness, and has decided in favour of self-defence. So they arm themselves for battle. Meanwhile, Lucifer and his supporters have taken the offensive and are confident of victory. He promises to exchange the “hated tyranny of heaven” for a “state of freedom” (implicitly, under his own rule).
Raphael next appears. In a magnificent speech, he reminds Lucifer of all the favour God has shown him and the majesty in which He has clothed him: he should be content with his lot. Raphael goes on to warn Lucifer against the dire consequences for him of rebellion; he urges him to desist, before it is too late; he offers the olive branch of God’s mercy. Finally, he offers to act as a mediator with God – but only on condition that Lucifer lays down his arms.
Lucifer has a moment of self-doubt and despair; and he feels that he has gone too far to turn back. Informed that Michael is ready for combat, however, and urged on by his supporters, his hand is forced, on the side of rebellion. Raphael sums up, sadly: “Helaas, hij stond alreede in twijfel, en beraad;/Nu voert hem wanhoop aan” (Alas! but now/ He stood in doubt suspended: now, despair/Incites him on.”).
First, Raphael, Uriel and Michael go over the course of the battle and God’s victory, in nearly 400 impressive lines, full of powerful imagery. (The details make one think of 17th century warfare: compare Paradise Lost, V, 563-907, and VI, 1-866.)
For his sins, Lucifer is transformed into a “hideous medley of seven beasts”, representing the seven deadly sins (cf Revelation): “his beauteous form is now a monster execrable, by God/And Spirit and man e’er to be cursed.”
On the heels of success comes, however, disaster: Gabriel comes to report the Fall of Adam. He reproduces Lucifer’s speech to his supporters, where he spoke of his aim to gain revenge for his defeat by attacking mankind: “corrupting”, “poisoning”, “staining” the human race, so that it “never shall /Usurp the throne from which we were thrust.”
Gabriel continues: Lucifer sent his ally Belial, in the form of a serpent, to tempt Adam and Eve; and the story elaborates the account given in Genesis, Chapter 3. Michael orders Uriel to expel Adam and Eve from Eden and commands other angels to capture and bind the rebel angels, lock them in hell, and torment Lucifer. The prediction is also made that “the promised Seed (ie Jesus), appeasing God’s wrath, will restore, through love, all that was lost in Adam” (my word for word translation):
“Terwijl ‘t beloofde Zaad, verzoenende Gods toren,
Herstelle uit liefde al wat in Adam werd verloren.”
Hence, mankind will be cleansed of its “hereditary guilt”; and the saved will go to heaven. Christian doctrine is thus endorsed. And so the drama ends.
1 We are not used, nowadays, to watching just a few characters, disputing with each other in long, stately speeches to each other. (Compare, however, some of the works of Marlowe and early Shakespeare.)
2 The theme – the implicit acknowledgement of the compatibility of freedom with obedience (to God) may not be to everyone’s taste. Conflict among human beings (without the intervention of a deity or angels) is the staple of the literature and drama we are familiar with.
3 Even if God (absent from the stage) is perceived as autocratic, Lucifer himself is ambitious and (arguably) a tyrant in the making; and he certainly poses a threat to the wellbeing of mankind (as is proved by events). (Compare Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost).
4 There is no humour in the play; there are no clowns, no common people; “comic relief” is absent (contrast Shakespeare).
5 There is no subplot (strictly speaking) that might provide variety and might comment on the action: there are choruses (compare, and contrast, Shakespeare’s Henry V).
6 Implicitly rather than explicitly, there are no female characters on stage.
7 The few principal characters can be distinguished from each other: Lucifer is definitely the leader of the rebel angels, but at the same time he can be influenced by his supporters (eg by Beelzebub, in Act II); and Raphael (for example) conveys sincerity and sadness, as he tries to persuade Lucifer to pull back from the brink (in Act IV).
8 Lucifer deserves to be better known and performed more often.
9 The drama could be adapted slightly to include female actors.
10 If put on as a radio play (say), a mix of male and female voices would help the listener to distinguish the various characters from each other.