Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1998 v38 n2 p317(16)

'The Roman Actor,' censorship, and dramatic autonomy. Reinheimer, David A.

Abstract: The play 'The Roman actor' by Philip Massinger is analyzed. It is shown that that Massinger uses the play to criticize the government's censorship of theater based on the viewpoint of performers. He argues that censorship threatens both the stage and its social role as educator. He also alludes to Euripides' play 'Bacchae' to show that the fall of the state will follow the fall of the stage.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Rice University

The crowning of Charles I in 1625 was but one of several significant changes that took place during the mid-1620s. In 1623, for instance, Sir Henry Herbert brought a confident attitude and the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain to the office of the Master of Revels. The publication of "A Short Treatise Against Stage-Playes" in 1625, dedicated to Parliament, broke several years of silence from antitheatrical pamphleteers. The 1625 Parliament passed a statute forbidding performances on Sunday, trespassing on what was formerly the prerogative of the Crown, the Privy Council, and the Master of Revels. A transition occurred in the acting profession as well: the King's Men ended the second phase of their history in 1625 with the death of John Fletcher, replaced as principal playwright by Philip Massinger. These events converge in 1626 with Massinger's The Roman Actor, his first play in his new post for the King's Men, and a condemnation of the practice and the politics of censorship from the practical concerns of the performer. Engaging in "opposition drama,"(1) Massinger attacks the government's control of the stage, demonstrating through a series of inset plays that censorship threatens not only to undermine the stage's civic role of educator, but also to destroy the stage itself. The entire tragedy is framed by an allusion to Euripides' Bacchae, suggesting that the fall of the state follows on the fall of the stage; and, therefore, that censorship as absolutist policy is ultimately subversive and self-destructive.

The reign of Charles, an avid supporter of the stage, surely provided the theaters with little reason for anxiety: on 24 June 1625, shortly after gaining the throne, he renewed the patent of the King's Men originally issued by James I. The office of the Master of Revels was also of no apparent threat to the stage: Sir Henry Herbert became the first Master in almost forty years to have the Lord Chamberlain as a patron, and both Herbert and Pembroke were sympathetic to the stage.(2) Though Herbert himself wrote that "in former time the poetts tooke greater liberty than is allowed them by me,"(3) he could also, apparently, be indulgent toward contemporary poets. His leniency toward Middleton's A Game of Chess - which Annabel Patterson calls a "puzzling inciden[t] of noncensorship" - shows not only Herbert's forgiving attitude, but also the dissociation of the Revels office from the Crown and the Privy Council.(4) Under a thin allegorical veil, A Game at Chess attacks the efforts in 1623 to cement a marriage between Spain and England. Herbert allowed the controversial play, but performance was delayed until a time when King James was away in the Midlands. The Privy Council nonetheless suppressed the play soon after performance, and Herbert was apparently examined on the issue, supported during that examination by his patron. As Richard Dutton suggests, this patron-client relationship between the Lord Chamberlain and the Master of Revels "must have given Herbert the confidence to follow his own judgment, within the traditional parameters of the 'liberty' of the stage," and "with Pembroke behind him, [Herbert] felt confident in 'allowing' a potentially controversial play."(5)

Under these political circumstances, it is perhaps no wonder that a new outbreak of popular antitheatricalism occurs in 1625 with the publication of "A Short Treatise against Stage-Playes."(6) The treatise largely follows a conventional argument; but, unconventionally, it is with "an humble Supplication Tendred to the High and Honourable House of Parliament Assembled May xxiii 1625."(7) Antitheatrical elements in Parliament apparently took the supplication to heart, as the first act passed by that Parliament prohibited performances on Sunday (although it did not "restrain [plays] for ever hereafter" as the "Short Treatise" requested).(8) That Parliament, which included a faction of antitheatrical, Puritan members, had chosen the beginning of Charles's reign to enter the conflict over control of the stage was certainly a source of anxiety among players and playwrights.

Massinger, in the highly visible position of principal playwright for London's leading company and as a victim of censorship himself, responded to this outbreak of antitheatricalism when he wrote The Roman Actor in 1626. At this time, Massinger had already run afoul of the censor at least twice. In 1619, Massinger and Fletcher's The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt was extensively censored by Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels, "indicat[ing] his disapproval of a play which appeared so soon after the events it described" and the play's conflict with the official English position on the issue.(9) Although Buc's motive seems clear, there is no apparent reason why the bishop of London, John King, prevented the performance of the play for two weeks.(10) Massinger later flirted with censorial intervention with the anti-Buckingham satire of The Bondman (1623), and with the satire of patents and Buckingham's kinsman Sir Giles Mompesson in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1624).

Though censorship qua censorship is a central issue to The Roman Actor, William Lee Sandidge Jr. suggests that Massinger may have been responding specifically to the "Short Treatise" and the Parliamentary act against Sunday performances, and that, when Paris is called before the Roman Senate to answer for the stage, his long oration stands as a conventional defense of the stage against Puritan attacks such as the treatise.(11) But this oration is only part of Massinger's defense of the stage, and Parliament and antitheatrical pamphleteers only part of his target. A series of three inset plays constructs a defense of the stage against two kinds of censorship: royal censorship, or censorship by the crown, and popular censorship, or censorship by the audience while participating in a performance. Massinger responds to these kinds of censorship by demonstrating that they subvert what they hope to control: popular censorship subverts the didactic efficacy of the stage and royal censorship subverts the art of theater.

Paris's oration before the Roman Senate advances the theoretical principles of Massinger's apology. Aretinus the sycophant charges Paris with treason and libel:

You [the players] are they That search into the secrets of the time, And Vnder fain'd names on the Stage present Actions not to be toucht at; and traduce Persons of rancke, and qualitie of both Sexes, And with Satiricall and bitter iests Make euen the Senators ridiculous To the Plebeans.

(I.iii.36-43)

Although Paris uses his oration to defend a theoretical stage, Aretinus's charges against the players are specific and practical, following the general structure of the Puritan controversy according to E. K. Chambers.(12) Aretinus's accusation is almost as predictable as the pattern of response: he grows outraged when a play seems to lampoon a particular individual and castigates the players for gratuitous abuse of their betters. According to Paris, this response reveals two misunderstandings of the poetic codes of dramatic discourse: one, Aretinus misunderstands that characters on the stage are merely types and thus cannot be seen as malicious caricatures of certain individuals; and two, he vents his outrage in the wrong direction. Aretinus grows outraged when he sees a vice dramatized on the stage, and then displaces his anger onto the players to stop the dramatization of the vice. To stop the vice itself, the purpose of the theater, Aretinus should turn his outrage on himself and destroy the root of the vicious behavior. Thus, Paris argues, two errors on the part of the audience cause the traducement: the audience either misunderstands the dramaturgy or it denies and displaces its moral outrage. In neither case is the stage culpable.

Aretinus accuses the players in Rome of libel just as playwrights in London were accused in another example of the London-as-Rome trope.(13) In his edition of the play, Sandidge suggests that "Paris's argument was intended as a defence, and not penned simply as a speech appropriate for the actor to recite," and explicates the "close similarity" between the defense and Thomas Heywood's "Apology for Actors."(14) Douglas Howard traces the defense past Heywood through Sir Philip Sidney and Horace, and ultimately to Aristotle's Poetics; Colin Gibson suggests that the source is Ben Jonson's Sejanus.(15) Though derivative and speculative, Paris's oration nonetheless serves as the point of departure for a greater project, Massinger's defense of Caroline performance. Paris opens the defense by establishing the world-stage commonplace, the fundamental postulate to the ideal moral operation of the theater. Aretinus asks the actor, "Are you on Stage / You talke so boldly?" to which Paris replies, "The whole world being one / This place is not exempted" (I.iii.48-51). Not only does this metaphor buttress Paris's own performance, but it also allows Massinger to indicate reflexively to his audience that "this place" - the Blackfriars in Caroline London - is itself not exempt from Paris's oration. The self-reflexive irony of the theatrum mundi metaphor focuses the audience's attention on the status of The Roman Actor as a sign for contemporary events in London.

Paris transfers culpability from the actors onto the audience in the peroration of the apology. He claims that it is the "false imputations" arising from the audience's judgment which "make that a libell, which the Poet / Writ for a Comedie, so acted too" (I.iii.45-7). If a performance is intended as a comedy, the audience must judge the play as a comedy. If, however, the audience does not receive the play as a comedy, as Paris argues is the case in Rome, then the audience creates the libel. It is therefore criminal decoding of the performance by the audience, not the encoding by the stage, that causes problems. As Paris reiterates throughout his oration, if the audience chooses to make certain judgments, "we [the players] cannot helpe it" (I.iii. 114, 122, 130; and the variation "tis not in vs to helpe it" in line 140).

Paris then moves to the conventional humanist comparison between the didactic value of philosophy and the stage. The stage develops civic virtue because drama is more didactically effective than the "could precepts" (I.iii.78) of philosophy, a position derived from the long history of theatrical apologetics from Aristotle down to Sidney. Next, in a similarly conventional manner, Paris refutes the charge that the stage "corrupt[s] youth" (I.iii.97) by asking:

When doe we bring a vice vpon the Stage, That does goe off vnpunish'd? doe we teach By the successe of wicked vndertakings, Others to tread, in their forbidden steps?

(I.iii.98-101)

Paris admits that the stage often presents immoral characters; yet these characters are always accompanied by the "sad end / A wretch thats so giuen ouer [to vice] does arriue at" (I.iii.58-9). In contrast, not only does the audience suffer virtuous characters' dangers, but they also "partake with them in their rewardes" (I.iii.92). Paris implies that, theoretically, the stage presents all that is necessary for moral instruction: the punishment of vice and the rewards of virtue. If the audience finds a play immoral in practice, it must be because the audience has "censored" the play in reception, ignoring some part of the didactic structure, usually the punishment of vice. Paris again argues that the encoding of the performance by the stage is sufficient; any breakdown in the discourse of performance happens during the audience's decoding of the play.

Paris's refutation of the libel charge revolves around the judgment of the audience. He argues that the stage merely presents types, and that although the audience may find their own sins in a character, the stage has committed no crime. Rather, Aretinus's accusations mistake cause and effect, misreading the poetic and dramaturgic codes operating on the stage. The character types presented on stage are preexisting elements in the playwright's repertoire; they are not inspired purely by contemporary personalities. The audience may recognize themselves in the reflection of these types, but not because the characters are re-creations of the audience. Rather, such recognition is the first step in the stage's didactic process of moral correction, which is completed after witnessing the "sad end" of the immoral character type. If the audience feels traduced, it is because they traduce themselves, which they are, after all, supposed to do; it is the audience's reaction to the traducement that is at fault. Paris thus exculpates the Roman stage, and by extension the London stage as well, by shifting the agency of traducement from the stage to the audience. The only responsibility of the stage is to present a play; the audience is then solely accountable for their own responses to the actions the players present.

This is not to say that the stage is without obligations. To merely present a play is not enough: Paris is dependent upon the approval of his patron, the Emperor Domitian. The final judgment concerning Aretinus's charges is rendered by the emperor after his return at the end of I.iii, and Paris's downfall follows on Domitian's disapproval of the unintentional play between Paris and Domitia in IV. ii. Paris, like Massinger, works in "a theater that must balance that dependency [on the crown] against its time-honored role of sociopolitical criticism."(16) In such a theater, the stage must operate according to "the formulae of protected speech and privileged genres, of equivocations shared by authors and authorities."(17) One equivocation shared by Paris and Massinger, and also shared by satirical apologists, is to shift blame for misinterpretation from themselves to the audience: the refrain of "we cannot helpe it" in Paris's oration, for instance, is a "central disclaime[r] in the discursive code of self protection."(18)

Paris's oration does not contain the whole of Massinger's apology. Having drawn in his audience with traditional apologetics, Massinger then constructs a reflexive defense out of the action of The Roman Actor, addressing particular circumstances of alleged theatrical misprision. Massinger presents popular censorship in three inset plays, performances which have also been "contracted" (III.ii.133), or in other words censored, by either Domitian or Domitia. Though the exact combination of popular and state censorship differs in each exemplum, the result is invariably the same: censorship cancels any didactic efforts on the part of the play. In The Roman Actor, Massinger investigates a practicing theater where censorship, and the subsequent dramatic failure, is twofold: as outlined in Paris's oration, the audience can censor in reception and misapply the play's didacticism, incorrectly decoding the performance; or the crown can directly censor a play before performance, completely undercutting any possibility of didactic efficacy, subverting the encoding of the performance.

Massinger intends Paris's oration to serve double rhetorical duty. Extra-dramatically, as Sandidge suggests, the speech is an intentional and self-contained apology for the stage. Simultaneously, the speech serves as a prologue for The Roman Actor as a metatheatrical apology, introducing the thesis, topoi, and exempla of an extended reflexive defense. For instance, the specific exempla that Paris employs to rebut the charge of traducement expand beyond the oration, corresponding to characters in the play such as Domitia, Domitian, and Philargus. The issues with which Paris is concerned - moral worth and mimesis - clearly correspond to the issues involved in the theatricality of the whole play. Though Paris's speech can and does stand on its own, Massinger collapses the rhetorical distance between the speech and the play by making the whole play a metaphoric oration and the speech an oration-within-an-oration.

Massinger also collapses the aesthetic distance between Paris's speech and the rest of the play. When Paris compares theater to philosophy, one point of comparison is the fullness of the theatrical experience opposed to the axiomatic precepts of philosophy. When the imperial hand contracts all three inset plays into a single scene, however, the inset plays lose any sense of action. The plays are now virtually static tableaux, hardly more than precepts. No longer is virtue or vice seen in action, as is proper to drama; rather, virtue and vice are presented iconically and acontextually, identified but not corrected. The inset plays thus dramatize the didactic distinction between play and precept and the effects of dramatic censorship on that distinction: when censorship reduces the stage to a preceptive level, drama becomes as didactically ineffective as philosophy. Rhetorically, the conflict defines Massinger's own intentions: he contrasts the ineffective philosophical precepts of Paris's oration with the efficacious action of the play, reflexively reifying the argument on the stage.

The first inset play brutally demonstrates the subversion of the stage in Paris's Rome and leaves no doubt as to Domitian's responsibility. In act II, Parthenius, courtier to Domitian, approaches Paris with a problem: Parthenius's father, Philargus, is incurably avaricious, and "deafe / To all perswasion" (II.i.88). Paris offers to present "The Cure of Avarice" which, the actor is sure, will curb Philargus's vice when the old man views it. As the curtain is about to go up on the performance, however, Domitian wallows in uxoriousness, and censors the performance:

Let them spare the Prologue, And all the Ceremonies proper to our selfe And come to the last act, there where the cure By the Doctor is made perfect.

(II.i.274-7)

Domitian thus reduces the play to only the completion of the "cure," without any part of the disease; all that the audience will see is the precept of the play. Philargus quickly identifies with the miser, as he should; to this point, he has properly decoded the performance. But Domitian's improper encoding has subverted the performance. Philargus grows outraged at the treatment of what is, after all, the vicious character, ironically calling upon Domitian to "[d]efend this honest thriftie man" (II.i.338), mimicking the outrage of Aretinus. Here, dramatic action shows that the stage is not responsible for Philargus's response: Domitian's censorship has subverted the didacticism of "The Cure of Avarice" by reducing drama to the level of philosophical precept. Incorrect encoding does not allow the drama to move Philargus past his outrage toward moral correction. The contraction of the play to this single scene transforms the performance into a short preceptive vignette; the moral thrust of the play is reduced to "couetous men / Hauing one foote in the graue lament so euer" (II.i.391-2). The "so," however, lacks any force without any antecedent dramatic action to concretize it. Parthenius had failed to correct his father with "perswasion," and Domitian's censorship translates Paris's potentially effective drama into philosophical persuasion, completing the circle of didactic failure. Philargus remains unrepentant at the end of the show, resulting in his execution as ordered by Domitian. Here, Domitian's censorship subverts the entire didactic agenda of the playlet and the purpose of drama: rather than being corrected, Philargus is beheaded.

"Iphis and Anaxarete," the middle inset play, falls under the direction of the Empress Domitia. At the end of "The Cure of Avarice," Domitia, impressed with Paris's acting, calls for a performance of "Iphis and Anaxarete" so that she can see Paris play "a louers part" (II.i.416). She then proceeds to take control of the production, appropriating the power to encode:

I haue been instructing The Players how to act, and to cut off All tedious impertinencie, haue contracted The Tragedie, into one continued scaene.

(III.ii.131-4)

The scene into which she has contracted the play presents Paris, as the rebuffed lover, making his final request of his beloved, played by Domitian's cousin-german, Domitilla. Rejected again, Paris prepares to hang himself, but Domitia interrupts, bringing the play to a halt.

At this point, Domitia appears to have sunk irrevocably into the moral and aesthetic corruption of Domitian's court, uncontrollably infatuated with Paris the actor. Her passion leads her to mistake the fiction of performance for the fact of reality; and Aretinus and his ilk would have it that the stage is responsible. Domitia's sensual response to the stage, however, is not caused by the actors nor their performance; rather, Domitia herself causes this response by developing an inappropriate relationship with the performance. Her personal involvement in the encoding of the performance defines her as a member of the stage which concomitantly excludes her as a member of the audience. Domitia's control of the performance substitutes her political authority for the players' theatrical authority as she encodes the performance through imperial decree. In the process, she assumes all responsibility for any failure of the play. Again, the responsibility for the failure of performance lies not with the stage, but with the crown and its improper exercise of censorship.

Domitian returns to direct and to star in the performance of "The False Servant," the final inset play. Having discovered Domitia and Paris in an embrace, Domitian reluctantly sentences Paris to death. In order "[t]o make [Paris's] end more glorious" (IV. ii.291), Domitian proposes the performance of a play which enacts the exact crime of which Paris is guilty. Completing a movement towards a synthesis of the fictive and the real,(19) "The False Servant" demonstrates the ultimate fate of theater under a crown that tries to control the stage through censorship. When he appropriates the stage to the actual exercise of his power, Domitian completely preempts dramatic mimesis. In effect, the inset play ritualizes the death of the stage: with one blow of his sword, Domitian executes both Paris and his profession. The State has killed off the Stage. The death of the theater parallels the dramaturgical subversion of "The False Servant," which improperly encodes the performance in two ways: first, Domitian again contracts the play into only the final scene; second, Domitian's participation, appropriating theater to his own personal agenda, invalidates the theatrical fiction. The death of the stage is occasioned not only by improper censorship and participation, but also by Domitian's inadvertent audience censorship of an earlier performance. Domitian calls for the performance of "The False Servant" based on his attendance at the tryst between Domitia and Paris; but he arrived late and did not witness Paris's attempts to avoid the assignation. In the final inset play, both agents of censorship imbedded in Paris's oration - the crown and the audience - converge to destroy the stage.

Massinger does not stop here, however. He also displays the effect of the death of the stage on the state itself: Domitian kills Paris which leads directly to the death of Domitian himself in a self-destructive, self-subversive cycle initiated in the first lines of the play. AEsopus, a colleague of Paris, opens the play with the question, "What doe wee acte to day?" to which Latinus answers, "Agaves phrensie / With Pentheus bloudie end" (I.i.1-2), referring to Euripides' Bacchae.(20) Paris's company may very well be scheduled to play the Bacchae in Rome, yet Latinus's answer also applies to The Roman Actor. the King's Men will act out the frenzy of a revenging woman upon a ruler, substituting Domitia for Agave and Domitian for Pentheus. While Renaissance interpretations of Pentheus's character may have been ambivalent,(21) the story of Pentheus and Dionysus from Euripides' Bacchae lends a cogent commentary on the theatrical apologetics of The Roman Actor. According to Ira Clark, the opening allusion of the play "hint[s] that The Roman Actor will center on rulers who challenge godhead only to be destroyed."(22) The challenge to godhead in The Roman Actor, like that in the Bacchae, is not only to the political power of the gods, but to their theatrical power as well. In both plays, the result of the challenge is the same: a group of outraged women murder the challenger.

These outraged women in The Roman Actor are led by Domitia, who struggles throughout the play to avenge Domitian's treatment of her first husband, Lamia. She attempts two stratagems on her own to gain this vengeance. First, she treats the court ladies - who will later stand as Bacchantes to Domitia's Agave - with arrogance and scorn, in the hope that they will blame and punish Domitian. This stratagem almost succeeds: Stephano, Domitilla's bondman, offers to murder Domitian in II.i. Domitilla, however, restrains her bondman, placing stoic faith in the justice of the gods who will bring low unjust princes, stoicism that will defuse Domitian's theatrical plots later as it defuses Domitia's revenge plot here.

Domitia's other plan attempts to use Paris, hoisting Domitian on his own petard twice over. One, this plan turns Domitian's obsession with the theatrical against him, and two, Domitia seeks to cuckold the emperor as Domitian had violated the laws of marriage by seizing Domitia from Lamia. She arranges a tryst with the actor, to which Aretinus, spurred on by an intercepted love-letter, leads Domitian and the court as observers. Domitia claims that she has fallen in love because, having played a virtuous gentlemen, Paris surely must be one. Massinger raises here another issue against which the stage had to defend itself, the distinction between actor and role that threatened class structure. Paris rejects Domitia's theory:

How glorious soeuer, or deform'd, I doe appeare in the Scaene, my part being ended, And all my borrowed ornaments put off, I am no more, nor lesse then what I was Before I enter'd.

(IV. ii.48-52)

Domitia courts Paris more directly, but he again refuses, calling on his loyalty to Domitian. She finally exercises her imperial power and commands Paris to be her lover. The actor is now caught between the rock of Domitia's command and the hard place of Domitian's revenge; he gives in to the empress just after the court enters above.

Paris is now trapped in a fatal performance, fatal because Domitian is revealed here as "a miserable audience and an unwilling actor."(23) Through Domitian's inadequacies, Massinger reminds his own audience of their responsibility when attending a play. Like Domitian, the Caroline audience was often tardy and inattentive: Domitian's tardiness results in the death of Paris; a spectator's tardiness in seventeenth-century London could land a playwright in prison.(24) Domitian, due to his lateness, sees Paris only as a vicious cuckold: he did not witness the actor's valiant attempts to remain out of Domitia's amorous clutches, and hence executes the actor during "The False Servant."

Domitia's second stratagem depends on an awareness of Domitian's obsession with the stage, an obsession that is fairly well known in Rome. Domitian has an actor for a favorite, dabbles constantly in theater, and is essentially a Player King. His return from the wars in I.iv is purely spectacular, reminiscent of the triumphant entrance of Marlowe's Tamburlaine or AEschylus's Agamemnon, and is the only theatrical success that Domitian enjoys. He does attempt to stage-manage two later scenes but fails miserably in both instances. In II.i, Domitian stages a small performance involving Lamia, Domitia's ex-husband. Domitian attempts to force Lamia into a role to satisfy his own hunger for domination, but Lamia retains his personal freedom by keeping silent and not playing any role. Frustrated by Lamia's free-willed silence, Domitian discovers that his absolutist authority is not sufficient to script the world. Lamia's stubborn silence recalls Domitilla's stoic faith in divine justice which countered Domitia's original plan for revenge. Once again, Massinger implies a script of a higher order which supersedes even imperial and absolutist staging.

Domitian also attempts to stage-manage the hearing and execution of the two Stoics, Palphurius Sura and Junius Rusticus.(25) After being counseled towards leniency by Parthenius, Domitian, in his absolutist megalomania, attempts to script not only the performance, but also the audience's reaction:

let me see One man so lost, as but to pittie 'em And... my Hangmens hookes Should rend [his flesh] off.

(III.ii.41-5)

Domitian tortures the Stoics, but, resolute in their Stoic philosophy, the victims again counteract Domitian's script with stubborn silence. Domitian cannot even force them to participate in the performance, much less play the roles in which he has cast them. The philosophers' triumph over the staged execution appears to rebut Paris's contention that theater is a stronger moral force than philosophy. But the Stoics' "philosophy" is here turned into philosophy in action, dramatized philosophy, as it were; and Domitian's "drama" means performance without free will that tyrannizes both performance and reception. Domitian's is a theater by edict, demanding the involuntary participation of its actors as well as demarcating the response of the audience. Parthenius responds with an aside -

I dare not show A sign of sorrow; yet my synnewes shrinke The spectacle is so horrid

(III.ii.81-3)

- indicating that Domitian does not succeedd with his audience any more than he does with his stoic players. While Domitian is sure that his absolutist authority can create the performance he desires, it quickly becomes apparent that the free will of the other participants counteracts the emperor's absolutism.

The death of Domitian brings down the curtain on the theatrical pattern of his career. At the beginning of the end, Ascletarius, an astrologer, predicts the manner and time of Domitian's death, as well as his own:

as sure as thou Shalt dye to morrow being the fourteenth of The Kalends of October, the houre fiue Spite of preuention, this carkasse shall be Torne and deuourd by dogs.

(V.i.115-9)

Domitian attempts to "prevent" this heavenly script by ordering that Ascletarius have his throat cut and his corpse burned. Assuming that he has successfully revised the astrological script, Domitian lies down to rest and dreams of the Stoics, a dumbshow that introduces the play of justice in the theater of the world, the gods finally bringing the revenge Domitilla had invoked, played out during the rest of act V. Upon waking, Domitian learns that all of his precautions have gone for naught, as a sudden storm has quenched the fires, and Ascletarius's corpse has indeed been ripped apart by dogs. Guarded by his tribunes, Domitian fearfully awaits the hour of five, aware that he is caught in a script beyond his control, yet still hoping to escape the fate of his role. Parthenius enters and recites his lines in the penultimate scene of revenge: the fatal hour of five has passed, and indeed it has struck six. Domitian lets down his guard, easily falls prey to the revengers, and is stabbed to death by Domitia and the court-ladies.

Domitian's theatrical and political failures result from the bastardized hybrid created by the union of absolutism and drama. Domitian's absolutism causes theatrical failure by denying the stage and the audience any freedom to create or to respond. Each time that he is involved with a performance, whether purely theatrical or theatrically political, he attempts to script every element into a performance for which he is the only spectator and the only free-willed participant. The theater of edict which Domitian attempts to produce, when applied to the stage itself, becomes an act of censorship. In Rome, and by implication London, royal censorship negates the proper operation of the stage; thus, the crown is as culpable for the stage's failure as the audience.

In this example of opposition drama, Massinger employs allegory as Middleton did in A Game at Chess. Yet The Roman Actor did not cause the fireworks that Middleton's play did, its allegory being more conventional and perhaps more obscure, and its subject - the politics of performance - not quite the powder keg that the failure of the Spanish marriage negotiations was. The allegory of The Roman Actor operates by the traditional London-as-Rome trope, setting Caroline England against Imperial Rome, a trope often used as a tool for encomium. Ironically, Massinger uses the trope as a tool for opposition, creating a play that is perhaps more subversive than Middleton's. Yet, his allegorical touch is also lighter than Middleton's and connections are sometimes tenuous. Nonetheless, analogies can be drawn between Charles and Domitian, linked by their support of the stage and their leanings toward absolutism; between Buckingham and Aretinus, linked by their sycophancy; and between Charles's queen, Henrietta Maria, and Domitia, linked by their interest in the stage.

The important scene in setting this allegory is I.iii. Massinger depends on the world-stage metaphor in this scene at the beginning of the oration to support this allegory. By focusing the Blackfriars audience's attention on their own historical situation, the world-stage metaphor establishes the potential for an allegorical interpretation of characters and events. I.iii also invites this allegorical reading in its allusion to the event that prompted Massinger's play, the bid by Parliament to control the stage. In Rome, Paris should be judged by Domitian, not the Senate, just as the Caroline stage should be under the aegis of Charles's Master of Revels. But Aretinus drags the actor before the Senate while Domitian is still out on campaign, trying a political end run. Massinger sees Parliament's legislation as the same kind of political machination, a ploy that tries to take advantage of a newly crowned king. While I.iii thus grants control of the stage to the crown, the rest of the tragedy places parameters on that control. Massinger asserts that the stage cannot properly fulfill its civic duty without a generous grant of autonomy; if an absolutist crown tyrannizes that autonomy, then the crown will bring about its own downfall in a suicidal act of self-subversion.

NOTES

1 See Albert H. Tricomi, Anticourt Drama in England, 1603-1642 (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1989), pp. 133-89. He uses opposition drama "to signify the work of playwrights (particularly those of the 1620s) . . . who were loyal to the idea of kingship as well as to the king but who opposed, often vehemently, one or more of the major tenets of the crown's foreign and domestic policy and, commonly, the architects of those policies, James's and Charles's closest advisors" (p. 141).

2 See Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1991), pp. 227-48; and Janet Clare, "Art made tongue-tied by authority": Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 188-204.

3 The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1917), p. 21.

4 Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 17. See also Dutton, pp. 237-46 and passim; and Clare, pp. 190-9.

5 Dutton, p. 246.

6 The anonymous tract is collected in W. C. Hazlitt, ed., The English Drama and Stage under the Tudor and Stuart Princes, 1534-1664 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1964), pp. 231-52.

7 Hazlitt, ed., p. 232.

8 Primo Caroli, cap. 1, in The Statutes of the Realm, 11 vols. (London: Dawson's of Pall Mall, 1963), 5:1-2.

9 Clare, p. 175. Clare's discussion of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (pp. 174-84) includes a detailed analysis of Sir George Buc's corrections to the play. For Massinger's contact with censorship, see also Dutton; Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson, The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 1: xxxviii-xl; and T. A. Dunn, Philip Massinger: The Man and the Playwright (London: T. Nelson for the Univ. College of Ghana, 1957), pp. 43-4.

10 See Clare, p. 183.

11 Philip Massinger, The Roman Actor, in William Lee Sandidge, Jr., A Critical Edition of Massinger's "The Roman Actor," Princeton Studies in English 4 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1929), I.iii.50-142. Future references to The Roman Actor are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number.

12 See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 1:255-8.

13 The methods of reading the Rome-as-London trope politically, as well as Massinger's place in the tradition of "Republican" reformist political drama are explained in Tricomi, "Philip, Earl of Pembroke, and the Analogical Way of Reading Political Tragedy," JEGP 85, 3 (July 1986): 332-45.

14 Sandidge, introduction to A Critical Edition of Massinger's "The Roman Actor," p. 19.

15 Douglas Howard, "Massinger's Political Tragedies," in Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, ed. Howard (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 117-37, 123; and C. A. Gibson, "Massinger's Use of His Sources for The Roman Actor," AUMLA 15, 2 (May 1961): 60-72, 65, which is the seminal study of Massinger's sources.

16 Patterson, p. 88.

17 patterson, p. 75.

18 Patterson, p. 91.

19 See R. E. Wilson, "Massinger's The Roman Actor," Expl 40, 4 (Summer 1982): 16-7, which explicates "a trend away from the stage and toward life, a shift from the acted to the real" (p. 16).

20 For commentary on the framing reference to Euripides' Bacchae, see Ira Clark, The Moral Art of Philip Massinger (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1993), p. 67; and Rebecca W. Bushnell, Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), p. 174. The frame also explains Massinger's curious addition of the court ladies to his sources, as it gives Domitia her own Bacchantes. Massinger's chief historical sources for the play are Suetonius and Dio Cassius, neither of whom mentions the ladies of the Roman court.

21 Referring to commentators such as Stibilinus, Bersuire, Conti, and Sandys, A. P. Hogan suggests that "Euripides's grim fable of a king dismembered by his own crazed mother for opposing the divine orgies of Dionysus was not, in Renaissance thought, a myth to illustrate the actors' ideal of their art. Some commentators thought Pentheus a heretic, justly punished; others glossed the story as the triumph of chaos over order" ("Imagery of Acting in The Roman Actor," MLR 66, 2 [April 1971]: 273-81,274).

22 Clark, p. 67.

23 Clark, p. 76.

24 In "Audience vs. Dramatist in Jonson's Epicoene and Other Plays of the Children's Troupes" (ELR 3, 3 [Autumn 1973]: 400-17), Michael Shapiro argues that audiences of the private theaters (The Roman Actor was given at the Blackfriars) would create their own counterperformances in competition with the stage. One of their tactics was to enter the theater late and thus disrupt the performance. In "The Caroline Audience" (MLR 36, 3 [July 1941]: 304-19), Clifford Leech gives a similar picture of the audiences in the private theaters, suggesting that the "keynote of the years was inattentiveness" (p. 305).

25 Massinger's stoicism often figures in the moral interpretations of his plays, especially The Roman Actor. For instance, Clark sees a stoic accommodation as the overriding moral principle in Massinger's life and his art. For a more general study, see Gilles D. Monsarrat, Light from the Porch: Stoicism and English Renaissance Literature, Collection Etudes Anglaises 86 (Paris: Didier-Erudition, 1984).

David A. Reinheimer is an assistant professor in the English Department at Southeast Missouri State University.




   
1