Ambrosia in an Earthen Vessel: Three Centuries of Audience and Reader Response to the Works of Thomas Middletonby Sara Jayne Steen (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 1993-1994
- pp. 488-489
- View Citation
- Additional Information
488Comparative Drama Sara Jayne Steen. Ambrosia in an Earthen Vessel: Three Centuries of Audience and Reader Response to the Works of Thomas Middleton. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 240. $45.00. It should be said at the beginning that the title of Professor Steen 's book is misleading. This collection of excerpts reflects chiefly the nineteenth century. Of the 192 pages given over to selected commentary, only eleven pages represent the eighteenth century; and while the seventeenth century has over three times that number (thirty-eight), most of those have little value in showing "how reactions [to Middleton ] are socially or individually shaped" (p. ix). The book is, then, chiefly a record of nineteenth-century responses to Middleton and, more narrowly, of the responses to the editions of the plays by Alexander Dyce (1840) and A. H. Bullen (1885). We have to deal, as in most such accounts, with a considerable unevenness. Although the book's jacket features a winning photograph of Helen Mirren as Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, the "audience" is only fleetingly present and the "reader(s)" are often responding to quite different presentations of the texts. Having said all that, I want to report that Professor Steen has done a commendable job of bringing together a wide range of voices and value systems, all of them focused on Middleton's achievement as a writer for the theater. Along with most of his well-regarded contemporaries , Middleton invariably suffers even as he gains by comparison with Shakespeare; and a good many of the commentators here use some form of ranking system to place him in relation to the other rivals of his era's greatest dramatist. A critic in The Spectator places only Jonson and Shakespeare clearly above him in comedy, while his work in The Changeling "entitles him to rank, as a tragic dramatist, nearly on a level with Marlowe, Webster, and Ford" (p. 186). This compulsion to rank the playwright in relation to his contemporaries becomes finally wearying, though 1 agree that a very diligent reader might find some relevance in noting which of the other playwrights figure prominently in such assessments and when. The real value of the book, however, emerges not in any overall story it has to tell but in its function as a resource for tracing responses to particular plays. In this respect, Women Beware Women and The Changeling hold the greatest interest, with A Chaste Maid in Cheapside generating the most challenging observations on Middleton's achievement in comedy. Interestingly, Steen makes no mention of efforts to attribute The Revenger 's Tragedy to Middleton, though that play is often cited by the commentators in relation to elements of his tragic plays. On balance, this is a useful volume, though I consider Steen's claims for its critical utility to be somewhat exaggerated. Her introduction , while serviceable, adds little to the store of useful criticism of Middleton. Finally, it is always a treat to respond again to the excesses of Swinburne (generously represented here) and to detect beneath the Reviews489 excess—"the dragnet of murder which gathers in the characters at the close of this play [Women Beware Women] is as promiscuous in its sweep as that cast by Cyril Tourneur over the internecine shoal of sharks who are hauled in and ripped open at the close of The Revenger 's Tragedy" (p. 173)—a genuine power of critical observation. EJNER J. JENSEN University of Michigan Doris Alexander. Eugene O'Neill's Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. Pp. 339. $29.95. Three decades after publishing The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill, Doris Alexander has revisited her subject to produce a thoroughly engrossing study of the process by which O'Neill worked life experience into art in order to manage his own most pressing problems. This ambitious book aims not only to identify new source material for the plays (which it does in copious detail) but also to reveal how the artist's unconscious screened such material and molded it to dramatic form. The result is a highly readable narrative, part fact, part fancy, that will stimulate the scholar and...