Creating a Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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!

Playwrights & Poets

Following recent discussions surrounding figures such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) began thinking about the crafts and terminology of ‘poets’ and ‘playwrights’. Here are some of her thoughts.

“[T]he script of a play is intended primarily for the use of professional performers. Unlike the novelist and the poet, the playwright has been counting on other people to mediate between his words and his public.” (Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play).

The distinction between poet and playwright is particularly interesting in a historical context. Today, we see them as quite discrete things, and if you asked most people if and how they were different, they would likely have a clear answer. In the early modern period, the people who wrote plays saw themselves as poets. Many of them wrote things other than dramas – verse, treatises, musings, etc. – and made their living by the pen in varied contexts; and of course plays were generally written in verse at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the invention of the term “playwright” to Ben Jonson, who used it in his “Epigram 49”… as an insult. Wrights were craftsmen – ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. Their trades may have been highly specialised, but they worked with their hands, and were therefore seen in the time as a cut or two below poets, who, if they were to make a living out of their work, generally had associations with the upper class and nobility through the system of patronage. (This was, after all, an era when the middle class was just beginning to solidify as a level of social stratigraphy.)

While Jonson’s term might have been intended as a snub, it was also percipient. A playwright is a skill of putting things together quite specifically. Beneath the exterior words, there are particular ways plays get built to achieve their desired effect; it doesn’t just happen by accident. There are entire books (such as the one quoted above) dedicated to teaching readers how to understand what’s going on under the skin of a play script, to be conscious of the deliberate decisions the writer has made. (There are even more books dedicated to teaching people how to write plays.) By today’s standards, being a “playwright” indicates the many subtleties and abilities involved, rather than “playwrite”, which would imply merely someone who wrote plays, as if that was quite a simple thing to do. This is not to suggest that poetry is any less deliberate or consciously planned, but that plays do not operate in the same entirely free creative space that poetry does. There are inherent restrictions, in very functional dramatic terms, which don’t usually need to be considered when creating poems.

Whether they see themselves as poets or craftsmen, people who write plays have an extra burden not put on those who write words that are intended to remain on the page. They also have to be collaborators, in temperament if not in actuality. They know from the beginning that their work, putting words to the page, is actually only the beginning of an entire process; they intend for their words to be read, analysed, dissected, internalised, embodied, and performed. In some cases, of course, the writer is the performer (let’s remember that Shakespeare was also an actor), and in a one-person show, it’s possible to skip the extra layer of input. In most cases, though, and certainly in all historic dramas that I can think of, at the very least there are other actors taking on some of the text. Generally, today, there is also a director, and a whole host of people of various creative disciplines at work in translating the page to the stage. A writer knows that once he’s done putting words to the page, someone else takes over. The play requires him to begin, but it requires others to come to completion. It takes a village to raise a play, and the writer may or may not have any input once he writes a figurative ‘the end’ on the last page.

But, of course, this is all a question of whether a play is only complete when in performance, and it draws a line of distinction between an audience of non-theatre professionals, and that interior to the profession: the first “audience” for a play are the directors and actors who are considering/staging it. No matter how many interpretive layers eventually lie between the playwright and the eventual performance, it begins on paper. Some plays seem to be written with this as the focal aspect (I’m thinking, for example, of the profusion of complicated staging directions in The Glass Menagerie, which are usually summarily ignored by directors, and therefore seem more of use to someone who intends only to read the play and may need help ‘picturing it’), while others may be seen as hard going on the page yet come to life beautifully on stage (an assertion that has been levelled at Jonson’s plays). A playwright, in a sense, is therefore tasked with creating a work for multiple audiences, in different media, with a single work.

Given all of these complexities, it’s ironic that Jonson intended “playwright” to be a demeaning term in comparison to that of “poet”. The multifaceted expectations with which a writer of plays must cope, within the limitations of language and dramatic necessity, make it a craft indeed, in the modern sense: a highly specialised, artisanal skill which requires hard work and learning, of creating something from nothing in a creative manner within a general framework. He got it right, after all.

Remembering Shakespeare, an Historic Dramatist

In reaction to the recent events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on the place of his work in culture and history.

Right now, you can barely turn around without running into a reference to Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of his death this year has made him utterly ubiquitous. But, really, isn’t he always? His language, his writing, is so woven into our everyday speech we don’t even realise it; he is the cultural fabric. Even if you’ve never seen a single one of his plays, I guarantee you know at least something about them.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I really enjoy a good Shakespeare play. Really, the only reason HIDden hasn’t tackled one thus far is because, in the beginning, we were aiming specifically to perform lesser-known historic drama, and if there’s one thing Shakespeare is not, it’s forgotten. At this point, the reason is far less to do with any winnowing down by popularity and more because none of his plays have quite fit into our trajectory, but I expect at some point that will change and he’ll show up in our programming.

But one thing that has always fascinated me about Shakespeare is his singularity. Shakespeare is somehow outside of categorisation – we don’t think of him primarily as a writer of verse plays, although he certainly is that, and we don’t consider him first as an early modern dramatist, although, inarguably, he is that, too. Shakespeare manages to stand alone, and is often used as a yardstick against which other plays and writers are measured, particularly historically. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, some of whom wrote excellent work, are always found wanting when compared to him, if they are remembered at all. They are only ever looked upon as historic drama – and dismissed as such, when compared to the yardstick of Shakespeare.

I’ve seen this question of why posed in various books and articles, and a few solutions thrown out as possibilities, but in the end, no one ever really seems to have a solid answer. Perhaps there is no answer to “why Shakespeare” because there is seldom only one reason for anything. It’s a confluence of circumstances and, once the pattern is established, it tends to keep feeding its own momentum. These days, it would be impossible not to see Shakespeare as the definition of the literary canon, because we have all grown up in a world with educational systems which teach us that he is, and we can’t escape that.

All of this means that I think we sometimes lose sight of Shakespeare as an historic subject. Not merely his “history plays”, but all of his work, is the product of a specific time, and I sometimes wonder what we lose in our eagerness to claim him “for all time”, as Ben Jonson wrote in the preface to the First Folio. This is not an argument that Shakespeare’s plays, or those of his fellows, need always be styled as Elizabethan or Jacobian. Rather, that if we want to understand all of what these plays can say to us today, we need to understand what they were attempting to say to the audiences for whom they were created. This is true of all drama. In this, Shakespeare is anything but singular.