Wednesday, 12 May 2021

12 May, 1597 - Uther Pendragon

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

Henslowe writes: 12 | tt at pendragon ... | 0 | 017

In modern English: 12th [May, 1597] ... total at Pendragon ... 17 shillings

Uther Pendragon and Merlin, from British
Library manuscript Royal 20 A II
(early 14th century)
Today, the Admiral's Men revived Uther Pendragon, a lost play about the father of King Arthur. You can read more about this play in the entry for 29 April.

The company is continuing to perform Uther Pendragon once every few days, even though it is not proving at all popular.

What's next?


There will be no blog entry tomorrow because for unknown reasons Henslowe records no performance. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on the 14th - see you then!
 

Henslowe links


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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

11 May, 1597 - A Humorous Day's Mirth

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

Henslowe writes: 11 | ne |  tt at the comodey of vmers... 02 | 03

In modern English: 11th [May, 1597] ... total at The Comedy of Humours ... £2 and 3 shillings [i.e. 43 shillings]

Today, the Admiral's Men premiered a new play! And in a very unusual turn of events, this play has survived the passage of time and can still be read today, albeit under a different title.

George Chapman, from a
1616 edition of his
translation of Homer.
Although Henslowe calls it The Comedy of Humours, today's play is almost certainly the same one that will be published in 1599 under the title A Humorous Day's Mirth. The evidence can be found in Henslowe's 1598 inventory of costumes, which includes "Verone's son's hose" and "Labesha's cloak with gold buttons", referring to two of the characters in A Humorous Day's Mirth. In Henslowe's list of performances, The Comedy of Humours is the only title that fits the play well.

A Humorous Day's Mirth was written by George Chapman, whom we met last year as the author of the wildly popular comedy of disguises, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. For his follow-up, Chapman has provided another wacky farce, which this time belongs to the genre known as 'humours comedy'. 


What is humours comedy?


The four temperaments, illustrated in a
15th-century German calendar. Clockwise
from left: phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric
and melancholic.
Confusingly enough, in Elizabethan times, the word 'humour' did not refer to comedy. Medical theory at the time held that the human body was affected by four fluids, known as humours, namely, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. If one of the humours was present in greater amounts than the others, it could affect a person's temperament, making them sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic.

The word 'humour' thus came to mean an eccentric character trait; hence, as Ben Jonson explains at the beginning of his comedy Every Man Out of his Humour:
   When some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers
In their confluxions all to run one way,
This may truly said to be a 'humour'.

A 'humours comedy' is thus a play in which the characters are dominated by peculiar characteristics. It is possible that Chapman actually invented the genre with today's play. It will be followed by Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour and Every Man Out of his Humour. And humours are mentioned  on the title pages of many plays of this period, including Shakespeare's: The First Part of Henry IV advertises "the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff" and The Merry Wives of Windsor announces the characters' "sundry variable and pleasing humours".  


The play


Set in Paris (but a Paris that feels exactly like Elizabethan England), A Humorous Day's Mirth showcases a variety of humorous characters. It is difficult to describe the plot because there is no central storyline; the play is better thought of as a a jumble of subplots, some quite vague in their execution. 

The figure around which everything revolves is Lemot, whose own humour is his desire to laugh at other people. Lemot acts as a kind of onstage ringmaster, provoking the play's characters into displaying their humours and then commenting on them. When his friend Colinet excitedly says, "we may chance to have a fair day, for we shall spend it with so humorous acquaintance as rains nothing but humour all their lifetime", Lemot announces that he will preside over the affairs "like an old king in an old-fashion play" and will "sit, as it were, and point out all my humorous companions" (scene 2).

Jan Steen, Leaving the Tavern (late 17th century)
So he does. And really, that's all you need to know. Various characters are introduced with eccentric humours. Lemot provokes some storylines in which characters fall in love or become romantically jealous. Some of them have clear story arcs that come to a resolution in the end, while others feel more like short comic sketches. The play as a whole is more akin to a variety show than a straightforward narrative. 

At the end of the play, the characters all end up at an ordinary (a kind of inn). And there, Lemot acts as a master of ceremonies at a lottery, presenting posies (little poems) that tell the truth about each of the characters. Finally, the King announces the conclusion.

And here I solemnly invite you all
Home to my court, where with feats we will crown
This mirthful day, and vow it to renown. (Scene 13)

If you would like to read A Humorous Day's Mirth, there are two modern-spelling editions available: Eleanor Lowe's online edition at Digital Renaissance Editions, and Charles Edelman's for the Revels Plays series.


The humourous characters

What's amusing about A Humorous Day's Mirth is not its story but rather its characters and the humours that they display. Let's look at a few of them.

A classic image of a
melancholic, from
Robert Burton's Anatomy
of Melancholy (1622)
One of the most popular humours in this genre is melancholia, the state of depression that supposedly arose from an excess of black bile. Melancholics were gloomy, antisocial, and disgusted by the world, and were stereotypically portrayed with folded arms and with their hats pulled over their eyes, to illustrate their introverted withdrawal from society.

One of the melancholics in A Humorous Day's Mirth is Dowsecar, whom the other characters find entertaining to watch. In one scene, they gather to observe him encounter a series of objects placed there to try to cure him: a sword (an emblem of warlike bravery), hose and a codpiece (the clothes of a fashionable young man), and a painting of a woman. But Dowesecar rejects them all. When his father tries to persuade him to marry and have children, Dowsecar replies he would be of more value to the world if he simply died, so that his corpse could nourish the grass that feeds the cattle in the field. He gloomily concludes that "Wealth is the only father and the child, / And but in wealth no man has any joy". Everyone thinks he's mad except the King, who thinks that on the contrary, Dowsecar has "perfect judgement" (scene 7). 

But one of the recurring jokes of this play is that humours are not as fundamental to the characters' personalities as they may seem, and are often revealed to be affectations that can can be banished by such things as the power of love. Among the observers of Dowsecar is the beautiful Martia. When Dowsecar sees her, he falls instantly in love, crying "am I burnt to dust / With a new sun", and realizes that his melancholia was not his true self (scene 7). 

Martia herself is pledged to marry another humorous figure, Labesha. His humour is his extreme gullibility which him easy to fool, rather like Shakespeare's Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. But when he loses Martia to Dowecar, Labesha takes on the humour of melancholia himself, affecting to be a misanthrope at war with the world: "I will in silence live a man forlorn, / Mad, and melancholy as a cat". The other characters test his new humour by placing a cream cake in front of him. He rails upon it in an absurd parody of melancholic posturing:

O sour cream! What thinkest thou, that I love thee still? ... If thou haddest strawberries and sugar in thee - but it may be thou art set with stale cake to choke me! Well, taste it, and try it, spoonful by spoonful. [Tries the cake.] Bitterer and bitterer still! But O, sour cream, wert thou an onion, since Fortune set thee for me, I will eat thee, and I will devour thee in spite of Fortune's spite.
Choke I or burst I, mistress, for thy sake,
To end my life, eat I this cream and cake. (scene 10)
Other humours are on display too. The old man Labervele is obsessively jealous of his young wife, Florilla. And Florilla herself is a religious puritan: on her first entrance, she realizes that she is wearing too many clothes for the warm weather:

What have I done? Put on too many clothes?
The day is hot, and I am hotter clad
Than might suffice health.
My conscience tells me that I have offended
And I'll put them off.

But then she fears that doing so would waste time that could be spent on godly things:

That will ask time that might be better spent;
One sin will draw another quickly so.
See how the devil tempts! (scene 4)

Failed Puritans in a woodcut from the ballad
The Beggar's Delight (late 17th century)
Labervele worries that if his wife encounters a young man, her blood will cause her piety to disappear. He is correct; once again, humours cannot be trusted, because her religious humour is an act that she performs to keep her distance from the old man. Lemot affects to 'test' her for the old man by wooing her, and although she rebuffs him in her husband's presence, she attempts a liaison with Lemot later. But he sends her back to her husband. 

These are the kinds of things that happen in A Humorous Day's Mirth. They don't all come across as very funny on the page, but the talented actors at the Rose must have been able to bring out the comic energy that resides within them. 

Responses


We are fortunate to have a very rare thing for A Humorous Day's Mirth: an eye-witness report. John Chamberlain was a courtier whose letters to his friend Dudley Carleton contain all sorts of fascinating information about the age. On 11 June, Chamberlain wrote about seeing the play at the Rose. He was not impressed:

We have here [in London] a new play of humours in very great request, and I was drawn along to it by the common applause, but my opinion of it is (as the fellow said of the shearing of hogs) that there was a great cry for so little wool. 

Chamberlain may not have liked the play, but his letter mentions that he was drawn by its great popularity. It seems that everyone in London was talking about A Humorous Day's Mirth. Although today's box office is not at all impressive for a premiere, things are going to change.

What we learn from this


What we learn from A Humorous Day's Mirth is that genres that seem baffling today could be massively popular in Elizabethan London. To a modern reader, the play seems a disjointed muddle of silly comic sketches, not a patch on the elegant comedies that Shakespeare was producing across the river. But Chapman's play will prove a tremendous success and will spawn many imitations. 

The title page of the 1599
publication of the play
The other thing we learn is that the printed text of a play may not always reflect what was seen on the stage. A Humorous Day's Mirth feels inelegant on the page because the 1599 printed text is a mess; its stage directions and speech prefixes are muddled, there are confusing plot holes and characters who fade away, and the printer turned all the verse speeches into prose.

One theory is that the text was printed from an early draft of the play, and that the finished version for the Rose may have been more coherent. The modern-spelling editions by Eleanor Lowe and Charles Edelman have done an excellent job of making the play more readable and restoring its poetic verse to the way it should be. As Edelman says in his introduction, "one of the aims of this edition is to show that, in the hands of a talented cast, it could prove a very humorous night's mirth in the theatre".


FURTHER READING


A Humorous Day's Mirth information


  • John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McClure (American Philosophical Society, 1939), 1:32.
  • Charles Edelman, ed. An Humorous Day's Mirth (Manchester University Press, 2010)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 1073.
  • Eleanor Lowe, ed., "An Humorous Day's Mirth." Digital Renaissance Editions
  • Tom Rutter, Shakespeare and the Admiral's Men (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 130-64.

Henslowe links



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Monday, 10 May 2021

10 May, 1597 - A Woman Hard to Please

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

Henslowe writes: 10 | tt at womon hard to plesse | 00 | 17 

In  modern English: 10th [May, 1597] ... total at Woman Hard to Please ... 17 shillings


A woman looks deeply unimpressed by her
rescuer in Paolo Uccello's St George and
the Dragon
(c.1470)
Today, the Admiral's Men revived their enigmatic lost play, A Woman Hard to Please. You can read more about this play in the entry for 27 January.

After a couple of disastrous performances, the company has waited three and a half weeks to bring back A Woman Hard to Please. This appears to have had some success in improving the box office, although it remains low. 


Henslowe links



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Sunday, 9 May 2021

9 April 1597 - Alexander and Lodowick

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

Henslowe writes: 9 | tt at lodwicke & elexsand ... | 00 | 14

In modern English: 9th [May, 1597] ... received at Lodowick and Alexander ... 14 shillings

A very generic illustration accompanying the
printed text of the ballad of The Two Faithful
Friends: The Pleasant History of Alexander
and Lodowick
Today, the Admiral's Men revived Alexander and Lodowick, a lost play about two friends who swap places. You can read more about this play in the entry for 14 January

The company has again waited a fortnight to revive Alexander and Lodwick, having apparently demoted it from its once-a-week status. The box office has sunk again after an improvement last time.

Henslowe links



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Friday, 7 May 2021

7 May, 1597 - Uther Pendragon

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

Henslowe writes: 7 | tt at pendragon ... | 00 | 14

In modern English: 7th [May, 1597] ... total at Pendragon ... 14 shillings

Uther Pendragon and Merlin, from British
Library manuscript Royal 20 A II
(early 14th century)
Today, the Admiral's Men revived Uther Pendragon, a lost play about the father of King Arthur. You can read more about this play in the entry for 29 April.

For its third performance, the company has again rushed Uther Pendragon back to the stage. But the box office is already dismal. The company has not had a mega-hit for a long time, and it seems this play is not the one that will change things.

What's next?


There will be no blog entry tomorrow because 8 May was a Sunday in 1597 and the players did not perform. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on the 9th for a week that will include a rather special new play. See you then!
 

Henslowe links


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Thursday, 6 May 2021

6 May, 1597 - Five Plays in One

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

Henslowe writes: 6 | tt at v playes in one | 00 | 16
In modern English: 6th [May, 1597] ... total at Five Plays in One ... 16 shillings

The number 5 in a
column of figures
in Henslowe's Diary
Today, the Admiral's Men revived their lost piece Five Plays in One, which was probably a collection of one-act plays, perhaps linked by a narrative device; you can read more about it in the entry for 7 April

The company has waited a week and a half to return the five playlets to the Rose. But the box office has now plummeted to half what it was. Value for money is clearly not much of an enticement.

Henslowe links



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Wednesday, 5 May 2021

5 May, 1597 - A French Comedy

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

Henslowe writes: 5 | tt at frenshe comodey ...  | 01 | 07

In modern English: 5 [May, 1597] ... total at French Comedy ... £1 and 7 shillings [i.e. 27 shillings]

Antoine Watteau, Actors of the
Comédie-Française
(1710s)
Today, the Admiral's Men performed A French Comedy, a lost play. You can read more about this play in the entry for 18 April.

The company has been staging A French Comedy more frequently than any other play. Today's box office is slightly higher than the last, and overall it has shown remarkable consistency.

Henslowe links


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