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Not to Be Altered”: Performance’s Efficacy and Audience Reaction in The Roman Actor

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 517-543 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0046

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Readers of Philip Massinger’s hyper-self-reflective The Roman Actor have long noted, and then struggled to understand, Paris’s inability to use performance to enact change in his audience. In the first of three inset plays, The Cure for Avarice, Paris (one of the Roman actors suggested by the title) uses a performance to cure Philargus of his greed and miserliness. Like Hamlet before him, Paris intends to present “on the stage as in a mirror” a character like Philargus, so that he “[m]ay see his own deformity and loathe it” (2.1.98; 99).1 However, as critics have pointed out, Philargus, unlike Claudius, does not repent or even feel guilty.2 Richard A. Burt remarks, “the attempt fails miserably.…To be sure, Philargus does identify with the [staged] miser completely. But Philargus does not regard the miser critically.”3 Philargus does eventually disown his dramatic doppelganger, but only because the character repents. “An old fool, to be gulled thus! Had he died/As I resolve to do, not to be altered,/It had gone off twanging” (2.1.407–9). In the end, Philargus remains unaffected (not “altered”) by the performance. What makes this scene so puzzling (and for critics like Jonas Barish—frustrating) is that before Paris’s failed attempt to redeem Philargus, the actor seems to be cast in the role of heroic defender of the stage.4 As almost every critic who has written about The Roman Actor has noticed, Paris’s defense of the theater in the first act draws on traditional and well-established defenses of literature and the theater.5 So when Paris fails, the play seems to be suggesting that a whole tradition of poetic apologetics is also failing. Barish even suggests that Massinger’s play takes an antitheatrical position.6 Other critics, not willing to go as far as Barish, argue that Massinger is merely skeptical of drama’s ability to reform audiences and so is complicating this traditional view of the theater by showing the variety and unpredictability of audience response, or they suggest that Paris’s failure is actually a failure of his culture and not of the theater; that is, Paris is a tragic figure whose moral vision of a redemptive and curative theater is corrupted by a dishonest court and ruthless tyrant.7

What these critics generally assume is that efficacy is a positive characteristic of drama and so naturally Massinger is either bemoaning theater’s loss of efficacy or tracing the creative unpredictability of performance’s effect on the audience; however, the historical and political position of early modern theaters complicates this assumption. Efficacy, of the type Paris suggests, connects the actions of the audience with the content of the performance, and early modern Londoners were anxious about the action of playgoers. According to London magistrates and antitheatrical writers, audiences were often immoral, unruly, and occasionally riotous, and these groups relied on arguments like Paris’s to blame the theaters for these actions. They viewed the audience’s problematic actions as the effect of the stage performance. In this first inset play and similar scenes within the play, Massinger seems to be registering this anxiety about drama’s efficacy by purposefully problematizing the relationship between the content of the performance and the actions of the audience. Thus, when the playwright questions the conventional defense of the stage as he does in the first inset performance (and as we will see, all subsequent inset performances), he is not so much bemoaning theater’s loss of efficacy as he is constructing performance as ineffective in order to avoid the theater’s culpability for the actions of the audience. That is, he is producing a fictive ineffective theater in order to frame the real theater as ineffective.

When critics call Paris’s defense of the stage “conventional” or “traditional” what they are often suggesting is that his speech in act 1 is highly indebted to early modern writers such as Thomas Nashe, Thomas Heywood, George Puttenham and, of course, Philip Sidney, all of whom offer arguments similar to Paris’s.8 For instance, Paris asserts that drama teaches the audience virtuous behavior and that by...

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