It’s difficult, in 2011, to rate a play like Philip Massinger’s A NEW WAY TO PAY OLD DEBTS. From an aesthetic standpoint, the play is quite remarkableIt’s difficult, in 2011, to rate a play like Philip Massinger’s A NEW WAY TO PAY OLD DEBTS. From an aesthetic standpoint, the play is quite remarkable. The language may lack poetry and art, but the plot is tightly constructed and believable with nary a tedious moment, and, more impressively, all of the major and minor characters have unique faces and voices, a feat which even Shakespeare rarely pulled off. Massinger depicts servants, rogues, and aristocrats with equal precision, presenting a lifelike portrait of Nottingham in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The play is invaluable also as a snapshot of customs, behaviors, and convictions in that time period.
And yet in that final virtue also lies the most troublesome aspect of the play: how can one enjoy this play and rate it highly when its moral and political message is so irksome and offensive? In the world of A NEW WAY TO PAY OLD DEBTS, people are to be respected for their inherited titles only, and all cleverness, morality, mistakes, and shortcomings are overlooked in a commitment to maintain a rigid, ancient social hierarchy.
The first scene introduces a scoundrel named “Wellborn,” who follows his respectable, wealthy, wise, and now deceased father only in name. Wellborn, who has never had to work in his life, has quickly drank and whored away his father’s fortune and foolishly allowed all his property to be taken by the villainous Sir Giles Overreach. Now, plastered and penniless at dawn, Wellborn is being tossed onto the curb by a tavern keeper and his wife, who take advantage of the deliciously ridiculous situation by pointing out their own rise up the social and financial ladder through hard work and ingenuity in contrast to the drastic fall that Wellborn’s laziness and ignorance have caused. Their bragging may be uncouth, but it’s deserved and, in a changing social world where people can’t expect to ride on the good or bad fortunes of their ancestors, it may be just the wake-up call that Wellborn needs. In the opening lines it’s hard for a reader in 2011 not to side with the bartender against the foolish Wellborn.
Massinger, however, has different intentions, for Wellborn is well-born and, as a result, we must always remember his natural genetic superiority over the industry and intelligence of the lowly drink pourer. Wellborn responds with a bout of intemperate violence, kicking his creditor and his wife off the stage in a scene we are supposed to find comical and proper. In subsequent scenes, Wellborn rises back to his former, undeserved glory by invoking the memory of his much better father. While pleading with the wealthy widow Lady Allworth, who has understandably sworn off contact with him due to his bad behavior, Wellborn insists that she must help him because in the distant past his father helped her husband in a similar situation. This “appeal to ancestry” seems farfetched, especially against a woman as strong willed and dignified as the Lady Allworth is initially portrayed. One would imagine her gleefully rejecting his attempt to regain his family’s stature in today’s world, yet in Massinger’s world she surprisingly consents to his petition, perhaps because she realizes that her complicit approval of his name and history serves to protect the same ridiculous hierarchy from which her own power and prestige derives. Denying the incorruptibility of his name now may unlock an unstable future in which her good name and all the servants who blindly attend to it may just as easily fall apart.
With Lady Allworth’s unexpectedly enthusiastic assistance, Wellborn is able to regain his reputation. His creditors, who are not aristocrats, come crawling back to him with praise and fawning, greatly thankful that he has finally repaid his long outstanding debts and in no way expectant of any interest or additional thanks. In Massinger’s feudalistic worldview, capitalism is the true villain, an unscrupulous and unpredictable system that can turn any man into a lord or a beast. Sir Giles Overreach, a man of no history but with a host of deceptive capitalist schemes up his sleeve, is the embodiment of this evil system. He acquires Wellborn’s property (his “real” estate, and thereby his main claim to citizenship and worth), and only by reclaiming this property can Wellborn truly recapture his true glory. Wellborn achieves this restoration through a completely amoral bit of tricky--a contract written in disappearing ink--but Massinger doesn’t expect us to be critical of this device. In Massinger’s view, capitalism itself is an amoral magic show, and since the property belonged to Wellborn’s family in past generations, then it never truly ceased to be his, despite his prodigality and foolishness. Wellborn is restored to his greatness, and all of his idiocy is washed from the registrars.
Meanwhile, the servant who executes the trick that saves the day, Marall, is literally kicked off the stage by the play’s “heroes and heroines.” Marall is damned for both doing and don’ting. As the servant to the play’s villain, Overreach, Marall is painted as equally treacherous, a conscienceless henchman who follows his master’s orders without regard to their evil intent. Through the course of the play, however, Marall secretly shifts his alliances away from his master and toward the play’s supposedly respectable figures, and this, ironically, frustratingly, is what undoes him. Marall is spat at, cursed, and kicked off the stage by Wellborn for being unfaithful to his master, an evil man. Wellborn offers no thanks to the lowly man who essentially saves his life. In Massinger’s conservative world, the restoration of values at the end of Act V wholly washes away the unsettled, topsy turvy world that preceded it. The play ends as though Wellborn has never swilled away his fortune, has never sank to the filth in the gutters, has never had to rely on the cunningness of lowborn waiters to restore his name. As the curtain closes, the characters with good names (“Wellborn,” “Allworth,” “Lovell”) are at the top and the characters with bad names (“Greedy,” “Overreach,” “Mar-all”) are at the bottom and any chaotic glimpses of alternate realities can successfully be forgotten. Wellborn has learned nothing from his descent and subsequent restoration. He has gained no empathy for beggars, no understanding of people who must rise from poverty by their own means, no appreciation for a society that requires mutual support for each other’s wellbeing. For Wellborn, his name is the beginning and the end of his values.
A NEW WAY TO PAY OLD DEBTS is a vivid, intriguing, and entertaining depiction of a seventeenth-century mindset. That mindset, however, is completely noxious to my twenty-first-century sensibilities. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that Massinger, like most of the playwrights of the English renaissance, was not a member of the nobility but the son of a steward to the Earl of Pembroke. That may explain his ease at depicting servants as lively individuals, however deferential they may be, and it also makes it difficult to dismiss his play as a propagandistic, selfish attempt to maintain the status quo. Massinger had nothing to gain from keeping the aristocrats in power except a genuine comfort in and need for the established order. Massinger’s play is both fascinating and disgusting, so between those two extremes I’ll rate it a “three.”...more
**spoiler alert** Was there a rule in Jacobean England stating that respectable people could only murder each other under the guise of acting within a**spoiler alert** Was there a rule in Jacobean England stating that respectable people could only murder each other under the guise of acting within a play(-within-a-play)? It happens here and there in most of the revenge tragedies, from Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy on, but in this particularly ultraviolent bloodfest, every single character latches onto the same modus operandi at the climax. I'm not sure how any viewer could take the fifth act seriously; I imagine it would've had to have been played for laughs even on its opening night. If so, it's particularly hilarious, especially as the Duke scans his playbill with bewilderment and wonders aloud why so many characters are dropping out of accordance with the plot. But why such a ridiculous fifth act when the preceding four don't suggest any parodistic intent?
In fact, the first four acts contain some of the strongest characterizations and writing of the era. Livia, a twice-widowed manipulator (it's never fully explained how she managed to lose two husbands, but I think that's a delicious bit of intrigue to ponder over), is a fascinating role for an older woman, roles which were scarce in that time period when female roles were performed by young boys. As a widow, she is truly powerful (only widows controlled their own destinies, whereas other women surrendered their lives to husbands, fathers, and other male guardians), but her mastery of speech, her pragmatic attitude, and her genuine wisdom supplement that power to make her the most dominating presence in the play. That she is merciless and evil seems secondary to how likeable she is, and even her most despicable act--deceiving her young niece into an incestuous affair with her brother/the niece's uncle--is kept from seeming completely disgusting by a number of complex, contradictory, and overlapping motivations: namely, the love for her brother (and a desire to see his happiness) which outweighs her responsibility over the niece she hardly knows, a deconstruction of what she considers the unnecessary restrictions of the incest taboo (perhaps colored by her own incestuous inclinations) in a world where any sexual relationship is doomed to misery anyway, and a desire to overthrow the silly moral superiority of a girl who'd happily commit adultery and fornication yet so easily labels abominable a man who mournfully confesses his unshakable incestuous yearnings.
The play's treatment of Hippolito, the lovestruck uncle haunted by his own "aberrant" sexual desires, is also notable. Painting him first as a shameful penitent and then as an overjoyed lover--just about the only lover in the play who truly loves his mate--the play never attempts to assign guilt to him for having the desires he has, except insofar as society as deemed him unacceptable. Even the actual seduction of his niece is removed from him so that he can remain untarnished by the deception. Middleton has structured the play so that we must judge him based solely on our opinion of a sexual desire that he presumably cannot control, as evident by his anguish in the beginning. Can we blame him for sleeping with his niece when she so happily agrees to it?
WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN is a wonderfully complicated tragedy about sexual frustration. Middleton's Florence is a world of unhappy compromises and miserable sacrifices, where wise women must wed jackasses, where material temptations take a constant toll on the happiness of poor young couples, where powerful men naturally exert sexual control over powerless women, and where even happy pairings are thwarted by everpresent societal judgments. The fifth act is completely absurd and challenges how graceful and subtle the first four are, yet WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN still remains one of the most powerful of the Jacobean revenge tragedies....more
**spoiler alert** THE DUCHESS OF MALFI is my favorite of the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage plays that wasn't written by Shakespeare. Most critics applaud**spoiler alert** THE DUCHESS OF MALFI is my favorite of the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage plays that wasn't written by Shakespeare. Most critics applaud the character of the Duchess, a willful widow who chooses for herself a marriage in which, for once, the woman is in control, yet while she is an interesting character, I find her twin brother Ferdinand to be much more fascinating. His incestuous jealousy of her, driven to utter madness by his imagination, is both horrifying and pitiful, reaching apotheosis during his speech over her dead body, when he tearfully upbraids his contracted killer for not having simultaneously acted upon his dual, conflicting impulses: to love and cherish his sister-idol forever and to kill her for not being faithful to his impossible love. A paradox which drives him to a nervous breakdown and also one of the most touching moments of Jacobean drama....more
This city comedy opens with a very promising scene of deception and cuckoldry but quickly sags into a conventional, predictable, and rhythm-less mess.This city comedy opens with a very promising scene of deception and cuckoldry but quickly sags into a conventional, predictable, and rhythm-less mess. By the time it begins to pick up speed, it's already over. Even the editorial introduction in the English Renaissance anthology I'm reading had very little of illumination or interest to say about this play other than a plot summary and a general kudos for its lighthearted depiction of contemporary social life. I'm not sure why they even included it....more
It's not surprising that there are no reviews for this play. What could a modern reader really have to say about it? This is a city comedy about changIt's not surprising that there are no reviews for this play. What could a modern reader really have to say about it? This is a city comedy about changing customs, idiosyncratic behaviors, unusual events, and laughable tropes happening in London in the first decade of the seventeenth century. It's like a Jacobean episode of "Family Guy." Just as the average episode of "Family Guy" is so packed with inside jokes, pop culture references, current events, and cultural absurdities that it won't make any sense in twenty-five years, so is this play, which requires heavy reliance on footnotes and an extensive editorial introduction in order to be accessible at all. Just as an example, most of the jokes in the final scenes of the play are in Latin.
Usually I see in reviews of Elizabethan plays on goodreads concessions such as, "At least the poetry was nice." Well, Epicene wasn't written in meter, so it doesn't even have that going for it. What is there that the modern layman can still enjoy? The Morose character, who abhors all noise except the sound of his own voice, is a clever enough creation, and one can imagine that a scene in which he forces his servant to communicate with him through a series of intricate head wags and leg motions (like a horse counting by tapping his hoof, perhaps?) was quite funny on stage. But those amusing moments become fewer as the play progresses.
If you're interested in a Ben Jonson play that can still be appreciated today, read The Alchemist, a comedy about London in 1610 that doesn't rely so heavily on evanescent fashions....more