chapter  17
Massinger’s divided communities
Pages 15

I Massinger’s plays are characteristically preoccupied with questions to do with communities and community-making. On the one hand, they typically situate their protagonists in the middle of a wide social canvas and evaluate their actions in relation to the impact on the larger community of which they are part. Here the leading examples are A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam, in which the ambitions of Sir Giles Overreach and Luke Frugal are measured in terms of the disruption that they present to the family and social networks out of which their rebellion grows; these desperadoes need to be defeated in order for collective health to be restored. On the other hand, Massinger’s plays frequently depict communities in stress, in which the aberrant behaviour of an individual or group poses an ethical problem which can only be solved with a kind of social purge, the normal rules of living being suspended until such time as the community has learned its lesson and can put itself back together again in better order than before. The City Madam is, again, a good example of this type, with its city ladies being cured of their materialism when their silks and feasting are replaced with sackcloth and fasting. Another instance would be The Bondman, in which the slaves teach the masters a lesson in social responsibility when they temporarily change places and treat them as they have been treated – of which more shortly. With the striking exception of Sir Giles Overreach, Massinger did not create powerfully individualized roles but was more interested in exploring the moral economy which shapes the mentality and actions of the community as a whole, analysing the tensions and contradictions which create injustices and unsettle its fairness and good order – a preoccupation with principles rather than personalities which often gives his plays a rather abstract, schematic quality. As Ira Clark puts it, he fashioned a drama of ‘reforming socio-political tendencies’ and projected ‘a vision of reforming patronage’ that was itself ‘reformed out of his dramatic heritage’.1