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ABOUT The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, presented by Red Bull Theater in association with Fiasco Theater is on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre for a limited Off-Broadway engagement, beginning April 17th.

About Arden of Faversham | Tanya Pollard

The only play Beaumont wrote entirely by himself, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, is an hilarious exploration of theater-making on steroids. In one plot actors attempt to put on The London Merchant, in which the rich merchant Venturewell tries to marry his daughter, Luce, to Humphrey, an ineffectual gentleman. Luce would rather marry the more glamorous Jasper, the merchant’s apprentice, but Jasper is poor and socially inconsequential. In typical city comedy fashion, The London Merchant pits love against money and rank. Two audience members, a grocer and his outspoken wife, however, constantly interrupt this play, climbing onto the stage with the gentlemen auditors to give orders about what they would rather see. Assuming that The London Merchant will simply satirize citizens, they want a play in which the hero is a grocer who does remarkable feats: rescuing damsels in distress, saving the city from its enemies, journeying to foreign lands. They thrust their man, Rafe, onto the stage to be that hero, someone who like Dick Whittington will represent the common people’s valor and values.

The result is a theatrical farrago but one that reveals what different things theater audiences want, just like today. Some want Broadway musicals, others the classics revived, others avant-garde experiments. Tastes are shaped by all sorts of things, including one’s social background or familiarity with playgoing. The Knight of the Burning Pestle acknowledges that fact while simultaneously having fun satirizing both types of play. The satire begins with Beaumont’s title. Grocers used a mortar and pestle to grind spices and other foodstuffs. Rafe, as a representative of the grocer’s guild, wields a pestle as his chief weapon, an object no true chivalric hero would touch. Moreover, pestle puns with pizzle (an early modern word for penis), and a burning pestle suggests an inflamed or diseased appendage. The grocer and his wife, moreover, can’t distinguish between plays and real life, frequently breaking into the action to address the characters directly, the wife giving them advice, for example, on home remedies to help them recover from their stage wounds. But if Rafe, the grocer, and his wife are frequently the butt of audience laughter, gentlemen characters fare little better. Humphrey is both a terrible lover and a terrible poet, telling Luce the cost of the gloves he has bought her and expressing his passion in bathetic rhyming couplets. Jasper, the romantic lead, proves a dud in his own right. Having won Luce’s love, he then decides to “test” her love by pretending he will kill her since loving her has cost him his position in Venturewell’s household.

While the play was supposedly a failure when first put on by the Children of Blackfriars in 1607, no one, despite many theories, really knows why. Its theatrical potential is immense. The greatest pleasure it affords audiences, I would argue, lies in the exuberance with which Beaumont dramatized the fun of making theater, however silly the plots. Actors sing; in fact, Jasper’s Father, old Merrythought, does almost nothing but sing. Actors dress up; Rafe “with guilded staff and crossed scarf” personates the Lord of May. Actors wear make-up; Jasper, pretending to be a ghost, enters “his face mealed” or covered with flour. Actors avail themselves of props; Rafe, leading the citizen militia at Miles End, enters “with drums and colors”; Rafe, ordered by the grocer’s wife to come in at the end and die, enters “with a forked arrow through his head.” What fun to do these things; what fun to watch them, especially when performed by precocious boy actors. Who can resist this wonderful paean to playing?

JEAN HOWARD | Scholar & Dramaturgical Consultant, Columbia University


JEAN E. HOWARD received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University where she has taught since 1987. She writes on and teaches early modern literature, Shakespeare, feminist studies, theater history, and prison literature. Her books include Shakespeare’s Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response (Illinois, 1984); The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (Routledge, 1994); Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories (Routledge, 1997), co-written with Phyllis Rackin; Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy 1598-1642 (Pennsylvania Press, 2007), which won the Barnard Hewitt Prize for the best book of theater history in 2008; Marx and Shakespeare, co-written with Crystal Bartolovich (Continuum, 2012); and a student introduction to King Lear (Bloomsbury, 2022). A co-editor of The Norton Shakespeare (now in its third edition), Howard has won several awards for the teaching and mentoring of graduate students. A new book on the history play in 20th century America and Britain is nearing completion.

For complete details about Red Bull Theater & Fiasco Theaters' production THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE, visit here. This strictly-limited 4-week engagement will run March 17-April 13, 2023 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYC.


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