Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Modern theatre’s debt to Ben Jonson

Comedies are not easy to read. In tragedy words are everything, in comedy it is the action, the way the characters interact, that matters. Every comedian knows that the laugh depends not just on the action but the reaction. So while you’re reading the script you must not only hear what a character is saying, but see in your mind’s eye what everyone else is doing at the same time.

This is true to some extent of all comedies, but especially of the comedies of Ben Jonson, whose skill in assembling large groups of characters on stage in comic situations is unsurpassed. Such was his influence that it is true of almost every play that has been written since, comic or otherwise.

Jonsonian comedy is different from Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies are love stories, Jonson’s are commentaries on the behaviour of urban man. There is really no difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies apart from the prevailing mood. There is no lack of humour in Romeo and Juliet or of pathos in Twelfth Night. All Shakespeare’s plays are, as Polonius puts it, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.

They are all, whether tragical, comical, historical or pastoral, dramatic poems. They work on our imaginations by means of metaphor. We can read them for ourselves as poems or we can watch them being acted out. Either way, the imaginative world they create is achieved through poetic language, not through action or comic business or gesture or any other theatrical effect, just words.

Jonson’s comedies are sketches drawn from life using everyday language. As he put it himself in the prologue to Every Man in his Humour, his plays had no need of a chorus, such as that in Shakespeare’s Henry V, to ‘waft you overseas’ –

‘But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would show an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.’

Even when he writes in blank verse, as in Sejanus, one of his two tragedies, Jonson uses language ‘such as men do use’ to describe, for example, Sejanus’s hangers-on. They are, he says –

‘ready to praise
His lordship, if he spit, or but piss fair,
Have an indifferent stool, or break wind well.’

Jonson’s contributions to the English language do not rank with Shakespeare’s, but his theatrical legacy is far greater. Poetry and drama went their separate ways after Shakespeare. Playwrights ever since have written, in ‘language such as men do use’, plays that are ‘an image of the times’.

Contemporary, cutting-edge English theatres like The Bush, whose mission is to produce plays that are ‘relevant to a contemporary London audience’ are, whether they know it or not, the direct descendants of Ben Jonson.

Jonson himself was a product of post-Reformation England, an England whose individualist and capitalist foundations had already been laid by Thomas Cromwell and built on with materials salvaged from the abbeys he knocked down. Jonson’s comedies have been re-written ever since by John Gay, William Congreve, George Bernard Shaw, Joe Orton, Mike Leigh, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare and the rest, mocking bourgeois pretension, exposing hypocrisy, revealing the corrupt underbelly of modern society, regarding them however, not as crimes, but as follies.

The distinction is important because it derives from a view of the world which is individualist and humanist, rather than communal and religious. That was the old, Catholic world, the world that saw King Lear raging against hypocrisy, not mocking it.

‘Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why does thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whipst her.’

The drama of King Lear is possible only in a world where universal values still have some credibility, however faint.

‘And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?’

In a world which is guided only by self-interest, enlightened or otherwise, it is possible only to mock human follies, not universally to condemn them, to deal only with the particular, not the universal. Hence Jonson’s credo and Lear’s despair.

‘When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools!’

That was the stage that Jonson created and that we enjoy still. The other stage, the one that Shakespeare called ‘this wooden O’, has not disappeared altogether, just gone abroad. It flourished for a while in mid-twentieth century America, in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible and the rest, each a poetic drama, though written in prose, aiming at a metaphorical depiction of the human condition, not just ‘an image of the times’. In Ireland too, in the plays of Synge and O’Casey, we find a poetic spirit which does not depend wholly on actors to make it work, but which is able to make the transition from page to imagination without expert assistance.

Another Irishman, living in Paris, wrote the play that Shakespeare would have gone on to write after The Tempest had he lived long enough. What are Vladimir and Estragon after all but washed up sailors, surviving on what was left after Prospero drowned his book? What is Lucky but Ariel on a lead?

But for the most part and certainly in England, we live with the spirit of Ben Jonson, with realism, on stage and screen, mocking human follies in language such as men do use.

ben jonson 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary on 12 February.

The subject of my next essay, on 19 February, will be Fern Hill, the first of half-a-dozen or so that I’ll be writing on Dylan Thomas in his centenary year.

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , .
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