1000 Books In 10 Year: Vol. 211: The Roaring Girl, by Thomas & Thomas (Dekker and Middleton)

‘The Roaring Girl’, or ‘Moll Curpurse’, was a Jacobean stage play co-authored by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton (apparently no relation to Kate Middleton, though Kate is related to both George Washington and Upton Sinclair).  The play’s title is based on the term ‘roaring boy’ which was apparently employed in the era to describe boys who were known pick-pockets or who were known to cause public disturbances.

Thomas Middleton: A big enough celebrity in his era that he had a portrait done.  Such a portrait could not be found for his co-author Dekker.

Thomas Middleton: A big enough celebrity in his era that he had a portrait done. Such a portrait could not be found for his co-author Dekker.

The play is far from a masterpiece, and its plot is a contrived cliché of comedies from the period.  An under developed male character, Sebastian, wants to marry for love, but his father does not approve of his selection, a woman named Mary, or rather, wants a larger dowry from her father.  Sebastian then pretends to desire another woman instead, the ‘Roaring Girl’ of the play’s title, Moll Cutpurse, who is a known cross dresser and reputed pick-pocket and perhaps prostitute.  The father obviously objects to this even more, so when Sebastian does get married his father is despondent and desolate, under the impression that his son has married Moll, but is overjoyed when he finds out that his son has instead married Mary, and after having made a wager with Mary’s father, agrees to give half his property to his son.  Happy ending.   There is a sub plot also featuring the Jacobean version of desperate housewives that has little impact on the play’s plot structure, though it does offer some insight into how marriages were viewed in the era.

Moll Catpurse

Moll Catpurse

The play is not without merit.  Its title character is perhaps one of the most intriguing female protagonists of the Jacobean era.  She, on three occasions during the play, has physical confrontations with men and comes away on top in each instance (though the third one, a gang of cutpurses leave without a physical altercation), not to mention the verbal sparring which she engages in, each time coming out on top of her male counterparts.  She defends prostitutes, suggesting that moral woman are sometimes forced into such instances, she undermines the police, projects a moral code and in the end denounces marriage when asked if she will ever get married, suggesting that she is quite complete without a man and prefers being alone.  Indeed, the female character, who embraces masculine gender traits, succeeds at being a man better than most all of the men in the play.  That character is based on an actual woman from the era, Mary Firth (no relation to Colin Firth as far as I can gather), who was quite a celebrity among Londoners and aside from making public appearances on stage herself, unheard of for a woman of the era (only men performed before such audiences) she also racked up quite a rap sheet being charged for: dressing indecently, fencing, theft and pandering (she not only sold women to men, but also sold men to women, a story which carries some interesting feminist interpretations of role reversal).  Unlike the character in the play, Mary Firth did end up getting married, though apparently, did so only so that she could avoid be charged with being a spinster, and the marriage was never consummated.  It was also reported that she killed General Fairfox during the civil war and bribed her way out of the hangman’s noose with 2000 pounds, though there is no real way to verify any of these stories (aka: citation needed).  The play undermines this great character in some aspects.  Sebastian, for example, pretends to woo her, and does not foretell her of his intent initially, though later Moll works with Sebastian and Mary, but initially not including her in the prank seems to be a bit insulting as the pretense for it is that Sebastian’s father will be so appalled by such a match that he would prefer any other bride to such a woman as Moll.  Things work out in the end though, as Sebastian’s father confesses that he allowed public perception influence him and that Moll is a far more moral person than she is reputed to be.  Overall, though problematic, the play is certainly worth reading for fans of drama from the era.

Lady Gaga taps into her inner Mary Firth, bending gender lines and showing up what Mary Firth might look like today.

Lady Gaga taps into her inner Mary Firth, bending gender lines and showing up what Mary Firth might look like today.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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