The Changeling - Synopsis
September 1980, Alicante.
Times are changing and the people are hungry for their share in a culture where “greed is good”. A new disease AIDS is spreading across the world and sexual tensions high as the endless party of summer continues across the city. The incessant heartbeat of the bass can be heard pulsing out of the most popular clubs; a sense of hedonistic madness in the air.
Picture a stout, fortified castle with thick ‘impregnable’ walls and vast shady courtyards: a masterpiece of stonework drenched in the heat of the late Spanish sun. Waves lap up against the great hilltop as it rises from like a beacon of prosperity. Seagulls surmount the air in its thick enveloping shadow. This is the home of the aristocracy with all their history of inherited wealth and strong family tradition.
A proposal has been made for a royal wedding. Beatrice-Joanna is promised to Alonzo de Piracquo, a strategic move by her father Vermandero to ensure that the lineage of the family is tied to wealth and riches. However, Piracquos affections are not returned by Beatrice as her heart is bound to another:
the Valencian Nobleman Alsemero visiting the country on trading business. When Alsemero also proposes, Beatrice is heartbroken and angered that she has little say in the matter. She forms an allegiance with her father’s servant DeFlores by using him to kill her betrothed, but is in debt to DeFlores’ demands for sex as compensation for completing deed.
In order to feign virginity on her wedding night to Alsemero, Beatrice sends her waiting woman Diaphanta in her place. DeFlores offers such continued assistance and loyalty that, despite her initial loathing, Beatrice is finds herself ever more bonded and in thrall.
Through his loyal friend Jasperino, Alsemero is made aware of their transgressions and locks the pair away in his chamber.
Meanwhile... In a nearby madhouse, Doctor Alibius worries that his wife will be unfaithful, so tasks his man Lollio to lock her away. At that moment Antonio is brought in as a new patient and thrown into the cells.
Isabella grows weary of her confinement, so Lollio finds her entertainment in the form of Franciscus, who sings to them. Antonio, or Tony as he is affectionately known, is then also bought out. Tony, who is a gentleman posing as a madman, undresses and tries to force himself upon Isabella, little does he know that Lollio is watching from above. Lollio comes down to try his own hand at having sex with her.
Oblivious to all of this, Alibius enters with news from the castle, the patients have been asked to dance at the wedding. A letter, read by Lollio and Isabella, reveals that Franciscus is actually a gentleman in fools clothing. Lollio hatches a plot to turn the two against each other, telling both that Isabella will have sex with them if they kill the other.
The two plots conjoin when Vermandero finds men in a mental asylum who he can blame for the murder. But it is soon revealed who the real culprits are.
DeFlores longs to remain
close to Beatrice in death and kills them both, as all onlookers reflect on how they have been changed through the course of events.
“ON THE CHANGELING”
1In 1927, T.S.Eliot wrote: ‘in the essence of tragedy, Middleton is surpassed by one Elizabethan alone, and that is Shakespeare’. He was describing the main plot of THE CHANGELING, a masterpiece of intensity and psychological subtlety. The physically ugly De Flores is obsessed by the beautiful Beatrice, and she is equally obsessive in her dislike of him. But the central irony of the play is that the apparent opposites are in fact ideal partners: the lovely Beatrice is as spiritually ‘all deformed’ as the ugly De Flores.
THE CHANGELING is not a typical Jacobean play of blood and violence. There are very few deaths, and no superfluous ones — De Flores’ murder of Alonzo is needed to set the main plot going, and the suicide pact of De Flores and Beatrice is the inevitable end to their obsessive story — and few horrors by Jacobean standards. When De Flores cuts off Alonzo’s finger, this is not mere Jacobean sensationalism: De Flores uses it to bring home to Beatrice what she has done in arranging a murder:
Why, is that more
Than killing the whole man? I cut his heart-strings.
If Middleton resembles Shakespeare in the intensity of tragedy, they could not be more different in style. Shakespeare’s language is rich in imagery and especially metaphor, while Middleton’s is extraordinarily plain: spare, direct, functional. So while Shakespeare can of course be treated as ‘literature’, Middleton seems to work entirely in terms of the practical theatre. In this respect, the writer he most resembles is Harold Pinter. In both, the theatre is their natural mode of expression, so that they can’t be interpreted sensibly in any other way. Both use ordinary language to express complexities beneath apparently simple statements; and both need that language to be spoken with great precision.
But Middleton did not write the whole play. The sub-plot, set in a madhouse, is by William Rowley. It would be idle to pretend that Rowley shares Middleton’s directness and clarity. The sub-plot panders to the Elizabethan and Jacobean view of the antics of madmen as entertainment.
Alibius, the owner of the asylum, does not want ‘The daily visitants, that come to see / My brainsick patients’ to see his wife Isabella. There is some evidence that one of these ‘visitants’, the pretended madman Antonio, was.regarded at the time as the changeling of the title.
A drawing of comic characters, including Falstaff, published in 1672, shows a figure labelled ‘changeling’. But the whole thrust of the play suggests that the real changeling is Beatrice, who changes from a figure of external beauty to one habituated to crime. She has become, as De Flores puts it, ‘the deed’s creature’.
This audio/radio version of the play had to last not more than 90 minutes. This involved substantial cutting. The simplest solution would have been to omit the madhouse plot, as several productions have done. But our director wanted to stress the element of madness in the whole play.
So in shortening it I have tried to make the narrative in the madhouse scenes clearer, and while I have reluctantly had to cut a fair amount of the main plot, I have ensured that the central scenes between De Flores and Beatrice were unscathed, so that the focus remains on what Eliot called the essence of tragedy.
About Roger Warren
Roger Warren’s numerous publications include books on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakespeare’s late plays in performance; editions of Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Henry VI Part Two, Pericles, and Two Gentlemen of Verona for the Oxford Shakespeare series; and performing texts of As You Like It and (with Edward Hall), A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rose Rage, a two-play adaptation of the Henry VI cycle.
His theatre work includes extensive collaboration with Peter Hall at the National Theatre, at Stratford-upon-Avon, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and for Hall’s American Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles.