Ben Jonson: Theatre Revolutionary
(Rod Dungate is a playwright and poet, arts journalist and co-editor of ReviewsGate)
Length: 1400 words
Jonson’s reputation really rests on three plays, Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. Even so, these are infrequently performed. His other later plays are much neglected, even thought unstageable. There are those who, not to put too fine a point on it, think that as he grew older, Jonson gradually lost his marbles.
The Silent Woman & The Devil is an Ass
Two of his rarely seen plays, The Silent Woman (Epicoene) and The Devil is an Ass were written in the same period as his three better known ones.
Danny Boyle summed up his surprised reaction to The Silent Woman when he went into rehearsal with it at the RSC in 1989: ‘It doesn’t seem possible it’s four hundred years old: it’s as closely connected to A Fish Called Wanda as you can be’ An apt comment, for this play is like a huge wave of comic invention rushing us along for three hours. It is rarely performed perhaps because it is difficult to present successfully as it is to ride those huge Pacific breakers.
The Silent Woman is the story of a dreadful old man, Morose, who can’t stand noise but wants to get married to disinherit his nephew. So he marries a woman who does not speak – until she’s married when she doesn’t stop. Morose wants his marriage annulled: something he only achieves when it is revealed his wife is a man.
The casting of the eponymous heroine herself is fraught with danger. Jonson wrote into the role the play’s central metaphor as well as a theatrical coup which should leave an audience stunned with disbelief. Shakespeare was writing cross-gender roles too, at this time, but they are quite different: Jonson’s feet are always on English ground while Shakespeare’s rush off to Illyria.
Actors need gargantuan amounts of energy to keep this play spinning – they must seem to us a group of psychotics. Truewit, the engine of the play, may quite legitimately be seen as a manic depressive.
The Silent Woman’s themes of greed, sexual role-playing and gender confusion and its reflection of a society accelerating almost out of control reflects our Age just as accurately as it did Jonson’s.
The plot of The Devil is an Ass, is side-splittingly funny – a little devil, Pug, pleads with the big devil, Satan, to be allowed to go to Earth to make trouble. Satan eventually lets him come, but Pug cannot cope with England’s (London’s) world of shady deals, dodgy titles and venture capital. Pug fails miserably – London is more wicked than Hell..
The Silent Woman is almost devoid of love and true friendship. Jonson introduced into The Devil is an Ass a debate about love, honour, morality, marriage – a theme he was to return to in The New Inn.
In The Devil an unmarried man makes love to a married woman, but it is no lascivious seduction: Jonson wrote some of his most beautiful poetry to ensure the virtue of this love. At the point when spoken words will no longer suffice, Jonson supplies the exquisite song ‘Do but look on her eyes! They do light/ All that love’s world compriseth.’ The woman’s predicament calls into question the validity of the institution of marriage: Jonson beat Farquhar to it.
The Devil was revived in a wonderful production by Stuart Burge of Birmingham Rep Theatre in 1976 and subsequently went to Edinburgh and the National – Burge had previously directed it in Nottingham in 1973. By all accounts the Edinburgh first night audience received the performance with cheers. The RSC programmed The Devil in 1995.
Almost ten years elapsed before Jonson returned to writing plays for theatre (he was busy writing a series of Court masques.) He penned his final group: The Staple of News, The New Inn, The Magnetic Lady, A Tale of a Tub.
There is a growing tendency in these plays for Jonson to create a world which could heal and draw together humankind. In his maturity, he was growing gentler – comedy is no longer a bit stick to bring Society into line. Jonson always wrote from a standpoint of love – he may have been intolerant of foods and the greedy rich, but he never lacked charity.
Nowhere is his love more evident than in The New Inn where is shines like a beacon. John Caird directed a revival (the only one I’ve seen) for the RSC in 1987. The production had many strengths, but three really stand out. There was the wonderful pageant of bizarre and fascinating characters that peopled the acting space, there was John Carlisle (Lovel) speaking Jonson’s beautiful speeches on love and valour, and there was Joseph O’Conor (the pretend Inn Keeper revealed as a lord) who closes the play with the lines ‘All my family,/ Indeed, were gypsies, tapsters, ostlers, chamberlains, /Reduced vessels of civility’. Now don’t tell me that Jonson didn’t like people!!
Jonson is identifiably, in these late plays, becoming more and more interested in trying to record life as accurately as possible. He used to get furious when people misrepresented or wilfully misinterpreted his plays. He asks that we pay attention as accurately as he writes. In the prologue to The Staple of News he writes ‘Would that you would come to hear, not see a play.’
John Caird, directing The New Inn, remarked: ‘In the comic scenes, he wasn’t trying to write broad burlesque, he was trying to observe as accurately as he could the real underworld of The New Inn in a revolutionary way, and without authorial comment.’ Caird’s is a vital observation, but one which really ought not to be surprising – this is a natural progression from creating the characters in the earlier City Comedies.
By the time he wrote The Magnetic Lady, Jonson had taken the decision to pare away virtually all the action. The play is said to be thinly plotted and undramatic, but this is to go to the play with predefined expectations – something Jonson often complained about. He is, in this play, striving towards a new form which is impossible to judge by the usual structural rules. The essence of The Magnetic Lady likes not in what happens, but in what people say: it’s vitality lies always in conversations, the reminiscences, the incidences – it is total slice-of-life theatre.
Jonson’s final completed piece, A Tale of a Tub is the greatest surprise. It is the most delightful look at a rural community in what we now call north London – Edmonton, Kentish Town, Hampstead, Islington. The play concerns the marriage, on a cold St Valentine’s day, of Awdrey Turfe, daughter of the High Constable, and the confusion with Lady and Squire Tub. It has the rosy hue of reminiscence about it, it is full of detail (pleasant and unpleasant) and airs many of the successful old theatrical verbal chestnuts.
Jonson was partially paralysed at the end of his life and unable to leave his rooms: it is easy to think of him running over his busy and full life, casting his mind back to much earlier times. Jonson creates characters within the play strive to find their place in history too.
The plot is complicated, and many of the characters simply wouldn’t know what went on in all the scenes. So, in order that they are not disappointed In-and-In Medlay, a cooper of Islington, demonstrates to the Tub family, on a theatre machine called a Tub, the tale of A Tale of a Tub. For a writer who celebrated theatre in every play he wrote, this is a lovely conclusion.
Jonson’s delight in language is always present. This, I think, is at the root of his unforgivable neglect. Jonson’s plays are not easy to watch – for you have to concentrate very hard. Nor are they easy to perform – there are probably more bad productions of Jonson than there are good. He demands extraordinary skill and precision for actors – not only must they delight in language themselves, but they must also absorb the words, chew them around, lever out their meanings and offer them back to us imbued with all the vigour and intensity with which Jonson committed them to paper. But most of all, especially for these unperformed plays, Jonson’s particular genius means, in John Caird’s words, ‘You cannot read these plays successfully unless you can hear them.’
This is only one step away from saying that the plays cannot exist unless they are performed (true of any play, but more so these). Unless we can see and hear them, we shall always be struck with a hastily pencilled sketch of Ben Jonson and not be able to see the full colour portrait we desire – and, worse, we shall never really know what he was thinking.