It’s Valentine’s Day and Alice Arden wants her husband dead. He’s come into money and all she can think about is her lover, Mosby. So, the pair enter into a pact to murder Arden and engage a cluster of killers to do the deed. If only they weren’t so spectacularly inept. Inspired by actual events, this sexy thriller of unknown authorship – some say, Shakespeare – is a bloody, darkly comic Elizabethan noir.
ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM
A TRUE CRIME THRILLER
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher & Kathryn Walat
Directed by Jesse Berger
Scenery | Christopher & Justin Swader
Costumes | Mika Eubanks
Lighting | Reza Behjat
Original Music & Sound | Greg Pliska
Props | Samantha Shoffner
Joshua David Robinson
Thomas Jay Ryan
David Ryan Smith
The cast is led by Cara Ricketts as Alice (Broadway: Time and the Conways; Off-Broadway: Measure for Measure - TFANA; several seasons at Stratford Festival), Thomas Jay Ryan (Broadway: West Side Story, The Nap, The Crucible, In the Next Room Or The Vibrator Play; Off-Broadway: Becky Nurse of Salem, The Temperamentals) as her husband Arden, and Tony Roach as her lover Mosby (Broadway: Flying Over Sunset, My Fair Lady, Bright Star; Off-Broadway: The Liar - CSC). They are joined by Veronica Falcón (New York stage debut), Zachary Fine (Broadway: China Doll with Al Pacino; Off-Broadway: Coriolanus - Red Bull Theater); Emma Geer (Prayer for the French Republic - MTC, Mary Page Marlowe - Second Stage); Joshua David Robinson (The Minutes - Broadway, The Unbelieving - Off-Broadway); Thom Sesma (A Man of No Importance - CSC, Letters of Suresh - Lortel Award nomination); David Ryan Smith (Broadway: One Man Two Guvnors, Passing Strange; Off-Broadway: Epiphany - Lincoln Center Theater); and Haynes Thigpen (Broadway: Dead Accounts, Misalliance. Red Bull: Revenger’s Tragedy, Duchess of Malfi)....MEET THE CAST
"Arden of Faversham is one of the English-speaking theater’s first true-crime stories. Darkly comic–with a shocking ending–it’s Macbeth meets Double Indemnity meets Fargo. And it features one of the strongest and most mercurial female protagonists in Elizabethan drama, whose wit and passions drive the action. This play has been on my ‘must-do’ list for years, and I’m thrilled to finally have an opportunity to tackle it, especially in a crackling new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat. Their work heightens the thrills, sharpens the laughs, and deepens the passions of the original, enlivening the ways in which this rarely-produced classic speaks – playfully and powerfully – to today’s audiences."
–JESSE BERGER | Founder & Artistic Director
Printed in 1592 with no authorial attribution, Arden of Faversham has long been seen as the most famous anonymous play from the Elizabethan era. In recent years, however, its authorship has become a topic of heated critical debate. Scholars have generally agreed that the play was written collaboratively, as was typical of early modern drama in general and especially at the time of Arden’s composition. New work with computational stylistic analysis has supported a growing consensus that the play was written by two authors: one possibly Thomas Watson, and the other, responsible for many of the play’s middle scenes, William Shakespeare. Drawing on these arguments, the play was included in a 2013 RSC anthology titled William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, and in the 2016 New Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. If Shakespeare contributed to Arden, as seems increasingly likely, it would be one of the earliest plays in which he had a hand – possibly the earliest. As such, it introduces suggestive details about his early artistic development. In particular, its unusually substantial and complex female leading role offers a haunting pre-history for later Shakespearean creations such as Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra. This production compounds the play’s collaborative voices with two newer additions: Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat.
Arden of Faversham (1592) is a domestic tragedy, a popular variation on a genre often identified with the deaths of kings. Based on true events widely known from recent history, the play depicts attempts made against Arden’s life by his adulterous wife Alice and her lover Mosby. The dangers of unfaithful wives feature frequently in the period’s plays, but while Shakespeare’s suspected wives typically prove innocent, Alice Arden is unapologetically lusty and ruthless. She describes her passion for Mosby as uncontrollable, “Gotten by witchcraft and mere sorcery,” and the bonds of matrimony as meaningless: “Love is a god, and marriage is but words.”
While Alice dreams of erotic freedom, Mosby and others want Arden dead for other reasons. Arden has recently been granted lands originally intended for others, and his upward social mobility is especially grating to those whose lower class standing he publicly derides. With so much local hostility to Arden, Alice has no trouble finding willing killers, but like the Road Runner of cartoons, Arden proves surprisingly difficult to destroy. Beginning with attempts by Alice herself, and continuing through multiple ill-starred efforts by the ruffians Black Will and Shakebag, the murder plots repeatedly fail in the face of bad luck and sheer incompetence: as Shakebag irritably observes, “Arden, thou hast wondrous holy luck.”
Domestic tragedy marries the suffering of tragedy with the homely settings of comedy, and despite its melodramatic conflicts, Arden is strikingly funny. Especially in performance, the repeated failed attempts by Black Will and Shakebag, and their blustering recriminations, can verge on vaudevillian. The tension between the play’s black humor and real horror parallels another tension, between supernatural and material explanations for the play’s events. When Greene, irate that Arden has escaped yet another attempt at his life because of a chance encounter with a friend, complains, “The Lord of Heaven hath preserved him,” Black Will disagrees. “The Lord of Heaven a fig!,” he responds; “The Lord Mayor hath preserved him.” Similarly, despite repeated invocations of witchcraft, and proposed quasi-magical murder methods including a poisoned crucifix, the play ultimately takes a turn as simple and homely as its domestic setting.
This production’s lightly modernized adaptation maintains the play’s sensationalism, scandal, and dark comedy, while upping the body count and adding some feminist updating. The script emphasizes the constraints on both Alice Arden and her maid Susan, whom Alice promises to two potential accomplices as a reward. It also adds a third female figure to the cast: Greene, originally a man reduced to poverty after losing his lands to Arden, becomes a widow, whose struggles to feed her children elicit sympathy from Alice. The play’s mixture of melodrama, serendipity, and gritty realism continues to both grip and unsettle. By marrying the lofty genre of tragedy to conflicts within and between ordinary households, Arden of Faversham is both ahead of its time and a window into its own historical moment.
An anonymous play first written around 1588, Arden of Faversham is not only the earliest but also one of the most striking examples of an English domestic tragedy—a dramatic genre in which everyday characters experience or initiate a tragic event within the space of a household. The play dramatizes a true event that took place nearly forty years prior in which a member of the gentry, Alice Arden, conspired to end her marriage with Thomas Arden. The surrounding events so gripped English local and national communities in 1551 that they were dutifully recorded in great detail in early diaries and other texts before eventually being included in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), an early comprehensive history focusing on major historical figures of England, Scotland, and Ireland, that also has been identified as an important source for plays by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.
As long as scholars have been studying the play, they have attempted to identify possible authors for Arden of Faversham. At least one part of the play has been attributed to William Shakespeare, and the character names Black Will and Shakebag make for a fun but completely imaginative speculation about his connection to the play. Another part of the play has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe, the writer of plays including Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta. As recently as October of 2022, the entire play has been attributed to early modern English playwright Thomas Kyd, perhaps most well-known for authoring The Spanish Tragedy, which was a popular written in the 1580s, roughly at the same time as Arden.
The tragedy begins by outlining the demise of the Ardens’ marriage, which includes Alice’s very public infidelity in full sight of her “marrow-prying neighbors,” and her desire to replace her marriage of ‘words’ to a ‘title’ of love with her lover Mosby. Simultaneously, the play quietly highlights unanticipated problems that accompany a deed of land that Arden receives from the crown by way of the Duke of Somerset. As the new, sole owner of the “lands of the Abbey of Faversham,” Arden’s claim supersedes any previous ones and cancels all other interests or livings drawn from the property. Arden’s gain comes at the economic ruin of others and his seeming indifference to their suffering creates additional tension and conflict of which Alice readily takes advantage.
The problems of titles, both in marriage and with land ownership, provide Alice with the impetus to end her marriage in a bold way. She colludes to end her marriage with the assistance of a mélange of characters including Black Will, Shakebag, and Widow Greene, a victim of Arden’s land acquisition, who seeks revenge for the loss of income garnered from the property.
This play revels in the shocking nature of Alice’s affair and the ways in which the domestic sphere can be violated from parties residing both within and outside of the space. It also establishes the economic, social, political, and sexual power that women such as Alice can wield when presented with an opportunity. Through its moving among genres—from tragedy to macabre comedy—the play captures the sentiments of those wronging Arden and wronged by him as it troubles the definition of tragedy, examines the state of early modern English marriages, and explores the circumstances and thrills associated with early modern English “true life” drama. Jeffrey Hatcher’s and Kathryn Walat’s dynamic and suspenseful adaptation of Arden of Faversham captures both its whimsy and seriousness and ultimately celebrates the power and strange familiarity that audiences can have with everyday early modern English historical figures and representations of their lives as theater.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s work was last presented by Red Bull Theater in 2021 with the acclaimed romp The Alchemist and in 2017 with his hit version of inane corruption à la Gogol, The Government Inspector. His Broadway credits include Never Gonna Dance (book). Off-Broadway credits include Three Viewings and A Picasso at Manhattan Theatre Club; Scotland Road and The Turn of the Screw at Primary Stages; Tuesdays with Morrie (with Mitch Albom) at the Minetta Lane; Murder by Poe, The Turn of the Screw, and The Spy at The Acting Company; and Neddy at American Place. Other credits include Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Mrs. Mannerly, Murderers, Mercy of a Storm, Smash, Korczak's Children, To Fool the Eye, Confederacy of Dunces, The Critic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and others at The Guthrie, Old Globe, Yale Rep, The Geffen, Seattle Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Arizona Theater Company, San Jose Rep, The Empty Space, Indiana Rep, Children’s Theater Company, History Theater, Madison Rep, Intiman, Illusion, Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Rep, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Actors Theater of Louisville, Philadelphia Theater Company, Huntington, Shakespeare Theatre (D.C.), Asolo, City Theater, Studio Arena and dozens more in the U.S. and abroad. Film and television credits include "Stage Beauty," "Casanova," "The Duchess," "Mr. Holmes," and episodes of “Columbo” and "The Mentalist." Grants/awards: NEA, TCG, Lila Wallace Fund, Rosenthal New Play Prize, Frankel Award, Charles MacArthur Fellowship Award, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Barrymore Award Best New Play, and IVEY Award Best New Play. He is a member and/or alumnus of The Playwrights Center, the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild, and New Dramatists.
It’s daunting to revise a play that Shakespeare may have co-written. It seems presumptuous. So, when you cut a scene or fiddle with a speech, you hope it was by one of the other guys. And when you try your hand at blank verse, it isn’t to mark your territory (“This is so much better than that ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ stuff”)—it’s so the gears won’t strip when you shift from 1565 to 2023. The goal is seamlessness, hide the stitches.
But why adapt Arden at all? Especially if it has the pedigree many claim for it.
Arden is said to be the first docu-drama, a real murder case “ripped from the headlines,” the depiction of historical events embellished only by language, poetry, and speculation of character (Shakespeare). But it’s also Elizabethan noir, perhaps the first iteration of the plot seen in books and films like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat, and Blood Simple. In fact, it was Arden’s weird resemblance to a Coen Brothers plot—the mixture of savage bloodletting and farce—that made us lean towards that mix in the adaptation: Arden of Fargo.
Another appeal is the fun and challenge of getting inside characters who were created over four centuries ago, not to mention based on real people. In doing that, you double down on the notion that people, and relationships, have not fundamentally changed. And while gains have been made in the status of women today, we’re still living in a society where some men are trying to control female bodies and desire.
In the original play, Widow Greene was farmer Greene, a male character. And Susan had very little to say or do, until she was conscripted into scrubbing Arden’s blood out of the floorboards. By imagining and filling in these two characters, suddenly we had two women—of different marriage and social status—to support the powerhouse of Alice Arden, who rivals Lady Macbeth in terms of sheer number of lines as well as outrageous ambition. In locating Alice and her shifting desires as the center of the play, we bring to our contemporary stage just the kind of complicated gutsy female we all like to root for (deceit and murder aside): Alice of Faversham.
Kathryn Walat is a playwright and opera librettist. Her play Creation, developed at The O’Neill, premiered at the Theatre @ Boston Court and was nominated for a LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award for Playwriting. Her Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen premiered Off-Broadway at WP and was published in New Playwrights: The Best Plays of 2007. Her Bleeding Kansas premiered at the Hangar Theatre and received a Francesca Primus Citation (American Theatre Critics Association). Other plays include See Bat Fly (Kilroy’s List; Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep), Ancient Gods of the Backwoods (New Georges’ Germ Project), Know Dog (Salvage Vanguard), Johnny Hong Kong (Perishable Theatre), and On the Road (Actors’ Theatre of Louisville/Anthology Project). Her work as an opera librettist includes Paul’s Case (PROTOTYPE, Pittsburgh Opera) with composer Gregory Spears, named in New Yorker magazine’s Ten Notable Performances for 2014; its recording from National Sawdust Tracks was named in Opera News’ Five Best New Works of 2019. The Echo Drift was commissioned and produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and American Opera Projects, and premiered at PROTOTYPE Festival. She is an affiliated artist with New Georges and the Playwrights’ Center, and an associate professor and resident playwright at SUNY Albany. BA, Brown University; MFA, David Geffen School of Drama at Yale.
Jesse Berger has directed Pericles, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Edward the Second, Women Beware Women, The Duchess of Malfi, The Witch of Edmonton, The Maids, Volpone, Loot, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Changeling, The Government Inspector and The Alchemist since founding Red Bull Theater in 2003. Jesse has also directed across the country at Denver Center (Richard III), The Old Globe (Othello), Pittsburgh Public Theatre (Venus in Fur, Circle Mirror Transformation, An Iliad, A Number, I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), PlayMakers Rep (An Iliad), Barrington Stage (Absurd Person Singular, Sleuth), Great Lakes Theater Festival, Dorset Theatre Festival, Washington Shakespeare Company, and the Utah, Idaho, and St. Louis Shakespeare Festivals, among others. Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Direction (Marat/Sade), Drama League and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for Outstanding Revival (The Maids); SDC Callaway Award nominations for Excellence in Directing (The Government Inspector, The Witch of Edmonton, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore), OBIE Award for Outstanding Direction (The Government Inspector).
ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM
LIMITED OFF-BROADWAY ENGAGEMENT
4 WEEKS ONLY!
MARCH 6-APRIL 1, 2023
Monday at 7:30 PM (Masks Required)
Tuesday at 7:30 PM
Wednesday* at 7:30 PM
Thursday at 7:30 PM
Friday at 7:30 PM
Saturday at 2:30 PM (Masks Required)
Saturday at 7:30 PM
*There is an added matinee performance at 2:30 PM on Wednesday, March 15th.
Box Office Hours
On any day there is a performance at the Lortel Theater, the box office will be open by 2:00 PM. Generally, this is Monday-Saturday.
Estimated 105 minutes including a 10-minute intermission.
On Sunday, March 26 at 7:30 PM ET, join our free online discussion with director JESSE BERGER, scholar TANYA POLLARD, and members of the company. It's interactive–you'll be able to ask questions through the chat. To set a reminder, click the link on the video.
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