Friday, September 30, 2011

The Renegado (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Michael Neill.

Another act of publication charity, the Arden Early Modern Drama’s edition of Philip Massinger’s The Renegado sees the play housed alone for the first time since 1939 (according to the publication history at the back), the previous two most recent appearances a collected works in 1976 and as part of anthology of “Three Turk Plays” in 2000. It’s also a play which lacks a performance history without any revivals since the English Civil War apart from a Read Not Dead reading at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. If ever there was an example of why Arden’s work is so important it’s this.

As editor Michael Neill indicates, the play's obscurity is surprising considering the resonance it would have to contemporary audiences. In Tunisia, Vitalli a Venetian gentleman disguised a merchant is searching for his lost sister Paulina, whom he believes has been captured by the pirate Grimaldi, the renegade of the title, and then sold on to a local harem. While the harem owner wrestles with his lust for Paulina, a local princess falls for Vitelli and after their forbidden love is discovered (he's a Christian, she's a Muslim), they’re imprisoned and only the harem owner can save them all.

That’s an over simplification of what is a complex mediation not just on the nature of belief but also how Jacobian Britain was viewing the Muslim world, Massinger commenting on the orientalism of his contemporaries by adding to a list of what would later be termed “Turk” plays set in Turkey and the surrounding area, but tweaking expectations slightly by injecting the kind of tragicomic elements inspired by the work of his sometime collaborator John Fletcher (who also worked with Shakespeare latterly in his career).

As illustrated by the engravings taken from some of the books that may have been Massinger’s sources of the play interspersed throughout the introduction, this is very much the period when contemporary understanding of the Muslim world was of “them” being “bonded”, and “us” being “free”. But the playwright tellingly includes a Jesuit character, and in a positive manner, which would have been provocative at a time when anti-Catholicism was clouding King James’s decision to secure a Spanish match for his son, indicating that religious oppression took many forms.

In explaining all of this (and much more), Neill shows what can happen when an editor feels less tethered to what’s previously been written and unlike so many Shakespeare editors who sometimes become apologists for their new theory. After about five years of research (according to his preface) you can see the words bursting from him like John Peel or Lester Bangs unearthing a lost musical classic. This is as much advocacy as criticism as he demonstrates that in this case obscurity and mediocrity are not interchangeable.

The Renegado (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Michael Neill. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271611. Review copy supplied.

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