I missed The Duchess of Malfi, so my trip south of the river last week was my first time at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has been built to put on the sort of plays that weren’t originally staged at the Globe but at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. It’s a lovely intimate space, lit only by candles. The repertoire is non-Shakespearian– next up is Marston’s The Malcontent, and running right now is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is proof that the post-modernists didn’t invent post-modernism. The play announced onstage is ‘The London Merchant’, in which Jasper the apprentice (Alex Waldmann) is courting Luce (Sarah MacRae), the daughter of his master (Giles Cooper), but their love is forbidden. Sitting among us in the auditorium are the Citizen (Phil Daniels), the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn – yes, Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). The grocer and his wife interrupt the play and demand that London characters – specifically Rafe – should appear and be given heroic roles. The apprentice duly joins the action on stage and the rest of the play is accompanied by a very funny running commentary by the Grocer and his wife – Neil Rhodes’s piece in the programme likens it to a Jacobean Gogglebox. The commentary and occasional direction from the Citizens – who now and then invade the stage – constantly take the plot of The London Merchant into random directions. Rafe’s noble deeds in Waltham Forest scare away Jasper’s mother (Hannah McPake), who, fed up with her drinking and prodigal husband, has run away with Michael, her favoured son. After various adventures in which Rafe defeats the giant Barbaroso (who is really the barber), Jasper pretends to be dead and then impersonates his own ghost, and all sorts of slapstick, the two young lovers win the merchant’s approval.
It’s probably a bit long at three hours, but it’s actually very funny. It’s not just knockabout stuff, either; it’s terribly meta. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is actually three plays in one – the original play put on by the company, the chivalric play urged on by the grocer, and the ensuing final production that we, the real audience, enjoy, which is a comic synthesis of both of them. There’s explicit comedy of register too; Luce’s approved suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell, in a Michael Fabricant wig) speaks in high-flown rhyming couplets that are far removed from the demotic speech of the lovers and particularly the grocers. ‘The London Merchant’ plot is straight out of the cynical City comedies of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, which usually involve spirited lovers outwitting their merchant fathers. But City comedies don’t offer heroism; what the grocer couple really want to see on stage is escapist chivalric literature, and they want to get involved.
Imagine Harry Potter rolled into Jason Bourne and you’ll get an idea of the stories that the grocers are after. These are the so-called Iberian romances, probably best filed under early modern guilty pleasures. They include the Palmerin series and the granddaddy of them all, Amadis de Gaule, which originated in Spain, were elaborated upon in French and translated for the first time into English by Anthony Munday in 1590. We had our own homegrown tales too, like Guy of Warwick, whose provenance goes back to the fourteenth century.
Beaumont is having a lot of fun at the expense of the grocers and their insistence that they no longer be passive consumers of romance but active purveyors of it. You can see how much he is tapping into the satirical, anti-romance tradition personified by Cervantes. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been performed in 1607; Don Quixote, which had been published in Spain in 1605, had its first English printing in 1612. By the time Cervantes is writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there’s enormous amounts to satirise. The Iberian romances are full of heroic battles, magic potions, jousts with masked knights, vicious giants, and the insistence on knightly honour and duty. Although chivalric romance is often pretty sexy (Amadis gets it on with the heroine Oriana before getting married) Rafe is modelling himself on the chaste Christian hero – rejects the advances of the princess of Moldavia. In this context the syphilitic overtones of the ‘burning pestle’ are particularly amusing given our hero’s obvious sexual innocence. What’s more, when Don Quixote and Rafe transplant their understanding of heroism into a ‘real’ context of innkeepers and barbers rather than knights and princes, their rigidity in the way they read the genre usually ends in their getting beaten up. The fight scenes in this production, by the way, are genuinely hilarious.
There’s not just fighting – there’s a lot of music , too, The songs are often fragments, primarily sung by Merrithought (Paul Rider), who’s clearly modelled on Falstaff but without the coherence or the ruined majesty. Some are from pretty more elevated musical sources – ‘Down, Down, down’ is a reference to the ‘Sorrow Stay’ in John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs and Ayres (1600), and ‘Sing wee, and chaunt it’ is from Thomas Morley’s First Book of Balletts (1595) But the majority of them are popular ballads. ‘Nose, nose, jolly red nose’, and ‘Trole the black bowle’ end up in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbooks – respectively, Deuteromelia and Pammelia (both 1609), where they nestle against a large collection of drinking songs, catches and theatre tunes. The theatre and the alehouse were central social spaces, and inevitably both were attacked by the godly. Mirth was a loaded concept in Stuart cultural politics; James I’s Book of Sports in 1618 sanctioned leisure activities on holy days, much to the disgust of strict Puritans.
Puritans were not all your black-hatted Zeal-of-the-land Busy types satirised by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. They also made up the sober, God-fearing, Protestant commercial class that ended up being the backbone of Parliamentarian support in London during the Civil War – in other words, the class to which the Citizen and his wife belong. But mirth, Beaumont is suggesting, is available to all of us, and it doesn’t have to be anarchic; it can be creative. For example, the fun he has dismantling playgoing conventions of the fourth wall creates another play before our eyes. At the same time, drinking does not have to entail prodigal disintegration. Instead, it can be an agent of sociability. The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with a speech not from a hero but from the Citizen’s wife, who takes charge of the epilogue. She says to the audience directly: “I would have a pottle of wine and a pipe of Tobacco for you’ and pretty much invites everyone back to hers. It’s certainly not The Duchess of Malfi.