Frank McGuinness’ Innocence is another wildly imaginative play based on a historical, biographical figure. This time he’s chosen the painter Caravaggio as his central character and what a passionate protagonist he is!
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist in the sixteenth century, famous for getting into fights, spending time in prison, killing a man and having a Papal death warrant placed on his head. It was no surprise that he died young. He drank to excess, flared to temper quickly and loved recklessly.
In Innocence, Caravaggio lusts for young men, acts as a pimp procuring their services for Cardinals, and loves a whore, Lena (Magdalena). No wonder the play caused an outcry in Catholic Ireland.
I love the way McGuinness blends dreams, art, lust, carnality, religion and gender politics in this play. Lena the whore loves and cares for Caravaggio, bathing and washing his wounds. Together they play fantasy games where they marry and have a child, but Lena knows all too well that Caravaggio lusts for boys, not her. In one moment his temper flares with her and she hits him.
LENA: Who the hell do you think you are? Who do you think you are dealing with? Some penny piece of pansy rough you scraped off the streets? By Jesus, boy, you should know better than to try that caper.
Caravaggio does have a penchant for a bit of rough:
CARAVAGGIO: Their shirts were white. The body underneath was brown. I could hear the white of their shirts touch their flesh. I knew they could see me listening in the dark. […] They were as near to me as you are, but in their youth and desire they were as far away as the stars in the sky. I wanted to raise my fist and grab them from the sky and throw them into the gutter where I found them. I wanted to dirty their white shirts with blood. I wanted to smash their laughing skulls together for eternity. I wanted the crack of their killing to be music in my ears. I wanted them dead. I wanted red blood from their brown flesh to stain their white shirts and shout out this is painting, this is colour, these are beautiful and they are dead.
Later he does kill a man, but it’s not one of the young boys he described above. The murder means he has to flee for his life, leaving behind Lena, who loves him still.
LENA: I dreamt I stood in a room, a beautiful room. All bright. Pictures on the walls. All yours. I was in the centre of the room but I wasn’t in the painting. I looked at them and I looked up and I saw you looking down at me. […] And I started to laugh because it hit me you were looking at them from above, so you must see them all upside-down, and I knew then somehow we’d won, we turned the world upside-down, the goat and the whore, the queer and his woman.
Publisher: Faber and Faber (published in Frank McGuinness: Plays 1)
Cast: 6M, 3F