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 stoolsRalph 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.
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.
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"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.
lies contrary; and 'twill hazard the spoiling of
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.
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