Friday, 19 August 2011

The Changeling (1974)

By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley (c1623).
BBC TV, 20 January 1974.

Scholarship holds that Rowley wrote the subplot and the opening and closing scenes of this play, and Middleton the remainder of the main plot. The subplot, in which Antonio (the ‘changeling’ of the title) pretends to be a madman to gain access to Isabella, wife of the keeper of an asylum, is tedious in the extreme – and painful to modern audiences, given our much improved understanding of mental illness. (In the BBC production the subplot was edited to the point of incomprehensibility, but it was of interest to see Kenneth Cranham, Mirren’s sometime boyfriend, in the role of Antonio.)

In the main plot, Beatrice-Joanna, (Helen Mirren) daughter of the Governor of Alicant, is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but she loves another, Alsemero. To rid herself of the unwelcome fiancĂ© she employs De Flores (Stanley Baker), a servant in her father’s employ, to murder him, assuming that he can be paid off in gold. What she doesn’t reckon with is that the ‘dog-faced’ villain, who lusts after his beautiful mistress, is looking for payment of another kind. As TS Eliot wrote,
Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely contingent for its effect upon our acceptance of Elizabethan good form or convention; it is, in fact, no more dependent upon the convention of its epoch than a play like A Doll’s House. Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature. The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.
This seems right, and it’s best demonstrated in the critical scene (III.iv) right in the middle of the play where De Flores, having despatched Piracquo, comes to claim his prize. The writing rises to its highest level – not by accident are the play’s most quoted lines to be found in this scene – as Middleton ratchets up the dramatic irony. The first touch is that De Flores produces the victim’s severed finger, still wearing the ring that Beatrice was required to send her fiancĂ© as a love-token. Beatrice reacts with maidenly prudery: ‘Bless me! What hast thou done?’ It should be the first intimation for this ‘irresponsible and undeveloped nature’ that actions have consequences, consequences that she can neither predict nor control. Several times she mistakes his purpose, raising her offer finally to 3,000 florins. De Flores meanwhile must adjust his expectations to the developing situation. He begins the scene assuming that she knows what he wants. When she persists in misunderstanding, he is forced to make his intention plain, evoking from Beatrice her famous lines of self-delusion:
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it
With any modesty.
This is the turning point of the scene. From here in, De Flores convinces her that as ‘a woman dipp’d in blood’ she is implicated in this crime as much as he is and must yield before his sexual blackmail. Then she finds her loathing of the man turning into its opposite. But in the cumbersome plot machinations of Act Four, involving virginity tests and the use of a body-double, she continues to believe she can recuperate some notion of ‘modesty’, even having transgressed the norms of her society. As NW Bawcutt wrote in an introduction to the play,
She is completely unaware of the real significance of the deed she instigates because in her egotism she is aware of morality only as it protects her and not as it restrains her, and one of the lessons of the play is that these two aspects of morality are inseparable.
Mirren herself finds other qualities in the character:
I’d love to do a modern-day version of The Changeling because I think it’s a fascinating story of someone who is so repulsed, utterly repulsed by someone but actually finishes up completely obsessed by them. I mean he’s ugly; he’s physically ugly. He’s also lower class – he’s the servant – so she can’t see him even as a human being, but he sees himself very much as a human being and he is absolutely obsessed by her. There’s a wonderful story about class. (Interview, 2007).
The Changeling was one of our set texts for English A-level in 1974, so the BBC broadcast was happily timed for this sixth-former. Rarely did text leap off the page with such immediacy. Mirren’s performance as Beatrice-Joanna is, I think, my favourite of her early TV roles. She combined lofty insouciance with determination and scattergun sensuality, a bundle of disparate qualities which are undoubtedly there in the character. And what Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of Beatrice back in 1936, had called the ‘snipe-like darts of her mind’ found their equivalent in the intelligence with which the actress approached her characterisation. Plus, in voluminous flounced gown, absurd wig and veil, she looked great.


  1. Where can I find the 2007 interview that you cite above?

    Many thanks.

  2. Hi Nora. It's an "exclusive" DVD extra on the BBC boxset "Helen Mirren at the BBC".