A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger (and a note on Betsy Baker).

1904 edition of A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

It's a long-term goal of mine to read more English Renaissance plays. So far I've read The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker (1599), A Woman Killed With Kindness by Thomas Heywood (1603), two Christopher Marlowe plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage (1586) and Edward II (1592), Kynge Johan by John Bale (1561) and now A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger (1625).

Philip Massinger was an English dramatist born in Wiltshire in 1583-84 and eventually making his way to London in around 1606 having left Oxford University without a degree (presumably because his father died in 1603 and he was without financial assistance). Little is known about these early days, but it's thought he was in prison in 1613 for debt and bailed out by Philip Henslowe, who he later described as "a true, loving friend". Massinger's first play was a collaboration with John Fletcher - Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1619) and his first solo play was The Maid of Honour (1621). A New Way to Pay Old Debts came four years and seven plays later. As for his other plays - now, here's a story (which would make a rather good play in itself): there was a man called John Warburton who (in the 18th Century) enjoyed collecting old books and manuscripts. Problem was he was a careless chap and amassed many of them in his kitchen. One day he went to his kitchen to retrieve the manuscripts and discovered his cook, Betsy Baker, had used them all for lighting fires and lining baking tins. Over a dozen Massinger plays were lost, a Marlowe play too (The Maiden's Holiday), two Shakespeares (Duke Humphrey and Henry I), Greene, Davenport, Rowley, Dekker... some of the biggest names of English Renaissance Drama, in short and at least fifty manuscripts of this period were lost (a complete list can be found here). Warburton said of the travesty,
After I had been many years collecting these manuscript plays, through my own carelessness and the ignorance of my servant, in whose hands I lodged them, they was unluckily burnt or put under pie bottoms.
Only three plays survived: The Second Maiden's Tragedy (George Chapman or Thomas Middleton), The Queen of Corsica by Francis Jaques, and The Bugbears by John Jeffere.

Portrait of Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach (1818).
Back to A New Way to Pay Old Debts: it is set in rural Nottinghamshire and concerns the misfortunes of Frank Welborn who, at the beginning of the play, is forcibly ejected from his local tavern by the host and hostess Tapwell and Froth. Tom Allworth arrives during the argument between the three, and we learn that both Allworth and Welborn are victims of one of the greatest villains of all time (after Betsy Baker, I mean) - the avariocious Sir Giles Overreach, a "cruel extortioner" as he is described in the dramatis personae, and his men Jack Marall and Justice Greedy. To him Welborn has lost his estate and Allworth has been forced to work as a page to Lord Lovell. His mother, however (a widow) has retained her country home and is frequently visited by suitors including Overreach. Welborn visits her and asks a favour, reminding her of his friendship with his late husband. She consents to this favour (said in a whisper - all we know at this point is that it is not a request for a loan; we later learn it is simply to be received into her company as a gentleman) and he leaves.

Meanwhile Overreach has plans to marry off his daughter Margaret to Lord Lovell, however she is in love with Allworth (Lovell is aware of his and has promised to assist the lovers), and, to complicate things, Overreach has seen Welborn leave the company of Lady Allworth and assumes he is her suitor. Were he to marry Lady Allworth, Overreach would, he believes, he able to extort even more money out of him, and so, to help him in his 'quest' he gives Welborn £1,000. Marall, a contractor and one of Overreach's associates, sees this so-called impending marriage in a different light and decides he would be much better off being friends with Welborn over Overreach so he drops Overreach.

When it is revealed that Margaret and Allworth have married (through tricking her father into supplying a note of consent to the clergyman) Overreach flies into a rage, and he demands that Welborn return the £1,000. Welborn, now with the great advantage of not only having the aforementioned sum but also Marall as an ally, refuses and demands all his land back. Overreach eventually goes mad and is institutionalised, Lady Allworth and Lord Lovell marry, and they all agree to return use the money from Overreach's estate to make reparations to all of his former victims.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts is good fun, not easy but then Renaissance Comedy is my nemesis, but it does have an edge of seriousness to it in Massinger's absolute hatred of the likes of Overreach and his ilk. Overreach himself was said to be based on Giles Mompesson, a member of parliament and fellow-Wiltshire man, who was imprisoned for corruption around the time Massinger wrote his play. Sir Giles Overreach was, at the time, a remarkable character - not a corrupt king or cruel god, but a man who could cross paths with us at any given time, with some of his chilling observations such as,
... 'tis enough I keep
Greedy [his associate] at my devotion: so he serve
My purposes, let him hang or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.
This is one of the many reasons why he was regarded as one of the greatest villains in literature.

Comments

  1. interest - provoking; i have a lot of elizabethan plays that i've never tapped into; i was collecting them for some reason at one time. your post is telling me i have to remedy that. tx. also, the horror story of the pastry cook makes me cringe every time i hear it. another one is when mrs. burton burned all of his manuscripts after his death because she thought they were salacious...

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    Replies
    1. I didn't know that about Mrs. Burton. Oh dear.... :S

      And yes I've been collecting Elizabethan / Jacobean plays too, really want to press on with them. However, also seem drawn to Ibsen at the moment. It's hard to fit them all in! :)

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