"The Distinctive Voice of Massinger"

Critic: Anne Barton
Source: The Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1977, pp. 623-34.

[(essay date 1977) In the following essay, Barton reviews Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson's 1959 edition of Massinger works and, unlike most critics from Eliot on, sees the mark of a distinctive artistic personality in Massinger's plays.]

Philip Massinger died in 1640, fifteen years after his friend and collaborator John Fletcher. According to Aston Cokayne, who celebrated the curiosity in a poem, Massinger was buried in Fletcher's grave at St Saviour's, Southwark. This interment proved oddly symbolic. At least thirteen plays in which Massinger was a secret but important sharer were to be printed in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647, without acknowledgment of his authorship. Moreover, as Fletcher's reputation gradually declined from its seventeenth-century height, it took Massinger's with it. Except for A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam, comedies which stand apart from the rest of the canon, Massinger's very considerable body of dramatic work has all too readily been dismissed in the twentieth century as that of a ponderous and untalented imitator: a man who exploited Fletcher's dubious, tragicomic mode without being able to extract from it even those limited and suspect theatrical virtues of which "decadence" was capable in the hands of its chief creator.

T. S. Eliot, in 1920, at least liberated Massinger from Fletcher, but only in order to establish him as the villain of the seventeenth-century dissociation of sensibility--an artist hurrying us, fatally, down the primrose path to Milton. According to Eliot, Massinger's "personality hardly exists". "Massinger's tragedy may be summarized for the unprepared reader as being very dreary", while "what distinguishes Massinger from Marlowe and Jonson is in the main an inferiority". Eliot's verdict, even more severe than that of Leslie Stephen in the 1870s, is generalized and highly questionable, but it effectively annihilated Massinger for two generations of readers. Twenty years later, the anonymous author of The Times Literary Supplement article which marked the third centenary of Massinger's death, could think of nothing to say about his subject except that no one any longer read him, not even in the universities, but that his plots were surprisingly expert and he might have been a success in Hollywood. The only recent critical book devoted to Massinger (T. A. Dunn, 1957) not only accepts Eliot's point of view, but contrives to apologize for concerning itself with Massinger at all, except as a somehow representative figure.

According to the calculations of Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson, Massinger was associated with the writing of no fewer than fifty-five plays, of which thirty-three survive. Fifteen were all his own work, and he published ten of them, in quarto editions, in his lifetime. There are indications that, towards the end of his life, he contemplated a modest, personal collection of his work--at least, he had eight of the quarto plays bound together in a single volume, perhaps for presentation to a patron--but he seems never to have aspired to the dignity of Folio publication. Even in his own time, Massinger does not appear to have been a very popular dramatist. In his fine essay, "Massinger the Censor" (1962), Philip Edwards points to the defensiveness of the commendatory verses attached to The Renegado and The Emperor of the East, and to the dramatist's own, somewhat embarrassing humility in the Prologue to The Guardian. Even sadder, perhaps, are the lines which Thomas Jay addressed to "his worthy friend Mr Philip Massinger, upon his Tragaecomaedie stiled, the Picture":

          you can endure
To heere their praise, whose worth long since was knowne
And justly to, prefer'd before your owne.
I know you would take it for an injury,
(And 'tis a well becomming modesty)
To be paraleld with Beaumont, or to heare
Your name by some to partiall friend writ neere
Unequal'd Jonson; being men whose fire
At distance, and with reuerance you admire.
Do so and you shall find your gaine will bee
Much more by yeelding them prioritie
Than with a certainety of losse to hould
A foolish competition.

No doubt true, at least with respect to Jonson, but it is none the less hard to believe that Massinger did not wince as he obediently prefixed this poetic offering to the quarto of that good and thoughtful play, The Picture. Commendatory verses in the early seventeenth century are usually made of more enthusiastic stuff.

Not until 1759 did anyone think it worthwhile to bring out a collected edition of Massinger's unaided plays. In 1805, Coxeter's edition was superseded by Gifford's and for a time, Massinger's reputation seemed to be in the ascendant. The Romantics, without being uncritical, none the less took him seriously. Coleridge, whose high opinion of Massinger's verse is especially interesting ("the nearest approach to the language of real life at all compatible with a fixed metre"), returned to the subject on a number of occasions. In the theatre, Sir Giles Overreach was one of Kean's greatest parts and, during one performance, reduced Byron to nervous hysterics.

Then, a critical reaction set in, followed by that theatrical and academic neglect of Massinger's work which has persisted, on the whole, up to the present. During the first half of the twentieth century, while Jonson, Marlowe, Webster, Dekker, Fletcher, Peele, Lyly, Shirley and other dramatists were all reaping the benefits of modern editorial attention, Massinger continued to face his dwindling public in Gifford's early nineteenth-century text, or in selected editions deriving from it. The new Clarendon Press Massinger has been sorely needed for a long time.

Now that it is at last complete, it is a pleasure to report that the edition prepared by Professor Edwards and Professor Gibson is a model of what such things should be: a splendid, scholarly achievement that is intelligent, thorough and humane. It does Massinger himself a great service, and it is also of incalculable value to students of Jacobean and Caroline drama generally. The editors have built upon (and generously acknowledged) the unpublished Oxford doctoral dissertation (1931) and other papers of the late A. K. McIlwraith, to whom the task of editing Massinger was originally assigned. In their treatment of the text and its apparatus, they have followed the principles and practice of Fredson Bowers, as established in his edition of the dramatic works of Dekker. Their edition as a whole, however, is in the great Oxford tradition of the Herford and Simpson Ben Jonson, a tradition which it honourably extends.

The editors offer an excellent general introduction concerned with Massinger's life and theatrical career, and with some of the fluctuations of his literary reputation. Each play is prefaced by a full account of its sources, date, stage history and text. There are a number of significant new discoveries recorded here. The final volume contains not only a glossary and a list of Massinger's spellings but a detailed, extremely well judged, and indexed commentary. Readers will find the latter provocative as well as informative. Although it may initially seem startling, ultimately it is very reassuring to find one's attention being directed (in the commentary to The Fatal Dowry) to a News of the World headline of 1971. Massinger's tragic tangles are not so artificial after all. They still occur. And the editor, in noting the parallel, demonstrates that he has been living with his author as a whole, and not merely as a textual problem.

Although Professor Edwards has, elsewhere, published two important interpretative essays, no attempt has been made by the editors to provide formal, critical introductions to the fifteen unaided plays and the two collaborations (The Fatal Dowry and A Very Woman) which they include. They content themselves with the establishment and elucidation of Massinger's text, and with the provision of the factual material needed for an intelligent approach to the plays. The edition seems certain, however, to spark off a much-needed critical re-evaluation of Massinger's work as a whole. It provides an incentive to read through his dramatic work in chronological order--including the sixteen plays written in collaboration with Fletcher and others, which lie outside the scope of this collection--and to discover in the process not only that Massinger does indeed possess a striking and well-defined artistic personality but that his work is far more interesting and complex than has generally been supposed.

Cyrus Hoy's linguistic tests have convincingly separated Massinger's hand from Fletcher's in many of the collaborative plays. Even without reference to Hoy's criteria, however, it is usually possible to sense when one is listening to Massinger's voice. Sometimes, as in The Little French Lawyer, his attitude towards the plot and characters is so much at odds with that of his collaborator as to create a self-contradictory play. Despite a later, overall revision by Massinger, it remains obvious that the two dramatists were constitutionally incapable of treating Champernel, "a veteran naval warrior", in compatible ways. This disagreement matters. For Fletcher, Champernel is nothing more than a rich old man whose marriage to a young woman means that he has to endure the scoffs and pranks of the gallant who has courted her unsuccessfully. In its last acts, the play bounds along merrily to a conclusion in which the gallant, Dinant, after some earlier attempts on the wife's chastity have failed, triumphantly outwits the newly married pair. Loftily, he spares her honour, but humiliates her and puts her firmly in her place.

This is an archetypal comedy plot, deprecating December/May marriages and involving the victory of the young man over the senex. It becomes disturbing only because Massinger, who wrote all of Act I, could not help introducing Champernel as a tragic figure. The scene in which the old sea-dog, returning from his wedding, is coarsely baited in the street by Dinant and a friend does not make amusing reading. Champernel, shamed before the bride he loves and respects, is utterly powerless to retaliate because he has lost a leg and had one arm disabled in a sea-fight. The young men finally reduce him to tears of impotent rage which have more to do with the frustration of Lear, trying to retain his manhood when confronting Goneril and Regan, than with the emotions of a comic senex. The episode generates interest in Champernel, and makes Dinant positively repulsive, in ways that can neither be forgotten nor accommodated within the preordained course of the comedy. It is a little as though Meredith's The Amazing Marriage had run full tilt against the attitudes of Wycherley's The Country Wife.

Act I of The Little French Lawyer is quintessential Massinger. It makes one wonder how often Fletcher, who seems to have preferred to relinquish the prickly business of beginnings to his collaborator, actually rejoiced over the opening scenes he was given. Massinger's characteristic--although by no means uncritical--affection for soldiers is plainly in evidence here, and so is his interest in the emotionally unendurable situation. Champernel's helplessness, the mounting sense of claustrophobia as he is obliged to stand and take an excruciatingly painful verbal assault which he can neither arrest nor counter, and from which he cannot run away, is echoed everywhere in Massinger's work: in the magnificent but appalling last scene of Believe As You List, in the trapped anguish of Domitian in The Roman Actor and Sforza in The Duke of Milan when they are taunted by the woman they love and hate, in Overreach at the end of A New Way To Pay Old Debts, or in Malefort of The Unnatural Combat when he is, confronted (after her rape by his "friend") with the dying wreck of the daughter he himself has incestuously desired. Equally characteristic is the protracted debate on revenge and the justification of private affairs of honour with which The Little French Lawyer commences. None of these things, as it happens, really interested Fletcher and, despite a few rather inhibited gestures by Massinger in later scenes, they are issues left puzzlingly undeveloped in the remainder of the play. One sees why collaborations such as The Custom of the Country, in which Fletcher and Massinger worked for the most part on separate aspects of a multiple plot, are on the whole more satisfactory.

Although Massinger's dependence upon surprise seems to have been as great as Fletcher's, it was significantly different in purpose and effect. Massinger is far less concerned with fifth-act discoveries of identity than he is with the concealment of motivation or true character. In play after play, the theatre audience is made to flounder and misunderstand its way through a subtle and intelligent plot which often seems to be invested with the kind of complexity and ambiguity which other dramatists bestowed upon their verse. We are not much more privileged than the characters themselves. Massinger may even construct traps out of our theatrical pre-conditioning, as he does with Bellisant's confident assertion of her invulnerability and self-control in The Parliament of Love. One anticipates that she will meet the fate of Shakespeare's Angelo, Middleton's Duchess in More Dissemblers Besides Women, or Chapman's Eudora in The Widow's Tears, because in comedy this kind of pride almost always foreruns a devastating assault by the life force. Instead, Bellisant effortlessly proves as good as her word.

In general, when Massinger withholds a character's real name or motive, he does so for reasons that would have been less congenial to Fletcher than to the author of The Faerie Queene. In Book I, Spenser hurls both the reader and Red-Crosse into an encounter with a nameless giant: a "monstrous masse of earthly slyme". Only after we have been made to experience, and have tried to assess, Orgoglio's nature in action is the name which defines him finally released. The technique, one to which Spenser frequently resorts, is part of the way his poem educates its readers in the complexities and difficulties of moral judgment. Massinger shares much of Spenser's seriousness, his view of life as a constant test of the self, involving a series of problematic discriminations and an unflagging alertness. Like Spenser, he is a moralist who refuses either to simplify existence or to offer his public--as the authors of morality drama did--an omniscience possible in fiction but not in life. Characters such as Luke Frugal in The City Madam, Francisco in The Duke of Milan, Montrevile in The Unnatural Combat, or Marullo in The Bondman all convict us, as well as their associates in the play, of lack of vigilance and perception, when they come to show their true faces.

Massinger's insistence upon the need to evaluate and plumb human actions, together with his sense of the difficulty of arriving at just judgment, or even of a comprehension of all the facts, has a profound effect upon his drama. Structurally, it impels him in play after play toward formal trial scenes and debates. Verbally, it produces innumerable comparisons between life and the theatre; images of the world as a stage which stand out not only because of their frequency, but for their alien quality in dialogue which otherwise seems singularly lifelike and non-metaphoric. It is as though Massinger were determined to stress the correspondence between the spectators and characters, warning us that in a world where everyone, at least in some degree, is putting on a public performance, it is wise not to trust in appearances, but to try to understand. The Roman Actor is indeed a brilliant tragedy (RSC and National Theatre, please note) but perhaps it pleased Massinger as much as it did--"the most perfit, birth of my Mineura"--because it is the play in which the related ideas of life as arraignment and as theatre are most elaborately and perfectly conjoined.

Coleridge described Massinger as "a Democrat", and liked to see him as an early Whig incongruously associated with Fletcher, the Tory ultra-Royalist. Since S. R. Gardiner devoted his attention, over a hundred years ago, to Massinger's politics, a good deal of notice has been taken of him as a critic of kings. It seems certain that Massinger did aim a few covert shafts at Charles I, and at royal policies of which he disapproved. "Democrat", however, is obviously a misnomer. Ben Jonson might (in The New Inn) permit a chambermaid to marry a lord: Marullo in The Bondman turns out, like Spenser's Pastourella or his Salvage Man, to be of gentle birth. There is something inveterately patrician about Massinger, a bias which emerges not only in the social conservatism of his two city comedies, but in his essentially aristocratic ideal of rationalism and self-control. Yet his ingrained obsession with liberty--in particular, the freedom of the mind--greatly complicates this attitude.

Timoleon, to a large extent Massinger's spokesman in The Bondman, proclaims all men who "would usurp on others liberties, / Rebels to nature, to whose bounteous blessings / All men lay clayme as true legitimate sonnes". Slavery can be justified only as society's way of punishing confirmed vice. The Bondman itself is scarcely a Marxist manifesto. The leader of the slaves' revolt is a disguised gentleman manipulating the lower classes for his own, essentially non-political, ends. He does not even respect his followers, and with reason. Massinger insists that the slaves themselves are corrupt and greedy--just the sort of people who, according to Timoleon's detinition, ought to be made to serve the virtuous because such service is a proper penance for being so awful. (The possibility that what one is may be a depressing consequence of one's social condition was something that Massinger, along with virtually every other dramatist in the period except Shakespeare, was not prepared to entertain.) The Syracusan aristocracy, on the other hand, is not virtuous either.

To a large extent it deserves what it gets when the social order suddenly turns upside down. Marullo drives this point home in his impassioned explanation to the aristocrats of how "your tyranny / Drew us from our obedience". The whole speech pleads for a return to an older way of life, one in which Massinger himself obviously believed. It presents a nostalgic view of the good society, based upon a number of idealized Penshursts dotted over a landscape. In such great houses, Marullo claims, "Lords were styl'd fathers of Families, / And not imperious Masters". They used even their domestic animals kindly, but they regarded their human servants as "almost equall with their Sonnes".

The lady Cleora is the best of the aristocrats in The Bondman. She is honourable and, by comparison with such harpies as Olimpia and Corisca, considerate of her maidservant. She begins the play, none the less, by arrogantly confusing men with beasts in just the way that Marullo and Timoleon deplore. What she describes as the "meaner qualitie" are apparently fit only to contend

Who can indure most labour; plough the earth,
And think they are rewarded, when their sweat
Brings home a fruitfull Haruest to their Lords;
Let them proue good Artificers, and serue you
For use and ornament, but not presume
To touch at what is Noble.

Exactly this kind of haughtiness leads her, when her lover Leosthenes reads her a condescending lecture on chastity before he swans off to the wars, not only to resent his mistrust--which she is entirely right to do--but to bind herself by an absurd vow not to speak and to blindfold her eyes until his return. What she anticipates as "the glorious splendor of my sufferings" is calculated to exalt her and humiliate Leosthenes, "the people ioyning with you in the wonder". Events, however, take a different course. Again, Massinger is cautious. Cleora does not believe that Marullo, with whom she falls in love, is really a slave. Her father, brother and lover, on the other hand, do. Cleora has a bad time of it before she can be allowed to exchange the tiresome Leosthenes for a man with whom it may be possible for her to be happy.

The Bondman's conjunction of the issue of political freedom with that of freedom within a love relationship is typical of Massinger. In both The Maid of Honour and The Bashful Lover, a woman roundly informs a reigning prince that her mind and affections are out of his province, and inviolably her own. Cleora is only one of a number of women in the plays who are tormented by the jealousy and possessiveness of a lover or husband determined to deprive them of their independence of being.

Sforza, in The Duke of Milan, would prefer the wife on whom he dotes to be dead rather than to survive him. Mathias, in The Picture, employs sorcery in order to spy on Sophia, who has given him not the slightest cause for suspicion, during his absence. Theodosius, in The Emperor of the East, moves from an extreme of uxoriousness to one of hate simply because his empress gives away a handsome apple he sent her, without consulting him first. All of these men sin against Massinger's ideal of marriage as a frank and reciprocal relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Their great love, looked at rightly, is only a form of self-worship.

Although no one would ascribe a Shakespearean depth of characterization to Massinger, his men and women are none the less living and real. Significantly, he seems to have preferred as central characters people past their first youth. Many are already married: almost all have a personal past, often secret, which is of consequence to the action. Massinger's insistence that man should be guided by reason, not by his passions, a dictum hammered home in play after play, is orthodox enough. He never loses sight, however, of the fact that what is set down so in Heaven tends to be excruciatingly difficult to achieve on earth. It is not just that legal, political and social institutions inhibit man's freedom in ways that are bad as often as good, or that self-control is a difficult and demanding ideal.

The mind forges fetters for itself. A character like Sforza is sane, balanced, magnanimous and courageous on every subject but one: his wife. This self-imposed bondage makes him a prisoner of the irrational. Camiola, at the end of The Maid of Honour, after having done the right thing for the wrong reason when she paid Bertoldo's ransom, compounds her mistake when she abandons the world for the religious life, in order to "deserve mens prayse, and wonder too". Overreach, as Hazlitt recognized, cannot disentangle his contempt for the landed aristocracy from his adulation, and the result is ruin. Even the noble Charalois, whose self-restraint seems as impressive as his filial piety in the early scenes of The Fatal Dowry, and far superior to the blustering of his well-meaning friend Romont, loses his way in the pursuit of Honour. When he forces Rochfort, the just judge, to condemn his own daughter to summary execution for adultery, arguing that "A Iudge should feele no passions", he forgets that he himself was saved from perpetual imprisonment in Act I precisely because Rochfort did feel, and act upon, emotions which had nothing to do with the strict course of law. The whole play is a subtle examination of the vexed relation between personal and institutionalized justice.

I do not think that one can read through the seventeen plays collected in the Clarendon Press edition without being impressed both by the force and singleness of this artistic personality, and by the range and variety of Massinger's output. Between such cheerful romps as The Great Duke of Florence or The Renegado (Massinger's Entf�hrung aus dem Serail), and the sombre splendours of Believe As You List and The Roman Actor, the distance is, in one sense, very great. Yet the same sensibility--thoughtful and essentially grave, concerned to probe and analyse, both passionate and restrained--is reflected in all of them, even as it is in the very different city comedies. There is a sense in which The Roman Actor is more pessimistic about the power of art to correct and inform its audience than any other play written between 1580 and 1642. Yet there was something in Massinger which refused to abandon the effort, while insisting that the game should not be played with marked cards. This is why he places his audience, too, at risk.

Coleridge's praise of Massinger's dramatic verse, excessive though it may seem, is fundamentally accurate. Massinger never once needs to use prose, not even for low or comic scenes, because his flexible and beautifully cadenced verse is accommodated to the requirements of the most ordinary conversation as perfectly as it is to impassioned speech. Magnificent lines such as Ford bestows upon his characters in their extremity--"So falls the standard / Of my prerogative in being a creature"--are not to be found in Massinger. On the other hand, he could give his audience the moving and truthful simplicity of Marcelia's speech at the end of The Duke of Milan: "Oh, I haue fool'd my selfe / into my graue", or the poignant words of the former king Antiochus, now a galleyslave, as he calmly proves an identity that is no longer of any use to him by revealing to old friends the secret of a ring that once was his:

Antiochus:          I will
make a discoverie of a secret in it
of wch you get are ignorant. pray you trust it
for king Antiochus sake into my handes
I thancke your readines, nay drie your eies,
you hinder els the facultie of seeinge
the cunninge of the lapidarie. I can
pull out the stone, & vnder it you shall finde
ny name, and cipher I then vsde ingraven.

Cornelia: 'tis most apparent though I loose my life for't
theis knees shall pay their dutye.

Antiochus:       By noe meanes.
for your owne sake bee still incredulous
since your faith cannot saue mee

For all its deceptive simplicity, this is dramatic verse of a very high order. It is theatrical in the best sense, the bones and sinew of stage action. Its qualities can be fully understood only if you speak it aloud. It is not easy to write. Nor is it, for all Eliot's complaints about the essential frigidity of Massinger's technical skills, emotionally impoverished. Coleridge announced boldly, during a crisis in the writing of English verse tragedy, that aspiring poets would do better to model themselves on Massinger than on Shakespeare. One poet may have tried. When Shelley fails to convince, in The Cenci, it is usually because he is remembering Shakespeare. His most effective lines, however, seem to spring from an entirely beneficial admiration of Massinger, as when Beatrice and her mother, in prison, bind up each other's hair before going to execution: "How often / Have we done this for one another; / Now we shall not do it any more."

It is curious, in a way, that Eliot should have attacked and condescended to Massinger in the way he did. After all, the poetic style of this supposedly "dissociated" sensibility does not sound like that of people "speaking verse". At the same time, it contrives for much of the time to suggest what Eliot asked from verse drama: "a deeper reality than that of the plane of most of our conscious living". It seems, in many respects, to be the equivalent of that poetic medium for which Eliot himself was searching in the plays written after Murder in the Cathedral, a medium which he signally failed to find. If it does nothing else, the Clarendon edition should demonstrate the impossibility of putting Massinger (in Eliot's words) "finally and irrefutably into a place".

Source: Anne Barton, "The Distinctive Voice of Massinger." The Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1977, pp. 623-34.