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John Marston's

March 2, 2015, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street

Directed by Michael Sexton

featuring Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe

with Matthew Amendt, Michael Braun, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Ray Dooley, Autumn Dornfeld, Cameron Folmar, Don Guillory, Daniel K. Isaac, David Manis, Kathryn Meisle, Rachel Mewbron, Steven Rattazzi, Kate Skinner


Why is it so hard to be good? Freevill tries to break off his affair with the titular courtesan – but she’s not so easy to shake.


The first play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to have been revived by Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company in the 1960s, John Marston's plays are the ones that Shakespeare made fun of in Hamlet's famous "Advice to the Players."  But what fun they are!

When the play was first published in 1605, it was prefaced by a summary: “The difference betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife is the full scope of the play, which intermixed with the deceits of a witty city jester, fills up the comedy.” Freevil, an easy-going, pleasure-seeking man about town, discards his dutch concubine Franceschina, and, for a lark, sets Malheureux, his unhappy puritanical friend, on to her.  But when passion is a scourge and love is humiliation, friends very quickly become dangerous enemies.


The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear new and rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.





John Marston (1576-1634) brought to his writings an elite education, a sardonic wit, and a taste for sexually explicit banter.  An Oxford graduate and member of Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, he made his mark first with nondramatic poetry – the pornographic Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and the satiric Scourge of Villainy – before turning to plays after the 1599 Bishops’ Ban on verse satire. Marston wrote primarily for the boys’ companies, especially the edgy, sophisticated Children of the Queens Revels.  Both writer and shareholder in the company, he had an important role in developing the dark, experimental wit that came to distinguish their upmarket Blackfriars Theater from the more inclusive open-air amphitheaters like the Globe.  Like many of his characters, he had an antagonistic streak.  He has been credited with sparking the feud known as the war of the theaters, and he and Ben Jonson notoriously attacked each other both onstage and off; at one point Jonson claimed to have physically beaten him and taken his pistol.  Yet Marston also praised Jonson in print, and worked collaboratively with him and George Chapman on the 1605 comedy Eastward Ho, which got all its authors except Marston in prison for libel. The near escape didn’t stop him from continuing to court controversy; in 1608 James I had Marston imprisoned after further theatrical scandals and offenses.  Around this time, Marston retired from writing for the theater, and surprised his contemporaries by spending the rest of his life as a priest. With its unpredictable mix of competition, friendship, aggression, and reflectiveness, his life – like his writings – embraced contraries.



Like many of Marston’s plays, The Dutch Courtesan (ca. 1604) challenges generic boundaries, marrying revenge tragedy with city comedy to form a darkly satiric urban tragicomedy.  The play centers on two friends, the morose Malheureux and the sanguine Freevill.  Freevill enjoys the affections of both the alluring Franceschina (the courtesan of the play’s title), and the gentle, chaste Beatrice, to whom he is betrothed.  Resolving to break off from vice before marrying, he offers his courtesan to Malheureux, who is appalled to find himself violently possessed by lust despite his moral objections to a woman described as “an arrant strumpet.”  While Malheureux overcomes his scruples, Franceschina is not complacent about being abandoned by one man and transferred to another.  In a riposte to Dekker and Middleton’s Honest Whore, the beautiful courtesan flouts expectations not by being paradoxically honest, but by proving even more dangerously immoral than imagined.  Her response to Freevill’s wedding plans prompts a series of elaborate plots and counterplots, whose rapid switchbacks offer surprises for their audiences both onstage and off.


Two subplots, meanwhile, introduce more overtly comic motifs borrowed from other popular early modern plays.  The mischievous wit Cocledemoy takes delight in repeatedly tricking and robbing the outraged Master Mulligrub, echoing the mercenary exploits typical of city comedies by Jonson and Middleton.  And while Beatrice prepares for marriage, her sister Crispinella criticizes the institution in spiky banter with the gallant Tysefew, recalling Much Ado’s Beatrice and Benedick. Other threads similarly showcase Marston’s interest in recent theatrical fashions: Freevill’s concealed spying nods to the disguised ruler plot familiar from plays including Measure for Measure (ca. 1603-4) and Marston’s earlier The Malcontent (1601-03), while Malheureux’s tortured philosophical reflections echo from Hamlet (ca. 1600-01) as well as Montaigne.  Yet if Marston highlights the play’s debts to its broader theatrical community, the play is distinctive in its depiction of sexual voracity and often gratuitous aggression: features that are especially disconcerting when we remember that its bawdy and murderous characters were acted entirely by children. With its swaggering language, colorful curses, and wild plot twists, The Dutch Courtesan is both of its time and ahead of it.


- Tanya Pollard, Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY


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