The (Other) London Merchant

Millwood’s character might be the hardest to read in the play, but the Storm Theatre’s production offered a successful interpretation.  In the opening of this performance, Millwood (played brilliantly by Jessica Myhr) appears on one side and Thorowgood on the other.  While Thorowgood instructs his apprentices on the higher purpose of the merchant, Lucy transforms Millwood, through dress, hair, and makeup, into a fashionable beauty with (I think significantly) no obvious markers of her profession.  Thus Thorowgood and Millwood are set off against each other from the beginning.

One surprising possibility that this production brought out but that is less obvious in reading is the comic potential of the first half of the play.  Millwood could have been Helena from The Rover, flirting impishly with George.  She is manipulative, but performs these scenes with a light touch.  While readers of the play know what will happen and critics pause over her ominous lines about treating men like the Spaniards treated the native Americans, in this production Millwood seduces the audience along with George.  Even when she returns with the story about the rapacious guardian, the scene has a more comic than ominous effect, like a Restoration play in which a husband needs to be manipulated so that a lover can sneak out the back door.

Millwood’s character takes a darker turn in the second half of the play.  Interesting, though, her most truly nefarious demands take place off stage, reported by Lucy.  This, one the one hand, makes the play a bit talky.  On the other hand, it seems actually to preserve Millwood’s character in certain ways.  Lillo seems to be leading us toward maintaining some sympathy for Millwood by leaving the murder request off stage. We don’t actually know exactly what transpired between her and George.  If this scene were staged, it would clearly occupy the center of the play, as George would be choosing between his passion and his sense of humanity.  It is worth thinking about, then, that Lillo didn’t want this decision to displace other tensions in the play.

Critics have often read Millwood as simply evil.  Feminists have alternatively pointed to the ways that Lillo builds sympathy for her position through her sense of her own victimization.  But this production did not take either of these routes.  Myhr’s Millwood is instead a Hobbesian, a rationalist, and a skeptic.  In the hanging scene at the end (included in this production), George and Millwood stand side by side awaiting their death.  George prays, then prays for Millwood; the performance compares her panic to his resignation.  Thorowgood observes that while the laws of man cannot distinguish them, a higher law will recognize the difference.  Nevertheless, we see them dramatically meet the identical fate, walking in coordinated rhythm to the same gallows.

Myhr’s powerful Millwood, then, does not assert female victimization, but instead demands that we consider the possibility that nothing exists beyond the material world as she and Barnwell sink into the same abyss.

One response to “The (Other) London Merchant

  1. I like this reading, because I, too, felt while reading the play that Millwood offered us a Restoration-style “witty heroine” trapped in an altogether different kind of plot and dramatic universe, one where terms like “sin” and “Hell” have real meaning.