Joanne Rochester. Staging Spectatorship in the Plays of Philip Massinger. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. 172pp. ISBN 978 0 7546 3080 7.
1. Joanne Rochester's book discusses selected plays by Philip Massinger, focusing on moments of inset spectatorship -- places where characters become spectators themselves, in multiple senses of the word. Massinger's meticulously and self-consciously structured Baroque plays offer numerous moments in which on-stage ostension becomes central. Rochester's book falls into three key chapters, on plays-within in The Roman Actor (Ch. 1), masques-within in The Picture, The Guardian and especially in The City Madam (Ch. 2), and pictorial insets in The Picture (Ch. 3). Each play represents a different type of onstage spectatorship, offering opportunities of critical excursions into meta-theatre, early modern playgoing, pro- and anti-theatrical sentiments (which are also discussed in the introduction), Stuart masque culture, and Elizabethan and early Stuart visual arts.
2. Rochester minutely discusses textual moments and their potential for audience interaction. In her focus on textual detail, however, her interpretations sometimes downplay the importance of audience spontaneity and playfulness. For instance, the audience of The Roman Actor watch the fiction become a theatrum mundi in a complex, often contradictory (warped, baroque) way; the torturing and martyrdom of Sura and Rusticus (discussed on pp. 33-37) rely not only on Foxean imagery, as Rochester suggests, but also on folk hagiographic plays banned by the English Reformation. Similarly, Domitian’s fall turns into a staging of the biblical story from the Book of Daniel (the three young men in the fiery furnace). A fictional (though meta-theatrical) story works not only as a cross-section of contextual influences but becomes an ironic staging of divine Providence in a spiritual, Baroque sense, which eludes consistent, “rationalist” interpretation (cf. Walter Benjamin’s study on German Baroque tragedy).
3. Chapter 2, on masques-within, represents a certain shift of topic: from spectatorship to its genus proximum, the perspective. Although Rochester attempts to wed the two related topics into a unified whole, the chapter culminates in a discussion of Massinger’s perspective-shifting techniques. Whereas with The Roman Actor, Rochester observes that what Massinger is doing is staging providence, in the case of The City Madam, this crucial perspective is mentioned merely in passing (pp. 85-86), and is overshadowed by a more-or-less intertextual discussion of the play’s usage of masque conventions and the colonialist politics of the Virginia Company. What is essential here for Massinger’s play, in my view, is the near-allegorical vision of a meritocratic world which, dominated by the nouveau riche, forms a nouveau cour of imperial power too. Images of citizens transformed into gods (as in a masque) or Indians are revelations of what constitutes their status and their actual power in the society. Rochester indirectly testifies to this: “The masque […] challenges its spectators to see through appearances: to see the real identities of the performers beneath the fiction, and the real-world political and moral statements embedded in the performance, as well as the allegorical truth the fiction contains” (92). Nevertheless, Rochester does not state the near-allegorical vision of the play explicitly.
4. Chapter 3 concentrates on the onstage picture in Massinger’s eponymous play. The jealous Mathias is given a miniature of his wife Sophia, which is believed to change colour according to Sophia’s state. Although the miniature – “too small to be seen from the audience” (115) – actually stages spectatorship in that “the audience can only perceive the picture’s supposed changes through [Mathias’] reactions”, this is a categorically different mode of spectatorship from those discussed in the previous chapters. The onstage miniature is predominantly a diegetic tool, portraying the action that is believed to be happening. In provoking what Mathias anticipates and is anxious about (i.e. his wife being tempted and seduced), the miniature is, in essence, an early modern Rorschach test for Mathias to manifest and ventilate his anxieties. The fact that he eventually uses the miniature to cure his seducer’s lust confirms the miniature as a mirror of the observer’s soul. Rochester claims the inset “is no longer a mimetic representation of Sophia’s face, a magical representation of her soul, or a reflection of Mathias’ psyche”; it becomes “an emblem, which stimulates moral reflection” (119). From the initial contextual overlaps of the insets (and plays-within and masques-within), the interpretation in the final chapter narrows down to a more-or-less structural analysis of the dramatic function that the artworks-within play. In this sense, Rochester concludes: “Massinger’s pieces of art, like his performed inset pieces, serve as practical dramatic triggers, conceptual emblems and spectatorial objects that reveal the impulses of their onstage viewers” (123).
5. It is only in the Conclusion that Rochester brings up the notion of paradrama, which is crucial to her study and is perhaps a more appropriate rendering of the book’s theme than the New-Historicist-sounding staging spectatorship. As for the “central moments in action [where] Massinger uses onstage spectators to frame key events[,…] using their reactions to underscore the effect of the scene”, this is by no means a device unique to Massinger, but rather a feature of most seventeenth-century drama, be it Baroque or Classicist; it is marked by a shift of attention from what happens to how characters experience it. The drama is in the realization of an event, not a priori in it itself – which is what Classicist drama predominantly concentrated on. In other words, this feature, which is essentially paradramatic, is not typical of Massinger but of seventeenth-century drama as such.
6. Rochester’s Staging Spectatorship in the Plays of Philip Massinger is not only a focused and well-argued interpretation of a key element in Massinger’s plays, but also a useful introduction to New Historicist studies on early modern art history, early Stuart politics, early modern colonialist ambitions, public theatre playgoing or the masque. A selection of Massinger’s plays, some of which have only recently received more critical and theatrical attention, are minutely discussed as manifestations of early modern culture. This is an initiation to Massinger within early modern London; the next step would be to present him as a dramatist with markedly Continental leanings – starting as early as Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1619; with John Fletcher) or the German-world-oriented The Virgin Martyr (1620; with Thomas Dekker). In this light, his first play for the King’s Men, The Roman Actor (1626), is also marked; it reworks a pronouncedly Catholic hagiographic play by Lope de Vega, Lo fingido verdadero (c1606), turning the play’s protagonist, Paris, into a crypto-St-Genesius. To see his plays from a Continental perspective throws a yet different light on Massinger as a European dramatist.
This review was written as part of the EuroDrama research project, co-financed from the grant given by GAČR (Czech Grant Agency), "Continental Intersections of Shakespeare's Works" (Kontinentální přesahy Shakespearova díla, no. GA405/08/1223, 2008-2011).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).