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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2089

First produced: 1626

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First published: 1629

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy of intrigue

Time of work: First century

Locale: Rome

Principal Characters:

Paris, the Roman actor

Domitian, Emperor of Rome

Domitia, his wife

Aretinus, Domitian's spy

Parthenius, Domitian's freedman


THE ROMAN ACTOR depicts the degeneracy of imperial Rome under the tyrant Domitian. In contrast to the general corruption stand Paris, the actor, and two senators of Stoic persuasion. The most original and impressive element of the play is the character of Paris. Unfortunately, the plot revolves around Domitian, a much less interesting character, while Paris is forced awkwardly into the central action. Paris, in defending the theater of Rome, is Massinger's spokesman for the Stuart theater.

The Story:

During the reign of Domitian, there was little public support for the theater. The people, accustomed to circuses and involved in their own licentious practices, found the drama tame by comparison; thus most actors made a bare livelihood. One troupe of actors, however, prospered, because of the special affection Domitian had for its leading member, Paris. But Paris also had his enemies in the inner circles around the emperor, the most notable being Aretinus, Domitian's spy, who believed he and other leaders had been satirized in a production by the players. While Domitian was involved in a military campaign, Aretinus took the opportunity to have Paris and his fellow actors arrested.

At a session of the Senate they were charged with treason. Paris' defense was in the form of a general vindication of the theater, in which he eloquently testified to the uplifting effect of drama through its revelation of evil and its attempt to inspire honorable action. As he finished his speech, news was brought of Domitian's return from his conquest of the Chatti and the Daci; thus the release of the actors was assured.

The people's praise of Domitian for his victory was exceeded only by his self-praise. In a characteristic gesture, he celebrated his return by having his captives tortured and slain. Although his despotism and his brutality were causing unrest among the people, few dared speak against him.

Among those who welcomed the emperor were several women who vied for his favor. All were greeted with contempt, except the beautiful Domitia. She had been the wife of a senator, Lamia, until one of Domitian's men had forced her husband, under threat of death, to sign a bill of divorce. She, ambitious for position, had been agreeable to the change as long as she could be Domitian's wife, not his strumpet. Now he bestowed on her the title of Augusta.

Aretinus had kept a watchful eye on signs of discontent during his ruler's absence. Now he informed Domitian of opposition to his poisoning of Agricola his execution of Paetus Thrasea, his incest with his niece Julia, and his intended marriage to Domitia. Prominent among the malcontents were three senators—Rusticus, Sura, and Lamia. Domitian resolved to have revenge first on Lamia.

After Domitia had been established in the imperial palace as his wife, the emperor ordered Lamia brought to him. Domitian gave lavish thanks to the senator for the gift of his wife, declaimed the joys of living with Domitia, and at an appropriate moment had Domitia sing a song from the window above them. After Lamia had time to experience fully his mental anguish, Domitian ordered his execution.

In compliance with one of the emperor's first orders on arriving in Rome, the actors presented a play. THE CURE OF AVARICE was chosen at the request of Parthenius, Domitian's freedman, who hoped that the dramatization would help turn his father from his miserly habits. But the obdurate old man was unimpressed. Domitian then tried to convince him of the foolishness of his practices, but to no avail. Finally, piqued, Domitian ordered the old man's death. Despite the long and faithful service of Parthenius, the emperor refused to hear his plea for his father's life.

The next to satisfy Domitian's lust for blood were the senators Rusticus and Sura, who had criticized the emperor for his execution of the Stoic philosopher, Paetus Thrasea. In hopes of hearing their cries for mercy, Domitian had them tortured. Sustained by their Stoic principles, however, the two men refused to show any sign of pain and mocked him for his impotence against them. Even after he had ordered them killed, the experience unsettled him and gave him his first doubts of his omnipotence.

Domitia, to cheer up her husband after this ordeal, had a play presented in which Paris acted the part of a rejected lover. As the drama progressed, she became increasingly agitated, until at the point of Paris' threatened suicide she jumped from her seat to stop him.

This unusual behavior immediately aroused the suspicions of the women of the court. Having been replaced by Domitia in the emperor's favor, and having been treated like servants by Domitia, these women had been awaiting a chance to discredit her. Their suspicions were confirmed when they discovered that she had sent a letter to Paris requesting that he meet her. Aretinus, the ubiquitous spy, was also aware of this situation; he saw in it a chance not only to gain further power but to triumph over Paris. In a petition signed by him and the women, Domitian was notified of his wife's behavior. Although refusing at first to believe the accusation, he agreed to observe the meeting between his wife and Paris.

At this meeting, Domitia, after finding that hints of her feelings failed to elicit the desired response in Paris, openly stated her love for him. Loyalty to Domitian kept Paris from succumbing to her enticements, however, and her threats and her bribes left him unmoved. Finally, after she begged for a brotherly kiss, he weakened. At that moment Domitian arrived on the scene. Enraged by her infidelity, but still too much ruled by the power of her beauty to kill her immediately, Domitian had his wife placed under guard in her chamber. Aretinus, expectant of reward for informing on the pair, was put to death instead. The palace women, for their efforts, were cast into a dungeon

Left alone with Paris, Domitian protested his aversion to killing him. At Domitian's request, they acted out a play called THE FALSE SERVANT, with Paris playing the part of the servant, Domitian acting as the wronged husband. In the scene in which the husband discovers the treachery of his servant, Domitian drew his sword and killed Paris. The emperor, feeling in honor bound to kill a man he much admired, believed he, at least, had provided a fitting end.

Domitia's hold on her husband was so great that she was soon restored to grace. Far from being remorseful, however, she openly mocked Domitian for his weakness in loving her and refused ever again to respond to his love. Finally, after an especially vicious taunting, he gained courage to place her name in his book of condemned people.

A further source of irritation to him was an astrologer's prediction of his imminent death. According to the prophecy, the astrologer himself would be eaten by dogs before Domitian would die. In order to shift the course of events, the emperor gave orders that the astrologer be burned. As the soldiers prepared to burn him, a heavy rain put out the fire, and dogs burst upon them and devoured the body. Filled with fear by this happening, Domitian surrounded himself by tribunes and awaited the hour of five, at which time his death had been predicted.

Meanwhile, Domitian's book having been stolen by Domitia, she, Parthenius, and the women of the court found their names on the condemned list. With others, they decided on immediate action. By falsely telling Domitian that the hour of five was passed, Parthenius drew him away from his guard, and all the conspirators fell upon him and ended the life of a tyrant.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

THE ROMAN ACTOR was licensed on October 11, 1626, by Sir Henry Herbert, who had become Master of Revels three years earlier. In 1629 the play was published in quarto as acted at Blackfriars by the King's Men. The play takes its source material from Dio Cassius and Suetonius, and Massinger interspersed that with his own inventive episodes. Perhaps herein lies the problem. For as masterful as Massinger was with plot development, THE ROMAN ACTOR displays little of his artistry in that respect. Within the first act of the play, he introduces two plots: one centering on the nature of tyranny as it emerges in Domitian's quest to be placed above the law and looked upon as divine, particularly as he maneuvers to acquire the hand of Domitia; and the other focusing on Paris as he supports the value of the actor's profession. It is not until Act III that Massinger attempts to combine the two plot lines in a semblance of interaction. Because of the incompatibility of the two themes, the play remains highly episodic, though the situations posed have dramatic value. This characteristic makes THE ROMAN ACTOR atypical of Massinger's high abilities.

The play should not be discounted, however, for it has several qualities worth examining. One of these is in the character of Paris. In the Elizabethan period the actor was looked upon as a vagabond and a rogue. The art of acting was admired, but to act for a living was disgraceful. Yet, actors were popular in Court circles, and it was a common practice to give parties in their honor. The actor had suffered the same in Roman times. Actors were branded infami; and if they were Roman citizens, they lost their civil rights. Like their Elizabethan counterparts, their entertainments were a favorite diversion for the Emperors. To Paris, the actor, falls the task of defending the theater of Rome, and by inference, the theater of Massinger's time.

Another positive element of THE ROMAN ACTOR is its contribution to the development of a type of problem play from the earlier Kydian revenge tragedy. In THE ROMAN ACTOR the play is set against a background of revenges to which the plot is eventually linked; thus, not pure intrigue but the collaboration of circumstance and character becomes the main force of the play. Life is viewed more as a balanced whole in which there is no dominance of evil or good within a person's character, and the revenge is noted for both the justice it metes out and the harm and cruelty it creates in both a social and personal sense. This characteristic is somewhat evident even in Domitian.

Massinger in THE ROMAN ACTOR uses several devices popular in the dramatic writing of the period. One was the concept of metaphorically viewing the world as a stage—a concept that goes back as far as Democritus, in whose FRAGMENT it is written, "The world's a stage, life a play./You come, you look, you go away." The metaphor was made most famous earlier in Massinger's own dramatic period by Jacques's lines in William Shakespeare's play, AS YOU LIKE IT—"All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players." In Act I when Aretinus tells Paris that he speaks too boldly and wonders if he thinks he is on stage, Paris responds, "The whole world being one [a stage]/This place is not exempted. . . ." Technically, Massinger represents the whole world in THE ROMAN ACTOR with the Roman Empire, the world outside the Roman Empire evidenced by the wars from which Domitian returns, and the spirit world suggested by the character of the Soothsayer and the apparance of the apparition in Act V.

Another device popular among Elizabethan dramatists that appears in THE ROMAN ACTOR is the use of the play-within-a-play. Here we have not one but three, each masterfully introduced and having a specific thematic or dramatic meaning. The final play which Domitian orders, THE FALSE SERVANT, contributes to a startling close—a technique Massinger developed to a fine art.

In the dedicatory message of the 1629 quarto, Massinger called THE ROMAN ACTOR "the most perfect birth of my Minerva." Among other things, Massinger's defense of theater through the character of Paris, his contribution to the development of a new dramatic offshoot of the Kydian tragedy of revenge, his adept use of popular dramatic devices, and the coup de theatre of the play-within-a-play would seem to make THE ROMAN ACTOR perfect. It is, however, the slow development of the first three acts that places the blemish on that perfection.

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