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ELH 68.2 (2001) 359-376

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Philip Massinger's The Roman Actor and The Semiotics of Censored Theater

Andrew James Hartley

Why are you
Transported thus, Domitia? 'Tis a play;
Or grant it serious, it at no part merits
This passion in you.

--The Roman Actor 3.2.283-85 1

I. The Play's the Thing

In a thoughtful and observant study of Jacobean literature, Jonathan Goldberg accurately depicts Massinger's The Roman Actor as a play about the theatrical dimension of politics in the context of both Stuart and Roman notions of performed absolutism, claiming that, "as James knew," there was no "off-stage" for a king. 2 By contrast, Annabel Patterson focuses on Paris's famed, formal defense of the stage as a moment in which the actor sidesteps the charge that the theater "traduces personages of worth" by suggesting that the audience is misreading their intentions. 3 In Patterson's persuasive analysis, Paris simultaneously implies, however, that should an audience perceive echoes of contemporary scandals (as they clearly did rather frequently in the course of King Charles's reign), such a coincidence should be addressed in terms of the conduct of those in the public eye, not the malice of the players. 4 There is, however, a questionable assumption at the heart of Patterson's contention that Renaissance plays rely upon "a highly sophisticated system of oblique communication, of unwritten rules whereby writers could communicate with readers or audiences (among whom were the very same authorities who were responsible for state censorship) without producing a direct confrontation." 5 This assumption, which is based on an unspoken faith in the communicative stability of drama, is not one that the play itself supports, and this has far reaching implications both for the nature and practicability of censorship, and for the performance of power by a ruler invested in the rhetoric of absolutism. [End Page 359]

It seems to me significant that in the lines cited above Patterson moves easily from page to stage without considering the different discursive modes which operate on the one hand in private reading and on the other in attending a public playhouse. It is unlikely that this is an oversight on Patterson's part because she, like Goldberg, is a shrewdly perceptive critic who is certainly aware of the problem of conflating the acts involved in the reading of plays (pausing for thought, glancing back a few pages, rereading crucial sections out of context and so forth) with the altogether different experience of an audience member whose impressions were partially formed by factors other than the lines themselves (how those lines were delivered, who delivered them, what the actors looked like, what the audience member next to you was doing and so forth). Needless to say, we cannot reconstruct a Caroline audience even if we can make significant progress towards imagining the original playing conditions, so my point may well strike some critics as, at best, a critical cul-de-sac. 6 As critics we are, for better or worse, inextricably bound to the play texts as they have survived, and if we cannot trust those texts as communicative media, it might be asked, what else have we?

On the one hand, of course, we have the explicitly dramatic text itself, which is the basis and raw material of a theatrical performance and contains, as Keir Elam has impressively demonstrated, myriad clues to signification of a specifically theatrical kind. 7 On the other hand, though no aspect of theater is transhistorical, our sense of twentieth-century theater should suggest the collaborative and, above all, fragile nature of theater. By this I mean that dramatic meaning is constructed in the space of performance and that it is therefore effected by and vulnerable to factors such as sight-lines, restlessness in the crowd, the spatial arrangement or competency of the performers, and all the things that actors dread: from forgetting one's lines to dealing with props that self-destruct, and audience members who join in, heckle, laugh, or break wind at inopportune...


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