Yorkshire Tragedies

Towards the end of last year, I watched Happy Valley, a BBC crime drama written by Sally Wainwright and set in North Yorkshire. Series 1 aired in April 2014; series 2 aired in February 2016: both are available on Netflix. There are lots of reasons to recommend it but I want to focus on just one aspect of its success. And being an early modernist, I want to link it back to sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Like the domestic tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, Happy Valley contends that tragedy happens to ordinary people too. Even ones from Yorkshire.

The early modern plays we now tend to think of as being domestic tragedies (as is often the case, the generic term was coined much later) contested a popular association of tragedy with royalty. Early modern dramatic theorists – many of whom, rather unhelpfully, were antitheatricalists – tend to assume that comedy is the preserve of the everyday and that tragedies were things that happened to kings. The tragedies of the period don’t really accord to these narrow definitions, but nor do they necessarily make it their business to challenge them. But in domestic tragedies like Arden of Faversham (recently attributed, in part, to Shakespeare), lower born figures were made the subject of tragedy. In these plays, the dignity of tragedy is conferred upon the everyday.

Tragedy does not seem to be a generic classification any more: a quick browse on Netflix reveals a variety of different genres – ‘Crime, Action & Adventure’; ‘Cop TV Shows’; ‘Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead’ – but Tragedy is not one of them. Nonetheless, the prevailing sense is that ‘serious’ drama, whatever that might be, is more important than comedy. And serious dramas tend not be set in Yorkshire; their protagonists do not usually have strong regional accents. Happy Valley riffs on the popular Nordic Noir genre which itself draws on older traditions, but rather than opting to set her cop noir in a gritty urban location, perhaps in a major city, Wainwright chose the Calder Valley. The Yorkshire accents are important because regional accents are often mocked or thought indecorous. The clip below, taken from a routine by Michael McIntyre, a popular UK comedian, is one example of the kind of mockery regional accents receive. It’s lighthearted and was apparently enjoyed by its Yorkshire audience, but the cumulative effect of such acts of mockery is to reinforce the sense that regional accents and serious, tragic, art, are incompatible. By challenging this commonplace prejudice Happy Valley participates in a tragic tradition that animated some of the finest writers of the English Renaissance.

In 1605, Thomas Middleton wrote a short play based on a contemporary account of murders committed in Calverley, West Yorkshire, on 23 April of the same year. The title of that play, A Yorkshire Tragedy confers the dignity of tragedy upon those events. The indefinite article suggests a lack of specificity, that this is one tragedy among several, but it is telling that the events are described as a tragedy at all, given the genre’s longstanding associations. The indefinite article is a riposte to tragic expectation; the titles of tragedies typically announce themselves with the definite article: The Spanish Tragedy, The Moor of Venice, The Tragedy of King Lear. The title of A Yorkshire Tragedy signals the play as different from the convention. But the indefinite article does not invalidate tragedy. That Yorkshire is in the title of the play is significant too. At a time when plays imagining the grotesque courts of European cities were becoming increasingly popular, A Yorkshire Tragedy offered a reminder that tragedy could be found further away from the centre of power and closer to home. In writing the play Middleton contributed to the genre of domestic tragedy, following in the footsteps of writers like Thomas Heywood, whose A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) is set in Yorkshire rather than the Italy of its source material.

Before saying a bit more about how Happy Valley conceives of tragic experience in a way that seems, to me at least, reminiscent of early modern domestic tragedy, I need to issue a SPOILER. The scene I will talk about occurs in Series 1 Episode 4. It’s a wonderful and surprising episode and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may want to watch it, but there’s no way of discussing it without mentioning some significant plot details. In the scene in question, Catherine (Sarah Lancashire), the police sergeant protagonist, rightly suspects something is not well with Helen (Jill Baker) who had tried to get in touch with her the previous day. Catherine is right that Helen is restless but her suspicion that she is the victim of domestic abuse is wrong. The full script of the episode is available here, but the extract below details the exchange:

CATHERINE

Look, I don’t want to over step the
mark. And I’m sorry if I’ve got the
wrong end of the stick, but last
night. When you said, “I’m with my
husband” it occurred to me that
maybe you couldn’t speak, and maybe
that was your way of telling me,
and I wouldn’t be doing my job
properly if I didn’t ask, and –

HELEN

No. My husband isn’t hurting me.

CATHERINE

Are you sure?

HELEN

I know people think he’s a bit of a
rough diamond – and he is!
(she manages a smile)
– but not like that. He’d never do
something like that.

CATHERINE

It takes all sorts.

HELEN

You really have got the wrong end
of the stick.

CATHERINE

It’s not always easy to acknowledge
things sometimes, it’s not
something that it’s easy to face up
to, and –

HELEN

It’s very kind of you to be
concerned. But you really have got
the wrong end of the stick.

CATHERINE’s not convinced.

CATHERINE

Okay.

Silence. They’re looking straight at one another. CATHERINE’s
giving her a chance to tell her the truth; that he is hurting
her. CATHERINE’s just about to speak again when –

HELEN

My daughter’s been kidnapped.

HELEN can’t believe she’s said it. CATHERINE can’t quite
believe she’s heard it. CLARE comes over and puts a mug down
in front of CATHERINE.

CLARE

Tea.

The careful ratcheting of tension leading to Helen’s revelation is followed, seconds later, by the arrival of Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran). It is a comic, potentially bathetic moment; the oblivious Clare punctures the tension with an inappropriate response. But the inappropriateness of the response is part of the point: the cup of tea is comically inadequate in the face of impending tragedy. It’s tempting to register a grim joke here about the stereotypically British– and perhaps especially, Yorkshire – psyche; many a novelty mug has attested that tea solves everything, but it doesn’t save kidnapped daughters.  By the same token, it’s also true that the making and drinking of tea is part of how people begin to confront grief, loss, horror, and despair. Clare’s cheery declaration is at once inappropriate and apt; it doesn’t attenuate tragedy, if anything, it accentuates it. It marks out Happy Valley as a modern domestic tragedy, interested in the ordinariness of tea, as well as the extraordinariness of murder.

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Still Harping on Shakespeare

This weekend I had the opportunity to speak to the Swansea branch of the Historical Association at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. I loved it: it’s a real pleasure to talk to people about stuff that I am passionate about. I was asked to talk about Shakespeare and I did, but naturally, I also talked about Beaumont, and Fletcher, and Jonson, and um, Aston Cockayne. I wanted to try and think about some of the writers who are less well remembered and to reflect on some of the processes that led to Shakespeare’s canonization and Beaumont’s marginalization. The PowerPoint slides below give you some idea of the material, if not the general direction of the argument. My claim was that Shakespeare’s centrality ought to be critiqued more often (no surprise for any regular reader of this blog) and that we ought to think about his canonization as political (hence the George Osborne quote). In turn, I suggested that Beaumont and Fletcher’s marginalization was, in part, political: Coleridge repeatedly insisted that Beaumont and Fletcher were royalist lapdogs who lacked Shakespeare’s brilliant ambiguity. That claim has largely stuck, but it ought to be unstuck. I don’t know whether the talk can be counted a success, but I had someone come up to me at the end saying they wanted to read Beaumont so I’m going to count that as a professional highlight.

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How to Know a Good Play From a Bad

How do we know if a play is good? As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I think a narrow focus on a small number of plays or authors closes off encounters with the startling variety of the English Renaissance dramatic corpus, but even I must admit that at least some of these plays must be bad. I want to say that all plays are worth reading and performing but it sounds like a statistical impossibility that they should all be worthy of our time and attention. There is much to be gained by treating plays as cultural or historical evidence and apparently dry or staid plays can be illuminated by careful historical enquiry but that is not the same as saying that these plays should actually be performed or watched. If ‘bad’ plays are championed then it is likely to damage the enterprise of promoting Renaissance drama: it will be easier to repeat the kinds of cursory dismissal that have blighted obscure plays for so long. Not liking a play is not the same as writing it off and nobody is under any obligation to like anything, but perhaps there are responsibilities for those of us hoping to encourage the reading, performance, and criticism of Renaissance plays.

None of this answers the opening question. While it is reductive to think about things as being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we might even, perish the thought, have to quote Hamlet on this matter – it seems unhelpfully obtuse to assume that all plays are equally worthwhile. It is often assumed that performance proves the quality of a play. When a play is performed it reveals itself in a different way to when it is read. Indeed, as the plays of the Renaissance commercial theatre were written to be performed it seems logical to say that they might work better in performance than in print. But this is a troublesome assumption in several respects. First, it devalues the reading experience, treating print as inferior, while also ignoring the literary quality of printed plays. Secondly, it assumes that the blame for a bad performance lies with the play and not the performers. I want to consider the implications of this second claim.

As we know, performances are sometimes bad, or are perceived to be bad, for any number of reasons: it might be a directorial concept that doesn’t work, it might be a difficulty with utilising the dimensions of the theatrical space, it might be a misjudged central performance. In the case of old plays there are further problems. It might be that there is a difficulty with the language, or that it depends upon a particular frame of reference that is now past. It might be that the playing conventions familiar to one old dramatist – let’s say, Shakespeare – do not work very well for another writer, with a different linguistic and dramaturgical style. Of course, it might be the play itself, or a combination of factors, but it seems unhelpful to assume that a performance will prove the quality of a Renaissance play.

But what happens when a play is performed repeatedly and is still not successful? This is what I have been thinking about, having watched the RSC’s The Alchemist. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it worked either. Naturally, lots of people will disagree with me and I am not trying to make totalising claims about either the play or the production, but I want to think through my responses: I like the play and think it’s good but performances usually leave me disappointed and I’ve heard a number of people suggesting the fault may lie with the play itself.


My problem with the RSC Alchemist is that, like the other productions I’ve seen, it dragged. Epicure Mammon was funny, as he almost always is, but, with a few exceptions, the rest of the production was fairly strained. The final modernising conceit – Face steps out of his Renaissance-style costume into modern dress and addresses the audience as gulls – was reasonably effective but seemed rushed. I’ve seen that kind of manoeuvre done better elsewhere. It seems to me that Epicure works well in performance because his language is so brilliantly lavish (and this is something familiar to regular Shakespeare audiences) and that the ending is often performed interestingly because directors apparently enjoy the chance to supplement Jonson’s twist ending with a twist of their own. The trouble is that those are relatively small moments in a play that can be over three hours long. Much of the play is dependent on pace, brilliant chemistry between the actors, and sustained over-the-top performances. I don’t think any of this is easy to achieve but the problem is that the play palls without it. Here, I think, the problem is not exactly the play, but that itrequires something unusually difficult to achieve and something substantially different to other plays by, for example, Shakespeare.

Few Renaissance plays get multiple chances. The City Madam and The Witch of Edmonton are just two of the plays written off in the press after a single performance. In the past, The Knight of the Burning Pestle has received that treatment, before the Globe’s acclaimed Sam Wanamaker Playhouse show in 2014 changed the record. In a different way, the same may be true of some of the lesser known Shakespeare plays too. Someone, somewhere in the world, is right now saying that Cymbeline simply doesn’t work on stage. I’m still no clearer how to go about deciding how to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’ plays or what to do with the ‘bad’ ones, but writing them off, especially after a single performance, seems like a bad idea.

The World Beaumont Congress

This week I’m attending the World Shakespeare Congress, with hundreds of people from around the world. I thought it would be funny to do some (very light) trolling of the conference hashtag #WSCongress16 by tweeting about Francis Beaumont, who also died 400 years ago this year. Others have joined in – it’s fun to imagine the impossible absurdity of hundreds of Beaumontians gathering together to discuss their favourite author. Several of us have also enjoyed the idea of different factions arguing over the relative supremacy of their writers. So, in some tweets, Marstonians clash with Jonsonians, and Middletonians and Dekkerites either band together or fight each other, depending on who you listen to.

Naturally, these tweets, and others like them, are jokes. To my knowledge, nobody has caused a public disturbance by insisting that James Shirley is better than Thomas Heywood. And yet, jokes have meaning too – these tweets do suggest something about how we conceive of Renaissance dramatists. The focus on single authors – whoever, they might be – often results in the elevation of one chosen individual. Often, this elevation is itself brief. The victim in these instances is not Shakespeare, but the other writers who are left in the shadow of the newly elevated author. This ought not to mean an end to single-author studies, nor to single-author collected editions, both of which offer many great benefits, but those of us interested in the drama of the English Renaissance (and I very much include myself in this) might think of other ways of promoting our subject.

Tweets to the Tweet

Last month The Shakespeare Institute continued an admirable recent tradition of marathon play readings. Led by Martin Wiggins, The Institute hosted a succession of readings of the complete works of Thomas Dekker and previous years included readings of James Shirley (2015), Thomas Heywood (2014), and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (2013). Happily, there will be another marathon next year. In a departure from the authorial canon approach, the 2017 marathon focuses on plays written in the decade before Shakespeare. If you’re in Stratford, you can get involved in these readings; having participated in the past I can confirm it is good fun. For those able to make multiple readings it’s also an invaluable opportunity to familiarize yourself with the works of an author, or a particular time period. But even those who cannot attend can still feel involved by following along on Twitter. A number of readers enthusiastically livetweeted the Dekker event and their tweets have been helpfully archived.

What story do these livetweets tell? Well, taken together, they offer a valuable alternative lens through which to view Renaissance drama. Shakespeare quotes (and misquotes) are ten a penny, in this year especially – has anyone else noted how many football commentators are trying to cram in Shakespeare references during Euro 2016? – but you don’t normally get to hear people quoting Dekker. How interesting, then, to see the kind of quotes pulled out for livetweeting. Many of these quotes centre on insults. For example, in The Patient Man and the Honest Whore we see tweets about how tobacco ‘makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox’ as well as references to ‘a withered artichoke-faced rascal’ and a ‘soused gurnet’. But we also get records of fantastically odd phrases like the closing couplet to The Noble Spanish Soldier: ‘Other distractions, time must reconcile./The state is poisoned like a crocodile’.

Perhaps most importantly, the livetweets give coverage to plays and pageants that are rarely read, let alone quoted publicly on Twitter. Pleasingly, Sir Thomas More, which has received considerable attention, but usually for its textual idiosyncrasies or authorial controversies, is treated first and foremost as a play. I think it’s worth emphasizing the usefulness of the work the Dekker Marathon and its livetweeters do in this regard. Although lots of people enjoy reading and watching not-Shakespearean Renaissance plays it’s also true that these plays get disparaged frequently and that our critical efforts to redress the balance often lead to studies that inadvertently obscure the vitality  and interest of the drama itself.

Livetweets are sometimes compared to commonplacing in books in that snippets of text are taken from one context to another, whether to publicize a text (as may be the case in livetweeting) or to serve as a memory aid (as may be the case in commonplacing). Sixteenth and seventeenth-century readers often copied sections from poems, letters, and, indeed, plays, in commonplace books: they might record a passage from a play they thought especially apposite. And just as the Dekker tweets give us access to a different perspective on Renaissance theatre so too do commonplace books and miscellanies, as an exciting new resource helps to prove. DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts is an online, searchable database of extracts from seventeenth-century manuscripts. Even a cursory glance at it demonstrates how differently we might view the reception history of Renaissance plays.

For example, in one manuscript (Folger MS V.a.87) an unknown compiler notes down 524 quotes from ten different plays. Some of those references are to Shakespeare’s plays – The Merchant of Venice (38) and Pericles (36) – but the most frequently quoted plays are ones that are now no longer very often read, let alone quoted. Philip Massinger’s The Maid of Honour is quoted 116 times, John Ford’s The Fancies, Chaste and Noble is quoted 94 times and the J.W.’s The Valiant Scot is quoted 52 times. These examples, together with the Dekker tweets, help to broaden our sense of the reception history of Renaissance drama. Even apparently obscure plays like The Valiant Scot have had some sort of reception history: perhaps we should attend more to the afterlives (or should that be the continued lives?) of these supposedly dead plays.