The Changeling

Role: De Piraquo (February 1961)

The Royal Court's rediscovery of this Higher Horror Comic by Middleton and Rowley was not just another classic revival; not since the seventeenth century has The Changeling been produced professionally. It is practically a new play for us - a strangely modern sort of play for vintage 1623, with its colloquial verse, grotesque ironic comedy, and Sartresque significance - and splendidly stageworthy it is too.

It copes with one of drama's central questions: what happens when a man or a woman resolves to do his or her will to the uttermost. Here the impelling force is lust - not love, for these people want only to use one another. The anti-heroine, Beatrice-Joanna, finds the existence of her fiancé an inconvenient obstacle to her desire for another man, and suborns a despised servant to perform a quiet murder. What happens is disaster, into which she is drawn when the servant claims her body as his reward. "You are the deed's creature," he tells her; and she finds herself "in a labyrinth" whose walls are the one all-encompassing circumstance: her crime.

The Changeling will interest doctrinaire Freudians as a case-study of sado-masochism and love-hate ambivalence; doctrinaire Marxists will find it a searching analysis of sexual mores in the light of the class struggle. For me its primary significance lies in its dramatization of the way in which we make ourselves what we are, of the relation between action and its consequences. Retribution here is no poised hawk, ready to swoop out of the blue; it is not coincidental or providential, but integral.

It was largely the fault of this particular production that the play seemed to lack emotional force to project its profundity. On the credit side was a darkly splendid performance by Robert Shaw as the servant who makes his mistress his mistress; and an artful, intensely teasing performance by Zoe Caldwell as the sexy bit in the subplot. Mary Ure was her cool blonde self, and effectively made the point that Beatrice-Joanna is no grandly passionate tragedy queen, only a casually ruthless bitch who goes too far (a fine stroke on Middleton's part, enabling him to deal in original and pointed ironies instead of stereotyped Cleopatrics).

But Miss Ure lacked the power to project her character's sufferings, and neither Jocelyn Herbert's spacious sets nor Tony Richardson's genteel staging did much to create the necessary labyrinth of lust around her. Characters were often addressing one another sedately from opposite sides of the stage when they might advantageously have been breathing down each other's shirt-fronts. Tony Richardson has served in the vanguard of the fight against the congenital gentility of the English stage, and he attempted in this production to keep it at bay by various self-consciously non-U activities; but the enemy is subtle and has bored from within. We are not as easily horrified as the Elizabethans, and Mr. Richardson has not the audacity to keep murder and madmen and ghosts from seeming a bit old-hat. Still, he has taken a bare script, added it to the living repertory, and proved that it belongs there. This is no mean accomplishment.

Julius Novick.

Encore, May-June 1961.

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