Revaluating Ben Jonson

Laurence Raw

The British Council

In 1989 I successfully completed my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Sussex on 'Jacobean City Comedy and its Audiences', in which I set out to investigate whether the 'city comedies' of Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker could be made 'relevant' to modern audiences. The research technique adopted was one of reconstructing several productions, using prompt-books, photographs, interviews with actors, actresses and directors, sound recordings of productions held in the National Sound Archive in London, and newspaper reviews. This investigation sought to demonstrate that city comedies could be made applicable to modern audiences, as long as directors were prepared to 'employ a degree of creative vandalism' by rewriting the texts significantly, and thereby rejecting 'academically-inspired demands of fidelity to the text' (Raw 1989: 17). Only then could the 'relevance' of city comedies be understood, in their concern for 'social issues such as money, love and class' (Raw 1989: 224).

Having spent almost all my time since then writing, teaching and organising programmes in Turkish universities, I now find that the certainities which I expressed in the thesis no longer seem certainities now. What did I mean by 'relevance', for example? What criteria did I employ in determining whether a particular play was 'relevant' or 'irrelevant' to modern audiences? And what exactly did I mean by 'the modern audience'? Did it refer to the paying customers, or simply to the critics who write about productions on their first nights (whose reviews I relied heavily upon in my reconstruction of each production)? Further questions spring to mind: by whose standards do we judge whether a text has been significantly rewritten for performance - an academic's? the theatre director's? or Laurence Raw's standards, as determined in 1989?. And what does 'fidelity to the text' mean, anyway? There are plenty of contemporary plays concerned with money, love and class, so why should directors bother to turn to a Jacobean city comedy? What this paper represents is an attempt not only to confront these questions, but also to reconsider the more basic problem of why (and whether) a dramatist such as Ben Jonson should have his plays performed, or be studied in an educational institution at all.

Let us start this enquiry by considering the methodology I adopted in my thesis. In a compilation of articles on 'What is History Today' the cultural historian Jeffrey Richards believes that the 'holistic' approach to film history, will enable the historian to gain an insight 'into the changing social and sexual roles of men and women, the concepts of work and leisure ... [and] the determinants of change and continuity in the real world'. This 'holistic' approach consists of looking at the 'content and structure of groups of films, the elucidation of box-office trends ... the reconstruction of their production context (censorship, government policy, company attitudes) and the location of all these elements firmly in their political, social and cultural setting' (Richards 1988: 127-8). My thesis adopted a similarly 'holistic' perspective, as I reconstructed some 10-12 productions of Jacobean city comedies, the majority of them by Jonson, beginning with rehearsals and ending with the first night, and subsequently situated each production in its socio-cultural context. This approach certainly made for interesting reading (witness the fact that I had at least three of these 'stories' published as separate articles by Theatre Notebook); but it certainly had its shortcomings. Whilst I, as a theatre historian, could certainly uncover a certain amount of factual information about each production in newspaper reviews, prompt-books, interviews, and so on, and subsequently develop them into a narrative, I could never rediscover the context or the totality or the background or the 'past as such' against which the production could become truly significant and meaningful. What this meant is that any kind of 'socio-cultural' context I chose to situate each production was ultimately imagined or invented by myself; unlike the facts of each production, the context could never be definitively found. Every production reconstruction thus included a certain amount of 'factual' and imagined (or 'fictional') history. Secondly, this approach failed to acknowledge that no production could ever be 'reconstructed' accurately, but could only be reviewed through its remaining textual traces (reviews, prompt-books, interviews, etc.). These textual traces could not be considered 'reliable', being highly volatile products of complex historical processes taking place both at the time when the production was staged, and in the intervening time between the production and the time when I wrote the thesis. For instance, one might have to consider the extent to which the critics' opinions on a production of Jonson were shaped by their particular dramatic tastes, or by the particular readership for which they were writing. A review appearing in The Times (which gives much more space in its pages to coverage of the arts) would be constructed very differently from a review in the mass-circulation Daily Mirror, for instance. More significantly, one has no way of knowing whether the changes to a text written down in the prompt-book were an accurate representation of what was spoken by the actors in performance. Thirdly, one has to consider why certain types of material have been preserved in libraries, or theatre archives at the expense of others. Prompt-books, set-designs and reviews are readily accessible; but there is virtually nothing to tell us what went on in rehearsals for a particular production - except, perhaps, in diaries such as those of the ex-National Theatre director Peter Hall, which were transcribed and edited by John Goodwin (the former National Theatre press officer) from original cassette recordings made by Hall himself (Goodwin 1984).

When writing about a specific production, therefore, I was not trying to 'reconstruct' it at all; but rather apprehending it through the sedimented layers of previous interpretations (reviews, prompt-books, diaries, etc), and through the reading habits and categories developed by myself, as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Renaissance Studies at Sussex in the late 1980s (Jenkins 1995: 16-21). Having reviewed the material, I subsequently shaped it into a 'story' form, investing it with a series of narrative structures and coherences it probably never actually had (did every production run smoothly from casting, through rehearsals, to production design and the first night?). I did not write about the past production itself, but rather created a certain 'picture' of it, which was neither true nor false, but rather an 'iconic' impression - a reading, if you like - which would inevitably have differed, if the thesis had been written in another context.

My 'theatre studies' approach to Jacobean plays, involving a detailed documentary description of specific productions, aimed to justify Jonson, Middleton and Dekker on two fronts; firstly, to show that their plays were still worth performing by contemporary theatre companies, and secondly, to defend them against the cultural materialist school of criticism, which had increasingly developed a posture of antagonism towards the theatre and towards the medium of performance (such phenomena only served to reproduce dominant ideologies and exclude any possibilities for oppositional expression) (Barker, Hulme and Iverson, 1993). I used the concept of 'relevance' to show that, despite the attacks of the cultural materialists, Jonson and Middleton were alive and well and flourishing within the contemporary theatre; that their plays still had a lot to say to 'modern audiences' - by which I meant every type of playgoer, who entered the theatre; and that, if more opportunities were given to produce these kind of plays, 'there might be a future for fearlessness and intransigence in the theatre' (Barnes 1987: 203). In a sense, I employed the theatre studies approach to justify Jonson's, Middleton's and Dekker's place within the literary/theatrical canon, as writers whose works are enduringly relevant, whether performed in the seventeenth or twentieth centuries.

What I want to do, in the second part of this paper, is to offer an alternative reading of the material used in my thesis, from the perspective of someone who has spent most of the last seven years teaching abroad, and whose research interests have moved from literature and theatre history into comparative cultural studies. For this purpose, I shall focus specifically on Ben Jonson; looking not only at some of his plays (and their productions) in the British context, but also looking at his reputation in Turkey. I hope the reasons for this will become clear in my subsequent analysis.

In my original thesis, I kept my analysis of the original context of production of Jonson's plays to a minimum; instead, I concentrated on the more practical concerns of staging them in the modern era. In retrospect, I wished I had concentrated more on Jonson's life, as I think it might have provided an interesting perspective on the status of his plays as 'literature'. In 1616, he published his Workes, the product of considerable labour wherby his plays appeared as literary texts, miraculously freed from the contagion of the market-place. One contemporary wit inquired, 'Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk,/ What others call a play you call a work?'; he was answered by another, who declared 'Ben's plays are works, when others' works are plays' (Wits Recreations (1640), quoted in Kay 1995: 141). The 1616 Folio was Jonson's most audacious piece of literary self-presentation, one that claimed classic status for his plays, masques and poems and presented them as parts of a unified corpus inspired by his high conception of the poet's calling. If Jonson, on the one hand, still claimed to be a man of 'prodigious wast', 'laden with bellie', who 'knew the fury of men's gullets' (Workes I: 179, 229-30); he also thought of himself as a master-poet, who had retired from theatrical audiences, from actors, even from patrons. If modern directors claim to be remaining faithful to 'the original text', when producing The Alchemist or Volpone, they are thus making use of a text which was not intended for performance at all, but rather to be read in private, which rather undercuts the object of the exercise. Moreover, it is highly likely that most directors would not use the 'original text' (if the Workes is thought of as an 'original text'), but rather turn to a modern edition, which has been reconstructed, complete with explanatory footnotes and an introduction, by a contemporary academic. They would not be using 'the original text' at all, but rather adopt precisely the same kind of methodology as I did in my Ph.D. thesis; i.e. making use of the available historical evidence (The Alchemist as printed in the Workes) and apprehending it through the sedimented layers of previous interpretations (as represented in modern editions, or in previous productions of the play), and through the reading habits and categories formulated in their own theatrical and cultural contexts. In other words, their productions are not using 'original texts', at all, but rather contributing to the historiography of Jonson's plays.

If a director chooses to revive Bartholomew Fair, even more problems emerge, as we know that the play was excluded from the 1616 Workes, and did not appear until 1631, when it was printed by John Beale, in conjunction with The Staple of News and The Devil Is An Ass. Given that Bartholomew Fair was printed, but never distributed, during Jonson's lifetime, it is likely that he might have considered the play unsuitable for publication, especially when compared with The Alchemist or Volpone. Thus to claim authenticity for a modern production of Bartholomew Fair, on account of its fidelity to 'the original text', may overlook the very real possibility that parts of the play were not written by Jonson at all.

If the concept of fidelity to 'the original text' is impossible to realise, then why should theatre directors, and their adaptors, choose to use the term? The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Alchemist of 1977, directed by Trevor Nunn, was widely praised by actors and theatre critics alike: the actor John Woodvine (who played Subtle) remembered that 'the text was everything. This is the strength of Nunn's work ... and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the right way', whilst the theatre critic Sally Aire, writing in Plays and Players, declared that the play was 'fluent, lucid, and totally whole' (Raw 1989: 122-3). Yet whose text were they referring to? This Alchemist had been adapted by the dramatist Peter Barnes, whose work was dismissed by the critic Bernard Levin as 'botchwork quilt' whereby Jonson's play had been 'butchered on the altar of Mr. Barnes' vanity with the blunt knife of Mr. Nunn's misunderstanding of his function' (Raw 1989: 123-4). To understand why this version of The Alchemist could still be considered faithful to 'the original text', it is necessary to look at the circumstances of production more carefully. Trevor Nunn, the director, was educated at Cambridge University, and had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s. Together with colleagues such as Peter Hall (also Cambridge-educated), he had been concerned to bring academic techniques of evaluation and analysis into the professional theatre - techniques which, according to the critic Jim Hiley, had their origins in 'Cambridge ... and F.R.Leavis in particular' (Raw 1989: 122). Leavis himself was not especially interested in theatrical performance; his main concern was to use the educational system to distribute literary knowledge and appreciation more widely. To achieve this, Leavis called for a very restricted canon, discarding modern experimental works in favour of works directed towards developing the moral sensibility of authors, such as Austen, Pope or Eliot - the so-called 'great tradition' of literary authors. Leavis insisted that culture was not simply a leisure activity; reading the 'great tradition' was, rather, a means of forming mature individuals with a concrete and balanced sense of 'life'. The main threat to this sense of 'life' came from the pleasures offered by so-called 'mass culture'. By bringing Leavis-inspired techniques of analysis into the theatre, Nunn sought to perpetuate these ideas; theatre was not something to be enjoyed by 'the masses', but rather a means to develop actors' and audiences' critical sensibilities. To achieve this, texts such as The Alchemist (or Shakespearean texts) had to be experienced in versions as close as possible to 'the original', so that the dramatists themselves could be seen to be part of the 'great tradition'. Jonson is thus appropriated by the modern director, working from the standpoint of the high cultural, university-educated élite, in an attempt to preserve timeless literary values in the face of an unruly and threatening mass culture.

But what happens, for instance, if a director chooses to reject the demands of remaining faithful to 'the original text', and attempt to adapt it for modern audiences? This was the case with Terry Hands' production of Bartholomew Fair, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1969. Hands admitted that in rehearsals the play proved almost 'impossible to read', and therefore required considerable alteration (Raw 1989: 109). He reduced the length by almost 50%, and inserted contemporary references about Royal Shakespeare Company personnel and contemporary London theatres, to replace Jonson's references to 'Master Brome, behind the arras' and to 'the Hope on the Bankside in the county of Surrey' (Induction, lines 59/60). In an attempt to make Bartholomew Fair more 'relevant' to his audiences, he avoided any attempt at historical consistency, and costumed the characters by their most immediately recognisable image of their type, irrespective of period. The result was a fascinating collection of caricatures. Justice Overdo made his first entrance as a modern-day legal judge in legal costume, but changed into the disguise of 'Mad Arthur O'Bradley' by removing his trousers, and putting on a tropical pith helmet, a greatcoat and a pair of open-toed sandals. Dame Purecraft was an ageing Edwardian dowager in a black ankle-length ball-gown, whilst John Littlewit the proctor wore a rough black jerkin and a striped apron. The props were equally anachronistic; they included a supermarket trollet to carry Ursula off following her mishap with the dripping-pan, a hand-microphone used by Nightingale to sing ballads, and a derelict Mini-Cooper car, attractively draped with red curtains, operating as Ursula's brothel.

The response by the critics to Hands' changes was almost overwhelmingly negative: one observed that Hands's 'exasperatingly blatant' use of 'modern permissiveness' rendered the play more obscure: 'Much is worth hearing, and becomes lost in the verbiage'. Another critic felt that there was 'no clear reason' why these costumes and props should have been 'mixed into [Jonson's] Jacobean setting' (Raw 1989: 112-3). The theatre historian Ejner J.Jensen, writing in 1985, concluded that 'Terry Hands, in his pursuit of relevant meanings, imposed his didactic intentions on Ben Jonson's play, at the cost of some of its complexity ... [this] failure was a testimony to the richness and vitality of the play, which would not be constrained within the limits of the most earnestly benign didacticism' (Jensen, 1985: 52). By attempting to make Bartholomew Fair more 'relevant', Hands had sacrificed the play's timeless literary qualities, and thereby alienated the cultural élite who reviewed his production. The influence of Leavis is very evident here: Hands had resorted to 'modern permissiveness' - an expression of mass-cultural values; and he had sacrificed some of the play's 'complexity' in an attempt to make it more accessible to his audiences. Again Jonson is being used as an expression of high cultural values; he is a writer of 'richness and vitality', whose works resist interpretation by an over-didactic modern theatre director.

In a recent (1992) collection of essays on New Historicism in Renaissance Drama, Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton observe that 'alone of the arts, the theatre remains a temple of modernism', that resists the influx of new critical theories (Dutton and Wilson: 239). This analysis of Ben Jonson's reputation in performance, during the 1960s and 1970s, has revealed a similar preoccupation with modernist ideas; the 'original text' should be carefully studied and performed, according to Leavisian precepts, so that Jonson's 'greatness' as a writer can be communicated to theatre audiences (and especially dramatic critics). His plays should not be tampered with; and certainly not brought up to date; to do so would be to make the performance accessible to members of the mass culture. Unlike Shakespeare, there is no need to do this; his plays are not well-known, and are only likely to be staged for a few performances (30-40 maximum), attended by members of the cultural élite - mostly students, university graduates, Friends of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and sponsors. This is corroborated by a survey conducted in 1978 of the Royal Shakespeare Company's London audience, which showed that whereas overseas visitors willingly paid money to see Shakespeare (they constituted 20% of the total audience at the two revivals surveyed), they were not particularly interested in revivals of plays by his contemporaries (only 12% of the audience at the three plays covered by this survey were tourists) (quoted in Griswold 1986: 198-9).

When writing about Jonson's cultural reputation in the 1970s and 1980s, it is important to recognise the fact that, in a sense, what was being done in the theatre and what was being written about in Jonson criticism were two entirely different things. In an 'Editors's Preface' to Peter Womack's book Ben Jonson (1986), Terry Eagleton praised the author's re-reading of Jonson, mediated through the work of Bahktin, which revealed that 'In an age of centralizing political absolutism ... Jonson's "monological" urge to order, unify, separate and exclude is an instrument of political power. But this "centripetal" impulse ... finds itself constantly outrun and undermined by a "centrifugal", carnivalesque diversity, evident not least in the ... Jonsonian word .... Such social diversity is reflected too in the very figure of the Jacobean dramatist himself, who is both protegé of the powerful and petty bourgeois entrepreneur, dissident intellectual and part of an expanding capitalist enterprise'. Womack had 'rescued Ben Jonson simultaneously from the classical humanists and the romantic populists. [He] delivers us - instead - a Jonson who is not only readable, but usable, for our own times' (Womack 1986: vi-viii).

By contrast, when the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon opened in 1986, the then director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Trevor Nunn expressed his liking for Jonson in familiar Leavisian terms: 'I feel there is a bounden duty to do more Jonson than has been presented in this country. He is a very great dramatist indeed' (Raw 1989: 153). John Caird, the director of Every Man In His Humour, produced in the same year, was praised by one critic for having completely 'identified with his author's [original intentions]' (Raw 1989: 162). It is perhaps this disparity of viewpoint, between the cultural materialist, and the theatre practitioner, which gave rise to the belief, shared by many cultural materialists, that theatre practitioners, were essentially reactionary - a viewpoint that persists to this day. Richard Wilson dismisses the theatre director Peter Brook as someone who 'for depth, height and transcendence, it seems [note this phrase to indicate scepticism], nobody can compare with Brook who, in Nunn's encomium, holds the secret patent for a "self-purgation" that is "inspirational, unlike the usual adrenaline-based excitements of conventional theatre"' (Wilson 1997: 72).

But perhaps one should be equally wary of the academic critic's opinions. Eagleton suggests that Womack's book on Jonson 'delivers us ... a Jonson who is not only readable, but usable for our own times'; one might reasonably ask who he is referring to when the terms 'we' and 'us' - professors and students of literature? theatre audiences? 'general' readers? In his own preface Womack makes concessions to the 'non-specialist' reader by explaining that 'Familiarity with the three undisputed masterpieces - Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair - is all that is essential .... I've tried to write descriptively, so as not to lose a reader who doesn't know them [Jonson's other plays] at first hand' (Womack 1986: ix). It is doubtful, however, whether an undergraduate student in the Turkish context would be able to make much sense of Womack's arguments. My experience is that Jonson is perhaps even more difficult to teach than Shakespeare; his plays are full of contemporary allusions and classical references which cannot be explained without footnotes. Jonson translations are rare: to my knowledge, there has only been one published version of Volpone, whilst The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair as yet remain untranslated.Even if these last two plays were to be translated, it is unlikely that they would be widely read: the only Jonson play which is compulsory on an undergraduate literature curriculum is Volpone, as part of a course in 'English Drama' or 'Masterpieces of the Western World', which suggests that the focus is less on Jonson himself, and more on his contribution to the 'great tradition' of English Literature. Despite his claims for 'accessibility', Womack is basically addressing an audience of students and academics in the Anglo-American context, who have both studied Jonson, and are acquainted with Bakhtinian theories. This is characteristic of many contemporary approaches to literature; in a recent critique of cultural materialism, John J.Joughin observes that its characteristic note of 'dissidence began to be discharged and indeed measured in terms of its ability to cause localised friction in individual departments or rekindle old flames across broader collegiate rivalries' (Joughin 1997: 276). Thus it is not surprising to find that critics from other traditions regard the cultural materialists' inflated claims for 'modernity' and 'relevance' with a mixture of frustration and perplexity (see Ahmad 1992; Chen 1996). In a sense, Eagleton's claims for the 'modernity' of Womack's approach to Jonson are similar to those advanced in my Ph.D. thesis; both aim to show why Jonson should be studied or performed in the theatre, on account of his 'relevance' to a contemporary British context.

This would seem to suggest that, far from contributing to its dissolution, the oppositional aesthetic merely serves to strengthen the notion that literature, literary study, and the performance of 'literary' texts in the theatre are only suitable for an educated public. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the fact that neither the theatre practitioners, nor critics such as Eagleton and Womack, have questioned the notion that Jonson is part of the western tradition of English Literature - i.e. that tradition which produces generation after generation of educated students who form the backbone of Royal Shakespeare Company audiences, and who (if they are fortunate) go on to teach and write about English Literature, Cultural Studies or related disciplines. Perhaps the theatre practitioner (and the newspaper critic reviewing Jonson) have no need to revaluate their opinions; after all, they are seeking to consolidate Jonson's position as one of Britain's greatest dramatists, and therefore provide some justification for spending taxpayers' money in the subsidised theatre on performing him. If so-called 'radical' critics such as Eagleton seek to reject the 'classical humanist' or the 'romantic populist' notion of Jonson, without investigating why such notions still hold sway within contemporary British academic or theatrical cultures, they are simply providing ammunition for what Joughin describes as 'the mainstream media' which seeks 'to recognise two cultures of eccentricity [the 'traditionalists' and the 'radicals'] within the academy which simultaneously secure "Eng. lit."'s position as the most vulnerable and the most impregnable of formations' (Joughin 1997: 281).

Furthermore, one should recognise that in an alternative, non-Anglo/American, context, there are spaces for quite different interpretations of Jonson. In theatrical terms, he is an insignificant presence; to date none of his plays have been staged either by the State Theatre or by the private (i.e. commercial) theatres. He can certainly be thought of as a 'great author' in the Turkish context - whose work warrants inclusion on courses such as 'Great Masterpieces of the Western World'; but there appears to be no justification for studying, or publishing anything other than different versions of Volpone. Given that this play proves so difficult for students to read, one solution might be to show the Joseph L. Mankiewicz film The Honey Pot, made in 1967 and starring Rex Harrison, which was (very loosely) based on Volpone, as well as two modern works Mr Fox of Venice and The Evil of the Dog. If this approach recalls that advocated by cultural materialists of the 1980s, who believed that literary texts should be read alongside popular cultural forms such as music, television and fiction in an attempt to rescue Shakespeare and his contemporaries from the 'traditional concerns of "Eng. Lit"' (see Dollimore and Sinfield 1985: viii), the context is very different. Having begun to study English Literaturefrom the age of 14 onwards in a British public school, I was brought up to believe that I was not only being introduced to great masterpieces, but that such masterpieces were part of my heritage; by studying them in detail, I might gain some insight into what it was to be an Englishman (this is still the case in schools, as anyone acquainted with Prince Charles's pronouncements on the state of Shakespeare today will know). The Turkish student, on the other hand, will have had no such 'training'; they may be aware that Ben Jonson is thought of as a 'great author' (especially if Volpone is included on a course such as 'Great Masterpieces of the Western World'); but the connection between Jonson and the formation of national identity would mean nothing to them. My purpose in using The Honey Pot is to provide a convenient introduction to Volpone; and subsequently offers a basis for analysis of the differences between the film version and the text contained in modern editions. This in a sense leads us back to where this paper began; that there is no 'true' version of Volpone; both the text and the film are reconstructions, produced in different contexts for different purposes. Once this point is grasped, then perhaps students can be encouraged to speculate on why Volpone should be included on an English Literature syllabus within a Turkish (as opposed to a British or American) educational institution. Jonson's play is thus used as a basis for cross-cultural comparison.

Looking back on my thesis, I realise now that I could never write what I wrote then; times have changed; my status has changed; even my country of residence has changed. Nonetheless, I do think that thesis made a case for performing Jonson in the contemporary theatre, even if it was only to limited audiences. This provides useful material for the kind of cross-cultural comparisons referred to above - particularly when it would seem that Jonson's plays are even less well-known in Turkish educational circles than in Britain. Through this, I think we can arrive at a more developed understanding of his status within British academic circles, but also speculate on why he should be so neglected in Turkey. Is it because he is perceived as a 'difficult' dramatist, is it because he chooses to write comedies rather than tragedies, or is it because he is the victim of Shakespeare's reputation (which continues to be maintained through the regular publication of translations of his works)? Whatever the reasons for this, I think one important point emerges; the opinions I hold about Jonson are different now from what they were in 1989; Turkish students' hold different opinions about Jonson; theatre practitioners in Britain hold different views to their colleagues in academe. If the presence of such differences could be recognised, and further investigated, instead of simply trying to substitute the 'traditional' view of Jonson with a 'radical' view, then perhaps each particular interest group, from whatever socal, political, or cultural background, might understand one another better.


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