Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Stephen Greenblatt Shares His Thoughts on TAMBURLAINE

Scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Greenblatt, after seeing a recent performance of Tamburlaine the Great, shared his thoughts on Christopher Marlowe and this two-part theatrical epic. Below is his letter:


“On May 30, 1593, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, aged 29, was stabbed to death in a tavern near London. The precipitating cause, according to the official inquest, was a fight over the “reckoning,” the bill.   It was only in the twentieth-century that scholars grasped that everyone at the scene, from the wielder of the knife to the murdered man to the bystanders to the owner of the tavern, was linked to Queen Elizabeth’s secret service.  Within a month the murderer was pardoned.  This was far more likely then to have been a planned assassination than a reckless quarrel.

“Six years earlier, Marlowe had astonished his contemporaries with a play more radical, eloquent, and wild than anything they had ever seen before.  Written in an immensely energetic and seductive black verse, the play, Tamburlaine, depicted the rise to world domination of a nobody, a Scythian shepherd fueled only by limitless self-confidence and sociopathic ruthlessness.  Denounced immediately for atheism and extreme violence, the work was a huge popular success, which Marlowe followed in the next year with an equally successful sequel.

“Though this brilliant two-play theatrical epic – which deeply influenced Marlowe’s exact contemporary Shakespeare–remains incandescent, it rarely performed.  Among other things, it seems to call for an impossibly large cast, and it demands a central actor of still more impossibly large gifts.  But the Theatre for a New Audience has risen to the challenge, and New York audiences should rush to see it before it closes.  The director Michael Boyd – long-time artistic director of London’s Royal Shakespeare Company – has deftly woven together the sprawling parts and reduced them to manageable proportions, and the doubling, tripling, and in some cases quadrupling of roles has enabled the performance to take place without employing an army.  There are inevitable moments of confusion – have we just witnessed the murder of a Persian king or was that the Turkish sultan? – but they do not seem to matter.  After all, the buckets of stage blood flow from one kingdom and another, and the music of conquest — powerfully composed and performed by Arthur Solari – effortlessly crosses imaginary borders.

“Above all, Theatre for a New Audience has in the remarkable John Douglas Thompson a Tamburlaine worthy of world conquest.  Thompson’s physical gifts are matched by his mastery of Marlowe’s mighty line.  Do NOT miss this performance.   It plays through January 4 at Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn.”

Stephen Greenblatt