Another get together for York’s Theatre People – Saturday 12th November 1.00pm

Following the success of our impromptu get together for members of York’s Theatre community last month, we are running the event again – this time with a little more notice!

This is a chance for anyone involved or interested in theatre to chat and network with like-minded people and we are considering making it a regular occurrence.

Check out the event on Facebook – we hope to see you there!

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York Theatre Meet & Greet, Saturday 8th October 2pm

We’ve all come up against obstacles when working on projects.  Many of us have shows and the like that we are working on – be they in production or still at the idea stage – that we would like to either market or ask for help with.  Some people may even want to get a foot in the door of the York theatre scene.

So, we have decided to throw an impromptu get together for the theatre people of York; partly to have the chance to introduce ourselves to some new people but also because we know the theatrical community has a lot of knowledge and willigness to share, but not everyone knows how to approach those in the know.

Check out the event on Facebook – we hope to see you there!

Historic Drama: an invitation or too big a challenge?

Our Artistic Director shares her opinions on the willingness of others to tackle historic drama.

Because we like to take an interest in theatre beyond our own four walls, and be part of the wider York theatre community, we recently attended the AGM for another local theatrical organisation. Among the interesting moments was their discussion of the inclusion of classical (read “historic”) plays in their repertoire. Although some people seemed quite keen on the idea, it was noted that the more recent occasions when a historic play was calendared, finding a director proved unusually difficult. I had seen notices for those plays and, had I not been tied up with academic commitments, would have jumped on the opportunity, so it had never really occurred that other directors didn’t feel the same excitement.

Is there something about historic plays that directors in particular find intimidating or uninspiring? I don’t really know the answer for sure. Inarguably, there are possible aspects to approaching historic plays that might give someone pause – but it’s hard to talk about historic plays as if they are monolithic. Medieval dramas will present an obvious challenge with language… Renaissance, perhaps, with poetry… the Victorians with a sensibility which seems melodramatic and over the top today… but these are different issues, and any director might be intimidated by one set of circumstances while feel totally okay with another.

One thing which might be universal to historic plays is the feeling that you have to do something “innovative” with them. After all, they’ve been done (and in some cases, done and done and overdone) before, so there is an additional pressure to be ‘clever’. There is also the pressure to create ‘relevance’, rather than letting what relevance is present in the play itself pop to the surface and speak to you. And yet there are an awful lot of directors who are thrilled to tackle Shakespeare, whose plays have some of the densest performance history (and therefore really require something special to stand out). They may feel this is mitigated, ironically, by its very familiarity: if you can be reasonably sure the audience already knows the story of Romeo & Juliet, you might think that you can and should push the boat out pretty far, and clarity is less necessary. (I passionately disagree with that theory, by the way, but I’ve seen enough productions which clearly relied on foreknowledge by the audience to know that sometimes, whether deliberately or not, a dependence on audience awareness is taken for granted.) Conversely, I wonder if some directors feel that ‘classic’ plays require a certain degree of reverence, and therefore circumscribe creativity.

Of course, there is also the possibility that directors don’t have an aversion to historic plays, so much as a preference for modern ones. If you’re hooked on contemporary theatre styles, or plays dealing with contemporary matters, then obviously a call to direct a three-hundred-year-old play might not be particularly exciting to you.

I can’t really speak to the motivations of others, only speculate; because I find historic plays fascinating, it’s hard for me to get into the mind-set of avoiding them. Ultimately, however, I wonder if (perhaps ironically, all things considered) categorising plays by the date they were written isn’t missing the point. A story is interesting to you, or it isn’t, and perhaps by emphasizing the date of writing blinds people to that. Naturally directors need some form of filter to decide what projects they wish to pursue and which ones aren’t for them, but I’m not sure if using a date is the best one possible. Do we do a disservice to historic drama by focusing on that aspect, rather than other ways of describing plays? I really don’t know. A feature which I find attractive may be the opposite to someone else, and anyway you couldn’t get rid of the knowledge that an older play had a long history even if you didn’t describe it primarily as ‘historical’.

I don’t have all of the answers. The only one that I firmly believe to be true is that, if indeed there are people who have an aversion to plays of or about the past, the only way to convince them otherwise is to keep putting them on, continuing to make them as interesting as possible, every chance we get.

Director’s Notes: Auditions

As we prepare for A Journey with Jonson auditions, our Artistic Director shares her thoughts on the process from a director’s point of view.

There is a fascinating documentary about the casting of a revival of A Chorus Line, called Every Little Step, which is well worth a watch for some insight into an audition process. Of course, it deals with a major Broadway musical production, a process which is months long and a much more complicated situation than I’ve ever had to face. What I like about it, though, is that it gives you just as much perspective from a directing and casting standpoint as from the actors’, and you realise how much is a sort of visceral reaction to a combination between the specifics of each character (and how well the directors have to know those nuances) and the unique things that various actors bring to the part, which may or may not work as desired.

The context HIDden usually works in is considerably less prolonged and arguably less complex. Still, as I’ve said in the past, I find auditions to be the single most nerve-wracking part of an entire production. In addition to the high stakes nature of them, there is the fact that nobody seems to agree on the “Best Way” to cast a show. Every possible option comes with benefits and drawbacks.

In contemplating auditions as a system, I pulled a few of my old university textbooks off the shelf to see what they had to impart as far as “advice” on auditions, and this was when I realised one of the other reasons that auditions are such a nerve-wracking process: almost everything that is written on the “how to” of auditioning is aimed at performers. One of my directing textbooks doesn’t even include a mention of auditioning, which strikes me as overlooking something rather significant: casts don’t just appear onstage, fully formed, from out of nowhere! A quick search of a large online retailer also resulted in a similar dearth of textual discussion – lots of “secrets of casting directors for actors”, not much on “how to make the most of auditions for a director”.

For such a crucial part of the directing process, one would think more attention would be paid to it. I suspect that the reason it seems to get glossed over is precisely because there is no “Best Way” (and why it’s sort of nice to watch something like a documentary which shows the vicissitudes of the process). It’s not something you can really reduce to paper, to a checklist of how to. I’m not entirely sure it’s something that can be taught at all. The truth is, an awful lot of casting comes down to instinct. Which is not to say that directors shouldn’t be able to give actors fairly concrete feedback, reasons why they did well, or maybe even more crucially, ways that they can improve and things they should work on; just that, ultimately, there is something indefinable that makes one particular person work for a part and someone else not quite fit it as well.

As I suspect is true of most directors, I’ve evolved a process that seems to work, very much based on the particularities of the kind of theatre that HIDden does. One situation that we’ve often faced is that actors have to get their heads (and tongues) around archaic scripts; even translated, they can be rough going for people who haven’t done much historic drama. This has been a big factor in the evolution of the system that we use, which tends to include asking actors to bring a reading from something they’ve performed in the past: I want to see people doing something familiar and comfortable, when they think they’re at their best, rather than only when they may be hampered by challenging language on top of a new script and character. I like to see auditions as the question “what can you do best?” rather than “what can’t you do?” The hope is that this pulls out enough information for that sixth sense to go to work and whisper “this person will fit well in Part X”.

But no matter what system is in place, ultimately that’s what it comes down to, that little interior voice that can’t quite be quantified. And that’s why I don’t hold my breath for a book to appear on the “Best Possible Way to Audition Actors for Historic Drama”. It will always be a balance between intellectual rationale and gut instinct. That probably doesn’t offer much wisdom or insight for actors, but maybe it should be read as encouragement: if I can’t tell you exactly what will work, your best bet is just to do your best.

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.

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.

“Britishness”, a view of culture from a Theatrical Historain

Influenced by some of the thoughts and opinions expressed during, and immediatly following, the UK’s recent referendum on EU membership, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) considers culture and identity in Britain with a particular focus on the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Every time I sit down to write for the HIDden blog, I try to come up with something interesting that’s caught my eye – a bit about a play we’re currently working on, an item out of my studies or an article we’ve found, for example. This week, however, between putting the finishing touches to my PhD thesis and following the recent current events surrounding the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, I have to admit that historic theatre has not been the first thing on my mind in the usual sense. So whilst I try very hard not to mix my personal politics with HIDden’s work, it has been hard to avoid the political developments over the past week.  It has inspired me to reflect, a little, on culture and identity in Britain.

My area of doctoral study is the Festival of Britain in 1951. It’s an interesting time to study because sometimes the period of the early 1950’s seems so present. The Festival was held as a grand national fete, an attempt at cheering up the populace after a costly war and during a continuing period of miserable austerity. It came at a point when Britain was losing its Empire satellites, and immigration from those places was picking up. The country was trying to figure out what it was going to be, and the Festival reflects that: a mixture of forward-looking optimism, especially in the central London event; and an attempt at re-establishing a nostalgic view of itself, particularly in small communities across the land.

Medieval drama might not have featured significantly in terms of frequency of occurrences, but because there were more major revivals in that year than had ever been the case since the early Renaissance, it stands out (and is what I write about in my thesis). Here’s why I think it’s interesting at this particular juncture following the campaign and result of the referendum: whilst the majority of plays performed that summer were from English cycles like York and Chester, it was not without influence from abroad in several ways.

First, due to the way the Reformation happened in Britain, we have a very poor record of surviving dramatic records compared to Continental Europe. They have more plays, and more information about how they were staged. Look at any study of medieval drama from the mid-century or earlier and they will almost invariably invoke Valenciennes, one of the few places to leave illustrations of the intricate, decorated wagons they pulled through the streets for their performances. The design of the York plays in 1951 directly invoked the Valenciennes model. Although we now know that there was a lot of difference in the ways local regions approached their drama in the Middle Ages, in the mid-century period we looked to Europe to understand how our plays might have been staged, and to imagine what kind of plays we might have lost.

Second, there is a fascinating history of cultural exchange at work in the Festival. To backtrack slightly: the explosion of medieval drama in 1951 was in-part owing to the success of morality play productions in Edinburgh in 1948 and 1949. These productions of The Satire of the Three Estates, which appeared yet again in 1951, were often referred to as a “Scottish Jedermann”, a reference to a production which had been a repeated feature at the Salzburg Festival since 1920. Jedermann was a translation of the medieval English Everyman. Everyman is probably the most performed of all English medieval dramas, but it’s not actually English in origin: it’s a translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc.

Third, there is evidence that at least two communities which staged medieval plays in 1951 chose not to use British plays at all, but instead chose Continental ones.

Without even getting into the musical evidence, or the “Festival style” of architecture which came out of 1951 and owed its genesis to Scandinavian developments (both of which would be separate studies well outside my knowledge base), the point is that the Festival of Britain might have advertised itself as a celebration of Britishness, but that Britishness didn’t exist in a geographically and culturally British vacuum. Nothing in the world ever does, and the arts are one of the most amazing form of cultural exchange. We are inspired by the ideas and works of others, from across time and across borders. The amazing thing is that this has always been true, even in eras when travel was hard, when communications were limited, when having the English Channel between Britain and the rest of Europe was a truly formidable thing. Read about the weeks it sometimes took to cross during the Middle Ages, and the ships which sank in the attempt – the modern mind can hardly process how physically cut off we once were; yet these exchanges still happened. Elckerlijc landed on our shores and took root, and then we passed our version on to Austria. So even at our most proudly nationalistic, in the middle of a festival when we announced ourselves proudly to a post-war world, we were celebrating a Britain that was more an international melting pot than we may have realised.

Studying history frequently leaves me feeling extremely cynical. But when I think about the way that the likes of theatre somehow find a way to speak across times and time zones; across borders, cultures and languages, and how the ideas presented in performance become so interwoven into us that we can’t even tell the differences of origin – I feel a little bit hopeful.

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.

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!