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.

The Gentle Craft

I assume I’m in a minority in preferring Thomas Heywood’s 1 Edward IV to Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Both plays – each written in 1599 – set the rise of an unlikely citizen mayor against the more sinister backdrop of royal and aristocratic manipulation. Heywood makes it abundantly clear that King Edward is a playboy whose flippant abuse of power has a devastating effect on the people he is charged to govern, but Dekker is more ambivalent: the maimed soldier Ralph alerts us to the misery and destruction of a cruel war, but the play seems to end jovially and the class boundaries, blurred during the main body of the play, appear to be reasserted. For sure, Dekker’s ambiguity is to be appreciated, but in reading I’ve found the end of 1 Edward IV more moving. Thankfully, the RSC have given audiences the chance to see Dekker’s play in action. Indeed, under the direction of Philip Breen, they have delivered a production which deals with the tonal complexity of the ending with great care and subtlety.

The first half of the production handled the sombreness effectively, but fell a little short on laughs. I liked how Simon Eyre (David Troughton) conveyed a note of sadness as he tried, and failed, to prevent the conscription of Ralph and both Ralph’s departure, and his return – scarred in the face and requiring a crutch for an injured leg – were poignant. I didn’t think, though, that the production was as funny as it might have been: Hammon’s awful attempt to woo the distraught Jane has the potential to be much funnier but it needed a brasher performance than James Wilkes delivered. However, the second half of the production provided more humour, frivolity, and happiness without sacrificing the darker and more troubling aspects. Indeed, the combination of the two – or movement from one tone to another – was highly effective.

There are a number of examples that might illustrate this, but Jack Holden’s bravura performance as the King encapsulates the point most fully. The historical Simon Eyre was mayor during the reign of Henry VI, but, the identity of Dekker’s king is never made explicit and, in many ways, his talk of French wars seems to call to mind Henry V (Shakespeare’s Henry V was, indeed, written in the same year as The Shoemaker’s Holiday). Holden’s extravagant King reminded me of a slightly more ebullient Richard II: he’s full of bouncing rhyming couplets, outlandish rhetorical flourishes, and frivolous changes of mind. It’s all very enjoyable, especially since he seems sympathetic to the Mayor and keen to unite Lacey and Rose, the loving couple. But in his final speech, the King simultaneously accepts Eyre’s offer to eat at the banquet and (without batting an eyelid) announces his intention to continue the war against France. The production ends with the King’s men wrenching away Eyre’s young apprentice and tying a red ribbon to his arm in a manner which recalled the earlier conscription of Ralph. The shoemakers grasped desperately and forlornly in their attempts to stop the boy from suffering the same fate as Ralph. In an instant, the entire tenor of the play shifted: it is a masterstroke which testifies to the brilliant ambivalence of Dekker’s play. I’d still like to see 1 Edward IV performed, but my admiration for The Shoemaker’s Holiday has now increased.

Shoemaker RSC

Defending the Witch

The Witch of Edmonton is a Jacobean play, often classified as a domestic tragedy – in that it deals primarily with non-aristocratic communities – which was co-written by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford. It is currently enjoying a necessarily brief run at the RSC’s Swan Theatre (Eileen Atkins, playing the title role, is 80 years old) but it was also performed at the same theatre in 1981. Its revival has been greeted with some generally positive reviews and Atkins, in particular, has been praised for a powerful performance. I’m going to have my say about the production elsewhere, at a later date, but here I wanted to address one of the frequent criticisms voiced in reviews: that the play itself isn’t very good. Michael Billington, whose views on Renaissance drama are making me feel increasingly irritated (see my piece on Arden of Faversham for further disagreements), opens his review for The Guardian like this:

Two things stand out in this rare revival of a 1621 play by Rowley, Dekker and Ford. One is the sombre beauty of Gregory Doran’s production, which anchors the play firmly in its original period. The other is the brooding presence of Eileen Atkins as the titular witch. My only doubts concern the quality of the play itself.

He’s not alone. In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish complains that Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch, is too marginal a figure, laments the ‘fiendishly knotty plotting’ and wishes that the subplot, involving the Bottom-esque Cuddy Banks, be cut entirely. In The Observer, Kate Kellaway describes the play as ‘lively’ and ‘unruly’; the second adjective is more equivocal, but I took this, apparently incorrectly, as a positive. Kellaway then says that ‘too many playwrights spoil the plot’ and that the dramatists ‘seem not to have agreed on whether they were writing a comedy or a tragedy’. It must be said that, while I find the observation unconvincing – loads of solo-authored plays veer between standard definitions of comedy and tragedy and I’m not so sure that such generic indeterminacy spoils anything – Kellaway does admit that the play is entertaining and offers it some praise. Still, there’s a sense that, for many people, this just isn’t a very good play. I don’t agree.

It seems to me that despite all that the fascinating lurches between humour and horror which Kellaway found confusing, the ending settles on a tone which is recognizably sombre, though it does it in a diction which is unusual for tragedy. As Frank Thorney is led off to be executed, he stops to make his peace with the community his actions have torn apart. The ensuing show of forgiveness is genuinely moving. Carter, whose daughter Frank has murdered, is moved to tears by the compassion which unexpectedly flows through him; in turn, he catches the audience off-guard with a metaphor of enchanting simplicity: ‘thou hast made me water my plants in spite of my heart’. Later, in a line which the RSC used to close the play, he ushers the gathered crowd home: ‘so let’s every man home to Edmonton with heavy hearts, yet as merry as we can, though not as we would’. If this was moving in the RSC production (and I felt it was) then it’s because of the quality of the writing, as much as, if not more than, the quality of the acting. There’s much to admire elsewhere as well: Frank Thorney is a fraught, challenging character of considerable complexity, Cuddy Banks – an annoyance to Cavendish – has a perceptive charm which makes him funny and, in his confrontation with the Devil dog, surprisingly powerful, and Elizabeth Sawyer is an engaging and unexpectedly funny character. It’s a play that deserves to be staged.

A full review of this production will appear in Shakespeare.