Yeah, But Apart From Shakespeare…

The Arts

Every now and again someone asks, ‘Why is all the attention on Shakespeare?’ And it’s true that the canonical Shakespeare tragedies and comedies are endlessly revived ahead of his contemporaries. The Bard’s pre-eminent glory tends to eclipse the splendour of his fellow dramatists, who don’t get much of a look-in. When you’ve a mountain in view you don’t see the hills.

Prior to the year 1915 Shakespeare’s rivals were less visible, but then a single volume published in the World’s Classics series revived interest in the key playwrights. These scribes would all have been aware that WS was wowing ’em on Bankside, but we’ll never know how much they felt themselves to be in direct rivalry. London’s theatre habit allowed room for a great many plays and writers. In the nine years that Samuel Pepys was filling his diaries he saw 350 performances of plays. He didn’t think much of ‘Twelfth Night’ because it wasn’t about the Twelfth Night. He had a rubbish seat for ‘Henry V’ and couldn’t hear it, and thought ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ ‘insipid, ridiculous’. He loved ‘Macbeth’ though.

Luckily there was much else for him to choose from.

Your main man here is Kit Marlowe, of course – born in the same year as WS, an eminent playwright of the Elizabethan era and a major influence on Shakespeare’s writing. The two would have had (we assume) a tricky but close relationship, although we know little about that because Elizabethans weren’t into sharing their feelings. The key texts are ‘Dr Faustus’ and the nigh-endless 2-part ‘Tamburlaine’. Marlowe’s blank verse has grace but is easier to discern than Shakespeare’s, which paradoxically makes it less interesting. He only wrote for six years before being famously killed in a Deptford pub, his full potential unrealised.

Running behind him is John Webster, especially admired for ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘The White Devil’ (which we studied at school but weren’t allowed to see on stage – too violent to watch but OK for exam study). Although Webster wrote comedies he’s more remembered for those tragedies. ‘The White Devil’ is a highly intellectual and complex revenge drama that proved unpopular with its audience, who were expecting knockabout fun. ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was performed with special lighting and musical interludes, which probably helped audiences accept the Duchess’s curious ability to have babies at high speed. I love ‘The White Devil’, so filled with vengeful cruelties, yet so heartbreaking. There’s a theory that suggests we’ve taken to love his plays because the world war horrors experienced in the 20th century added deeper understanding. There seems to be no film version of ‘The White Devil’ ever made, but if anyone knows of one, do tell me.

Webster collaborated with Thomas Dekker, who wrote ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, whose lead, the inexhaustible Simon Eyre the shoemaker, is one of the liveliest characters ever written, out-Falstaffing Falstaff himself. ‘Let’s be merry while we are young,’ he cries, ‘old age, sack and sugar will steal upon us, ere we be aware.’ It’s a fun play, not often performed but endlessly quotable.

This brings us to joint authors John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, who wrote about 55 plays together, of which 12 to 15 survive. I haven’t seen their hugely popular ‘Philaster’, a play which proves there’s nothing so wicked as a truly good man, but I saw ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, the first whole parody play in English. Fletcher was 24 when he co-wrote the comedy, which was performed in Blackfriars in 1609. It’s the first play to make its heroes working class, and to break the fourth wall. Those were rebellious, licentious, appalling times, and the young playwright reflected this. It’s also the story of a boy set loose in London for the first time, and conveys the timeless thrill of arriving in the city. At the end our hero says as he dies;

‘Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!

Ne’er shall we more on Shrove Tuesday meet,

And pluck down houses of iniquity,

I shall never more hold open, while another pumps, both legs.

I die. Fly, fly my soul to Grocers’ Hall.’

Yes, it’s rude and shameless – and shows that people don’t change. It captures the thrill of being young, dumb and up for anything the city night holds.

Finally I’d suggest as a final rival Phillip Massinger, for his ‘A New Way To Pay Old Debts’, which for a very old play feels oddly modern. Its theme is one of living beyond your means – that one can be thought well of yet survive entirely on physical and emotional credit. ‘We worldly men,’ says the extortionist Sir Giles Overreach, ‘when we see friends and kinsmen past hope sunk in their fortunes, lend no hand to lift them up, but rather set our feet upon their heads to press them to the bottom.’

Shakespeare is really something – but he isn’t everything.


17 comments on “Yeah, But Apart From Shakespeare…”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    The late character actor A. E .Matthews explained in an interview why he never played Shakespeare:

    “In the first place I don’t have the legs for the tights. In the second place unless you play royalty you never get to sit down on the stage, and in the third place I can’t understand a damn word the feller’s on about in the first place”

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    I went to see The Shoemaker’s Holiday when in the 4th form at school. Our English master considered that we could cope with the bits of bawdiness since we were also studying Canterbury Tales (admittedly school edition, expurgated, but he’d tipped us off there was an unexpurgated copy in the school library). Rather less wisely, the lower school English mistress decided to take the 2nd year to see it too. I never discovered how they sorted the “explanations “ out. This was in the early 60s when children were less, shall we say, knowledgeable about the world and its perils.
    I’ve since seen an excellent modern dress performance at the Leeds Playhouse. I have to say I enjoyed both the first and the second time I saw it immensely!

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    I saw ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ at the Sam Wanamaker theatre a few years ago, with Phil Daniels and the wonderful Pauline McLynn ( ” You will, you will, you will!” ). To my shame I’d never heard of the play, and I’m an ex drama student. It was like Monty Python crossed with Hellzapoppin’, yet 400 years old. What on earth made Fletcher and Beaumont take such a huge leap in form and structure? I think we can really ask that tired old authorial question, ” where do you get your ideas from?”, about them. It really is an extraordinary piece.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve always been puzzled as to why Shakespeare is always performed with such ‘high-faluting’ accents, as if the actors are speaking in capital letters. Surely, it should be in a Midlands dialect, with characters sounding like ‘Mrs Overall’ (Julie Walters channeling ‘Crossroads’ character Amy Turtle), from ‘Acorn Antiques’?

  5. J F Norris says:

    And what about Thomas Kyd (The Spanish Tragedy), Thomas Middleton (The Revenger’s Tragedy) , John Ford (Tis Pity She’s a Whote) , and Aphra Behn (The Rover, The Emperor of the Moon, The Dutch Lover)?

    One of my favorite bits of trivia is that The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most often quoted and alluded to plays in the genre of crime fiction. Alone, the quote: “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.” appears as a title or is referenced in dozens of mystery novels from the 1920s through P.D. James’ debut novel published in 1962. There may be even more past that date. Additionally, the characters are alluded to or directly talked about and esoteric quotations of other lines from the play are often invoked in vintage crime fiction. You’ll come up with at least two pages worth of books if you do the painstaking research. I’ve already done this in a fit of OCD mania when I started to notice how frequently it popped up.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    Not strictly relevant, but one of the great TV outtakes of all time is Bob Hoskins as De Flores in The Changeling. He carries the body of Alonzo an immense distance, then puts it down to take the ring off his finger only to find that the actor playing Alonzo isn’t wearing it. His expression on this discovery is treasurable.

  7. Roger says:

    As well as The Revenger’s Tragedy, it’s thought Middleton had a hand in Macbeth, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens. Fletcher worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and a lost play, Cardenio,

    Long before the World’s Classics selection, the Mermaid Series, beginning in 1887, issued one or two volume selections from individual Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration writers. There were also amateur productions returning to early conditions – no sets or curtains and no elaborate costumes.

  8. snowy says:

    [This is a side-note, the rest of you – carry on being smashing].

    ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ has been filmed by Alex Cox, set in a post apocalyptic Liverpool, [viewers who don’t feel quite up to Jacobean verse delivered in a Scouse accent, the DVD has subtitles.] It stars: Derek Jacobi, Diana Quick, Marc Warren, Eddie Izzard and Alf Garnet’s daughter’s boyfriend. [I’m not sure if I still have my copy.]

    ‘The White Devil’ has been done as a full-cast audio, twice by Auntie: a version with the original setting, starring Anton Lesser and Helen Baxendale and a version updated to a 1950’s setting – with Patrick Kennedy and Anna Maxwell Martin. [Links available on request].

  9. Roger says:

    Barry Rutter’s Northern Broadsides specialise in “Northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces”. They have a theoretically admirable policy of not turning up in London.

  10. admin says:

    This is a delightful thread.
    I did not know about the Mermaid Series.
    Northern accents – I welcome this but have a comprehension problem that subtitles can sort out. Why Alex Cox would choose to make a difficult play more so by performing it in Liverpudlian is a mystery considering John Webster was a born Londoner.
    The question remains; why does ‘Malfi’ get filmed but not ‘Devil’?

  11. Liz Thompson says:

    The music for Alex Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy is provided by that classic Leeds band, Chumbawumba.

  12. Roger says:

    We’re spared – fortunately or not – Derek Jacobi’s attempt at a Scouse accent in Cox’s film.
    There was a Swedish version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore years ago. A film “inspired by John Ford” probably led to fans of Westerns being a little confused if they went to see it..
    There was also a later New Mermaid series which turns up in second-hand shops regularly.

  13. Brian Evans says:

    A bit of vulgar name-dropping. Alex Cox was one of my boyhood friends. We were at the same school and same scout group. His Dad was the senior scout master and director of Mobiloil in Ellesmere Port.

    They were a very well off family. They had an Aga!! They lived in a big detached house with large garden, which was used for the scout garden parties. What was a novelty to me was that his bedroom had its own wash basin and running water. His room was festooned with plastic kit models of the old Universal film monsters and dinosaurs.

    Sadly, in our late teens we lost touch as we both moved away from our respective homes. I was very surprised when he went into films as he was determined to be a palaeontologist (thank goodness for spell check). The last I heard, from my step-mother (she did and still does know everybody and everything locally in Bebington which is in the Wirral), that he was at Cambridge studying law.

    His name on here really brings back childhood memories.

  14. snowy says:

    The question remains; why does ‘Malfi’ get filmed but not ‘Devil’?

    Imagine you are the Artistic Director of a bijou niche theatre; and it is all going wrong, the audience are staying away in droves. Nothing seems to work, you have tried everything you can think of, every trick in your arsenal to get ‘bums on seats’ and nothing.

    ‘Hamlet’, [moody teenager, threatens self-harm because his Mother indulges in a bit of ill-timed, [and unfortunately named] ‘how’s your Father’ with her Brother-in-Law, doesn’t quite carry the same emotional charge it once did, even if played by a reject from the first round of ‘Love Island’].

    The colour blind ‘Othello’, [nobody could work out who was upset with whom about what].

    An all-female ‘Richard III’, [the battle scene at the end looked like rival Hen Parties ‘kicking off’ on a Saturday night in Hebden Bridge].

    The ‘Macbeth on Ice’, [quite literally sank when the witches lit the cauldron on the opening night].

    ‘Shylock’ in which a Venetian money lender investigates a mysterious hound threatening a noble family, [there was a mix-up in the photocopying room that no-body mentioned until it was too late, when they did, all the costumes and sets had been made, while you could just bin the velvet ‘deer-stalker’ and put it down to experience, you’d have still be out thousands on the animatronic dog].

    Now with a slight air of panic you reach out for: “The Bumper Book of Box-Office Belters – guaranteed to never fail or your money back” – and begin leafing through the Jacobean section frantically try to find something, anything to save your ‘Francis’.

    You will be confronted with a list; and the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ always comes before ‘White Devil’.

    It doesn’t matter whatever media it is Film or Theatre, if you are a writer who’s work is on a ‘backlist’. Alphabetical Bias will kill you every time.

    [Or it’s just a rubbish play that nobody likes!]

  15. snowy says:

    While we are in the realm of very old plays that have been filmed:

    Derek Jarman’s version of Edward II, is best described as very ‘Post-Modern’ [and little more needs to be said if you have ever seen his films].

    And the one and apparently only Directorial outing for Richard Burton, a production of ‘Doctor Faustus’ [1967], regarded as so bad that not even the chance to see his other-half , ‘Big Liz’, in silver body paint could save it.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    Talking of old plays, in Manchester they’re going to put on The Mousetrap, only saying. I wonder who did it?


  17. Ian Luck says:

    (Hand up, waving frantically)
    Wayne, I know! (And so must most people on the planet, as the damn play has been running so long.)

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