Archive for September, 2022

Massinger: A New Way to Pay Old Debts

September 26, 2022

A New Way to Pay Old Debts
Philip Massinger
(Methuen, 2004) [c.1625]
129 p.

If Richard III had been rewritten as a comedy — that is, as a play finding its conclusion in one or more happy marriages — it would in certain respects resemble Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The axis on which the play turns is the villain, and there are few laughs to be had as it unspools, but the structure of the drama follows that of a romantic comedy of the period, with forbidden romances, mistaken identities, mismatched partners, and all the rest of it. This peculiar combination of qualities made the play quite interesting and entertaining to me.

One of the things I liked most about the story was the manner in which Massinger made use of secrets. At two points the plot involved whispered exchanges inaudible to the audience. We knew that some subterfuge was afoot, but we didn’t know what, and I found this added to both the fun and the dramatic tension.

If I’ve compared the play to Richard III it’s not to imply that the play’s villain is any match for that bunch-backed toad. Massinger gives us Sir Giles Overreach — and, as an aside, I will note that Massinger is very devoted to the nomen est omen school of thought — a duplicitous, conniving man who plans to make his fortune by bilking money from dissolute wastrels. He is very conscious of his wicked motives; speaking, for instance, of one of his henchmen, he boasts:

OVER. […] so he serve
My purposes, let him hang or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.
MAR. You are all wisdom.
OVER. I would be worldly-wise; for the other wisdom,
That does prescribe a well-governed life,
And to do right to others as ourselves,
I value not an atom.

And later, after describing to another character his willingness to ply his victims with flattery and largesse so as to achieve his ends (in this case, the marriage of his daughter), he is asked:

Are you not frighted with the imprecations
And curses of whole families, made wretched
By your sinister practices?

To which he replies:

OVER. Yes, as rocks are,
When foamy billows split themselves against
Their flinty ribs; or as the moon is moved,
When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness.
I am of a solid temper, and, like these,
Steer on, a constant course: with mine own sword,
If called into the field, I can make that right,
Which fearful enemies murmured at as wrong.
Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows’ cries,
And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold,
I only think what ’tis to have my daughter
Right honourable; and ’tis a powerful charm
Makes me insensible of remorse, or pity,
Or the least sting of conscience.

He is a man, therefore, who acts without empathy and unapologetically seeks his own advantage at the expense of others. This is not a level of villainy on par with that of Richard III, and, as a stage character, he pales beside that notorious monster, but within the parameters of this play I still found him an effective villain, hell-bent on destroying the lives of the innocent parties on whom he preys.


Who was Philip Massinger? I’d not heard of him before taking up this play, but it would appear that he was a well-regarded playwright of the generation after Shakespeare. He attended but failed to obtain a degree from Oxford, and lacked an artistic patron, which has led some to speculate that he may have been a Catholic convert. However that may be, he wrote dozens of plays, and collaborated widely with the other leading playwrights of the time, including Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, John Ford, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, William Rowley, and George Chapman.

Critical judgement has varied over time, but T.S. Eliot thought him an interesting enough case to have written an essay about him. He judges Massinger a lesser playwright, one whose command of language was not matched by a correspondingly rich palette of feeling, and thought him most successful “in a comedy which is serious, even sombre”, which is an apt description of A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In Massinger, Eliot saw the freedom and feeling of Shakespearean verse in transition to the statelier, more reserved poetry of Milton (who was a teenager when this play first appeared on the stage).


Whether such judgements are just is not something I can say on such slender exposure. I will report, however, that if Massinger’s plays are indeed, in retrospect, works of transition, the conclusion of this play is unmistakably, and delightfully, traditional, as he has one of his characters step forward and address the audience in these terms:

Nothing wants then
But your allowance — and in that our all
Is comprehended; it being known, nor we,
Nor he that wrote the comedy, can be free,
Without your manumission; which if you
Grant willingly, as a fair favour due
To the poet’s and our labours (as you may,
For we despair not, gentlemen, of the play),
We jointly shall profess your grace hath might
To teach us action, and him how to write.

That’s a nicely modest and elegant way to wrap things up.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, IV

September 19, 2022

The Citadel of the Autarch
The Book of the New Sun, Book IV
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1983]
210 p.

In this fourth and final volume of The Book of the New Sun, our hero Severian continues his northward journey into the mountains, encounters and enters a war, returns the precious Claw of the Conciliator to its guardians, finds another Claw, or something like that, eats a brain, becomes the Autarch, and goes on an interstellar journey, or something like that.

For the most part, I found this the least successful of the four volumes. This was partly because certain elements of the plot seemed arbitrary, but mostly because some significant chunk of the book is involved in pulling together all of the loose threads that Wolfe has been spooling out through the gargantuan fabric of his story. This gathering up involves a number of “reveals”, and those are usually my least favourite part of any tale.

I will grant that Wolfe’s version of this device is more virtuosic than most, for his “reveals”, to the extent that I have understood them, which might not be very far, are such as to recontextualize much, or even all, of the preceding story, injecting new meaning into old scenes and altering our view of what the book has been about. I can understand that some readers might like that sort of thing, but I confess I dislike it.

Before beginning the book I’d read more than once that it was a book that improved on re-reading, and now I can see clearly why that might be true. It is, possibly, in a certain sense, a puzzle tale, but that’s not evident until one nears the end.

For me one of the more intriguing aspects of the tetralogy was the religious cosmology that it slowly unveiled. Severian came into possession of a relic, the Claw of the Conciliator, which apparently wielded in his hands miraculous powers, and the religious significance of the Conciliator seemed to be important to the story. And maybe it was. I found, however, that this fourth volume  muddied these waters, such that I no longer know if I’m supposed to know there was a Conciliator, or that there wasn’t one, or that Severian is somehow himself the Conciliator, or something else? I feel like the Claw turned to dust in my hands.

To be candid, I found the tail end of this volume to be frustratingly opaque. There’s a time travel element that was hinted at earlier but here comes to prominence, and I’m pretty sure I failed to grasp its implications. There are a bunch of denouement scenes as the story winds down, and I think I was supposed to see the point of them more than I did.


Having stumbled to the end of the tetralogy, let me conclude with a few brief remarks.

The world-building that Wolfe undertakes is, for me, the most impressive aspect of the books. The far, far future setting he imagines, which blends hyper-advanced technologies with a quasi-medieval social structure and a general sense of comprehensive decay, is superbly done. Like Tolkien, he is good at slowly revealing the true depth and breadth of his world through incidental details.

Several segments of the story were, for me, very successful. This was especially true of the third volume, which, as I said at the time, I thought the best. My very favourite scene was the one between Severian and Typhon, a marvellously dramatic encounter, fraught with tension and mystery, that took place atop a dizzyingly high mountain. Yet the point of that scene, within the structure of the story as a whole, eludes me. Indeed, the story seemed to carry on as though that scene had not occurred, which I found odd and frustrating.

The religious dimension of the book surprised and engrossed me, but, as I’ve already said, appeared to me to have been muddled in the end, or, perhaps, clarified in a way that I didn’t understand.

The books have a strong reputation, and have earned praise from fine writers and critics. Although my experience has been mixed, I leave open the possibility that they are better books than I was able to discover.

Books briefly noted

September 12, 2022

Choral Masterworks
A Listener’s Guide
Michael Steinberg
(Oxford, 2005)
321 p.

This is the sort of book that gives hours of pleasure far out of proportion to its length. Michael Steinberg has made a judicious selection of over 40 great choral pieces, and it serves as a wonderful roadmap for an extended listening project. For each piece he gives us a little background on its composition and premiere, and then an overview of its structure and content, without getting too technical.

The book includes the top-shelf masterpieces you’d expect: Bach’s Passions and the B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Requiem, and Handel’s Messiah. There are also a large raft of unsurprising — that is, wholly deserving — pieces such as requiems by Verdi and Faure and Britten and Brahms, and several of Haydn’s Masses, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In a few cases the composer I expected to find was present, but not the piece I expected; for example, I’d have included Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, but Steinberg chose his cantata The Bells; I was happy to have a reason to hear it again, but I’d still chose the Vigil. The book highlights several lesser known masterpieces like Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. A few of the pieces were entirely new to me — Roger Sessions’ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Charles Wuorinen’s very interesting Genesis, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di pregonia, and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Of these, it was only the last that made a big impression on me. The composer with the most number of pieces included? Stravinsky!

Steinberg has written several other, similarly conceived volumes, one on symphonies and another on concertos. I enjoyed this one enough to consider launching more listening projects around those books in the future.


The Fantasy of the Middle Ages
An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds
Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene
(J. Paul Getty, 2022)
142 p.

Put together to accompany an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, this is a centuries-wide survey of the many ways in which the visual arts — painting, book illustration, and film, for the most part — have been inspired by medieval styles and sources. Thus we get chapters illustrating how medieval characters, like knights, monks, and kings, have been portrayed in popular culture, or how medieval settings have been associated over the years with magic and the fantastic, or, more specifically, how portrayals of legends of King Arthur have evolved. It’s quite fascinating, and it makes clear that medieval sources have been a persistent source of enrichment for a very long time, and in a great many ways, in art both high and low. If you love medieval art, it’s a very pleasant book in which to browse.

Like most things in a museum, the book is for looking at, and the pictures and illustrations are gorgeously done, in high quality reproductions. There is also a text that wends its way between the pictures, and it’s fine, not too academic, but overly beholden to faddish notions of diversity, etc. Still, it does not overshadow the skill and thoughtfulness with which the visuals have been curated and presented.


The Death of Socrates
Romano Guardini
(Sheed & Ward, 1948)
177 p.

Guardini reads and comments on the four “Death of Socrates” dialogues of Plato: Euthyphro, in which Socrates, on his way to stand trial, talks with Euthyphro about the nature of piety; Apology, in which Socrates stands trial and defends himself against the charges brought against him; Crito, in which Socrates, in his jail cell, is offered an opportunity to escape and uses it to reflect on the nature of justice; and, finally, Phaedo, in which, on the day of his death, Socrates discusses with a group of young men the nature of the soul, of the Forms, and of knowledge.

The book takes the form of a commentary in which Plato’s text is interleaved with Guardini’s reflections upon it. I had high hopes, being under the impression that Guardini’s writing is generally worth the while, but on balance I was disappointed. The dialogues themselves are wonderful, of course, but the commentary didn’t add much for me, being either redundant or kind of . . . gassy? The book was for a long time out-of-print, though it has recently been brought back by the good people at Cluny Media. Other readers may fare better than I did.

Fletcher: The Tamer Tamed

September 7, 2022

The Tamer Tamed
Or, The Woman’s Prize
John Fletcher
(Cambridge, 1910) [c.1610]

This desultory tour through the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has been instructive, in part, because these plays help me to better understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. When it comes to stage dramas in this period, we typically see Shakespeare simply as foreground, with the background blank, but exploring the work of the lesser-known playwrights of the time has helped me to fill in that background. Maybe I see the figure a little more clearly now that I also see the ground.

In any case, John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed is a particularly intriguing example of contextualizing Shakespeare, because the play is actually a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. In that play, remember, Petruchio had triumphed by bringing his belligerent and intransigent bride, Katherine, to heel, setting himself up for a lifetime of domestic harmony. Or so he thought, but we learn in Fletcher’s first scene that it hadn’t turned out that way: Katherine had reasserted herself after the wedding, and Petruchio suffered a trying marriage.

For yet the bare remembrance of his first wife
(I tell ye on my knowledge, and a truth too)
Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often
Cry out for Cudgels, Colestaves, any thing;
Hiding his breeches, out of fear her Ghost
Should walk, and wear ’em yet.
(I, i)

Poor Petruchio. But Katherine, as this passage implies, has died, and he is looking for a new bride, one, he hopes, who will be more pliable and gentle. He believes he has found one in Maria. But some men just have bad luck in women, and on the eve of their marriage, Maria vows that she, too, will tame Petruchio:

I’ll make you know, and fear a wife Petruchio,
There my cause lies.
You have been famous for a woman-tamer,
And bear the fear’d-name of a brave Wife-breaker:
A woman now shall take those honors off,
And tame you; nay, never look so big, she shall, believe me,
And I am she.
(I, iii)

Her method, though, is quite different from that we saw Katherine trying in The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than being stubborn, rude, and difficult, she takes a simpler tack: she simply denies Petruchio her bed until he submits to her will. (In addition to reminding us of Shakespeare’s prequel, then, the play also brings to mind Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the same strategy is used.)  Misery for Petruchio, who cannot believe his ill stars, ensues.

The play isn’t much more complicated than that. By play’s end, Petruchio has heaped all manner of abuse on Maria, calling her (and I’m sorry about this harsh language) “thou Fruiterer”, and “thou Devil’s Broker”, and “thou seminary of all sedition” (an interesting anti-Catholic reference that presumably refers to the seminary in Douay), and also “thou thing”, and “thou pull’d Primrose”. But none of this shakes her resolve. There is, adding interest, a subplot in which Maria’s sister, promised in marriage to an old and ugly man, consorts instead with a dashing young lover and marries him in secret.

In the end, Maria gets her way: Petruchio becomes like clay in her hands, ready to do her bidding, whereupon she gives up the game and reconciles:

I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this hour make me what you please: I have tam’d ye,
And now am vow’d your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
(V, iv)

We expect comedies in this period to end in marriage; this one, contrarily, begins with marriage, but finds its happy ending all the same.


It’s not an especially brilliant play. The association with Shakespeare might lead a few readers to it — as it did me — but, having done so, it suffers in the contrast. Shakespeare’s play is simply wittier, more energetic, and more fun. Fletcher’s verse is relatively plodding, his plot relatively simple, and his characters relatively thin. But if a double-bill were played, I’d line up to see it.


(Parenthetically, while on the theme of Shakespeare in relation to other playwrights of his time, I noticed that in The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio says at one point, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness”. Zounds! I thought for certain this was a reference to Thomas Heywood’s play A Woman Killed with Kindness. But, alas, according to irrefutable authority the latter play was also the later, by a decade or so. And so my career as a literary sleuth came to an abrupt end.)

Nymphes des bois, Graindelavoixed

September 2, 2022

The great, mad ensemble Graindelavoix have posted this week new footage of themselves singing Josquin’s Nymphes des bois. This wonderful piece was written as a lament on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, and the text is remarkable because it actually names Josquin, alongside several other composers who worked in Ockeghem’s shadow. It’s a heart-breaking piece that builds to a gorgeous “Requiescat in pace. Amen.”

Every early musical ensemble worth its salt has sung it, but nobody sings it like this. A typical performance lasts 4-5 minutes; Graindelavoix take almost 9, stretching it out, and pressing on the harmonies until the tension is nearly unbearable. But it serves the piece. They included Nymphes des bois on their most recent, award-winning [*] record Josquin the Undead.

Maybe you don’t care about Josquin, Ockeghem, or nymphs in the woods. You should still listen to a few minutes of this. It will haunt your dreams.

Nymphs of the woods, goddesses of the fountains,
singers renowned across all nations,
turn your voices most clear and high
to piercing cries and laments.
For the meddlings of Atropos
ensnare your Ockeghem in their rigidity,
the true treasure and masterpiece of music,
who from death no longer escapes,
for whom great mourning covers the earth.

Give them eternal rest, Lord,
and let perpetual light shine on them.

Put on your mourning clothes;
Josquin, Brumel, Pierson, Compère,
and weep heavy tears from your eyes;
you have lost your good father.

May he rest in peace. Amen.

[*] I gave it an award.