Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the london merchant
- Venturewell, a London merchant, fires his apprentice Jasper, who is in love with Venturewell’s daughter Luce.
- Luce and Jasper plot to run away together.
- Another suitor, Master Humphrey, who has Venturewell’s approval, begins to woo Luce.
- Mistress Merrythought, Jasper’s mother, refuses to give Jasper her blessing or money. She gives both to her younger son, Michael.
- Master Merrythought defends his hedonistic lifestyle and gives Jasper is blessing and what little money he can. Mistress Merrythought vows to leave her husband.
- Venturewell gives Humphrey his blessing to elope with Luce.
- Mistress Merrythought and Michael begin their flight from Master Merrythought.
- An unexpected character enters their story.
stuff that happens in the knight of the burning pestle
- Not satisfied with The London Merchant, an audience member stops the action and demands that the players add a character to represent working-class citizens, “I will have a grocer, and he shall do admirable things.”
- Nell, the audience member’s wife, joins her husband George on stage.
- The players, startled by this interruption, protest they have no other actor to portray a grocer. Undeterred, George and Nell bring up their apprentice, Rafe, to play the role of the grocer.
- On stage and swept up in the thought of heroic quests, Rafe transforms his grocer character into a fantastic knight-errant (whoever’s heard of a grocer-errant? Rafe asks). Thus the Knight of the Burning Pestle (enthusiastically improvised by Rafe) is thrust into the plot of The London Merchant.
- The Knight enlists two players to portray his trusty squire and dwarf.
- The Knight sees “a gentle lady flying” and instructs his dwarf and squire to help him help her.
- The Knight finds a beaten gentleman and vows to avenge him; another gentleman arrives and beats the Knight.
- The dwarf tell the Knight that they have arrived at a castle; a tapster welcomes them in for the night.
- The Host demands payment from the Knight; George the grocer pays the bill.
- The Host tells the Knight of a giant monster, Barbaroso, who clips hair.
- The Knight fights the giant, meets a princes…oh, never mind, lots of ridiculous things ensue.
One Final Note: The emblem of the Grocer’s Guild was a mortar and pestle. Anything else suggested by the pestle is now (and was then) in the eye of the beholder.
Notes from the Director
The ASC on Tour (known then as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) helped re-introduce Beaumont’s 1607 comic masterpiece to the world by mounting the North American professional premiere of The Knight of the Burning Pestle as part of our 1999 Vaulting Ambition Tour (in rep with Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice). After opening the Blackfriars Playhouse, we produced our second Pestle, this time with our first resident troupe of actors, in 2003. While planning the 2009/10 Rough, Rude, and Boisterous tour, I thought the time was right once again to unleash Pestle on the road, this time by matching it with Romeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well.
I don’t usually traffic in superlatives, but I firmly believe that Pestle is the funniest play (in performance) of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras not written by Shakespeare. It has all of the silliness and wackiness of The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor combined. And on steroids. Pestle would be remarkable just for being that funny, but it’s even more entertaining because of its use of music, the multiple meta-theatrical levels it employs, an the river of good will and message of mirth that run underneath and through the play.
SPOILER ALERT: if you want to be surprised by the silliness we have in store for you, stop reading now (and don’t read any of the synopsis bullets in “Stuff That Happens in the Play”).
Although music and song play major roles in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It (and smaller roles in The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and other plays), Pestle trumps them all. Master Merrythought sings son snippets throughout most of his dialogue; the young lovers burst out into song to express their love to one another like they are part of a modern Broadway musical. Beaumont’s text is filled with lyrics from songs that would have been familiar to his audience; in trying to capture the spirit of that original staging notion, we have selected pieces of songs with which our modern audience might be familiar. (All other language – with the exception of play titles and perhaps a few ad libs from the London Merchant actors – is from Beaumont’s play.)
Shakespeare helped pioneer the concept of a “play within a play” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost; once again, Beaumont took this idea and exploded it. Pestle has at least three main layers of story:
- a troupe of actors begins performing a play called The London Merchant (see “Stuff” for plot details);
- a grocer and his wife in the audience stop the show, come on stage, and bully the actors into creating a new tale called The Knight of the Burning Pestle in which the grocer’s apprentice becomes an action hero in search of adventures;
- the actors in The London Merchant attempt to improvise a story about The Knight that runs concurrently with their own Merchant while being constantly interrupted by comments and directions from the grocer and his wife.
Part of the fun in rehearsing Beaumont’s play is creating “characters” for the actors performing Merchant because they must not only go “in and out of character” while the grocer and his wife interrupt and direct their play, but most of them are also drafted to play characters in the “improvised” adventures of the Knight. Each ASC actor has to decide how his/her Merchant actor feels and reacts to the interruptions and the improv play.
Perhaps Pestle was forgotten for so many years because the Renaissance staging conditions for which it was written were also forgotten. Performing the play with the audience sharing the same light as the actors is the first big factor that allows Pestle to breath for a modern audience. Letting all the songs and song snippets be contemporary (and, hopefully, familiar) is another principle at work in the original production that gives the play life. A style of theatre that includes talking to the audience, making the audience part of the world of the play, doubling and tripling of roles, and harnessing the collective imagination of the audience to imagine the “sets” and locations in the play all create an environment that blurs the liens which separate the performers from the audience in most modern theatres. The essence of Pestle lives in that blur.
In the midst of these multiple levels of meta-theatre and wacky fun, Beaumont populates his play with characters for whom we can care and cheer. It takes a lot of work to create, distinguish, and navigate these different levels and threads, but sometimes superlative silliness is a lot of work. We hope you find pleasure and mirth in our work and play.