Sunday, 21 February 2016

21 February, 1592 - Muly Molocco

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at mvolmvrco the 20 of febreary ... xxixs

In modern English: Received at Muly Molocco the [21st] of February, 29 shillings
Although Henslowe wrote 20 February, this is likely a mistake since there was a law against performing on Sundays; he presumably meant to write the 21st.

So, today, Lord Strange's Men performed a play called Muly Molocco. Now, I know what you're thinking - how does anyone get "Muly Molocco" from "mvolmvrco"? The answer is that Henslowe will list the same play many more times in the coming months, and will spell it many other ways, including "mvlo mvllocco", "mvlomvlucko" and "mvlemvloco". Henslowe's crazy spelling is one of the unsung glories of English literature; there was no standardized spelling in Elizabethan times, but even so, his exceptionally bizarre ways of writing even the simplest word are endlessly astonishing.

"Muly" (or "Mulai") was a title for members of the nobility of Barbary (modern Morocco). "Muly Molocco" refers to the historical figure of Abd el-Malik, a sixteenth century prince of the Barbary royal family who was wrongly skipped over in the succession to the throne, and who returned from banishment with a Turkish army to reclaim his crown.

No play called Muly Molocco survives today, so the one performed by Lord Strange's Men may, like so many Elizabethan plays, simply never have been printed. However, some scholars think the play  survives under a different title, because George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar features Abd el-Malik as a character, and occasionally refers to him as Muly Molocco.

If the play was The Battle of Alcazar...

1629 Portuguese illustration of the Battle of Alcazar
The title page of George Peele's play advertises it as The Battle of Alcazar, fought in Barbary between Sebastian King of Portugal and Abdelmelec King of Morocco; with the death of Captain Stukeley. It begins with Abd el-Malik (called Abdelmelec or Muly Molocco in the play) reclaiming his rightful throne by deposing the vicious usurper Muly Mahamet. Muly Mahamet escapes into the wilderness but survives to raise an army with the aid of King Sebastian of Portugal and the English Catholic adventurer Captain Thomas Stukeley. A great battle takes place at Alcazar (modern El-Ksar el-Kebir) in 1578. During the battle, Abdelmelec dies but his younger brother Seth props up his dead body as if alive, and this encourages the troops; the fleeing Muly Mahamet is then killed when his horse throws him in a river. The play ends with Muly Mahamet, King Sebastian and Stukeley all dead, Seth as King of Barbary, and Muly Mahamet's body stuffed as a warning to future usurpers.

In the play's final lines, Seth honours the dead King Sebastian:
And now my lords for this Christian king:
My lord Zareo, let it be your charge
To see the soldiers tread a solemn march,
Trailing their pikes and ensigns on the ground,
So to perform the princes' funerals.
Just for curiosity value, here's a clip from Battle of the Three Kings, a very obscure 1990 film about the Battle of Alcazar. It's apparently an Italian-Moroccan-Soviet-Spanish co-production. The clip is worth watching for a glimpse of F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel looking rather surprised to be there. Abd el-Malik is played by Massimo Ghini.


If you would like to read The Battle of Alcazar, the most readable text is Charles Edelman's modern-spelling edition, which can be found in his anthology The Stukeley Plays (2005).


If the play was a lost one named Muly Molocco...

Muly Molocco may have been a new play intended to capitalize on the popularity of The Battle of Alcazar. If so, it presumably told a similar story but perhaps focused more on the character of Abd el-Malik. For example, it may have been a prequel, showing his banishment and his return.

What we learn from this

The subject matter of today's play has little in common with yesterday's, except for one connection: you may recall that John of Bordeaux was set during a war with the Turks, and Muslim armies are even more the focus in this play. However, here the Moroccan Moors are not simply generic enemies; the audience is encouraged to sympathise with Abdelmelec against the cruel Muly Mahamet and the European Catholics who support him.

We also learn from The Battle of Alcazar that audiences liked exotic spectacle, onstage battles, and grand speeches by ambitious characters. The following stage directions (which I've adjusted for clarity) capture the visual and auditory excitement of the play:
The trumpets sound, the chambers are discharged [i.e. the cannons are fired]. Then enter at one door the Portuguese army with drum and colours: King Sebastian, Christophero de Tavora, the Duke of Avero, Stukeley [...]. At another door the Governor of Tangier and two Captains. From behind the curtains to them Muly Mahamet and his wife Calipolis in their chariot with Moors, one on each side, attending Young Mahamet. (Scene 3.4)
Imagine all the colourful and gloriously different costumes of these warriors of multiple nationalities. And imagine the excitement of onstage battles with cannons booming:
Alarums within; let the chambers be discharged, then enter soldiers to the battle and let the Moors fly. Skirmish still, then enter Abdelmelec in his chair. (5.1)
And the play is full of soaring speeches from the various participants in the battle, speeches designed for actors with powerful lungs:
Ride, Nemesis, ride, in thy fiery cart,
And sprinkle gore among these men of war,
That either party eager of revenge
May honour thee with sacrifice of death;
And having bathed thy chariot wheels in blood,
Descend and take to thy tormenting hell
The mangled body of that traitor king
That scorns the power and force of Portugal! (4.2)
Speeches like this are full of the "high astounding terms" that Christopher Marlowe admired in his play Tamburlaine, and it was Tamburlaine that inspired this genre of exotic and spectacular battle plays; we'll see more of them in the near future.


Muly Molocco and Battle of Alcazar information

  • Charles Edelman (ed.), The Stukeley Plays (Manchester University Press, 2005)
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Muly Molocco", Lost Plays Database (2011). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vols. 2 and 3 (Oxford University Press, 2012-13), entries 811 and 918.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 75-8.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! I'm learning abouth the play in Brazil, and the post helped me a lot to pay attention at details that I have not noted! Thank you!