Traps of Illusion in Massingerís
The Roman Actor


Werner Habicht

Even in the context of the theatricalism of much Jacobean and Caroline drama Philip Massinger´s The Roman Actor (1626; publ. 1629) is an extraordinary play. An actor as protagonist, an elaborate keynote speech in defence of the theatre, a plot partly propelled by three plays-within-the-play representing three different dramatic genres, and frequent references (both literal and metaphorical) to the stage-like social world of Rome that is depicted, and to the God-game of Caesar Domitian by which it is manipulated: all of this would seem to point to a more complex involvement with the power of the stage and also with its limitations than is apparent on the surface.

The power of the stage is, of course, vindicated by Paris, the actor of Rome, near the beginning of the play (I.3). But while the grand rhetoric of his prominent speech to that purpose is impressive enough, its substance is perhaps less starling - drawing as it does on traditional commonplaces derived from Aristotle, Ovid, or Sir Philip Sidney as well as from current arguments justifying the theatre against Puritan objections. (Resemblances with Thomas Heywoods Apology for Actors [1612] have often been pointed out.) The compilation of "every grace, and excellence/Of Argument [...]/Contracted in a sweete Epitome" may well have been attractive to T. I., the contributor of a dedicatory poem. But what we are told is familiar enough: that drama joins profit with delight, that it mirrors reality, that it represents noble actions to inspire and deciphers vices to reform its spectators; that it can "move" these to identify with its fictional characters, and that for this reason its effect is superior to that of the "could precepts (perhaps seldome reade)" of moral philosophy (I.3.78).

However, the dramatic context of Paris´s speech, and especially the three plays-within-the-play in which Paris performs, do not confirm the theory as one might expect, but contradict it and thus question its validity. This discrepancy was strangely ignored by earlier critics, who, spellbound by Paris´s oration, sensed in it the dramatist´s own voice and declared Massinger a "champion of the theatre" at a time when the theatre was under attack. The play was felt to express "with tire and conviction the authors high ideal for the theatre as a social institution, and his esteem for the actors", especially since, as the author of what be some time was a standard monograph maintained, Massinger in his other plays scrupulously adhered to the aesthetic principles thus proclaimed. Inconsistencies that were noted tended to be criticized as faults of style or construction.

It is only in the past two decades or so that this view has increasingly been challenged and that the contradiction between Paris´s general assumptions and their practical implementation has been recognized ­ from various angles ­ as being a nucleus of the playís meaning and a key to its politics. Attention has been drawn to the structural importance of the metaphor of acting and the theatrum rnundi idea in the play as a whole, and interest has focused on the role of Domitian the tyrant and on the political implications of its relationship with that of Paris and the actors; this resulted in reconsiderations and revaluations of Massinger´s position. Jonas Barish, for instance, nearly demonstrates how each of the main principles laid down in Parisís speech is undercut by one of the plays-within-the-play and notes comparable manifestations of discomfort with the theatres traditional claims in other Caroline plays. Martin Butler, discussing the use of Roman history in Stuart drama, goes as bar as to assert that "the effects of playacting as Massinger shows them [in The Rornan Actor] are disruptive, mischievous and downright subversive", and that, as a consequence, Massinger must be seen as "deliberately writing the most anti-theatrical play of the English Renaissance, presenting Paris and his fellows in a light that is powerfully "puritan"". In brief, The Roman Actor, once appreciated as an anti-puritan manifesto, has been allowed to emerge as the very opposite ­ strange as this may appear when one considers that the author was a respectable theatre professional himself, indeed Shakespeare´s and Fletcher´s successor as playwright for the King´s Men, and that he thought of the play as "the most perfect birth of my Minerva". Indeed, a certain ambiguity and inconclusiveness does remain, as Richard A. Burt has since pointed out, ascribing the complexity to the politics of audiences by which the actors intentions are re-written".

The point is that Massinger does not merely deal with theatre aesthetics. Nor can his attitude be neatly classified as either an affirmative, orthodox view of dramatic art (on the basis of Paris´s theoretical oration) or as a sceptical, subversive one (on the basis of theory/practice discrepancies). In its political dimension the play raises the question of the theatreís role under the conditions of an absolutist régime, a question which was topical in England at the time of Charles I. As the dramatist Thomas May begins his sonnet prefixed to the first printed edition, "Paris, the best of Actors in his age/Acts yet, and speakes upon our Roman Stage". Despite the title the most salient protagonist throughout ­ and indeed the more successful performer ­ is not Paris the Roman actor but Domitian the tyrannical Roman emperor, the subject matter being adapted from historical sources and structured on the de casibus pattern. This also requires the tyrantís eventual downfall. After much display of his vicious tyranny, the fall of Domitian is the result not so much of divine intervention ­ though there is a suggestion of that, too ­ as of forces of opposition within the social world that is represented. There are at least three groups of subversive opponents; in each case, however, their moral status is ironically at variance with their practical achievement. The first of these groups is a faction of stoical senators, whose "passive fortitude" is motivated by their philosophical conviction and culminates in their martyrdom; the second is Paris and his actors, whose activity, though directed against the general corruption in the state, is at the same time loyal to, because protected by, the ruler (who in turn manipulates it for his own purposes); and the third is made up of heterogeneous conspirators, originally supporters of the tyrannical system but then united by their resentment at having lost the favour of the tyrant, whom they finally succeed in killing. Clearly among these forces of opposition the one emanating from the actors is the most ambivalent.

The difference between the first two of these groups is established at once. Paris and his actors are complaining that the times are duIl and that the theatre is empty, because "pleasures of worse natures/Are gladly entertayn´d". (I.l.13f.). Moreover, the actors are persecuted for treason and "as libellers against the state and Caesar" (III. 1.34) by Aretinus, Caesars mighty spy, who has been "galld in our last Comedy"(I.1.37) and who turns his personal resentment into a general indictment of their satirical representation of "actions not to be toucht at" (I.3.39). The actors in turn denounce the tribunal of the senate, to which they are summoned, as just another symptom of corrupt politics:

That reuerend place, in which the affaires of Kings,
And prouinces were determin´d, to descend
To the censure of a bitter word, or iest,
Dropíd from a Poets pen! (1.1.62-65)
But this sounds self-righteous, since al the same time the actors rely on the favour of Domitian himself, whom they "oft haue cheer´d" (I.1.40) and whose triumphant return from martial exploits they anticipate.

By contrast, the conspiratorial dialogue of the group of Stoics is from the very beginning a much more general and incisive diatribe against social and political corruption, which they clearly perceive as being the result of the tyranny, the cruelty and the presumption of Domitian, who is "incliníd to bloud" and acts as "Great Lord, and God" (I.1.93; 108). The theatre audience are immediately made to see just how right they are when, in the second scene, an independent piece of action shows the unscrupulousness with which senator Lamia´s wife is blackmailed into prostituting herself to Domitianís desires and into becoming his empress.

To that interdependence of tyrannical rule and social degeneration, which is clearly perceived by the Stoics, the actors appear to be blind. Hence Paris´s grand speech in defence of dramatic art in the third scene is curiously beside the point. Its very premises are paradoxical. The fact that it is Caesarís spy Aretinus who stages the trial, because he has been offended by his satirical representation in a play, undermines the basis on which Parisís response to the indictment is built: it disproves the actors previous assertions concerning both the lack of general interest in the theatre and the theatres claim to achieve moral conversion. For Aretinus has shown interest in the theatre, and he has not been converted. The very opening of Parisís speech, a deferential invocation of the temporarily absent emperor, falls little short of Aretinus´s own sycophantic public eulogy a few lines earlier, and betrays the actors´ lack of political perception. "I am", says Paris:

So confident in the iustice of our cause,
That I could wish Caesar (in whose great name
All Kings are comprehended) sate as iudge,
To heare our Plea, and then determine of vs. (I.3.52-55)
And significantly the entire trial comes to nothing; it is prematurely cut off by Domitian´s triumphant return from his belligerent exploits; while he cruelly orders the execution of the prisoners (I.1.20), the actors stand ready to add lustre and "soft delights" (77) to this triumph.

Again this is in contrast with the politically perceptive and consistent attitude of the group of the Stoics; although the latter have applauded Parisís oration with asides appreciative of its oppositional courage, their subsequent attitude to the tyrant differs sharply from that of the actors. Their critical comments persist even under torture and during their execution. The actors, however, vow allegiance to Domitian, kissing his hand, receiving privileges, enhancing his pleasures with their art and soothing their conscience with the conviction that they have never abused it (cf.II.1.71ff). Indeed Paris fails to apply the essence of his own dramatic theory even while he is pronouncing it. Although he argues that a play´s fiction mirrors reality in order to reform it and adduces stereotyped stage characters to prove his point ­ wanton prodigais, bawds, panders, hypocritical flatterers, misers, corrupt judges, Plautine braggarts, etc., ­ he utterly fails to relate these fictional types to the reality of the outer play; for in fact each of them corresponds, as the theatre audience are amply shown, to a facet of Domitian´s tyranny and of the social corruption bred by it. In short, the text of Paris´s defence of the stage is undermined by its context, and even by its flamboyant rhetoric itself, which almost entirely relies on rhetorical questions and a reiterated pattern of conditional clauses.

The theoretical and self-delusive nature of Parisís vindication of the theatre is then made more than explicit by the three inset plays. The first of these, entitled "The Cure of Avarice", is, indeed, a demonstration piece; to introduce it, Massinger has invented an episodic subplot about the father of Parthenius, Domitianís freedman ­ a money-hoarding miser, who by being exposed to the play about a miser is to be changed into a normal being. The principle had been a main point of Parisís speech (cf.I.3.106) and is now reasserted:

I once obseruíd,
In a Tragedie of ours, in which a murther
Was acted to the life, a guiltie hearer
Forcíd by the terror of a wounded conscience,
To make discouerie of thar, which torture
Could not wring from him. (II.1.90-95)
Massinger may well be alluding to what the mousetrap play did in Hamlet ­ to a fictional rather than a real precedent, though he has Paris choose a different, more "modern" genre: the covetous man must "see a Comedie we haue", which appears to be a satirical play of the Jonsonian kind. In thar comedy a miser is in fact converted when a doctor (played by Paris) feeds his imagination with the projection of a "fearefull Dreame" (II.1.324), which itself constitutes an inset play-within the-play-within-the-play. It is only within the inset play that a play achieves a covetous manís moral conversion and thus a change of his typical "role", whereas the miser watching that play (forcibly commanded to do so) remains unaltered. Precisely because the latter responds by identifying his social role with the pant of the fictional miser, he refuses to "imitate" the latterís theatrical "suddaine change" (II.1.432); the only way to "cure" him is by the emperorís inexorable death sentence. Hence the theatre audience is confronted with two opposite versions of a playís therapeutical effect. Drama can work either way, it may change a man or it may not; to theorize otherwise is at best wishful thinking.

This point is further developed in the following inset plays, which, since their genres are different, also suggest that it does not apply to satire alone. Indeed Domitia, now Domitianís empress, who has theatrical tastes of her own, is critical of plays such as "The Cure of Avance" ("Fon the subiect/I like it not, it was filchíd out of Horace"; II.1.419f.). Since, however, she has taken an interest in Paris, its main actor, she prefers to be entertained by "Iphis and Anaxarete", apparently a romantic tragedy in the manner of John Fletcher, in which Paris must act the part of the cruelly rejected lover. Domitia herself has a hand in the production of this second inset play, adapting its text, selecting the costumes, assigning the part of the inexorable lady to her social rival Domitilla in order to humiliate her. And yet she is caught in the theatrical fiction partly of her own making, when, inflamed with passion for the actor, she interrupts the performance she is watching in order to prevent Iphis/Paris from hanging himself in amorous despair, even forgetting her intention of humiliating Domitilla, which (to judge from the Ovidian story [Met. XIV 698ff.]) would have occurred at the end, as Domitia well knows ("I am familiar/With the conclusion"; III.2.290f.). Again a paradoxical interrelation of fiction, reality and power is exhibited: real power (Domitiaís imperial position) is used to shape and manipulate the theatrical fiction; the power of that fiction unsettles the manipulators real power ­ "what I saw presented/Carried me beyond my selfe"(III.2.287f.), Domitia admits. And instead of delight, profit and the virtuous inspiration that such a play ought to provide according to the theory, it breeds a vicious and doubly adulterous passion.

Domitias ensuing attempt at seducing Paris reveals the dilemma which the actor has so far repressed ­ the dilemma between his fictional roles and his real self, and also between theatrical activity and political allegiance. He may well insist on keeping the two separate ­ but only to realize their ineluctable interdependence. He can no longer reject either Domitiaís passion aroused by his fictional self or the allegiance of his real self to Domitian without being lost. The predicament is itself staged theatrically, with Domitian watching the scene between Paris and Domitia, who in their dialogue invoke classical drama first tragic, then comic. "Kisse closer", Domitia tells Paris when he reluctantly succumbs to her, "Thou art now my Troyan Paris/And I thy Helen" (IV.2.101-103), which puts the eavesdropping Domitian provisionally in the role of Menelaus; and, switching to Plautus, "I shall wish that thou wert Iupiter/And I Alcmena" (109f.), whereupon Domitius assumes the part of Amphitryon, who "stands by and drawes the curtaines". In giving in to Domitia and thus rejecting the tyrantís favour, Paris commits what is at best an unintended act of anti-tyrannical opposition.

But Domitian will not only be an auditor, but an actor, too, and he will have a more potent part than those of Menelaus or Amphitryon into which he has been manoeuvred. In the third play-within-the-play, "The faithful servant", which looks like a tragedy of revenge reminiscent of The Spanish Tragedy, and which is a fictional re-enactment of the preceding "real" scene, the tyrant himself, who has ordered, and is taking control of, its performance, plays the part of the avenger and kills Paris in earnest. superimposing reality upon the fiction by which reality is mirrored. Thus the actor is trapped in the theatrical illusion whose power he had vindicated theoretically.

Massinger, then, is questioning that power, alerting his theatre audience to the arbitrariness of its effect, to the deceptiveness of its relation to the outside world, and, particularly, to its being subject to political power; for none of the plays-within-the-play is staged without official order or approval, and the fragmentation and reformulation of their texts in accordance with their recipientsí interests remains uncontested by the actors. Is, then, the theatre doomed to be victimized in a tyrannical state, because the latter absorbs the power of the stage in a Machiavellian power-game of its own? Is its oppositional potential inadequate? The more consistently oppositional Stoics in their heroic martyrdom can at least confront the tyrant with the limitations of his power, because their "passive fortitude" supported by their philosophy is immune to his manipulation ­ a fact that defies the actorsí theory that, according to Parisís oration, deems fictional impersonation more effective than what "all the sects of the Philosophers" (I.3.77) have to offer.

And yet the theatre does have a function in the counter-movement that leads to the tyrantís downfall, albeit an unintended one. For there is that third and pragmatically successful oppositional group, that conspiracy of dissatisfied members of the tyrannical system, whose revolt is motivated not by common convictions (whether they be practised consistently as by the Stoics or ambivalently as by the actors), but by individual grievances. And yet each of these conspirators has adopted his or her morally dubious oppositional role as a result of the activities of the theatre: Parthenius, whose avaricious father, because a play did not cure him, was cold-bloodedly sentenced to death by the tyrant; Domitilla, who had been given a humiliating role to perform by Domitia; and Domitia herself, because the tyrant´s usurpation of the revenge play has killed the object of her desires. But despite the effective completion of the tyrannicide, no doubt is permitted as to what one is to think of this kind of theatre-generated revolt. Having murdered Domitian, these conspirators are all arrested and committed to the law ­ though by what legal authority they will be tried remains open.

This of course adds a final note of cynicism to Massingerís sceptical evaluation of the impact of a stage practice based on a deficient, albeit traditional, dramatic theory, and controlled by the interests ­ conflicting interests at that ­ of both its sponsors and audiences. Massinger is no Brecht proposing an innovative and more progressive theory. But he displays an awareness of the dangers into which the Caroline stage was drifting, an awareness which may also be discerned in contemporary plays such as Brome´s The Antipodes. And he may also be looking back in anger on earlier, apparently more confident uses of the play-within-the-play, especially if one reads The Roman Actor, as well one might, as a kind of intertextual commentary on Hamlet. For the parallels are too numerous and too conspicuous to be ignored. In Hamlet, too, a troupe of actors is employed at the court of a corrupt state; a theoretical lecture on acting is delivered and then contradicted by the acting practice; a particular play is selected and re-written for a purpose but with doubtful results, etc. It would seem that Massinger, in giving weight to doubts as to the theatre´s impact on a political reality which is itself theatrical and illusive, also explores and makes explicit similar doubts that had been hidden in earlier Elizabethan drama.

© Dr. Werner Habicht
University of Würzburg, Germany


1) Quotations are from The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger, ed. by Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson (Oxford, 1967), vol. III.See p. 16, II. 13-16.
2) Cf. Th. M. Parrott and R. H. Ball. A Short View of Elizabethan Drama (New York, 1955), p. 265.
3) A. H. Cruikshank, Philip Massinger (Oxford, 1920). p. 126.
4) Cf. T. A. Dunn, Philip Massinger (London, 1957). p. 142 f.
5)Cf., for instance, Cruikshank, p. 66. Even the editor of a scholarly edition of the play utterly failed to notice, let alone to comment on, the discrepancies; cf. W. L. Sandidge, jr.(ed.), A Critical Edition of Massinger´s "The Roman Actor" (Princeton, 1929).
6)See, particularly, Patricia Thomson, "World Stage in Massingerís Roman Actor", Neophilologus, 54 (1970), pp. 409-426; A. P. Hogan, "Imagery of Acting in The Roman Actor". Modern Language Review, 66 (1971), pp. 273-281.
7) See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore, 1983); Douglas Howard, "Massingerís Political Tragedies", in: Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, ed. by D. Howard (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 117-137; Rebecca W. Bushnell, Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990). pp. 171 ff.
8) Jonas Barish, "Three Caroline "Defenses" of the Stage", in: Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Essays in Honor of Eugene Waith, ed. by A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman (Newark, Del., 1986), pp. 194-212.
9) Martin Butler, "Romans in Britain: The Roman Actor and the early Stuart Classical Play", in: Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, ed. by D. Howard (Cambridge, 1985). pp. 139-170, esp. p. 159 f.
10) Richard A. Burt, "Tis Writ by Meí: Massinger´s The Roman Actor and the Politics of Reception in the English Renaissance Theatre", Theatre Journal, 40 (1988), pp. 332 -3 46.
11) See C. A. Gibson, "Massingerís Use of his Sources for The Roman Actor", AUMLA. 15 (1961), pp. 60-72.
12) Cf. Hamlet´s "I have heard/ That guilty creatures sitting in a play/ Have, by the very cunning of a scene,/Been struck so to the soul that presently/ They have proclaim´d their malefactions": Hamlet (ed. H. Jenkins, 1982), II.v.584-588.

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