1902 Encyclopedia > Philip Masssinger

Philip Masssinger
English dramatist
(1584-1640)




PHILIP MASSINGER (1584-1640), one of the most prolific, scholarly, and powerful dramatists among the immediate successors of Shakespeare. He was born in 1584, went to Oxford (St Alban's Hall) in 1602, and left in 1606. This is all that is known of his early life, except that his father, as appears from the dedication of one of his plays (The Bondman), was in the service of the Herberts. That his father's service was not menial is proved by his having once been the bearer of letters from the earl of Pembroke to the queen. The industry of anti-quaries has discovered only one little fact about Massinger between his leaving Oxford in 1606 and his having a comedy performed at court in 1621. This fact is that he joined with two dramatists, Field and Daborne, in asking an advance of £5 from the theatrical capitalist, Henslowe. This painful request, the date of which is conjectured to be about 1614, sets forth that the three petitioners were "in unfortunate extremitie." In his part of the document Massinger says that he has "ever found" Henslowe "a true loving friend." The expression seems to point to his having been connected with plays and players for some considerable time. After 1621 many of his plays were acted and published ; but from the tone of his dedica-tions it is to be inferred that he was often in straits. The entry in the parish register of !St Saviour's—" March 20, 1639-40—buried Philip Massinger, a stranger "—may mean only that Massinger was not a resident in the parish; but it is sadly out of keeping with the dramatist's place in the respect of posterity.

In the barrenness of authentic fact, conjecture has been busy with Massinger's life and character. One of the questions that have been raised about him,—whether or not he was a Roman Catholic,—leads to other questions that have more than a personal interest. Attempts to fix the political or the religious creed of a dramatist are generally fanciful; as a rule, when a critic finds an opinion expressed by one of a dramatist's personages with exceptional and striking force, he jumps to the conclusion that the dramatist must have held this opinion himself as a ruling conviction. The evidence that Massinger was a Roman Catholic at a time when the creed was held under pains and penalties is of a more serious kind, though not conclusive. It rests upon three of his plays, The Virgin Martyr (printed in 1622, acted before 1620), The Benegado (acted in 1624), and The Maid of Honour (printed in 1632, but probably acted earlier). In the first of these Massinger was assisted by Dekker. Whether or not the author was a Roman Catholic, it is certain that only a Roman Catholic audience could be expected to enter into the spirit of these plays and applaud at the end; and they are very remarkable theatrical phenomena to have appeared in the reign of James.
The Virgin Martyr, founded on the martyrdom of Dorothea in the time of Diocletian, is, in effect, an old miracle play in five acts. The devil himself appears on the stage,—first in human shape as the servant of a persecutor, hunting out victims and instigating the most cruel tortures; afterwards in "a fearful shape" with fire flashing round him. The page of the martyr Dorothea is an angel in disguise, who also appears in his own proper shape before the end of the play. Dorothea is tortured on the stage in the most revolt-ing fashion, dragged about by the hair, kicked, beaten with cudgels, but her page Angelo stands by, and she is miraculously preserved from hurt. Other miracles are performed on the stage. A persecutor falls dowm in a fit when about to proceed to subject the martyr's constancy to the foulest trials. In the last act a basket of fruit from paradise is brought on, and the chief persecutor eating of it is wholly changed in spirit, and drives away his diabolic ser-vant by holding up a cross of flowers. At the close the martyrs appear in white robes, transfigured. The Virgin Martyr further resembles the miracle play in the coarseness of the comic scenes in-tended to illustrate the power of the devil over the most base and grovelling natures. The tone of the play throughout is serious and lofty ; the passions of the persecutors and the heroic devotion of the martyrs are given with great dramatic force. This is a very remarkable play to have appeared suddenly amidst the run of secu-lar pieces. It seems to have been popular, and was several times reprinted before the Restoration. That the llencgado should have found favour is still more remarkable. In itself it is a powerfully constructed play, strong in character and incident. Massinger's leaning to Roman doctrine is supposed to be shown by his making one of his heroines—a converted Turk, a sultan's sister—experience complete spiritual transformation after receiving the rite of baptism. But there is a more suggestive and stranger fact than this. The hero of the piece, Francisco, is a Jesuit priest, treated with profound respect throughout, a man of noble unselfish aims, running all risks to save and gain souls, exercising the strongest moral influence for the wisest and most benevolent purposes. Francisco's influence per-vades the play, and is crowned with triumph at the end. He sails back to Venice with a noble lady rescued from the infidel, her virtue protected by an amulet during her captivity, a renegade military hero restored to his country and the church, a noble Venetian rescued from spiritual and physical perils, the beautiful sister of the sultan converted to Christianity. That a London audience should have tolerated this glorification of a Jesuit within twenty years of the Gunpowder Plot is an extraordinary fact, of which the explana-tion is still to seek. In the Maid of Honour the heroine relieves a highly complicated situation at the end by taking the veil, giving a third of her property to a nunnery, a third for pious uses, and a third to an honest, faithful, but to her unattractive lover. For this she is held up as " to all posterity a fair example for noble maids to imitate." Only an audience of very pious Catholics' could have sympathized with such a conclusion.





Such plays show that Massinger, if not a Roman Catholic, was at least not blinded by the popular hatred of them, but could dwell in rapt admiration on what was noble and lofty in the motives supplied by the Roman Church. The strange thing is that he found a manager to produce these plays, or an audience to tolerate them. It may be doubted whether Massinger was ever a popular dramatist. His poverty is not indeed conclusive on this point, for the prices paid for plays were so small that a dramatist could hardly make a livelihood by play writing, unless he was also an actor or a theatrical manager. But the best qualities of his plays appeal rather to thoughtful politicians, moralists, and students of character than to the simple feelings of the ordinary playgoer Only one of them, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (printed 1633), has kept the stage, and that chiefly because the leading character, Sir Giles Overreach, a sort of commercial Richard III, a com-pound of " the lion and the fox," provides many opportuni-ties for a great actor. Like all Massinger's plays, it is most ingenious and effective in construction, but in this as in others he has been more intent upon the elaboration of a plot and the exhibition of a ruling passion than upon winning the love and admiration of his audience for heroes and heroines. The other personages besides Sir Giles are either conventional comic figures, or dim, feebly outlined, uninteresting characters. The reformed prodigal and the two pairs of lovers who outwit the cunning diplomatist by simple means seem poor, joyless, bloodless phantoms when put side by side with the rich life of Shakespeare's youth-ful lovers and reckless scapegraces , they are mere foils to Overreach; their life is not displayed, it is only indicated in the dialogue. With the exception of this play, all Massinger's have been relegated to the study since his own time. The Fatal Dowry (printed 1632), in which Massinger had the assistance of Field, was partially resuscitated by Rowe, being made the basis of the Fair Penitent. In Massinger's own judgment, the Roman Actor was " the most perfect birth of his Minerva." It is in effect a study of the tyrant Domitian, and of the results of despotic rule on the despot himself and his court; the intrigues and counter intrigues, the rise of sycophancy, the fall of honesty, the growth of the appetite for blood, the growth and final triumph of the spirit of revenge, are exhibited with great power. Among the dramatists of that great period, Massinger comes next to Shakespeare in the art of opening and developing a plot. The Bondman, the Duke of Milan, and the Great Duke of Florence are also favourable specimens of Massinger's power. But what was said by one of his admirers in the dedication of the City Madam is perfectly true, that, " though he composed many plays, he wrote none amiss." The manners and the characters are always clearly conceived, although the dramatist's strength is put forth in the portrayal of some one ruling passion. The action always marches forward steadily, with as little as possible of irrelevant digression ; so steadily in fact is the maiu purpose pursued as to pro-duce a certain air of labour and constraint. The language is never mean, and never turgid ; in impassioned situations it wants fire and directness. If the stage were ever delibe-rately employed as an historical school, frequented by audiences anxious to gee a clear and vivid impression of important situations, going to the theatre not to be interested against their will but willing to be interested, the dramas of Massinger would furnish excellent models.

Several of Massinger's plays are no longer extant. Eight of them were among those destroyed by Warburton's cook. The most recent edition of those remaining, nineteen in number, is Cunning-ham's (1870). Gifford edited Massinger with great care. (W. M.)






The above article was written by: Prof. William Minto.



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