September 12, 2008

Are They Any Good? Another Four Plays

Following straight on from the first four plays, here are some thoughts on another four plays that I'll be working on:

  • The Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell

This is a really interesting biographical history, in particular containing some fascinating musings on the inconstant nature of Fate. Part of the fun comes from seeing the return of characters familiar from Thomas More and Henry VIII. The play itself follows the basic outline of Thomas More quite closely, tracking the rise and fall of one of Henry's favourites. In many ways it is better structured though. Subsidiary characters from the earlier parts of the play, who meet Cromwell in his lower state, encounter him again when in power, and as such it's a more satisfying dramatic piece with a greater range of good parts. There's also a lot of discourse about debt exchange, which is reminiscent of both The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens. It's a really good play, and offers a lot of potential for performance in that it's a bit more complex than Thomas More. In particular, while the central character is portrayed as noble, his shades are far greyer than More's - in early scenes he is more self-indulgent, concerned with his reputation and studies rather than the practicalities of daily life, yet he retains a basically noble nature.

  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton

The first of the plays that I don't particularly like. Frankly, it's a bit rubbish. It starts with echoes of Marlowe's Faustus, introducing a scholar called Peter Fabell who has made a deal with a demon similar to Faustus', and here tricks the demon into giving him another seven years. From this promising start, however, it descends into a very basic and rather dull domestic comedy, featuring a father who tries to thwart the marriage between his daughter and the man she loves and marry him to another, and then the tricks of the young people and Fabell to get their own way. There are a lots of echoes of Merry Wives, interestingly - the play is set in and around a provincial inn near a wood, and both the Host and a preacher called Sir John recall the Shakespeare play. However, it's all a bit tired and the plot seems horribly holey. It's also the most difficult to read of the plays I've flicked through thus far, with a great deal of colloquial language. It'll be interesting to study, I'm sure, but so far I'm not enamoured of it.

  • Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter

This is a double-plotted play, with the two plots extremely disconnected until the end (I haven't followed this thought through, but in a sense it structurally reminded me of The Changeling, albeit without the darkness). Both stories are quite fun, the main one involving William the Conqueror travelling to the Danish court to find a girl he has seen a picture of, then finding the real girl to be uglier than expected. He immediately transfers his affections onto her friend, who his companion is betrothed to, and we are left with an interesting mix of power/honour relations, some good comedy and the potential for some quite dark moments. Meanwhile, in England, Fair Em is wooed by three courtly suitors. The one she was in love with, however, has a massive jealous rage when he finds out about the other suitors and abandons her, even while she is pretending to be deaf and dumb for her sake. The main interest in this story is the shifting loyalties the reader feels to the various suitors, with the eventual 'winner' not being the one you might expect at first. Here, jealousy genuinely destroys their relationship, and in that we see the themes of Othello and The Winter's Tale being taken to a point between the two, where jealousy only causes the jealous man to lose out. A trick played on William, who is made to marry a woman he believes to be someone else, is a common Elizabethan device, cf. All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado about Nothing which both touch on the idea. Good fun - not the greatest play, and the plots are deceptively simple, but it's genuinely very funny.

  • The London Prodigal

This is possibly my favourite of the plays so far, utterly rivetting in its depiction of the seemingly irredeemable Flowerdale. Flowerdale is the prodigal of the title, a spendthrift and liar who loves only money. His father is disguised in order to see how he conducts himself (Measure for Measure, of course, springs to mind) and follows him throughout. Flowerdals is a shocking human being, leading to a phenomenal central scene. Having just married the beautiful and loyal Luce, who has been forced into the marriage by her father, Flowerdale's father than arranges for him to be arrested for his debts in public to shame him. Luce's father orders her to return to him and forsake her husband, but Luce points out his hypocrisy and stays with her husband, and her father disowns him for her pains. Forsaken by her entire family, she turns to her husband, who is released at her suit, but Flowerdale casts her off as her dowry has been revoked. In a powerfully awful moment, he tells her that he will never more see her, unless she turns prostitute, in which case he might bump into her from time to time. The shock and sheer injustice of this scene are among the best things I've ever read in Renaissance drama. There is also a surprisingly enlightened attitude towards women - here, loyalty is the key quality (cf Cymbeline or the old stories of Geraint and Enid), and the cleverest of Luce's sisters, Delia, at the end chooses not to marry either of two suitors, as she would rather be single. Almost all the characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, and the play retains a solid pace throughout. If there's any play in this project that I want to see performed, it's this.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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