No. Not diaphanous. Diaphanta. As in a woman’s name. Are there really people called Diaphanta? Well if you’re a couple of Jacobean playwrights named Thomas Middleton and William Rowley then you have a character named Diaphanta. And she is a little transparent so the name suits her.
Diaphanta was the name of Beatrice’s maid in Middleton and Rowley’s tragedy The Changeling. As in all Jacobean tragedies this play was full of dark deeds, (chopped off fingers anyone?) murder, betrayal… just your average carnage and destruction. And in this particular play lots of lust (oh and a subplot set in a loony bin. What more could anyone ask for?). Boy could those men write. And write great roles for women.
How do I know this? Because I run around reading Jacobean tragedies in my spare time? Well, yes and no. I love a good yarn as much as the next person, but my first career was in the theatre and while I was in drama school, I did indeed get to play the hapless Diaphanta who met an extremely tragic end. Shot and burnt to a crisp to be precise, but not until after she got to indulge in some serious hanky panky.
In a plot that I don’t have time to go into here (but do read the play if you can – it’s brilliant), the basics are that Beatrice loves one man (Alsemero) but is betrothed to another (Alonso) and hires a third man (De Flores) to kill Alonso after they are married so she can then be with Alsemero. De Flores demands Beatrice’s virginity in return. Clearly a recipe for disaster and a stage eventually littered with dead bodies.
But I digress. Diaphanta agrees to take her mistress’s place on her wedding night so her husband will think she’s still a virgin. It’s dark so apparently he won’t know Diaphanta is pretending to be Beatrice. Hey, just go with me on this… So how do we know Diaphanta is a virgin? She passes a “virginity test” – Yes, virginity tests abound in this play! Diaphanta is supposed to return by midnight from the wedding night but doesn’t, which sends Beatrice into a fit making her think she was enjoying having sex too much and a real fear that if she doesn’t return before it’s light her husband will realise Diaphanta isn’t Beatrice. Still with me?
So, as dawn breaks, De Flores knows he has to kill Diaphanta and decides to set fire to Diaphanta’s room so she’ll come rushing back. And while there’s more to the entire scene than this, let’s end with Diaphanta returns – the evil De Flores shoots her (yes there are guns, fires AND virginity tests in this play), leaves her body to burn and then carries her singed corpse from the room, and acts all heroic as if he saved EVERYONE from perishing in a random fire that he lit in the first place.
I loved playing Diaphanta if even she was a bit of a sap, but I remember in the play it was Beatrice who got to wear a diaphanous peignoir. I was stuck in some coarse petticoats. Lots of them. Very uncomfortable. And I died offstage. Phooey. It’s a long time since I’ve thought about poor Diaphanta but I really hope this blog post makes some of you go “Wow, I really must go read that play and find out what happens!”
Two important things to note. Middleton is credited with the tragedy of The Changeling while Rowley wrote the comic subplot. Also, this brilliant play has NOTHING to do with that stupid movie of the same name with Angelina Jolie.