Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Middleton’

Plays, briefly noted

August 7, 2021

A few quick notes today on several plays I’ve read as part of a survey of early-ish modern drama.

***

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Robert Greene
(Ernest Benn, 1969) [c.1590]
xxxvi + 95 p.

An early example of a romantic comedy for the English stage, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is an entertaining play that would be fun to see staged. I was surprised to discover that a significant group of the characters are based on real historical figures — King Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, and Elinor of Castile; I didn’t expect to encounter such a precise historical setting in a comedy, although, on reflection, I suppose there is no good reason that it should not be done. Even the titular Friar Bacon, although the connection is not explicitly made, is thought to have been based on the Oxford master Roger Bacon.

The play is notable for its double-plot, which was to become a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but which had been previously rare. In one, Prince Edward, intended in marriage to Elinor, falls in love with a fresh-faced peasant girl, the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, but a love quadrangle arises when an Earl also falls for her. In another plot, Friar Bacon uses magical arts to assist various characters to achieve their particular ends: he teleports them, allows them to see events far removed (using something like a palantír), and conjures devils. This portrait of Bacon was among the most intriguing aspects of the play; C.S. Lewis often remarked on the close relationship of magic and science in the early modern period, and this play is a good exhibit of the tendency. Bacon is the university scholar and experimentalist par excellence, and within the play that essentially means that he is a master of dark arts.

Friar Bungay is a secondary character whom, one suspects, was vaulted into the play’s title primarily for alliterative effect. The play is written mostly in blank verse — one character speaks in rhyme to good comedic effect — but to my ear the verse is not particularly distinguished.

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The White Devil
John Webster
(Oxford, 1996) [1612]
102 p.

I enjoyed Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi so much that I was greatly looking forward to reading this play, written just a couple of years earlier. Its Roman setting, its plot driven by high church intrigue among the Medicis, and its good press had me expecting another success.

Alas. Alas for me, no doubt. I had enormous difficulties following the story, could not seem to remember how characters were related to one another, failed to grasp why characters killed other characters, and arrived at the last page without having marked a single passage as being of special interest. If pressed, I am not sure I could say what the white devil happened. I am ready to heap the blame on my own head, for it is undeniably true that I have been reading under inauspicious circumstances (ie. tending to sudden, though inadequately prolonged, bouts of unconsciousness). It’s probably a fine play; you should read it and tell me about it.

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A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1613]
52 p.

The title, as I understand it, is as much to say, “A snowball in hell”. We have here a riotous comedy of London life in which the social classes are caught up in a melee of adultery and procreation. We learn, along the way — although one hates for superficial prejudices to be confirmed — never to trust a man surnamed “Whorehound”.

There actually is a chaste maid, just as there is, they say, a slender chance of a Hadesian snowball. She wants to marry a fine young man who loves her truly, but is under pressure to accept the proposal of the aforementioned Whorehound. Under such circumstances, there’s but one thing to be done: run away! And, failing that, the play indulges in a rather sweet, Much Ado About Nothing-style feigned death to bring everyone to their senses.

My favourite character was the elder brother of the fine young man, a married man who, in desperation, plans to separate from his wife to avoid impregnating her again:

But as thou sayst, we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.
How adverse runs the destiny of some creatures–
Some only can get riches and no children,
We only can get children and no riches;
Then ’tis the prudent’st part to check our wills,
And till our state rise, make our bloods lie still.
Life, every year a child, and some years two,
Besides drinkings abroad, that’s never reckoned;
This gear will not hold out.

I can relate. Mind you, he goes on to offer his impregnation services to whomever wishes to take advantage of them, a course to which, though my virtue be but little, I cannot relate.

Anyway, it’s a fun play, stuffed with double entendres and outlandish characters, and it all wraps up splendidly.

Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy

April 27, 2021

The Revenger’s Tragedy
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1606]
50 p.

In his 1908 study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Charles Swinburne calls The Revenger’s Tragedy “the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide”. It is indeed a bracing play, propelled by a long-simmering animosity now brought to boil, and it moves nimbly and surely through its scenes toward the vengeance for which it hungers.

At the play’s center is Vindice, a man whose beloved had been poisoned by the Duke nine years previously; in the interim he has been watching, waiting, and plotting his revenge. When an opportunity arises to offer a service to the Duke, he seizes on it, relishing the chance to get close to his target. As the play spools out, he gets his wish — the nine-years-gone poisoning returning in macabre echo — and more than his wish. The play ends, as such plays do, with bodies littering the stage.

We are in the hands of a dark poet. This is a play in which a man tries to convince his sister to play the prostitute to the Duke; in which the stake in a case of mistaken identity is whether a man is beheaded; in which heads swing in burlap sacks and lascivious men unwittingly kiss skulls. But it is also a play with a “profound and noble reverence for goodness” (Swinburne again), a goodness embodied with memorable strength by Castiza, a woman whose adamantine resistance to temptation burns white hot and casts a bright light in the darkness.

The verse of the play is excellent throughout. Swinburne works himself up into quite a sweat in his enthusiasm, waxing eloquent about “the fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava”. This is not my style, but his love is understandable. Consider this passage, from the first scene, in which Vindice addresses the skull of his beloved, which he has kept with him since she died:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then ’twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman’s bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The introductory essay in my Oxford edition of Middleton suggests that the presiding spirit of the play is that of Yorick, and it is in passages like this that the claim is most convincing.

In general Middleton doesn’t give his characters long speeches — the above is one of the longest — and while this allows the story to move on briskly, it also limits his ability to really develop and unfold his characters. This becomes a problem at the very end of the play when Vindice, his revenge finally achieved, does something that was to me surprising and incongruous: he, who had nursed his anger in secret for so many years, suddenly and most imprudently boasts of his vengeance, to his death. I am tempted to call this a simple, though significant, fault. It is possible, perhaps, that a good actor could find a character arc that makes it plausible, but the text of the play really doesn’t lead us to expect it.

There is also, in this play, the problem that afflicts so many action movies: the drama is engaging until the action begins, and then it slackens and drains. There are many characters who must die before the play ends, and Middleton opts to pack most of them into one scene — the “action scene”, if you wish — in which daggers fly and bodies drop, but in such quick succession that the audience isn’t given time to absorb it; I found it dramatically unsuccessful.

All the same, I found this a ferociously good play, one that would be well worth revisiting. I’ll give the last word to Swinburne, as I gave the first:

There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames.

Middleton: A Mad World, My Masters

February 7, 2021

A Mad World, My Masters
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1605]
37 p.

A young man disguises himself in order to rob his grandfather. A jealous husband keeps anxious watch over his unfaithful wife. An adulterous man is tempted by a succubus. A mother pimps out her daughter. And it all wraps up with a happy marriage, or the similitude of one.

Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters is a swirling, lively comedy in which lust and greed run amok in the mad world. It’s a crazy, quasi-allegorical London on the stage, populated by characters bearing names like Penitent Brothel, Master Harebrain, Follywit, and Bounteous Progress. Trickery and subterfuge are the order of the day —

Who gets th’opinion for a virtuous name
May sin at pleasure, and ne’er think of shame
(I, i)

— right up to the last scene, in which Follywit, true to form, marries a blushing maiden (actually, a prostitute).

This is my first encounter with Middleton, a playwright who enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Jacobean London. T.S. Eliot, I am told, thought him the second playwright of London, and there are several references to Middleton’s works within Eliot’s poetry. I’m reserving my own judgment for the time being, but I enjoyed this play a great deal; it moves swiftly, and the plot, though suitably complicated, isn’t overly difficult to follow. I found the supernatural elements jarring, but entertaining too. The language of this play is seeded a-plenty with double-entendres, although I’d not have picked up on half of them without the notes.

His plays haven’t been staged very frequently in the last few hundred years — though some high profile companies have done them, to some acclaim. Middleton does interesting things with the staging that it would be fun to see realized. For instance, he makes use of [asides], as did other playwrights of his time and place, but here is a case in which, instead of holding up time for the aside to happen, he gives it the flavour of a distracted reverie, in which he loses track of what is going on around him:

HAREBRAIN: Call down your mistress to welcome these two gentlemen my friends.
RAFE: I shall, sir.
HAREBRAIN [aside]:I will observe her carriage and watch
The slippery revolutions of her eye.
I’ll lie in wait for every glance she gives
And poise her words i’th’ balance of suspect.
If she but swag she’s gone, either on this hand
Overfamiliar, or on this too neglectful.
It does behoove her carry herself even.
POSSIBILITY: But Master Harebrain —
HAREBRAIN:                    True, I hear you, sir.
Was’t you said?
POSSIBILITY:    I have not spoke it yet, sir.
HAREBRAIN:Right, so I say.
(III, i)

Well, I know what that feels like.

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I’m going to read a few more plays by Middleton, including, I hope, some tragedies. For just $15, I find myself richly endowed with Middletoniana. You know how it goes: “I don’t have anything in my library by Thomas Middleton. I think it’s time I had everything by Thomas Middleton.” And if I should ever need to slay a burglar, or shore up the foundation of the house, I have a suitable object ready at hand.