chapter  6
16 Pages

The Fair Maid of the West

Having looked at a significant play that failed in the popular theatre (The White Devil), I would now like to look at three plays that succeeded, in order to watch how the features of popular dramaturgy we have been examining combine in individual scripts. One evidence of success that all three plays have in common is the existence of a sequel. The case of The Fair Maid of the West, or a Girl Worth Gold, however, is somewhat peculiar. The two parts were printed together in 1631, and this was the play's first printing; but Part Two seems to be later than Part One by a generation. Part One is hard to date, but appears to belong around the turn of the century. The date of Part Two is also uncertain, but around 1630 is a reasonable guess. The two plays are quite different from each other. Part One is a breezy, episodic tale of adventure, rooted in common life, with lots of physical action and a very active role for Bess Bridges, the heroine who gives the play its title. Part Two has none of the demotic, swashbuckling qualities of its predecessor: it is a tragicomedy of courtly intrigue, centred on gentlemanly gestures by its male characters, with Bess reduced to a largely passive role. Written in the manner of John Fletcher, it is very much a private-theatre play. The two parts were performed together for the King and Queen at Hampton Court in 1630, and the 1631 edition is presented as a souvenir of that performance, with the court prologue and epilogue attached. We do not know the original provenance of Part One. The author, Thomas Heywood, was associated with the Admiral's Men in the late 1590s and with Worcester's-Queen Anne's Men from the turn of the century. The Fair Maid of the West could have been performed at any or all of the Rose, the Boar's Head, the Curtain and the Red Bull. If it had the sort of long life in the repertoire that its later performance with a sequel suggests, it probably moved from playhouse to playhouse. What matters is that it comes, unlike Part Two, from the life and interests of a popular audience; and it is only Part One that concerns us here.