January 4 – April 7, 2013

In this hilarious and touching tragicomedy, the outrageous “custom” in the title is that the Governor has the right to deflower any new bride in his realm. One couple secretly marries and flees the custom and the country. Meanwhile, the groom’s brother is forced into service in his dream job: head stud at a male brothel. This remarkably modern romp journeys through shipwrecks and lost loves with magic potions, power plays, and repentant rulers on its way to a happy ending where love triumphs over lust.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens during the play
  • In Italy, brothers Arnoldo and Rutilio discuss their love lives. Arnoldo loves Zenocia (who is desired by Count Clodio, the governor) deeply and plans to marry her. Rutilio loves many women shallowly and often.
  • Arnoldo bemoans “the barbarous, most inhumane, damned Custom” of the country, which allows Count Clodio to take or sell a bride’s maidenhead immediately after her wedding.
  • Zenocia’s father, Charino, attempts to convince her to marry Clodio, but she maintains her affection for, fidelity to, and intention to marry Arnoldo.
  • Count Clodio tells Zenocia that he will lower himself to marry her, but she refuses him. Clodio leaves her to her wedding to Arnoldo, telling her “when that’s done, you are mine, I will enjoy you.”
  • Before Count Clodio can exercise his right upon Zenocia, she, Arnoldo, and Rutilio threaten him with violence and make their escape by boat. Clodio pursues them.
  • In Lisbon, the proud, vain, spendthrift Duarte expounds on his own self-worth, much to the chagrin of his uncle, the Governor of Lisbon, and his mother, Guiomar.
  • Zenocia arrives in Lisbon having been captured by sailors and separated from Arnoldo and Rutilio.
  • Arnoldo and Rutilio arrive in Lisbon after swimming to shore. Arnoldo mourns the loss of Zenocia and Rutilio mourns their penniless state.
  • Zabulon, a Jew, presents, Arnoldo and Rutilio with gold and promises more to come if they follow him. Arnoldo does so.
  • Duarte and Alonzo quarrel in the street. Rutilio steps in and duels with Duarte, killing him. Rutilio and Alonzo run from the arms of the law.
  • Rutilio hides in Guiomar’s home. Officers arrive and tell her of Duarte’s death. Guiomar realizes that Rutilio is the culprit, but gives him money and means to escape “because what you did was not done with malice.”
  • Zenocia’s captor presents her to his lady-love, Hippolyta.
  • Zabulon brings Arnoldo to his mistress Hippolyta’s home and gives him food, wine, and servants. Hippolyta falls in love with Arnoldo as soon as she sees him, but Arnoldo refuses her. He leaves her house and Hippolyta, angry, sends her servants after him.
  • As Sulpitia, who runs a male brother, complains to her servant that all the lusty men have disappeared, Rutilio passes by in the custody of two officers. Sulpitia pays for his freedom so that he can work for her.
  • Zabulon reports to Hippolyta that Arnoldo has been arrested, taken to the governor, and sentenced to lose his head.
  • Reunions, miraculous recoveries, attempted murder, magic potions, and changes of heart ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?
No earlier than 1619 when one of its sources appeared and no later than 1623 when one of the actors (Nicholas Tooley) in the original cast list died. It appeared in the 1647 Folio of Beaumont and Fletcher’s works.

2. Where was the play first performed?
The Blackfriars. The King’s Men performed it at their indoor theater, and it might also have appeared at the Globe.

3. Who wrote it?
John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. These are the two men who succeeded William Shakespeare as chief playwrights for the King’s Men – Fletcher until his death in 1625 and Massinger until his death in 1640 (two years before the theatres closed). Both men are buried at Southwark Cathedral where you an see their stones adjacent to one another in the choir stalls.

4. How are these playwrights like Shakespeare?
Like Shakespeare, they did not feel confined by the strictures of classical drama about time, setting, and genre. Their plays range freely through geography and are cavalier about the passage of time. They relish a mix of the comic and the tragic.

5. How are these playwrights unlike Shakespeare? 
They work harder on the plot. Story and situation drive their plays, and their characters do and say (extremely well) the things the plot needs them to do and say.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
The sexual humor of the play has, until recently, obscured the play’s strengths, of which there are enough to have inspired laundered versions in the 18th century and even the title of a novel by Edith Wharton, who may or may not have been aware of the c-word pun. This first fully staged production of it since the 17th century should help remind us that it’s a fine play.

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
The Restoration poet and critic John Dryden defended the drama of his own time (see “Brief” for The Country Wife) from the charge of lewdness by writing that “There is more indecency in The Custom of the Country than in all our plays together.”

8. What characters should I especially look for?
Rutilio, the brother of Arnoldo, is a wisecracking adventuresome love object with his own subplot.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
Hard to choose in a play so full of “save the maiden” scenes, but Hippolyta’s witchcraft scene is full of dramatic and cultural richness.

10. What is the language like?
Alternately high-flown and playful, the language mirrors the genre of a tragicomedy, only in a potty-mouth sort of way.