Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Lucky Chance was a disconcerting play from the moment I laid eyes on the Dramatis Personae. Of course, Act 5 confirmed my discomfort and distaste for the action of the play, but it seemed like everything I needed to know was encapsulated in the Dramatis Personae list.
The first thing that jumped out at me was that the women were characterized very differently from the men. Every major character was described in relation to other characters, which is the norm. However, the men had societal roles—“prentice,” “banker,” “ alderman”—or other descriptions given to them—“old,” “a fop,” “disguised”. The women were usually characterized in relation to the male characters or by character judgments: specifically the terms honest, generous, and virtuous.
Immediately we see women characterized by what they are and men by what they do. But what struck me as particularly insidious is the lack of “virtuous” appended to Julia’s name. I assume that the virtue referenced is virginity, which Julia, as a married woman, cannot be said to possess any longer. This in itself is disturbing; virginity equals virtue, but married intercourse is a lack of virtue? If it is not strict virginity but simple marital fidelity, Julia is the most virtuous woman in the play. She rejects Fulbanks offer of what amounts to an open relationship in order to preserve her honor, which is later taken from her against her will and outside of her knowledge.
The absence of this simple term is small but disturbing to me, since the term is consciously applied to two other women. If Behn had used a variety of descriptors: honest, virtuous, godly, respectable, honorable, etc., it might seem less important that Julia lacks this descriptor. But since she uses virtuous with the two other principal female characters and not with Julia, this difference seems glaring and significant.
The Widdow Ranter, although the titular character of this play, does not receive that much stage time. She has about as many lines as the Indian Queen, and maybe a little bit more time on stage (since she doesn’t die). The stage time she has, though, sets her up as an incredibly strange feminine trope, whereas the Indian Queen, despite her racialization, is a much more recognizable romantic female type.
The Indian Queen is praised for her beauty, her wisdom, her expressiveness. Rather than chasing the man she begins to love, she flees his advances with becoming modesty. We see her once engaging in idol worship, a clear marker of Otherness; yet on the whole, her character seems much more akin to a typical European tragic heroine, a sort of noble savage.
The true savage is the The Widdow, who lacks any semblance of normative femininity. She smokes, drinks, curses, and pursues the man she loves. She dresses like a man and fights in a battle. We hear nothing about her beauty, charm, or other feminine qualities, normal subjects of encomia. And what is her relation to Moll Cutpurse, another female character whose behavior and dress contradict normative femininity? Moll seems less strange and wonderful because we understand her choices; she has explained the why of her lifestyle. Her lifestyle, also, is consistent; she chooses to go against the flow of what the culture expects of her in almost every respect. But the Widdow Ranter is just an enigma. We don’t understand her choices to buck culture, since she has obviously not done so in every instance. She is a Widdow, so she married once, as was expected of her. She is a woman, so she will marry again. Are all these oddities merely indications that we are dealing with a strange person, or are they markers of her cultural difference from the English? Is her American-ness the most important Otherness in the play, more striking and marvelous than the Indians? Is Aphra Behn trying to make a new type, the coarse, mannish American woman?
The Roaring Girl is full of animal allusions and names. People call each other horses, pigs, birds, dogs; there is a place called the Three Pigeons; characters have names such as Gull, Goshawk, Tearcat, and Neatfoot (“neat” being an archaic word for cow, or cattle). And, of course, the titular character, Moll Cutpurse, is the “roaring girl,” a lion of a woman.
Moll uses such language to her advantage in Scene 5 when she meets Laxton for what he assumes will be a sexual rendezvous. As soon as she sees him, she notes how “his eye hawks for venery” (line 43-44). Immediately he is cast in the role of predator. She, whom he calls “admirably suited for the Three Pigeons,” is his prey—a cooing, wanton bird in the hand. She goes on to describe herself sarcastically as his “hackney,” a broken-down horse which he rides hard. This sexual pun which not only puts their relationship in economic terms—a hackney is hired, as she points out when she throws his money at his feet—but also in terms of man and beast, the user and the used.
Her next animal reference carries a similar weight of sarcasm. She tells Laxton how conceited he is, hyperbolizing various situations in which he might think himself desired by a woman based on little evidence. To cap off this section of her diatribe, she tells him he’ll swear to his fellows that a lady has fallen more in love with him at first sight “than her monkey all her lifetime.” In this imaginary situation, the monkey is more than just the woman’s pet. It is also the woman, a fool, too quickly caught and snared by Laxton’s (lacking) charm and wiles. But in Moll’s sarcastic rendering, the monkey is Laxton, for imagining that women fall in love with him so easily.
In this monologue’s final extended metaphor, Moll compares Laxton’s usual prey, the “distressed needlewomen and trade-fallen wives,” to fish and himself to an angler. As noted in the text, these prey must “bite” or “be bitten”; sexual politics in Moll’s understanding is a relationship between predator and prey. She doesn’t fault women for “biting” at Laxton’s “worm”; otherwise they might be eaten by some worse predator. But she laughs at his angling for her, and at the end of her speech all animal metaphors are cast aside when she says, “I scorn to prostitute myself to a man, I that can prostitute a man to me!”

Tom Wilding and the Pox

The protagonist of The City Heiress is not the City Heiress. Nor is it Sir Timothy Treat-All. The first scene sets up a dispute between Sir Timothy and his nephew, Tom Wilding, and it immediately becomes obvious that, because of his youth, charm, and wit, we are to identify with the rakish, beseeching Tom and not his “resolv’d, deaf, and obdurate” uncle who refuses to continue to pay for Tom’s debts. Tom, a spendthrift with three romantic interests and a venereal disease to boot, is an odd choice for a protagonist, but it cannot be the demurely doting Charlot, or the aging and hypocritical Sir Timothy, nor can it be the whining Sir Charles Meriwill or the duped Lady Galliard. Diana might give Tom a run for his money, but it is Tom whom everyone in the play wants—wants what he has, wants to be more like him, or wants his person.

However clear it is that Tom is universally “wanted” by the characters in the play, it seems strange to the audience that he gets what he wants. Often in such plays, the bulk of the madcap action relies on the trickster getting away with his tricks, but barely, by the seat of his pants. Tom almost never gets away with his tricks; before he even tries to seduce them, Lady Galliard, Charlot, and Diana know all about his other lovers, his pennilessness, his lies. It seems that almost everyone at Sir Timothy’s dinner recognizes Tom in his disguise at some point or another, except for Sir Timothy. He is continually being unmasked by people around him, and things still turn out exactly as he would have them.

His venereal disease is an instance of this. Pox abounds in this play; it is used as a curse by almost every male character in the play. Clacket says that she has concealed the names of his “wicked diseases” and procured “filthy surgeons” for him. His uncle makes reference to paying for “Pocky doctors.” It seems like everyone knows he has the pox. Reference is even made to Tom’s pox in the presence of each of his romantic interests—yet they still want to sleep with him. Diana sums it up, “I must love a Wit, with a Pox, when I might have had so many Fools of Fortune.”

This makes me, as an audience member, ask “Why must she love him?” It is inconceivable that Tom should be successful in his conquests, given all his negative qualities and his ineptitude at secrecy and deceit. However, his rhetoric always saves the day. He is able to spin the truth (that he’s poor, that he’s a philanderer, that he’s diseased) and make every situation seem like he engineered it. His conquests believe that he loves them when it is obvious that he does not. His verbal vomit is the cure for any other illness he spreads. It seems that, in this play, love really is blind—but it is a syphilitic blindness caused by Tom’s infectious rhetoric.

“A Chaste Maid in Cheapside” shares again in what seems to be a hallmark of Middleton’s—the scene that seemingly comes out of nowhere, like the succubus scene in “Mad World” and the Dampit storyline in “Trick”. The introduction to “Chaste Maid” makes it clear that the weaving together of the four love-triangle stories is an example of masterful plotting; why, then, the scene with the Promoters?

The Promoter scene is both interesting in what it tells us about London life and funny in the way the Promoters are tricked, twice—once by the Wench with a lamb’s head, and once by Allwit, a proverbial “calf’s head”. Perhaps its interest and humor is enough reason for it to stay. Knowing what happens to the Wench’s baby provides a bit of unexpected resolution to a minor plotline and a clever mirroring of the christening of Whorehound’s bastard. However, the scene could easily be excised without hurting any of the plotlines of the play. It seems strange that Middleton would leave it in without more effort to connect it to the rest of the plot.

Thematically, though, it is connected to the plot in so many ways. The baby is emblematic of all the babies born or conceived in the play; under only slightly different circumstances, each of these children could have ended up in the meat basket of two very confused Promoters. In the play, children are something to be sold, stolen, or foisted off—never conceived legitimately and treated with human dignity. The play is obsessed with images of consumption and excretion. Meat, comfits, and wine are as greedily consumed as Moll, Tim, and the Welshwoman; children are popped out as fast as the stomach digests and the intestines excrete. A baby, basically an intake/output machine, is the symbol of all the people in this play, none of whom have control over their bodily functions or desires . The disguise of the baby as a cut of meat has a certain neat (if stomach-turning) symbolism as well. One could easily imagine a dark Swiftian side to early modern London in which some unwanted children were turned into literal food.

"Meta." One of the best prefixes ever. Put simply, it means "about." Meta-communication is communication about other communication (often relationship talks end up being meta-communication). Meta-cognition is thinking about thinking. Meta-theatre is theatre about theatre--the people on stage are playing characters who are themselves playing other characters.

Both Mad World and Trick use meta-theatrical speech to indicate "tricking" or "playing a part" on stage. The more formal and mannered a character’s speech is, the more that character is acting a part within the play, either for other characters on stage or, in soliloquy, for the self.

In both, actors play characters playing characters, sometimes down to three or four levels of performativity, depending on the gender of the actor/character. Characters often slip between blank verse and prose, sprinkled with rhyming couplets here and there. Prose is used when someone is describing something mundane, or letting lose with strong, un-edited thoughts and feelings. Blank verse seems to be reserved for speech that has received the internal editor, thoughts that are intended to persuade someone.

Rhyming verse, specifically, seems to signal a character’s shift into a trictster persona who ostensibly follows normative social and sexual mores, but whose speech may be intended to gull the audience. Often rhyming couplets are sententious aphorisms that express the cultural norms rather than a character’s deeply held beliefs. At the end of Trick, both Jane and Follywit engage in long rhyming speeches promising new faithfulness and righteous actions; to different degrees, however, their previous actions do not support such a change. Are they playing “the wife” or “the husband” for now, intending to engage in more tricks later?

Sometimes even the rhythm of rhyming speech, such as the Courtesan’s catechizing of the Wife in Mad World, can signal this shift. The words the Courtesan uses undermine accepted sexual morality while upholding expected sexual roles (the adulterous wife, the jealous husband); her audience on stage, Harebrain, falls for her performance because all he hears is the rhythm of the speech. Her other audience, however, knows that she is performing, for him a role very different than the one she is performing for the Wife.