Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

By Huston Diehl | Go to book overview

Epilogue

The dedicatory verses appended to the 1612 edition of Tho mas Heywood 's An Apology for Actors are remarkable for their gestures toward an explicitly "Protestant" aesthetics. Their embrace of "plainnesse," their distrust of any "florish of Eloquence," their disavowal of "glosse" and "painting," their distinction between "us'd" and "abus'd" art, their construction of the antitheatrical antagonist as an "open Saint, and secret varlet": all these expressions are appropriated from Protestant discourse.1 Like the Apology itself, these poems carefully align the theater with Protestantism, deriving their defense of plays from the very theology that inspires their antitheatrical opponents.

Similarly coded language appears in a poem by Thomas Middleton praising The Duchess of Malfi and its author. Middleton claims that Webster's art is superior to the most magnificent monuments of medieval culture, "express[ing] more art," he writes, "than Death's cathedral palaces." And he explicitly identifies Webster's aesthetics with the Protestant aesthetic of plainness: "Thy note / Be ever plainness, 'tis the richest coat."2 On what grounds does Middleton declare a play like The Duchess, with its intricate and highly contrived plot and its richly figurative language, plain? More to my point, how can Webster's play be said to achieve an aesthetic of plainness when it so unabashedly displays elaborate spectacles of horror, madness, and death, including such sen-

____________________
1
Heywood, An Apology for Actors, (1612), sigs. A3r, a3r.
2
Thomas Middleton, "Commendatory Verses", in The Duchess of Malfi, by John Web ster ( 1964), p. 4; I am struck by Middleton's use of a theatrical metaphor here, speaking of plainness as a costume, "the richest coat."

-213-

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