top of page
Thomas Middleton's

MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2018 AT 7:30 PM

Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.)

 Directed by Craig Baldwin

Featuring Zainab Jah, Dion Johnstone, Robert Joy, Christopher Michael McFarland, Dion Mucciacito, Denis O'Hare,  Bhavesh Patel, Reynaldo Piniella,  John-Alexander Sakelos, Lee Sellars, Mirirai Sithole and Sam Tsoutsouvas


A juicy romantic thriller in the tradition of The Revenger’s Tragedy, this gem was resurrected from a single handwritten Jacobean manuscript, without title or author. Often attributed to Thomas Middleton, the play tells the tragic tale of two sisters—known simply as Lady and Wife—each unwittingly caught in a love triangle and facing a test of her fidelity. But will both sisters pass? Inspired both by Talmudic legend and the story of a Christian martyr, the play features one of the most gruesome love suicides of the age, and a scene of necrophilia to boot. Almost never performed, this hearing is a rare opportunity.


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. Casting subject to change.



Thomas Middleton (1580–1627) was an English playwright and poet. Born in London, Middleton was the son of a bricklayer who had raised himself to the status of a gentleman. He was five years old when his father died. His mother's remarriage resulted in a fifteen-year battle over the inheritance of the children, an experience that perhaps accounts for Middleton’s repeated satirizing of the legal profession.


Middleton matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1598, although he did not graduate. He began his literary career while still at Oxford, publishing three long poems, including a verse satire that was burned on the order of the Anglican Church.


Like many playwrights of the time, Middleton collaborated extensively with others, including Thomas Dekker (The Roaring Girl), William Rowley (A Fair Quarrel, The Changeling). He also wrote a number of plays on his own, including his city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and probably the The Revenger’s Tragedy. He also participated in revising Macbeth and Measure for Measure. Middleton’s friendship with Dekker brought him into conflict with Ben Jonson and George Chapman in the War of the Theatres. Middleton's Inner Temple Masque (1619) takes a swipe at “silenced bricklayers,” believed to be a reference to Jonson, who was then away in Scotland. The conflict with Jonson continued as late as 1626, when Jonson's play The Staple of News mocked Middleton's A Game at Chess.


Middleton was one of the busiest and most successful popular writers of the period, making his living primarily as a pamphleteer. He had no binding affiliation with any theater company, but rather wrote on a freelance basis for several of them. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve success in comedy, history, and tragedy. He was also a prolific writer of masques and pageants. As a result of his involvement with civic pageants, he was appointed City Chronologer to the City of London in 1620, a post he held until his death seven years later (at which point the post was given to Ben Jonson).


Middleton’s last known play for the commercial theater was the political allegory A Game at Chess (1624), which satirized the intrigue surrounding the Spanish Match (the controversial proposed marriage of Prince Charles, the son of King James I, to the Spanish Infanta Maria). Though Middleton’s approach in the play was patriotic, the Spanish Ambassador complained about the play and the Privy Council shut it down after nine performances. It is believed that Middleton was forbidden to write for the stage following this incident. 


Middleton is best known for The Changeling (produced by Red Bull Theater in 2016) and for Women Beware Women (produced by Red Bull Theater in 2008), and is believed by many to have written the anonymous play The Revenger’s Tragedy (produced by Red Bull Theater in 2005.) 


Featuring an evil villain named Tyrant and a besieged beauty named Lady, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy suggests all the subtlety of a cartoon melodrama. At the play’s opening, the Tyrant has usurped the monarchy from the good king Govianus, whom the Lady loves, and his relentless pursuit of the Lady continues even after she kills herself to avoid marrying him. Meanwhile, Anselmus, Govianus’s brother, worries about whether he can trust the fidelity of his wife, aptly named Wife. In order to be sure, he asks his best friend to test her virtue, causing distress to both Wife and the reluctant friend.

As these two plot strands develop in tandem, the play’s apparently straightforward moral order begins to disintegrate. Under pressure, even the most upright figures find themselves succumbing to lies, adultery, and murder; victims and predators start to look disturbingly similar. When the Tyrant attempts to deny the Lady’s death by having her corpse elaborately costumed and painted to maintain the illusion of life, her indignant ghost demands a response, and Govianus begins meditating on revenge. After giving in to temptation, meanwhile, Anselmus’s wife finds herself enmeshed in increasingly complex schemes for hiding her love affair from her husband, while her maid exploits her knowledge of the affair to settle other scores. The play’s only good woman may be a dead woman, but even the Lady’s corpse acquires a dark vindictive mission. Gradually, the play’s resemblance to an allegorical morality tale fades to reveal a more complicated dystopia. Like many Jacobean revenge tragedies, the play raises the question of whether even the best-intentioned people can maintain integrity in a corrupt world.

The play’s answer may be cynical, but it’s far from dismal. Alongside the baroque horrors of its invaded tombs, painted corpses, and necrophilic embraces, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is suffused with comic touches. Bawdy maids, complacently cuckolded husbands, and a father who willingly panders his own child all recall popular elements in satiric city comedies. The play’s mordant wit appears at some of its darkest moments, such as Govianus’s bumbling failure to fulfill the Lady’s increasingly impatient demands to kill her, and the snickering back-talk that the Tyrant’s courtiers mutter under their breaths as his delusions escalate. Tensions between comic and tragic elements create unsettling discord; typically farcical conventions such as lovers hidden in closets become unexpectedly alarming when resentful subordinates deliberately muddle crucial messages and props. Like much of Middleton’s work, the play sends up fashionable stage clichés in order to develop a sophisticated satire underpinning its Gothic excess.

Although we know little of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy’s stage history, its 1611 performance date by the King’s Men – Shakespeare’s playing company – offers a suggestive context for understanding its curious mix of heavy-handed melodrama with wry irony. In 1608 the King’s Men had acquired a lease at the upmarket indoor Blackfriars Theater, whose sophisticated audiences were accustomed to the sly, transgressive wit of the innovative children’s companies. The King’s Men continued to perform for large popular audiences at the outdoors Globe, but as their plays began rotating between the Globe and Blackfriars, playwrights had to satisfy two very different kinds of theatergoing communities. Combining the crowd-pleasing satisfactions of a racy ghost story with the subtler pleasures of urbane mockery, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy caters to multiple tastes. Like its original audiences, we are invited both to revel in its fast-paced melodrama and to laugh at its self-conscious parody of theatrical trends.


Tanya Pollard, Professor of English

Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY




The Second Maiden’s Tragedy dramatizes a morbid narrative of unrequited desire, evoking the allegorical world of a morality play. The Tyrant, who usurps the throne, is in love with the Lady, whose heart is given to her true lover (and the true king), Govianus. After the Lady chooses to kill herself rather than surrender to the Tyrant’s desire, the Tyrant adorns and displays the Lady’s body in a desperate attempt to deny her death, and calls for a painter to restore her color with cosmetics. Govianus, in disguise, beautifies the body with poisoned paint, leading to the Tyrant’s fatal kiss. In the secondary action, Govianus’ brother Anselmus distrusts his Wife and persuades his reluctant friend Votarius to test her virtue. The Wife and Votarius begin an affair, which is revealed to Anselmus by the Wife’s maid. In attempting to persuade her husband that she is faithful, the Wife mistakenly stabs Votarius with a poisoned sword; the ensuing melee ends in the deaths of all the characters.



bottom of page