The Dutch Courtesan

Introducing the film of The Dutch Courtesan

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    Lrg_DSC_9808§1 We are delighted to be able to make available on the website, as promised, the film of our June 2013 production of The Dutch Courtesan. The filming was carried out at the first public performance, using a four-camera set-up, directed by my television colleague Patrick Titley, and with the sound recording under the control of another colleague Gavin Kearney. The filming, like the production itself, was made possible by a generous endowment from the Sylvia and Colin Shepherd Trust. The appearance of the film on the website will be followed, in early 2014, by an extended article written by me, mapping how the play changed for us during rehearsals, and by a recorded director’s commentary on some of the detail-by-detail thinking which characterises the production.

    §2 There has been a strong tendency in the commentary which has accumulated around Marston’s extraordinary play to assign fixed positions to some of its key figures. In one account, for instance, Freevill is portrayed as “an intelligent, carefree man about town who is aware that he has debased himself, but who has too much respect for the vagaries of natural impulse to be excessively severe either with himself or with the institution of courtesans”, while Malheureux is positioned as his polar opposite, “an austere young man of unbending and untested moral convictions”. In such readings, the subsequent action is interpreted as conferring ultimately benign agency on Freevill. Its ending is said to be shaped to this character’s wise “design”, with his homicidal ex-lover Franceschina “packed off to prison in a fury”, and a newly experienced Malheureux conceding that he has been aptly “chastened by his narrow escape” from destruction, a process which has been stage-managed throughout by his friend, while Freevill himself is happily reunited with Beatrice, the woman he is already betrothed to marry, “amid general rejoicing”. The near-suicidal agony Beatrice has meanwhile experienced is recuperated by this commentator as, though “genuine and profound”, yet only lasting a reassuringly “short time”. It is also justified as being indispensable to the comedy’s ethical goals, in that it gives “meaning to one of the two contrasts on which the plot is founded – that, as Marston puts it in his Fabulae Argumentum, “betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife””.[1] So Beatrice suffers to fulfil a structural and exemplary purpose. The fact that the “genuine and profound” distress she endures is directly caused by Freevill’s plotting, and voyeuristically relished by him, is nowhere acknowledged in this charting of the play. This polarisation of what is claimed to be Malheureux’s “coldblooded restraint” against “Freevill’s normal, healthy delight in the pleasures of the flesh” recurs as a leitmotif in numerous other commentaries on The Dutch Courtesan, and with it a matching confidence that our trust in the superiority of Freevill’s perspective and motives means that “the viewer can”, throughout its five acts, securely relish “the working out of the plot from a relaxed, detached vantage point”.[2]

    §3 Commentators who focus especially on the role of the title-character can be equally schematic in subduing her to Marston’s allegedly overarching desire to manoeuvre “a happy ending”. Franceschina thus becomes, in one analysis, another iteration of the familiar image of the whore as “pure evil or malevolence personified”, “something entirely other, utterly unsocialised”, and is moralised by them as, therefore, “an apt figure for what would become of a fallen, fleshly, lust-driven and violent human nature if it were once allowed to remove itself from the constraining structures of social and family life”.[3] Even a feminist investigator of seventeenth-century dramatic images of women detects in Marston’s representation of Franceschina only a “demonic and bloodthirsty whore”.[4]

    §5 Such accounts seem to me to reify the play into predetermined polarities which are, in fact, challenged and undermined by the complexity of its action and the searching intricacy of its handling of its characters’ behaviour to one another. My experience of directing what now seems to me to be Marston’s masterpiece has reinforced my pre-existing inclination in favour of views of it which start by acknowledging the play’s insistent inclination to change the perspective it offers us on its unfolding narrative and consequently to ask us to revalue our initial impressions of its major players, their direction of travel, and the implications – ethical, psychological, and emotional – of their actions.

    §5 Accordingly, I find more sympathetic than the readings cited above the proposition, for example, that “The Dutch Courtesan is singularly lacking in forces of constituted authority”, and that “part of the play’s destabilising impact must surely reside with its promotion into leading positions of Cocledemoy, a Proteus, and Freevill, a libertine”.[5] Those who have detected such a “destabilising impact” have differed as to the extent to which it can be judged to be under Marston’s control, and some have considered that his “moral vision seems blurred at times”, because he was “a product, as well as a would-be reformer, of seventeenth-century English culture”.[6] Rehearsing the play, however, made me trust more and more in the quality and focus of the writing, both moment by moment, and in its overall design. But that process of exploration also generated performance versions of some key incidents and scenes I would not have been able to predict when rehearsals began. The version of the play we ended up with was, in key ways, a revelation to me.

    §6 The article and commentary we will add to the website early in 2014 will seek to chart that process and explain some of the logics which led us in the directions we finally favoured. Once these are available, we will invite responses and thoughts (of whatever length) about The Dutch Courtesan, in the light of the York production, and thus hope to be able to inspire a continuing debate about Marston’s brilliantly provocative comedy. In the meantime, we trust that you will take the opportunity to sample the film of our 2013 staging.

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) Anthony Caputi, John Marston, Satirist (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1961), pp.228, 230, 239.
    2. 2) John Colley, John Marston’s Theatrical Drama (Salzburg: Institut fűr Englische Sprache und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1974), pp.161, 166.
    3. 3) Peter Lake, with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists & Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp.63, 414.
    4. 4) Jacqueline Pearson, The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women & Women Dramatists 1642-1737 (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), p.164.
    5. 5) Mark Thornton Burnett, “Calling ‘things by their right names’: Troping Prostitution, Politics and The Dutch Courtesan”, p.183, in Gordon McMullan, ed., Renaissance Configurations: Voices/Bodies/Spaces, 1580-1690 (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998).
    6. 6) William W. E. Slights, “Unfashioning the Man of Mode: A Comic Countergenre in Marston, Jonson, and Middleton”, Renaissance Drama, New Series, 15 (1984), p.84.