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.