Motiveless malignity. It’s hard to transport one’s mind back far enough to empathize with Jacobean drama, when immorality masqueraded as the It Thing, as if a casual rape was merely the aperitif before fine dining. Today we have summer movies, admittedly, where mass carnage goes down well with popcorn and no harm done. We aren’t frightened or disgusted by how many people the Terminator terminates. Two minutes after leaving the theatre we return to our moral selves. Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1621), in a stirring revival at the National Theatre, affords an equally mindless vacation from morality. But it wants to be more adult. With an aristocratic audience to please and no Hollywood ratings agency, Middleton could add salaciousness and bawdry to the max. The popcorn has been sprinkled with wormwood and gall.
Love goes ka-boom. I read an interview with a young playwright, David Eldridge, who was asked about current conditions in the British theater. At 27 he had a precocious smash hit at the Royal Court in 2000 with Under the Blue Sky, a study in three scenes of romance and sexual frustration among secondary school teachers. The subject sounds deadly, and one can understand why five London theatres originally turned it down. The commercial West End trembles like melting marmalade when faced with serious dramatic writing, and the pay for playwrights is criminally low, to the point that talented ones scrounge for a living, even after having a hit. (I’m reminded of the improbable moment when Sam Goldwyn brought the poet-playwright Maurice Maeterlinck from Paris to Hollywood. Goldwyn’s familiarity with Maeterlinck’s masterpiece, Pelleas et Melisande, was dubious. The work to be adapted for the big screen was a strange naturalist treatise, The Life of the Bee. After reading the first draft of the script, Goldwyn rushed out of his office screaming, “My God, it’s about a bee!”)