English Humour

IMG_0046I thought (and you probably hoped) that I’d come to the end of my posts about All’s Well That Ends Well, at least until the RSC’s new production opens later this season. However, their current production of Thomas Middleton’s play A Mad World My Masters has taken my mind back to a comment made about All’s Well by the critic, John Francis Hope, when writing for The New Age in 1921.  Responding to a staging that year at The Old Vic, he noted

[m]uch of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly ‘smutty’ a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaws.  We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature… The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual manners in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion.

We chewed over this quite a lot in class, partly, I think, because a number of people didn’t want to admit that it was true.  However, when you look at the history of English comedy through the mid and late twentieth century, which all of us could remember, it’s actually hard to deny.  George Robey, a comic of the early century music halls, has undoubtedly had his successors, in the clubs and on television, running up to and through the Millennium.

Well, we can argue all we like as to whether or not Hope’s comments are valid in respect of English humour in general and that of All’s Well in particular but I defy anyone to argue that it’s not true of A Mad World My Masters.  And if the play’s current adapters, Sean Foley and Phil Porter, were trying to do anything more than get the groundlings laughing then I have to say I missed it.

The play as it was presented in the seventeenth century, interweaves two plots.  Dick Follywit plays a series of tricks on his grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress, in order to try and gain his inheritance and thus fund his riotous living.  Sir Bounteous, himself, is a spendthrift and something of a lecher, so, as far as morality goes, there isn’t that much to choose between them.

The subplot deals with Penitent Brothel’s attempts to seduce the wife of the obsessively jealous Master Harebrain, using as a go-between a notorious courtesan whom Harebrain believes to be a pious and Christian woman.

You can see the potential for ‘smutty’ humour.

The current production is clever in one respect; it has shifted the play to the Soho of the 1950s, a period when that area of London had a reputation that equalled anything you would have found in the capital of 1606.  Some of the names have been changed to make the point about the nature of the characters more easily apparent to modern audiences and although the directors state that 97% of the text is as Middleton wrote it, only about 75% of his original play survived the knife as they strove to make the meaning accessible to twenty-first century groundlings.

The trouble is that in doing this, as they admit themselves, they have robbed the play of most of its satire and consequently they have left very little that isn’t simply ‘smut’.

It has to be said that I am not noted for my sense of humour, so maybe I was not the best person to be watching this production and passing judgement on it.  In general I don’t find ‘smut’ funny, just as I don’t find slapstick funny either.   But, as someone in class pointed out, there is ‘smut’ and there is clever ‘smut’ and I suspect, because I don’t know the original text well enough to be sure, that what we’ve lost are all the ‘clever’ bits. What makes me say this is that there was one moment when a point was made that linked to the current banking scandals where I found myself thinking “now that was good – smutty, but witty as well.”  I do find wit funny.

Which leaves me with several questions.  Is Hope correct when he says that ‘smutty’ comedy is a characteristic of English humour?  If so, why don’t I find it funny?  Is this a sign of cultural snobbery in me?  Are we right in distinguishing different types of smut?  And, if that is the case what does or doesn’t make it acceptable?  Over to you.

Making Sense of ‘All’s Well’ ~ The Two-Story Story.

dream-fable-fairy-story-love-story-Favim.com-451281_largeI am still battling away at All’s Well That End’s Well, specifically at the moment I am trying to work out why Helena is such a dynamic force in the first half of the play and such a shadowy figure in the second.  It’s almost as if you are dealing with two different characters.

Do you actually know the story?  As briefly as I can…..

Helena is the orphaned daughter of the physician at the Court of the Count Rousillon who has recently died.  She is obsessively in love with the Count’s heir, Bertram who is about to leave for the Court of the King of France where, being underage, he will be the King’s ward.  Bertram is unaware of her passion. Distraught at his leaving, she decides to follow him and offer her healing gifts to the King, who is mortally sick.  When she cures him she asks as a reward that she be given the hand of whichever of his wards she requests.  Of course, she chooses Bertram.  Bertram is horrified but forced to obey the King’s decree.  However, as soon as they are married he absconds, making off for the Florentine wars and leaving behind a letter that says he will not recognise Helena as his wife until she has got the family ring from his finger and carries a child of which he is the father.  That’s the first half.  How she manages to fulfil these conditions is the subject matter for the second half of the play.

But, as I say, the character that we see in those two halves seems to be two different people.  In the first she confides in the audience, actively seeks ways to get what she wants and is generally a positive and active force.  In the second she is much more passive, far less open about her thoughts and finds a way to meet the conditions laid down by Bertram almost accidentally.  And, I have been struggling to understand why this should be the case, struggling that is, until I realised that what we have here is a two-story story.  

Now I would imagine that this is a technical term that you haven’t come across before.  That would be because it was coined by one of my Year Six classes after we had been looking at a particularly interesting retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  This specific version of the tale began with the expected markers of the onset of story, indicating, time, place and character and the inciting moment when the Bears decide to go for a walk to let their porridge cool.  However, the next section began in same way, only this time the character was Goldilocks and the inciting moment was her getting bored and opting to go for a walk.  After some discussion as to how they should describe this, the children decided that what had happened was that two separate stories had collided and then combined to become one and before we knew it the notion of the two-story story was born.

Of course there are many variations of the two-story story and any full length novel is likely to be made up of several stories that intertwine and serve to shine revealing lights one on the other, but I’m particularly interested in those where the different stories do actually collide in some way, especially after my problems with Jack and the Beanstalk.

When I was doing the research for my PhD the one story that really made life difficult was Jack and the Beanstalk.  It starts out as what Propp would call a lack liquidated story.  Jack and his mother are penniless and they need an income.  The hen that lays the golden eggs should solve that problem and so we should, at that point, have a happy ending.  (I am assuming, you understand, that there are no marauding foxes around and that there isn’t going to be an outbreak of fowl pest.)  However, what actually happens is that suddenly it is killing the giant that becomes the most important part of the story and it turns into a villainy vanquished tale instead.  I spent thirteen thousand words in my thesis explaining exactly how this comes about and analysing the markers that point the reader in the right direction.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat the exercise here, not in relation to Jack and the Beanstalk nor in relation to All’s Well That End’s Well, even though it works in exactly the same way.

It’s generally accepted that All’s Well combines elements from two types of traditional tale, each of which is found in various forms in a multitude of cultures.  There is the story in which the dying King is cured by an unexpected healer and then the tale in which someone can only achieve their goal if they pass a number of seemingly impossible tests.  These are the stories in which Helena finds herself the leading character.  The trouble is that rather than being two separate narratives here they are combined in one and that gives us problems.  What happens is that the scene that should simply be the dénouement of the first story also functions as the igniting moment of the second.  Instead of Helena gaining the prize she has been promised for curing the King her reward comes to her in name only as Bertram marries her under duress and then kick starts the second story by leaving her and setting what appears to be a series of insurmountable tasks as the condition for their ever living together as man and wife.   The two stories collide.  Just like Jack it is a two-story story.

Unlike Jack, however, there is no continuity in the nature of the main protagonist.  There are innumerable Jack stories in British Folklore and the chief characteristic that they share is the cheeky optimism of the central character.  In All’s Well having screwed her courage to the sticking post in order to achieve her heart’s desire in the first half, Helena then creeps off and hides her light under the nearest bushel for the rest of the play, relinquishing her role as the most prominent female character to Diana and her widowed mother.  It may be at Helena who devises the means by which Bertram is brought to book in the final scene but it is Diana who carries out the plan and faces him with the accusations.  It is Diana who holds centre stage.

The Jack stories have run together over centuries of retelling and now blend so smoothly that unless you’re looking very hard you would never notice the join.  All’s Well is another matter.  This smacks more to me of a play that was cobbled together at the last minute without the time to make sure that there was continuity of character and action.  I’m back again at the proposition I put forward two or three weeks ago, namely that this was a text put together in a hurry to meet a theatrical emergency.  I’m not suggesting that the two halves were written by the two different writers, Shakespeare and Middleton, there is internal evidence that argues against that, but I do think one may have plotted the first half and the other the second and that they then failed to smooth out all the rough edges that arose as a result.  Two-story stories need a lot of care if they are to work well and writing to a deadline isn’t conducive to that, not even if you’re Shakespeare.

Doing Battle With ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

imagesFor the past two weeks I’ve been engaged in what I can only describe as warfare with Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well.

Do you know it?  Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.  I’ve only seen three or four productions myself and remember I’ve been going back and forth to Stratford for over fifty years now.  However, it was one of the first plays I saw and as a consequence has always intrigued me.  I couldn’t for the life of me understand what Helena saw in Bertram when I was seventeen and more than forty years on I still can’t.  But then, of course, that is the nature of obsessive love, isn’t it?  And, if ever anyone was obsessed by the desired object it is Helena.

But, initially at least, Helena’s motivation wasn’t what was giving me sleepless nights.  As a character she certainly is one of the play’s many problems and I might come back and write about that another day, however my first difficulties lay with the nature of the play itself.  It just feels so piecemeal; none of the rough edges have been smooth out.

Of course, I’m not the first person to have felt this way and there have been many attempts to ‘excuse’ the less than perfect script that Shakespeare has left us.  For example, it’s been suggested that the play was first staged in the 1590s only then to be carelessly revised in the 1600s, and last year two Oxford academics, Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire, published a controversial paper proposing the theory that the play was actually the combined work of Shakespeare and his fellow playwright, Thomas Middleton.

This latter suggestion is in no way outlandish given that it was common in Shakespeare’s day for playwrights to work in collaboration and we do know that around the same time these two authors were working together on Timon of Athens,  however, it doesn’t really account for the rather slapdash nature of the text we have been bequeathed.  So, I have come up with my own theory.  I have absolutely no proof to back it up other than gut instinct and the memory of what happened back in the sixties when Paul Scofield was ill and the RSC had to cancel his King Lear at pretty much the last minute.  And what was that?  They rapidly threw together another production (The Comedy of Errors) in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Here then is my theory as to what actually occurred.  I think that the King’s Men had commissioned another playwright (forever to remain unknown) to write them a play, they had it fitted into the schedule, possibly even had the publicity for it ready, and then one of three things happened:

said playwright didn’t complete the play;

said playwright completed the play but when the company took it down to the pub for a read through they said the Jacobean equivalent of “not flipping likely”;

said playwright completed the play, the company took it down to the pub for a read through, liked it, sent it to the Master of the Revels to be licensed and he said the Jacobean equivalent of ‘not flipping likely’.

Whichever of these it was the company would suddenly have been left with a gap to fill in the repertoire and so they turned to their two leading playwrights and said “do something”.  Or more to the point, “write something”.  And All’s Well is what they came up with.

As I say there is no way at all of ever proving this but it would explain all sorts of peculiarities within the play.  For example, it would account for why there seem to be so many echoes in the first act of another recent play, Hamlet. Let’s rehash something that’s already worked.  It would throw light on the different characterisations of the main protagonist in the two halves of the story.  What do you mean you think she’s a feisty young woman, I’ve written her as a modest young maid.  It might even be the reason behind a title which doesn’t exactly sit easily with the play’s dénouement.   I don’t care what you want to call it, we’ve already printed the playbills.

What we should never forget when we study Shakespeare is that his primary motivation was to get the paying public through the door.  Allowing The Globe to ‘go dark’ for a couple of afternoons wasn’t an option.

No one is going to give my theory so much as a passing thought, but it has enabled me to begin to come to terms with this play and to find a way of elucidating some of the issues it brings with it for the class I’m teaching.  For the moment, I’m sticking with it.