Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Roaring Girl (1983)

By Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (c1608)
Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London, 1983

The Roaring Girl is a play you are more likely to encounter on an undergraduate reading list than in a London theatre, so all credit to the RSC for dusting it down and giving it one of the few productions it can have received in three and a half centuries. Director Barry Kyle was on a mission to rescue Jacobean drama from the condescension with which it was sometimes treated. As he told Christopher Warman, “a number of Jacobean works are as good as the worst ten of Shakespeare. Some are better.” The director was passionate in defence of The Roaring Girl: “This is a documentary in that it tells a story. It is a social examination of life, an original plot and not a rehash, as much of Shakespeare’s work is.” In reviving this little-known ‘city comedy’, the company had nevertheless to keep an eye on box-office receipts, and it was presented in repertoire with a surer bet, The Taming of the Shrew. In combination the plays offered differing views of the role of women in early modern England.

The Roaring Girl is unusual in being based on a living character. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse, was a notorious London figure, who dressed in men’s clothes throughout her life and was an early convert to pipe-smoking. She earned her living by pickpocketing, prostitution and tavern-keeping. The play presents a somewhat sanitised version, with Moll using her ‘outsider’ status to effect good in the lives of those around her. In the main plot, the young hero Sebastian Wengrave is thwarted in his desire to marry the blameless Mary Fitzallard by his covetous father, who views her dowry as insufficient. In a subplot, various gallants dally with the (less than faithful) wives of London shopkeepers. Moll features in both plots. Sebastian hits on the idea of pretending that he has transferred his affections to Moll, knowing that his father will be so outraged at the prospect of a “monster with two trinkets” [testicles] for a daughter-in-law he will sanction the marriage to Mary out of sheer relief. Moll plays along, ensuring the true lovers are finally united. Meanwhile, she exposes fraudulent beggars and fights a duel with the reptilian Laxton, who has lecherous designs on her. It’s all good fun but, on the page at least, one comes away with the impression that Middleton and Dekker were the sort of collaborators who rarely met. Each episode, satisfying and amusing in itself, is set up and resolved within a scene or two, with only Moll’s vitality to hold the structure together. 
Moll rejects the conventional subordination required of a wife:

I have the head now of myself, and am man enough for a woman: marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head, and has a worse i’th’place.

In fact, although she encourages others to tie the knot, she declares that marriage is not for her:

LORD NOLAND                  When wilt marry?
MOLL Who, I, my lord? I’ll tell you when, i’faith.
When you shall hear
Gallants void from sergeants’ fear,
Honesty and truth unslandered,
Woman manned but never pandered,
Cheats booted but not coached,
Vessels older ere they’re broached:
If my mind be then not varied,
Next day following I’ll be married.
LORD NOLAND This sounds like doomsday.
MOLL                                  Then were marriage best,
For if I should repent, I were soon at rest.

Reviewing the RSC production, Robert Cushman shared Kyle’s enthusiasm for the era but not his high opinion of this play: “The worst of Shakespeare [Two Gentlemen of Verona was his example] stands a better chance on stage than the best of his contemporaries: not through genius, but through competence”. The dramatists’ roaring girl “probably bears about the same relation to the original as Lionel Bart’s Fagin to Dickens’s.” He continued:

She is the comic spirit personified – a transvestite blend of Falstaff and Cupid – but playing a personification presents difficulties, and Helen Mirren’s performance is almost submerged in the general rough-and-tumble. Either Miss Mirren should be more rumbustious or the production less.

Michael Billington was more upbeat. The production “vindicate[d] Kyle’s one-man campaign to explore the byways as well as the highways of English drama.” Moll is “the moral centre of this jovially ramshackle play”. She “stands for honest dealing in a society based on deception… Dashingly played by Helen Mirren, with sleeves rolled up to her armpits and leather thongs round her wrist, this Moll has a sinister-punk appearance and a heart as big as Waterloo Station.”  Michael Coveney also praised a Mirren who “swaggered through the action with radiant singularity of purpose, filling in areas of light and shade that even Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker omitted.”

However, Francis King thought the play was a “corpse which would have been better “left to moulder in its grave”. Mirren’s roaring girl, “handsome in breeches and radiating spunkiness and jollity”, provided much-needed relief from “three hours of bone-aching tedium”:

But not even this highly intelligent actress can make psychological sense of a woman who remains on good terms with the rogues of London and yet constantly frustrates them in their villainy, and who associates freely with men and yet all but kills one of them when he makes an attempt on her virtue. 

“The case for Middleton the comic artist remains unproved”. Such was Irving Wardle’s verdict:

As Helen Mirren plays her, fetchingly putting down the assembled male talent in a Jacobean jump suit, [Moll] has little more dramatic substance than a principal boy. She certainly radiates mirth… But as her triumphs are so inevitable and the surrounding characters so sketchily drawn, much of the fun seems to be happening in the far distance.

Crucially, in turning the real Moll into a dramatic figure, the playwrights removed the economic base. More than one theatre critic picked up on this in 1983. She does not pretend to be a man, so how, in a culture where a woman was a daughter, a wife or a widow, does she survive? Sir Alexander (Sebastian’s father) assumes her to be a whore and a thief since, if she abjures marriage, these are the options for self-employment at the bottom of the social pile. It’s never explained how she acquired the detailed knowledge of thieves’ cant which she deploys to dazzling effect in Act V scene 1. Yet the authors insist on both her chastity and her honesty. In his ‘Epistle to the Comic Play-Readers’ appended to the 1611 edition, Middleton admits that they’ve added some literary polish to their source material:

Worse things, I must needs confess, the world has taxed her for than has been written of her; but ‘tis the excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds ‘em.

Mary Beth Rose compares the end of this play with the conclusions of Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies. At the end of the latter,

the heroine gladly sheds her disguise with its accompanying freedoms… in order to accept the customary social role of wife, thereby allowing the play’s androgynous vision to remain spiritual and symbolic without awakening the audience’s dissatisfaction or desire for social change.

The temporariness of disguise makes this possible. But Moll’s is not a temporary disguise, so although The Roaring Girl achieves comic resolution in marriage (which Moll has helped to effect), she herself ends the play unchanged, the catalyst in a chemical reaction. Unlike Rosalind or Viola, Moll, despite her make attire, makes no attempt to conceal her identity. The other characters know she is a woman. To quote Rose again:

She therefore assumes the social and psychological freedom of the traditional disguised heroine without providing the corresponding reassurance implicit in the heroine’s eventual erotic transformation.   

TS Eliot famously praised the play in his essay of 1927 on Thomas Middleton, asserting that it “deserves to be remembered chiefly by its real – perpetually real – and human figure of Moll.” In his view, it was the “one comedy which more than any Elizabethan comedy realizes a free and noble womanhood”. In those two sentences lies the character’s ambiguity. Not only is she poised between male and female, she hovers between realism (“perpetually real”) and idealization (“free and noble womanhood”). However earthy her language, however appealing she is to modern feminist sensibilities, however vigorously she is played by a modern actress, she remains a cipher, a fairytale character almost (albeit several notches up from Wardle’s pantomime “principal boy”). As Marjorie Garber observes, Moll “is not really anti-social or disturbingly transgressive to a modern reader, though she stands as a placeholder for the energies of transgression”.  Whether a “placeholder” can come to life on the stage or is best left on the reading list is a question for another day.


Michael Billington, ‘Nothing like a dame’, Guardian, 27 April 1983
Michael Coveney, review, Financial Times, 27 April 1983
Robert Cushman, ‘The rumpscuttle’, Observer, 1 May 1983
TS Eliot, ‘Thomas Middleton’ (1927) in Selected Essays (1951)
Marjorie Garber, ‘The logic of the transvestite: The Roaring Girl (1608)’, in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (1991), 221-34
Francis King, ‘Common woman’, Sunday Telegraph, 1 May 1983
Mary Beth Rose, ‘Women in men’s clothing: apparel and social stability in The Roaring Girl’, English Literary Renaissance 14 (1984), 367-91
Irving Wardle, ‘Distant echo of Jacobean mirth’, The Times, 27 April 1983
Christopher Warman, ‘Moll who took her role seriously’, The Times, 23 April 1983

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