From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 10.1 (1990): 69-77.
Copyright © 1990, The Cervantes Society of America


The Persistence of Cervantine Romance in Nicholas Wright's The Custom of the Country


THE first performance of Wright's The Custom of the Country was done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Pit, London, October 12, 1983, where it had a successful run of forty-nine performances. In the “Briefing” column of The Observer for Sunday, October 30, the play was described as “a brave attempt by Nicholas Wright to fashion a romantic comedy, with African political overtones, on the Jacobean model” (p. 30), and James Fenton of the Sunday Times called it “an essay in the modern Jacobean style, brilliantly achieved.”1 The title, characters and much of the story are drawn from the play of the same name by Fletcher and Massinger (1620), which is in turn based upon Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. Recent criticism has stressed Persiles' ties to both Byzantine romance, on which it is based, and traditional myth.2

     * This is a paper from a symposium on Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, as is explained in the Foreward of this issue of the journal.
     1 “The Long March to Conformity,” The Sunday Times, 23 Oct., 1983, p. 39.
     2 See Ruth El Saffar's, Novel to Romance, and Alban K. Forcione's, Cervantes, Aristotle and the Persiles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970) [p. 70] and his Cervantes' Christian Romance: A Study of Persiles y Sigismunda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).



     In Wright's play, set in African history just prior to the English creation of Rhodesia, the young couple's journey is an escape from the degenerate heritage of the Portuguese, English, and Dutch in Africa to a still indigenous Zimbabwe whose culture, as the ending dares to hope, will in the future be a mixture, like the couple's marriage, of the best of Africa and Europe. In this basic sense, Wright's drama is more than romantic comedy; it is also myth. In some of the 1983 reviews, the work's artistic coherence was called into question. Those considering it simply a romantic comedy, not seeing a mythic dimension, were disconcerted by the author's visionary approach to the history of southern Africa and his commitment to moral concerns.3 We find, however, similar themes in Wright's Cervantine model, mythic elements that shape both the play and the romance.
     In his article “Cervantes and Fletcher: A Theme with Variations,”4 W. D. Howarth focused on the fact that in the interpolated story of Mauricio and his daughter Transila, Cervantes makes use of the theme of ritual defloration of the bride reported by a number of sixteenth-century travellers as a feature of primitive marriage ceremonies in remote parts of the world. Wright uses a similar episode as the focal point of his play. He begins the action in the Zambesi Valley of 1890, which is the domain of an African Chief (Count Antonio de Rosario) who claims the droit de seigneur, thus following the example of his Portuguese ancestors. Tendai, a Shona girl who marries a young English missionary named Paul Du Boys, escapes with him and his brother; they are separated, subjected to various hard-ships, and eventually reunited in Johannesburg, a frontier town in the Republic of the Transvaal.
     In addition to the “custom of the country” itself, a second element running through all three works is a skillful interweaving of intricate subplots, a stylistic feature originating in the Baroque complexity of Cervantes' long romance. In his basic storyline and two secondary plots Wright brings together the stories of three strong female characters, and when James Fenton writes that “the play belongs to three extraordinary women,”5

     3 See Robert Cushman, “A Matter of Tyranny,” The Observer, Sunday, October 23, 1983, p. 30 and Fenton, p. 39.
     4 Modern Language Review, 56 (1961): 563-66.
     5 Fenton, p. 39.

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he is speaking not only of the performances of the specific actresses but of the importance of their roles as well.6 The three women around whom the play revolves are Tendai, Daisy and Henrietta. While Tendai is an innocent and newly married native girl, Mrs. Daisy Bone, a brothel-keeper in Johannesburg, has slept with everyone, yet falls in love with Paul and his innocence. She conspires to keep him and Tendai apart while hiring Paul's sexually active brother Roger for one of her male brothels to have him productively and safely out of the way.
     The third woman, Henrietta Van Es, a widow with an only son, Willem, owns the Nooitgedache gold-fields. She meets Roger, is attracted to him, and hides him in her bed when he comes to her one night saying that he is being pursued for a murder committed in self-defense. Henrietta does not reveal Roger's presence even though her brother arrives to announce that it is her son Willem who has been killed. Roger makes his escape but later returns to ask Henrietta to marry him. She accepts at once but later, after announcing that they will marry, pulls out a gun resolved to take revenge. Fortunately Willem, who was not dead after all but had only been in a coma from which Tendai's native herbs have now saved him, comes forward to say that he is alive, and his mother immediately reaffirms her intention to marry Roger. The play ends with Tendai and Paul happily reunited and free from the hated custom, Henrietta and Roger about to take the vows, and Daisy with a former lover on stage as champagne-sipping ghosts after their double suicide.
     Beyond the title incident itself and the Baroque intricacies of the plots, Wright incorporates into the play four major themes derived from Cervantes. First and second, the Spaniard set his romance in the exotic and barbarous Northlands of Europe. Wright, too, makes use of exotic and barbaric elements, although he links the customs of an African feudal chiefdom, 16th-century Portugal, and 19th-century English imperialism. These three are brought together to form an ironic picture of barbarous exploitation of blacks by whites and of men and women by each other. Third, Wright's women are strong and often more decisive than the men. Nevertheless —and this is the fourth common theme— the couples manage to rise above the sordid

     6 In his letter of March 23, 1985, Mr. Wright states: “It seemed clear to me that B & F had set up a trilogy of three different men's ideas of women, one a love-goddess, one a mother and one a virgin. I built this idea up a lot through reading Frances Yates on the subject —her notes on Botticelli, etc.”


situations in which they are tested and finally find happiness together; as in Cervantes' romance, the major characters come through their trials strengthened and prepared for the satisfactions and responsibilities of marriage.


     The reviewer in The Sunday Times also stressed that the play takes much of its “paradoxical vitality” from its setting in imperial Africa.7 Cervantes' romance begins in what for 17th-century Spaniards were the little-known and mysterious regions of the far north-western corner of Europe. Wright's characters, too, represent sharply defined national groups with significant and interesting traits related to their far-away location. The script, in fact, lists them by nationalities: the Africans, the Afrikaners, the British. The black Africans are the ones possessing the most obvious differences from the people in the audience, differences Wright plays up initially for comic effect.
     The Afrikaners are distinguished by their racial discrimination. The same is true of the portrait of the British. The idealism, real or selfishly feigned, of the concept of “the white man's burden” is conspicuous by its absence. Mrs. Daisy Bone, exploitress of others' passions and slave to her own, is the still somewhat shocking opposite of the ideal Victorian woman. Equally grasping and unprincipled is Dr. Jameson, the ex-physician and now government agent whose immoral drive to conquest holds our interest by its total contradiction of the traditional Dr. Livingston image of European medicine as humane and British rule as civilizing.
     To assure that such exoticism has its desired effect, both Cervantes and Wright heed the warnings issued by 16th-century literary criticism to give the amazing an air of reality. Forcione has made clear Cervantes' concern with the “legitimate marvelous.”8 Similarly, in the program notes Wright speaks of the authenticity of his historical setting,9 while in the play itself he includes references to actual events from the histories of South Africa and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.

     7 Fenton, p. 39.
     8 See Alban K. Forcione, Cervantes, Aristotle and the Persiles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
     9 See the “Play Notes,” following p. 27 of the RSC play text.

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     The nineteenth-century European view of man as essentially savage and Africa as its stereotyped metaphor is rejected by Wright, but still one can't help hearing whispers of it throughout the play in the “sinister resonances” that were caught by Robert Cushman in his review of the play for The Observer.10 Man may be barbaric —these characters seem to show and tell us— but there is no particular reason to call Africans barbarians. The reprehensible custom of the country that sets the dramatic conflicts in motion is, in point of fact, a European import, along with the other “quaint” medieval Portuguese customs, which, at least in this play, include killing a man in every family whenever the king dies so as to insure sufficient mourning. In the final healing scene of the play Tendai tells her chief, “You are a black man possessed by the spirit of a white. Cast it out in the proper manner and you can mend the damage you have done” (p. 51).
     Doubtless Wright's most benighted character is Dr. Jameson, who is attracted by the aura of exotic savagery that he, a European, attributes to the black continent.11 In Africa Jameson becomes the barbarian that he, like Conrad's character with a “heart of darkness,” carries within him. Inversely, the Africans become something approaching noble savages. Just as the inhabitants of the Barbarous Isle threaten the couple with rape and murder in Cervantes, here it is the Europeans who do the same. Tendai and Paul are considered criminals because of their mixed marriage, and out of jealous passion Daisy wants Tendai sent to one of her houses of prostitution. Even more somber is the contrast between a pair of villages in the two works that are attacked and burned to the ground. In Persiles and Sigismunda it is the barbarians who set their own village and island ablaze as the result of internal fighting provoked by lust for power and sexual possession of the captives. It is the occasion for the couple to escape and be reunited, and is presented as the act of divine providence. In The Custom of the Country the native village where

     10 Cushman, p. 34.
     11 “The nonsense about the thirteen conquistadors was told by a white colonialist to a friend of mine. It struck me as comical and appropriate that white racists were always the quickest to appropriate the more irrational forms of African belief —and this is a typical distortion of African history, couched, as it so often is, in the imagery of boys' adventure magazines,” Nicholas Wright, in his letter, dated March 23, 1985.


Tendai, Paul and Roger are hiding is attacked by a British Pioneer Column. It is the occasion for Tendai to be captured —Jameson refers to her as his prisoner— and to be separated from, not united with, her husband. In a later description of the incident from Paul's point of view the emphasis is on the aftermath and the destruction that the British have visited upon the Africans.
     The reversal of the roles of savage and citizen is also reflected in the protagonists' hope for a place of refuge. Both works speak of a location safe from savagery, where morality prevails, and to it both couples seek to escape. In a situation comparable to Persiles' and Sigismunda's flight to Rome, Paul and Tendai think, “when we are married we can run to England” (p. 6). Like their Cervantine counterparts they decide they must travel south, the direction that leads them toward South Africa. However, by the end the moral center of the play has shifted to Tendai's homeland, where the couple will return to live. Wright refers to it as “their journey back into the hinterland” (“Play Notes”), and this turn back toward the north, away from Johannesburg and the road to London, only underscores the audience's impression that the native Africans are morally superior.
     From the point of view of literary technique, the two writers' condemnations of barbarism are both strengthened by the use of animal imagery. While it is much more extensively developed by Cervantes,12 it also occurs in Wright. Two of the strongest instances that come to mind are Tendai's warning, “treat us like dogs and we will rise” (p. 52), and Lazarus' apocalyptic vision of Alsatians pursuing the lame in a world become a slaughterhouse.
     A final element in the compound forged of Africa, exoticism and savagery is the presence of magic arts, spells that kill or cure. But they derive not so much from stereotyped witch doctors as from the spell placed on Sigismunda by a sorceress. Like that one, which represents the evil energy of Hipólita's jealousy and her ties to violent men, they, too, are symbolic. Most horrifying is the murder of a black servant by Dr. Jameson by means of injection. Its hexlike quality comes across in the evil doctor's

     12 See Alban K. Forcione, Cervantes' Christian Romance, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 108-148, and our article “Cervantine Imagery and Sex-Role Reversal in Fletcher and Massinger's The Custom of the Country,” Cervantes, (V, Spring, 1985).

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instructions to his victim: “this is bakshee, bonsella, chipo chipo, just roll up your sleeve, ladies needn't look” (p. 38). Its symbolism is visible in the transparent hypocrisy of Jameson's claim, patently false but similar to those made by defenders of European colonialism, that the shot will make the black man strong and healthy.
     In contrast, a life-giving spell cures Willem who, after being nearly killed by Roger, lies in a deep coma and is mistakenly believed dead by his mother and most others in the city. Jameson does know he is alive, but cannot revive him. It is Tendai, using plants that grow only in her native country, who brings him back from what he later describes as a journey through Hell. The fact that the evil Dr. Jameson, no healer despite being a physician, or perhaps precisely because he is now an ex-physician and a new government agent of the British empire, cannot help Willem, while the noble Tendai, using natural medicine found only in her less corrupt country, does cure him, leaves us not far to go to find the symbolism.


     We have seen that Wright's Tendai is modelled on Cervantes' Transila, who flees the ius primae noctis. Mauricio's graphic description of her reaction to this threat shows her possessing feminine/masculine attributes that allow her successfully to escape the situation. Tendai, too, initiates the flight from her would-be violator. When Roger arrives she asks for his help. She chides Paul for his passivity and urges him to flee.
     The second strong female character in Wright's play is Daisy. Reminiscent of Hipólita, who lusts after Persiles, Daisy seduces and tries to keep Paul for herself even though she later learns that he is betrothed to Tendai. Daisy also recalls Cervantes' Rosamunda. They both lament their loss of youth and sexual attractiveness and like Rosamunda, Daisy does not reform —rather chooses death than face a life in which she cannot satisfy her longing for love.
     Henrietta Van Es, the third extraordinary woman, is another example of a strong female character in the play who combines traits of two women found in Cervantes. The first is the compassionate Doña Guiomar; even after learning that Ortel Banedre has killed her son she conceals him and allows him to go, asking, just as Henrietta does of Roger in Wright's play, that he


cover his face so that she cannot identify him.13 In Persiles Doña Guiomar disappears from the action after giving this positive example of Christian mercy. In Wright's play, however (precisely as in Fletcher and Massinger's, where Doña Guiomar eventually marries the man thought to have killed her son), the relationship between the compassionate Henrietta and the “murderer” develops into marriage, and here the lady's virtue is not only mercy but also self-fulfillment.
     This happy ending to her story recalls that of the other Cervantine model for Henrietta, the young widow, Ruperta. Similarly turned aside from revenge by a passionate love, Ruperta's marriage to Croriano, her intended victim, follows immediately and mourning turns to rejoicing just as with Henrietta and Roger in the play.


     The fourth theme shared by the play and the romance is this traditionally romantic view of marriage as the best relationship that can develop between men and women. Pairing begins as the tensions in the plot force the characters to come to terms with their own needs and strengths. Henrietta makes her decision to marry after surviving loneliness as a capable business woman and mother for nineteen years after her husband's death. While she knows she is resolute enough to take revenge, she also recognizes her readiness for love. As for Roger, he has experienced danger and near-death in a life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. It is immediately after a comically horrible dream that he resolves to find the woman who saved him the night before: “I'm nine-tenths damned and there's a woman who

     13 Wright —“Henrietta: You can come out now. No, wait. (She turns away from the bed.) Turn your face away from me. Keep it like that” (p. 30).
     Cervantes —“. . . whoever you may be, you can see that you have taken the breath out of my chest, the light from my eyes and, finally, the life that sustained me; but, because I understand that it wasn't your fault, I want my pledged word to take precedence over revenge; and so, in fulfillment of the promise that I made to let you go when first you entered this room, you will have to do what I tell you: Put your hands over your face so that if I accidently open my eyes I won't be able to recognize you, and get out of this trap . . . ” Weller and Colahan, trans., The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), p. 319.

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can save me” (p. 42). Through marriage Henrietta saves Roger a second time. She offers him security and affection while he brings companionship and the joy of sex to her middle age.
     Tendai and Paul's relationship most closely approximates that of Cervantes' matrimonial ideal. They give each other their marriage vows in Tendai's village before beginning their escape, just as Persiles and Sigismunda have promised each other to marry on reaching Rome. Both pairs suffer trials of exile, captivity, separation, other people's lust for them, and exploitation by those in authority. Both Auristela and Tendai sometimes have to bolster the resolve of Paul and Persiles and both men and women have to survive on their own as captives when separated from their loved ones.14 The final union of the two couples comes after each individual has passed through experiences of fear and degradation that have given them a deeper understanding of each other and of the world's dangers and demands. As Persiles and Sigismunda's marriage in Rome unites not only them but also their two kingdoms in peace and moral harmony, marriage, for Tendai, joins her not only with Paul but also, as she believes, unites him with her entire family, thus inferring the potential to bring all blacks and whites together.
     In sum, both Cervantes' romance and Wright's drama, after strange and intricate complications, reach a triumph of true love for the protagonists accompanied by enlightened brotherhood for their peoples. Social and national groups take on the stereotyped and symbolic nature traditionally found in myth and romance, just as the settings themselves assume positive or negative connotations. The contrasts between good and evil are sharp and significant for the outcome of the moral struggle to found a better society, in the African case, a struggle projected back into an archetypal time of beginnings. Finally, both works reject violence and affirm traditional moral values of love and restraint as the solution for the deadly problems of a world living in the dark shadow of barbarism.


     14 See Ruth El Saffar's Beyond Fiction The Recovery of the Feminine in the Novels of Cervantes, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 127-169, for a discussion of the importance of sex-role reversal in Persiles.

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