Monday, March 9, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE ROMAN ACTOR” by Philip Massinger (first performed 1626; first published 1629)
You might have noted that a number of times on this blog, I’ve referred to my predilection for re-reading those Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that I first read as a graduate student, and in some cases for reading Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that I had never previously got around to reading [look up on the index at right my comments on George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, John Marston’s The Malcontent, the anonymous Arden of Feversham, and Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness]. In one of my earlier postings, I made a flippant passing remark about Philip Massinger as somebody who cluttered up anthologies, but whose plays now hold little appeal. I must admit that I was influenced in part in this judgement by reading T.S.Eliot’s essay on Massinger [written in 1920] in which he praised the playwright’s sense of construction, but referred to his “cerebral anaemia”. For Eliot, Massinger’s plays were precise and well-planned, but his language was lacking in colour or feeling. Eliot called him “so exceptionally superior a literary talent” but with “so paltry an imagination”. There was no resonant imagery in the work of Massinger, who was guilty of not feeling his way into his characters, but merely of making them go through the stock emotions of stage characters.
How just is this judgement? I decided to test it out by re-reading the tragedy that Massinger himself considered his best work, The Roman Actor.
First, as I usually do on this blog, I give some words about the author. Philip Massinger (1583-1640) was a man who left Oxford without a degree. It is at least possible that he was a Catholic. This is the speculation of some scholars because of the sympathetic treatment of a Jesuit priest in one of his plays, and of a Marian miracle in another. Massinger was more often a collaborator with other playwrights than a solo playwright. He succeeded John Fletcher, who had himself succeeded Shakespeare, as the chief writer for the King’s Men. The most reliable lists give fifteen plays written by Massinger alone, but fully 23 written in collaboration with others. His main collaborator was John Fletcher; though often “collaboration” meant that Massinger reworked an existing play (just as Bill Shakespeare sometimes did). Massinger’s most successful comedy (and probably his best known play) A New Way to Pay Old Debts is widely regarded as a re-working of Thomas Middleton’s comedy A Trick to Catch the Old One. For me, Massinger’s career suggests how much the dramatists of his age were more like modern screenwriters than modern dramatists, their efforts collaborative and aimed at the box-office. (When did you last see a movie for which only one writer was credited?).
Now for the play.
Because it was first performed in 1626 and first published in 1629, The Roman Actor is more properly a Caroline drama rather than a Jacobean one. Charles the First was already on the throne, and the play belongs to the last two decades before Civil War and the Puritans shut theatres down. Think of Massinger (and his contemporary John Ford) as the tail-end of a great period in English drama.
Drawing on the histories of Seutonius, Dio Cassian and others, The Roman Actor is set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD) and with very sound dramatic construction, it combines two main plots. Paris, the actor of the title, is hauled before the imperial senate and made to answer the charge that on stage he has performed libels against the emperor and other noble people. Paris defends himself capably, and the charge is set aside. He becomes available to perform for the court and for various nobles who wish to use his services to their own ends. Meanwhile the emperor Domitian falls in love with (the confusingly-named) Domitia, wife of Aelius Lamia. The emperor forces Aelius Lamia to divorce Domitia so that he can take her as his latest concubine, or wife. Domitia becomes infatuated with the actor Paris after seeing him perform. She commissions him to perform before the court. Much against the will of Paris (who understands the danger of cuckolding the emperor), she begins to court him and presses herself upon him. Various conspirators (including other noblewomen whom the emperor has discarded) get wind of this, and inform the emperor. The emperor discovers Domitia “Courting Paris wantonly” (as a delightfully curt stage direction in Act Four, Scene Two puts it). Cornered, Domitia, who has never previously shown any resistance to the emperor’s advances, and who has enjoyed playing at empress, improbably defends herself to the emperor thus: “Thy lust compell’d me / To be a strumpet, and mine hath return’d it / In my intent and will, though not in act, / To cuckold thee.” (Act Four, Scene Two). She is claiming to be getting her own back. The emperor cannot at once bring himself to have her executed - he saves his wrath at her for later in the play. But he does almost immediately arrange Paris’ death, in a particularly Roman way. He has Paris killed on stage, while he is performing the role of a murder-victim. The emperor, with a real dagger, plays the murderer. Over Paris’ corpse, Domitian Caesar justifies himself thus: “… as thou didst live / Rome’s bravest actor, ‘twas my plot that thou / Shouldst die in action, and to crown it die / With an applause enduring to all times, / By our imperial hand.” (Act Four, Scene Two). Paris’ greatness as an actor has been acknowledged, and he has had the privilege of dying by the emperor’s own hand.
If the play ended at this point (the end of Act Four) it would have been a great ending. However, it continues through a fifth act in which all the emperor’s tyranny recoils on him, and he is assassinated.
Two “ideas” seem to dominate this play. The first is this matter of tyranny. True to most traditional portraits of him, the emperor Domitian is presented as a monster of vice and cruelty. In the course of the play, he not only has Paris (and later Domitia) killed. He also systematically taunts Domitia’s former husband (in Act Two) about how he now possesses his wife, and then has him sent off to execution. In the same act he has the old miser Philargus executed for not giving over his wealth. There is a particularly sadistic and prolonged scene in Act Three where he has two Stoic philosophers, Junius Rusticus and Palphurius Sura, tortured in front of him, and is enraged that they do not flinch of cry out because their philosophy enables them to separate their wills from what their bodies suffer. They too are dragged off to execution, as is a soothsayer who prophesies inopportunely about the emperor’s death. Those who inform him of Domitia’s infidelity expect a reward, but are killed for disturbing the emperor’s peace of mind. Throughout the play, there are hints of sexual vices in his treatment of the noblewomen, who are finally part of the conspiracy against him.
Early in the play, two sympathetic characters describe him thus:
Aelius Lamia: “Domitian, that now sways the power of things, / Is so inclin’d to blood that no day passes / In which some are not fastened to the hook, / Or thrown down from the Gemonies. His freemen / Scorn the nobility, and he himself, / As if he were not made of flesh and blood, Forgets he is a man.”
Junius Rusticus: “In his young years / He show’d what he would be when grown to ripeness. / His greatest pleasure was, being a child, / With a sharp-pointed bodkin to kill flies, / Whose rooms now men supply.” (Act One, Scene One).
Domitian Caesar’s vainglory is evident when he declares his faults are above criticism:
Caesar: “Am I master / Of two and thirty legions, that awe / All nations of the triumphed world, / Yet tremble at our frown, yield an account / Of what’s our pleasure to the private man? / Rome perish first, and Atlas’ shoulders shrink, / Heav’n’s fabric fall; the sun, the moon, the stars / Losing their light and comfortable heat; / Ere I confess that any fault of mine / May be disputed!” (Act Two, Scene One).
Indeed he is a megalomaniac, who sees the rest of humanity as far below his own god-like status:
Caesar: “Can we descend so far beneath ourself, / As, or to court the people’s love, or fear / Their worst of hate? Can they, that are as dust / Before the whirlwind of our will and power, / add any moment to us? Or thou think, / If there be gods above, or goddesses… / That they have vacant hours to take into / Their serious protection, or care, / This many-headed monster? Mankind lives / In few, as potent, monarchs, and their peers; / And all these glorious constellations / That do adorn the firmament, appointed, / Like grooms, with their bright influence to attend / The actions of kings, and emperors, / They being the great wheels that move the less.” (Act Three, Scene Two)
Seen solely in these terms, Massinger’s Domitian reminds me more than a little of Albert Camus’ version of Caligula – somebody who imagines himself a sensitive, “artistic” person but who is completely incapable of recognising the needs, worth and humanity of others. At some level (in spite of the fog of existentialism that surrounds it) Camus’ Caligula is a reaction to Hitler. (For the record, the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger wrote a novel about Domitian, Der Tag wird kommen, which was also intended as a clear parallel with Hitler.) Could it be that in writing this play, Massinger was covertly criticising the despotism of his own times, the “personal reign” of Charles the First?
Frankly, I think not. Among other things Paris, the titular hero, at no point criticises the emperor or rebels against him. Paris is not part of the conspiracy to assassinate Domitian, which is seen as a grubby affair powered by personal envy as much as by real concern for the state. In the final words of the play, a tribune says that no one will mourn the cruel Domitian and “he in death hath paid / for all his cruelties.” But he also says “Yet he was our prince, however wicked.” And therefore his assassins must still be haled off to punishment and execution. This seems to support the notion of royal power – even absolute power – and means that the crimes of Domitian are seen as the crimes of one aberrant individual. This play is against tyranny – when a monarch claims greater power than is his due - but it cannot be conscripted as anti-royal propaganda.
The other main idea in The Roman Actor is the idea of playacting itself. In one publish-or-perish academic journal I’ve unearthed, a certain Denise Whalen calls the play “metadramatic” (i.e. filled with plays-within-the-play) and sees it very much as a commentary upon the element of playacting in life and “the power of theatre in society and the theatricality of political power”. There is at least some truth to this, especially as the play so often and so overtly refers to the matter of the theatre itself.
In the first act Aretinus, the emperor’s spy, accuses Paris and other actors of subverting the rightful social order thus: “You are they / That search into the secrets of the time, / And, under feign’d names, on the stage, present / Actions not to be touch’d at; and traduce / Persons of rank and quality of both sexes, / And, with satirical and bitter jests, / Make even the senators ridiculous / To the plebeians.” (Act One, Scene Three)
When brought before the senate, however, Paris eloquently defends the theatre by claiming that it teaches people virtue by livelier and more vivid examples than dry philosophers can muster: “… if desire of honour was the base / On which the building of the Roman empire / was rais’d up to this height; if to inflame / The noble youth with an ambitious heat / T’endure the frosts of danger, nay, of death, / To be thought worthy the triumphal wreath / By glorious undertakings may deserve / Reward or favour from the commonwealth, / actors may put in for as large a share / as all the sects of the philosophers; / They with cold precepts (perhaps seldom read) / Deliver what an honourable thing / The active virtue is. But does that fire / The blood, or swell the veins with emulation / To be both good and great, equal to that / Which is presented in the theatres?” (Act One, Scene Three)
Paris’ full “apology” for the theatre and playacting is much longer than what I have cited here. It is hard to see it as anything other than a clear riposte to the Puritans of Massinger’s own time, who condemned theatre as the breeding ground of ungodly vice and who duly shut it down when they had power in the Interregnum. Paris’ speeches were so popular that they took on a life of their own, and by the 18th century were often declaimed from stages by the likes of David Garrick whenever the propriety of the acting profession was called into question.
But is The Roman Actor really as unambiguous as this suggests about the worth of theatre? Despite Paris’ words, this play itself sometimes acts out the negative side of theatre. In one play-within-the-play, Paris is commissioned, by avaricious individuals, to perform a play that will persuade the miser Philargus to yield his wealth to them. The stratagem fails and the miser does not yield – but surely we have here been shown theatre being used for ignoble ends, even if miserliness is a vice.
Again, the play shows theatre encouraging people to confuse actors with the roles they play. Domitia is quite carried away by the romantic drama she has made Paris and his company perform before the court. Quite sensibly (for such a monster of vice) the emperor asks: “Why are you, / Transported thus, Domitia? ‘tis a play; / Or, grant it serious, it at no part merits / This passion in you.” (Act Three, Scene Two). Translation: Wise up! It’s only a ruddy play!
Later, when Domitia says that Paris must be a sensitive lover and thoughtful man because he plays such parts so persuasively on stage, Paris replies commonsensically: “The argument / Is the same… that I acting / A fool, a coward, a traitor, or cold cynic, / Or any other weak and vicious person, / Of force I must be such. O gracious madam, / How glorious soever, or deform’d, / I do appear in the scene, my part being ended, And all my borrowed ornaments put off, / I am no more, nor less, than what I was / Before I enter’d.” (Act Four, Scene Two)
I cannot help feeling that, in an age when film and TV stars are mistaken for their roles, and regarded as pundits on all manner of weighty subjects, these lines are particularly pungent.
And, of course, there is the meshing of play and “reality” in the cruel death of Paris. Massinger is not so much vindicating the theatre as weighing it up.
So after this bland exposition of my understanding of the play, do I agree with T.S.Eliot’s negative verdict? Sort of. The play is jam-packed with memories and imitations of earlier Elizabethan and Jacobean plays which Massinger was consciously imitating. In his own preface to the printed version, he admits that his view of Rome borrows heavily from Ben Jonson’s Sejanus. Then there’s all the second-hand Shakespeare. A “Mousetrap” play-within-a-play acted before the court? Hamlet, obviously. Domitian in Act Five, before he is assassinated, writhing with guilt at nightmares of the people he has had murdered? Shakespeare’s Richard III before Bosworth Field, surely. When conspirators tell Domitian that Domitia is unfaithful, he reacts at once with military images: “You have rais’d / A fiercer war within me by this fable, / …. Than if, and at one instant, all my legions / Revolted from me, and came arm’d against me…” (Act Three, Scene Two). This at once puts me in mind of Othello’s “Farewell content, / Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars” when Iago convinces him of Desdemona’s infidelity.
Indeed, for all its real interest, there is in The Roman Actor a sense of drama ossified, drama carefully planned and plotted by a master craftsman, but drama drawing less from the playwright’s observation of life than from his study of other playwrights. In their subject matter, some speeches are full of interest. But it is hard to recall any striking lines or images. The Roman Actor is certainly performable (it has recently been revived after years of neglect), but Eliot’s verdict still stands.