Gary Taylor on Middleton and A Mad World, My Masters

The American Shakespeare Center is pleased to have Gary Taylor introduce our Bring ’em Back Alive reading of Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters. Taylor is the editor of the Oxford Complete Works of both William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, has authored books such as Reinventing Shakespeare, and was one of the keynote speakers at the 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and we’re all very pleased to have him back for tonight’s performance.

Taylor introduces Middleton as the author of “fast, short plays,” and “in some ways, the first American playwright.” Middleton’s father was a member of the original Roanoke expedition, and returned to London a year later. Middleton refers to Virginia twice in the context of shipping women to Virginia to provide wives for male colonists, in a typical linkage of sex and money, and his politics “are consistently anti-monarchical.”

While most of us are familiar with Shakespeare the playwright for “all time,” but in A Mad World, My Masters Middleton shows himself to be a playwright for our time. His characters live in a fallen world, and the chaste and innocent lovers common in Shakespeare’s plays have no place in it. The characters of A Mad World are sexually mature and sometimes dishonest, but this doesn’t preclude them from being good people who deserve happiness.

By setting characters who have abandoned all ideas about their own purity a long time ago in a comic world, Middleton presents his audience with a world in which the imperfect can find love and happiness. Taylor makes the point that this is the world we live in, or perhaps should like to, by asking by show of hands how many people in the room are virgins. A single individual raised their hand, and while they might be at home in a Shakespearean comedy, the rest of us should find comfort in the world that Middleton offers. “Middleton’s world is one filled with people like us,” Taylor says: “who we can like, we can love, and forgive for their limitations.”