Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A First Look at The Changeling

(Image: Title page of the 1653 quarto edition)

That long excursion into Macbeth, now concluded, was for me both necessary and rewarding, but threw precious little light on what is supposed to be the central issue of this blog: an investigation of Middleton’s supposed greatness. It’s past time to get to the heart of the matter.

And so we turn to The Changeling, which I’ve just given a first reading.

I picked this play partly for its reputation. As Annabel Patterson says in her introduction for the Oxford Collected Works, “Like Hamlet, the play without which Shakespeare is unimaginable, it has defined Middleton’s canon around itself.” It held the stage for decades after its 1622 premiere (Pepys saw it 40 years later), and has been a popular subject of revival since the late 20th century.

Then, too, there was this intriguing item in Jonathan Bate’s recent essay on Middleton in the Times Literary Supplement:

Two years ago, Declan Donnellan, director of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, had the inspired idea of staging a double bill of Twelfth Night and The Changeling. A steward in love with the lady of the house: play it as comedy and you have Shakespeare, as tragedy you have Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, says Malvolio: and he is when he returns as De Flores.

There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, although the steward De Flores casts a long and menacing shadow across the play. His lady, Beatrice-Joanna, certainly goes to darker places than Olivia could have: darker places than could ever be found in the Illyria of Twelfth Night. She is in love with one man, but forcibly betrothed to another. She despises her father’s steward, that creepy De Flores, but knows he’s in her thrall. With a little prompting, he would probably do anything for her. Even a murder?

That calculus leads Beatrice-Joanna down the perilous road that so many Shakespearean characters have followed: commit (or instigate) a single terrible crime, get what you want, and then you’ll be happy and everyone else will just keep playing by the rules as if nothing had happened, right?

Of course not. Crime leads to crime, death to death, with the remorseless logic of an avalanche.

It’s very, very good: dark, haunting, hard to shake out of your mind. I still have a lot of reading and thinking to do, but my first reaction is that it deserves to stand in the first rank of the non-Shakespearean tragedies of the period, to be mentioned in a breath with Tamburlaine or The White Devil.

And how does it measure up to the Shakespearean tragedies? Well, let’s save that discussion for another day. But Shakes would have had no need to be ashamed of this play, had it come from his pen.

There’s a comic subplot, too, thought to be entirely co-author William Rowley’s work—not especially well-connected to the main plot, and tending to draw scorn from modern critics for its handling of mental illness. It’s not without merit, but my first impulse is to look on it as something of a distraction. We’ll see if that changes on a closer reading.

As Samuel Pepys wrote after the 1661 production he attended at the Whitefriars, “It takes exceedingly.” And so it does. I’m looking forward to digging into this one act by act in future entries.

An annotated text of The Changeling is available at Chris Cleary’s Middleton web site. In the Oxford Collected Works, the text is edited by Douglas Bruster, and introduced by Annabel Patterson.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Revenger's Tragedy Roundup

The United Kingdom currently boasts not one, but two, productions of The Revenger's Tragedy: one in London at the National Theatre, the other in Manchester at the Royal Exchange. They're both done in modern dress, seem given to a certain degree of conceptual indulgence, and have attracted mixed reviews. I wish I had the opportunity to sample them myself, but the inconvenient location of the Atlantic Ocean makes this unlikely.

If you're interested in the press these productions have attracted, The Shakespeare Post has linked and excerpted reviews from various UK papers in two posts:

Theatre Review: Revenger's Tragedies in London and Manchester Both Alike in Blood and Excess

Theatre Review: Revenger's Tragedy Directors Need to Trust the Play's Riches

If you don't know The Shakespeare Post yet, I hope that you will drop in. It will almost certainly become one of your regular blog-stops on the Internet. The author, John D. Lawrence, astonishes with the quality and quantity of his output. And I'm not just praising him because he linked to me once, although it didn't hurt.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Some bloggers are odd feeders!

(Image: Hadrian's Wall east of Greenhead Lough, as photographed by Wikipedia user Velela.)

Imagine my happiness to hear from Lea, a Ph.D. student and blogger who is also trekking through Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, and posting her observations in her LiveJournal, "...yet I'll hammer it out." She says that the end of a semester leaves her little time for Middleton blogging, but I hope that will change, and I'll be able to crib from her insights as we both work through the book.

I'd like to mention one of her entries in particular, a discussion of Middleton and Dekker's pamphlet News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody. Most interesting reading, and I'm sure I'll start here when I want to tackle some of Middleton's non-dramatic writing. The phamplet is mostly about the plague and rich people fleeing London while the poor are left to die, but also features reflections on the new King, James I, and the unification in him of the Scottish and English crowns. Lea's analysis demands quotation:

[T]he de facto union of England and Scotland is figured as a royal wedding in which the maiden isle" surrenders "her maidenhead" to the Scottish king, the newfound permeability of the border a kind of sexual penetration (which, of course, leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Hadrian's Wall is England's hymen I am not sure how to feel about that).

I remember hiking along Hadrian's Wall, and that wasn't the first thing that came to mind. But literature is about opening our minds to new possibilities, no?

Two Engaging Essays

Thomas Middleton continues to attract attention in the press. Since my last post pointing out some of the coverage of the new Oxford edition, two noted scholars have published short essays full of interesting facts and good argument:

Gary Taylor, general editor of the aforesaid Oxford Middleton, continues to trek around England in his apostolic vein, preaching the good news and waving the good book at his audiences. It was he who coined the epithet "our other Shakespeare," so you can guess that his recent piece in the Guardian, "A Mad World," will be laudatory. He focuses this time on Middleton's play The Revenger's Tragedy, which is today being produced by two (!) theatres in London. Revenger is next on my reading list after the Changeling, so I was happy to have the preview of things to come:

Revenger...audaciously rewrites Hamlet. Against the ambiguous personal madness of Hamlet Middleton set a psychotic world in which "we're all mad people, and they that we think are, are not". Hamlet, a romantic prince, confronts a single evil antagonist, the usurper Claudius. Vindice, an ordinary man, confronts a legitimate royal family, an entire court, an entire political system, violently corrupt. Hamlet disowns his own actions, asserting that he retains a secure, moral, internal identity: his crimes were performed not by Hamlet himself, but by his madness, and "Hamlet is of the party that is wronged" and "This is I, Hamlet the Dane", and "I have that within that passes show". Vindice, instead, dissolves in the vertigo of his own disguises ("Joy's a subtle elf: I think man's happiest when he forgets himself"). At the end of Shakespeare's play, "flights of angels sing" Hamlet "to his rest". Middleton lets no one imagine such an elegiac ending for Vindice, one of those "innocent villains" who discovers and demonstrates that the logic of revenge leads to terrorism and mass murder.
He goes on to say that "Middleton's achievement in The Revenger's Tragedy does not cancel Shakespeare's achievement in Hamlet," which is nice of him. Revenger is, also, one of the very few Middleton plays widely available on video, in a recent adaptation starring Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi. There's more good stuff in that article, including more on this "Shakespeare is Michaelangelo, Middleton is Carvaggio," metaphor that Taylor keeps coming back to. I know rather less about Italian painting than I do about English drama, so I'll leave that one to better minds.

Our second essay is from Jonathan Bate (CBE FRSA FRSL, as his Wikipedia page points out--Oh, to be a Briton! Such titles! Such letters!), most recently a general editor of the RSC Complete Shakespeare. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement, entitled "The Mad Worlds of Thomas Middleton," he offers an assessment both of Middleton and his new Collected Works that is generally positive, but far less revolutionary: here is a dramatist of great ability, long overdue for a reappraisal, but, ultimately, only one among several of the lesser lights of the period. There's a lot of apples on the tree, kid, but there's only one Big Apple.

I guess I've got to read the rest of those plays before weighing in on that one, but Bate's more measured praise certainly refreshes the palate after Taylors somewhat over-ripe evangelism. Bate is also quite right to stick a pin in some of the more inflated prose in the Collected Works. He rightly calls out this passage for ridicule as embodying "the critical indulgence of the late twentieth century:"

The metaphor of castration foregrounds not the literal status of censorship but its (dis)figurative status; that is, castration figures an originary (and paradoxically productive) lack rather than the loss of an originary plenitude . . . . what looks like defetishism (multiple, small differences constituting a clitoral criticism opposed to the single, big difference of a phallic criticism) from another perspective looks like fetishism masquerading as its opposite.
That from Richard Burt's essay on censorship in the Companion volume. Clitoral criticism? As Bate observes, "this kind of thing is so old-fashioned...that it makes the work seem dated even as it comes fresh from the press."

Bate defends the scholarship of the Oxford edition, however, on more important matters, such as the extent of the Middletonian canon. He endorses in particular the inclusion of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Lady's Tragedy (commonly called The Second Maiden's Tragedy), saying their attributions "come as close to settled facts as we are likely to get in this contentious field." He also pronounces Taylor's account of the many tangled texts of A Game at Chess "a scholarly tour de force."

Good essays, both, and well worth a read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Poolside Reading

The dogs, the wife, and I are unwinding with a week in St. Augustine, Florida, and the Oxford Middleton, alas, stays at home. Instead, I tucked a few choice entries from my list of "Renaissance Plays I'm Embarrassed I Haven't Read Yet" into my bag, and I'm enjoying working through them as I float around in the pool: The Alchemist, Sejanus His Fall, The White Devil (in my defense, I did see The White Devil, at the RSC's Swan in 1996). I brought The Atheist's Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi, too, but it's not looking like I'll make it that far. Ah, well. On Google Docs, I have a list of something like 80 plays from the period, non-Shakespeare, non-Middleton, that I hope to read someday. I look at that list and think, "How have I made time for Mucedorus, but not Bartholomew Fair?"

That is one mis-spent youth.

Don't know if I'll have much to say about any of them; I'm enjoying playing the sponge this week. But I do have a handful of other items that have been piling up: links and blogs and articles, and I'll see if I can pry myself away from my gin and tonic long enough to put them in a presentable form. Also--accompanying me to Florida: Middleton's The Changeling on DVD, as filmed for the BBC in the very year of my birth, and starring the incomparable Helen Mirren!

I'll be back tomorrow. Right now, my ice is melting.

Friday, June 6, 2008

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom…”

(Image: Macbeth, Banquo and the Weird Sisters, from Holinshed's Chonicles.)

Reading through Gary Taylor’s remarkable text of Macbeth and his supporting notes, I keep veering between admiration and exasperation, sometimes quickly enough to induce dizziness. He supports one item with such an overwhelming surge of evidence and such well-reasoned argument that only a fool would stand against him, like Canute ordering back the tide. Then his next point appears to be based on little more than a hunch, and bolstered by such scanty documentation that you’re afraid to breathe on it, lest it evaporate.

Let me talk about one last example. It doesn’t make a big difference to our understanding of the play, but it illustrates how far Taylor is willing to go when the mood takes him. In Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo make their first appearances on the stage, and meet the Witches or Weird Sisters. Taylor has concluded that the two Thanes (see footnote) made their big entrance “on horseback” in Shakespeare’s original play, and has changed the stage directions accordingly.

How could he come to such a conclusion? It seems a fellow by the name of Simon Forman saw Macbeth at the Globe sometime around 1611, and left a written account of his impressions. He described Macbeth and Banquo as “riding through a wood” when they encounter “three women fairies or nymphs.” So, voila: horses on stage.

To call this evidence “thin” is too generous. In the first place, they are clearly not in “a wood,” but “upon the heath,” or even a “blasted” heath, to use Macbeth’s own adjective. So Forman’s phrasing is immediately cast into doubt. If, in spite of this, you want to put such credence in a literal reading of the word “riding," what should we make of the later passage, where he writes that Macbeth “contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on the way as he rode.” (Emphasis mine) More horses? Of course not: in this case, Shakespeare has taken the trouble of explaining in the dialogue why characters are not on horseback when they logically ought to be:

First Murderer:
His horses go about!

Third Murderer:
Almost a mile, but he does usually.
So all men do, from hence to the palace gate
Make it their walk.

Shakespeare usually doesn’t bother with this (perhaps all the talk of “riding” earlier on made him conscientious). It’s just an unspoken convention of the stage that there are no horses, even when the characters would have been on horseback in the “real world.” Why would this be the one scene, in all of Shakespeare’s 38 or so plays, that explicitly calls for them? Messengers, generals, Kings: all walk when they really ought to be riding. There’s even an (abortive) joust in Richard II—all without benefit of horses.

In any case, look at the rest of the scene: after the Witches/Sisters vanish, Ross and Angus enter with messages from the King. Are they on horseback too? Wouldn’t it look odd if they weren’t? If they aren’t, how do they all exit at the end of the scene: some walking, some riding? Or maybe they double up with Macbeth and Banquo? And why aren’t they still riding when they get back to Duncan in the next scene?

It just doesn’t make sense. Far, far simpler to conclude that in this scene, as in every other scene of every other play by Shakespeare, there are no horses.

Two Notes:

Banquo was a Thane too—The Thane of Lochaber. Lots of people—even people who have played Banquo—are a little confused about just what his job is, but his title is in Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Simon Forman’s “Bocke of Plaies” is a remarkable document, containing reflections on Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, and a play about Richard II that was not Shakespeare’s. It’s short and well worth reading, especially to see what he did and did not find memorable about the three Shakespeare plays. For instance, he completely neglects to mention the “statue scene” at the end of The Winter’s Tale. And there’s a passage I find completely hilarious, where he’s trying to explain the impossibly tangled plot of Cymbeline, and just gives up, ending a very long sentence with a hopeless “&c” (et cetera). Additional information at that most wonderful of Shakespeare blogs, Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"And question this most bloody piece of work, to know it further..."

(Image: From DramaTech Theatre's 2007 production of Macbeth: Gene Hullender as Macbeth, Lee Smith as a Weird Sister. Photo by Jon Drews.)

We’ve talked about the treatment of the Weird Sisters in Middleton’s adaptation of Macbeth, and, for what it’s worth, I’ve given you my opinion on those changes: negative, although granting they make a potent spectacle in the theatre. The one thing I’d add, because I don’t think I touched on this, is how much better the Hecate material reads in the “reconstructed” form in Gary Taylor’s text, compared to the drab “Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ &c.” in the First Folio and most modern texts of Macbeth. I still can’t stand the Hecate stuff, but at least I have a much better appreciation of how it would have looked and sounded and impressed an audience in the Blackfriars in 1616. I wish all editors would do something similar.

Of all the other items Taylor argues for making up Middleton’s revisions, only two strike me as having much impact artistically: the condensation of the opening battles in Act 1, Scene 2, and the cuts to the “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, in which, supposedly, Edward the Confessor originally appeared in person. Both of these changes are primarily cuts, rather than additions, and are harder to judge without the benefit of the original text. Perhaps, thinking about these things at all is the kind of exercise in imagination that says more about the writer than the subject. It seems that’s always a huge risk in Shakespeare…but, fool that I am, I rush in:

The Opening Battles

Shakespeare loved a swirling melee on the stage, but the audience of 1616 found this sort of thing “old-fashioned and ridiculous” as Taylor puts it. He mentions Ben Jonson’s sneer (in the prologue to the revised edition of Every Man in His Humor) at the absurdity of staging a battle with “three rusty swords and help of some few foot- and half-foot words.” So Middleton moved the battles against Norway, Macdonwald, and Cawdor off-stage, and glued together some bits of the dialogue to narrate the story.

Convincing? Middleton’s fingerprints abound in this scene: vocabulary, phrasing, imagery. Taylor’s analysis of it all is enthralling, and perfectly convincing. Particularly telling is his discussion of the stage direction “Enter…meeting a bleeding captain.” The “enter…meeting” formulation is a Middleton hallmark; Shakespeare used “enter…severally,” or “enter X at one door, Y at another.” It seems certain Middleton condensed and re-wrote this scene, and what else could he have been cutting, but one of those old-fashioned Shakespeare battles?

But is it good? Times change, and tastes change, and a big battle is the highlight of many a modern Shakespeare production. Even in this age of summer blockbusters, we’re perfectly thrilled to see those three rusty swords on the stage. And I think it’s telling that both of the productions of Macbeth I’ve worked with have seen fit to restore some kind of on-stage battle in Act I. I can’t say the scene we have is bad—it’s often quite effective—but I sure wish we had the original.

Edward the Confessor

The “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, is almost always the low point of a Macbeth production: overlong and endlessly talky. Macduff’s reaction to the death of his family is heartbreaking, but comes after so much ineffective dialogue that the audience has generally nodded off by this point. And yet the scene can’t be eliminated: it is here that the revolution begins, the long march to Dunsinane and final victory. In my script, I cut this scene savagely, wondering all the time how Shakespeare had left such a dud at this critical moment in the story.

Taylor argues for a very different interlude in England, in which Edward the Confessor is not merely a vague presence off-stage, but comes on to perform healing miracles in person and anoint Malcolm as Scotland’s rightful King. In a play that started dark and has grown ever bleaker, this is the first ray of light: a sign that Good is a force in the world, and will not allow Evil to rule forever.

Why would Middleton cut this material? Partly, to give the supernatural spotlight completely to his greatly expanded witches, and partly to downplay the significance of the Catholic saint, King Edward.

Convincing? I just don’t know. Taylor’s vision for this scene does feel right…but a feeling isn’t evidence, and the evidence here is quite slim. None of those obvious Middltonian tics in the language or the stage directions, no ragged edges in the verse or sudden shifts in style. That English Doctor is odd, with his speech about Edward curing skin diseases, but far more understandable if you think of the play being performed in front of King James I—he is praising the virtue and goodness of all English monarchs, not just Edward the Confessor. The most important item Taylor produces is an account of Macbeth on the stage written around 1611—before Middleton’s revision—which mentions the play is set in the time of “Edward the Confessor” (the existing text of Macbeth mentions “Edward,” but doesn’t give him the “Confessor” tag). It’s a slender enough reed to prop up such a weighty theory. While it stirs the blood to imagine the possibility, I think the only safe course is a healthy skepticism.

But is it good? If Middleton made this change, I would find it hard to praise him for it. What a wonderful scene the original might have been!

Other Changes

Most of the remaining changes Taylor ascribes to Middleton don’t seem to make much difference to a modern audience. Most significantly, he argues that Middleton added lines to the scene between Lady Macduff and her son (everything between the two places Lady Macduff says, “How wilt thou do for a father?”), punching up the dialogue with topical references to the Overbury treason trials of 1615. It seems convincing, but we’re left with much the same scene in the end.

Of course, what we can’t see—even with Gary Taylor’s literary X-Ray Glasses—are the potentially many, many deletions from the 1606 text. Based on the length of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, as much as one quarter of the original Macbeth may have been left on the Jacobean version of the cutting-room floor. From my experience editing Macbeth for performance, I can attest that it is possible to razor out a great deal of a Shakespeare play without leaving obvious gaps. Perhaps Macbeth was always a conspicuously short text, but it seems to me that we must credit Middleton for at least some of the “tightness” and “intensity” of the play we have today.

On the whole, though, and basing my judgment on the items we can most confidently ascribe to Middleton, I have to take a dim view of the revision. I mentioned that Inga Stina-Ewbank declined to argue (in her introduction to the text) that Middleton’s changes constituted an artistic improvement, and I will make so bold as to say that she did not because they do not.

The revised Macbeth was certainly a popular success, and I don’t deny that Middleton had to pay his bills like everyone else, but I will have to keep reading to find the proof that this is “our other Shakespeare.”

Happily, that is just what I mean to do. I’m not sorry I read this remarkable treatment of Macbeth first, but I’m hungry for the real article: some genuine Thomas Middleton drama. I’m starting with The Changeling, next week, and trembling with anticipation.