As some friends may know, I spent last week acting in the final six performances of The Dolphin’s Back production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank. The offer to do so came out of the blue, so much so that – as much out of surprise as anything – I initially said no.
I had seen the director James Wallace’s previous, superb revival of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon – also at the Rose – and we had got chatting after the show about early-modern drama and such. He said that he was looking for someone to play the part of Peter Ramus (actually Pierre de la Ramée), the humanist scholar; his original choice was unavailable for health reasons and James himself was playing the part until someone else came along. For reasons that are still obscure to me, James thought that someone might be me. I think the idea of a scholar (which I suppose I am, loosely) playing a scholar – perhaps particularly one who dies a bloody and painful death – amused him.
And he may have calculated that a novice’s blind terror at performing might not appear too amiss in a character who spends most of his brief life on stage being threatened with daggers, swords and a sickle.
I have, I should make clear to you, no acting experience. I may not have made that entirely clear to James. The last time I can remember acting in anything was a school production of Toad of Toad Hall. I was twelve and I played a policeman and hated every brief and brightly lit second of the experience.
Nevertheless, overnight I reconsidered my firm no.
We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.
But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.
In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.
Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?
For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.
All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.
One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.
The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.
Last week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.
Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”
But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.
I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.
ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”
When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.
AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.
ML: Why do you think they say that?
AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.
ML: Is it just academic snobbery?
AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.
Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
Few people would disagree that Shakespeare’s shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning to stage Middleton’s rarely performed 1608 comedy A Trick To Catch The Old One at the Rose Theatre this May.
Jenny kindly agreed to take time out from rehearsals to discuss the play, the production and Middleton’s reputation generally.
For those who don’t know about Mercurius, could you give me some background to the company and its aims?
After 20 years as a director, being given plays to direct, I had a list of my own choice of plays I wanted to direct and the only solution seemed to be to start my own company. So I set up Mercurius in 2012, launching the company with a collection of Chekhov’s Vaudeville sketches translated and adapted by Michael Frayn at the Brockley Jack. This was successful enough for us to transfer it to Jermyn Street Theatre in 2013 and return there with it, as a co-production with Jermyn Street, in January 2014. In between Mercurius also produced Moliere’s School for Wives in a great modern version by Neil Bartlett at The White Bear in 2013 which received two Offie (Off West End Award) nominations for Best Director for myself and Best Actor for the lead Tom Barratt. A Trick to Catch the Old One is the fifth outing for Mercurius and our first time at The Rose Playhouse which is a fascinating venue, being performed in and amongst the foundations of the 1587 Philip Henslowe playhouse.
What attracted you to A Trick To Catch The Old One?
I specialised in Renaissance Theatre at university and did my thesis on Thomas Middleton so I’ve always been fascinated by his very modern, satirical take on life and his vibrant language. I particularly like his city comedies and edited A Trick to Catch the Old One some years ago for the National Theatre Studio, workshopping it for an in-house performance with some of the National Theatre company which was a great experience and made me determined to direct a fully staged version one day. It’s taken a while but I was delighted to revisit the play and my edited version.
Can you tell me something about the production?
I have made some pretty drastic cuts to the text. Partly to reduce the size of the company and cut down on potentially confusing doubling and partly to reduce the length of the play, this version runs at 1 hour 25 minutes without an interval. The cuts have removed the subplot involving Dampit and Gulf (which is a shame as the play shows arguably the first alcoholic on stage) and the peripheral characters of Lucre’s wife and Hoard’s niece’s suitors and the battle to net her. In cutting it the play does lose a little of its texture but it focuses much more clearly on the wild central plot to pass the Courtesan off as a rich widow as it spins out of Witgood’s control. I’ve updated the play to the modern age but placed it in the late 1940s during the days of rationing and desperate black market dealings to bring out the power of money and the gullibility of those who pursue it running through society in an age when so many were in a desperate scramble to survive and prosper.
What attracted you to the space at The Rose?
There are some very interesting performance spaces in London but The Rose really does hold a trump card. I like the simplicity of the wooden three sided stage that means the production has to be plainly staged, allowing the power of the story and the experiences of the characters to be the central focus. I also like the intense atmosphere of the dark underground flooded ruins, it feels unlike any other stage space. But above everything is the very moving sense of creating something amongst the foundations of Philip Henslowe’s 1587 playhouse. It is hard not to feel the baton being passed down the generations of theatre when you see something at The Rose on the very site where so many of our greatest plays were first performed.
Middleton seems to be slowly receiving his due as a writer for the stage. What do you think is distinctive about his work?
I liked Middleton from when I first came across him for his very modern attitude to life and human relationships. He uses very direct language with little poetry and few similes. His city comedies in particular really do hold a clear mirror up to the everyday audience of his, and our, time. Alongside Jonson he presented vice and immorality on stage in order to comment on what was happening in society, but unlike Jonson’s more obvious use of grotesques he pursues a much more naturalistic, ironic tone. He never applauds immorality but neither does he roundly condemn it, in Women Beware Women Leantio explains his behaviour by claiming “though sin be death, I had died if I had not sinned”. Middleton seems to understand the difficulties and complications of life.
What challenges have you found in staging A Trick To Catch The Old One?
The joy of a Middleton play is how clear the language is, how naturalistic and believable the characters are and how modern the dilemmas that fox them so the challenges in staging it are no more difficult than with a modern play. The only real challenge is making sure we tell the story clearly enough so the audience can follow the twists and turns of the various fiendish plots.
Why do you think Middleton – and A Trick… in particular – has been neglected for so long?
Middleton was viewed suspiciously for many years because of his down-to-earth, direct approach to the way people live their lives. His serious plays were neglected because they had no grand sweeping sense of tragedy and the profound importance of what was happening to the characters. The Revenger’s Tragedy had its first production in centuries as late as 1966 because it was seen as too farcical to be taken seriously. But this is precisely why I like Middleton, he is almost Chekhovian in his acknowledgement of how ridiculous life can be and how something tragic to the person involved can seem unimportant farce to an onlooker. His comedies suffer similarly in not carrying a message about how we should judge the characters but simply presents them and their lives as normal.
For those who don’t know the play, what have they been missing?
Firstly the play is very funny. The plot is incredibly inventive and subverts lots of our expectations of how people will behave and what will be the outcome. It is satirical and ironic but contains at its heart a real warmth towards its characters, they’re conning each other viciously but in the end they are family and neighbours; however outrageously the characters behave it is hard to end up hating any of them.
The play is – very broadly – about the scrabble for status and financial security in a dog-eat-dog world of debt and deceit. Everyone is complicit; no-one is innocent. The Victorians, in particular, thought the play amoral. Is that your take on it too?
Middleton was seen as very immoral for a long time because he didn’t write messages of moral indignation into his plays and openly condemns no-one, he has no righteous characters who act as spokesmen for morality. His characters are realistic and drawn from the world the audience would know well, there are none of the stock comic characters of the time, the stage-usurer or greedy father/uncle are shown as real people here. At the end of the play bad behaviour goes unpunished and the revealing of foolishness is merely accidental, not done in order to bring anyone to a realisation of their folly. It would be easy to see this as Middleton embracing immorality and celebrating greed however his ironic detachment and dispassionate presentation of vice allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The very realism of the characters brings home to the audience the acceptance of vice as normal and leads to powerful satire, arguably a more successful way of conveying a message than open indignation.
How difficult are the play’s sexual politics for contemporary audiences?
The women are seen as commodities to be chased for financial gain in the play, which could be uncomfortable if they weren’t very strong characters in their own right. The Courtesan revels in the power her supposed wealth gives her over her suitors and is as much, if not more, in control of the wild plots to get Witgood’s money and land back, she is in places the one driving Witgood on. Even Hoard’s Niece, chased by so many of the characters as a golden prize, sees a chance to use Hoard’s feast as her wedding dinner and seizes it to save money. The women use the only possession they have, their availability for marriage and sex, to give them real control over their destiny. Each of the characters use all means at their disposal to prosper, and at the end the women and men in the various marriages seem like well matched equals.
What are your ambitions for Mercurius?
At the moment I’m just really enjoying the chance to direct those plays on my list that have built up. In the near future I’m hoping to revive the production of School for Wives, possibly at Jermyn Street Theatre, and direct another Middleton City comedy. In the longer term I’d like to be able to get proper funding for Mercurius, either through subsidy or private sponsorship, to be able to extend our creative vision and be more artistically adventurous, something that needs a bigger budget than we have at present!
A Trick To Catch The Old One runs at the Rose Playhouse from 6th to 24th May. Please click here for more information and to book tickets.
If we think of time at all, it is as a dimension: something we travel through, an abstract and universal measure against which we mark our progress, and against which we are judged – from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day to day, from birth to death. It dominates our lives; and like life under all tyrannies, we are so immersed in the ubiquity of its oppression we don’t notice the constraints. Where I sit now, I can see the time in three places. If I cared to, I could find it in four more without moving from my chair. The computer I am writing this on can, with a little effort, be made to measure time in micro-seconds.
I can think of no practical use for that level of knowledge; but it’s difficult not to feel the anxiety of its influence. Quick is good. Fast is better. Speed is everything. And most of us, I suspect, mark out our working days – and too much of our private lives – in the fine-sliced minutes of deadlines, alarms, appointments and schedules.
But the ability to dissect time in such detail is a relatively recent phenomenon; clocks didn’t have minute- or second-hands until the late 1600s. Hence there are no seconds in Shakespeare; and minutes are mostly metaphor. The shortest practical unit of time in his plays is the quarter hour, as in the length of time Lady Macbeth has been seen trying to scrub the imagined blood from her hands, or that Prince Hal boasts it would take him to learn how to speak like a tinker.
But what would it have been like to live in a world so heedless of the passage of time? One answer is that one’s relationship with it becomes far more subjective and personal. The Greeks recognized two kinds of time: chronos – the scientific measurement of its passage – which is the sense we have retained; and kairos. Kairos is more epiphanic, opportunistic and experiential; it was, and is, also the Greek word for weather.
Even Renaissance science had to resort to more ad hoc, human measures – a quality of experience we can savour in this weather-related story. Among the papers of Thomas Harriot, the English mathematician and sometime scientific advisor to Walter Ralegh, is the record of a rainy afternoon in his room up beneath the leads in Durham House, Ralegh’s magnificent London home on The Strand, overlooking the Thames. Presumably at a loose end, Harriot decided to calculate how much rain would have fallen in his room over a 24-hour period, were it not protected by the roof.
But he had no means of measuring the passage of minutes or seconds. So he used his pulse, assuming that each beat of his heart equated to a second.
This was poor science, of course. But I think it points to an understanding of the world which we can no longer share: time wasn’t only, or even principally, an external measure but also something to which our bodies, and our experience of our bodies, our sense of ourselves, could be wholly aligned.
There is a similar story about the counter-Reformation Cardinal and Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine was one of the judges who sentenced Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake, and was the man who told Galileo to abjure Copernicanism. But he was not in any sense anti-intellectual and had always had a deep personal interest in astronomy and science. He simply refused to accept that it couldn’t be reconciled with doctrine.
On one occasion, he set out to measure the speed of the sun’s rotation about the earth by sitting on a beach in western Italy – most likely in Calabria – and timing the sun set. With no means of measuring time, however, he fell back on an intensely familiar, regular, unvaried unit of time: the recitation of Psalm 51, the misere, ‘Have mercy upon me, Oh God…’ It is, I think, an acutely poignant image, the very measure of time he used embodying both the futility of his actions and the devotional passion of his certainties.
On some level, then, the emerging tension between chronos and kairos was also the struggle between empiricism and, for want of a better word, spirituality. It is not the right word: the shadow of these tensions fall across Henry IV. Prince Hal’s destiny, his royal inheritance, is the arrow of time pulling him forward towards history. Falstaff is all kairos, life in the moment, to whom the measure of minutes and hours is superfluous. “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” Hal asks him in their first scene. Falstaff – surely no-one’s idea of spiritual – has no answer.
But then, what is the answer to the demands of chronos?