A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.
It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.
I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the pay itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with receiving a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), put into the stocks, and, finally, humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it is, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.
The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance he plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.
After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.
Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.
This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.