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.

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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.

When Old becomes New

After seeing a touring production of Mankind (a show with which we have quite a recent history) our Artistic Director explains her views on seeing someone else’s take on material with which one has previously worked.

When you work with historic dramas, there’s a fairly good chance that at some point you will have the chance to see another production of a play that you’ve worked on. In such cases, I find it impossible not to make comparisons, to have little voices in your head of the actors you’ve worked with saying the lines, to anticipate the cues that you’re used to.

This weekend I had the chance to see the production of play we have become quite familiar with – Mankind. By now I know that play inside and out, and have three different HIDden variants bouncing around inside my head. Sure enough, that echo was there in my ears, and there were definitely moments where I laughed unexpectedly because it brought back amusing memories. But it was a radically different spin on the play, a completely different style: you’d certainly recognise it as the same play, but it’s like apples and oranges – both fruit, yet very different guises.

This is why I think that the chance to see a play you know and have worked on, when done by someone else, is a chance you should never pass up. The beauty of historic theatre, that makes it so interesting, whether it’s your work or your hobby or just something you go to see occasionally, is that there are so many ways of doing the same piece. As I’ve said before, you can get it completely wrong, but there are also a lot of totally different ways of getting it right.

It might be easy to worry that, in seeing another production, you’ll have to face up to it being better than your own. Sometimes that happens. Other times you walk away wondering what on earth another director or actor was thinking. In most cases I’ve found, however, it’s actually not about comparative value judgements at all. Instead, it’s reassuring, a reminder that you don’t have to spend aeons hunting for “The One Best Way”, because it doesn’t exist. Somebody else’s creative choices might inspire something in you for the future; or you might really love a production and think it’s brilliant but also acknowledge that you simply have a completely different style, and there’s room in the world for both. Theatre isn’t a competition. It’s profoundly analytical – no matter what your engagement with it – but it’s not arithmetic, with one fixed answer and a limited way of getting to it; it’s a world of nearly infinite possibility. (People may talk about “definitive productions” but I personally think that’s the wrong end of the stick. Nothing is ever so brilliant and perfect that it could not be equalled under different conditions.)

It’s also possible that, after having spent a lot of time working on a play, you will have lost your ability to see it objectively, or joyfully. It becomes something where you feel that you’ve wrung out of it all that you could. Seeing someone else’s version of it helps restore perspective, helps you see all theatre with clearer eyes if your own are tired. It’s also just healthy to be an audience member, seeing things from their perspective. When you spend all your time on productions of your own, it’s quite refreshing to really laugh about moments that you had no hand in devising.

So here is my suggestion to you. Go out and see a production of a show you know – one you’ve done, or one you’ve seen before. Don’t watch it to pick a favourite – watch it to think about how each company came up with their different versions, and what each one highlights. Enjoy the fact that, whether you work in theatre full-time or see yourself as just an occasional audience member, you’re part of something so amazingly dynamic.

Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

Opening Night Jitters

This week, our Artistic Director shares some of her personal reflections on the theatrical phenomenon of opening night.

To me, “opening night” is one of the most exciting combinations of words in the theatrical vocabulary. It’s the moment when all your hard work (hopefully) pays off, and you get to share it with an audience. The adrenaline rush of that first performance is something that will usually replay itself over and over through an entire career, the addictive high that brings us back show after show.

Some actors are surprisingly Zen-like about it. At least they are outwardly, it’s just another day in the office – which isn’t to say they’re lackadaisical about it, just that they don’t really seem to have any anxiety about their lines, character, or blocking. Others can be really tense about those things and it’s frequently quite visible. Some, though, are just wired up and excited for getting out there and doing the thing they’ve been working towards; a happy sort of tension. None of these is right or wrong, they are just different temperaments and personalities.

When I did act, a number of years ago, I think my reaction was the happy tension sort. It was exciting but not scary. I never quite understood stage fright personally, although it’s certainly pretty normal. At least, I didn’t understand it until I left the stage and started working behind it as a director. Since then, “opening night”, to be brutally honest, absolutely terrifies me.

Opening night (or, more technically, dress rehearsal) is where my job as a director ends. At that point, I entrust the show entirely to the company and show staff. Opening night for a director is sending your kid off to school for the first time. You’ve done your best to get it ready. You hope you’ve given it the proper attention and discipline, that you’ve built up the confidence enough to carry it along, and that you’ve created an environment where the team’s skills and talents can really blossom. But in that moment, you can’t do anything to help anymore. It’s out there on its own, and you have to trust that it will all be okay. I think this is the great irony of directing. People often think you do it because you like to control things, but in reality I find a lot of it is about letting go of control and having faith in others.

I’ve been quite fortunate with the casts for HIDden’s productions so far. Not once have I felt that there was someone who was really, really not ready to go on, but in the position where I had to let them do so anyway. In a sense my nerves are actually for the cast, not about them: I want them to be able to come off the stage feeling like they’ve just nailed it to the wall, and my nerves are the manifestation of cheering them along from a far.

The other, probably even more unnerving aspect is the audience itself. Who will come? What will they be like? Will they enjoy the show? There are few things more demoralising to a cast than having to play to a “dead” audience, especially if you’re doing something high in energy and comic. Having the audience laugh, cry, tense-up, react and give you something back across the footlights is why we work in live performance; and when they are just there, seemingly unresponsive, it can be hard to cope. Audiences are something over which one has absolutely no control whatsoever. Every group of people, each night, is its own entity. So every opening, I hope for a lively, engaged, responsive audience, for that night at least, even if you may not that every night of a run, because it gets everyone off to a positive start. A good opening doesn’t guarantee a brilliant run, but it can help propel everyone along.

Opening night is the beginning, but it’s also an end. Once that curtain goes up, the play is no longer evolving, becoming, developing – it has arrived, and each successive audience should see, essentially, the same thing. It is both a commencement and a completion, risk and reward, all rolled into one. Is it any wonder, then, that it holds such a special place in the hearts of those who love the theatre?

Fact versus Fiction, An Historical Quandary

Some thoughts on historical fact and fiction from our Artistic Director.

Thinking about pageants last week, and as I work on my thesis about mid-century productions of medieval plays, I am often faced with the issue of “historical accuracy”. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, because my historian academic side adamantly dislikes playing free and easy with the past. In David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, a book I highly recommend, he argues that ‘history’ is facts while ‘heritage’ is what we believe to be true of the past. From one perspective, it’s a good distinction to make; but working with historic and historical drama offers a different view.

I always say that history has the best stories. It is absolutely chock full of interesting people and events. You could spend a lifetime just reading true, well-documented historical narratives and, assuming they were well written, never get bored or feel like you were reading something obviously non-fictional. The challenge is that history is almost never simple. It’s made up of people, and their actions, and their ideas, and it’s impossible to address all of those things without complexity. Nor is history as unambiguous as we might like to imagine. It is always subject to interpretation, to the subjectivity and biases of whoever is studying or writing about it. Even if you just go back to original documents, you’re left with questions. Why did these survive? What got lost? Who wrote them, and why, and what were their biases? (For very concrete examples of these questions and how historians address them, the first chapter of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower is great.) None of that is much of a problem if you’re a historian or writing a properly researched, well-documented historical study.

However, if your goal is to put a story on stage, you simply can’t address every nuance, every wrinkle, every difficulty. Things get “smoothed out”. And this is where, working in theatre, I part company with Lowenthal’s arguments. He suggests that the general attitude to those performing history (in film specifically, but I suspect theatre would be grouped in with it) is “getting things wrong is quicker, simpler, and usually makes a better story than getting them right”. He also suggests that in a lot of cases, the story is tailored to be the one the audience expect: thereby creating a work of heritage but not one of history.

It’s generally quicker – I’ll agree to that. Unless you want to write a play that will last for fifteen hours, you simply cannot address every complexity of a historical issue. (There are a fair number of historical books which took longer to research and write than the events they discuss took to happen.) Nor can all of them be staged effectively. So in one sense this does create a simplification – but it is not simplification for its own sake, or because we automatically assume that the audience needs things to be dumbed down. It’s literally about practicality. There are certainly situations where, by simplifying, we end up also taking a position about an issue or an aspect of the narrative that might be in dispute. For those of us to whom the historical part of theatre is important, though, it’s our job to make sure that we do our best to give the audience the chance to realise what we’ve done. Making up for those necessary excisisms is part of why we at HIDden try to use this space online to share some of the of thoughts behind our work, including a production’s ‘back story’. I also like to believe that our audiences are intelligent enough to know that no play is the gospel truth. I always hope we’re the spark that makes them ask the questions and want to find out more, rather than the end point of their relationship with a topic.

Does “getting things wrong… make a better story”, though? It’s not unilaterally true. For example, it has always amazed me that not a single major film drama about the sinking of the Titanic has felt that it would be easy able to stick completely to historical characters, because I think one of the reasons the world is so fascinated by that event is that there are so many structurally perfect stories attached to it. There is absolutely no need to play fast and loose and make things up. (Of course, film and theatre are quite different, with the latter arguably less reliant on a very strict formula.) It is worth remembering, thought, that writers exert an influence in their choice of what to use and what to ignore. Even verbatim works are subject to the curatorial interference of creators.

In other cases, the “wrong” is often a creative way of covering over parts of a story that are completely unknown, which is less an error and more a speculation. The Vital Spark will be a good example of this: we’re leaning as heavily as possible on documented history, but we know there will be places where an understanding of the characters, their lives, and their time period will have to be a springboard for filling in the holes. It’s also not necessary to limit that approach to gaps in our knowledge. “What if” is not just an interesting historical conundrum (there are entire series of books dedicated to potential alternative endings to historical events based around that question), it can be a good way of putting connected historical issues into juxtaposition to better understand them. This is very much an aspect of our A Journey with Jonson project. In either case, we will be quite clear, here and in other ways, that we are presenting a fiction grounded in history (this is one way we approach being Historically Informed) rather than full reenactments of actual events. For us, the fictional aspect is not about “improving” history or making a better story. It’s about asking different questions, and finding different ways to know the past, not about suggesting that the factual past is flawed as a narrative.

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!

An Update

Regretfully, our planned production project, ‘A Journey with Jonson’, will no longer be taking place this November.  There is a range of reasons for this, and in conjunction with the decision to initially postpone this project, HIDden Theatre shall be taking a hiatus until the new year.

A factor in this situation has been our limited core team, both in terms of staff numbers and areas of expertise.  We still really believe in our mission statement: HIDden Theatre aims to enrich the lives of audience members and creative participants through stories from and about the past; and will return to working towards it in 2017.  In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas to help us move forward (both practically and creatively) we welcome any contributions, equally if you have no specific thoughts but would like to get involved and bring some new views and enthusiasm to the table please feel free to get in touch via our contact form on the About Us page.

Director’s Notes: Wrapping up ‘Mankind’

This week our Artistic Director reflects on coming to the end of our Mankind revival run.

Although I love the adrenaline rush of opening night, I’ve always been a bit partial to closing night. There is something about the end of a run that brings out the best in everyone. Actors pull out something that they’ve been unconsciously holding in reserve, and of course there is a certain emotional component to the end of something that has dominated your life for a length of time.

One way or another, we’ve spent the better part of half a year with [this production of] Mankind, and after our four-performance run this past weekend, it’s time to put it to bed. Although I’m sure we’ll all enjoy a few more free moments in the week, I for one will miss it. I’ll miss the cast, and the journey we’ve taken together. I’ll miss the planning and the imagining what it will be like.

There are two particularly gratifying aspects to this show as I look back over it. The first is how amazing the cast was. This was a very varied group of people, and they did a great amount in very little time. The amount of work they put in was incredible, and this show, perhaps particularly in that there was such a visible trajectory upwards from our first readings together. I have absolutely loved watching them evolve from rehearsal to rehearsal, or even throughout an individual one. Although I have acted, I’m not really an actress, and I continue to marvel at the way they sink deeper and deeper into a character, making it come to life moment by moment. There is something in their process that defies explanation: you can see it, you know it’s there, but I’m not sure it can be put to words explicitly. But it makes the show. Our Mankind cast really found the ebbs and flows, the different emotional moments and shifts, in the play, and brought them to life.

The second was the audience. Hearing their comments as they left the theatre, and seeing the smiles on their faces, made every moment worthwhile. Some were medieval drama veterans who were enjoying seeing a non-mystery-play in York for a change; many of them commented on how interesting they found the modern spin on the play. I’m always especially happy to see the reactions of those who aren’t as familiar with the genre, because we put a lot of effort into making the play accessible to them, and their comments on how much they had liked it meant a lot. I would love to have more and more people realise just how much fun a play like Mankind can be, and I hope that the next time these folks have a chance, they will see more.

Saying goodbye to Mankind means saying goodbye to our cast and the project, but also, for HIDden, to the Middle Ages for a spell. I’m looking forward to new projects and new eras, but I wonder when this play, or any of its peers, will call us back. After all, even after a revival, there are depths unplumbed. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll come back to it. But for now, Mankind, we bid you a fond farewell, with thanks for all the memories.