The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton

Recently I watched inveterate cult director Alex Cox’s bizarre version of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy – a play, written in 1606, but which is itself a cynical rip-off of the ever-inventive Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill, though with the twist that this time it is the wife who is killed on her wedding-day along with the rest of the wedding-party by a rejected but powerful lover, and the husband who is bent on revenge. – So I thought I might read Middleton’s more famous work too, his 1622 play, The Changeling.

The Changeling is one of those plays which Shakespeare was so good at, where half the play is a comedy and half a tragedy, and the two halves don’t quite seem to match up to a satisfying whole. The tragic half is an enjoyable enough yarn about a young noble daughter who, pledged to marry a man she does not love, decides instead to murder him in order that she can marry the man she does love; and, in common with many another tragedy, this plot of murder doesn’t turn out so well for her. The comic half is an amusing enough conceit in theory, in which, in order to seduce the attractive but jealously guarded wife of an insane asylum keeper, two aspirant rival lovers disguise themselves as madmen and get themselves committed.

Maybe I needed to see a production performed, but there were a lots of aspects in this play I didn’t see working very well. The good daughter who suddenly seeks after her soon-to-be husband’s murder, and falls in so swiftly with the actual murderer who had previously only filled her with revulsion, seemed highly unlikely, but no doubt it could probably be pulled off dramatically – it’s perhaps no more inconsistent than many a Shakespeare play. That the two halves of the play seem to have nothing to do with one another is perhaps the larger problem – yet, the frustration of it is that, they could so easily. A woman driven by the passion of love into madness and murder, counter-pointed by a comedy in which two lovers, as part of the idle play of love, feign and toy with madness seems so glaringly obvious, that I start scouring the text for indications of it – yet came up with little. It’s as if Middleton didn’t see the possibilities of his own play, even though I suppose he must have, since he constructed it (unless, of course, like most people around that time, he stole the idea from someone else’s play).

Also, in the same sections, one misses the chance of some great scenes. You can’t imagine, for instance, Shakespeare passing up so clearly the opportunities inherent in such situations of dramatic irony: a) the man we know is sane pretending to be mad; b) the asylum keeper’s wife and the jailer of the madman, learning of the lover’s feigned madness, not exploiting that knowledge in a scene either cruel or amusing (I’d go for cruel and amusing); c) not all that much ever being made out of the parallel symptoms of love and madness. And surely one of the “madmen” could have been left in the asylum, because no one believed his story about being a nobleman in pursuit of the asylum keeper’s wife – a just revenge, no doubt, on the asylum keeper’s part.

Goddamn it, Middleton, it could have been so much better.

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