Ben Jonson: The ‘Other’ Renaissance Playwright

As we begin our project exploring the life and works of Ben Jonson, our Artisitc Director explains some of the reasons behind this decision.

First, a digression: in 1978, Affirmed became the eleventh horse to win the American Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. What was interesting that year was that a horse called Alydar came in second in all three races. Even if Affirmed hadn’t been there, it still would have been a Triple Crown year. And in any other year, Alydar would have been hailed as extraordinary. He just happened to be a three-year-old at exactly the same time as another, only just slightly more extraordinary horse.

I mention this story because it’s one of the things that comes to mind when I think about Ben Jonson, who is at the heart of our next theatrical endeavour. He’s always the “other” early modern writer – the one who isn’t Shakespeare. They are likely the only two Renaissance playwrights that people outside of historic drama have heard of, but he’s always the other one, the afterthought, the one who never quite made it to the top of history’s memory. And I wonder, if they hadn’t both been around at pretty much the same time, how history would look at Jonson. Take Shakespeare out of the period, and Jonson would undoubtedly pop to the surface as the standout of the era. He’s not the “other playwright” because his plays aren’t good; he’s the other because the timings of fate set him up against the writer who generally wins the laurels as the best of all time.

This is one of the reasons we decided on Jonson when it came time to move forward from the Middle Ages. His plays have a lot to recommend them, and deserve more runs than they get. One of HIDden’s original goals was to bring out “forgotten” plays of history, and a lot of Jonson’s work can legitimately be termed such – forgotten, but still compelling. We’ll concede that some of his work would be incredibly challenging to stage these days – masques, for example, being an exercise in allegory coupled with extreme conspicuous consumption make them a real headache for modern production – but many of his plays offer no difficulties more profound than that of his more performed contemporary’s. They make a very good bridge between the morality plays of the Middle Ages and an age more concerned with a good story than a lesson from the pulpit. And some of them are pretty darn funny.

Jonson is also a tremendously interesting figure himself, apart from his work. (How much a writer should be considered as connected to/separate from his work is another discussion altogether.) His life is somewhat better documented than Shakespeare’s, and, in reading biographies of him, one gets the impression that Jonson’s life was one of many vicissitudes, a constant scramble of hard work to make sense of himself, his ambitions, and then to achieve them. Maybe most surprising to those who aren’t very familiar with his career, he was actually very successful in his own life, rather than being someone whose work is only appreciated posthumously. His patronage was aristocratic and, eventually, royal, under James I; Jonson is sometimes considered England’s first Poet Laureate. He managed to live past his own success, and upon his death was buried in Westminster Abbey, which was (and is) no small honour. To his contemporaries, Jonson wasn’t an “also ran”, he was a writer whose work the public and King appreciated in fairly full measure, and it is only in the subsequent centuries that he has been so summarily eclipsed.

There is a lot more to discover about Jonson, his life, and his plays. Jonson will probably continue to be discussed in conjunction and contrast to his contemporary Shakespeare, but we think he deserves to be remembered as someone whose work does stand out as special. We’re looking forward to getting to know Ben Jonson and his work better, and hope you’ll join us on that journey!

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