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Ambrosia in an Eastern Vessel: Three Centuries of Audience and Reader Response to the Works of Thomas Middleton.

When the Complete Oxford Middleton appeared in 1994, it had scandalously been over a century since a new complete edition of Middleton's work was published. One of the incidental pleasures therefore afforded by Sara Jayne Steen's scholarly and attractive anthology of writings on the playwright from his own lifetime down to 1900 is the opportunity it provides of gauging how far reactions to his skeptical brilliance have changed over the years that separate the latest Middleton from its predecessor. At the time of A.H. Bullen's 1885 Works of Thomas Middleton, few readers save its dedicatee, A.C. Swinburne, were ready to welcome Middleton without grave reservations, reservations eloquently expressed by the anonymous San Francisco reviewer who provided Steen with her title:

. . . we should greatly hesitate to put any volume of these works, or even any one play, into the hands of youth, whose minds and hearts are easily hurt by coarseness of allusion and by indelicacy of expression. It may be that we should not decline ambrosia though offered in an earthern vessel, but we want it certain that the vessel, though roughly made, yet shall not give its earthy taste to the heavenly food . . .

It seems unlikely that Gary Taylor's Oxford edition will be greeted in quite these terms (ambrosial and earthy though the plays remain), and not only because of the drop since the 1880s in the percentage of San Franciscan youth either sufficiently innocent nor sufficiently literate to be led astray by A Chaste Maid in Cheapside or The Changeling. After a decade of dazzling stage revivals (such as Barry Kyle's 1983 Roaring Girl at the RSC), mounted while stockmarket-crazed regimes on both sides of the Atlantic were helping to reawaken academic interest in city comedy and "radical tragedy" alike, Middleton can now appear almost mainstream, a sort of male Caryl Churchill born before his time. "Given the direction of critical theory since the 1970s," as Steen observes, "it should not surprise anyone that Middleton's works are congenial to the 1990s; the issues of gender and politics that concern us form the dramatic and symbolic core of many of his plays."

But it isn't only Middleton's interest in female roles and market forces which has made his work so responsive to contemporary interests - and which, disappointingly for readers of Steen's book, made him so comparatively inaccessible to the Augustans and Victorians with whom she largely deals. Paradoxically, Middleton has come to seem the perfect author through whom to recognize the death of the Author, his canon the perfect monument to the unmonumental contingency of all canons. Never collected (until now) into anything resembling a Folio, the Middleton corpus has tenaciously resisted totalizing accounts through its sheer physical dispersal (quite apart from its own concern with the local and the particular); to look at any Middletonian first edition is always to be aware of the boundaries circumscribing and defining the individual writer, as Middleton's agency shades off into that of his collaborators, his publishers, or his patrons. Equally, Middleton's biography looks less like the conventional Victorian bildungsroman of an artist's unique personal development than a post-modern series of tactical alliances: so many provisional subject positions adopted according to the practical politics of the moment. Unfortunately for Steen's chosen sampling of the resulting critical heritage, Anglophone culture was for most of the period she surveys invested in finding very different things in Renaissance drama - solitary original genius, unambiguous morality, transcendence of material circumstances; as a result Ambrosia in an Earthern Vessel is, with an appropriate Middletonian irony, the definitive critical history of a virtual absence of critical history. What Middleton will look like after the Oxford edition has been extant a century is, for the moment, anyone's guess: meanwhile it is to be hoped that Steen is already at work completing this project by charting the twentieth-century revaluation of Middleton to which her own dedication and expertise bear ample witness.

MICHAEL DOBSON University of Illinois at Chicago
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Author:Dobson, Michael
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Words:659
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