Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"we may have lost our way, but we have not lost ourselves" - the complicating factor of disruption

I just finished reading Francis Beaumont's 1610-11 play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle." What a crazy play that is, what a strange strange surprise it was. Metafiction of the Don Quixote variety, parodying popular Elizabethan taste, mocking Kyd, Webster, Shakespeare, Jonson, Heywood, whoever was out there, the playwrights, the actors, the audiences, all of them. What lunacy.

Here is what happens: a theatrical company attempts to mount a production of a play called "The London Merchant," beginning a performance in one of London's private indoor theaters. The Prologue character gets about twenty lines into the start of the play when a member of the audience, a merchant (called Citizen in the script), rises from his seat and objects:
this seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you have still girds at citizens; and now you call your play "The London Merchant." Down with your title, boy! down with your title!
The merchant will not be mocked by costumed boys on stage. Imagine the reactions of the other--the real--audience members when the Citizen and his Wife climb up onto the stage and take over the house, demanding that something else be enacted, a romance entitled "The Knight of the Burning Pestle," which romance will star Ralph, the Citizen's apprentice grocer. This all must've been quite something to see on that first night.
Citizen: Boy, let my wife and I have a couple of stools
and then begin; and let the grocer do rare

[Stools are brought.

Prologue: But, sir, we have never a boy to play
him: every one hath a part already.

Wife: Husband, husband, for God's sake, let Ralph
play him! beshrew me, if I do not think he
will go beyond them all.

Citizen: Well remembered, wife.—Come up, Ralph.—
I'll tell you, gentlemen; let them but lend
him a suit of reparel and necessaries, and, by
gad, if any of them all blow wind in the tail
on him, I'll be hanged.
Ralph clambers up from the audience and is taken backstage, given a costume, and loosed upon the poor players. The next two hours are a madhouse, as the company attempts to continue with "The London Merchant" despite constant editorial commentary from the Citizen and his Wife (who insist upon siding with the villainous Merchant character), and despite interpolated ex tempore scenes acted by Ralph, who riffs on Don Quixote, "Macbeth," "The Spanish Tragedy," and God knows what else. The whole of it is a commentary on public taste, the pandering of playwrights to the lowest common denominator, and fun poked at the contemporary theatrical cliches of ghosts, revenge plots, men "testing" their ladies' love, etc.

One is reminded of Don Quixote, of course, because some of Ralph's episodes were stolen directly from Cervantes; one is reminded of the framing story to "The Taming of the Shrew." A modern reader is also reminded of the Ubu plays (the speech of the Citizen and his Wife is full of sexual slang even while these good folk make proclamations against unfit behavior), as well as Tristram Shandy and other metafictions.

About midway through, the players begin to complain that the Citizen's interference will ruin the night's entertainment.
Boy: Sir, you must pardon; the plot of our play
lies contrary; and 'twill hazard the spoiling of
our play.

Citizen: Plot me no plots! I'll ha' Ralph come
out; I'll make your house too hot for you

Boy: Why, sir, he shall; but if any thing fall out of
order, the gentlemen must pardon us.
"the gentlemen" refers to either the actual audience, or actors playing audience members seated on chairs upon the stage. "the gentlemen" have no lines in the script, so it's hard to say exactly. I will point out that despite the interference of the Citizen, his Wife and their apprentice Ralph, "The London Merchant" is brought to a conclusion, the upstart hero Jasper getting the better of his merchant masters, even at one point beating Ralph-as-Knight senseless using Ralph's own weapon (the gold-plated pestle). The Citizen believes he's won the day, but the players and the audience know better.

One other thing I noticed is that, in the middle of all of this madness, there is some fine writing going on in the fake inner play. The comic writing is quite good, and some of the speeches between the lovers Jasper and Luce are really very lovely. Beaumont and his partner Fletcher allegedly wrote 60-odd plays together, and maybe some of those were good solid works. I'll have to look around.
Sleep, sleep; and quiet rest crown thy sweet thoughts!
Keep from her fair blood distempers, startings,
Horrors, and fearful shapes! let all her dreams
Be joys, and chaste delights, embraces, wishes,
And such new pleasures as the ravished soul
Gives to the senses!—So; my charms have took.—
Keep her, you powers divine, whilst I contemplate
Upon the wealth and beauty of her mind!
She is only fair and constant, only kind,
And only to thee, Jasper. Oh, my joys!
Whither will you transport me? let not fulness
Of my poor buried hopes come up together
And overcharge my spirits! I am weak.
Some say (however ill) the sea and women
Are governed by the moon; both ebb and flow,
Both full of changes; yet to them that know,
And truly judge, these but opinions are,
And heresies, to bring on pleasing war
Between our tempers


  1. Oh yeah! One of the greats; part of the indictment against Shakespeare. Shakespeare's shadow, I mean, the reason people who would enjoy this a lot rarely read it. I would love to see this one.

    I have read three or four genuine Beaumont and Fletcher plays, full of lovely stuff if a little monotonous one after the other. The tragicomedy is a weird genre. none were as exciting as The Knight of the Burning Pestle!

    1. Shakespeare either didn't mind the ribbing or never saw the play, as his only works after "Pestle" was first staged (maybe 1613) were both co-written with John Fletcher.

      This would be great to see. A lot (most?) of the references to other playwrights would be lost on today's audience. I was glad of the footnotes in the New Mermaids' edition I read.

  2. Oh, sorry, that was cryptic. The fact that this is not a famous play is not an indictment of Shakespeare but later Bardolatry. Shakespeare now so dominates the period that a play as good as this somehow becomes known mostly to specialists. Why don't all of those Shakespeare theater companies perform it once in a while? But no, they rotate through Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, Pt. 2 instead.

    A contemporary performance should just change the references, as is done with Gilbert and Sullivan. Make jokes about Hamilton and Sondheim. Audiences would love that.

    1. No, no, I knew what you meant. My reply was tangential, as usual. By the time "Pestle" was staged, Shakespeare was pretty much retired from London life, and he may never have seen it.

      The Seattle Shakespeare Co. is training its audience to be open to lesser-known works, has lately extended its season and started to perform more non-Shakespeare plays. Alas, not contemporaries of WS, but it's nice to see Beckett and Shaw and Wilde. Still, as Tim says below, mostly the arts are trying to follow the money.

      I think that with the right marketing ("Poking fun at the Bard" or something) a clever company could sell tickets to "The Knight of the Burning Pestle." You're right about updating the references. It'd be a hoot and a half.

  3. Two words why theater companies prefer Shakespeare: box office.

  4. Postscript: Academic theaters occasionally dredge up Shakespeare's contemporaries, but those theaters are also often driven by box office and financial realities.

  5. Once again I am regretting a memory that makes alphabet soup out of so much I read--I did read a lot of non-Shakespearean plays of the era, once upon a time, and I seem to dimly remember this one. Wonderful description of it! (I am wondering if "Ralph" became a stock name for a comedic character--like "Hans" for fairy tales--since comedy in English starts with Udall's "Ralph Roister-Doister.") What an astonishing time it was to be a writer.

    There's a good deal of variation of all sorts in that flexible blank verse--clearly they liked to frolic in forgiving chains.

    1. I don't have your professional's eye to judge what's going on in the verse; I just know that I thought it was pretty good! I did notice that the two villains in the interior play, "The London Merchant," tended to speak in rhyming couplets while nobody else did. I'm sure that was a signal to the audience that these are stock characters, cliches. Pretty sure, anyway. A hunch, at least.

      Jeff Sypeck translated that Scottish poem "Ralph the Collier," and that Ralph begins as a comic character. I can't think of a Ralph who's been given a serious story, so you may be on to something there. Interesting, and worth investigating. I do think a lot about character names.

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    1. Hey, where'd you go? I was going to say that the editor of my copy claims textual evidence that Beaumont wrote it by himself. I have no way of judging that claim.

    2. i just thought my comment was inane, so i erased it. i really like elizabethan lit. sometimes difficult to make sense of, but that's part of the fun...

    3. My entire post boils down to "I had fun reading this! Ooo! Ooo! Lookit that!"

      Actually, the question of authorship can be pretty interesting, and the question of authorial style maybe moreso.

  7. I think most editors give it to Beaumont; however, the era involved plenty of collaboration, both acknowledged and not acknowledged, so -- just to be clear -- many editors cannot rule out Fletcher (but I would).

    1. The best I could do would be flip a coin. I'm going to look at some of the B&F plays soon. I assume some are better than others? Anything stand out in your memory?

  8. Oh my gosh—I saw a performance of "Burning Pestle" in 1999, and it remains the funniest thing I've ever seen on the stage. Every few years, the American Shakespeare Center in tiny Staunton, Virginia, either re-stages it or takes it out on tour, with a small company of players in multiple roles. When I saw it, their one concession to modernity was to do something akin to what Tom suggests above: they replaced the original songs with well-chosen snippets of classic rock lyrics. It worked beautifully.

    The ASC specializes in staging plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a reproduction of the Blackfriars Theater. In recent years we've seen not only a completely intact production of "1 Henry VI" and a superb, sensitive production of "The Two Noble Kinsmen," but also plays by Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Behn, and Webster. I love the place, and I try to get the word out about it whenever I can. I'm probably driving down there next week to see the Tempest-inspired "The Sea Voyage" by Fletcher and Massinger—because when the heck will I ever have a chance to see that again?

    Good question about the name "Ralph." When I saw The Knight of the Burning Pestle, they pronounced it "Rafe," with the benefit, I'm sure, of scholarly research, but the spelling in the Middle Scots poem I translated spelled it "Rauf," which suggests a different pronunciation. I honestly don't know if it's a name associated with a certain type of stock character from the 15th to the 17th centuries, but I'll see if I can find out.