Wednesday, 27 December 2017

27 December, 1593 - Huon of Bordeaux

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at hewen of burdoche the 28 of desembȝ 1593 ... iijll xs

In modern English: Received at Huon of Bordeaux, 27th December 1593 ...  £3 and 10 shillings


Today, for their second performance after they were installed at the Rose playhouse, Sussex's Men performed a play called Huon of Bordeaux to a packed theatre. This play, like so much of their repertory, is lost. But we do know that Huon of Bordeaux is a legendary figure from medieval French folklore and was best known to the English via a translation by Sir John Berners of a 13th century French epic.


The legend of Huon


In the old French tales, Huon is a knight who accidentally kills the son of Charlemagne. Charlemagne offers Huon the chance to escape the death penalty if he can complete an impossible task: he must travel to the court of the Admiral of Babylon, kiss his daughter, and bring back some of his hair and teeth. Fortunately, on the way to Babylon, Huon meets Oberon, King of the Fairies, who helps him to achieve his task as long as he promises never to lie. Huon succeeds in his quest, and successfully presents Charlemagne with the beard and teeth of the Admiral. In France, Oberon rescues Huon from other troubles, and eventually names him his successor as King of the Fairies.

Costume design by Inigo Jones
for the character of Oberon
in a 1610 masque
The story of Huon contains all the things that seem to have been popular with the Rose audience: magic, fighting, and adventures in the Middle East. And it may have been this play that inspired William Shakespeare to create his own version of Oberon a few years later, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

For this reason, it's interesting to see how Lord Berners' translation renders the first encounter between Huon and Oberon. Huon learns that if he takes a shortcut through a wood, he will encounter "a King of the Faerie named Oberon; he is of height but of three foot and crooked-shouldered, but yet he hath an angelic visage" and hates to be ignored. Huon rides into the wood with his men but Oberon "set his horn to his mouth and blew so melodious a blast that the fourteen companions, being under the tree, had so perfect a joy at their hearts that they all rose up and began to sing and dance." When the men try to escape without talking to this demonic creature, Oberon summons a tempest and a vision of a terrifying river. He insists that Huon won't complete his mission without his help: "Speak to me, and I shall do thee that courtesy that I shall cause thee to achieve thine enterprise, the which is impossible without me" (63-71). It's easy to imagine how this sequence could have been adapted into exciting theatre.

18th century French Huon text
Probably something like the scene above appeared in the play, but it's hard to guess what the rest of it was like because Berners' Huon of Bordeaux is an insanely long work, stuffed with incidents about the adventures of Huon, his companions, and even their descendants. To give just a vague sample of them, here are some of the running titles from Sir Sidney Lee's edition of the Berners translation: "How the Pope receives Huon at Rome", "How Huon is besieged in MacAire's castle", "How Huon dons the giant's armour", "Of the capture of Huon by the Paynims", "How the Giant Agrapart comes to Babyon", "How Huon is shipwrecked", "How the Frenchmen take the city of Anfalern",  and "Of the marriage of Huon and Esclaramonde". That's only a small sample from the first part of the book, which is then followed by an even longer "Continuation".  There is material for numerous plays within this behemoth, and it's hard to know how much or how little of it the playwright might have used.

Regardless of whether the play itself was long or short, it brought in an even bigger crowd than yesterday's performance did: the 70 shillings it received is one of the biggest hauls ever recorded at the Rose and suggests that London was still thrilled to have the theatre return to the city.


FURTHER READING


Huon of Bordeaux information

  • Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux (1534), ed. S.L. Lee (Early English Text Society, 1882).
  • Harold F. Brooks, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Methuen, 1979), pp. lix, 145-6
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Huon of Bordeaux", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 921.

Henslowe links



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