I've been rereading Max Beerbohm's Seven Men and Two Others. It's a book I've quite often dipped into for a spot of elegantly written good cheer - the adjective 'delightful' could almost have been invented for Max, a great delighter in life and a great passer-on of delight. Seven Men being a collection of short stories, mostly about (imaginary) marginal literary figures of the 1890s, it's a natural for dipping into - but this time I read it right through. I'd forgotten just how funny the last story - 'Savonarola' Brown - is.
Brown (whose actual Christian name was Ladbroke, taken from Ladbroke Crescent, where his parents lived) devoted his entire creative life (such as it was) to writing a verse drama about Savonarola - a subject chosen entirely for the metrical music of the name. Brown's research on Savonarola was limited to reading an encyclopaedia article on the Florentine firebrand - and far too many other verse dramas - and he kept his poetical labours very much to himself, making slow progress and offering only cryptic clues to what the finished work would be.
At last Brown achieves four acts, but has no idea how his hero is to die. This rather takes Max (who is present in all these tales) aback. Surely, he insists, 'in a tragedy the catastrophe must be led up to, step by step. My dear Brown, the end of the hero must be logical and rational.'
'I don't see that,' he said as we crossed Piccadilly Circus. 'In actual life it isn't so. What is there to prevent a motor-omnibus from knocking me over and killing me at this moment?'
At that moment, by what has always seemed to me the strangest of coincidences, and just the sort of thing that playwrights ought to avoid...'
Well, you can guess what happened next.
And so Max inherits the manuscript of Savonarola, and decides to present it to the world in all its unfinished four-act glory, putting as generous a gloss on Brown's efforts as he can.
It turns out to be a hilarious, quite mad melodrama revolving around the tempestuous relationship between the eponymous fire-breathing monk and the seductive Lucrezia Borgia. It's written in a scrupulously correct iambic pentameter that carries on, never missing a beat, through thick and thin, from exposition
'Savonarola love-sick? Ha, ha, ha!
Love-sick? He, love-sick? 'Tis a goodly jest!
The confirm'd misogyn a ladies' man!
Thou must have eaten of some strange red herb
That takes the reason captive. I will swear
Savonarola never yet hath seen
A woman but he spurned her. Hist! He comes...'
to would-be emotional outpourings
'..... Spurn'd am I? I am I.
There was a time, Sir, look to't! O damnation!
What is't? Anon then! These my toys, my gauds,
That in the cradle - aye, 't my mother's breast -
I puled and lisp'd at, - 'Tis impossible,
Tho', faith, 'tis not so, forasmuch as 'tis.
And I a daughter of the Borgias! -
Or so they told me. Liars! Flatterers!
Currying lick-spoons! Where's the Hell of 't then?'
and walk-on appearances by the likes of Dante, Leonardo and Francis of Assisi
'..... Hush, Sir! 'Tis my little sister
The poisoner, right well-belov'd by all
Whom she as yet hath spared. Hither she came
Mounted upon another little sister of mine -
A mare, caparison'd in goodly wise.
She - I refer now to Lucrezia -
Desireth to have word of thee anent
Some matter that befrets her...'
The only character excused pentameter is the Fool, who talks in incomprehensible prose when not breaking into hey-nonny-nonny song - until he is fired and turns up again as a Gaoler:
'Unfortunately I have been discharg'd
For my betrayal of Lucrezia,
So that I have to speak like other men -
Decasyllabically, and with sense.'
'Remember, please, before you formulate your impressions,' pleads Max at the end, 'that saying of Brown's: "The thing must be judged as a whole."' In the absence of Brown's fifth act, Max attempts to provide one himself - one that will make sense of the previous four and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Oddly, he fails.