Down in the pit. The misery of being a woman in Nottinghamshire back when coal was king forms the preoccupation of Husbands and Sons, a composite of three one-act plays by D. H. Lawrence. Before they were rediscovered and staged, Lawrence’s dramas were an obscure part of his output, and now they risk being too dated to be vital. Like early Eugene O’Neill, the stage-minded Lawrence of 1911 to 1913, when these plays were written, aimed at naked social realism. The women trapped by brutal husbands working in the colliery stand on the brink of ruination from mining accidents, impending strikes, the cruel work hours that destroyed men’s bodies, and always the shadow of poverty.
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.