Joanne Rochester. Staging Spectatorship in the Plays of Philip Massinger.
Joanne Rochester's study Staging Spectatorship in the Plays of Philip Massinger is a very welcome addition to what she herself describes as the "growing literature on Caroline drama" (3). While acknowledging that her study of the inherent metatheatricality of Renaissance drama follows in a long tradition of exploring plays-within-plays in drama from this period, Rochester makes the case for the innovative nature of her approach, not only in terms of its focus on the woefully understudied figure of Massinger, but in her consideration of plays-within-plays and inset masques as conscious "enactments of spectatorship" (1).
Three particular plays from Massinger's oeuvre form the backbone of her analyses: The Roman Actor (1626), The City Madam (1632), and The Picture (1629) (though there is also a very useful analysis of The Guardian (1633) in chapter 2). The two former plays on the list have perhaps enjoyed the most sustained critical focus of late, but The Picture, which recently enjoyed a successful restaging in the UK, is now coming firmly into view. Rochester's study is, then, well-judged in speaking to such timely interests. While the three-play focus may seem tight to the point of narrowness in a monograph-length study, this focus does allow her to offer sustained close readings, and she stresses that her discussion of particular plays has far wider implications and applications.
Massinger is, as she rightly observes, a key "transitional figure" whose career bridges the Jacobean and Caroline moments and involves extensive collaborations with other playwrights. He is also the producer of work within the compass of several distinct types of playing venue: Philip Henslowe's open-air amphitheater, the Rose, Christopher Beeston's indoor theater at the Cockpit, and in the context of the King's Men's extensive and flexible repertory at both the indoor, roofed Blackfriars and the open-air Globe.
Describing The Roman Actor as Massinger's "most metatheatrical play" (15), Rochester uses it as a springboard for the volume as a whole. Though in date terms this play falls squarely within the confines of Caroline drama, the author argues that it has its roots firmly within a Jacobean aesthetic and ethos, and she compares it to other Jacobean Roman plays such as Ben Jonson's Sejanus. Exploring how the opening of the play superimposes a deserted Roman playhouse onto the crowded Caroline one of the actual performance venues, Rochester demonstrates in lively fashion how The Roman Actor dramatizes the King's Men's working practices and the vexed relationship that existed in the 1620s between commercial playhouses and the court. Though this is an entirely proficient and worthwhile chapter, Rochester is not exactly breaking new ground in interpreting The Roman Actor from this standpoint, and she rightly acknowledges the influence of the pioneering editorial work of Martin White in this regard. Nevertheless, this is a helpful case study in terms of providing a means of navigation through some of the less familiar material to follow.
In chapter 2, she moves onto the category of "masques-within-plays" Noting that Massinger (like Shakespeare) wrote no official court masques, she indicates that he was nevertheless fascinated by the form. Providing useful background material on the masque genre and making enroute the significant observation that in the Caroline period the masque developed into a huge "diversity of venues and forms" (59) Rochester argues that the very dominance of the masque by this time allowed for its diversification. I admired the way in which, throughout, Rochester was constantly alert to the interactions of space, site, and form, and it is a very located and embedded picture of Massinger as a playwright that she offers us as a result. She also makes important distinctions between country-house masques, those performed for corporate and commercial contexts (such as Jonson's recently rediscovered 1609 Entertainment at Britain's Burse), and the court variety of the form that she identifies as Massinger's extended concern in his commercial theater reconfigurations. In making this observation, however, she remains sensitive to the influence of these subgenres of masque on aspects of Massinger's commercial playwriting, drawing key parallels between the forest masque of The Guardian (1633) and Caroline household entertainments. In a more extended discussion, I would have been keen to see Rochester expand out from here to think about the patronage networks through which Massinger moved and to explore whether there is space to draw connections with particular regional networks or households.
What Rochester does proceed to draw on are the specific ways in which the masque genre interacts with and incorporates its audiences as a direct influence on Massinger's dramaturgy. In a spirited discussion of the inset masques of The Picture and The Guardian she makes the persuasive case that Massinger is not simplistically antimasque or anticourt in his depictions even though his inset masques tread a delicate line between the "celebratory and the comic" (68). Rochester's close reading of The Guardian has much to commend it, although I did feel that in the process she produced a somewhat depoliticized reading. This play is heavily engaged with the political grievances of its day, not least around forests and the lucrative mining of mineral ores by court favorites, but Rochester prefers to view it as an A Midsummer Night's Dream-like "romantic comedy" but this is a very partial view. Even when she does (pace the work of Martin Butler or Ira Clark) draw a parallel between Severino's woodland community and that of Robin Hood, it is a literary and intertextual connection she prefers as opposed to engaging with political undertow. This was, perhaps, something of a missed opportunity in an otherwise welcome discussion of an understudied play.
The City Madam is another hugely underrated play in the early modern canon. Rochester is alert to its quasi-Jonsonian feel and form, noting that "acting is everywhere" (75) in this text. She memorably describes the play as a "series of competing staged fictions" (75) and is right, I think, to assert the ways in which it deploys the court masque as a "structural, thematic, and imaginative source" (75), though I am less convinced by her claims for how unusual Massinger is in doing so at this time. In many respects, I think it is more interesting to think about this play less as an exception than as part of a wider set of Caroline theatrical practices that consciously appropriated Jonsonian dramaturgies and the masque (itself a "Jonsonian" form in many respects) to examine contemporary issues. In this context Massinger becomes very much the contemporary of James Shirley and, in particular, Richard Brome. Time and again it struck me that had Rochester had space and time for greater recourse to Bromes body of plays she would have found rich and pertinent parallels. Where her interest in cross-readings and cross-fertilization from wider Caroline cultural contexts does pay off, however, is in her setting of Massinger's theme of "Virginian Indians" in this play alongside recent court masques and their interest in New World contexts. Rochester is absolutely right to suggest that Blackfriars audiences would have drawn intriguing connections between these different theatrical events. She affects some fine close readings in her analysis; I was especially drawn to her sense of Goldwire's "boisterous performance" at the lodgings of Shavem the prostitute as a kind of antimasque (79).
Chapter 3 moves in more sustained detail onto The Picture and onto a concern with spectatorship as performed through the use of paintings as stage properties. Rochester focuses in particular on the play's deployment of a "magical miniature" (95) and the ways in which this acts as a "dramaturgical catalyst" (95). This is a carefully researched chapter that has impressive recourse to the work of art historians and historians of visual culture. The work of Ann Hurley on Donne is a major (and duly acknowledged) influence and the pictorial and sculptural collections of the Earl of Arundel and other significant courtiers of the day are mentioned as providing an important contemporary context for the engagement of Massinger's play with the effects and impacts of art. There is tantalizing mention of the ways in which the contemporary interest in the work of Van Dyck, Rubens, and Mytens, among others, brought the continental baroque firmly into the realm of English cultural and theatrical experience. There seemed more to say here also, and I'd have liked to see Rochester's observations on the ways in which the art-collecting vogue of the 1630s (stretching all the way to the monarch himself, as the cited work of Jeremy Wood has demonstrated) taken even further. Important new research on the Queen Consort's engagement with the art world at this time might, for example, have yielded some interesting contexts for Massinger's preoccupations in this play. Equally intriguing, but left only as brief mentions rather than sustained analyses, are the points that Rochester makes about the involvement of Caroline playwrights themselves as art collectors: she mentions William Cartwright in particular who collected images of actors such as Nathan Field. The interaction here between dramatic and visual culture seems to be potentially very rich indeed. My wish for even more detail and discussion aside, this is a hugely engaging section of the book and advances welcome new ideas as does the study as a whole about Massinger's embeddedness within Caroline cultural practices.
University of Nottingham, UK
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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