PHILIP MASSINGER'S
THE ROMAN ACTOR

Monday, February 15, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

 

directed by Louisa Proske

featuring Oberon Adjepong, Mamoudou Athie, Clifton Duncan, Ben Horner, Jennifer Ikeda, Paul Lazar, Patrick Page, Amanda Quaid, Lee Sellars, Carolyn Smith, Sam Underwood, Adina Verson, and more

with music by percussionist Satoshi Takeishi

"Are you on the stage, you talk so boldly?"

"The whole world being one, this place is not exempted!"

 

How far should a role be taken? This entertaining tragedy puts an actor at the center of a dramatic and dangerous love triangle in a noble condemnation of tyranny and defense of the theater.

 

Domitian, the tyrannical and jealous Roman Emperor, wreaks havoc and bloody revenge, accusing his wife Domitia's of infidelity with Paris, the Roman actor of the title. In this world, the only possibility of survival relies on pleasing an audience of one, the self-absorbed and lunatic Emperor. Regarded as Massinger's finest play, it explores the balance between private and public moralities, and celebrates plays themselves, anatomising both the theater of power and the power of theater.

 

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

The Cast:
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

 

Philip Massinger (1583-1640) became Shakespeare’s professional heir in 1625, when he succeeded Fletcher (who in turn had succeeded Shakespeare) as “Ordinary” or Principal Dramatist (that is, under exclusive contract) to the King’s Men. It was an important year for both the nation and its theater: James I died on March 27, and Fletcher at the end of August following an outbreak of plague. Massinger had been Oxford-educated for a short time—1602-03—but left without a degree, made his way down to London, and for nearly twenty years hung out and collaborated with a respected roster of fellow dramatists— Field, Daborne, Rowley, Dekker, Middleton, and most often Fletcher and the King’s Men. The Virgin Martyr [1620], written with Dekker, was performed at the Red Bull Theatre, a venue notorious for entertaining rowdy audiences from the northern suburbs! For the next twenty years, Massinger increasingly worked alone, producing fifteen or sixteen solo plays; among the best known are The Bondman (1623), The Renegado (1624), A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625), and The Roman Actor (1626).  When he died in March, 1640, he was buried with Fletcher in St. Mary Overy’s (now Southwark Cathedral); Sir Aston Cockayne’s epitaph for both reads:

 

In the same grave Fletcher was buried here

Lies the stage-poet Philip Massinger:

Plays they did write together, were great friends,

And now one grave includes them at their ends.

 

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Offering a palette of lurid celebrity-stalking, a matinee-idol crush gone horribly wrong, a paranoid tyrant, and a serious warning about the indispensability of theater in any civilization that intends to thrive, The Roman Actor (licensed October 11, 1626) was the first play performed by the King’s Men when the Blackfriars re-opened following the plague that killed Fletcher and shut the theaters for its duration.  It is an homage to professional theater’s survival despite plagues and political and religious suppression.  It was certainly one of Massinger’s favorites: in the dedicatory epistle to the play’s only seventeenth-century quarto, the conventionally modest author called it “the most perfit birth of my Minerva.”  His audiences may have agreed (though we can never know for sure; there is no record of performance after that first one until the 1690s): in an age when plays were not generally printed until they had stopped making money at the box office (in order to keep full scripts out of the hands of rival acting companies), the play was not printed until 1629, three years later, and not again in that century.

 

Like many other Elizabethan/Jacobean dramas, The Roman Actor is a critique of its own time wrapped in a toga and displaced to ancient Rome.  In the face of increasingly virulent attacks on professional theatres, intensifying since at least the time of Hamlet a quarter-century earlier (and culminating in the 1642 débacle known as the Closing of the Theaters, when public performances of plays were made illegal), the play offers a perspective that modern audiences can recognize in Pirandello, Brecht, or Artaud: Massinger thinks that life is as much the double of theater as theater is of life; when we fail to respect both, the social and political consequences to both are equally deadly.

 

Built on a succession of three plays-with-a-play that progressively merge the world and the stage, The Roman Actor breaks the “fourth wall” of each of its interior plays; only the frame remains intact.  It only slightly alters accounts by Roman historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius: the tyrant Domitian attends a play performed by Paris, Rome’s most illustrious actor.  Domitian’s wife, called Domitia, falls in love with the actor, for which Domitian allegedly murders Paris in the street and promptly divorces his wife. On this foundation Massinger builds the tale of a state wrongheaded enough to dismantle its theaters, misconstrue the role of a thriving theater in the health of a civilization, and destroy the arts and artists it does not understand.

 

Early Modern English audiences embraced the Aristotelian precept that tragedy is an “imitation of … action or life” that, as Hamlet observed, “holds the mirror up to nature.” Reminders of Shakespeare’s work abound: not only of Hamlet but also of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where weavers, tinkers, and bellows-menders can, for a moment, have their fifteen minutes of fame on the stage.  Some in Massinger’s audience might have seen hints of this leaking meta-theater in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614) a dozen years earlier. All of these, of course, owe their devices in large measure to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1587-92), the Elizabethan ur-model for these later incarnations.  In The Roman Actor, life and drama are mutual metaphors, reciprocally mirroring each other. “Are you on the stage, / You talk so boldly?” Paris is asked at the start of his trial for libel against the state; “The whole world being one,” he replies, “This place is not exempted.” The play repeatedly invokes theatrum mundi, “the theatre of the world,” a concept whose best known expression was the motto that hung over the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater: Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem, or, as Jaques famously put it in As You Like It (1599), “All the world’s a stage.”  In the post-Jacobean climate of disillusion, disappointment, and anxiety about what’s next, Massinger’s spin on the motto worries about and indeed anticipates the disappearance of both that world and that stage.

 

Naomi Conn Liebler

Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar

Montclair State University

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