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.

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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.