Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of “Tortesa, The Usurer,” from the Literary Examiner and Western Monthly Review (Pittsburgh, PA), July 1839, pp. 209-213


[page 209:]



TORTESA, THE USURER. A Play; by N. P. WILLIS, Author of “Bianca Visconti,” etc., etc. New York: Samuel Coleman.

THIS is the third dramatic attempt of Mr. Willis, and may be regarded as particularly successful, since it has received, both upon the stage and in the closet, no stinted measure of commendation. This success, as well as the high reputation of the author, will justify us in a more extended notice of the play than might, under other circumstances, be desirable. The time, too, appears to us opportune for the embodiment, in a particular critique, of some observations on the general merits and demerits of the American Drama.

The story runs thus. Tortesa, an usurer of Florence, and whose character is a mingled web of good and evil feelings, gets into his possession the palace and lands of a certain Count Falcone. The usurer would wed the daughter (Isabella) of Falcone not through love, but, in his own words,

“ to please a devil that inhabits him”

In fact to mortify the pride of the nobility, and avenge himself of their scorn. He therefore bargains with Falcone (a narrow-souled villain) for the hand of Isabella. The deed of the Falcone property is restored to the Count, upon an agreement that the lady shall marry the usurer this contract being invalid should Falcone change his mind in regard to the marriage, or should the maiden demure but valid should the wedding be prevented through any fault of Tortesa’s, or through any accident not springing from the will of the father or child. The first scene makes us aware of this bargain, and introduces us to Zippa, a glover’s daughter, who resolves, with a view of befriending Isabella, to feign a love for Tortesa, (which in fact she partially feels,) hoping thus to break off the match.

The second scene makes us acquainted with a young painter (Angelo,) poor, but of high talents and ambition, and with his servant (Tomaso,) an old bottle-loving rascal with no very lofty opinion of his master’s abilities. Tomaso does some injury to a picture, and Angelo is about to run him through the body, when he is interrupted by a sudden visit from the Duke of Florence attended by Falcone. He Duke is enraged at the murderous attempt, but admires the paintings in the studio. Finding that the rage of the great man [column 2:] will prevent his patronage if he knows the aggressor as the artist, Angelo passes off Tomaso as himself, making an exchange of names. This is a point of some importance, as it introduces the true Angelo to a job which he had long coveted the painting of the portrait of Isabella, of whose beauty he had become enamored through report. The Duke wishes the portrait painted. Falcone, however, on account of a promise to Tortesa, would have objected to admit to his daughter’s presence the handsome Angelo but has no scruple in regard to Tomaso. Supposing Tomaso to be Angel and the artist, the Count writes a note to Isabella, requiring her “to admit the painter Angelo.” The real Angelo is admitted. He and the lady love at first sight (much in the manner of Romeo and Juliet) each ignorant of the other’s attachment.

The third scene of the second act is occupied with a conversation between Falcone and Tortesa, during which a letter arrives from the Duke, who, having heard of the intended sacrifice of Isabella, offers to redeem the Count’s lands and palace, and desires him to preserve his daughter for a certain Count Julian. But Isabella, who, before seeing Angelo, had been willing to sacrifice herself for her father’s sake, and who, since seeing him, had entertained hopes of escaping the hateful match through means of a plot entered into by herself and Zippa, is now in despair. To gain time, she at once feigns a love for the usurer, and indignantly rejects the proposal of the Duke. The hour for the wedding draws near. The lady has prepared a sleeping potion whose effects resemble those of death. (Romeo and Juliet.) She swallows it knowing that her supposed corpse would lie at night, pursuant to an old custom, in the sanctuary of the cathedral; and believing that Angelo whose love for herself she has elicited, by a stratagem, from his own lips will watch by the body, in the strength of his devotion. Her ultimate design (we may suppose, for it is not told) is to confess all to her lover, upon her revival, and throw herself upon his protection, their marriage being concealed, and herself regarded as dead by the world. Zippa, who really loves Angelo (her love for Tortesa, it must be understood, is a very equivocal feeling, for the fact cannot be denied that Mr. Willis makes her love both at the same time) Zippa, who really loves Angelo who has discovered his passion [page 210:] for Isabella and who, as well as that Lady, believes that the painter will watch the corpse in the cathedral, determines, through jealousy, to prevent him so doing, and, with this view, informs Tortesa that she has learned it to be Angelo’s design to steal the body, for artistical purposes in short, as a model to be used in his studio. The usurer, accordingly, sets a guard at the doors of the cathedral. This guard does, in fact, prevent the lover from watching the corpse, but, it appears does not prevent the lady, upon her revival, and disappointment in not seeing the one she sought, from passing unperceived from the church. Weakened by her long sleep, she wanders aimlessly through the streets, and at length finds herself, when just sinking from exhaustion, at the door of her father. She has no resource but to knock. The Count, who here, we must say, acts very much like Thimble of old him we mean of the “scolding wife,” maintains that she is dead, and shuts the door in her face. In other words, he supposes it to be the ghost of his daughter who speaks; and so the lady is left to perish upon the steps. Meantime Angelo is absent from home, attempting to get access to the cathedral; and his servant, Tomaso, takes the opportunity to absent himself also, and to indulge his bibulous propensities while perambulating the town. He finds Isabella as we left her; and, through motives which we will leave Mr. Willis to explain, conducts her unresistingly to Angelo’s residence, and deposits her in Angelo’s bed. The artist now returns Tomaso is kicked out of doors and we are not told, but left to presume, that a full explanation, and perfect understanding, are brought about between the lady and her lover.

We find them, next morning, in the studio, where stands, leaning against an easel, the portrait (a full length) of Isabella, with curtains adjusted before it. The stage directions moreover inform us that “the back wall of the room is such as to form a natural ground for the picture.” While Angelo is occupied in retouching it, he is interrupted by the arrival of Tortesa with a guard, and is accused of having stolen the corpse from the sanctuary the lady, meanwhile, having stepped behind the curtains. The usurer insists upon seeing the painting, with a view of ascertaining whether any new touches had been put upon it which would argue an examination, post mortem, of those charms of neck and bosom which the living Isabella would not have unveiled. Resistance is vain the curtain is torn down. But, to the surprise of Angelo, the lady herself is discovered, “with her hands crossed on her breast, and her eyes fixed on the ground, standing motionless in the frame which had contained the picture.” The tableau, we are to believe, deceives Tortesa, who steps back to contemplate what he supposes to be the portrait of his betrothed. In the meantime the guards, having searched the house, find the veil which had been thrown over the imagined corpse in the sanctuary; and, upon this evidence, the artist is carried before the Duke. Here he is accused not only of sacrilege, but of the murder of Isabella, and is about to be condemned to death, when his mistress [column 2:] comes forward in person thus resigning herself to the usurer to save the life of her lover. But the nobler nature of Tortesa now breaks forth; and, smitten with admiration of the lady’s conduct, as well as convinced that her love for himself was feigned, he resigns her to Angelo although now feeling, and acknowledging for the first time, that a fervent love has, in his own bosom, assumed the place of that misanthropic ambition which had, hitherto, alone actuated him in seeking her hand. He, moreover, endows Isabella with the lands of her father Falcone. The lovers are thus made happy. The usurer weds Zippa and the curtains drops upon the promise of the Duke to honor the double nuptials with his presence.

The story, as we have given it, hangs far better together (Mr. Willis will pardon our modesty) and is altogether more easily comprehended, than in the words of the drama itself. We have really put the best face upon the matter, and presented the whole in the simplest and clearest light in our power. We mean to say that “Tortesa” partaking largely, in this respect, of the character of the drama of Cervantes and Calderon is overclouded, rendered misty, by a world of unnecessary and impertinent intrigue. It grieves us to see that this unjustifiable folly is getting again much into fashion. It was adopted by the Spanish Comedy, and is now imitated by us, with the idea of imparting action, “business,” vivacity. But vivacity, however, desirable, can be attained in many other ways, and is dearly purchased indeed, when the price is intelligibility. The truth is that the dicta of common sense are of universal application. Cant is its sworn enemy; and cant has never attained a more owl-like dignity than in the discussion of dramatic principle. A modern stage-censor is nothing if not a lofty contemner of all things simple an direct. He delights in mystery revels in mystification. He has transcendental notions concerning P. S. and O. P., and talks about stage-business and stage effect as if her were discussing the differential calculus, or the question of the author Junius, with the “historical doubts” about the man in the mask. For much of all this we are indebted to the somewhat over-profound criticism of Augustus William Schegel.

But touching this matter of intrigue. If, from its superabundance, we are compelled, even in the quiet and critical perusal of a play, to pause frequently, and reflect long to re-read passages over and over again, for the purpose of gathering their bearing upon the whole of maintaining in our mind a general connexion what can result but fatigue from the exertion? How then when we come to the representation when these passages, trifling perhaps in themselves, but important when considered in relation to the plot, and hurried and blurred over in the double-tongued enunciation of some miserable rantipole, or omitted altogether through the constitutional lapse of memory so peculiar to those lights of the age and stage, bedight (from being of no conceivable use) supernumeraries? For it will be borne in mind that these bits of intrigue (we use the term in the sense of the German critics) appertain generally, indeed altogether, to the afterthoughts [page 211:] of the drama to the underplots are met with, consequently, in the mouths of the lacquies and kitchen-wenches and are thus consigned to the tender mercies of those stella minores of the theatrical firmament, to whom we have made allusion. Of course we catch but an imperfect idea of what is going on before our eyes. Action after action ensues whose mystery we cannot unlock without the little key which these barbarians have thrown away and lost. Our weariness increases in proportion to the number of these embarrassments; and, if the play escapes damnation at all, it escapes in spite of that intrigue, to which, in nine cases out of ten, the author attributes his success, and which he will persist in valuing exactly in proportion to the misapplied labor it has cost.

But dramas of this kind are said, in our customary cant parlance, to “abound in plot.” We have seldom, however, met with any one who could tell us what precise ideas he connected with the phrase. A mere succession of incidents, even the most spirited, will no more constitute a plot, than a multiplication of zeroes, even the most infinite, will result in the production of an unit. This all will admit but few trouble themselves to think farther. They usual notion seems to be in favor of simple complexity (here no paradox is intended.) But a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass. This, we say, is the point of perfection a point seldom attained, but not therefore unattainable. Plots of high excellence, or what, for all practical purposes, can be considered as such, may be defined in the category that no incident shall be susceptible of deposition without detriment to the whole with less than this no writer of refined taste should content himself. The pleasure derivable from the contemplation of the unity thus evolved is far more intense than is ordinarily supposed, and, as we meet with no such combination of incident in Nature, appertains to a very lofty region of the ideal. Perfection of plot is difficult of attainment; but its appreciation when attained, absolutely universal. In speaking thus, we have not yet said, nor shall we ever say, that plot is more than an adjunct to the drama more than a perfectly distinct and separable source of pleasure. It is not an essential. In its intense artificiality, it may even be conceived injurious, in a certain degree, to that life-likeness which is the soul of the drama of character. Good dramas have been written with very little plot; capital dramas might be written with none at all. Some plays of high merit, having plot, abound in irrelevant incident in incident, we mean, which could be removed or displaced without effect upon the plot itself, and yet are by no means objectionable as dramas; and for this reason the incidents are evidently irrelevant obviously episodical. Of their digressive nature the spectator is so immediately aware, that he views them, as they arise, in the simple light of interlude, and does not fatigue his attention by an attempt to establish for them a connexion, or more than an illustrative connexion, with the great interests of [column 2:] the subject. Such are the plays of Shakespeare. But all this is very different from that irrelevancy of intrigue which disfigures, and generally damns, the production of the unskilful artist. With him the great error lies in inconsequence. Underplot is piled upon underplot, (the very word is a paradox) and all to no purpose to no end. The interposed incidents have no ultimate effect upon the main ones. They may hang upon the mass they may even coalesce with it, or, as in some intricate cases, they may be so intimately blended as to be lost amid the chaos which they have been instrumental in bringing about, but still they have no portion in the plot, which exists, if at all, independently of their influence. Yet the attempt is made by the author to establish and demonstrate a dependency an identity; and it is the obviousness of this attempt which is the cause of weariness in the spectator, who, of course cannot at once see that his attention is challenged to no purpose that intrigues so obtrusively force upon it, are to be found, in the end, without effect upon the leading interest of the play.

“Tortesa” will afford us plentiful examples of this irrelevancy of intrigue of this misconception of the nature and of the capacities of plot. We have said that our digest of the story is more easy of comprehension than the detail of Mr. Willis. If so, it is because we have foreborne to give such portions as had no influence upon the whole. These served but to embarrass the narrative and fatigue the attention. How much was irrelevant is proved by the brevity of space in which we have recorded, somewhat at length, all the influential incidents of a drama of five acts. There is scarcely a scene in which is not to be found the germ of an underplot a germ, however, which seldom progresses beyond the condition of a bud, or, if so fortunate as to swell into a flower, arrives, in no single instance, at the dignity of fruit. Zippa, a lady altogether without character, (here, we assure Mr. Willis, nothing is insinuated against her virtue,) is the most pertinacious of all the concocters of plans never to be matured of vast designs that terminate in nothing of cul-de-sac machinations. She plots in one page and counterplots in the next. She schemes her way from P. S. to O. P., and intrigues perseveringly from the foot-lights to the slips. A very singular instance of the inconsequence of her manuvers is found towards the conclusion of the play. The whole of the second scene, occupying five pages, in the fifth act, is obviously introduced for the purpose of giving her information, through Tomaso’s means, of Angelo’s arrest for the murder of Isabella. Upon learning his great danger, she rushes from the stage, to be present at the trial, exclaiming that her evidence can save his life. We, the audience, of course applaud; and now look with interest to her movements in the scene of the judgement hall. She, Zippa, we think, is somebody after all; she will be the means of Angelo’s salvation; she will thus be the chief unraveller of the plot. All eyes are bend upon Zippa but, upon the point at issue, she does not so much as open her mouth. It is scarcely too much to say that not a single action of this impertinent little busy-body has any real influence [page 212:] upon the play. Yet she appears upon every occasion appearing only to perplex.

Similar things abound we should not have space even to allude to them all. The whole conclusion is utterly supererogatory in its character. The immensity of pure fuss with which it is overloaded forces us to reflection that all of it might have been avoided by a word of explanation to the Duke an amiable man who admires the talents of Angelo, and who, to prevent Isabella marrying against her will, had previously offered to free Falcone of his bonds to the usurer. That he would free him now, and thus set all matters straight, the spectator cannot and will not doubt for an instant; and he can conceive no better reason why explanations are not made, than that Mr. Willis does not think proper they should be. A German critic would say that the whole drama of “Tortesa” was exceedingly ill motivirt.

We have already mentioned an inadvertance, in the fourth act, where Isabella is made to escape from the sanctuary through the midst of guards who prevented the ingress of Angelo. Another occurs where Falcone’s conscience is made to reprove him, upon the appearance of his daughter’s supposed ghost, for having occasioned her death by forcing her to marry against her will. The author had forgotten that Falcone submitted to the wedding, after the Duke’s interposition, only upon Isabella’s assurance that she really loved the usurer. In the third scene, too, of the first act, the imagination of the spectator is, no doubt, a little taxed, when we find Angelo, in the first moments of his introduction to the palace of Isabella, commencing her portrait by laying on color after color, before he had made any attempt at an outline. In the last act, moreover, Tortesa gives to Isabella a deed

“Of the Falcone palaces and lands,

And of the moneys forfeit by Falcone.”

This is a terrible blunder, and the more important, as upon this act of the usurer depends the development, in a great degree, of his new-born sentiments of honor and virtue depends, in fact, the most prominent point of the play. Tortesa, we say, gives to Isabella the lands forfeited by Falcone. But Tortesa was surely not very generous in giving what clearly, was not his own to give! Falcone had not forfeited the deed which had been restored to him by the usurer, and which was then in his (Falcone’s) possession. Hear Tortesa:

“He put it in the bond;

That if, by any humor of my own,

Or accident that sprang not from himself

Or from his daughter’s will, the match were marr’d

His tenure stood intact.”

Now Falcone is still resolute for the match; but this new generous “humor “ of Tortesa’s, induces him (Tortesa) to decline it. Falcone’s tenure is then intact he retains the deed. The usurer is giving away property not his own. Such palpable oversights as these betray a reprehensible haste. Buffon and Hogarth have both assured, (and their names are of weight,) that genius is little else than labor and diligence. The same opinion (one not by any means [column 2:] founded on a shadow) is hinted at in one of the collateral meanings of the Latin “industria.” Incredibili industria industria mirabili, &c., are phrases very generally applied by the Romans in their comments upon works whose origins we moderns would unhesitatingly have ascribed to the unalloyed inspiration of genius. Most certain it is that, in America especially, we are sadly given to undervalue the effect of patient thought and careful elaboration.

As a drama of character, “Tortesa” is not open to so many objections, as when we view it in the light of its plot but it is still faulty. The merits are so excessively negative that it is difficult to say any thing about them. The Duke is nobody; Falcone nothing; Zippa less than nothing. Angelo may be regarded simply as the medium through which Mr. Willis conveys to the reader his own glowing feelings his own refined and delicate fancy (delicate, yet bold) his own rich voluptuousness of sentiment a voluptuousness which would offend in almost any other language than that in which it is so skilfully appareled. Isabella is the heroine of the Hunchback. The revolution in the character of Tortesa or rather the final triumph of his innate virtue is a dramatic point far older than the hills. It may be observed, too, that, although the representation of no human character should be quarrelled with for its simple inconsistency, yet it is required that the inconsistencies shall not neutralize each other it is demanded that they have no positive repulsion they must not be oils and waters they cannot be alkalies and acids. When, in the course of the denouement, the usurer bursts forth into an eloquence virtue-inspired, we cannot sympathise very heartily with his fine speeches, since they proceed from the mouth of the self-same ass who, urged by a disgusting vanity, uttered so many ridiculous sotticisms (about his fine legs, &c.) In the earlier passages of the play. Tomaso is, upon the whole, the best personage. We recognize some originality in his conception and conception was never more capitally carried out. The slight exaggeration, here, in the entire design, evinces a profound artistical feeling.

One or two random observations and we have done. In the third scene of the fifth act, Tomaso, the buffoon, is made to assume paternal authority over Isabella (as usual without sufficient purpose) by virtue of a law which Tortesa thus expounds

“My gracious liege, there is a law in Florence

That, if a father, for no guilt or shame,

Disown and shut his door upon his daughter,

She is the child of him who succors her,

Who, by the shelter of a single night,

Becomes endowed with the authority

Lost by the other.”

No one, of course, will be forced to believe that any such stupid law as this ever existed either in Florence or in Timbuctoo but, on the ground que levrai n’est pas toujours le vraisenblable, we say it would be no justification for Mr. Willis that it did really exist. It has an air of the far-fetched of the desperate that a fine taste will avoid as a pestilence. Very much of the same nature is the attempt of Tortesa to extort a second [page 213:] bond from Falcone. The evidence which convicts Angelo of murder is ridiculously frail. The idea of Isabella’s assuming the place of the portrait, and so deceiving the usurer, is not only outrageously improbable, but stolen from the “Winter’s Tale.” But, in this latter play, the deception is possible at least for the human figure but imitates a statue. What can be more absurd than Mr. W.’s stage directions about the “back wall being so arranged as to form a natural ground for the picture?” Of course the very slightest movement of Tortesa (and he makes many) by disarranging the perspective, would have annihilated the illusion. The “asides” are preposterously frequent. The prevalence of this folly (of speaking aside) detracts more from the acting merit of our drama generally, than any other single cause. It utterly destroys verisimilitude. People are not in the habit of soliloquising aloud at least not to any positive extent. And why should an author have to be told what the slightest reflection should teach him that an audience, by dint of no imagination, can or will conceive that what is sonorous in their own ears at a distance of fifty feet from the speaker, cannot be heard by an actor at the distance of one or two?

Having spoken thus of “Tortesa” in terms of nearly unmitigated censure our readers may be surprised to hear us say that we think highly of the drama as a whole that we prefer it undoubtedly to any American play, and have but little hesitation in ranking it before any of the productions of Sheridan Knowles. Its faults its leading faults we mean are those of the modern drama generally they are not peculiar to itself while its great merits are. Were this not the case, we should long ago have brought our notice to a close. If, in support of our opinion, we do not cite points of commendation, it is because these form the mass of the work. And were we to speak of fine passages we should speak of the entire book. Nor by “fine passages” do we mean passages of merely fine language, embodying fine sentiment, but such as are rife with truthfulness, and teem with all the loftier qualities of the dramatic art. Points, capital points abound and these have far more to do with the general excellence of a play than a too speculative criticism will admit. Upon the whole we are proud of “Tortesa” and here again record our high opinion of the abilities of Mr. Willis.





[S:0 - LEWMR, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of N. P. Willis' Tortesa [Text-02]