Although a prolific and workmanlike playwright, Philip Massinger never achieved an outstanding individual style strong enough to distinguish him among his contemporaries or in theatrical history. After studying at Oxford, Massinger wrote plays in collaboration with Cyril Tourneur, John Fletcher, and Thomas Dekker; later he served for fifteen years as the principal playwright for William Shakespeare’s old company, the King’s Men. A New Way to Pay Old Debts, having remained popular over time, is his claim to enduring fame.
The plot, although not particularly original, is lively. The formula of the play, trickery to fool a criminal, was not a new one with Massinger, but he gave his theme dramatic interest and clever satire. The new way to pay old debts is credit, seen in the actions of Lady Allworth, which enables the prodigal Wellborn to establish himself once again in the respectable world after having been cozened by his uncle. The character of Sir Giles Overreach, a favorite with lead actors, was probably based on Sir Giles Mompessen (1584-1651), a famous extortioner of seventeenth century England who had commissions from James I for controlling licenses to innkeepers. His crimes were discovered, and he and his legal associate Francis Michel (Marrall in the play) were prosecuted and convicted a decade before the play appeared.
The themes of this comedy of manners are no more complicated than the plot, but they are valid and convincingly handled. Overreach represents the senseless desire to attain nobility, a desire that is paradoxical when accompanied by his disdain of the nobility’s inability to fend successfully for itself in the mercantile world. Lovell is pitted against Sir Giles; birth and inherited riches are set against wealth won by individual industry. Overreach’s complete lack of principle and scruples contrasts him with Lovell but also makes him a more interesting character. The scene between father and daughter is a clear presentation of the grasping man’s willingness to make any means practicable for a determined end: “End me no ends,” her father tells Margaret in act 5, scene 1, echoing his words in act 3, scene 2, “Virgin me no virgins!” Massinger neatly emphasizes the way in which Overreach—through the complicity of Greedy—sets about corrupting the law he professes, to suit his vicious purpose. The avarice at the heart of the action is a satirical reflection of the central motivation of contemporary society as Massinger views it.
Overreach is the main character, whose forceful personality dominates the stage even when he is not there. Scenes without him pale in dramatic interest by comparison; audiences wait for him to return, to outrage them again. His explanation to Margaret recalls Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas (in The Jew of Malta, 1633): “Wasn’t not to make thee great/ That I have now, and still pursue, those ways/ That hale down curses on me, which I mind not?”...
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