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.

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