Actors' Renaissance Season 2015

Larger-than-life characters collide when Brainworm, a clever servant, works to foil the plans of his master, Knowell, through a series of deceptions and disguises that take him all over London. Jonson uses a single day and a single setting to weave a tight picture of everyday life in a bustling Early Modern city comedy.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Old Edward Knowell worries that his son, Edward, spends too much of his time on the “fruitless and unprofitable art” of poetry and that his nephew, Stephen, wastes too much money on idle pursuits like hawking and hunting.
  • Knowell mistakenly intercepts a letter to his son from Wellbred and discovers disparaging remarks about himself as well as an invitation for Edward to join Wellbred at the Windmill tavern.
  • Knowell, immediately suspicious that his son is consorting with a bad crowd, resolves to win him back to a life of virtue. He orders Brainworm, his servant, to deliver the letter to Edward, but not to tell him that his father has read it.
  • Brainworm delivers the letter, but tells Edward that his father has read it. Edward makes plans to devise a joke on his father, and asks his cousin Stephen to join him to meet Wellbred at the Windmill.
  • Kitely, a rich merchant, fears that his young wife will be tempted to immorality by her brother Wellbred’s friends, and that she will make him a cuckold. Both men leave to meet Wellbred at the tavern.
  • In hopes of gaining favor with Edward, Brainworm disguises himself as a soldier to stall Knowell on his way to the Windmill. He encounters Edward and Stephen, and sells Stephen a sword which he claims is a “most pure Toledo.”
  • After the young men depart, the disguised Brainworm encounters Knowell, who gives him a stern lecture against begging. Brainworm convinces Knowell to hire him as a servant, and the two men continue toward the Windmill.
  • At the tavern, Edward and Stephen join Wellbred, Matthew, and Captain Bobadill. As they brag, joke, and chat, Bobadill proves Stephen’s new sword is fake. Furious, Stephen claims that he could “eat the very hilts for anger”; the still-disguised Brainworm arrives and admits to the deception, astonishing Stephen to meekness.
  • Brainworm draws Edward aside and reveals his true identity, telling him that Knowell has followed his son and is resting at Justice Clement’s house. The young men welcome Brainworm and resolve to outwit Edward’s father.
  • Kitely, jealous and suspicious of his wife, urges his servant Cash to send for him if Wellbred brings home any strange gentlemen friends.
  • Wellbred and his friends arrive at Kitely’s house, and Cash sends Cob to notify Kitely.
  • More disguises, fights, lawsuits, suspicions, angry allegations, and a big of plagiarized poetry ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?

2. Where was the play first performed?
At the Curtain Theatre by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company. According to the playlist printed in the Folio of Every Man in His Humour, Shakespeare originated the role of Knowell.

3. Who wrote it?
A poet, essayist, and playwright, Ben Jonson (1573-1637) was perhaps the most celebrated writer of his day. Famous equally for his genius and his self-regard (he was the first writer to publish his plays as “Works”), Jonson was revered enough to be the center of the “Tribe of Ben,” perhaps the earliest English literary club.

4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?
Like Shakespeare, Jonson was a master of verse and of prose, and, like Shakespeare, he wanted his art to mirror life. There the similarities end.

5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare?
Jonson’s work is the diametric opposite of Shakespeare’s. His characters have the carefully drawn sharp outlines of dynamic cartoons rather than the organic ambiguity of Shakespeare’s characters – he is more Dickens than Austen. His plots cohere by virtue of a central location to which people are drawn by their foibles, not, as in Shakespeare, because of relationships. He frequently criticized Shakespeare’s disdain for verisimilitude and classical correctness.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
They regard it as Jonson’s first good play. Perhaps under the influence of his self-promoting claim to have invented a “comedy of humors,” they take somewhat too seriously his idea of the “humor” character whobehaves in a certain way because he has an excess of one of the four humors (the bodily fluids believed from the Greeks to have composed our natures). This scholar believes that in revising the play and changing its setting from Florence to London, Jonson advanced both the idea of a city comedy and pioneered a theatrical aesthetic of place. This play, for example, pits the prosperous suburbs of London against the pleasures of the city. These my notions, though brief enough to share over a drink (you pay), lack the requisite brevity for this list.

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
Not really.

8. What characters should I especially look for?
What you will see is a collection of young gallants of varying means, a tricky servant named Brainworm, and irascible father (Shakespeare’s role), a delightfully eccentric Judge Clement, and, most especially, a braggadocio named Bobadil, certainly inspired by Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
The courtroom scene that ends the play at Justice Clement’s is not only wonderful in its own right, it also suggests something I think commendable about Jonson and significant about his plays – all their outcomes are judicial. The law of society, not a king nor a god, sorts out the situations.

10. What is the language like?
Jonson had a dictionary ear for words. He claps onto the jargon of position, place, and occupation – usually to poke fun at those who overindulge. If you realize he’s on your side in making fun of pomposity, you’re in for a great evening.

Ralph Alan Cohen

Co-founder and Director of Mission