Dekker & Middleton's
THE HONEST WHORE

September 29, 2014, 7:30 pm

Pearl Theatre • 555 West 42nd Street

Directed by Marc Vietor

with Bill Army, Stephen Bel Davies, Helen Cespedes, Kyle Cherry, Nick Choksi, Carson Elrod, Drew Foster, Rick Holmes, Peter Mark Kendall, Chris Myers, Amelia Pedlow, Matthew Rauch,  Morgan Ritchie, Rocco Sisto, and Auden Thornton

 

Can a lusty prostitute fall in love without losing her mind in the process? This surprisingly comedic domestic drama provides the perfect kick-off to our season of uncontrolled passions. 

 

With three interweaving comic plots, The Honest Whore careens irreverently through every strata of Milanese society (as a thinly-disguised stand in for the underworld of Jacobean London). A prostitute named Bellafront falls in love with the courtier Hippolito, but devoted to the memory of his beloved, Hippolito spurns her. However, his beloved, Infelice, has been falsely given out dead by her father, the Duke of Milan, in an attempt to thwart their love affair. At the same time, a linen draper's wife, believing she "wants that virtue which all women's tongues have, to anger their husbands," invents wild schemes to get a rise out of him, that will eventually entangle them all. Of course, these plots unravel in asylums and prisons, amongst gambling and prostitution, to make The Honest Whore an uproarious tale of paternal disapproval and sexual deceit.

 

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.

 

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ABOUT the PLAYWRIGHTS

 

Thomas Dekker (1572 – 1632) was an English dramatist and pamphleteer, a versatile and prolific writer whose career spanned several decades and brought him into contact with many of the period's most famous dramatists. Remembered for his pot-boiler comedies, exemplified in his hit The Shoemaker’s Holiday, he is most famous for having co-written plays with all the great playwrights of the Jacobean stage as well as his keen involvement in The War of the Theaters and other controversies of the era. He was one of the authors of The Witch of Edmonton, produced by Red Bull Theater in 2011.

 

Thomas Middleton (1580 – 1627) was an English playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights of the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in comedy and tragedy, and he was also a prolific writer of masques and pageants. He is best known for The Changeling, Women Beware Women (produced by Red Bull Theater in 2008), A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (part of this season's Revelation Readings) and is believed by many to have written the anonymous play The Revenger’s Tragedy (produced by Red Bull Theater in 2005.) 

 

ABOUT the PLAY

 

The Honest Whore, probably first performed at the Fortune Theater in 1604, presents a double paradox: a whore who is “honest” and a man who is “patient.” According to early modern gender ideology, both are impossibilities. A whore by definition is sexually dishonest, sleeping with many men and faithful to none. But Bellafront, the honest whore of the play’s title, renounces her life of sin in Act II and then remains chaste despite persistent and sometimes violent attempts to push her back into prostitution. The play’s originality thus pivots on making a whore not only a protagonist but also a prime examples of virtue.

 

But what about the patient man? In the early seventeenth century the play we now call The Honest Whore was also known in theatrical records as The Patient Man and the Honest Whore, a title used in Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino’s Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (2007). This title gives the play’s dual protagonists and invites exploration of the relationship between Bellafront and Candido, the linen draper who becomes a byword for patience. In the period, patience was often considered a feminine virtue (consider the ubiquity of the iconic figure of Patient Griselda); and in Dekker and Middleton’s play there are running jokes about Candido’s lack of manliness, particularly in the face of his inability to curb the rebellious behavior of his outspoken wife, Viola. Candido, however, won’t stop singing the praises of patience; no matter what is done to provoke him, he never becomes angry. When, for example, Candido’s wife locks away the official gown he should wear to the Senate, instead of forcing her to disclose the gown, Candido takes a Turkey carpet, cuts a hole in it, and wears this ludicrous garment in lieu of his official gown. 

 

The play, though framed by a love plot involving Hippolito’s frustrated love for the Duke’s daughter, Infelice, really has a two-part testing structure: will Bellafront, once reformed, relapse into sin and will Candido ever be provoked into anger? Gender anomalies are skillfully used in both plots to solicit both wonder and laughter. The Bellafront plot veers toward melodrama, especially in Part II, when she is cruelly used by Matteo, the man who first deflowered her and who is compelled by the Duke of Milan to be her husband at the end of Part I. On the other hand, the Candido plot is consistently comic in tone as the man who will not fight, rage, and bully is subjected to the rhetorical and physical violence of those who scorn such patience as unmanly. 

 

Both parts of The Honest Whore, ostensibly set in Milan, Italy, reference London repeatedly. For example, in Candido’s linen shop apprentices have English names like George, and the play ends in Bedlam, the London hospital for the insane. Like other city comedies, The Honest Whore exposes urban vices such as prostitution, prodigality, and female unruliness. Simultaneously the play, tentatively and with some irony, offers new cultural ideals that speak to the realities of a market economy. For example, Candido’s careful self-discipline and patience have an instrumental purpose: they enable him to pander to the wishes of everyone who enters his shop, no matter how repugnant or unreasonable. As Candido says of his shopkeeper role:

 

We are set here to please all customers,

Their humours and their fancies, offend none; 

We get by many, if we leese by one. 

………………………

O, he that means to thrive with patient eye

Must please the devil if he come to buy. (Scene 5, 29-31, 35-36)

 

The play both acknowledges the importance of this shopkeeper creed and makes fun of it. The Duke embraces and praises Candido as the ideal citizen, but he is also a comic butt. Moreover, the juxtaposition of Candido and Bellafront forces the question: who is the real prostitute, the acknowledged whore or the shopkeeper who must fulfill the wishes of anyone who comes to buy? Dekker and Middleton’s collaboratively authored play invites its audience to ponder this question as well as the price a reformed whore must pay for her exemplarity. Is it better to be a shrew like Viola, a common whore who commands her own household, or an exemplary wife locked into a loveless marriage? Incredibly popular in its own day, The Honest Whore can still provoke thought, and laughter, today. 

 

-Jean Howard
Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Columbia University

 

Please join us after the performance for a “Bull Session” discussion with Jean Howard.

 

 

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