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  • “Cannot I keep that secret?”:Editing and Performing Asides in The Changeling
  • Nora Williams

This article considers the various uses and constructions of asides in a number of productions and editions of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 play The Changeling. Critics routinely speak of this play’s “penetrating psychology” and “psychological plausibility” (Kinney 621; Neill xi). Stephen Unwin, in his director’s note for the 2007 English Touring Theatre/Nottingham Playhouse production, described The Changeling as a play that “combines tremendous theatricality with great psychological insight” (qtd. Sanders 78). It is characterized, in short, as surprisingly modern, particularly in the psychological construction of its two protagonists, Beatrice-Joanna and Deflores. Asides, however, are often perceived as an early modern convention, although they do sometimes appear in more recent drama. Middleton and Rowley’s play, especially in the scenes between Beatrice-Joanna and Deflores, is littered with them. While the apparent modernity of the play’s psychology has been and should continue to be challenged, I wish to focus here on the various strategies that editors and theater practitioners have employed in order to negotiate the tension between the play’s perceived modernity and its obsolete formal features.

Beyond its extensive and notoriously complex use of asides, The Changeling offers an apt case study text in that it has a relatively long and varied performance tradition compared with most early modern plays. Within Middleton’s own canon it holds pride of place: in 2014, for example, the RSC performed Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl for the first time since 1983; that earlier production was the play’s first since the seventeenth century. Such a lack of modern performance history is not uncommon among plays by Middleton, Rowley, and their contemporaries; the absent performance history of Middleton’s [End Page 29] last play, A Game at Chess (1624), is a prime example. The Changeling, by contrast, has seen more than thirty professional productions in the UK since 1960 and has been directed by names as prominent and various as Tony Richardson (1961), Terry Hands (1978), Kate Crutchley (1979), Richard Eyre (1988), Emma Rice (1999), Joe Hill-Gibbins (2012), and Dominic Dromgoole (2015). Lucy Munro includes it, along with Doctor Faustus and The Duchess of Malfi, in a group of early modern plays that have now become canonical, receiving regular theatrical attention and appearing frequently in anthologies or new scholarly editions (19).

The surge in productions of The Changeling since 1960 stands in stark contrast to the play’s earlier performance history, however. Middleton’s plays—not to mention Rowley’s—were almost completely absent from professional stages from the late seventeenth century until after the Second World War, when they reentered the UK theater scene via amateur performances at universities. Tony Richardson’s 1961 production of The Changeling was marketed as its first on a professional stage since 1668. It is therefore entirely possible, as Jeremy Lopez notes, that “more early modern English drama has been performed in the last one hundred years than was ever performed” (35). Within that larger revival, we can safely say that “we are currently in a period of renewed interest in Renaissance plays beyond Shakespeare’s canon” (Lopez 39). Middleton has been at the heart of that “renewed interest,” partly as a result of the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton, edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino and published in 2007. Many of the texts included in the collection had never been edited before, and many others had not seen a fresh edition since the nineteenth century. For all its shortcomings—which are thoroughly documented in reviews by Lukas Erne, Eric Rasmussen, and Lars Engle, for example—the impact of the increased accessibility to Middle-ton’s plays facilitated by the Collected Works cannot be overestimated. It is reasonable to suggest that the increased number of Middleton’s plays on professional stages in recent years has partly been influenced by the availability of such a volume and the press surrounding its release. Indeed, the past five years have seen far more London productions than normal of The Changeling, including productions by Southwark Playhouse (2011), the Young Vic (2012, and...


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