A group for those interested in reading William Rowley’s The Birth of Merlin! Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time through the weird and wonderful world of this fabulous play, you are welcome here to discuss (asynchronously) with friends.
- 18 May 2020 at 5:09 am EDT #31364
Nora J WilliamsParticipant@norajay1308
“The child has found his father. Do you not know me?”
It’s Act Five! We’re coming to the end of this wild and wacky adventure.
I have SO MANY thoughts about this act, but I noticed for the first time, as I re-read it for today, that literally all the women are gone by the end in one way or another. Picking up on Anna’s comment from the Act 4 thread, it is fascinating to me that Modestia and Constantia are allowed to “get away with” their marriage mutiny and enter the monastery in peace.
But poor Joan! “I saved you mom, now go rot away and die in this nice bower I made for you. But don’t be sad! I’ll make Stonehenge to honour you when you die.” So much for filial duty. (He is talking about Stonehenge, right?)
And, of course, Artesia, who continues her badassery unto death. I actually love the idea of staging this scene, with all the men flustered as to how they can torture her when she keeps relishing their ideas, until finally Pendragon gives up and just says, literally, “good enough” 🤣
I’ve got some other thoughts that I’ll hold onto for now. Tell me what you think of Act 5!
- 19 May 2020 at 5:54 am EDT #31390
What a climax! I love 5.1.
The moment that stands out in my memory from the Read Not Dead reading was the final confrontation between the Devil and Merlin. I mentioned this in a previous thread, but those of you who know James Wallace will hopefully be able to imagine his voice as he channelled Inigo Montoya and Darth Vader in a low, slow, snarl of ‘Merrrrlin.‘ On stage, it worked surprisingly well as a final confrontation, more so than I’d expected from reading it. I was also struck by the references to the Devil as a hound, thinking of The Witch of Edmonton.
Joan’s lack of response to Merlin’s plan for her – just after he’s saved her! – leaves the play’s tone at this point interestingly ambiguous for me. Nora and Anna, I know you’ve both also been interested in the silence of female characters at the end of plays, and this feels like an especially profound one for me, which could be played in a number of ways. I think Joan would be a fascinating role to explore further – the Globe reading went full on parody, but on this re-read I’ve come to see the role shifting from something comedic early on to something more earnest and sincerely tragic.
Compared to The London Prodigal – another play in the ‘Apocrypha’ which has a great female character who gets to declare her absolute lack of interest in marriage at the end, the rejection of the daughters here feels more ambiguous, doesn’t it? Donobert gets his new sons, and ‘stubborn daughters’ are disinherited and forgotten about. I feel this is a ‘yay’, inasfar as the women get what they want, but from another point of view they’re a problem that is resolved by shrugging and forgetting about them.
- 19 May 2020 at 5:56 am EDT #31391
Also Nora – definitely agree about Artesia. Head held high, marching off, ‘Call that torture?!’
- 19 May 2020 at 6:14 am EDT #31392
Nora J WilliamsParticipant@norajay1308
Artesiaaaaaaa!!! I’ve mostly stepped away from acting, but that’s one role I’d kill to play someday.
Pete, your point about the consolidation of the male power even in the absence of the daughters in the romance plot made me remember the end of The Changeling (also written by Rowley), in which Alsemero ostentatiously declares to his father-in-law–immediately after his wife’s death–that he ‘has a son living’. It’s a closing of ranks that ensures a patriarchal (if not patrilineal) movement of power from fathers to sons — the women, apart from their ability to continue the line through bearing children, are almost incidental.
I’d be interested to find out whether this is a Rowley thing, or a broader trend in Jacobean plays, where the absence of a wife/ability to produce children doesn’t seem to frustrate the succession of power. Interestingly, I remember reading somewhere (maybe your book, Dave?) that Rowley’s plays often seem to be ‘throwbacks’ to Elizabethan themes, styles, concerns, etc. — this makes me wonder if there is a callback here to Elizabeth I, who did not produce an heir. Or maybe that’s a stretch…
- 19 May 2020 at 8:15 am EDT #31403
So yes, as both of you say, Pete and Nora, Act 5 seems very much a case of ‘lock/shut away or kill all the unruly women, maintain patrilinealism at all costs, and establish a quasi-androgenetic origin myth for “Britain”‘, because, of course, no one does remember Joan’s name. There is dissidence in Artesia’s laughter however as you also note. Witches have been known to do this onstage- the Late Lancashire witches simply laugh when they are interrogated by a kangaroo court in that play and I’m fascinated by female resistance encoded through non-verbal forms such as laughter in early modern drama. Interesting that this act played quite well, Pete, because it does read as somewhat perfunctory on the page. I’d want to accompany some of its longer speeches with masques or dumb shows if directing.
- 19 May 2020 at 10:47 am EDT #31410
Like Peter, I was struck by the references to the devil as a hound and what seems like an obvious reference to Dog in The Witch of Edmonton. He’s not an actual dog here (Merlin references his human shape), but is he doggish?
There’s actually a ton of intertextual references to other witch/magic plays in this act. In addition to the Witch of Edmonton, I’m hearing both Masque of Queens and Marston’s Sophonisba in the musical cues (Joan calls it “infernal music,” which shows up in musical stage directions for both–the latter is reinforced by Edol’s comparison of Artesia to Erictho in 5.2). Joan’s call for darkness to cover her reminds me, too, of Lady Macbeth’s “come thick night” and Macbeth’s “Stars, hide your fires” (though maybe a stretch?). There might be some Macbeth, too, in what seems like an unusual call for “hoeboys” in the stage direction immediately preceding Merlin’s prophecy at the end of the play. Between those and the earlier allusions/borrowings from Friar Bacon and Dr. Faustus, this play really runs the gamut of formerly popular magic/witchcraft dramas.
I’m going to give those hoeboys some more thought and come back if I come up with anything more interesting.
- 19 May 2020 at 7:20 pm EDT #31418
OK, I hate to be a pooper, but I have issues with this Act. Not with scene 5.1 (that’s a scene – wow!), but ultimately 5.2 is a bit of a squib. Of course my main complaint is, where’s my boy the Clown? How does he feel about Joan being taken away to pine away in some weird bower? Doesn’t he have any bon mots to share with us at the end? Nope, he just parades in and says nothing. Not even a ‘hum hum hum’ this time. Rubbish.
In my book on Middleton & Rowley I suggested that the clown roles that Rowley wrote for himself always end with a big climactic Act 5 scene for the Clown that concludes his story and often valorizes his attitudes. This is the exception. There’s nothing. When you couple this with the fact that Act 5 is weirdly short, and then add in the fact that Modesta and Constantia disappear after Act 3 and are kind of hand-waved away in this Act, I can’t help wonder whether somebody may have mucked around with the text between performance in 1622 and publication in 1661. Or whether Rowley ran out of paper.
This is a shame because it really is interesting that Modesta and Constantia end the play having voluntarily chosen to be “secluded from the world and men forever”. But we don’t get a strong final image of their going to that space. It’s not as cool as Massinger’s Maid of Honour where Camiola dramatically sweeps out and gets her to a nunnery.
However, this Act does have the Devil falling into a rock, and the badassery of Artesia’s exit, so I’m not complaining too much.
One final thing: many years ago, a former student of mine, the fabulous Sarah Higgins, wrote a play called So ho, by so, which is a kind of dream play that mashes up Birth of Merlin with a modern-day story about a sex worker and her son. It was performed at the Halifax Fringe in 2010 and 2014 and is a 15-minute blast of theatrical fury. To quote Sarah, “My play is from [Joan’s] perspective. In the play she’s a sex worker who chose the profession. She gets pregnant and juggles that responsibility, her child grows up and judges her for her choice.” Further info for the intrigued:
- 20 May 2020 at 8:06 pm EDT #31455
Like most others here, I’m picking up this final act as a fantasy of purging the country of women. Donobert’s opportunity to bequeath his estate to two men, now his daughters have removed themselves from the picture. The installation of Uther as king and foretelling of his having a son without any mention, unless I missed it somewhere, of Igraine. Merlin having no interest in giving his mother a pleasant life, only getting excited by the prospect of a monument to her death. And the competitive imagining of what could be done with the last women standing, that foreign interloper who poisoned her husband to no real benefit to herself but just because… that’s what foreign queens do? They’d all be much happier if they could have sons without involving women at all, wouldn’t they?
- 22 May 2020 at 5:47 pm EDT #31516
thank you, Nora, for taking us on this wacky play. It’s fascinating how utterly dissonant this play is. Often you hear of actors who aren’t in the same play, but these characters don’t all seem to be in the same play, or at least, it’s such a strange way to take part in British mythmaking. I wonder how it would play to an American audience which probably wouldn’t have any reference for this type of Arthurian legend..
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