Creating a Legacy

Our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on how Ben Jonson’s publication of his folio of Works may have been an attempt by him to influence the legacy he woud leave behind.

One of the major reasons for including Ben Jonson in our 2016 programme is the 400th anniversary of the publication of his first folio of Works, an event somewhat overlooked by the general public due to Shakespeare also having a 400th anniversary (that of his death). As with most historical figures, the motivation behind Jonson’s decision to publish a selection of his writings at a certain point in his life is not really known. He was one of the first people in history to publish his plays and poems within his own lifetime, and with his own editorial hand at the helm; a fact which shows that such an occurrence was not the norm.

The first idea I had about what may have compelled Jonson to take this unusual step was to wonder if perhaps his attachment to the concept of being a ‘poet’, and his apparent belief that this was somehow a more pure vocation than ‘playwright’ (as I have pondered before), meant that he drew a distinction between plays, which are written to be enacted, and poems, which are generally just read. Almost immediately, the holes in that argument were apparent. First, if Jonson was truly ashamed of play-making, he would not have included any of his dramas in the publication, yet his folio included nine plays, thirteen masques, and six further ‘entertainments’. Second, the line between poetry and playwriting is blurred when one considers verse drama of the type that was in fashion in Jonson’s era.

Moreover, poetry isn’t just for reading in solitude. Poets frequently share their work with audiences at readings, and this would have been even more the case for those during the Renaissance who were subsidised by wealthy patrons; performing their works for their noble supporters was part and parcel of their job. Going back further, poetry was performance. Although rarely presented as such today, we would do well to remember that Beowulf or The Odyssey were part of an oral culture, poetry that was only ever shared through performance, never originally through someone sitting down and opening a book. In antiquity or early medieval times, the distinction between poetry and drama was extremely blurry indeed.

Jonson was part of the first era when a dramatist could hope to have two audiences: those in the seats at the theatre, and those reading the play script subsequently. Publishing individual plays in those days may have been a way of advertising them, of keeping them in circulation for second or third runs. Publishing a collection together, though, was beyond advertising; an exercise in the control of posterity. Jonson must surely have had a sense that he was creating something, to use the words he would later write for Shakespeare’s posthumous folio, “for all time”, and that in doing so during his own lifetime, he got to have the final say about what was included. It is impossible to imagine today what it must have been like for those alive during the early eras of printing, to first realise that they could leave something behind that could potentially last forever, and not just in one precious manuscript, but in a form which could be replicated and thus have it spread out to an ever-widening audience. Previously that kind of legacy would have been only available to the highest reaches of society; now those in middle class employment, like writers for the theatre, could contemplate leaving an echo of themselves for the future.

The legacy Jonson left through the publication of his folio of Works came with an extra irony attached. Arguably more famous in some circles than Shakespeare in his own period, Jonson’s publication inspired that of Shakespeare’s work a few years later (an event in which Shakespeare, many years dead, did not get a say); without Jonson’s Works we might not have Shakespeare’s, which overtime threw Jonson’s into shadow. It’s hard to imagine that Jonson intended such an outcome resulting from a project he may have begun in furtherance of his own fame. Which, in a sense, brings the topic full circle: proof that publication within one’s own lifetime, no matter how sincere an attempt at controlling one’s own imprint upon history, can’t guarantee control over future circumstances. Even the ideas and information contained in printed works, like that in plays onstage, become the communal property of the wider world once they have been shared with others, whether that is across the footlights, or on the pages of a book.

Advertisements

Sympathy for the Devil

As Ben Prusiner nears completion of his The Devil is an Ass adaptation for our A Journey with Jonson project, our Artistic Director gives some of her views on the ongoing popularity of devils and demons on stage.

One of the major plot points in Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass hinges on the fact that its gullible central character, Fitzdottrel, desperately wants to meet a real devil. He is fascinated by the idea, thinking that meeting a devil will help him gain further prosperity, but also simply for the novelty factor. The idea that the devil is usually considered evil, scheming, and generally considered not conducive towards the furtherance of a good life is lost on him.

This is, of course, a comic aspect of the situation, but it’s reminiscent of a phenomenon I’ve noticed with medieval drama: almost everyone wants to play the devil or work on the plays with demonic characters. Although there may be an assumption that medieval people would have preferred playing the holy characters (in an era of wider, less contested faith, it is possible there was more cache in playing someone holy than there might be today), there is some evidence that the devils were just as popular then as now. Considering this general trend, Fitzdottrel’s fascination seems less the product of sheer idiocy (although I suspect that the foolishness of it was an intentionally comic aspect) and more a normal human process taken to the extreme. What is it that makes actors want to play demonic parts, that makes audiences find demons some of the most entertaining bits of the show, and that makes Fitzdottrel long to meet one?

There is varied psychological opinion on the matter, about transgression and pushing acceptable social boundaries and such, but I don’t think you need a psychology degree to see that, dramatically, these issues give devils and demons a broader pallet onstage. Modes of movement, speech, and mannerism will be somewhat constrained for a “good” character, whereas if you’re playing one of Hell’s imps, it’s usually permissible to move about, shout, scream, spout gibberish or adopt funny accents, or even scramble your lines a bit – after all, isn’t that just what a devil really would do? For anyone who likes to ham it up a bit, the devil’s your chance. And for audiences who want a laugh rather than a sermon, the devil can often offer a lot more in this area.

For some reason we have come to regard “stillness” with decorum, decency, and goodness. Unfortunately, stillness doesn’t tend to make for especially entertaining theatre, and even with all actors doing exactly what they should for their characters, it’s easy for a lively demon to upstage the most dignified holy personage. It’s one of the things that was picked up by those who were generally against theatre: the audience ends up cheering for the wrong person, and therefore, in Reformation or Puritan-era eyes, theatre is a naughty thing for encouraging such things.

Jonson manages to turn this on its head. His devil-come-to-earth, though earnest in the pursuit of his craft (making mischief), is actually really bad at it, and so the audience can find him amusing without actually siding with the cause of evil (laughing at him, rather than with him). Even more interesting is the fact that, throughout the play, the functional “devil” – the one who causes misery and mischief, and who really does behave like the titular ass – is Fitzdottrel. Not only does he make his long-suffering, loyal wife miserable, but when he does meet an actual devil, he doesn’t believe that Pug is what he claims to be, thereby revealing that he has no clue about the reality of thing he most desperately wishes to encounter; and then he proceeds to make Pug pretty miserable, too.

The interest and attraction of the demonic was more an issue and field of study in Jonson’s time than it had been in the Middle Ages (as exhibited by the simultaneous upswing in accusations of, and books written about, witchcraft), but like all of history it didn’t spring up from nowhere, and Jonson knew that. It has frequently been noted that, earlier in his writings, he had disdained the fashion for theatre about the supernatural, and so his writing of The Devil is an Ass may seem a contradiction of that. I wonder, though, if this play isn’t Jonson mocking his own cynicism: if he finds stage devils unconvincing, would he be any cleverer in spotting a real one than Fitzdottrel? In a sense, Jonson has written a new type of morality play, one defined less by transparent allegory (his characters still bear names suggestive of their personality, in most cases, even if they are not directly representing sins or virtues) and the black-and-white kind of morality offered up by religion, and more by revealing the complexity of right-and-wrong that exists in the real world.

Maybe that is why people of all eras have found the devils of the stage so intriguing. Characters intended to show us virtue often seem unapproachable, an ideal we can never reach, but the demons and devils, who almost never come across as all bad, give us a window into the kind of moral ambiguity that we face every day. Unlike Fitzdottrel (and perhaps Jonson himself) we are less likely, today, to be burdened with the question of whether or not they are real or even realistic; they – and a play like The Devil is an Ass in particular – remind us that evil intentions can yield kind results, that the most well-intended ideas can result in suffering, and that ideas like “good” and “evil” rest at least partially in a disputed space where perception and opinion leave a lot of ambiguity in between.

So, What Do You Really Think?

As both a theatre director and historian, our Artistic Director has a variety of experience looking at the sincerity and manipulation of beliefs – themes which are present in both parts of A Journey with Jonson. Here are some of her thoughts.

Among the many things that is shared by theatre and studying history is the challenge of getting inside someone else’s head. Both often involve trying to come to terms with the possible reasons why people do certain things. In theatre about the past, there is an extra difficulty: not only is it a matter of trying to make sense of another person’s thinking, but it is about doing so when their entire world view, the matrix of their society and culture, was different. And yet, there are questions about what people actually thought which were probably just as valid in earlier times as now; the difference, perhaps, is that we are more comfortable with articulating them.

One of these unspoken questions is at the heart of Ben and Steenie, and is further explored in The Devil is an Ass: what do people actually believe, when are they putting on the appearance of a belief for their own personal agenda, and when are they using the belief of others for pragmatic reasons? If you’re a political or religious leader, do you truly buy everything you say? Or, with your “behind the scenes” knowledge, is true belief set aside for political reality?

Few occasions in history illustrate the possible views on these questions as well as the issue of witchcraft in the early modern period, and an accusation of witchcraft is one of the significant plot threads of Ben and Steenie. There seems to be a general consensus that many people of the era very sincerely believed in the presence and malevolence of witches among ordinary citizens – including, for at least some of his life, King James I/VI. But those frequently accused of being witches tended to be those (largely women) who in some way didn’t conform to community norms, so their accusations could be either the assumption that this nonconformity in some way truly indicated an evil presence, or was a more cynical attempt at bringing recalcitrant neighbours to heel through fear (without the actual belief that they were dabbling in black magic). Revenge for perceived wrongs – a direct abuse of the system – is another possible reason why someone might be accused, as is the case in Ben and Steenie, although in the play it isn’t entirely clear that this is in opposition to genuine belief; most of these situations aren’t mutually exclusive.

While Ben and Steenie silently posits these questions, and gives the audience different answers, The Devil is an Ass is Jonson’s more overt iteration of the issue. The play rolls its eyes at those who would believe anything and everything, but it also pokes fun at those who would take advantage of that blind belief. The fact that Fitzdotterel’s desire to meet a devil is patently ridiculous is also turned on its ear somewhat by the fact that, in the world of the play, devils are real, and Fitzdotterel’s wish is – unbeknownst to him – granted; Merecraft’s schemes sound absurd but aren’t as far off from real ventures as might be assumed.

One play approaches the questions of belief, sincerity, gullibility, and manipulation from a gleefully comic standpoint and the other from a more serious angle. There are no definite answers, as one can only know the answers within their own personal experiences. From our standpoint in production, the functional question is what an actor makes of these matters, and what answers he or she assigns to the part being played. These are the kind of choices that make acting the craft that it is. And the chance to explore different potential permutations of these questions is one of the great joys of working on plays about past eras. It may never give any definitive answers, but it offers insight into possibility.

Director’s notes: Visiting Bottesford

In preparation for our upcoming production of Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie our Artistic Director took a trip to one of the locations featured in the play.  She reports back and shares her thoughts on the practice of visiting the locations of events when working on dramatised history.

Recently I had the chance to visit the village of Bottesford as research for Ben and Steenie. I’d been there once years before, but this time I was looking with theatrical eyes: the goal this time was not to commune with dead ancestors but to get ideas about the place where the play is set.

There is a lot to be said for seeing the places where a history-based play “really happened”. The obvious assumption might be that this would be to get ideas for how to recreate those locations onstage, and to some extent getting inspiration along those lines does happen at times. This was less at the heart of the Bottesford trip, though, because we had already decided that the play would not benefit from too heavy a hand in terms of design. I am not a big fan of “heavy” designs for productions; “you shouldn’t go home whistling the scenery” is one of my oft-repeated beliefs. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is another. In short, I believe that the design should serve the play, not overtop it.

This would be easy to do with a play set in Jacobean England, because the style of the time, for those with the wherewithal, was ornate and extravagant. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was the word of the day, and this is visible even in death: the chancel of St Mary’s in Bottesford is crammed with glorious examples of sixteenth – and seventeenth – century tombs, multi-levelled and effigied. As much as I’d love to build the tombs of St Mary’s and give audiences the chance to imagine that space, the truth is that there’s not really any reason for it. Quite apart from the fact that at least one of them postdates the events of the play (in fact, some of them are explicitly referenced on it), they simply aren’t important to the drama. What matters is that certain events take place in a church: it could, conceivably, be the most humble local parish church or Westminster Abbey, the moment and meaning in the drama would be the same.

By the same token, there are some stunningly picturesque views of the churchyard from various places around the village, but they would require a West End budget and stage size – and then, too, it would be an act of self-indulgence, for that wouldn’t serve a dramatic purpose either. Beautiful vistas just aren’t what the play is about.

The other location in the play which features prominently is Belvoir Castle. Unfortunately, the Belvoir Castle of Ben and Steenie’s time is long gone, replaced by a crenellated Victorian pile. I didn’t visit it, since nothing of its fabric would be appropriate to the play. Any replication of the castle or its interior would always be of the imagination, although certainly there are other contemporary castles in Great Britain one could turn to for similar inspiration.

What this trip was actually about was just getting a sense of the place: how its various locations are laid out, and how the people of the play would have moved through and related to those spaces. It was very helpful to get a sense of where all these places are in relation to one another. The early scenes of the play have Ben Jonson upon the road toward Belvoir, and I now have a better idea of what that distance and terrain is like, and what sort of countryside he would have encountered that day. The relationship of the castle to the village was one I didn’t have a sense of prior to this trip. Some of the play’s characters who live in the village work as servants in the castle, and it would have been a bit of a walk, albeit over easy, flat terrain. Despite the distance, the castle dominates the landscape, and understanding that juxtaposition helps make sense of its relationship to the Bottesford inhabitants as they transpire in Ben and Steenie. It must have loomed in importance – and must have been an awesome thing to people who were living in one- or two-room cottages.

Getting a sense of the village as it must have stood is more difficult, because much of today’s Bottesford consists of modern developments. The fact that St Mary’s is as big as it is suggests that the village was larger than just a few houses or families. And its distance from the castle might suggest that the majority of its inhabitants weren’t directly dependent on employment there, which helps to make sense of the character Joan Flower in the play and her pride in her relationship as a servant to the local nobility.

Like so much research, it’s difficult to say how any of this will manifest itself once we get into rehearsals. But when approaching historical dramas, one would be remiss in not at least attempting to get a closer look at what remains. After all, although for our purposes they are characters in a play, many of them were real people, and trying to make sense of them and their world just seems a way of respecting that fact. Most of them didn’t leave any physical traces, but in Bottesford (as with Jonson’s visit to York) walking in their footsteps brings them, and the events of the play, just a little bit closer.

Someone in a Tree, History’s Audience

This week our Artistic Director considers the role of those who view and recall or record events in history – an audience of sorts.

In the musical Pacific Overtures (which, I think, is a brilliant piece of theatre about history, though it is not performed often), there’s a song called ‘Someone in a Tree’. It deals with an episode where no records were kept, and writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman had to find a way to both show this gap, and also make sense of it to the audience. Much of it is sung by a character who claims to have been a witness to these lost events, but at a distance, while hiding in a nearby tree, and so he can offer no details. The result is a song which says something incredibly interesting about history and the act of witness:

And there’s someone in a tree

Or the day is incomplete.

Without someone in a tree,

Nothing happened there.

I am hiding in a tree,

I’m a fragment of the day.

If I weren’t, who’s to say

Things would happen here the way

That they happened here?…

In a way, ‘Someone in a Tree’ is a brilliant reiteration of the hoary old question “if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to hear it, would it make a sound?” Of course the obvious answer is yes, because sound waves and physics don’t require participation by outsiders to occur – just as events and lives happen even if no one documents their stories – but then, the question wasn’t really about a tree in the first place.

History isn’t about what actually happens, because only those who are present in any given moment can know that, and even then an event or experience is interpreted by those individuals, filtered through their perspectives. The reality of history is that it is determined by what is documented and that documentation can build its own story, its own momentum, and effectively become known as “the true history” when there are no surviving witnesses. In essence, if no one records that a tree fell in the forest, it doesn’t make a sound across time, because there will be no way to know that it happened. (I do not, in this instance, mean “document” in a strictly paper sense: archaeology might tell us that this hypothetical tree had fallen; dendrochronology might tell us when; but if no archaeological research was ever conducted on that forest, the fact of the tree’s demise would be lost to us.)

What brought this to mind was reading about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh, which has been a point of inspiration and departure for our A Journey with Jonson, particularly in the play Ben and Steenie. That he went on this journey has been long known; that someone went with him to record the journey is a relatively new discovery (by James Loxley in 2009). It certainly stands to reason that he would have had a companion: not only would such a journey have been much more pleasant, and safer, in company, but if the walk was indeed part of a bet Jonson had made, as has been suggested, he would have needed someone to go along to make sure he did complete it to the terms set down. If Jonson had travelled alone, the lack of record certainly wouldn’t negate the fact that he did walk to Edinburgh, but Loxley’s discovery of his companion’s account means that we now know details of the trip that had, heretofore, been lost – and in being lost, they had effectively not happened to our knowledge. Historical discoveries are like that, a resurrection of sorts; they seem to bring to life events that had “unhappened” by virtue of being unknown.

While Jonson’s travels weren’t technically a performance, his companion acted as an audience. And this is a point where history and drama connect. The metaphorical tree falls whether or not there is witness and record, but it only leaves traces and continues to impact the future if it does in some way have, or creates, an audience. We are conscious of this sort of ephemerality in the performing arts but tend to forget that aspect when considering the past. We know more about Jonson now than we did twenty years ago, because his “audience” was rediscovered.

In Ben and Steenie, writer Brean Hammond has chosen not to include a character as Ben Jonson’s travelling companion. This character isn’t necessary, because the audience, in effect, becomes that extra entity. It stands in as witness to his experiences – and its participants get to see some events that Jonson does not, which adds an important layer to the question of what “really” happened. While there are elements of the play which are fictionalised, putting the audience in that all-important role as witness (as audiences, by definition, always are) becomes a reminder that even if our role in history is only to see it as it happens, that act carries weight. Whether onstage or in real life, we are part of the history happening all around us.

Falling in Love with a Play

Now we have announced that the piece of new writing to be featured in our A Journey with Jonson project is Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, our Artistic Director shares what attracts her to a play.

A play – be it brand new, a work in progress, or a classic – is something I approach a bit like friendship: immediately, something either clicks, or it doesn’t. By “clicks” I mean that something calls my attention right from the beginning and makes me say either “oh, we’re going to get along fine” or “you know, maybe not.” Nine out of ten times, a “maybe not” just can’t be forced into a comfortable relationship. A play that does click, though, becomes incredibly hard to get out of my head.

I’m sure there is a lot of theory about how to write a play that grabs people, how to create a “hook” that catches people from the beginning. I can – and will – explain some of the things that tend to make me engage with a play. But very often, what catches the eye is something emotional, and often quite random. Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, part of our A Journey with Jonson project, is a great example of the strange ways this can develop. What first caught me about the play was its location. Bottesford village is, by chance, a place where my ancestors lived in the Middle Ages. It’s purely coincidental, and completely not germane to the play, but it was a personal connection, and while it certainly didn’t guarantee I’d love the play, it was a starting point.

As I went on to really read it and think about the play seriously as a possible production for HIDden, I found that it ticked a lot of my personal boxes as far as what makes me like a play. Unless a play is extremely conceptually driven, I put a lot of stock in characters – their development, the way they are shown to the audience, their consistency and contradictions. I don’t have to “like” all of them – most of us know how intriguing a well-drawn villain can be – but I do have to find them compelling, multi-faceted, nuanced, but consistent within themselves. With some plays I might particularly like the voice that a writer has given then, with others it might be little quirks that make the people of the play seem especially real; whatever it is, having characters I think an audience will be willing to follow for an hour or two is critical. Ben and Steenie has some very interesting fictional characters, but it also includes the intrigue of creating “real” ones, like Ben Jonson, about whom the history books tell us some things but always without the fundamentals of who they were as a person. Some of the answers are supplied in the play script, others will be developed in the rehearsal room by the actors portraying them.

A play that is telling a story (as opposed to a character study or concept piece) needs to have an overall arc that makes sense, is coherent, and has ebbs and flows that give the audience a forward trajectory but also room to process what’s going on. It needs to be consistent within its own stylistic vocabulary. For example, not all plays need to have all threads tied up neatly at the end; in some cases it’s actually more satisfying not to know all the answers, but in other styles of writing and drama, it’s incredibly frustrating if plot threads are just dropped. (My favourite example of “incomplete completion” is Gone with the Wind, where the story is satisfyingly finished by not knowing what happened to three of the protagonists, because the ending is completely in character to them and to everything else that the story is about.) Without giving away the ending, I will mention that Ben and Steenie has a bit of that aspect to it: it’s very tightly put together, but the ending leaves open questions for the audience to think about, and given some of its thematic elements, that choice makes complete sense.

I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how a play is put together, not just because it’s critical to whether or not the whole thing works, but because how it does so often say something about what approach one will be needed to staging it. For Ben and Steenie, which has a pretty traditional structure, the emotional engine of the story is in certain relationships between characters; it would be easy to rely solely on the plot, which is definitely interesting but leans more heavily on the head than the heart in many places. It’s the stuff between the lines – how the characters feel about, and interact with, one another – that brings the two aspects together.

It’s a play with different possible levels of engagement, which is something I tend to like; I’ve never been a big fan of “it’s just for fun”, “fluffy” pieces of theatre. While you can certainly take the play for exactly what it is on the surface, there’s a lot more it gives you to think about, for those who choose look. In this sense, and in its historicity, it’s a very intelligent play.

And of course, that historicity is key for HIDden. Ben and Steenie is a perfect example of the issues we keep discussing and debating: the fine line between fact and fiction, between artistic license and truth, between history and drama – and not just in its own existence, but within the play itself. The research and detail that has gone into the script is incredible. One of the things I really liked when the script arrived on my desk was that it came with a detailed breakdown of what elements had been fictionalised and what chronology had been altered; this, plus a brief list of inspirational source material, told me that it had been written with extraordinary care for the “truth” of the past, and that its variations from absolute fact were written for deliberate purposes, not just to “make it more interesting” or because somebody couldn’t be bothered to do their homework. There are, in fact, parts of Ben and Steenie that you might think are made up, but are documented. One of these examples is a ‘Lunatic’ woman who dips in and out of Jonson’s path as he travels. It might be a bit of a cliché to have the village madwoman as a character, except that in this case she was recorded as an actual person he encountered along his walk to Scotland, and this lets her be used with historical honesty and in a way that helps further the story.

The more I read a play that I like, such as Ben and Steenie, the more I see it in my mind, on a stage, fully realised, and then it hits a point where I can’t get it out of my head. It has nothing to do with a silly little thing like being set somewhere familiar; it has become a complete entity, intimately familiar and comfortable and something I’ve come to know well and love. I have been falling in love with this play for quite a while and I really can’t tell you how excited I am to finally be getting it onto its feet.  I can’t wait to be able give it to some actors and to see what we can make of it as a team.

Jonson in York

This week in 1618 Ben Jonson visited the city of York, where today HIDden Theatre is based, so our Artistic Director shares her reflections on this.

One of the great glories of living in York is that we daily walk in the footsteps of the past. While this is true everywhere, the fact that York has kept its medieval street patterns and many of its historic buildings give its past a particularly ‘present’ feeling. Living in York makes the past real in a special way. This fact has never really been lost on the city, and much of its economy is based on the tourists who come to revel in its historic beauty. While we tend to think of tourism as a largely modern phenomenon, visitors have enjoyed stopping in York to see it for centuries. And one of them, in 1618, was Ben Jonson.

This week in that year, he arrived in our beautiful city en route on his walking journey to Edinburgh. York, still the northern capital in Jonson’s day, was a logical stopping-off point in concept, although if you look at the map of his route (as detailed by The University of Edinburgh), you’ll notice that it was actually a bit of a detour. Visiting York was therefore a deliberate thing, a moment of Jonson being a tourist good and proper. Although Jonson’s journey seems to have been rather enjoyable – at least, it doesn’t seem as agonizing or arduous as the simple phrase ‘walking from London to Edinburgh’ would imply to most of us – such a detour would have required a bit more effort then than now, so he must have known that a few days in the city would be worth the mileage.

Given the current character of York, it’s easy enough to imagine Jonson walking among its streets; harder is the realisation that, although we would recognize many features that he saw, it would also have looked quite different. Antiquarian prints from two centuries show many of the features that may have been there in his time but have since disappeared, including the inn on Coney Street where he lodged. Places which today we treasure almost as museums, such as the guild halls, were very much working buildings in his time. We can’t really think that Jonson saw “our” York, and yet some things don’t really change. The city’s highlights remain the same. York Minster, even in the seventeenth century, was not to be missed – and Jonson didn’t. He also saw King’s Manor, which was largely new built just a few years before he was there.

It’s a shame that we don’t have any direct reflections from Jonson about our city, and what he thought of it. Given how much we associate him with London, it would be interesting to know how he felt that the northern capital compared to the national one. He knew he was walking in spaces where events of historical importance had occurred, but we don’t know what that meant to him.

And what does it mean to us, that he came to visit our beautiful city? On the whole, Jonson’s visit isn’t remembered as a major event in York – in a city which has seen so many famous visitors, he is just one among many, and whatever Jonson thought of York, he didn’t use his visit to inspire any of his dramatic writings, so there isn’t much direct impact. At least, it’s nice to imagine that he carried happy memories of a place we love so well. And for those of us working on his plays, it’s a link between our tangible reality and his, and perhaps makes it feel a bit more personal. We get to walk in his footsteps through his dramatic works, but it’s also kind of nice to think that while we are doing this, we are also walking his footsteps throughout the city around us as well.

Difficulty with Theatrical Eras

Our Artistic Director gives some of her views on Theatrical Eras, and the idea that William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson are sometimes viewed as from different times.

Many of our brains like labels; box-like systems of organisation. It’s no accident that we usually divide history into defined periods – we have the idea that the years which fall within a certain era have some similar qualities, and are distinct from other periods. In a purely organisational sense, it gives us points of reference – for example, some historic records are organised by the year of a monarch’s reign, rather than the calendrical date. Americans might speak of “the Reagan years” or “the Clinton years” as a shorthand for the 1980s or 90s, and the assumed cultural aspects which are often associated with those times are often thought to have been reflected by those leaders.

Theatre is not exempt from similar concepts, but it is sometimes more complicated. For example, in my PhD thesis I had to argue that The Satire of the Three Estates, which dates from the mid sixteenth century – chronologically quite late to be considered ‘medieval’, should for the purpose be considered a medieval play. Part of my argument was that the people who were staging it in Edinburgh in 1948 considered it to be medieval, and they advertised it as such. This perception (probably due to it containing certain elements which were, and still are, often associated with medieval plays) influenced their decisions about staging, publicity, and probably audience reception.

Which brings me to Ben Jonson. In scholarly circles he would be comfortably considered an ‘early modern’ playwright, which is a nicely wide label. More generally, however, we tend to think of Jonson in two different ways. One is as a Jacobean writer. The other is as a contemporary of Shakespeare – who is generally associated with the Elizabethan period. Which appears to directly contradict that part about Jonson being a Jacobean playwright.

Apart from the monarchs who give their individual names to these eras, a lot of people naturally straddle two (or more) eras if one understands them in terms of who was sitting on the throne of England. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 – Shakespeare (born in 1564) outlived her by thirteen years; Jonson (born in 1572), by thirty-four. Both men were Elizabethan as well as Jacobean in their timeframe, and in their lived experience. After all, while that change in monarchy was in many ways a significant shift, the world simply did not alter completely overnight; it, and the culture around it, evolutionary processes took place over time.

Over the course of their lives, both men would have seen their world change, and the practices of theatre as well. And yet we (inevitably, but understandably) have popular ideas associated with these eras that colour our thinking about anything connected to them. Elizabeth’s long reign has the patina of success, of ‘Gloriana’, and the forward movements that we tend to call “The Renaissance”. “Jacobean England” seems less familiar (it hasn’t enjoyed the same profusion of exposure through films and novels, for example), harder to define, probably because King James himself was a very different personality, and ruler, than his predecessor. Offhand, Elizabeth’s life might be thought of as the era of the playhouse, where buildings were springing up devoted to performance, and a space where they could be enjoyed by all classes of people. Plays were becoming something you could read and own a copy of, rather than something you could only see once and that was it. By the time James VI/I appeared on the throne, neither the playhouses or the style of plays that had been written for them were quite such a new phenomenon; at court, the masque was the thing. Jonson wrote both plays and a great many masques, so perhaps this is part of why he seems to be more “Jacobean” than Shakespeare, who did not.

In terms of how we view them in the present day, I think how and of when we consider these men and their work to exist colours how we feel about their plays, and perhaps how they are approached. It’s possible that Shakespeare’s association with the Elizabethan era, the apogee of England’s experience of the Renaissance, is one of the reasons he has come down to us as our greatest playwright of all time. Jonson, more connected to James’s era, is associated with a time when the theatre was being questioned, when the Puritans were gaining ascendance, a timeless theatrically celebratory, and perhaps that has helped to keep him somewhat more shadowed: we may appreciate his plays less today because the people of the era could be considered to have appreciated them less. (This is not to suggest that this is the only reason, just a possible one of many.) Shakespeare’s “earlier” era gets the credit for innovation; Jonson’s, merely the carrying on thereof.

The question of eras and periodisation is all, ultimately, so much perception. One of the best descriptions of this I’ve ever found was about the fact that Persia and Iran are the same piece of rock: geographically identical, yet the cultural baggage and perception we often have of each is radically different. Where these early modern dramatists differ, I am inclined to think that, while we may want to assign different eras to them to try to make sense of the ways that Shakespeare and Jonson are different, it has less to do with their time periods, which were after all shared for many years. It was not their times which were so distinct and separate, it was their personalities and individual experiences which made them the playwrights that they were, and gave their voices such distinction.

Why choose ‘The Devil is an Ass’?

Our new production project, A Journey With Jonson, will include two shows – a piece of new writing about Ben Jonson’s life and his own The Devil is an Ass. Below our Artistic Director explains some of her reasoning for choosing this play.

In just about any field, it’s pretty normal for there to be ideas that the academic community has largely rejected, to which the general public still clings. This is especially true if you’re in a niche field that doesn’t get a lot of press through which to reveal developments. Theatre history definitely suffers from this lag, and so the idea that there are fairly hard and fast delineations between one era of drama and another often persist. The notion that it’s an inexorably forward-moving evolution – drama in churches leading to mystery plays giving rise to more secular moralities morphing into classically informed interludes which suddenly give way to the completely public theatre and, poof, suddenly there’s Shakespeare – tends to be a narrative that sticks around. In the context of drama historians, it’s a narrative that is, at best, a vast oversimplification, but it hangs on because it’s neat and tidy.

The reference to medieval drama that most people know – without realising it – is the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their shorthand title alone telling you how people viewed medieval plays. That stuff was de classe, old hat, only fit for bumblers by Shakespeare’s sophisticated day, right? But not all of his contemporaries had dismissed all things medieval in such a fashion.

When it came to choosing a project to follow Mankind, we knew we wanted to move out of the Middle Ages, but without such a seismic shift that it unsettled everyone. One step at a time. We’d been interested in Jonson for a while, for various reasons, and The Devil Is An Ass was practically made to order.

It’s not a morality play. The majority of it is focused on real – if periodically absurd – people, who aren’t representing humanity as a group but who are decidedly individual. It’s also not divorced from the morality tradition. The first scene opens in Hell, with demons and allegorical vice characters. The actions of the demon Pug influence and affect those of the worldly people throughout the play. It’s impossible to not see the demonic scenes as a connection to the medieval morality plays.

The virtues are missing. Virtue is provided by certain human characters, in differing degree, although none of it is morally unambiguous – which is perhaps the biggest step away from the black-and-white ethics of morality plays. Additionally, the fact that Pug is completely inept – a fairly significant point – undermines reverence for the concept of embodied, allegorical evil. But it’s not the morality play tradition Jonson is mocking, because he’s still using it effectively through these scenes. His commentary is not that the plays were bad; rather, he is pointing out that a world-view which suggests that good or evil is disconnected from human agency is in error, that life is not made up of absolute virtue or inescapable viciousness. Those who start out with questionable motives can change, while those whose intentions are malicious may end up fostering decency – and those groups of people are all one and the same.

The Devil is an Ass gives us a bridge into theatre beyond the medieval period and some of its moral clichés, without kicking over the traces so hard we lose the thread of the plot. It has the extra advantages of being really enjoyable (without which we wouldn’t have considered it, despite its other utilities!), and it’s not exactly played out. Upon reading it, it was in fact quite surprising to realise just how slight its performance history has been, historically – it seems like the sort of early modern play you may expect to be more popular. I suspect that something else it might share with Mankind is a more harsh judgement historically than we might be inclined to give it today, when our minds are (I hope) a bit more open, and when we’re more willing to take a new look at old things.