This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 14. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 65-70.

Purchase Plays by Philip Massinger

Philip Massinger ranks as one of the most scholarly and powerful dramatists of his day. Born in 1584, he went to Oxford in 1602, and the only fact that we know of him between his leaving the university in 1606 and having a comedy performed at court in 1621, is that he, with Field and Daborne, also playwrights, asked for an advance of five pounds from Henslowe, the theatrical capitalist, because they were "in unfortunate extremities." In his part of the document Massinger says that he has "ever found" Henslowe "a true, loving friend," an expression which 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 dedications it is to be inferred that he was often in pecuniary straits. The entry in the parish register of St. Savior's--"March 10, 1639, buried Philip Massinger, a stranger"--may mean only that he was not a resident in the parish; but it is sadly out of keeping with the dramatist's place in the estimation of posterity. The evidence that he was a Roman Catholic at the time when the creed was held under heavy pains and penalties rests chiefly upon three of his plays, The Virgin Martyr, The Renegado and The Maid of Honor, in the first of which he was assisted by Dekker. At least 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 it is remarkable that they were allowed to appear at all in the reign of James I.


MARTYRDOM OF DOROTHEA by G. FerrierThis piece, 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 form as the servant of a persecutor, hunting out victims and instigating the most cruel tortures; afterward in "a fearful shape," with fire flashing around 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 revolting fashion, dragged about by the hair, kicked and beaten with cudgels, but her page Angelo stands by, and she is miraculously preserved from hurt. Other miracles are performed. A persecutor falls down in a fit when about 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 prosecutor eating of it is wholly changed in spirit and drives away his diabolic servant by holding up a cross of flowers. At the close the martyrs appear in white robes, transfigured. The piece further resembles the miracle play in the coarseness of the comic scenes intended to illustrate the power of the devil over the most base and grovelling natures; but the tone of the play throughout is serious and lofty, and the passions of the persecutors and the heroic devotion of the martyrs are given with great dramatic force.


This is, in truth, a very remarkable production to have appeared suddenly amid the run of secular pieces. It seems, however, to have been popular, and was several times reprinted before the Restoration. 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 and 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, 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 pervades the play, and is crowned with triumph at the end. He sails back to Venice with a noble lady rescued from the Turk, her virtue protected by an amulet during her captivity, a renegade military hero restored to his country and the church, and the beautiful sister of the sultan converted to Christianity. That a London audience tolerated this glorification of a Jesuit within twenty years of the Gunpowder plot is an extraordinary fact.

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 his 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, still holds the stage, chiefly because the leading character, Sir Giles Overreach, a sort of commercial Richard III, a compound of "the lion and the fox," provides many opportunities for a great actor. Lik 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. There are few more stirring scenes in dramatic story than are here provided for the actor who personates the avaricious Overreach. Kemble, Kean and Junius Brutus Booth gloried in the part, and many who heard them give the speech of Sir Giles, furious with impotent rage, have testified to this as being one of their most memorable experiences of the stage.

With the exception of this play, the rest by Massinger have been relegated to the study since his own time. The Fatal Dowry, 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 this period, Massinger comes next to Shakespeare in the art of opening and developing a plot, and in this respect the Bondman, the Duke of Milan and the Great Duke of Florence are favorable specimens of his power. 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. The language is never mean and never turgid, but in impassioned situations it wants fire and directness. Nineteen of the plays of Massinger are still extant, and of these a careful edition has been prepared by Gifford. By some critics he is preferred to Beaumont and Fletcher, and is esteemed as approaching more nearly to Shakespeare than any of his contemporaries.

Several of Massinger's plays have been lost, eight being accidentally destroyed by a cook. All that remain, with the exception of A New Way to Pay Old Debts, have long since been relegated to the closet; but there are several which deserve a better fate. Among them is the Maid of Honor, though the conclusion is one with which only an assemblage of very pious Catholics could have sympathized. In the final act the heroine relieves a very complicated situation by taking the veil, donating a third of her property to pious uses, a third to a nunnery, and the remaining third to an honest and faithful, but unsuccessful lover. For this she is held up to all posterity as "a fair example for noble maids to imitate."

Purchase Plays by Philip Massinger

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