You’ve no doubt heard of Shakespeare, and you may be familiar with Johnson and Marlowe, but have you heard of another Elizabethan dramatist, Phillip Massinger? Though more prolific than the Bard of Avon himself, sadly little is known about his life and he has largely been forgotten. Making Massinger, a new audio play written by Simon Butteriss, takes the few details we know about Massinger, and spins a thrilling tragedy that may explain the relative obscurity of this great playwright.
The piece is in the style of a revenge tragicomedy that Massinger himself could have written, full of iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets. We are introduced to Massinger as a struggling writer in need of patronage. He meets William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, supposedly the famous ‘WH’ to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are dedicated. He is a willing patron, with the wealth and courtly connections perfect for patronage, but after moving in for a kiss, it is clear he wants more than just plays from Massinger.
The story moves on from here at an energetic pace, and only leads to more blackmail, death, political intrigue and sexual abuse. But at the heart of the story is the real-life working partnership between Massinger and John Fletcher, another perhaps better remembered playwright, which Butteriss depicts as a tender and intense romance.
Of course, an audio play is carried by the strength of the writing, and here the writing is beautiful, brimming with the poetry and wordplay you would expect from the canon of 17th century drama. Butteriss utilises his chosen medium of verse effectively, which allows the characters to soliloquise on the play’s themes and inquire into art, love and betrayal. At the same time, the play reflects Massinger’s penchant of mixing tragedy and comedy within his own work, and so Making Massinger is equally filled with bawdy humour and double entendre. However, the story itself is a little convoluted, and requires a lot of attention when also admiring the wit and rhythm of the dialogue.
Though ostensibly a play about history, the themes of the struggles of an artist in a world driven by money, and the intolerance of queer relationships, feel very fresh, and a story about greed, treachery and love will always be universal and relevant. Massinger himself could not have asked for a more fitting tribute to his life than Making Massinger.
Making Massinger was recorded live on the main stage of Salisbury Playhouse and is available until 31 August