I recently had the privilege of seeing George Lillo’s The London Merchant performed in New York at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory. The entire short run has sold out: good news for the theatre but bad news for everyone else (unless you have tickets for next weekend). The production demonstrated the extraordinary stageworthiness of this play. I hope to put up a few posts on the different character portrayals to suggest how much depth this company discovered in a play routinely dismissed as either morally simplistic or ideologically overburdened. I will begin with Thorowgood, and the recognition of how much of the interpretation of this play depends on the way he is played.
In this production, Thorowgood is not a looming tower of strength, but a rather weak and ineffectual; he represents himself as knowing, but turns out to be somewhat baffled by the passions of the young . Remember, he has no idea that his daughter loves his apprentice, even though she comes close to revealing this when she refuses the attentions of the men who court her. In this production he walks with a cane; he is literally and perhaps metaphorically “lame.” An early scene gives him a crucial opportunity to save George. George begs his master to hear his confession of the night of passion with Millwood, but Thorowgood refuses to listen. We can’t really tell why. Is Thorowgood uncomfortable hearing about George’s sexuality? He seems like he is trying to be generous and forgiving, but there is an undertone in his refusal that suggests something else. It need not be sinister; he might simply be oblivious. As George’s sins accumulate, we realize that had Thorowgood allowed George to confess at this early stage, then George might have discussed with him Millwood’s subsequent claim to distress. Thorowgood probably would have seen through her manipulation and thus prevented the entire tragedy which depends, after all, on George’s isolation. Millwood is able to lead to George further and further astray because George becomes so ashamed of his own desires that he won’t share his predicament. Unlike Thorowgood, Trueman begs to hear about his friend’s source of misery, but the damage has already been done. The only authority figure in the play has essentially rejected his plea for counsel.
This reading of The London Merchant is consistent with some other moral texts of the period. Richardson, for example, makes clear in Clarissa that her tragedy could have been prevented by a more forgiving father. Young people get in deep trouble in these texts when figures of authority abandon them, or simply prove weak.
Thorowgood’s weakness becomes further apparent in his confrontation with Millwood. Disarmed of her pistol and thrown to the ground by Trueman, Millwood delivers her damning speech against men on her knees. Yet, with these two men towering over her, she nevertheless astonishes and humiliates them. When she refutes Thorowgood’s milquetoast speculation that she must have known only bad men by reporting how she has served the full gamut, he looks sheepish. Maybe even guilty. He admires her wit. When reading the play, “wit” always came across to me as devious cleverness. But in this production, it seems to mean “brilliance”; or more specifically, Hobbesian rigor.
By the time we get to Thorowgood’s directive to “See there the bitter fruits of passion’s detested reign” as George lies in the dungeon, we know what the merchant does not: that passion cannot entirely explain the horrific chain of events that lead George to this dismal scene. George, like Millwood, has fallen victim to institutional as well as personal failures.
This is not to say that it was a “pro-Millwood” production. That would be inaccurate. The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, according to the program, was “the first professional religious theatre ever tried in New York City.” In spite of– or perhaps because of– connections to Catholic institutions, this production took a play that appears to be about moral certainly and revealed it to be, in fact, nothing of the kind.