Hi friends! I haven’t had much to say lately, although I do have some good stories coming up about Flint and Pontefract, and Padua and Venice.
Last Thursday I saw one of the final performances of The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Globe’s new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I’d got a standing ticket for £10 online the night before, which was good as it was completely sold out by the time I got to the theatre.
Context always affects the way you see a play and this was especially true on Thursday, when I had just come from a moving and lovely public gathering at the funeral of important British socialist Tony Benn, who died earlier this month. After the funeral I was feeling quite sad and thoughtful, and I had a beer and a half in the Globe bar before going in.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a meta, postmodern social comedy. A London citizen and his wife, who run a grocery shop on the Strand, have come to see a play titled “The London Merchant”. As soon as they hear the title they interrupt the prologue and demand to have a heroic grocer in the lead, played by their apprentice Ralph, who is faintly embarrassed but up for it. The ‘rehearsed’ play, about merchant’s daughter Luce trying to elope with her father’s apprentice Jasper, is continually interrupted by the grocers calling for Ralph to defeat a giant, play a love scene with the Princess of Moldavia, act as May King and lead a troop of soldiers in Mile End.
Seeing it in London was really special. The Strand and Mile End are just across the river – in fact I walked across London Bridge to meet a friend at a pub in Mile End directly after seeing the play – and although you can know in your head what the London locations are, it’s just different hearing the characters calling for you to cheer for the honour of the city and the citizens when you are a Londoner and everything they’re talking about could be visible from where you’re sitting and, is at most, a twenty-minute walk away.
Because of where I’d been that morning it was impossible to not notice the class stuff going on in the play, but I’m pretty sure they’re a big part of it anyway. The grocers are middle class, Ralph is at most lower-middle and although the play they’re going to see is also about middle-class characters, they are demanding representation of themselves in the kind of story that would usually only have been about nobility. Knight of the Burning Pestle (1611) most directly satirises an earlier play, The Four Prentices of London (1592ish), which also featured London apprentices going on grand romantic quests, but those four heroes were the sons of an usurped earl, ie Secretly Noble All Along. When the prologue in Knight of the Burning Pestle introduces the play, the grocer (named George, for England’s saint, and significantly marked in the speech headings as ‘Citizen’) says, “Down with your title, boy, down with your title!”
Now the play is making fun of demanding, pushy middle-class playgoers, but the way the Globe played them at least, they were just enthusiastic theatre lovers who wanted to see a play about themselves, and about London, that is no less grand and sweeping than ones about Noble Knights In Foreign Lands.
They talk a lot about how great London is. The citizens and Ralph repeatedly say they are acting “for the honour of the city”, and Ralph’s true love (never seen onstage) is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter in Milk Street (which still exists; I used to walk down it to get lunch when I worked in the City). In the fourth act Ralph gives a lovely speech as May King, delivered straight to the audience as Londoners, calling on us to take up pastoral traditions (with some really silly rhymes: “Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies,/And sluggish snails, that erst were mewed, do creep out of their shellies”) and:
And be like them, oh, you, I say, of this same noble town,
And lift aloft your velvet heads, and slipping off your gown,
With bells on legs, and napkins clean unto your shoulders tied,
With scarfs and garters as you please, and “Hey for our town!” cried.
(This is when I started to cry. Oh London, you are so great!)
After this the grocer’s wife comes up with even more ideas for Ralph to act out: “Ralph, I would have thee call all the youths together in battle-array, with drums, and guns, and flags, and march to Mile End in pompous fashion, and there exhort your soldiers to be merry and wise, and to keep their beards from burning, Ralph; and then skirmish, and let your flags fly, and cry, ‘Kill, kill, kill!'” Ralph promptly puts on a soldier’s costume and does this, “for the honour of the city”.
Unfortunately then as now, local pride is often accompanied by racism. The grocers decide that Ralph should travel to “Moldavia” and meet the king’s beautiful daughter, who falls in love with him; Ralph tells her he “will not wear a favour of a lady that trusts in Antichrist and false traditions”. The citizen shouts, “Well said, Ralph! Convert her, if thou canst”, and his wife, “I commend Ralph yet, that he will not stoop to a Cracovian; there’s properer women in London than any are there”. In other words, they call up a story about a foreign princess just so Ralph can pointedly reject her. Non-Christian women falling in love with Christian knights is a trope of romances, but they’re still doing just what they told off the playmakers for doing, creating a scene about an Other that doesn’t reflect them. (That said, I think it’s good and significant that the army drill in Mile End doesn’t ever name an enemy, and the grocers’ focus there is on the spectacle rather than the fight.)
During all this the story of “The London Merchant” is playing out, or attempting to play out, a light romcom also about an apprentice, very un-sweeping and a lot of fun. As the plot develops, with people losing boxes of money in Waltham Forest, arguing about engagements and pretending to be ghosts, it reveals the kind of small-scale household comedy the grocers are complaining about being pigeonholed into.
In the last tidy scene of “London Merchant”, where the lovers are reunited and are able to marry at last, the grocer’s wife shouts out that she wants to see Ralph die dramatically. He comes on “with a forked arrow in his head” (yes, the stage direction is literally for a Steve Martin-style arrowhead, 17th century comedy, so sophisticated), and recalls all his great deeds of the previous two hours. The grocers called them into theatrical existence and he briefly re-calls them again. He dies saying:
Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!
Ne’er shall we more upon Shrove Tuesday meet,
And pluck down houses of iniquity; […]
Set up a stake, oh, never more I shall!
I die! fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers’ Hall!
(This is when I started to bawl.)
It’s hilarious, but it’s also piercingly beautiful. The joke is that Grocers’ Hall is a ridiculous petite-bourgeois place to dream of dying. But the grocers and Ralph have never aspired to the upper class, nor should they, or anyone: he fights giants and marches in Mile End as a grocer. Ralph’s dream is correct: Grocers’ Hall is, or should be, fully as worthy and proud a resting place as Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s.