And Laugh We Did: ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’

As one of the Department’s resident medievalists, most of my teaching concerns heroes and monsters, knights and ladies, and magic and the supernatural. However, this year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of co-teaching (with Ruth Ahnert, Una McIlvenna, Anthony Ossa-Richardson, and Harriet Phillips) a new module on Renaissance drama.  Aimed at second year students, ESH280 Renaissance Drama explores four key themes in the plays of early modern England: London; metatheatricality; strangers and others; and law and justice. My research is in late medieval and early renaissance drama, so it’s been a real treat to learn more about the drama of a slightly later period, and even tease out parallels and points of contact with the material I work with more closely.

Of all the plays we have read this semester, one stands out as both uniquely modern, but also curiously indebted to medieval literature and culture:  The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont. First performed by a cast of schoolboys in 1607, it has recently been revived and is currently playing at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe. So, on a dark and rainy December evening, the ESH280 team left Queen Mary and travelled to the Southbank, ready to be transported to early-seventeenth-century London, where the play is set.

With its candlelit stage and galleried (for which read, uncomfortable) seating, its historically accurate costumes and carefully researched staging, ‘authentic’ is certainly one word that readily sticks to any account of Adele Thomas’s production. However, far more than a history lesson, this is a production that reminds us how formally daring, how generically subversive this play really is.

The premise is relatively straightforward: a grocer and his wife turn up at the theatre to watch a production of a play called The London Merchant, but unhappy with the way that play seems to be proceeding, they interrupt the action and demand their apprentice, Rafe, be given a role as the knight of the play’s title. Watching Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn as the grocer and his wife air their views while chewing noisily on popcorn and passing drinks to other members of the audience, I was struck by how modern – how post-modern, even – this play can feel. Centuries before Punchdrunk, before You Me Bum Bum Train, here’s a play exploring how we as audience members experience theatre and, in turn, how our experience as audience members can affect or even change the fabric of the play we are watching.

But strangely, this, the most curiously current of all the play’s many conceits, is also one of its most medieval. Long before the proscenium arch, before the fourth wall had been put up, separating actors from their audiences, medieval drama thrived on a dynamic that frequently placed spectators at the heart of the action. To take just one example, in the late medieval morality play Mankind, not only are audience members required to pay to make the chief devil appear – thus neatly paying the actors’ wages – but they are also duped into singing a dirty little ditty, a ‘Christmas song’ that has little to do with the birth of Christ, and rather more to do with lavatorial misadventure.

Mankind was probably performed at inns and other venues in and around East Anglia in the second half of the fifteenth century; quite some way then from the candlelit stage at Blackfriars where The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first staged. However, both plays share a kind of crazed exuberance, a recognition that active involvement is often the best way of making, playing with, and sometimes even disrupting meaning. They also thrive on comedy – by which I mean less the classical genre than the ability to make you bellyache with laughter. And laugh we did. Raucously, rambunctiously, and probably uncouthly. It’s a reaction that is somehow so central, but can often fail to come off in a classroom. And if that isn’t an advertisement for the current performance, I don’t know what is.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 11 January 2015.

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Tamara Atkin

I am a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Queen Mary University. I work on medieval and renaissance drama and 15th and 16th century religious writings, among other topics. I am currently working on a book project, 'Play and Book: Drama, Reading, and the Invention of the Literary in Tudor England', which explores the use and abuse of playbooks written and printed before the establishment of commercial theatres in London in the 1570s.