1000 Books In 10 Years: Vol. 216: Antonio and Mellida, by John Marston

Finding an edition of John Marston’s Antonio and Mellida in a modern font proved difficult, and even when I did, the spelling, lack of stage instructions and abbreviations of characters names made it difficult to read at times.  When you have a character named Antonio and a character named Andrugio, it makes it hard to figure out who’s talking when only the letters “An” Come before the text.  But alas, after get two “defective” books from Chapters, I was kindly directed to the Leddy Library where I found a copy of the play in modern font, as edited by H. Harvey Wood (who didn’t take the time to modernize any of the spellings).

John Marston

John Marston

                The play is a typical comedy for the era, boy loves girl, girl loves boys.  Both boy and his father are presumed dead, killed by girls’ father, but both have survived and boy disguises himself as a girl to get closer to girl.  Boy and father are reunited, girl’s father realizes the error of his ways, everybody lives happily ever after (until the sequel: Antonio’s Revenge).

                So what, if anything, makes this play stand out from the rest of the comedies presented on the Elizabethan stage?  Two things: one that there is an induction, and two that there is a sequel that is a tragedy.  It was first performed by child actors (the famed Children of Paul’s), and in the induction several children speak to each other about the parts they are about to play, each asking the other who they are playing (as if they wouldn’t have figured that out during rehearsals), as well as discussing how they plan to go about performing.  One might suggest that this breaks the illusion of the theatre as it pulls back the curtain, but being as how these were child actors, I find it highly unlikely that any audience would have been able to suspend their disbelief considering the adult content of the play is being orated by pre-adolescent boys, some of whom are dressed as women.  What does the induction serve then?  A framing for the narrative?  I can’t see the purpose of such a framing.  The conversation is interesting in that one of the boys, who, though playing a man, is required to dress as a woman, is worried that while he is trying to “hit the right point of a Ladies part”   he will “growe ignorant when [he] must turne young Prince againe”.  Is he suggesting that playing the part of a woman will make him effeminate?  Laurie Shannon notes that at the time it was perceived that “effeminacy mark[ed] men who become womanly by too strong an interest in woman.”  Perhaps this is what Marston is suggesting, or perhaps Marston was simply lifting the veil on the exploitation of child actors and forcing the audience to acknowledge that it was indeed children performing these parts.  Given that Marston was a satirist driven to the stage by the Bishops’ Ban of 1599 which censored works of satire and named two of Marston’s books specifically in the ban (The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image and Certaine Satyres and The Scourge of Villanie), it is likely that this induction was meant as a satiric device of some sort, and that fact that the play frequently draws attention to the fact that it is child actors playing the parts (several times throughout the play the actors, in character, try to humiliate other characters on stage by referring to them as children, which they of course are) suggest that the fact these were child actor did not sit easily with Marston, who himself left for the adult stage in time.

The Children of Paul's

The Children of Paul’s

                The flaws in the work are great.  The spelling is inconsistent (the same word or name can be spelled two different ways on the same page), the lack of stage directions can serve as a little disorientating and the clichés make the work even less tolerable.  The induction is interesting, but the work on a hole seems lacking.  The sequel, though a more interesting read, does not justify or warrant the first play as the narrative within it is self-sufficient and does not need this counterpart.  If anything, this play takes away from the sequel in that it spawned in that there are problems of consistency with the sister work.  Marston’s writing career spanned only ten years.  I wonder if his career was cut short because he was forcefully silenced due to his satire, or because his work simply wasn’t accessible to the general public?  The Malcontent is considered to be his best work, so perhaps I should take a look at that and reserve my judgements on Marston until I have read it. 

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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