On this day in 1611 The Maid's Tragedy, by Francis Beaumont (left) and John Fletcher, was entered for printing in the Stationers' Register. Beaumont and Fletcher wrote over fifty plays -- together, or with a handful of other collaborators, or each on their own -- and they dominated English theatre throughout the 17th century. Their plays were produced and praised at four or five times the rate of Shakespeare's plays. Contemporaries placed John Fletcher in a "triumvirate of wit" with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and often talked of him as in a class by himself; when Shakespeare retired, Fletcher took over from him as resident playwright for The King's Men.
The Maid's Tragedy belongs to a group of B&F plays whose titles alone can cause a start: The Woman-Hater; Rule a Wife, Have a Wife; A Wife for a Month; Cupid's Revenge; The Mad Lover; Women Pleased; The Scornful Lady.... Contemporary sources refer to these plays as "stews," and in them the reliable themes of sex and power are given every possible comic and tragic twist, often at the same time. Misogyny meets chastity meets rape meets necrophilia, incest, nymphomania and cannibalism. There are eunuchs and dwarfs, lecherous tyrants and lamb-white shepherdesses and vice-versa. There are houses of male prostitution, their inmates pining for marriage. There are more genital puns than anyone could ever get, or want to. There are spider-webbed plots in which Valerio can have Evanthe for a month, if the King of Naples can kill him and have her afterwards. This play Gilbert and Sullivan were able to turn into The Mikado, once they sanitized it of scenes like the one in which the pandering Sorano happily tells the licentious King that he can have his sister:
And if I had a dozen more, they were all yours;
Some Aunts I have, they have been handsome Women,
My Mother's dead indeed, and some few Cousins
That are now shooting up, we shall see shortly....
If a stew, such scenes got additional spice from being performed by boys. The boys companies were mostly formed as offshoots of the cathedral choirs, and it was popular among the English gentry to attend the darkened 'private' theatres (compared to the daytime, public ones) -- to hear one choirboy in a dress tell another in a beard, "It is impossible to Ravish mee, I am soe willing...."
Theater historians have various theories to explain the popularity of such plays. Some think that the competition for the entertainment six-pence was so stiff in Stuart England that the playwrights had to top each other in order to survive. Some take the "trickle-down" view: the dubious politics and sexual tastes in the court of James I led to a general decadence, which the dramatists were not just exploiting but satirizing and condemning. The plays certainly claimed to come with their own moral censure. When the title character in The Insatiate Countess is led to the scaffold, the Duke attempts to offset five acts of romping promiscuity with a lofty, male moral:
None here, I hope, can tax us of injustice.
She died deservedly, and may like fate
Attend all women so insatiate.
The Puritans of the time didn't buy this self-licensing, and closed the theaters. Later, the Victorian critics thought "that more beastly, elaborate, and incessant filth and obscenity are not to be found in all literature."