THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE
Monday, November 14, 7:30 pm
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St.
Directed by Everett Quinton
Featuring Matt Baxter Luceno, Arnie Burton, Sofiya Cheyenne, Christian DeMarais, Ryan Garbayo, Phil Gillen, Chris Johnson, Christina Pumariega, Socorro Santiago, Thom Sesma, Jenne Vath, Charlayne Woodard, Daniel Yaiullo
This master-spoof of chivalry in Elizabethan romantic drama is a gleeful romp from marriage comedy to meta-theatrical satire and Monty Pythonesque madcap farce.
A play about the elopement of star-crossed lovers, called "The London Merchant" is about to be performed, when a citizen and his wife interrupt from the audience, complaining that the play will misrepresent the middle-class citizens of the city. When they storm the stage and demand that their apprentice, Rafe, play a role, the Knight of the Burning Pestle is born and his outrageous quests begin to take over the "London Merchant" in hilariously disruptive ways.
The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Francis Beaumont was born in Leicestershire in 1584 and moved to London to enter Inner Temple in 1600. While studying to be lawyer, Beaumont published the erotic poem Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602), but soon turned his hand to the stage. A friend and acolyte of Ben Jonson (for whose Volpone he wrote commendatory verse), he went on to form one of the most famous playwriting partnerships in English literary history with John Fletcher. The pair collaborated on a series of plays for The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s Company), which were performed at The Globe, The Blackfriars, and the court of James I. Yet it is the solo-authored The Knight of the Burning Pestle, apparently a flop on its first performance by the Children of the Revels at Blackfriars in 1607, upon which Beaumont’s reputation as a playwright rests. Beaumont left London around 1613, and died in 1616, the same year as Shakespeare.
ABOUT THE PLAY
The Prologue to The London Merchant is barely three lines old when two audience members stage a dramatic intervention. Husband and wife George and Nell are fed up with the Blackfriars and its satirical swipes at the citizen class, and ask the Children of the Revels to stage a play that celebrates rather than denigrates the citizens (especially the guild of the Grocers, of which George is a member). Why not, they argue, have their apprentice Rafe perform the part of a Grocer Errant, in emulation of the famous knight’s of chivalric romance, to celebrate, not denigrate, the city? In order to pacify the insistent interlopers, the Prologue allows The Knight of the Burning Pestle to be performed alongside The London Merchant. And thus begin two plays side-by-side: one, about thwarted love between a London apprentice and his master’s daughter, and the second, created on the hoof, charting the progress of another apprentice across a fantasy landscape that looks and sounds very much like London and its suburbs. As the evening progresses, however, the line between the two plays becomes blurred, and Rafe interacts with characters from The London Merchant (at the Grocers’ prompting), much to the chagrin of the acting company.
George and Nell are terrible audience members. They interrupt The London Merchant and repeatedly misunderstand it, siding with the inept booby Humphrey and the spiteful Venturewell over the purported heroes of the play, Jasper and Luce. Yet Beaumont’s play doesn’t merely satirize the Grocers; frequently it sides with them. For one, they are right: Jasper is awful. Upon stealing away with his beloved to Waltham Forest, he decides to test her by pretending to kill her. Later he fakes his own death. While the pair are out-of-place at The Blackfriars Theatre (a theatre known for its elite audience and satirical content), the pair are highly theatre literate. Accounting for every theatrical reference in this play would take up two program’s worth of notes, but suffice to say you will no doubt hear references to Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd numerous times over, as well as to a range of continental Romances. George and Nell may come off as boorish hecklers, but it becomes increasingly clear that they are noisy culture vultures.
We may begin the play annoyed by the Grocers’ interruptions, but by the end we probably agree with them that Rafe’s (mis)adventures are far preferable to Jasper’s. The London Merchant is a pretty staid affair. By contrast, The Knight of the Burning Pestle scenes are uproarious, inventive, even satirical. This is particularly noticeable in a scene where a group of knights are freed from the clutches of Barberoso, who has been treating them for syphilis. The scene seems at first to mock Rafe’s fantastical reimagining as a knight; yet by the end of the scene it becomes clear that it is the knights, elites perhaps not too dissimilar from the well-heeled audience at Blackfriars, who are the target of the joke.
The first edition of The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1609) describes it as an “unfortunate child,” “utterly rejected” by its first audiences who failed to understand “the privy mark of irony about it.” Maybe the Blackfriars’ audience didn’t quite know what to make of a play that seems to poke fun at its own snobbery. The play has however become increasingly popular. Rafe has been played by actors ranging from Noel Coward (in 1904), Ralph Richardson (1932, with Sybil Thorndike as Nell), and Timothy Spall (1981), and his son Rafe Spall (2005). More recently, the play was performed in the inaugural season at The Sam Wanamaker Theatre (2014), appropriately enough given the play delights in opposing public (outdoor) and private (indoor) theatre tastes.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE & LITERATURE
HUNTER COLLEGE, CUNY