Article Title

"Not to Be Altered": Performance's Efficacy and Audience Reaction in The Roman Actor


Eric Dunnum


Readers of Philip Massinger’s hyper-self-reflective The Roman Actor have long noted, and then struggled to understand, the title character’s inability to use performance to enact change in his audience. Critics generally argue that this inability reflects Massinger’s critique of the early modern stage and its lack of moral efficacy, or they suggest that he is merely skeptical of drama’s ability to reform audiences and so is complicating this traditional view of drama by showing the variety and unpredictability of audience response. I believe there is another important function of these inset performances. I will argue that The Roman Actor is strategically and cannily constructing performance as ineffective. Highlighting the efficacy of drama would play into the hands of the playhouse’s enemies (antitheatrical writers and puritan authorities) who used audience actions, which were thought to be immoral, unruly and occasionally riotous, as a pretense for closing the theaters. It makes sense then that Massinger would want to distance performance from the actions of the audiences by showing performance to be unable to influence audience actions. I will further suggest that by severing the link between performance and actions, Massinger was gesturing towards a more contemplative and less reactive playgoing experience. That is, he was asking his audience to reflect on playhouse performances rather than use those performances as the basis for actions. This paper traces the inset performances within The Roman Actor and shows how they register a cultural anxiety over audience reaction, while seeking to limit

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